Calm. Contradictory. Kind. Beautiful. Clean. Particular. Mysterious.
These are the words that I would use to sum up Japan on our recent travels. Have you ever been? Have you ever wanted to go? It was such an incredible trip. I have wanted to travel to Japan for so long, actually since the seventh grade. I had an animated and passionate history teacher who opened my eyes to the world beyond the Midwest and introduced me to parts of the globe I only knew from bedtime stories. A shy girl and someone who’s always felt a bit misunderstood, I opted to take Japanese class in lieu of theater that year. The more accepted choice, performing in The Wizard of Oz with the rest of my female classmates wasn’t something I was up for. I timidly ducked out the ever-popular chance to shine on stage, with the spotlights and sweaty palms, for an opportunity to quietly learn about a new culture with about five other students, none of whom I knew at the time. It was a leap of faith, a step out of the swift current of life, and sort of a big deal for an insecure twelve year old. I remember tasting crunchy nori for the first time and learning that it came from the sea. I remember practicing the strange and unfamiliar pitched language out loud in front of strangers. I certainly made a fool of myself, but it was without worry or apprehension. The environment my teacher established was a safe one, and also one that lit my curiosity for the world on fire. I am forever grateful for that year of my life and for the one who taught me.
Growing up in Iowa meant there was a lot of meatloaf and there wasn’t a lot sushi. In fact, there was very, very little on the subject of Japan or what it meant to eat raw fish or to meditate or to use chopsticks and drink tea. The novelty in learning about a culture so unlike my own, spoke to me in a way that has continued to have a ripple effect throughout my life. While I’d certainly call myself a homebody and someone who finds a rich purpose in mothering and keeping our home, I am also someone who craves adventure with worldly explorations. I find such an escape in reading and making things with my hands that I’ve seem others do in different countries, but especially by experiencing first hand how people do life in all corners of the world. It not only supports and strengthens my view of humanity, but it has a way of restoring my center when needing a refill. Each time I travel I am reminded just how precious and beautiful this life of ours is and how little of it I have really seen.
For me, traveling is as much about the leaving as it is about the coming home. It’s a way for me to exit the flow and find solitude outside of the comfortability of my routine. It’s a way for me to unplug and hit reset. It’s a way for me to leave behind my most valued comforts (other than my husband who is always by my side) and figure out how to live simply with what we can carry, live thoughtfully with how we use our time, and live adventurously as we try new things. Simply put, the whole process of going and coming home make me feel alive. And as for the coming home? Well, that’s the best part. The perspective I gain while traveling and experiencing the world in a different light only helps me appreciate my life at home that much more. When gone, I missed the heck out of our babies and our cozy bed and our slow life at home. I miss waking up with that predictability and going to bed with comfort. Peace and relief is what I feel when I walk through the door after having traveled, no matter how far.
“Home is the nicest word there is,” said Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was spot on.
But let me tell you about Japan. Andrew and I met up with his brother and his brother’s girlfriend in LA before crossing the ocean to Tokyo. Several months back we all threw five travel options into a hat and quickly discovered that Japan was the one destination we all had in common. From there, we started throwing out things we wanted to do and soon enough our itinerary was crafted! The four of us decided to split our trip into three cities: Tokyo, Kamakura, and Kyoto. I could not recommend this cultural contradiction enough. The three were so wonderfully different from one another and each really gave us beautiful insight into the dichotomies of Japanese culture.
While in Tokyo, we did what most tourists do: we saw the hundreds of people crossing in Shibuya, drank sake along the skinny alleys of Golden Gai in Shinjuku, visited the bustling Tsukiji fish market, ate the best sushi of our lives at Yasuda’s tiny bar (recommendation a la Anthony Bourdain), shopped in Shingawa, and had fancy cocktails where Bill Murray sipped scotch on top the Hyatt. It was a lot. It was intense. It was fun. If I had to compare the Tokyo city to anything, I’d say it was most like New York City to me. It never stopped, it never slowed down, and it was always lit up. But there was a sincere politeness about the people there that didn’t quite match the sometimes-harsh neon vitality of the city, and that really intrigued me. There were a handful of times that the subway got the better of us and the language barrier was a bit of a challenge, but anyone we asked was not only eager to help but would personally walk us to where we needed to be to make our connection. This happened almost a dozen times! The kindness shown to us over and over again in Tokyo was impressive and downright beautiful. What a relief when in the midst of confusion to meet a kind stranger willing and ready to help you out.
We took a day trip to Kamakura about an hour away from Tokyo’s city center and had such a relaxing time. We experienced an authentic tea ceremony, got to wander though an ancient cemetery, drank Sapporo in an open air garden, found a tiny hole in the wall bar to hang out with locals, ate ourselves silly with ing bowls of thick ramen, walked though a bamboo forest, and saw Buddha. I don’t recommend the Buddha as it was packed with tourists, but it was an enchanting city nevertheless. We perhaps packed too much into our little day trip, because when we got back to our airbnb in Tokyo we slept for quite awhile.
