2009 Trip Story

Mendocino to Miasa-Omachi June 23-July 9, 2009

“No two trips are ever the same.” I think every Sister Cities trip leader who has been on more than one trip to Miasa-Omachi has said those words somewhere along the way, and this most recent trip is no exception.

Even though we followed the same route and schedule as we did in 2007, this latest journey with 23 students and 13 adults had its subtle differences and major inconveniences.

Leaving from SFO on June 23 on a new airline for us (All Nippon Air -ANA, after a major hassle with an original booking agent they proved to generate great service!) we landed in Japan on June 24. After a short stop in Narita and a one hour flight to Osaka we were met at the airport by our guides, Hosoi Tadashi and Hiroaki Otsuka. We then took a bus to the new Utano Youth Hostel, rebuilt from the ground up. Utano YH is a magnificent hostel on landscaped grounds with spacious baths and a tennis court.

Four nights in Kyoto at the Utano can get a group a little spoiled since it’s like staying at a vacation hotel with your friends, a bunch of your friends. We toured our regular sites that everyone enjoys seeing once or twice or even eight times like my co-leader Marci has done. Sites like Ryoanji, described by student Celeste Fox Kump: “The rock garden had a really beautiful tree and really big pond. Then we saw the main feature. Fifteen rocks were arranged in a sea of raked gravel. Each rock represents a different island. We meditated for five minutes and looked at the rocks. I loved it!”

Celeste also commented about the Kinkakuji Temple (the Golden Pavilion). “The emperor’s gold tea temple is covered in gold leafing and has a solid gold phoenix on top and it was only used for drinking tea.” The Golden Pavilion also has a large pond, and as with most temples, beautifully landscaped grounds. The next day was a short trip to Nara to see the Todai-ji Daibutsu Temple. On the way we walked through the Nara Deer park where Sika deer, regarded as messengers of the gods in the Shinto religion, roam the grounds freely. The students are able to feed the not ever shy deer, which is always an enjoyable time, if not somewhat unnerving to have deer nipping at your clothes for something to eat.

The Todai-ji Temple houses the world's largest statue of the Buddha, Vairocana, (52' h) known in Japanese simply as Daibutsu, inside the largest wooden building in the world (the original building which was burned in 1630 was 30% bigger). One student noted.“The Great Buddha temple (Daibutsuden) is made completely of wood, with a big 3 story tall Buddha in it. Imagine how many workers that must have took!” (So, I looked it up and found that according to records kept by Todai-ji, more than 2,600,000 people in total helped construct the Great Buddha and its Hall).

Behind the Buddha is a large support column with a small rectangular hole through its base. It is called the Buddha’s Nostril, and if you can slip through the column to the other side it is said you will be blessed with enlightenment in your next life. Well, you can imagine that anyone who has the slightest chance of squirming through is going to try.

We had one such adult chaperone who tried and I truly thought we were going to have to squirt some grease in the hole in order just to get him back out the way he went in. At one point the entire crowd was chanting his name cheering him on, but in the end we were able to pull him back out with four people tugging at his legs. He was really stuck! I think his shoulders were just too thick to fit through that tiny hole. He wasn’t the first chaperone who tried and didn’t make it, and I am sure he won’t be the last.On Saturday we visited Chion-in Temple with beautiful buildings and a large bell at the top of a hill. Observed one student: “The Chion-in temple with its many steps was made for one family.” (Tokugawa clan actually funded the reconstruction of the temple complex after it burned in 1633)

The group then walked the short distance over to the majestic Kiyomizudera Temple. Its present buildings were constructed in 1633, during a restoration ordered by the Shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu. Not one nail is used in the whole temple. It is situated on a hillside overlooking a beautiful town and picturesque valley. There is one temple room that is open one day every 100 years. In 2007 some from our group were some of the last few to walk through the room before they closed it for another hundred years. They said it was quite something. There is also a Match-Making Shrine (Jishu-jinja). The Jishu Shrine, is dedicated to O-kuninushi, a god of love and “good matches.” Jishu Shrine possesses a pair of “love stones” placed 18 meters apart, which lonely visitors can try to walk between with their eyes closed. Success in reaching the other stone with their eyes closed implies that the pilgrim will find love, or true love. One can be assisted in the crossing, but this is taken to mean that a go-between will be needed. The person's romantic interest can assist them as well.

