the call to place: japan

My strange and unexpected fascination with Kyoto, Japan started, quite simply, with a visit to What the Book? in the Itaewon neighborhood of Seoul, South Korea.  Browsing through the travel section in December, 2010 when my son Alex was visiting, I come across a book by Pico Iyer called The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto.  The picture on the front was enticing enough, the photograph divided diagonally into two parts.  On the top triangle was a Japanese lady in a mustard colored kimono, holding an umbrella by her side.  On the bottom was a city street with neon signs and fast-moving headlight beams, like red and yellow silk threads, speeding down the length of the streets.



The blurb on the back cover said Pico Iyer decided to go to Kyoto and live in a monastery, to learn about Zen Buddhism from the inside, to get to know one of the loveliest cities in the world, and to experience Japanese culture.  To be honest, this was what hooked me and caused me to open the book.  On the first page he described an accidental encounter with Japan, which occured only because of an overnight layover on a flight to somewhere else.  In the morning, he walked outside: “As I began to walk along the narrow lanes, I felt, in fact, as if I were walking through a gallery of still lifes.  Everything looked exactly the way it was supposed to look, polished to a sheen, and motionless.”


the curving staircase at Eikan-do

There were multiple things that appealed to me about the whole premise of this book.  I was enthralled.  First, the idea of Japan as a “still life” was intriguing.  I didn’t have any interest in going to Japan as I feared it would be a repeat of Korea.  Many Koreans told me Japan was just like Korea.  Of course, many of those Koreans had never left their own country, so I didn’t know why I should have believed them.  Then several fellow English teachers I knew in Korea also said it was about the same.  These comments steered me away from Japan because I’d explored many corners of Korea during the year and I really didn’t want to spend my time and money flying to Japan to see more of the same.  Nothing in Korea could honestly be compared to a “still life.”  But those two simple words shifted my perspective.  They felt like an invitation into a painting, a piece of art awash with color and beauty, with elegant gardens and exquisite taste.


pretty little what-nots


still life in Kyoto

The other thing that piqued my interest was Pico Iyer’s desire to learn about Zen Buddhism.  In Korea, I had put off time and again doing a temple stay.  I finally ended up doing one, but only toward the end of my stay in late February of 2011, after I’d been to Japan (temple stay at golgulsa sunmudo ~ a surprise encounter with monk-type martial arts).  This interest in Zen was one of the things that fascinated me about this book, and about Japan.


Heian-jingu Shrine


the golden pavilion at Kinkaku-ji

I enjoyed Japanese food, especially sushi that I’d eaten in the U.S.  I loved to see ornamental gardens and the cultivation of beauty all around.  After all, I used to take classes in interior design and had a small interior design business of my own for a while.  I decorated my own house in Virginia from top to bottom.  I’ve always been drawn to exuberant colors.  I loved the idea of ritual.  I loved the idea of tea ceremonies and flower arranging, although I’d never participated in either.

Years ago, I read Memoirs of a Geisha.  I found the geisha culture fascinating, though disturbing on many levels.  I also read the book Hiroshima, by John Hersey, a moving and highly disturbing personal story of that city’s residents who survived the nuclear attack in 1945.  I used to think if I ever visited Japan, I would have to go to Hiroshima where it is said you can see outlines of people who were vaporized by the bomb on concrete walls.  I didn’t know if this was simply a legend.  Anyway, I’d talked to people who visited Hiroshima and they said it is extremely depressing, much like visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, I assume.  An educational and moving and disturbing voyage, something everyone should do.  It wouldn’t be something I would do on my first visit.

I wasn’t knowledgeable overall about Japanese culture. So I looked forward to spending five days in Kyoto over the lunar new year in February, 2011.  I looked forward to painting myself, a mere fleeting brushstroke, into the “still life” of Kyoto conjured up by Pico Iyer.


the famous rock garden at Ryoan-ji, or Temple of the Peaceful Dragon


the cute little Randen Railway


the Bamboo Path at Arashiyama


ema at Nonomiya


celebration of Lunar New Year at Tenryuji Temple


me going bicycling in Kyoto


the infinite torii gates at Fushimi-Inari-Taisha

All photos are from my first visit to Kyoto in February, 2011.


Fast forward to late February of 2017, six years after my first visit to Japan. I was offered a job teaching EFL to Japanese university students in Japan beginning on March 28, 2017 (the term actually began April 7 and ended August 1).  I opted to extend my stay for one week, until August 8, so I could travel around Japan for a week. As I’d always wanted to visit Hiroshima, I’d have to incorporate a visit into that journey.

My short trip to Kyoto in February 2011 had been delightful.  I loved the Buddhist temples, the ubiquitous vending machines, Japanese food, the cleanliness and efficiency of everything. I looked forward to exploring as much of Japan as I could in the four months I’d be there.

I would live in Sagamihara City in Kanagawa Prefecture, part of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area.  The capital of Kanagawa is Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan by population (3.7 million); it lies on Tokyo Bay, south of Tokyo, in the Kantō region of the main island of Honshu, and is today one of Japan’s major ports.

~ catbird in japan | the land of temples and what-nots ~


“THE CALL TO PLACE” INVITATION: I invite you to write a post on your own blog about what enticed you to choose a particular destination. If you don’t have a blog, I invite you to write in the comments.  If your destination is a place you love and keep returning to, feel free to write about that.  If you want to see the original post about the subject, you can check it out here: imaginings: the call to place.

Please include the link in the comments below by Wednesday, November 21 at 1:00 p.m. EST.  When I write my post in response to this challenge on Thursday, November 22, I’ll include your links in that post. If you’d like, you can use the hashtag #wanderessence.

This will be an ongoing invitation, on the fourth Thursday of each month. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂

I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!

the ~ wander.essence ~ community

I invite you all to settle in and read a few posts from our wandering community.  I promise, you’ll be inspired! As I’m still in Spain/Portugal, see below in the comments for any links.

Thanks to all of you who wrote posts about “the call to place.” 🙂