It took me a few minutes to identify the intoxicating scent that was, frankly, intoxicating. It was tea olive, or osmanthus, first encountered when we lived in Athens, Georgia. It took me several days to figure out where it was coming from, because it’s an unremarkable shrub with a tiny flower with an extremely powerful fragrance. The unexpected fall sweetness seems to say pay attention, soon the landscape will wither and you won’t be la dee da-ing through it. You’re here for a special and brief time.
I rediscovered osmanthus while I was in Japan many autumns ago. Here it was again, almost shouting that spring will come again and life is very sweet.
Yesterday, we strolled a small part of the oldest road in Japan. Suddenly my nose was twitching again. I soon discovered osmanthus, doing its thing, once again. Now that I know what to look for, it wasn’t long before I found the source of the fragrance. Bring it on! Japan’s shrub has a yellow-orange flower rather than the white ones I originally discovered in Georgia. The shrubs are more pervasive here as well, so that the scent can surround and seem to follow you.
Finding the trail, enjoying the scent.
After three hours of train rides and walks we finally found what we were looking for: The Yamanobe no michi trail ! Once again we had misjudged the amount of time it would take for us to find it. I never could have found it on my own. My husband is generally undaunted by such challenges.
The online description was accurate in that the trail seemed far removed from the 21st century, but getting to it, was a bit complicated. Once we found it, the setting was dreamy, complete with scented air.
The rice harvest is now about half complete. Being out in the country in autumn, we were surrounded by rice fields and many persimmon orchards. The recent rains have made the countryside lush and very green.
We investigated the ancient Chokakuji Temple just off the trail. The pathway up to the temple was lined with late blooming wild flowers. A smiling monk ushered us into the small temple garden, and I gasped at the profusion and abundance in this small enchanting space. It was unlike any other temple garden I’ve seen. Deliberate design or a result of some neglect, I’m not sure, but you had to praise Mother Earth for her lush abundance, breathe deeply and attempt to take it all in.
Nature left to its own devices is breathtaking in its vitality!
As usual, I slow to a snail’s pace when an environment in Japan catches my attention. My husband breezes through these spaces at a more vigorous space, urging me to hurry up, because we “don’t have much time.” I vacillate between wanting to tell him to get lost and awareness that he speaks the truth! I reluctantly pick up the pace.
The countryside idyll
The trail leading from the temple became a dirt path flanked by rice fields and pomegranie orchards. I pictured myself living in this gentle paradise, probably in an old farmhouse, brought up to date, of course. My reverie was interrupted as the path incline grew steeper. I reminded myself that approaching age 80 with chronic asthma meant that some daydreams were just plain ridiculous. My immediate goal was to get to the top of the moderate sized hill, so I could then easily coast down the other side.
After recovering from three somewhat harrowing days driving a rental car on the road in Japan, we learned , despite the high points of the trip, not to do it again. I also relearned that there is a very small margin of error between life and death on a snake like one lane curving road where a head -on collision could catapult you from one world to the next and was possible at any time.
At Koyasan, while walking through the cryptomeria pathway lined with tombs of the dead, I learned again to value the time I have left, before I rest for eternity with the millions who have passed before us.
On the far too narrow one lane road leading us out of Koyasan, I learned that beauty can exist in unlikely circumstances. The road really should have been just a pathway along the small river, but it actually was chosen by Google maps as our way to get down the steep mountain. It even had a route #!
Despite the knowledge that each curve or one wrong turn of the wheel could presage our final moments, I could not get over the thrill of being in this beautiful area. The intense beauty overcame my fear. The foliage lining the river’s path was at its peak of fall color. The river itself, about 25 feet beneath the road, was populated by beautiful boulders and rocks, the river, crystal clear, running a path between them. It invited me to linger, but my husband had a sense of urgency to get us to a wider and undoubtedly safer road. Some bikers rushed past us, but other than that, we’d meet one or two other motorists about every 20minutes, which is to say, we were mostly alone in this splendid landscape on this treacherous road.