We walked through the Gion district where the students were able to glimpse a few Geisha in full regalia on their way to entertain clients. Lots of pictures were taken of these women who look like life size dolls. Not something the students would see anywhere but in Japan. Our last night at the Utano was spent wrapping gifts for the Miasa-Omachi homestay hosts and packing for the trip to Hiroshima leaving at 8 am the next morning.Halfway to Hiroshima we departed the Shinkansen (Bullet train) in Himeji to tour the world famous Himeji-jo (Castle). While some of the students seemed to literally run up to the top and then down the numerous steep stairs, most of the group took their time and closely inspected the many displays situated along the way to the top. A portion of the TV Mini-series “Shogun” was filmed at Himeji-jo. Everyone said they were very impressed by the castle.

Student Rosa Aum later wrote in her journal; “One of my favorite parts so far however is Himeji Castle. I had never been in a castle before, but Celeste had told me a lot about hers in Austria. So I was very excited.” After five hours of touring the Castle grounds and eating lunch we boarded the Shinkansen once again for the trip to Hiroshima. Arriving at the Aster Plaza Youth Hostel we settled in for the night but only after we walked around the area looking for places to eat dinner. We ended up just going to a grocery store, which was proving to be one of the most efficient and popular ways for the group to pick what they each wanted to eat during their first week in Japan. We sat by the river and after eating we shot off sky rockets to celebrate student Nico Brunner-Caldiera’s birthday.Hiroshima. Just the name itself conjures up various images in many minds. Even if you really do not know what happened in 1945, the name Hiroshima has its own universal fame, or infamy. The group rose early and walked the few blocks to the Hiroshima International Peace Park through a light rain fall. We spent about two hours walking around the park viewing different memorials to the people who died there on August 6, 1945. Everyone inspected the ruin of the Prefectural Office, the only remnant of the city that was destroyed by the first atomic bomb to be dropped on a populated city.

The epicenter of the bomb's blast was only about 450 feet southeast and 1,800 feet above this building. It is an eerie skeletal structure amid the gleaming new buildings of the new Hiroshima, now once again a thriving metropolis. After viewing the park we gathered everyone at the museum and let them know they did not have to tour the museum with its graphic displays and artifacts. Most everyone in the group chose to walk through. I do not think I have ever seen so many saddened, tear filled eyes as after each persons exit. The museum is truly overwhelming. Student Muriel Shattuck later wrote: “Yesterday was one of the saddest days of my life. We went to Hiroshima and we learned the true story of the A-bomb attack on Japan. We learned how the bomb hit and immediately killed thousands of people and the survivors hands were melted and their skin hung from their arms. I cried for so long.” Seemingly in a sympathetic gesture, the rain fell harder as we waited for everyone to exit the museum.After such a humbling experience as the museum we always try to have something arranged that will liven up the students and chaperones. We boarded a train and then took a ferry over to the beautiful little island of Miyajima. Miyajima is home to an Edo-era town with a tourist shopping area with restaurants (always a hit about midday), several temples and shrines, and what is most prominent when you arrive is the huge vermilion painted Torii Gate that sits in the bay.

