The World Wide Wakayama Chronicles; Part II; Days Seven through Eleven

12-18-13; Wednesday

4:00 am, the alarm rings. We leap from bed to shower to taxi to train to another train to monorail to plane. We land at Shirahama Airport at 8:55 am and then pile into the vans again. It is raining and will rain all day, so that means we have a free day.


We drive to a large indoor market that sells fresh ocean produce of every shape and size. At the entrance sits an enormous panda stuffed animal. Panda related products are everywhere. As one souvenir T-shirt declares, “Shirahama is infested with pandas!” I haven’t seen any actual pandas yet but I have seen a true infestation of panda cookies, cakes, toys, key chains, dusters, hats, blankets and giant pillows.


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While the photo crew settles into a booth at Toretore Ichiba ( to chat and smoke, I run around the market using my new Nikon D3200, (my first real camera ever!) to practice by photography skills by taking photos of fish: dried fish, pickled fish, fresh fish, pressed fish and even stretched fish. There are large tanks of swimming fish, tubs of squishy sea cucumbers and pools of lobsters and clams piled up on top of each other.

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When the sushi bar at one end of the market opens, we all put in our orders and tuck into our tucker. The salmon and salmon egg donburi are very fresh and absolutely delicious! We have to wait for an hour after our meal for our hotel rooms to become available so I write and Elsa plays a video game called, “Papers Please,” and pretends that she is an immigration official trying to support a revolution while staying alive.



“Hotel Seamore” is our destination and it is indeed perched on the shore of the sea. The hotel is a bit old, but our corner room is spacious and lovely with an amazing view of the ocean from the large plate glass windows that wrap around the room. Room 615 is set up like a suite with a separate genkan and hallway leading to the bath, toilet and main room.


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The beds are very comfortable and I crawl under the covers to sleep away most of the day as I have come down with a sore throat that drops my voice an octave or two. My daughter says that I now sound like a heavy smoker. ( Land of Counterpane )


The project writer who came up with the creative text on the JR posters is pictured above!


Translation: “More than walking, it was like being led by God.”


I wake up in time to join the crew at a yaki-niku restaurant where we grill tender slices of beef and vegetables over the fire in the middle of the table. We eat our fill and then head back to the hotel to catch up on email using the free Wi-Fi in the lobby.

Finally, we head downstairs to enjoy the wonderful hotel onsen. The outdoor tubs are especially lovely and we prop our elbows on the fresh smooth cedar and listen to the waves splashing on the rocks directly below.




Down below on the shore, you can see the ancient rotenburo where the photos for the JR ad were taken.


Tomorrow, we are off to “Kushi-Moto;” perhaps we will see the source of the dango on a stick!

12-19-13; Thursday

Makeup and hair call is not so early; Elsa goes first to get her hair trimmed. After our usual stop at the conbini for breakfast we have a long drive along the picturesque Highway 42 that winds along the coast. We stop at Hashikui (Bridge Pillar) near Kushimoto to take photos near the famous pillar rocks that jut up out of the sea; these volcanic batholiths which have emerged as the softer rock all around has been worn away over eons by the action of the waves.

Along the shore, we find some lovely shells and a diminutive black crab speckled with little white spots who scurries across our hands as we admire its perfect little claws.

The tide is coming in as we walk back and forth during the photo shoot. My shabby boots somehow hold together and my feet stay dry, while a wave sneaks into Elsa’s boots and soaks her socks. The play of wave against rock is spectacular and we try to capture the effect with the new camera.

We have some time to shop for snacks and after finding some delicious dango or pounded riceballs on a stick, we wonder if Kushimoto might be the true source of the dango on a stick. (“Kushi” means stick and “moto” means source. Puns are fun and annoying in Japanese too.) Back into the vans as we climb and we drive back towards the hotel where we hope to shoot photos at the hot spring by the ocean… but it is starting to rain. We may have to delay the rotenburo (outdoor hot spring) shoot until tomorrow. Nope… looks like we’re going in. We are kindly given skin-colored shorts and body socks so even though in the pictures, we will look like naked bathers, we are actually well-covered. Very polite of them, but it does feel strange to be soaking in a rotenburo with clinging wet clothing.

