We never know what to expect on these wonderful days! Douglas has such a fascination with Japan, its gardens and its culture, that he creates unforgettable experiences for those of us lucky to be on his tours.
Today started, as most days do, with a subway ride. Getting off at Keage station, we walked along the Biwa Canal. Our lesson was about how water was diverted from Japan’s largest lake, Biwa, into canals that provided both navigation and irrigation. We passed the power plant that created Japan’s first electrical power. Lots of school kids were touring the plant, notebooks in hand.
Douglas pointed out the beautiful home of the president of Matsushita Corporation. He had the honor of being in the home and viewing the garden once, but hasn’t (yet) wrangled an invitation for his groups. Standing across the street, out of the view of the security guards, we discussed the garden that we could see faintly over the wall.
Across the street was a lovely place called Shirakawa-in. Formerly an estate, as many of these places are, it’s now a retreat for school teachers! (And when will the US think of that?) We toured the lovely garden, and the administrator of the retreat came out to greet us. He insisted on taking a group photo, and it was clear that he had done this before, as he asked us to ditch our backpacks so the photo would be more formal. He was as delightful as the garden!
We then hiked over to the Kokoka International Culture Center, where we met Mrs. Hiraishi, a Sogetsu ikebana teacher. She did a mini-demonstration, showing us basic upright style and then a small freestyle arrangement. I was the only one in our group who had any experience with ikebana. I spoke with her, her kuroko, and her daughter. They were amazed to learn that an American had spent 35 years doing Sogetsu ikebana! (And I’m just a beginner!)
We then visited Murin-an, a relative newcomer to the spectacular gardens of Japan, having been built in 1896. It is a more naturalistic garden, with a meadow and a wonderful shakkei (borrowed scenery) of the nearby mountains. It is a quiet, representational example of the transitional form of the Meiji period residential garden.
Douglas’ wife, Tamao, is the behind-the-scenes mover and shaker of this tour. While he is instructing us, she is off to the side, lining up taxis or phoning the next site. Everything works like clockwork! We took taxis to the Kiyomizu District, and had (another) tofu lunch at the Okutan “treehouse” restaurant inside the luxurious garden of Chōshō-in. This is a popular place that has specialized in vegetarian temple food for hundreds of years. We had yudōfu (tofu—again) together with vegetable side dishes. Douglas has chosen restaurants to not just provide us with interesting cuisine, but wonderful views of fine gardens.
Following lunch, we had one of the most incredible experiences of the trip! He said we would have dessert at a little ice cream restaurant. He called it the “koi café,” though its real name is Rakusho. They specialize in green tea ice cream desserts, but the real feature is a small, narrow garden with the most incredible koi collection we have seen since the koi breeder’s house. These were the largest, most colorful, healthiest koi! They were unbelievable!
Since this was something not to be topped, Douglas gave us the rest of the afternoon off, and we broke off into small groups to explore local shops, temples, and crowds of school kids! Several of us visited the home, studio, and kiln of one of Japan's most influential potters, Kawai Konjiro. His kiln was the largest I've ever seen.
We stopped at Isetan once again and brought home deli food for dinner. At the end of these non-stop days, no one seems interested in going out for an extended dinner.
However, three of us went back to Heian Hotel to take photos at night and have dessert.
Then it was back to our hotel for some much-needed sleep. It’s important to get enough rest for the action-packed days.