I went to Japan.
I have to keep saying it out loud. I have to keep writing it down. Because the memories are already fleeting. Because it all happened so fast.
I want to keep these updates brief, honest, and from the heart. Travel blogs tend to offer either just great photos or weird sales pitches. And I’d like to keep this much closer to me, to my true experience, to the fact that I am a writer.
I am not going to recommend you quit your day job and travel the world on borrowed money. Or share with you (after charging you a couple bucks) the secrets of getting by on a shoestring budget.
I’m just here to remind you of the magic of travel, how it changes you, and how this trip to Japan in particular inspired me to be brave and kind in my daily life.
I want to mention that I went on this trip as part of a campaign (more to come later!) called #GoTohoku. After a video submission and an interview process I was selected to go. (I pretty much still don’t know why but I guess I must come off as charming.) So the fact that I went with strangers and that I found out a month before that I was going, colors some of this, but not all.
I was totally calm about the trip until the day before I left. Then I got nervous. I was totally nervous the morning of the trip. Then I lost it. I tend to keep my feelings inside but I actually started crying before I left. I was overwhelmed. Was I really going to go to the other side of the earth? Was I really doing this? The answer was yes– of course I was doing this. Earlier in the month me wanted this, so I sucked it up for her, got in the car and headed to JFK to meet the strangers I’d be hanging out with for a week.
Everyone seemed normal, on their best behavior, and then we flew.
The flight to Tokyo is 14 hours. And from there we flew to Aomori in the Tohoku region. In all, I traveled for about 24 hours and didn’t sleep. This is what adrenaline feels like. I couldn’t turn my brain off from the moment at hand. So, aside from not sleeping the flight was pleasant and the attendants on our Japan Air flight started giving me a taste of the hospitality I would encounter in Japan. I watched movies and ate snacks and listened to “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John. Oddly, I listened to this song specifically 10 times a day on this trip. I wish I could tell you why. I was alert, but not panicky. I had calmed myself enough to make it across the globe.
Here’s my point: Just leaving for this trip made me braver, even before anything else happened. I believe that, like grit, bravery is something that gets stronger the more you use it. It was one thing to be brave when agreeing to the trip “Strangers? Sure! Last minute trip across the planet? Sure!” But when it came to actually leaving my house, and getting to the airport alone. That took real bravery. And yes I cried at first, but by the time I made it to the airport I had shifted gears, became the “Amanda” I pretend to be 80% of the time. I was brave. I had ACTUALLY faked it until I made it, and it worked. (Really.) If I had let my fear take hold, if I let that weird voice that was like “Hey, you should cry over this,” take control I would have never left my house. I would have froze.
I know you’re thinking, “You would have never left those people from the campaign hanging.” But I remember when I was younger, when I wasn’t brave, when I hadn’t developed any grit and I know (I KNOW) I absolutely could have done that. And I know people that would have. It can seem easy– beautiful photos and a good attitude can make an trip seem idyllic, but we have to remember that pushing ourselves to see the world, and to risk the comfort of routine, is brave. And often, the more you do it, the easier it gets.
So did I totally throw you earlier when I mentioned Tohoku? Were you like, “What is she talking about?” Let me clarify: This trip was not about Tokyo. Or Okinawa. Or Kyoto. It was about Tohoku. A little known and little visited region of Japan. Sadly, it is typically recognized as the area that was hit by a tsunami in 2011. Tohoku is a diverse area, from shrines to mountains, to perfect foliage to elegant boat tours. And I’ll get into all of it later. (Don’t act so surprised, I told you this wasn’t a normal travel blog, duh!)
Tohoku reminded me in some ways of being in the Midwest. Of course it has nothing to do with cuisine, I ate fish for just about every meal while I was there, but in the manner of the people there. Being outside of the major metropolitan cities, like Tokyo, the people of Tohoku are slower paced, kind, and thoughtful. They want to know about you when you buy candy from them, they want to make sure you are comfortable when you dine with them, and they acknowledge you.
I remember the first time I went to Iowa, I was freaked out by a cashier who wanted to know all about Massachusetts. I felt similarly in Tohoku. Even though not many of the people there spoke English confidently, they still engaged, asking the questions they could. Imagine being so engaged with others that you don’t let a language barrier stop you from reaching out to another person? I mean, damn!
On our first full day, I went out to explore a nearby shrine with some of my new friends– I’ll explain them later. When we arrived, in light rain without umbrellas, we came across a mother and son feeding the giant Koi in the pond. They gave us their remaining bag of fish food to toss in. When I took a few out of the bag and tried to return it to them, they declined. “For you,” the mother told me. It was the smallest gesture but encompasses the kindness I felt the entire time I was in Japan.
It’s these things I remember the most, the things I try to apply to my daily life in, the often lonely and discouraging, New York City. Kindness changes people and it goes a long way.
Ok now that I feel I sufficiently painted a picture of HOW this trip made me feel, I’ll follow it up with a slightly more traditional post about some of my favorite spots to visit.