Sakino-Yu Hot Springs is an ancient pool carved out of the solid rock by the waves. As you step into the pool, you notice cool spots but the water is comfortably warm. If you are brave enough, you could crawl out over the low rocks at the end of the bath and plop directly into the chilly waves. We did not try this. A chill rain is falling so after exiting the water, we quickly wrap ourselves in towels, yukata and coats. We hurry back up the hill to Hotel Seamore and ease into the hot baths there. The steam room helps my throat feel better. At 4:53 pm, we are back in our room watching as the sun drops below the horizon glowing cherry red. Wow.

12-20-13; Friday

A sore throat kept me up until about 1:00 am, but I finally got some sleep with hot packs wrapped around my neck and a wet face mask across my nose and mouth. We have to be down at the front desk by 7:30 am, so we hurry to pack and meet the crew in time. I dash down to the outdoor cedar tubs to take photos before we leave and then we are off to “Adventure Land” to see the pandas. 

When we arrive, it is quite chilly and we wait for the pandas to be released into the outdoor pen for their morning bamboo breakfast. We stop to admire and coo over a beautiful female panda who is enjoying a morning stretch at the indoor viewing pen. She is so perfectly adorable that she hardly seems real.

Back out into the cold we go to set up for the panda shots. The two older male pandas are released into the outdoor enclosure and they happily begin to munch the pile of fresh bamboo that has been left for them. I am amazed at how they can nonchalantly chomp through tough stalks of bamboo. They strike an artistic pose, sitting on their wide, carpet-like tails as they chew their bamboo stalks looking for all the world like two furry tuxedo-clad flautists playing a duet.

Towards the end of the photo session, the weather continues to confound us by dropping light sheets of hail which shows up bright and white against the black, dense panda fur. We pack up and make our exit as the skies clear and the crowds begin to pour into the park.

On our way to the next shooting location, we stop for a hot lunch of delicious ramen and while we are eating, it begins to snow. The weather continues its strange pattern as we drive and the snow begins to accumulate on the trees alongside the road. The photos that we are taking today are supposed to be set in October, so our clothing reflects much warmer weather than we are actually experiencing here in the middle of December. I wear three kairo (chemical warming) patches on my back in order to stay warm during the photo sessions as we try to pretend that the weather is warm.

Next on the schedule is Kawayu Onsen, a very hot rotenburo situated in the middle of a river. While we wait for the “extras” to arrive, we sip hot tea in the lovely “Pension Ashitanomori” that looks as though it has been transplanted from Switzerland with its begonia-bedecked balconies.

As soon as the cast is assembled, we trot across the street and get into position for the next scene. The “extras” assemble in the hot water in varying states of attire, from single towel to yukata wrap and proceed to thoroughly enjoy themselves as they cluster towards the warmest part of the rotenburo near a cleft in the rock at the side of the river.

Elsa and I peel mikan while we dip our feet in the hot water. It does seem a bit strange to us that we are barely in the water while the rest of the hot spring visitors are almost fully immersed. The mikan are quickly snatched away for different shots and we never do get to eat them. As soon as we finish the photo shoot and pack away the gear, as if on cue, the sun comes out. We assemble in the quaint pension and sip hot tea and sample cakes while we enjoy the sun streaming in through the windows. I learn that this section of Japan is call the Kii Hantou which roughly translates as “That Historical Account Peninsula,” which is a name that certainly does not do justice to this beautiful area.

Tonight we are back in the hotel “Shingu Ui” ( (where we stayed in October) and it is within a short drive of Koyamasan. The rooms are clean and comfortable and, as always, it feels luxurious for me to be sleeping in a bed instead of on a tatami mat floor at home. The cold wind whistles outside as I burrow under a soft down comforter. The rest of the crew have gone out to eat at ”ポポット” (23-0417) which is a small  and homey restaurant that serves lovely little pizzas and wonderfully tender beef. I am content to stay put in my cozy bed and get over my sore throat.

12-21-13; Saturday

Saturday begins with a 6:30 hair and makeup call. It has been snowing outside in the early morning, but now the weather clears. A strong wind blows all the clouds away and we have the sunniest day so far. And because of the strong wind, my hair is sticky and hard with hair gel to keep it in place for the photos. Elsa and I get to the lobby early this time, only to scurry back to our rooms to finish packing when we suddenly learn that we are not staying in this same hotel another night.

