Go East, Young Man

Journey to Japan and South Korea

September 25 - October 4, 2004

Michael J Downey

If life and earth a circle, if love’s resistance least,

The sun sets in the west and it rises in the east…

FOR SOME MONTHS NOW, my head has been 5000 miles east, and now, it seems, my heart is going to join it. Go west young man, so far west…so…Far East. Very Zen. Jumping into the unknown – what a strange mix of excitement, fear, peace… It is at the same time, going home and leaving it. This trip, one leg of the big trip, closing one more door behind me, and opening one more up ahead.

On the plane, I’m reminded of the Indigo Girls song, singing of a place “where the waters flow with confidence and reason.” I don’t know, maybe I’m just projecting my own sense of purpose in this trip, but there’s a pervasive feeling of direction, of having wandered, and wound up on a definite path.

Kore wa nan desu ka? (what’s this?) I ask my neighbors, as I point to an exotic-looking dessert in the magazine I loaned to them. They smile, and make great effort to convey how very sweet, and delicious it is. I do believe I’ve met my first Japanese friends whose English is about as good as my Japanese, which is very limited. And I’m grateful for the universal languages of flirting and desserts.

Half-way through the flight, the ubiquitous progress screen shows our little cartoon airplane halfway across the Pacific Ocean. As I look up from the book I’m reading, which chronicles the perilous journey of the first English and Dutch seamen to land in Japan in 1600, I feel very smug to be making the same journey, 400 years later, with such ease. Our little plane has crossed the international date line, which would make it September 25th - my birthday. Thinking back on birthdays past, I’m hard pressed to come up with a memory better than the day I’m having right now, Right now.

The journey from Narita airport to Tokyo (approx. 50 minutes), does well in easing one in to the brilliant urban explosion that is Tokyo. Passing green, green fields of rice, bamboo forests that punctuate the suburban sprawl that crescendos from Narita all the way to the city. The homes are an innovative mix of vertically liberated single-family homes, multi-unit dwellings with hints of traditional Japanese architecture, roof-top gardens, surrounded by narrow streets winding their way through this tightly-packed assemblage of life. I think of New York and the notion that densely-packed population centers foster a “proximity effect” where people feel, as a matter of survival, that one has to get along with their neighbors. Perhaps I’m just looking for an explanation for the gracious, welcoming reception I’m feeling in this amazing place.

After checking into the Nikko hotel in Ginza – Tokyo’s equivalent to Park Avenue meets Times Square – I get a call from Ai, who I had arranged to meet through an introduction. Forty-five minutes later, this beautiful, 26 year old Tokyoite is smiling, standing at my door. I invite her in, and we begin a memorable evening …conversations that wind their way through Japanese architecture, women, politics, Hillary Clinton, Bush, sex, dating, monogamy, travel, aspirations, and life. She was an absolutely perfect hostess for my first night in Tokyo. “Perfect…” said Katsumoto with his last dying breath, as he lay on the battlefield, looking up at the cherry blossoms wafting down from the trees. “One could spend their whole life looking for the perfect blossom, and it would not be a wasted life.”

Eventually, went out into the warm, evening hum to explore, and end up in Shinjuku, Kubuki-jo, a brightly lit, buzzing, young, vibrant part of town..

Blazing by fields, mountains, suburbs, rivers, and towns, I glide effortlessly in the Shrinkansen train that takes me from Tokyo to Kyoto in just over 2 hours (about 150 mph). I think back on a perfect morning. Waking up to a misty rainfall, scouting out around Ginza, over to the Imperial Palace Park, I drop and break my camera as I fumble for it, trying to balance my umbrella with the other hand, tears in my eyes from beholding this unbearably beautiful scene looking over a pond surrounded by verdant greenery. But that was my karma, and it led me to pad through Ginza looking for a new camera (gee, where will I find a camera in Tokyo?), taking me to places I never would have found had I not broken the old camera. Later on, a walk through Ueno Park, takes me to towering Buddhist temples, a vast, water-lily-covered lake, museums, statues – one commemorating the exact place where the last of the Tokugawa samurai fought the imperial army, and in losing that battle, signaled the beginning of the post-samurai, Mejii restoration period.