It seems to float on the water when the tide is in but when the tide is out you can walk all around it. Built in 1875, it is the largest torii gate in Japan standing 53 feet high. It stands guard over Miyajima's most famous attraction, the Itsukushima Shrine, which itself is built over the water. In fact, the island's real name is Itsukushima, and Miyajima is just a popular nickname meaning “Shrine Island.” Being a sacred island no one was allowed to give birth or die on the island in ancient times. The pregnant and sick were immediately ferried to the mainland. The rain continued to fall as we walked around the town. Travis Rzeplinski and I ran through the rain to visit another temple, Daisho-in, situated on a nearby hillside on the edge of town. Failing to noticing the cache of umbrellas provided at the temple gate as we ran through the rain we had to dash from structure to structure through the downpour. Daisho-in is a beautiful temple with hundreds of stairs and walkways. The canyon next to the temple was populated with gigantic boulders that were washed down the hillside in years past and it was easy to see why from the torrent of rain fed water cascading over and around the boulders in the stream bed. We ran through the constant rainfall back to the ferry building where we found the rest of the group waiting for us. Almost everyone of the students were soaked as much as we were. We laughed and compared our experiences of the day while waiting for the ferry. The rain had washed away the sadness of Hiroshima to reveal the glee of “Shrine Island”

Tuesday morning we boarded the Shinkansen for the five hour trip to Tokyo, our last big city before heading north to Miasa-Omachi. The students were able to catch up on their journal writing, take the time to look through their photos, read or just relax. Tokyo is always a fast paced, action filled time for the students. The first night we went to the “The Big Egg” to relax at the adjacent amusement park with its roller coaster, Ferris wheel and other such rides. The Big Egg is the domed home of the Tokyo Giants baseball team. The students were able to let loose all the energy they had accumulated on the train trip from Hiroshima.

Wednesday had us on a train again heading south to Kamakura to see the Hase-dera (Temple of 10,000 Buddha's), Kencho-ji and the Bronze Daibutsu (Buddha).

The Hase-dera is a temple of the Jodo sect, that is most famous for its statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. The statue shows Kannon with eleven heads, each representing a characteristic of the goddess. The 30 ft tall, gilded wooden statue is regarded as the largest wooden sculpture in Japan, and can be viewed in the temple's main building. Next to the temple garden and the pond stands the Bentendo, a small hall that contains a figure of Benten (or Benzaiten), a goddess of feminine beauty and wealth. Sculptures of Benten and other minor gods can be found in a small cave (Bentenkutsu) next to the Bentendo. It is believed that the Bronze Daibutsu statue was originally cast in 1252, following an idea by the priest Joko, who also collected donations to build it. The sculptors were One-Goroemon and Tanji-Hisatomo. The statue is about 43.8 ft tall and weighs approximately 93 tons. The Great Buddha was originally housed in a temple, but this was washed away by a tsunami on September 20, 1498. The Bronze Daibutsu is an inspiring site from the moment you first walk around the hedge and see the Buddha. The students went inside to see how it was built and also viewed the 8' long Buddha’s “sandals” hanging on a nearby wall. We took a wonderful group photo on the steps in front of the Buddha. “I was amazed by the sight of the bronze Buddha. It was startling to think that a huge wave came all the way from the ocean to the building where the bronze Buddha sat, and swept the building away leaving the Buddha,” observed student Leah Sophia Harr in one of her writings. Lunch was calling and we walked through the streets of Kamakura for some distance before we found the restaurant area we were looking for. We divided up into small groups and everyone searched for a place to eat. Rosa Aum later wrote: “Learning Japanese enough to ask a waitress for water or tea was useful and fun. I sometimes found myself saying “Arigato” (thanks) or “Sumimasen” (excuse me) to my friends. When we ate in a no English restaurant we had such a blast with pointing at the pictures of the food. In fact we always steered away from English speaking places.” After lunch we walked over to Kencho-ji Temple, built in 1243. It is one of the oldest Zen temples of Japan, and the first one built in Kamakura. We suggested the group walk up the hillside behind the temple on a continuous array of stairways that take you to the top, where on a clear day, you can see Mt. Fujiyama. But, when we made it to the top the clouds were too low to see much of anything except the valley below and the beautiful soaring of a Red Tail Hawk just a few yards in front of us. At least everyone got a workout on the permanent “StairMaster” built on the hillside.In Tokyo on Thursday we once again visited the Miraikan Technical Center, a big hit in 2007 and also this trip. In the afternoon we did something new by touring the Edo Museum. Also a big hit. Student Tavi Hillesland wrote: “The Miraikan Tech Center was great but I could have used about two more hours there. The Edo Museum was super awesome, but again, I could have used quite a bit more time. I thought the ancient part was as interesting as it would get, so I read all of the displays. Consequently I had 5 minutes to speed through the most interesting part, the 1900’s.”

