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Dojo Trip to Japan, July 2013

by Nancy Beckerman

Ten students, two family members, and Sensei Takahashi made their way to Tokyo, Japan, this summer for an adventure. The trip was spectacular, and included visits to many temples, shrines, hot springs, and, of course, Mt, Fuji. This was an experience of epic proportions, and every day felt like a marathon. It was a trip that we will never forget, and for many of us it was life-changing. What an opportunity!

Before we left New York, we were filled with feelings of anticipation, excitement, and some nervousness, for we knew that as soon as we landed we would be unable to understand any of the signs we read or any of the conversations we heard.

After we landed in Tokyo’s Narita Airport, we took the first of many train rides; this one-hour ride took us to our Tokyo hotel, the Shinagawa Prince. At this point, many of us had been awake for more than 24 hours, so we needed some rest. We tried to get ourselves on “Japan time” but this is something that is hard to do!

Our first full day in Japan included a morning visit to Asukusa, a section of Tokyo with an amazing temple, with pathways leading to it filled with many small shops and booths selling everything from chopsticks to kimono to rice balls. In the afternoon we took the bullet train to Kyoto for a few days in this ancient capital.

We had an eight-course dinner for our first meal in Kyoto; it was a traditional Kyoto feast. I must say that, although it was delicious, I did not recognize anything at all in any of the eight courses except for the soup!

Michael Heffner had arranged for us to have a full-day tour of Kyoto the next day, and this included five temples plus the Imperial Palace, and, of course, a great lunch. We saw Nijo Castle (the home of the first shogun of the edo government), Kinkakuji temple (the “golden pavilion”), Kyoto Imperial Palace, Heian Jingu Shrine, Sanjusangendo Temple (housing 1030 standing Buddhas) and, finally Kiyomizudera Temple, high on a hill overlooking the city. On the way back down the hill to our bus, the heavens opened and we all got drenched, but that only made it more fun!

On our second day in Kyoto, we took the train again, this time to a town called Nara, which contains the Todai-Ji Temple, again high on a hill. As we climbed to this site, we passed a park with many tame deer, all looking for a handout of food. If you didn’t cooperate, they would nip at your clothing. The shrine, once we reached it, was amazing. It is the largest wooden structure in the world, and the statue of Buddha inside it has a presence that is awesome….it is the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in the world.

Once again, as we made our way back down to the train station in Nara, an afternoon downpour soaked us! We took the train back to Kyoto and then two more trains to our hotel in Hachioji, an area of Tokyo.

Another day packed with adventure! We took the train to Takao Mountain, an hour out of Tokyo, then a cable car partway up the mountain, and then we hiked the rest of the way up. Along the path we saw several shrines, statues, and, gorgeous views of the countryside. Our return down the mountain was a little circuitous, but we finally made our way back to Tokyo, arriving in Hachioji just in time to get ready for our first karate class in Sensei Takahashi’s old dojo! This was special, and cannot be described; suffice it to say that it was unbelievable to realize that we were training halfway around the world from our own dojo, in the very space where Sensei had trained. It gives one goose-bumps! Sensei Okano, the son of Sensei Takahashi’s Sensei, heads the dojo, and it was great to see him again, several years after he visited New York. This was a night to remember!

The next day, we took yet another train……..this time to Kawaguchiko, our staging point for our climb of Mt. Fuji. Our magnificent hotel, the Fuji-View, on the shores of Lake Kawaguchi, allowed us breath-taking views of Mt. Fuji. It also contained the famous hot springs: another new and amazing experience for those of us intrepid enough to venture in (in our birthday suits!).

The next two days were spent on Mt. Fuji: climbing up, staying overnight in the “dormitory” and then climbing back down. What an experience – this was the highlight of our trip! The climb was harder than I had anticipated, and the trail was very steep, strewn with lava rocks and boulders. But the views were unbelievable, and the night sky was breathtaking. Three of us waited at the 8th Station (at 9000 feet) while the others summited (12,000 feet), but even at 9000 I found it hard to breathe. Finally, we all wearily made our way down to the bus, then the train, and then the 2-hour ride back to Tokyo. We got back at 9PM, too late for our second karate class……but we were filled with amazement at what we had done.

Our last day in Japan was spent in Tokyo: at the Tokyo National Museum, or some of us had time on their own. But the feeling of Mt, Fuji surpassed anything else we saw or did. What an accomplishment….there are no words to describe it! Not to mention the feeling of camaraderie: we all helped each other. Thanks to Sensei Takahashi and Michael Heffner, we had the trip of a lifetime!