Japan, Chapter 6: Kyoto

Day 4: Kyoto, Makiko’s parents, and academic partners

When Nagao-sensei and I were first putting this trip together, I mentioned my affinity for moss and bragged about the moss on Mount Desert Island. “I too like moss,” she replied, “and so we will stop in Kyoto on the way back to Tokyo.”

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Sugidama in the train station: Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria spp.)

That journey began with cancelled ferries from OK due to high winds and crossing on the last jet boat from the island before that service was cancelled as well. We then climbed over a high, snowy pass to the station for the bullet train — shinkansen, or “new train.” My ethnobotanical nose led me right to the sugidama, a ball of cut and shaped Cryptomeria that’s used to publicize the freshness of the last saki batch. A green sugidama denotes fresh and a darkened brown, aged.

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The bullet train, shinkansen

My nose for high speeds (plus Nagao-sensei and the need to get north quickly) brought us to the bullet train, which was unfortunately running at half speed due to the snow. Our arrival in Kyoto was delayed a few hours, but we still had time to visit the Silver and Golden Pagoda. Though both places were aesthetically brilliant, the crowds of tourists left me with that Disney World stomach. I found more favor in the 500-year-old Buddhist temple on OK.

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The Golden Pagoda: As if I were the only one there

If you’re a moss, January is your hardest month and you wouldn’t want people judging you on your looks during that month. But — wow — the moss in Kyoto gives MDI and the coastal forests of Oregon a run for their money. For me, the moss work here in Kyoto is emblematic of all that is great with the traditionalism of Japan I spoke of earlier in this series. I snapped a few photos and sent them off to my colleague Rodney Eason, the director of the Land and Garden Preserve back on MDI, which overseas the care and curation of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Gardens, my high water mark for moss.

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A masterpiece of moss, the Silver Pagoda moss gardens in Kyoto

We spent the late afternoon and evening in the hotel lobby. Nagao-sensei’s colleagues from her old place of employment at the Women’ College were there – a geographer and art historian. Jay Friedlander had met with them previously and they struck me as the perfect collaborators. The Japanese use an expression “s/he has the same smell” to mean that a person is sympathetic to your own way of being – these guys smelled like us.

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Dr. and Mrs. Yoshida

The highlight of the evening came at 8pm, when I had the opportunity to meet Makiko Yoshida’s mother and father. Makiko is a second year student at the College of the Atlantic – a terrific young woman who is also currently COA’s All College Meeting moderator. Her parents were wonderful – smart, thoughtful, kind, sincere. Makiko’s mother actually graduated from the UWC-Atlantic College in Wales. Dad is a faculty member in the social sciences at Osaka-prefecture University. Both, fortuitously, are focused on inspiring educational reform in Japan. The apple does not fall far from tree. The whole family may very well turn out to be important partners in our efforts here.

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