Our first stop in Hayatama Taisha which is a famous shrine on top of a steep hill. The stone steps leading up are steep but the route up is not very long. We soon reach the top and enjoy the view looking out over the city of Shingu to the ocean beyond. The brightly painted shrine is perched on the tippy-top of the hill next to an impressively large round boulder. The rock has been wrapped all the way around with a thick rice straw rope which will be replaced every year in February during the festival of Setsubun.

After the photo shots by this hilltop temple, we trundle back down the hill. I run ahead to get photos of the hard-working crew coming down the steep steps. I still have only learned a small portion of my camera’s capabilities but I am learning as I go.

I am impressed with our van drivers who show great skill, navigating our wide vans through some of the narrowest streets I’ve seen without so much as a scratch. During the evening meals, they never drink alcohol and are very conscious of safety issues. Every morning when we get into the vans, they are spotlessly clean with the seat belts neatly rolled up in place on the seats.

Next, we drive along the Kumanogawa, a beautiful wide river with gravel banks that flows from the slopes of Daifugen-dake to the Pacific Ocean at Shingu. Here is a link showing the location of the river’s source: ( Kumano has the kanji for “bear” in it, so it roughly translates as “Bear River.” The bears are all hiding now, though, perhaps waiting for more fish to return to the river. In places, the river is a brilliant aqua color and in other areas, sediment muddies the river to a light brown. The views along the Kumanogawa are breathtaking with an occasional sheer cliff or waterfall surprising us as we drive along. Route 168 follows the river for much of its route.

After a blustery shoot in a very strong wind along the gravel banks of the Kumagawa, we head back into town along Highway 168 to take pictures at Hongu Taisha, another World Heritage Site in Shingu. This shrine is close to the road with easier access. Here, painted pictures of various animals have been set up in preparation for New Year’s Day. We take photos in a location that does not show the pictures as the shots are supposed to be set in October or November, not the end of December.

Taisha means “main shrine” and indicates that Hongu Taisha is a major Shinto shrine. Here, as in other shrines, paper fortunes are offered for sale. Visitors will often purchase a fortune and then fold the paper lengthwise and tightly tie it to a branch of one of the temple trees. In many of the Taisha there are often bells placed in gateways leading to the temple. A pilgrim will bow respectfully, step up to the bell, give it a shake and then clap twice to get the attention of the shrine god before making a wish.

This shrine uses the sacred three-legged crow motif in various locations. There is a striking example perched on top of the shrine’s mailbox. Here we wait for the sun and set up some shots in front of a couple of giant bells with their thick rice straw bell pulls. The sun breaks through the clouds and we scurry to get the needed photos. The director is pleased with the results and often takes time to show us his work. As we pack up to leave, the crowds arrive. Boxed lunches (obento) are waiting for us and we eat as we begin the two-hour drive to the next location, one more attempt to get some good photos at Hashikui, the rock pillars jutting out of the ocean. 

We wind along the coastal road and on the way we see a shipwrecked tugboat leaning into a pile of sharp rocks. This time, when we reach Hashikui, the tide is low, and we can walk out towards the rocks without getting doused by the waves. The blue sky is spotted with fluffy white clouds providing a perfect backdrop to the dark, looming rocks. Arai-san, the hair stylist, finds a couple of impossibly tiny crabs about the size of ladybugs. Elsa and I walk back and forth as they shoot photos from the edge of the highway above while another crew member holds back a large clump of sea grass to clear the view. And then we are done for the day. Elsa finds some of the best fried potatoes ever and shares them around as we drive back towards Shirahama where we stay at the Hotel Ginsui which means “Silver Waters.” As we drive, the sun sets in a glorious display of back-lit clouds over the ocean. I am desperate to get a photo of the stunning scene, but I have to shoot through the glass of the van window as we cannot stop for photos. The vibration reduction feature on this Nikon camera succeeds in giving me a few usable shots.

Tonight is the last night out together and we are treated to a wonderful meal of sashimi and various seafood at Marucho restaurant in Shirahama, which has private tatami rooms. I am puzzled by a tall machine with a screen perched in the corner until I realize that it is a portable karaoke machines. Thankfully, we don’t make use of it. The front lobby of the restaurant is a little “store” area set up just for children where they can fill a bag with an assortment of treats and prizes. We stop to try on the panda and the squid hats. I mean who could resist a squid hat?