A porter walks through the shrinkansen car I’m in, and before going through the door at the end, turns, and bows… This place…

Words cannot prepare or adequately describe the experience of staying at a ryokan. As I walk up the stone walkway, through the torii gate, a woman in a kimono scurries out to meet me and help with my bags, she speaks no English, and once again, I’m grateful for the time I’ve spent learning a little Japanese. She shows me my room and I’m speechless – it’s everything I anticipated it would be, and more. She asks if I would like tea, and brings it with a beautiful tea set. I introduce myself, and she tells me her name is Misako, and says “hajimemashite.” I think there is no more beautiful a word in all human experience (it is nice to meet you for the first time). She asks a few questions about dinner and breakfast, and leaves me until dinner. She must have brought at least a dozen courses during the meal, which was indescribably exquisite in every course. I reluctantly pulled out my Japanese dictionary, because my curiosity was burning to ask about certain foods. By the end of dinner, I felt like I was high – a peaceful and satiated feeling I don’t remember ever feeling. Later went for a stroll through the Gion district where I’m staying, and had the great good fortune to see and exchange bows with a maiko, waiting to cross the road, dressed in full geisha regalia, and eventually went back to find Misako had laid out my bed, drawn a hot bath, and brought a tea set with hot water for morning.

In the morning, I opened the windows and sat beside them with my tea after some very resonant meditation – the quiet of the Kyoto morning, cultured greenness amongst the brilliant, warm architecture of the homes along this backstreet grotto. It’s been less than two days here, and already the question is popping into my head – ‘who am I?’ “Who am I?” In the peaceful, contemplative morning, my hand drifts down to the marvelously crafted windowsill, where smooth, time-worn sills allowed the window to glide effortlessly. I think about the craftsman that made this window sill, and a tear comes to my eye. And I think about my own life in America, and what I do, and how I’ve become an accomplice in the machinery that fills this world with particle-board, formica bullshit, and I wept bitterly.

Ah, but there’s nothing like a breakfast of dried fish, rice, tofu soup, and a half dozen other exotic, scrumptious delectables to raise one out of an existential moment. Minsku started the morning by bringing me tea and a bowl of dried, pickled-like berries, and while I enjoyed them, she pulled my bedding out of the room, and set up the room once again for the day. It was an unforgettable experience, and before I leave I give her a copy of my humble little CD, and a little embarrassed giving such a small gift after truly being treated like a king.

The day is rainy, and so after changing to the Kyoto Royal Hotel, I take a taxi to the station and catch a train for Himeji. Not an uneventful trip, I got off at the wrong station just before Osaka, and culled every ounce of my meager Japanese to find out that I was not in Himeji, and that I needed to buy another train ticket to get me there. So, back on the train, I’m riding in the first car, and gazing straight ahead, as we approach another town. All of a sudden, the driver madly honks his horn, and I see a man leaning out over the edge of the tracks off the landing, facing away and talking on his cell phone as we approach at maybe 80 mph. Next, I hear a “thump” and the driver coasts through the station and comes to a stop a mile down the tracks. His siren is sounding, he’s announcing something in Japanese on the PA, he gets out of the train to look at the front-right corner of the train, and within minutes, police, train officials are there on the scene. So sad, but I can only guess the outcome of that debacle. Finally, we push on to Himeji.

Once again, pictures, stories, and words cannot prepare one for the luminous, behemoth castle in the sky that is Himeji. It’s just a 15 minute walk straight down the main street of the town from the train station to the castle. Almost like a mile long runway leading up to this immense chimera. I circumnavigate the area, taking the recommended 2 mile stroll around the outer moats to see the castle from every side. It’s a Monday, and surprisingly few people are out taking in the sights. I girl on a bike stops to talk, and I learn that she’s from Korea, and begin speaking Korean, much to her delight. Oh, I’m so grateful for these past three months of language ‘cramming.’

Come to think of it, it’s really amazing the quality of my experience, having just spent a couple of months learning maybe two hundred words in each language. In these three short days, I have checked into three hotels, asked directions countless times, ordered in restaurants, negotiated to purchase and learn how to operate a new camera, met new friends, two new ‘girlfriends,’ joked with cab drivers, and asked around for and finally found a stick of deodorant (not as easy as you might think, for some reason! In this tropical climate, you’d think they’d be giving it away on street corners).

My last day in Kyoto began with a tour I booked reluctantly, but at the behest of wise friends who knew my time here would be too short to see many of the major sights. This was a great suggestion. The first stop was Nijo Castle, an awe-inspiring sight in itself, the cultural/historical significance of this place was numbing to me. For three hundred years, it was the seat of the ruling shogun and his samurai and court. The temple led through a circuitous route from greeting rooms, with ever-increasing security and flamboyance, until finally leading to the shogun’s living quarters. The hallway floors had a built-in “security system” (called a “nightingale floor”) in that they were built with small, metal plates underneath that squeaked as we walked on them, creating a pleasing cacophony not unlike of a flock of nightingales. Most significantly, was the room where the shogun held court and made the official announcement of the formal end of the Tokugawa rule and acquiesced power to the Mejei emperor.- the end of the shogun/samurai era.