Ah yes, time... so much to see, so little time. The lament of so many inquisitive minds.

Our last night in Tokyo we took the group out to the brightly lit, bustling night life of Shibuya. Even though it was not a weekend night when the crowds are really thick, it was still interesting to see all the people milling around and socializing. Crossing the main intersection was an adventure in itself. We crossed like a line of elephants holding onto each other front to back. We had to be extra aware in this area because it was easy for one of our group to inadvertently head off in a different direction without anyone realizing it. Luckily we had the peering eyes of aware chaperones watching out for just such occurrences.

Friday morning signaled the end of our main course of the three courses of the trip, and the trip was just barely half over. We were finally getting to the dessert, our homestays in Miasa-Omachi.

After riding the Shinkansen the hour and a half to Nagano, we had lunch, always an experience or as Tavi Hillesland says: “Japan is amazing, but one of the most wonderful (and sometimes horrible) thing is the food. Many foods have been new, and there are quite a few improvements from the “Japanese food” of America. Soba noodles are wonderful for me because I can’t have gluten, so the buckwheat is perfect. At every lunch I’ve had so far, I’ve had soba of one kind or another. Okonomiyaki is a wonderful new dish I’ve tried. On Miyajima we tried the cabbage, egg batter-sauce concoction, “Hiroshima style” with noodles like Ramen.” Everyone shopped for a while and then toured the Zenkoji Temple where there is an inner chamber, and from there a narrow staircase that leads down to a completely dark corridor. In this corridor worshipers try to find and touch a metal key hanging on the wall, in order to gain enlightenment. The key represents the Key to the Western Paradise of the Amida Buddha. I think everyone in our group slowly groped their way through that pitch black corridor, although I am not sure how many found enlightenment, even though a few went through twice. Zenkoji was built in the 7th century. Nagano City, established in 1897, was originally a town built around the temple. The main Buddhist image in the temple is a “Hibutsu” (secret Buddha), a hidden Buddha statue, not shown to the public. This Hibutsu is rumored to be the first Buddha statue ever to be brought to Japan. The commandments of the temple require the absolute secrecy of the statue, prohibiting it to be shown to anyone, including the chief priest of the temple (I wonder who really knows where the statue resides).Boarding the bus in Nagano at the correct time to have us arrive in Miasa at exactly 5:30 pm we rode the last few kilometers regaling the students with stories of the hospitality they would experience upon our arrival. I think we failed to adequately describe what they actually experienced during their next six nights in Miasa-Omachi.

After those of us who knew our hosts greeted them as old friends do, we introduced the new travelers to everyone, and we were then treated with a hot foot bath outside the newly constructed community center before being led into the meeting hall where we were welcomed with speeches and tables of food at the “Welcome Party.” We were fortunate to be joined by Omachi Mayor Ushikoshi who delivered a warm welcome in his speech. After all the welcome speeches and eating we were taken away by our individual Homestay hosts for another meal at their house. We had told everyone to “Save room for dessert!" Well, little did they realize we were not kidding. Truly a great beginning to our visit in Miasa.

Saturday morning brought us all together at the Crafts Center for a day of socializing, eating and making things, and make things we did.

Oda-san, or Tokio Oda, one of the Miasa-Omachi Sister Cities Association members (also the Japanese coordinator of the Sister Cities Art Exchange) is a master wood worker and he handmade five Taiko drums to be donated to Mendocino so students and adults can learn how to play Taiko. The students were given the task (with the assistance of Taiko players) of applying the drum heads to the hand planed and constructed Alder wood drum bodies.