Elsa is not feeling well, so she stays in her hotel room and sleeps. We bring her back some miso and a but of supper, but she just wants to sleep. I hope she feels better in the morning.

12-22-13; Sunday

The day dawns bright and pearly with poofy clouds scudding across the sky; a perfect day for taking more panda pictures. This will be our last photo session. We arrive at Adventure Land well before it opens and the parking attendants with the fuzzy panda hats perched on their head let us in the back gate. We wipe our feet off on the disinfecting pads and enter the park. The cameras are set up and the scene is set but we have to wait for the sun. As soon as the cloud bank moves aside, the door to the panda enclosure opens and the pandas saunter leisurely over to the strategically placed pile of fresh bamboo.

The two male pandas settle down on their comfy carpet-tails and proceed to munch contentedly on bunches of bamboo leaves. They are unbelievably adorable with their thick fur and handsome black ears. It’s hard to believe that such creatures exist, they are so perfect.

The clouds cooperate this time, moving aside to provide light-saturated shots of admiring visitors and blissful pandas. As soon as the cameras are put away, the pandas, as if they know their work here is done, get up and waddle off.

The vans are packed up and we head back to ToreTore Ichiba for a celebratory toast with pink champagne in plastic cups. We assemble in front of the big fishy sign for a few “kinen shashin” or group pictures. Back into the vans and off towards Kyoto we go to catch the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. We should arrive home about 4 or 5 in the evening.

It has been a wonderful paid, paid vacation. Elsa and I are still surprised that we are getting paid to see such a beautiful part of Japan. We kept half-expecting them to just send us home as soon as they realized how little work we were doing. All that was required of us was to get up early, get dressed in borrowed clothing, and then stand around in front of beautiful locations and smile. “How is this work?” we wondered. We appreciated the hard-working crew keeping us around for so long, in any case, and we are heading back to Tokyo with a camera full of photos and a heart full of memories. Domo arigatou gozaimasu!

The World Wide Wakayama Chronicles; Day Six

10-31-13, Thursday

Early wakeup and makeup this morning. We trundle back to the main temple at Koyasan to wait for the sun to come up. More photos are taken at the same spot in the sun with a view of the beautiful temple in the background. Here is the shot that they end up using:Wakayama_Koyasan_poster

We hear the chanting monks once more in the background and Elsa and I join in the morning sing-along with an old latin round, “Dona Nobis Pacem.” The writer for the JR Wakayama campaign is already hard at work creating the text that will accompany each poster.CIMG8441

We stop to chat on the steps of one of the temple buildings and I tell him about my small writing career and my two websites. One is for my children’s sermons: The other is a children’s book website Princess_Ramona_cover-300x444-202x300

He plans to show “Princess Ramona, Beloved of Beasts” to his own children when he returns home.

Elsa and I wander around the temple grounds and learn more about the Koyasan historical site and the various deities that were worshipped here.





After the morning shoot at Koyasan, we drive along the Kumanogawa to scout out locations for shots that will be taken in December. We pause to skip some stones and admire the bluffs along the river. Then we scramble back over the river rocks up to the road. CIMG8426




We climb back into the vans and drive to the small airport on the southwest edge of Wakayama to board the flight to Haneda airport. We say our goodbyes to the staff and tell them to take care until we meet up again in December. The first half of our Wakayama Campaign modeling job is over.IMG_0300It is a short flight back to Tokyo. It is Halloween evening and Elsa will be home in plenty of time for her evening trick-or-treating with friends.

The World Wide Wakayama Chronicles; Day Five

10-30-13; Wednesday

In the makeup room this morning we learn that we were not the only ones bothered by mosquitoes last night. The makeup artist also experienced an unwelcome invasion. I had left the windows open at night to let in the fresh air, but the local mosquitoes smelled blood and went after us. I woke up at midnight because I heard the whine of a blood-thirsty beast even though I wore ear plugs. When I turned on the light, I could see three mosquitoes all in a row, drinking blood from Elsa’s arm. I slapped them and woke Elsa. I closed the window and then spent the next fifteen minutes or so hunting down the rest of them. Tiny bloodstains on the wall marked the battleground map. The enemy vanquished, I finally could go back to sleep.mosquito_Japan

We pack up, meet the crew in the lobby and turn in our key. As we step outside, a breath-taking sunrise with pink clouds greet us. What a glorious day! The drive to Tachi Taki (Tachi Waterfall) gives us amazing views of the ocean, sparkling in the sunshine. CIMG8387