Next stop was Golden Pavilion, where a path led us through a fecund, but sparce green forest, which opened into a heart-stopping scene with a magnificent golden temple situated on a mirror-smooth lake. The juxtaposition of this powerful, resonant, glowing temple in such still, quiet surroundings was truly inspiring.

Then, onto the piece de resistance, the Imperial Palace, where the emperors, for hundreds of years lived and ruled Japan, before the seat of power moved to Tokyo. The powerful, looming, graceful buildings, fitting of a king, stand silent in their repose, but whisper a proud legacy of a former age. Happily, an ambitious restoration is presently underway, and I got a first-hand look at Japanese construction in action. Now this is proud work

Still, in spite of the advantages of covering so much ground in a short time with this tour, I was continually embarrassed at the petulant, jaded sarcasm of my fellow western tourists, and wanted not to be counted among their number. At best, there were those that just wanted to get to the souvenier/shopping depots, at worst were the folks continually decrying “I’m hot…I’m bored…This better be good…” …while our Japanese hosts and hostesses smiled, and bowed, and endured the heat and humidity through layered uniforms. The quiet strength of Japan…

And finally, a fitting, Western-style end to the tour, we were dropped off at the Kyoto Handicraft Center – a shopper’s paradise – seven floors of all the finest that Kyoto has to offer. Except for one thing – I did take advantage of the convenience for gift-buying, but there was one thing I had to make a special trip for – a Hashimoto sword. Kenitirou Hashimoto helped me himself find the right sword, and in my hands, I felt the fierce symbol of grace, beauty, power, and strength of this hand-made piece of art.

That evening , I went out and found the C.Coquette internet café, advertised as having great tofu burgers, cheesecake and expresso, with free internet access with every order. Ah, creature comforts. I chatted with the owner, Hirosi Takemoto, and ended up giving him a CD, which he received with both hands, and was most gracious, and invited me to come back and play at his internet café!

Then, I hopped a city bus out to the Daikaku-ji temple Harvent Moon Festival. It was a full-moon night, and as I passed the area known as Arashiyama, a beautiful mountain-suburb of Kyoto with a grand river running through it, the glow of the slightly-overcast sky put a magical shimmer on everything. As for the festival, it was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I’ll let the advertisement tell the story:

Daikaku-ji Temple: In celebration of the harvest moon, this amazing temple hosts an annual concert of traditional koto (harp) and shakuhachi (bamboo flute) music, and the poetic past time of boating on the lake by moonlight can still be enjoyed. An elegant tea ceremony is performed on gorgeous boats in the shapes of dragons and birds. For an exquisite experience, observe the full moon from a boat (\1,000, includes a bowl of Japanese tea). On the shore, booths sell beer and food.

There was a path leading through the grounds, that led by what must have been 50 or 60 “art installations”- most of which were just for the festival – lit up bamboo forests (some wrapped and glittering with foil!) giant paper mache, balloon-like objects glowing with lights inside of them…everywhere. It was magical.

Then, it was an early, rainy morning, and a shuttle to Kansai International Airport in Osaka, about an hour and 15 minutes away. Landing in Seoul, I take a taxi (which are marvelously cheap in Korea) to the W Hotel in Seoul. Such over-the-top luxury on the heels of this inner journey I’ve been on creates quite a culture shock, but at this half-way point in my trip, it’s good to be in an amazingly exquisite room and hotel to recharge my batteries – literally and figuratively.

Had a few hours left in the afternoon to go out and see Gyeongbokgung Palace and its surrounding buildings and yards. I notice the architecture to be more colorful yet less “polished” than the temples in Japan. It is a truly awe-inspiring place, though, and on this day, there were thousands of Korean and Japanese people visiting. I did not see one other English-speaking person there. It was heart-rending to see the crafts tables where children learned how to make masks, and little wooden birds and things. They are SO cute. Looking back over my shoulder, I’m taken by the juxtaposition of this 800 year old architecture against a backdrop of skyscrapers, big-screen TV billboards, and all the trappings of urban life. I pause…

Interestingly, sofar, the people of Korea are much like what I’ve read about. They think nothing of pushing and bumping into you, children would grab your leg and sort of use you as a fulcrum to propel them faster and farther in their haste. I took a long, late-night ride around town with a very personable cab driver in the evening who thought nothing of running red lights when there was no one visible on the cross-street. Interestingly, though, it seems that it is relatively easy for a Korean to look you in the eyes when speaking to them, whereas that didn’t often happen in Japan. Also interesting, the description plaques at the Palace each made a point of the structure having to have been “rebuilt after being destroyed by the Japanese invasion in 1949.” And although it seems odd to an outsider, I think about how Americans still sting from Pearl Harbor, and no doubt, will decry the atrocity of 9/11 for years and years to come.

