Japan Travel – Rotary Group Study Exchange Goes to Japan, Article Two

The international organization known as Rotary promotes yearly travel that all people between the ages of 26 and 40, male and female, and of all backgrounds – should know about – because it is a Rotary-funded six week study aboard and anyone can apply to be a part of this significant life experience. If you are this age group – you could enjoy the kind of experience that is described in my notes in this article. To find out more about the program go to the international Rotary website and search for GSE – Group Study Exchange – and contact your local Rotary Club for more information.

Our adventures continued:

April 13th — Wednesday:

Nope, no women in this Rotary Club, or English either – and they translated my speech by cell phone — it’s all an experience. After Mrs. Tanaka served me a splendid breakfast – she said that the coffee was from Seattle, the cereal from Switzerland, the jam from Germany, the almonds from California, and the Balsamic from somewhere else – the avocado was definitely from here – Mr. Tanaka and I headed down the road about 40 minutes to a more rural town called Ukiha to visit the Ukiha Rotary Club. I laughed, even though I don’t understand the language – going to a Rotary meeting is like going to church because the world over they do they same format.

This Club was about 40 members – and like the others, they open the meeting with a song – in Japan, with what we know as Glory, Glory Hallelujah, which they consider to be religious recognition. Tamaki Oi came with us for the visit – and it was fun to meet her because she will be on the incoming team when this District sends their team to us next year. The drive down and back reminded me of a drive to Gilroy from home in California – two mountain ranges on either side, one more rolling and velvet-like, and the other sharper mountains, with green fields in between. It’s expensive to belong to Rotary in Japan – they tell me that their dues are $250 a month – but they don’t do fundraising projects, they write checks. Mr. Tanaka asked me to speak about including women – imagine my reluctance – and he says that this is a theme of their Governor. So – I asked for questions at the end of my speech – and one guy asked me if I knew of Soroptomists – in other words, women could join that club instead.

Yahoo….we’re going to a famous hot springs this evening — I’d be happy to see every hot springs on Kyushu, and I understand that there are a lot of them. It’s helping me to recover from the jet lag.

As the evening turned – it was delightfully inspired – when the girls – Teiko Tanaka, her daughter, Ai and I went out to dinner. We went to a French restaurant that served us one lovely selection and then another. The food here – and the small dishes that please the eye and the pallet with thoughtful detail -are in French cuisine as well as Japanese. We talked for a long time about the role of women in Japanese society and the changes that are occurring. Women here see the same dilemmas, and these are worldly women who have a cross cultural point of view. The conversation continues in a long soak in the hot springs – a charming spot that is in the mountains and overlooks the valley. We first wash, as is the custom, and then go outside to the shallow pool with big boulders surrounding it that forms the basin for the mineral water. It’s good to bathe in the intimacy. It’s 1PM by the time that we fall in bed. The other team members have had a good day too.

April 14th — Thursday:

A really full day is in store today – a sightseeing day. We gather at about 10AM at Izumi’s house – and the team is glad to see each other after going separate ways yesterday. We pile into Hiroshi (Mr. Tanaka’s) Toyota mini-van and off we go. The first stop is in Tanoshimaru at the Wakatakeya Sake Brewery. We sit Japanese style around a big brown wooden table with a Japanese flower arrangement in the middle – a large bowl with camellia branches standing and pink blossoms. What they serve us is all delicious and made from some of the sake production – like the soup was made from the separation of the rice and the sake, and the dessert was a plum that was also from making sake. The sweet little cups are filled with clear sake – and later unfiltered sake – which we all agree is the best, and we all took home bottles for later from the shop.

We drove for forty-five minutes or so – and were headed to Akizuki and the castle ruins there. Marvelous – it was a picture perfect town, and we walked the length of the market street that was lined with blossoming cherry trees. There were vendors and charming shops all along the way, and the stone walls and bridges of the old castle. We lingered for quite a while and took in the peaceful nature of the village, walked up the long stairs through the old castle gate, took lots of pictures because it was so pretty, laughed and enjoyed being together. The cherry blossoms were floating down in the wind like it was snowing, and the green hills were vibrant. We stopped at the ice cream vendor because he thought that Antonio was Tiger Woods – and all laughed. We commented that we liked the way that life feels in Japan.

Down from this street, we ducked into Takagi Kyusuke Shoten for Kuzu-kiri. In case you are wondering what that is – it’s a noodle made from a tree root that is a starch, and you dip it in a molasses type broth to eat with your chopsticks. It was a famous little store, and we enjoyed tea with the Kuzu-kiri – and as Izumi said, this is the real Japan. We’re blessed because we’re starting to understand that we are seeing things that are only possible because this is the home of our hosts that know where all the good stuff is – and show us the inner parts of their culture and land. As we head down the road again leaving Akizuki, we stop to take in a bridge that is a thousand years old and water tumbling over the rocks below it – with abundant greenery touching the edges.

Again a little less than an hour in the car – and we arrive in Dazaifu, at the very famous Dazaifu Shinto Shrine. We learn that Shinto is not a religion, but a way of asking for more intelligence for the mind. We’re treated to an unusual experience – we walk up the side steps onto the floor of the shrine, with all of the decoration before us – and Izumi has arranged for a special ceremony for us with the priest. It’s a blessing, and since it is in Japanese, we don’t understand what they are saying – but they bless some palms and invite us to place them on the alter. We stopped at the front of the shrine to see the “flying plum tree” (because legend says that it flew there from another island), and a thousand year old tree with a huge base. And then walked across a famous bridge back into the village.

Now we were going to dinner – I thought that the Japanese didn’t eat that much until today. We drove again for about an hour to Ogori – to Ogori Tsuzumi. This was a special occasion arranged by our hosts. It wasn’t a restaurant that is advertised – it is the hobby of a man who was the president of a well-known company for ten years who retired, and now cooks for special groups. We were warmly greeted – and came into a room of Japanese style tables. We were first going to learn how to make soba noodles – and with a big bowl in front of him, we were invited to join the chef to start with the buckwheat flour, add water, mix to cornmeal consistency, knead – and then roll with sticks until very thin, cut with a sharp knife – to make the noodle. The chef was very precise about the thickness and getting the dough into a square. Harry, Monica, Julia, Antonio and I all took turns in the preparation. Harry learned to feel the dough to see if it was all the same thickness.

Then, dinner – a start with the sake poured in a bucket for dipping with the ladle, and many plates to follow – highlight by the soba noodles. The plates were particularly pretty and the sake cups were bright colors – and we filled each other’s cups. By now we’ve been sitting on the floor Japanese style for about fours hours today – and our American butts and hips are moaning – while we notice how comfortably our Japanese hosts sit. We laugh a lot at dinner because Hiroshi does amazing magic tricks that leave us all spellbound. How did he do that? The dollar bills floated from one person’s hand to another – and the chopstick moved on the table and he didn’t even touch it – and after holding Julia’s watch in his hand, with firm concentration, the time has moved forward by an hour – and the spoon bends when none of us can budge it.

In this group we don’t need to understand all of the conversation because there is just good humor and fellowship. The chef is delighted that we are pleased by his creations and everyone bows many, many, many times on the way out the door. It’s been a day that no tourist would have encountered – and it is only thanks to the gift of the network of Rotary – and each of my team members individually makes that comment to me – that we have experienced this incredible day.

This article is a series — so read on — and many days follow in our splendid adventure!

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