All along the way up the mountain, we see bulldozers trying to repair the damage left by the last catastrophic typhoon several years ago. Apparently Wakayama Prefecture has very unstable ground and there is often quite a bit of damage to repair after a violent rain storm. One indication of how extremely high the water in the Kumanogawa had risen are the sticks and logs lodged in the underside of a high bridge spanning the river. WakayamaBridgeUndersideIt looks as though some of the riverside buildings have been recently damaged in the last flood. The “Peace Boat” website gives a thorough explanation of the extensive damage that Wakayama had to endure in the great typhoon and flood of 2011. Click on “Peace Boat Disaster Relief Volunteer Center” for more information.

We finally reach Nachi Taki which is an astounding waterfall that reminds us of some places in Yosemite. The pounding water casts shadows on the rock beside it creating horses of spray galloping down the rock. CIMG8388CIMG8400
We stop to buy little 100 yen saucers to catch the water spurting from the mouth of a bronze dragon. As this water is routed through from the flow of the waterfall, the pressure occasionally drops and then gushes making it tricky to get a saucer-full of water to drink. The dragon water is supposed to give one long life like a dragon.



After the photo shoot, we stop at the omiyage shop to buy a few trinkets. I find a lovely bell on a red cord in the shape of a crow’s head. Back into the vans we pile to drive to the nearby Kumano Nachi Taisha, a famous, bright red temple. We stop to take photos on the wide stone walkway that leads towards the front of the temple.CIMG8408



Back down the mountain we go to take some more photos at a previous location, Daimon-zaka, where the path is now slick from yesterday’s rain. A few tourist groups start up the steps past our shooting location, but all of them decide to turn back early. The tourists are elderly and the stones are slippery and treacherous. The photographer likes the look of the stone steps, dark with moisture, so he takes a few more pictures.


Photographer with Director planning the day’s shooting.

Our next stop will be Mizunomi-Ouji, or Drinkwater Road which is near the “Bowing Down Road” that we visited on Monday. Everyone sleeps on the way excepting the driver and myself. We wind along beside the aqua-colored river with its wide gravel bed, green forested hills and the occasional dramatic cliff. We drive along route 168 towards Gojo, and finally arrive at the trail access. CIMG8414 CIMG8413 CIMG8418

Mizunomi-Ouji is a mossy, Sugi-enveloped trail studded with green stumps and tiny mushrooms. We walk along the trail looking for good patches of leaf-filtered light. Elsa and I are told to walk on ahead while the ad director and the entire crew follow along behind. “Do you ever get the feeling,” says Elsa with a smirk, “that you’re being followed?” Up the trail and back we go, marveling at tiny purple flowers, sparkling spider webs and towering sugi trees.CIMG8421 CIMG8422 CIMG8424

Massugu sugi

Mori de matte imasu

Shiko atsume





(Small haiku attempt. Be patient with my growing… An old young seedling.)


We stop at a charming little café and B&B along the road on our way back down the Kumanogawa called the “Café Hongu.” The bread they serve with the pumpkin soup is as wonderful as my mom’s homemade bread. I am amazed at how good it is and I compliment the owner on her scrumptious food.HotLoveTea In their homey gift shop, I find some delicious apple butter and some “Hot Love” tea to bring back with me as omiyage.

On the drive back we notice a stretch of the river where a sediment-laden tributary joins the main trunk. There, the river runs with two colors of water, sharply divided down the middle. The far side of the river runs aqua ice blue and the near side is light brown. Another striking contrast along the way is a field of glowing white Pampas grass with a brilliant scarlet sprig of sumac poking its head out over the top. The colors are changing faster now that the weather has gotten colder. CIMG8324



We drive through Koyasan once more and turn into a narrow alley with a traditional Japanese entrance at the end; a different ryokan but this one is charming as well. The building is very old with a maze of indoor hallways that are open to the cool night air and lead us past small rock gardens. After we have found our room, I am afraid that if I wander away, I will not be able to find my room again. IMG_0299

CIMG8439Thankfully, we find the large tatami room which is the dining hall and we do find our way back to our room. We burrow under the poofy covers and fall quickly asleep. It’s been a long day.