I had intended to make my way to Gyeong-ju late morning, but two things conspired to get in my way. One, was the irresistible high-end comfort of the W Hotel (and the irresistible, high-end concierge named Sunny), and after ordering a world-class, leisurely breakfast in the room, caught up on emails and had to lay in the opulence of the gorgeous W bathtub for a while. Second, after looking up the train schedule, I found that the next train was at 5:40pm. One school of thought would say that the best things in life happen by accident. The other says that there are no accidents.

And so I made the best of the afternoon by heading out to Ingwansan Shamanist Hillside Walk, but ended up across the street, by accident, and found myself in a living history lesson called Independence Park, which housed, among other exhibits, Seodaumun Prison, a chilling, heartbreaking living legacy of the atrocities committed by the Japanese when they invaded Korea in 1909. Oh, my god! They’ve gotten it from both sides! In one century! I had no idea about this war, and the penitentiaries and camps where such events took place. There were life-sized dioramas vividly (if crudely) depicting the torture (men and women), deprivation, and overcrowding there. But the park itself was a proud celebration their independence, and I learned that Koreans have an Independence Day in March, and saw a statue of a woman who was a revered resistance leader, known as the “Korean Joan of Arc.” An amazing place.

Then finally made it across the street, and up a LONG, winding, steep alley, where old women passed the day chatting together on their steps, small grocery stored lined the street along with the small, crowded, humble houses. At the top of the hill was a path that lad to about a dozen temples, statues, and shrines, along with monks at work, a natural spring, diggerido music in the distance, and beautifully, naturally carved rocks that resembled a hooded monk at pray (it is where women come to pray for a son). This day, I encountered many Korean folks that bowed slightly as I did to them, or returned my nod or smile. A glimpse of the warm, strong spirit of this country.

Later in the evening, I trained to Gyeong-ju (about 4 ½ hours) and on the train, met a transplanted Korean girl who grew up in Arizona since childhood. She was a wealth of information and opinions, and I had so wanted to learn more about the people and this county I was being introduced to on such a superficial level. In a nutshell, she agreed that Korean women are strong-willed and will push to get through a crowd, etc.-it’s because since the wars, our parent’s generation has had to fight for everything they had, and this spirit has been passed down since then. Also, she says “Koreans hate the Japanese.” Ever since the early 20th century and the invasion they’ve held this enmity. After seeing those prisons, it’s almost understandable. And, apparently, the Japanese are attempting to overtake an island in between Japan and Korea right now. I asked about the American servicemen in Korea, and her response was basically “a necessary evil.” Koreans don’t like them, but without them, the North would re-invade and take back the South. She says the war is not over, “it’s just on hold.” And for the most part, “Koreans like Americans, but are sometimes afraid of them. Afraid of their power.” That is why, she assured me, that my fumbling Korean language is actually endearing to them, because of my fallibility. Ok by me. And so, on through the night to Gyeong-ju.

The Hyundae Hotel in Gyeongju is on Bomunho Lake, about 3 miles from the town’s center. A foggy morning gave way to a spectacular, mystical morning, viewed from the balcony of my room. I hopped a 7-hour tour bus, and am so glad that I set aside my aversion for these kitchy tours, because with only one day to see an area like this, so packed with fascinating history, there’s just no other way to do it, although this one is only in Korean. But, as it turns out, a very personable Korean woman walked up and we started to converse in Korean, when she says she is from Monterey, visiting her sister with her husband! What a world this is. She works at the DOD Defense Language Institute, and has lived in America for 40 years. I’m happy to have someone interpret some of the points of interest, but as we visit in between the sights, I learn much more about Korean culture and history, and am very happy to have made a new friend, especially one so close to home.

