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I have just returned from two and a half wonderful weeks in Japan, leading an intrepid, engaged and enriching group of eight travelers through Kyoto and Shikoku. The trip turned out to be full of magic and delight, but as I began the journey, before I knew how it would turn out, I had turned for inspiration and encouragement to the memory of an earlier journey – my very first time as a tour leader, when I had led two American travelers on an autumn tour of Tokyo, Kyoto and rural Honshu. Here is a tale from that initial tour:
On our first full day in Japan's ancient capital of Kyoto, we began with visits to three back-alley shops where traditional tofu delicacies, delicate fans and tatami mats are made. Then, when the husband of the couple I was accompanying mentioned that his mother used to love lacquerware and had a considerable collection in California, our local guide perked up. ''Oh, then I know just where we must go,'' she said, hailing a cab. ''Zohiko!''
From the moment we walked into its hushed confines, Zohiko seemed more a museum than a retail store. Three men and a woman in crisp dark suits greeted us with bows. The ground floor consisted of two spacious rooms elegantly arranged with wooden shelves and mounted display cases showcasing an extraordinary assemblage of lacquerware. There were exquisite soup bowls and small plates, flower containers, round boxes, square boxes, sake sets, green tea cup saucers, large serving trays and small personal trays, multi-layered boxes and decorative plates, all in sleek black, red and gold, adorned with intricate flowers, rolling waves, fluttering butterflies and bending grasses.
I lingered for a long time studying a set of five black soup bowls, each with a different gorgeous rendering of pine, bamboo, apricot, chrysanthemum and orchid. A strikingly simple pure red tray with two soaring gold cranes in one corner held my eye. And if I'd had enough money, I would have bought a spectacular rectangular black container with layer upon layer of gold depicting a glittering seascape with a single, pine-crowned island in the distance and thin-winged birds flocking on the horizon.
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