The World Wide Wakayama Chronicles; Day Four

10-29-13; Tuesday

A rainy morning delays our start and even though we had to get up at 4:40, we do get to relax in our room until the 12 noon departure. No point setting up a photo shoot with no sun. Time to relax, catch up on email and do homework.



For lunch, we walk to a nearby okonomiyaki place where we watch the cooks make delicious omlette-type thick pancakes containing eggs, flour, seasonings, and various meats. My favorite is the squid okomomiyaki with its firm and chewy chunks of white meat. The guys in the crew start to drink even though it is only noon. We find out later, that they all end up having to take naps in order to sleep off the effects of the alcohol. squid_lobsters


We meet in the lobby at 5:00 pm to go out to supper where we are treated to a huge feast at the same restaurant as the nights before. The restaurant owners create dish after dish of wonderful food and it is tempting to eat much too much. The beef, in particular, was so tender; some of the best I have ever tasted.


Back in the hotel, after the usual mother-daughter arguments about use of the computer and time limits, we head to bed at around 9:00 pm with the windows propped open for the cool fresh rainy air. It has been a very relaxing day as the weather has made it impossible to shoot any photos. Tomorrow, we will have to make up for the day of rest.

The World Wide Wakayama Chronicles; Day Three


This gallery contains 30 photos.

10-28-13; MONDAY Makeup and hair prep isn’t until 7:20 this morning, so we get to sleep in a bit. Good thing since Elsa had stayed up past 1:00 am Skyping and D&D adventuring with friends. Mama is not too happy about this. … Continue reading

The World Wide Wakayama Chronicles; Day Two

10-27-13; SUNDAY

The alarm rings at 5:00 am and we scurry to get ourselves to the make-up and hair room. The stylist is there waiting and Elsa goes first. He starts in trimming Elsa’s unruly mop and I go back to our room to pack since we will have to leave right after breakfast. When I get back to Elsa, I see that the “trim” is turning into a real hair cut, but it looks very nice.CIMG8297

The stylist apparently has cut the hair of some famous folks here in Japan, including the actress, Aoi Yu, who has a name like someone saying all the vowels in the alphabet. Arai-san says that he has just returned from Hawaii and the temperature difference is quite a shock. While he finishes with Elsa, I decide to do some of my morning sit-ups on the tatami which turns out to be not such a bright idea as the friction results in raw spots in the skin near my tailbone which I don’t discover until later.

The stylist re-braids my hair into the French braid I arrived with, brushes on a touch of makeup, and I am done. After a quick breakfast, we pile into the vans and drive to the famous temple at Koyasan for the first modeling shots of the trip. CIMG8300

For a listing of all of the temple lodgings available in the area, go to the following website: or click on the embedded link: Welcome to Koyasan

When we arrive, the photographer has already set up the shot. The temple grounds are almost deserted in the early morning and we are able to get in lots of shots in a patch of warm sunshine before the crowds arrive. CIMG8309

After the shooting session, we follow the sounds of monotone chanting and find a large group of saffron-robed monks doing their morning obeisance at the various shrines throughout the temple grounds. They walk in formation with wooden geta-sandals clattering on the ground, then stop, turn, chant, bow and then continue to the next station.




After shooting at Koyasan, we take a long drive over twisty mountain roads to an ancient onsen inn called Ryujin Onsen, or “Dragon-God Onsen.” When we arrive, we are met by the bowing, smiling owner. Two girls clad in onsen yukata with over-jackets are set in place, holding towels in their laps for the background scene while Elsa and I walk in front of the ryokan towards the camera while they take shot after shot in the cool morning air. I feel sorry for the girls who sit on the front porch with bare feet and geta, so Elsa and I hand them our kairo hand-warmers. Guess there will be no time to actually soak in the “Dragon-god” onsen. Maybe next time.


Photo from Kumano Travel; click photo for link

Back into the vans we pile and on the way back to Koyasan for more photos, we stop at a little restaurant and have lunch. I order tsukimi soba or “moon viewing” soba. It comes with a raw egg floating on top of the noodles looking like a yellow moon in the dark soba sky.

Yojimansan from Flickr

After lunch, Elsa and I run over the the nearby suspension bridge to run out over the water, the wooden slats bouncing under our footsteps.CIMG8326

The lunch location turns out to be a poor choice as several people, myself included, experience stomach pain and digestive problems after eating the soba. The drive through the mountains to our hotel is a bit miserable and I try to keep my eyes up and looking out the window to ease the nausea.