Gyeongju began as the seat of Korean government some 2000 years ago, and artifacts from the Silla people who initially inhabited this place still exist today. The Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto was one of the most impressive, vast temple complexes. True to typical, colorful Korean architecture of the time, this site is impressive both from a historical perspective, and for the existing monastic community that still exists here. Monks would enter the temple and kneel in front of the great Buddha statue an begin to tap the wood block and chant a meditation. Opportunities to enter the temple, and pray or meditate on a mat were offered. I entered, signed a guest book, made a small donation, and took in the resonance of this place. Once again, while staring at the 800 year old massive, but worn-to-glassy-smooth wood floors, tears come to my eyes, and the beauty of the place is overwhelming.

At Samneung, royal tombs were constructed of a wooden anti-chamber, then rocks carefully stacked on top, creating a perfect mound-like shape, until finally a layer of soil and grass formed the outermost layer. Viewed side-by-side, these mounds bring to mind the juxtaposition of ancient history with a modern art installation. They are at the same time, haunting, beautiful, powerful and graceful.

Other notable stops included an ancient observatory, where astronomers from as far back as the 8th century used relatively sophisticated instruments to map out the stars and sky. There were also 3 or 4 amazing, massive, bronze bells – as big as 8’ tall. Situated over a stone block floor with a hole perfectly beneath the bell, hanging from the ceiling of these open-walled structures. These bells resonated with a thunderously beautiful resonance that reached from the head to toe, and into my heart.

A very well-done, contemporary museum rounded out the day, and the displays made it easy to start putting the pieces of this historical puzzle together. As it happens, there were a few hundred small school children there on a field trip, and some would gather around and say (in English) “Excuse me” or “hey man” and wait with wide eyes for a response from this towering stranger before them. I would mess with them by answering in Korean, and compliment their English. I told one group my name, and one kid said “ah, Michael Jackson!” and they all laughed. Some were shy and would slowly walk up behind me and say “Excuse me” and go running off to a safe distance of 10’ or so. What a treat. Speaking of which, a couple of girls from Canada were also on the tour, and I was gratified to have them to talk with through the day. They have been trekking SE Asia for the last month, sightseeing and looking for a language-teaching position.

The next morning, I scout out transportation to Busan, and find that the express bus is the best choice. It is then at a humble bus station, sharing a space with a tire store and convenience store, that I bid farewell to this ancient land. The bus ride into Busan is only an hour, and after checking into the Grand Hotel Haeundae, a beautiful seaside suburb five miles east of the center of town, I set out exploring. First stop was a glorious spiraling walk up the hill in Yongdusan Park, which leads to a host of notable sights at the top – Busan tower, a modest aquarium, a performance auditorium set up for what looked like a taiko drum exhibition, and a statue, at which I met a couple of girls – one of which spoke Japanese and one Korean – how fun that was! When I pulled out a CD and gave it to them, they screamed with delight! Both wanted their pictures taken with me, after chatting a while, we said goodbye. Man, there is no better ticket into the good graces of the people of this country than to share my music with them. I am so fortunate to have that ability, and to have created this CD when I did, and brought a couple of dozen with me to give out. I think back to William Adams, sailing here 400 years ago, to an unknown place, believing he would meet a glorious new world and people at his destination, and brought gifts for them, based on that belief.

Down the hill and a couple of blocks to the west is the beginning of hurly-burly Nampodong – a throbbing, network of alleys, streets, stores, stands, restaurants, and wall-to-wall asian people. I ducked into a sunglass store and walked out with a pair of Pierre Cardins for about $33. Being hungry, one doesn’t have to go far when in Nampodong to find good food. I opted for a han-seek-jeep (Korean restaurant) where the only ones sitting with the women who worked there, and they were cutting vegetables, chatting and laughing. I asked if they served bibimbap, and they said OK. It was probably the best bibimbap I’ve ever had, never mind that little 10” rat scurrying across the floor. We’ve all got to eat.

Then a long, rush-hour cab ride took me to Beomeosa, a complex of temples, gardens, and trails in the most beautiful, wooded area with a creek running through it. The temples here were all regularly used, as an active monastic community lived and worked here. I was fortunate to talk briefly with two of the monks, and came away with an incredibly warm, welcomed feeling. This was an exceptionally old monastery, and carvings in the granite boulders testify to its long history.

The view from the hotel at night was enticing, and I went out and scouted around the area in Haeundae, then took cab downtown for a while. The pulse of this city is infectious, yet serene respite is not far away in the hills and mountains surrounding the city.

