Thanksgiving Gratitude: A Dance in Time | GeoEx
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Thanksgiving Gratitude: A Dance in Time

By Don George | November 16, 2023

Japan Ryoanji Temple

On Nov. 24, 2021, I wrote the following words about Thanksgiving on this blog: “Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday. For me, it’s the equivalent of the rock garden at Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto: It encourages us, compels us, to slow down and to look, feel, think, and absorb intently.”

Ryoan-ji is one of my favorite places on the planet. It’s the 15th-century Japanese temple whose karesansui (“dry landscape”) garden is a visual Zen koan: In a space roughly 30 feet by 80 feet, 15 large rocks, some ringed with moss, are set in a bed of meticulously raked river stones. The mystery at the garden’s heart is that the stones are arranged so that not all of them can be seen from any one spot. To comprehend the garden in its entirety, you have to “see” the 15th rock – to complete the garden – in your mind.

In this way, Ryoan-ji inspires us to slow down, contemplate the subtle beauties all around, and celebrate the riches that abound in simplicity. And in this same way, for me, Thanksgiving inspires us to slow down, contemplate the garden of our everyday lives, and celebrate all its riches, large and small.

On the November day when I wrote those words, two short but oh-so-long years ago, traveling to Ryoan-ji was only a pandemic-distanced dream. Now I have just returned from five glorious weeks in Japan, and one week ago, I revisited that sacred rock garden and spent a slow afternoon enwrapped in its quietude and tranquility, contemplating the simple little treasures that so deeply enrich my life.

My visit to Ryoan-ji was part of a day in Kyoto celebrating the two bountiful Unexplored Japan journeys I had just led for GeoEx. On these journeys, the manifold riches of off-the-beaten-path Japan had revealed themselves, from the pottery masters, indigo-dyers, washi paper-makers, and other cultural treasures of western Honshu, to the wild sweeping beauties of the Japan Sea coast, to the extraordinary warmth and hospitality of the people. There were so many wonders to be shared, lessons to be learned, connections to be forged, memories to be cherished.

Hagi Potter, Japan
Fifteenth-generation Hagi pottery master. Photo by Don George.

The day after my visit to Ryoan-ji, I flew home suffused with wonder and gratitude, and those same feelings suffuse me now, as I remember that pandemic-bound Thanksgiving two Novembers before, and realize how much has changed in two years, and how much I have to be grateful for!

First of all, I am grateful for the glorious garden of people in my life: for my family, who so deeply enrich and entwine through my days even as they pursue their own life-ways; for all my wonderful GeoEx colleagues, who despite the dauntings of a long-distance office, bring unparalleled passion, integrity, camaraderie, and expertise to work every day; for my beloved friends near and far, who enlarge, delight, and guide me wherever I may be; and for all you cherished GeoEx travelers, who buoy me and all of us with your on-the-road photos and tales, and inspire us with your world-brightening, soul-lightening, horizon-widening dreams.

When I contemplate the stony splendors of my own journeys this year, I am exhilarated anew as my mind wanders from Mexico to Paris, Okinawa to Shikoku. I am boundlessly grateful for the ability to once again venture far and wide, and for the opportunities to challenge, stretch, and revitalize ourselves that these journeys provide.

As I savor this garden, one day from my most recent trip catches my eye. That day began with an emotional scene in an 18th-century samurai home become a ryokan dream. A wizardly woman named Tomi Matsuba and her extraordinary young team have transformed that home and brought new life to its wood-and-tile village and its out-of-time streets. We had shared life-journeys, laughs, and homemade feasts on our multi-day stay, and that morning, no one wanted to go away; tears filled all our eyes as we hugged goodbye.

Then we traveled along the wildly black, blue, and white coast of the Japan Sea to the sacred Shinto site of Izumo Taisha, older than Japan’s earliest records, thought to be the oldest shrine in the land. There we wandered in awe around the majestic compound, admiring the sloping, towering, cypress bark roofs of the mysterious inner shrine, listening to the deep thrum of taiko drums, inhaling the fresh scent of surrounding pines.

Izumo Taisha Shrine, Japan
Izumo Taisha Shrine. Photo by Don George.

As we were leaving this ancient shrine, we came upon a most contemporary sight: a festival of local dance troupes on the temple grounds. Before our enchanted eyes, one enthusiastic group after another ran onto a grassy stage. Grandmothers and granddaughters in bright red and blue festival dress raised golden fans and spun in traditional steps, then laughing teens in black tank tops and jeans leaped, strutted, and swirled with infectious elan. For 45 minutes, bright bursts of dancers streamed onto the stage, soared, swung, and bowed, and tears again filled our eyes as we witnessed this marriage of old and new, Izumo dancers from all stages of life enacting a timeless rite at this hallowed site.

As I picture this now, I recall the 15th stone at Ryoan-ji, and I think: In a way, that dance festival was the 15th stone in the garden of our day. We had to be open to it – to spontaneously change our itinerary, to “see” it outside the dimensions of our plan — to perceive it and receive it.

And receiving it was one of those blessings that travel sometimes bestows, that open our hearts and minds to things we’d never otherwise know.

This Thanksgiving Day, I’ll give thanks for all this year’s rocky riches, large and small, but I’ll reserve some special gratitude for that Izumo dance in time, for by being open to it, letting it come into our lives, we experienced a completion that no one expected – and a tiny pebble of the divine.

Japan Izumo Dancers
Izumo dancers. Photo by GeoEx traveler Heidi Richardson.

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How about you? Are there any memorable travel experiences that you’re especially thankful for this year? Please share your most meaningful 2023 adventures. We’d love to hear from you!

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Loxie Lou Davie
Loxie Lou Davie
6 months ago

This “Shut In” Grandma always enjoys your blogs; it widens my world. Thank you, Don!

Diana M Chang
Diana M Chang
6 months ago

My Dear Don, it’s lovely to read your blog and your contemplation of your bountiful and rich life. It’s a gift to be appreciated, especially at Thanksgiving time. I’m thankful for having been able to share some of those memorable experiences with you – the Ryoan-ji Shrine, the warmth of the people,, the unexpected experiences. Have a happy Thanksgiving!

dan neal
dan neal
6 months ago

We just got back from 5 weeks in Japan, China and Mongolia, so your writing resonates powerfully with me. The most magical part of our journey was cycling on the Noto Peninsula for a week with an amazing guide named Takuya.


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