We finally make it to the hotel, drop off our bags and head out for dinner. The restaurant is run by a sweet old mom-and-pop couple and it is quite good. I really appreciate the salads and the amazingly tender beef that practically melts in one’s mouth. Elsa and I get to leave early so that we can shower and get to bed at a decent hour. We happily discover that we can get internet access in our rooms. I check my email and Elsa settles in to chat with her friends. It’s been a good day overall. CIMG8317

I am working on learning the names of some of the hard-working support staff: Misaki-san and Sayaka-san, Miyuki-san (who is my age), Arai-san; (makeup); Morikawa-san; (photographer).

The World Wide Wakayama Chronicles; Day One

A Paid Paid Vacation

10-26-13; SATURDAY


Our adventure starts at an audition. Japan Railways West is looking for a normal, average-looking middle-aged woman who will act out the role of an archaeologist traveling with her daughter through the World Heritage Sites in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture. They especially want to highlight the ancient pilgrimage routes. It sounds intriguing, so I go to the audition. They wonder if one of my daughters is also available for this job… and before we know it, my 17-yr. old and I have been hired. Yeah, they are still thinking we are normal, so we’ll just play along.

Link to UNESCO’s page on the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range.”

We beg for a few days off of work and school and off we go. Saturday morning, Oct. 26, we are up at 5:00 am and out the door by 6:15, splashing to Tama station under a downpour ‘cuz taxis are for wimps… and people who plan ahead. We are dressed for the mountain trails, so I get to wear comfy clothes and my hiking boots.CIMG8245

The modeling agent meets us by the Shinkansen station at Shinagawa and makes sure we get to the right platform. She is very sweet and helpful and wishes she could go on this adventure with us. We take some photos but realize that we won’t be able to make anything public until after the JR West ad campaign launches sometime next year. The agent says that they will give us an ad poster when they launch. I suddenly realize that this is not going to be images just for the website… we may run into our photos on the walls of train stations; which is kind of a creepy thought.

JR West operates the trains in and around the Wakayama Peninsula:


Now, as I write this, we are on a high-speed Shinkansen that is zipping us along under cloudy skies towards Kyoto. Flooded rice fields, swollen rivers and thickets of bamboo flash by the windows of the train. Elsa is napping with her head on the tray in front of her. We both travel light with just a few items. Most of the weight in Elsa’s bag is taken up with art supplies. I think she packed some clothes too.

Here is a link to a detailed PDF map of the area where we will be traveling in Wakayama, Nara and Mie Prefectures.

Wakayama Map Detail
Wakayama Map Detail


After a yummy lunch at Gusto where we eat with gusto, we pile back into the three vans that are carrying 13 people in order to shoot photos of 2. I don’t quite understand why this would take that many people. Later we learn that more are arriving. Huh? How are they going to find enough work for that many people, I’d like to know.

Before starting the climb into the mountains of Koyasan in Wakayama, we stop at a grocery store and stock up on fruits and nuts… and lots of bottled water. Maybe they will finally start making Elsa and me do some real work. So far, we have just been sitting and eating and practicing our Japanese skills. We’ve actually been learning a lot. Elsa is “e ni muchuu” which means “crazy about drawing.” She shows her sketch books to the stylists in the van and they are very impressed, and they know all of the manga references that Elsa gushes about. CIMG8258

We arrive at a lovely ancient temple ryokan where we will spend the night in traditional Japanese-style rooms. After a quick fitting for the clothing we are wearing tomorrow for the shoot, we are given time to relax.

Interior Garden of Ryokan
Interior Garden of Ryokan
Ryokan Room Interior
Ryokan Room Interior

Since I’ve had more than enough relaxing for one day, I go for a walk and watch the glow of the setting sun light up the turning leaves above the tops of temples that line the streets. My attempt to find a trail into the forest is stymied by fallen logs, no trail and sopping wet undergrowth. I give up and stick to walking the charming tourist town streets. CIMG8275CIMG8274


I arrive back in time for a vegetarian feast. This meal is really amazing with many beautifully arranged dishes. Each diner has a miniature nabe pot of veggies and savory mushroom bubbling over a little flame. Inside the little pot is a beautiful autumn leaf shaped out of rice flour paste. Sigh.  IMG_0296

We share stories about Japan cuisine attempts… like the time one of our friends sat down to a meal of soba and drank the dipping sauce (tsuyu) straight down. He apparently thought it was Coke. And the time our elderly friend, Alma, came to visit Japan and encountered wasabi for the first time. Not knowing what it was, she scooping up the mound of potent green horseradish and popped it in her mouth. Despite this shock to her system, she did live for many, many years after this surprise.


