Accidental Adventures in Japan: Cherry Blossoms & Croque Monsieur

Leah & Friends in
Iwakuni, Japan
I've often wondered what inspired me, a girl of simple origins from an average mid-western town, to travel the world.  

Maybe it was the subscription to National Geographic my grandfather gave me for my fifth birthday.  Each month, the magazine would arrive in my mailbox with a little label bearing my name and address.  Truth be known, the label on the outside of the magazine was almost as exciting as the glossy photos on the inside.  Photos of far-away places like Mykonos and Madrid and Mozambique.

I remember one issue about the Seychelles.  An article inside explained that archaeologists believed the Garden of Eden was located off the coast of one of the islands.  The article included photos of what looked like a submerged tree with great vines swaying as if on a breeze.  How it captured my young imagination!  Oh to dive below the sea and discover worlds forgotten!  Such daring!  Twenty years later, I would become a certified, advanced search-and-rescue diver, frolicking with massive octupi in the Puget Sound, dolphins in Honduras, and sharks in Panama.

I remember another issue of about the Cherry Blossom Festival of Kyoto.  The glossy photos in that magazine were of ancient temples, languid canals, and meandering paths.  The paths were flanked by cherry blossom trees sprouting tissue-paper like petals stained pink with the first flush of Spring.  I imagined myself sitting in a garden with neatly-clipped trees and babbling koi ponds stocked with copper-penny-hued goldfish.  I imagined what it would be like to stand beneath the outstretched branches of a magnificent cherry blossom tree and to feel her petals rain down on me like silky pink raindrops.
 Thirty years later, I would have the opportunity to visit Kyoto, to sit quietly in her gardens, to marvel at her temples, and to admire her graceful cherry blossom trees.

A Spontaneous Adventure
Although the seeds of my desire to visit Japan were planted at a tender age, it did not come to fruition for many years.  My somewhat spontaneous trip to Kyoto happened in 2006.  I spent five days in Osaka and Kyoto with two fun, adventure-loving girlfriends.  We were all living on Osan Air Base in South Korea and looking for an excuse (any excuse) to leave that crowded, dirty, polluted corner of Asia.  
Bamboo Forest
We caught a C-12J from Osan to Iwakuni MCAS near Hiroshima, Japan. From there, we took the bullet train to Osaka.  We spent the next five days touring the Bamboo Forest in Arishyama, an otherworldly place where golden light filters softly through lacy leaves, and the Fushimi-Inari Taisha Inari Shrine in Kyoto, with an ancient temple and towering orange gates stacked like an endless chain of dominoes. 

Zen Moment
We contemplated our lives in a zen garden, stumbled upon a Marie Antoinette exhibition at the Kyoto Museum, bought French berets at a hat shop in the market, ate curry while sitting on the floor of a quaint restaurant, delighted in the charming red lanterns lining the streets, and took a class in what it was to be a geisha.

As she does with so many of my trips, Serendipity quietly acted as our guide, leading us to places not on our itinerary and putting people in our path that enriched our journey.

People like the waitress in the Osaka Hilton lounge who saw my disappointed reaction upon learning that it was too late to order a croque monsieur and ran across the hotel to their all-night kitchen and begged the chef to make her "most honored guest" her favorite sandwich. 

And people like Mizuki, the salesgirl at a quirky little hat shop in the Kyoto Market, who searched every shelf until she found what she thought was "a most perfect hat."  How did she know I, too, believe a beret is the most perfect hat for me?  

And people like the cherub faced infant who stared at me with wise, obsidian eyes while his father toted him through Kyoto's wren of narrow streets...

...and the elegantly dressed elderly woman in traditional garb on the train from Arishyama to Osaka who patiently answered my many questions about Japanese traditions and culture...
...and the guitar maker who allowed us to peek into his workshop as he practiced his craft.

...and the dozens of schoolchildren who flashed us peace signs and then shyly covered their mouths with their hands as they giggled...

...and the pigeon-toed old woman who struggled to tote her heavy basket, laden with groceries, up a particularly steep street.  Even though she was winded, she stopped to wave at us...

  ...and the lady in the soap and scents store who explained to us, in broken, tortured English, how she wakes every morning at five to make soap...

 ...and the old sailor, sitting on a rickety chair beside the river in Arishyama, who could not understand why the crazy blonde American would want to take his picture, but still, graciously, allowed it... 

 ...and the bride who thanked me a dozen times when I told her I thought her cotton candy pink gown was one of the prettiest I had ever seen.

A few nights ago, just as I was getting ready to turn out the light and go to bed, something compelled me to check my email one last time.  I clicked on my iPhone and discovered an email from a friend living outside Tokyo.  She said a very strong earthquake had just shook her home.  She said she was fine but very frightened.  After I made sure my friend and her family were safe, I turned out the light and went to sleep.

Honestly? Since I have lived through hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, I wasn't that rattled by her news.  I assumed it was a medium tremor that would end up as a blurb in the following day's news.

I have never been more wrong.

The earthquake was more than a medium tremor.  It was catastrophic and the apocalyptic images of the destruction it created have horrified me.

Each time I watch a video of the wave tossing cargo ships about like toy boats in a child's tub, I cry. 

I think of the cherub-faced child and the beaming bride.  I wonder if they were kept safe from the disaster or if the earthquake shook apart their lives.  I wonder if the elegant old woman on the train was washed away by a ruthless wave, or if she is warm and dry somewhere, watching the news reports and wiping tears from her weathered cheeks.

I think of the Marines at Iwakuni MCAS who helped us with our luggage; and how surreal it is to imagine them now frantically gathering supplies for the victims of the earthquake.

Suddenly, sadly, the world that once seemed so grand, so vast to a wide-eyed, eager-to-explore five-year-old, seems smaller, more fragile, and far more frightening.

If only the world could stay as safe and beautiful and glossy as it is when pressed between the pages of a National Geographic magazine.



StratPilot said...

Beautifully worded images and sentiment. God bless the people in Japan.

Veronique Valentin said...

Brava Leah Marie! Your blog post puts faces to the stories of suffering in Japan. You certainly have a way with words and deeper thoughts. You should be writing for a newsaper or magazine.

I hope the people you met in Japan are safe too.

Suzanne Brandyn Author said...

I cried reading your post. It is such a tragedy. Yes, and donate I have.

Dear Fireflies said...

A brilliant, heartfelt post, Leah. It feels like a bigger tragedy when you try to think about the impacts this disaster has given to every individual in Japan. I hope everything turns around for them very soon.

Bless you, my friend. :) oxx