Photos of the Mendocino students attentively lacing the rope around the drums appeared in the Omachi newspaper before we left for home. Also the students and adults created felt art, making figures and shapes with needles and wool. Others helped Koichi-san (Koichi Maekawa, the Miasa-Omachi student trip coordinator) prepare his famous Udon noodles for lunch by cutting the dough in long pasta like strips with long, wide knives. It was very interesting to watch the students handle the long knives. We departed the crafts center and visited the 400 year old traditional Nakamura House, recognized as a National Treasure, and then on to view the 800 year old Cherry tree. While at the Cherry tree we discovered that 11 Cherry trees had recently been planted nearby for each of the 11 Mendocino female students that visited Miasa-Omachi in 2007. It was quite a pleasant surprise. By the end of the day everyone was ready to head back to their homestays for an evening of dinner and socializing, and in some cases communicating with only sign language and charades.Sunday was what all of us looked forward to, the free day with our Homestay hosts. Each homestay host showed their Mendocino guests some part of the local area and everyone seemed to have a memorable time. Oda-san took Travis and me to Matsumoto to view the Matsumoto City Museum of Art (where the September Art Exchange Show would be) and also introduced us to several local artists who may participate in the 2010 art exchange show next May in Mendocino.

Monday found us being welcomed at the Miasa Middle School which is now the Sister School of our Mendocino K-8 School. Entering the large gym to the accompaniment of a student played orchestral march. We were welcomed with a standing ovation while walking under an array of colorful banners held over our heads by continually younger students, we were almost bending half over at the end just to get under the banners. Welcome speeches, gift exchanges and songs from both sides preceded the Mendocino students joining their peers in their classrooms for various activities. Lunch followed and then a farewell in the gym again. It was a wonderful day at the school and several of our students commented on how great of time they had.

As we left we gathered for what has become a traditional group picture in front of the Maple tree we planted in 2003 near the Peace Plaque in front of the school.

On Tuesday we boarded a bus to Yasaka Fujio Kakuonji. Kakuonji is a temple that we first visited in 2007 and decided to return after the students enjoyed it so much. We were greeted by the resident monk who took us into the temple and taught us the proper way to sit while meditating. As everyone sat in the instructed position and tried their best not to move for 20 minutes the monk walked around and if he saw anyone moving he would go over to that person and let them know that he was going to whack them over each shoulder with his stick he carries. Several of the students were whacked during the 20 minute session. Although, you do have to agree to be whacked by him. You put your hands together in a Wai position and bow from your sitting position to acknowledge that you agree to be whacked by him. I noticed that Melia Poehlmann was whacked, what seemed to me to be, pretty hard, but only she could tell you what it felt like. All the students talked about the experience on the bus on the way to Omachi City Hall for our scheduled conference with Omachi Mayor Ushikoshi and other City officials.

Ushikoshi-san visited Mendocino with the Miasa student group in 2008 and is a strong advocate of our Sister Cities relationship. He is a very congenial and comfortable person to be around. He and I delivered our respective speeches followed by Kitazawa-san, the head of the Miasa-Omachi Sister Cities Association (MOSCA) and then we exchanged gifts.

The students were all given handmade wood bird calls by the Mayor. For awhile the conference room sounded like the forest in early morning with the various birds calling to each other. It was kind of funny as I look back on it. After giving us a tour of the council chambers and exchanging questions and answers we were accompanied by the city representatives to our bus where we headed out to view the art galleries where the Mendocino/Miasa-Omachi Art Exchange Show was held. We toured the show and afterwards walked around Omachi City for lunch and shopping. After this long day, the students headed back for their last memorable night with their homestay hosts while the adults checked into Pokapokaland for their two remaining nights in Miasa. That night the trip leaders and the chaperones were treated to a wonderful traditional Japanese dinner at Pokapokaland by Mayor Ushikoshi, MOSCA chief, Kitazawa-san and several other local dignitaries. The meal was followed by some melodic Karaoke singing (by the Japanese and Chelsea) and some absolutely horrible, but hilarious singing by the Mendonesian adults who were brave enough to get up and make fools of themselves for the humor of all. It was truly a wonderful time to take home with us.Wednesday was our last full day in Miasa. I think everyone wanted to make the most of it and show our gratitude for the immeasurable hospitality that had been shown to us. We started out by going to the Senior Health Center down the hill from the Miasa Middle School. The students sang for the older folks who were getting care that day and then the students tried to talk with them as much as they could. The students said they really enjoyed going there. I know the seniors enjoyed having them visit.