After a soak in the onsen bath I am ready to sleep. It’s only 8:00 pm, but we need to be up by 5:00 am tomorrow and out the door by 6:30 am. Elsa has shut herself in the futon closet with cozy blankets and is chatting away on her phone. Hopefully she will emerge soon so that we can get some sleep.

The Kites of Hamamatsu


A happy cacophony of bugles and drums greeted us as we approached the walking trail to Nakatajima Dunes where the annual Hamamatsu Kite Festival is held. Continue reading

Hosting an Author

Last month, in September of 2012, I had the amazing honor of getting to host an internationally famous author, Sharon Draper, during her first-ever visit to Japan.

The catalyst for this opportunity came from the Sakura Medal Awards, which are organized by the librarians of international schools in Japan. It is one of the few literary awards in the world that is selected by young readers themselves. Students take great pride in the fact that they have the final say over who receives the Sakura medal in any given year.

I offered to send the 2011-2012 Sakura Medals to the winning picture book and chapter book authors, so that is how I ended up making contact with Sharon. Her book, Out of My Mind, was voted by the students as the best chapter book of the year. (Many seem to share the international students’ opinion, since this book has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for many weeks and has been translated into Russian and Chinese.) I sent her the congratulatory letter with its accompanying certificate, student artwork and burnished medallion, and she was very appreciative.

She mentioned that she was being sent to China in September as part of State-Department sponsored author tour representing the United States. Since she would be so close to Japan already, she wondered if she could squeeze in a quick trip to Tokyo to visit some of the students who had given her such a lovely medal. We quickly arranged a schedule and several of our international schools in Tokyo had the pleasure of getting to see Sharon present in her warm and personable, lively manner.

We were thrilled to host her and she was demonstrably thrilled with her time here in Japan. My husband and daughter and I got to show Sharon a bit of Tokyo on Sunday, her one full day of sightseeing. As soon as we started off in the morning, we were greeted with a mikoshi-carrying procession which had paused immediately in front of her hotel in Kichi-joji. It was a perfect day full of serendipitous experiences and our author seemed very happy to have had a taste of Tokyo. She even learned to use chopsticks for the first time, a skill that she later made use of in China.

We continue to stay in touch. I was very interested to hear about her experiences in China. One of the most touching meetings that she remembers was with a group of mothers who all had developmentally challenged children. Many of them had read Draper’s book, “Out of My Mind” and were dealing with the difficulties of raising a child with considerable challenges. They knew that they had an empathetic ear with Sharon and they poured out their hearts as they shared common struggles and griefs and hopes for their dear children. Sharon admitted that it was hard to know what to do or say in this situation. While technology and digital connections can often help, they are not the final answer or solution to all of the problems.

Out of My Mind

In Sharon’s book, Out of My Mind, the main character, Melody, who is confined (for the most part) to a wheelchair, is set free to communicate by means of an electronic talking machine, a table attached to the front of her wheelchair that can be manipulated to produce speech and phrases.





She is finally able to show the world the brilliant mind that has been tucked away and ignored by her peers for so long. Technology opens up a whole world of connections to her and keeps her from going “out of her mind” in the isolation of her disability. Our world is now so intricately connected, one would think that no one needs to live in isolation. We blog and twitter and ichat and Facebook and email and FaceTime until we are saturated with connectivity. There is a lot of good in our tech-connectivity.

Still, we can feel like we are trapped in a fish bowl if we don’t possess the ability to connect soul-to-soul with another individual. Teaching students (and ourselves) to communicate on deep and personal levels, is a skill that should never be neglected in our rush to adopt the latest-and-greatest methods of electronic communication. If it does not enhance true communication, it’s just that much more electronic static. We should all strive to author our intentions and our ideas with as much clarity and depth as is possible with our resources. An accomplished author can touch the world with important ideas, and Sharon Draper’s visit reminded me of this important truth.