Trip to Japan Oct. 2002

by Sensei Mike Pepe

My Memories of the Land of the rising Sun


Oh Japan, You did not disappoint me. I could have been met by a commercialized tourist attraction; however, you did not let me down. Japan, you met me with open arms. You welcomed me in to view your history, people and culture without restriction and for this I thank you.

Along with my friends Jim True and Brian Farrell, I roamed from Tokyo to Kumamoto and many places in-between. We three had agreed on and set forth on a trip of a lifetime. We spent two weeks traveling throughout the cities and byways that until now had been a life long dream.


    We lived in Tokyo for four days and our first meeting was with the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. I must say what a wonderful first impression of Japan it made on us! The garden was quiet and empty of visitors aside from ourselves. The stepping stones, surrounded by a blanket of tender green grass, led past lily padded ponds and trickling waterfalls. The walk was peaceful and settled our nerves. It seemed like the garden itself was telling us to “walk slowly”. We walked together; we parted and walked alone, each of us saying our private hello to our beautiful host.

   It is true that Tokyo is a city, but a city built around its historical treasures, not consuming them.

  You can’t see Japan from the inside of a hotel room so our days and evenings were filled with traveling; only stopping each night for short interludes of meditation called sleep, only to awake by five am to shower and prepare for another breathtaking excursion.

      ANCIENT KYOTO: We left Tokyo after four days. Kyoto was to be our next stopping place. I knew that Kyoto was said to be like “old” Japan and again held my breath; for what could be better than our last four days?

  Kyoto remains historically old because the Kamo River runs through it and fires that ravaged the city over the years could not jump the river. Therefore, many parts of Kyoto remain very much the way they were hundreds of years ago. The famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, traveled in and around the Kyoto area until he went to Kumamoto. Looking at Kyoto you would see a grid-like street system with small bridges crossing the Kamo River every quarter mile. The buildings are low and the houses and stores are traditional in their design. Roofs have swept up corners and each house had curved clay tile roofing. Many rooflines bore a decorative Mon or crest along their edge. We agreed Kyoto was a “seedier” but just as safe city as Tokyo.

  We had begun to relax so much in the previous days that our steps became less hurried and we became more in tune with the city. The streets are wide, buildings were low. So imagine with me that you are a traveling samurai, a ronin if you will, with your hands inside your kimono and not a care in the world. You have your travel pass to show as you cross Sanjo Bridge to get into the city, and the border guard lets you pass. Walking through Kyoto was much like that. The sites we visited in Kyoto were astonishing. Seeing a postcard you might think it was a picture set up with special lighting to enhance the photo. But no, Kyoto needs no artificial help to show her slender. Your mind can’t take a bad picture of this place. Any view I witnessed was to my eyes, the first time the setting had given up its beauty. 

   The Kinkaju-ji Temple, or Golden Pavilion as it is called, is a small but prestigious place. Built in 1394 as a retreat, it was painted completely in gold leaf! The building sits along the edge of a pond and garden landscaped with trees, shrubs and stone. Not only is the pavilion brilliant in it’s gold color, it also reflects so clearly in the pond below that you wonder where the building ends and the mirage begins! So stunning a place, I wonder “it” is the mirage!

  Kyoto is also the home of Kiyomizu (Clear Water) Temple, a place Musashi visited. Following a long walk up a hill crowed with people, we made our way to the temple steps. Once through the temple walls and standing along a viewing veranda, we witnessed the most spectacular scenery imaginable. We were actually in a mountain so steep that although trees surrounded us they do not reach up to block our view of Kyoto city and the sunset beyond.

OSAKA and beyond. Onto Osaka we went. In order to do our final travel to distant cities we used Osaka as our launching pad. From here we traveled to Nara, Hiroshima and Kumamoto city. The first trip we took brought us further south along the coast to Hiroshima. The famous memorial to the causalities of the 1945 Atomic Bomb needs no introduction. The dome with no roof is very foreboding as it stands in the memorial park. The walk through the museum leaves us with a feeling of sorrow of what happened that fateful day in August. There are many photos and artifacts. Throughout the park there are monuments honoring the dead. There is also a peace bell, which we rang. From Hiroshima we continued (by bullet train) like wandering samurai, down to Kumamoto city to meet the great swordsman Musashi from Miyamoto.

A legendary swordsman. Musashi (1584-1645) spent the last three years of his life in a mountain cave at Reigando. Arriving ten minutes before the cave “closed”, our wonderful cab driver waited for us and even walked us directly to the famous cave and took our picture! He then drove us another half hour across town to Musashi’s grave. The driver had been our friend and guide for over an hour and to repay him we should have had a small token to show our appreciation. But we had nothing! Not an item with which to honor him! Until I took my sunglasses from my neck and passed them over to him using the formal two hands. He was very gracious and received them in the same formal way, with two hands. Content with the thought that we were now great ambassadors from the USA we went to the gravesite and statue. It was eight o’clock at night and already dark. We changed into our gi and each took a picture at the tomb of the famous swordsman, who is said to have been buried in full armor with his two swords at his side.

A grand castle. Osaka Castle was another site to behold. The fortress sits behind a moat and is raised up on a stone foundation. It is white with gold trim. Just a beautiful and massive place! As we approach, we are discussing how we could attack in and agree that we could never get close! The view from behind the outer wall, where the gun holes have been cut out of the blocks, confirms our thought. We realize that any attack would be visible while we were still miles away! You can enter the castle but alas, it is now a museum. The museum tells the castle’s history and holds artifacts, including armor, clothes and banners from the ages.

   Our fourteen days have now come and gone but each day was so filled with inspiring sites, relaxing gardens and fine food, it will be remembered as fourteen separate vacations!

 My memories put to paper do not cover all the extraordinary things we saw in Japan. However that does not take away from the story they held for us to experience. It merely means that you will have to ask us about Hachiko the loyal dog, the graves of the 47 Ronan, the arrow in the ceiling at Sanjusan temple, pachinko, the Budokan, Meiji Shrine, Ginza, Sensoji temple, Mt Fuji, Yasaka Shrine, Nijo castle and more, and more and more…

  As we left Japan from the Kansai airport, (another famous place since it is a man-made island) we came to a better understanding of Japan’s history and her customs. We rubbed elbows with famous spirits, made friends with its people but also left our own spirit there… to be carried along in the autumn breeze of Japan.

Sensei Mike





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