It is difficult to get a “read” on how the people here receive an American, especially a non-military one. The reception seems to range from a benign acceptance (from the higher-end hotel staff, who are paid to…) to one of great curiosity and warmth (especially with older Koreans, cab drivers, girls, and shopkeepers). It seems that being able to speak a little Korean is of great value with the latter, but with younger, upwardly mobile Koreans, they seem to take it as an insult, and insist on speaking English instead. And so, I hop back on a high-speed Saemaul train for a 3-hour ride back to Seoul, and became an object of interest for 2 adorable boys, ages 4 and 6, . We joked and talked in Korean and English, and I can’t believe I resorted to that sleight-of-hand trick with the thumbs that Tom Cruise used in “Last Samurai” to entertain the Japanese boy, but it worked! Anyhow, their mother was impressed…

My last day in Seoul, I arrive back at the W on Walkerhill around 2pm, and am grateful for the warm reception and familiar faces there, coming back after just four days. This hotel has absolutely reached the pinnacle of blending style and substance, warmth and over-the-top-cool. It’s perfect. I think man, they had my number in designing this one. You can see the bulls-eye on the forehead of this targeted market. With some help from the staff, I head for one of the great sightseeing destinations – Deoksu-gung Palace – a 500-year-old palace complex which also housed two museums housed in impressive, yet somehow out-of-place neo-classical stone buildings. I learned that there had been yet another Japanese invasion back in 1592, and that this palace had served as refuge for the royal family and court.

The museums were very impressive, one a history museum and the other, contemporary art. The latter comprised a collection that rivals that if museums I’ve visited in Chicago, Washington D.C. etc. The history museum was fascinating – getting to see up close a palanquin (a small carriage for royalty carried by four men), multi-panelled original scrolls depicting the layout for certain ceremonies and rituals in the royal court, large-solid brass stamps/seals that authenticated communications sent by the royal court and much, much more. Fascinating.

This was truly a charmed trip, with so many fortunate synchronicities. It happens that this day is the Korean thanksgiving day – and not only was the admission free to all these places, the people were dressed in their finest, and much picture-taking, pomp and circumstance was everywhere, even…especially with the young and hip crowd. In suits and dresses, they posed for pictures together, separately, with friends, on the steps of the historic buildings, and grounds. What a sight. Also, it was my good fortune that a free symphony concert was being held on the lawn of the grounds this evening. The orchestra was large, and quite good, with exceptional soloists, and a repertoire fitting of a Sunday in the park concert – Brahms, Mendelssohn, etc. As the night fell, and the music played, I looked around at this beautiful place - the canopied stage set against the ancient buildings, in turn, set against the skyscrapers of modern Seoul, couples leaning against each other, children playing, older folks quietly taking in the music and the evening. I am so fortunate to be here. Right now.…

And so, after one final dinner of bibimbap, I make my way back to the W, and enjoy a cup of tea up in the upper reaches the ultra-cool Wooba, with a view of the entire city – shimmering against the night sky.

I’ve said many times before, and find it apropos now, that I am so glad that I am not the sole script-writer for my life. We can plan for our futures, but the magic happens in remaining fluid, open to the way that life sometimes twists and turns with a mind of its own, being the willful creature that it is. So it was with this trip - the new friends I’ve made, the Harvest Moon Festival, the thanksgiving holiday in Korea, the moments of unbearable beauty, the feelings of closeness, of understanding, that transpired during moments where I or someone around me recognized something, and that feeling of “yah, I’ve felt like that,” or “I’m the same way,” and that human pathos that crosses all cultural barriers reaches deep down inside and touches us in profound way.

I came to rejoin my heart with my head, and having traveled these thousands of miles, I’m feeling more whole than I’ve felt in a long time. Perhaps ever. And I can leave knowing that part of me will remain here, and part of Asia is going with me. My sadness in leaving is tempered with the strength in knowing I will return here next year, continuing to learn the languages, the culture, and ways of these great people – the quiet strength of Japan, and the fierce pride of Korea – and find these things make my own life so much fuller. But for now, I’ve got a long day ahead, and “miles to go before I sleep…”

Thanks goes to:

Angie Fish of West Side Travel

Megan Cados - who held down the fort in my absence

Kimiko, Masumi, and Jin-sook - For the introduction to nihon-jin and han-googo

The guys at CCS - for keeping the wheels turning

Sunny Parks at the W Hotel-Seoul/Walkerhill

The staff at the Tamahan in Kyoto

GQ Magazine- for the article on the ryokan experience

Travel and Leisure magazine - for the article on Asia and the W Hotel at Walkerhill

and the maiko that stopped my heart beating for a timeless moment on Shijo-dori in Kyoto...