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Buddha visit, ice cream as Obama ends Japan visit

November 14, 2010

A gruelling tour of Asia ended with a sweet childhood memory for US President Barack Obama Sunday -- a Japanese green tea ice cream under the calm gaze of a giant Buddha.

Leaving matters of state aside after a hectic nine-day swing, Obama headed for a tranquil religious site in the ancient Japanese seaside capital of Kamakura, which he last visited with his mother when he was six years old.

Large crowds lined the streets, with people waving small American flags and "Welcome" signs, as Obama's motorcade rolled through the town near Tokyo, where wooded hills in autumn colours shield Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

The president's destination, after four days of currency and trade talk at economic summits in Seoul and Yokohama, was a 13-metre (42-foot) bronze statue, showing the Buddha serenely meditating in a seated position.

Obama, leaving aside trade rows and other worldly concerns for a few quiet moments, walked into the wooded grove where he was greeted by kimono-clad Michiko Sato, director of the Kotoku-In temple and Takao Sato, the chief monk.

From outside the closed-off site, Obama could be seen making a motion with his hand to show how tall he was the last time he visited.

He stood for several minutes looking up, then slowly took a walk around the Buddha, the silence only broken by the the throb of a helicopter high overhead.

Obama, travelling in Japan without wife Michelle, then wrote a short message in the visitors' book: "It is wonderful to return to this great treasure of Japanese culture. Its beauty has stayed with me for many years."

One year ago, Obama had shared his memories of his childhood visit to Kamakura in a speech during a Japan visit -- but quipped that as a boy he was more interested in sampling the country's famous green tea ice cream.

On Sunday his attentive hosts remembered the story. Just before Obama left the quiet temple compound to head back into the political storm of Washington, he was treated to one of Japan's worldly pleasures, a sweet matcha ice cream.

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