Then, suddenly this journey into an alternate universe was over. We welcomed the first houses that appeared and celebrated escaping alive. Maybe I’m being overly melodramatic, but I don’t think so! Soon, the junk big box architecture that is too prevalent outside of most cities took over our visual field. We’ve lost so much of the natural world.
The sacred place of Koyasan was meant to celebrate nature, as is Shintoism. I am grateful we got to participate in the celebration, somber as it could be at times.
Setting. Somewhere along the coast of the Kii Penninsula, Japan. Mid- Autumn, early afternoon. Narrow road. Driver, operating a car on the “wrong” side of what he’s accustomed to, has strong tendency to drift to the left towards perilous drainage ditch. No road shoulders. Passenger and driver both displaying symptoms of anxiety.
“Move over.” she
Move Over! she
Move Over!! she
“What part of Move Over Don’t you understand?” she, shouting now.
“Shut up, Bess.”he (Note: Bess was my mother.) The even tone of his voice told his wife he’d been planning this response.
Half hour later…
Loud Bang!!!! left front tire
Epilogue. Driver knew very well how to change a tire. Passenger, not so much. Problem encountered when trying to figure out where to place the jack under the car. Eventually asked the next driver to pass by for help. New, temporary tire made it possible to return to “city” in opposite direction of day’s destination, in order to purchase full sized tire.
The year: 1978, The season: Late summer. The sound track: Grease.
Since I’ve been a child I’ve been fascinated with the idea of living in a trailer. When the opportunity presented itself in 1978 to travel cross-country from the East Coast to the West Coast, I immediately warmed to the idea. Especially once I saw our vehicle,a bright orange Volkswagen camper with a small fridge, plaid curtains, small counter and table, all built-in. Adorable! Yes!
That 1973 Volkswagen camper van seemed to fit the bill for a cross-country jaunt with our young family. Our kids were going into Kindergarten, 3rd and 6th grade. All reasonable ages for such an adventure, we figured.
The camper had a sling that went across the front seats when parked. It seemed a perfect sleeping place for my youngest daughter. Only later did we realize it was a few inches too short for her. The van had a pop up top and slept two in the back when the back seat opened up to a snug, uncomfortable double bed. We added a small tent to the mix for either ourselves or two of our daughters. Many nights we watched in dismay from our tent as the van lurched back and forth as the sisters fought it out. There were always three kids waiting to be fed in the morning.
Neither of us had ever camped, but we soon got set up with the help of a salesman in a well equipped camping store. My husband had been a boy scout so I figured he must know what he needs to know. We packed a few boxes of clothes and household goods to take with us, stocked the mini fridge, went to AAA to get our maps and set off.
When I announced our travel plans to my parents it was as if I’d told my mother we were driving off alone in a covered wagon through Indian country. She looked shocked and unsettled. She made me promise I would call her every night from the road to let her know we’d survived another day of potential Indian assaults. My husband quickly nixed that arrangement. Remember this was before cell phones, emails, etc. and finding a public phone each night was not guaranteed. I promised to send postcards. I think she doubted that she’d ever see us again when we waved goodbye.
As you’ve probably suspected, our trip had its ups and downs. We immediately got soaked to the skin our first night out in a campground in Thousand Islands, NY. We found ourselves surrounded by a half-inch of water in our tent, our bed rolls and sleeping bags just barely above the water line. That grim start was followed by a glorious ferry ride across Lake Ontario where we hung everything out to dry, and somehow it did. We now felt like veterans.
One of our daughters became immediately enamoured with the idea of sleeping in a Holiday Inn holidome. After the first rain-soaked night, she quickly determined that camping was not that much fun and that if she pushed, she could do better. She only wanted a pool and private bathroom.
Holiday Inns were heavily promoted in the AAA travel book that we foolishly provided to her for reading material to pass the hours. Every day she lobbied for a motel in which to spend the night. We quickly determined that a motel every few nights was probably an excellent idea, so every few days we let her find our evenings’ destination. After a day on the road, life was a lot simpler in a motel rather than a campground for a family of five. At least for our family!