Afterwards we went to lunch at the best Soba restaurant in the area and while we ate, the owner performed a magic show for the entertainment of us all. She was quite good. Had me wondering how she did the tricks she did. No wonder my co-leader, Marci stays there every trip. Soba and magic! What more could you ask for.

The last night is always the night of the Farewell Party where the visiting females are dressed up in beautiful kimonos, and the males in Yukatas. Speeches are made, gifts are exchanged, a filling dinner is served and then music is played by several groups. This year was no different except for the different types of music. There was Taiko, contemporary, and traditional Japanese music. In past years some of our group have performed for the crowd and it was no different this year. Ella Childs played the chrome flute. Tavi Hillesland sang a song from “The Sound of Music” and accompanied herself on the piano. And, everyone was thoroughly entertained by two pieces of music played on the piano by the very accomplished Haley Perry.

By 8 pm everyone is cleaning up and it’s back to Pokapokaland for packing up for the students (their only night there) followed by some relaxing baths and then to bed. For the adults there was a little extra going away party that was short lived because we all had to get ready to leave in the early morning. Rosa Aum wrote in her journal: “The homestays were super fun because we actually felt like we were in Japan and not just in a very authentic place in SF. We were able to live in Japan. Also the food was very good. Our homestay mom made tempura, sushi, and lots of soup for dinners. The homemade food was much better than the restaurants. “Another good part of the trip were the baths at PokaPokaland, which were very relaxing, especially the one where we laid down in the jets. Maybe I will come back to Japan when I am older, with my brother, that would be fun.”The next morning we were met in the lobby by all of the homestay hosts and MOSCA volunteers and last minute gifts were given and accepted. A chorus of “See you again’s” and “arigato’s” were heard as we boarded the bus for Nagano Shinkansen Station.

Waving goodbye to the crowd that came to see us off was a moment of mixed emotions. I know most everyone was excited to be heading home after our event filled trip but at the same time they found it hard to leave Miasa after such a wonderful stay with their new friends, and that’s how it should be.

It’s great to hear things like the following from students as attentive during the trip as Leah Sophia Harr: “I absolutely loved Miasa. It had many kind people and my homestay families were very hospitable. The cherry tree was very large and beautiful.

“I would like to thank Marci, Mike and Dave for showing us these beautiful places. I would also like to thank Travis for showing us around the cities and Chelsea for translating and all the chaperons for holding our money, taking care of us and going out of their way to make all this possible.”

Once we arrived at the airport in Narita we had a few hours before the flight so some of us elected to go into Narita town for lunch. Kind of a last ditch effort to squeeze in as much of the Japanese experience as we could before the plane ascended from this wonderful country.

As Celeste Fox Kump wrote: “I love Japan and will miss it when I go back home. I guess that means I’ll just have to come back!” My sentiments exactly.

I would especially like to thank my co-leaders, Marci Van Sicklen and Dave Gross, MSCA VP, Debbie Crowningshield, Guide, Travis Rzeplinski, Translator, Chelsea Robinson, all eight chaperones, and of course the 23 students who made sure that this trip was like no other.

Also, and possibly most important, I want to thank MOSCA Leader, Kitazawa-san, our Miasa-Omachi hosts, Koichi Maekawa, Tokio Oda and the many other volunteers and Homestay Hosts without whose work and hospitality we would not have experienced such a memorable time.

Minnasan, domo arigato gozaimashita!