Twenty years ago my intrepid parents packed up their lives and three kids to move thousand miles to Tokyo. Over the next three years, they somehow also had the energy to pack us up for a new destination every school holiday. And while we may have complained about all the walking in the Forbidden City or not realized the significance of the Terracotta Soldiers until they later appeared in our textbooks, those early years are where my love of international travel began.
What better country could there be for the last destination on Stef & my journey?
Our first stop in the land of the rising sun was the wintry Imperial city of Kyoto. In contrast to Tokyo’s sea of skyscrapers, Kyoto has preserved more of its traditional Japanese architecture, with a wealth of ornate shrines and perfectly manicured parks. You slide screen doors to enter tatami mat restaurants, exchange your shoes for slippers at temples and wind between narrow streets in search of late-night ramen (go to Ippudo!).
The first day we caught the tail end of the fall colors at the Inari shrine. Right at the entrance, we were stopped for an interview by some Japanese schoolchildren sent to practice their English. We were in a hurry to finish touring the temple before lunch, but for our time they rewarded us with immaculately constructed Christmas cards that far, far surpassed our best elementary school handiwork.
Once we'd said our goodbyes to the kiddos, we headed up the path through a parade of red gates (torii) and past the watchful eyes of the Kitsune messengers.
Over the course of the next two days, we would stop to take in the beauty and peaceful aura of many of Kyoto's top temples. We hiked our way through the ruby hills surrounding Kiyomizu-dera, criss-crossed a bamboo forest at Arashiyama, and circled the beautiful golden shrine at Kinkaku-ji.
All this walking made us feel more deserving of a little splurge. We wrapped up our day in the beautiful neighborhood of Gion, using pictures from online as clues to track down a small restaurant with a legendary Kaiseki menu (Gion Karyo). The incredible service gave us ample opportunity to practice our "arigatos" and bowing as we watched each of the 10 dishes being prepared before our eyes.
For our final two days we raced back across the countryside to Tokyo on the Shinkansen train.
Sanae, my former babysitter, was willing to overlook any transgressions from my schoolboy days and kindly met us for dinner with her son. We caught up about all things Tokyo, our travels and her rose-colored recollection of my childhood behavior over an immaculate meal of sashimi and soba.
We commemorated our final day of the trip with a walk down (my) memory lane, returning to the neighborhood where I grew up. Surprisingly little was different, especially for a neighborhood in a city that epitomizes growth and change. Our old house, school, and nearby shops were all still going strong. The senior citizens fishing the stocked pond at the local park were still out in full force despite the winter weather. And, most importantly, the Baskin Robbins next to our trusty supermarket still stocked my favorite flavor.
In a way, it's comforting to know that while a lot of the places we've seen in our travels may be totally different in the next 5 years, 10 years, or even a few months, there are always some corners of the world that will remain so wonderfully the same.
We’ll be saying goodbye to Asia with all the animal pictures we can muster before wrapping up our travels and this blog in the good 'ol US of A.