We bribed the kids with lots of donuts as I remember. Every morning wherever we could find them, we bought a dozen donuts to keep the troops quiet. We did our best to stay off interstates and a newly published book by Jane and Michael Stern, called RoadFood, became our bible. A recommended restaurant would seem like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow after a long day of driving. I studied restaurants and my daughter studied motels. Snacks came out about 4pm. Roadfood worked out about 40% of the time. Often, we’d drive for miles only to find the recommended restaurant closed. But we lived in hope of a great evening meal. That became the focus of each day. Forever foodies.
One night the weather was so bad that we all somehow slept together in the van, finally falling asleep from pure exhaustion. I’d never experienced such a long and violent storm system. Lightning and thunder and hail crashed around us the entire night, but we were safe and dry.
Earning our stripes
Another night, leaving a campground in the early morning, a deer came out of the woods and crossed our path. Danny remembers looking the terror-stricken creature in the eye right in front of the VW windshield. I was looking in the glove compartment, so I was spared that memory. The crash happened so quickly that we just kept driving, relieved that we didn’t crash the van, but guilt ridden because we didn’t stop to see if we could have helped the deer, although, God knows how we might have done that. Blood and fur now marked the front of Volksie. We’d been to battle.
When we reached the badlands, we finally felt we were Out West! The state campground we stayed in supposedly had herds of wild buffalo. No Indians, but bona fide buffalo. We didn’t see any on our drive into the campsite, but we kept our kids looking out for them.
But that night, my husband and I were in the small tent as the kids slept in the van. We’d been asleep for only a short while, when we heard a strange snorting sound. We froze in fear, suddenly feeling very vulnerable and in unfamiliar territory.
“What is that?” The sounds came closer. “I smell wet fur.” Closer still. We crouched in our tent, remaining very still. “It’s a herd of buffalo, coming through the campground,” my scientific husband said knowingly. “Shhhh.” “What are we supposed to do?” Flee? Wake the children? Make a run for it to the nearby bathroom? We couldn’t see out, but it was clear that the buffalo were coming through. Do they attack people? Are they like bulls? We knew nothing of buffalo behavior other than what we’d seen in the movies and that in no way prepared us for this moment. After what seemed like an eternity, they were gone. No more snorting or furry smells or what to do when. We survived. All was quiet on the Western front.
That was the most excitement we had heading west. My jaw dropped in wonder as we finally drove towards the Rockies. Volksie didn’t have any power to spare, so we crossed those mountains slowly. It was a lot to take in for Eastern folks.
We soon discovered that our cute van had an intractable problem that we could not fix: vapor lock. At high altitudes or in high heat it would start missing and eventually stall out. Mechanics all shook their heads letting us know that 1973 was a bad year for VW vans.
Saying goodbye to Volksie
Generally the breakdown would be in the middle of nowhere. This did not help my husband’s spirits. He kept getting more and more frustrated by the unpredictable break downs. He eventually could get it started again but only after several hours of waiting it out. It plagued us going West, but especially returning to the East. At one point, my husband admitted to considering pouring gasoline on the whole van and setting it on fire. He sold it within two days of our return. I didn’t dare try and stop him. I still think fondly of Volksie and our Western Adventure .
There’s always something wonderful waiting at the end of the drive when you’re lucky enough to join Robert Yellin on a visit to a few potters.
I met Robert many years ago when he helped to guide tour groups to ceramic areas. We’ve remained friends, and each time we visit Kyoto,I look forward to meeting up with Robert. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call him one of the country’s leading authorities on contemporary Japanese ceramics. He runs a wonderful gallery in Kyoto close to the Philosophers Walk. I believe anyone serious about contemporary Japanese ceramics should/must visit. It’s always a showcase for both established and emerging potters. Robert easily shares his passion and seemingly limitless knowledge of ceramics with his visitors.
This visit, he drove us to the ancient pottery area of Tamba. The potters he visits are overjoyed to see him and that is part of the fun. I enjoy seeing the work of each potter in her/his own gallery, as they chose to display it. There are always an abundance of riches to savor, admire (and occasionally purchase!) Continue reading “Traveling with Robert”→