We ended our adventure in the magical city of Kyoto, our absolute favorite time during our travels in Japan. Wanting a different experience from our modern apartment stay in Tokyo, we opted to stay in a traditional Japanese home via airbnb covered in gorgeous tatami mats. We slept on the floor, parked our shoes in the entry, and explored the city on bikes. The old charm of the city with it’s cobblestones and beautifully adorned storefronts completely captivated us and our thirst for old-world charm. We stayed near the glittery canal and woke to shallow water rippling downstream as a family of ducks quacked every now and again. It was surreal waking up in such a scenic corner of the city.
It was clear when we arrived in Kyoto that things operated differently here. It was extremely quiet, almost an abandoned-like quiet. It was very calm and so serene. We’d see people out walking and biking and going about their day, but it was almost as if the city itself was a ghost town it was so still. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The tranquility in the Gion area was profound as well. We played the part and dressed up in traditional Geisha attire and walked through the ancient area taking it all in. The pops of red and fuchsia and gold stood out against the earthy buildings and vibrant greenery surrounding the city. In Kyoto we shared beautiful meals in tiny, well-kept shops lit with lanterns and mainly left this part of our trips to spontaneity, letting the city lead us this way and that through the wooden houses and Shinto shrines. The overall vibe of Kyoto was, for lack of a better word, zen. At times is felt like we were walking on a different planet, a cleaner, gentler, more refined place we didn’t know existed.
Overall, our time in Japan was really special and so inspiring. Sure there were moments of homesickness and cultural clashes, but looking back I have so much appreciation for each and every day we spent there…and quite honestly, am pretty proud of how well we coped without the kids. That was undoubtably the hardest part. But you know, that time apart was good for them too. They got to spend quality time with their nanas and papa without us around, and that is something they will always cherish.
I am currently still in “return mode” and in a place of sifting through and editing our life here at home. I suppose I am always doing it to some extent, but with newfound inspiration I am doing it a bit more thoroughly. Andrew and I came back with even more of an appreciation of refined simplicity and it’s something we hope to infuse throughout our home and within the dynamic of our family rhythm. A refresh and a bit of change really does the soul heaps of good, you know? Have you taken an inspiring trip recently? How has it shaken your perspective and changed the way you want to do life? I’d love to hear all about it!
Anna - Thanks so much Amanda for sharing this amazing trip! I was in Japan over twenty years ago when in college and this brings back so many memories. Although I know I would have such a deeper appreciation for the experience/culture as the older and wiser person I am today. Your photos bring the beauty and stillness to life so beautifully!!!
Jessie - Those seven words you gave to describe Japan were JUST as I would imagine it to be. Ah, I bet it was incredible! My dad was served briefly in the Air Force in Japan and to this day speaks about the kindness of the Japanese people. I’m not sure if hearing his stories was what sparked my interest years ago or it was something else along the way, but it’s been on my bucket list for a few decades now. I was so happy to read your travel suggestions and thoughts on it all. Yep, still got that Japan fever 😉
This was such a beautiful post. The subject, the photos, your words and thoughts and heart on it all. I couldn’t have invested these 10 minutes of my Tuesday morning any better, friend. What a refresh this was to read. You have such a gift of expressing yourself…and because I have always connected with you in that way (among many), I felt myself relating and silently nodding and agreeing with nearly every word. I’m beginning to think we share a soul 😉 Those early middle school years of shyness and even at that age being intrigued by all that was different, deeper, simpler. Sometimes life as an old, pensive soul can be a lonely one when the rest of the world around you seems to be dancing to a different beat…but despite those years of awkwardness, we bloomed! And I love that you are wonderful, unique YOU and I am the only me. There is something pretty darn special about that…becoming not only comfortable in one’s skin, but finally appreciating and loving ourselves for who we are. Having the confidence and gratitude to do that, and the courage and patience to become better in areas that need improvement. Aging with wisdom and grace. I’m rambling now, but your post got me thinking so many things and as I mentioned yesterday on Instagram, this season really gets me going on all the reflecting…which is equally soothing as it is exhausting 😉
Welcome home, love. xx
admin - Jessie, so much I could say about these beautiful words you’ve shared and I just wish I could come give you a big hug. Thank you for being such a light here and everywhere you share. The world needs more of it, keep shining! x Amanda
Katherine G - Looks incredible! Would love to go there one day! 🙂
lanie - this makes me so excited for when my husband go back to japan one day in the future (we visited Tokyo for a week for our honeymoon), thanks for sharing this! when i read up on ‘wabi-sabi’ it just resonated with me. the culture and experience was amazing.
your photos are so beautiful!
admin - Lanie, wabi-sabi is so beautiful to me! I fell in love with that kind of imperfect decor that you see throughout Japan. x Amanda
Andrea - Hi Amanda,
I have been following your blog for a few years now and I love reading about perspectives on life. I’m a Canadian who is currently teaching kindergarten on Jeju Island in South Korea – so this post really resonated with me. Asian culture is so interesting in comparison to the culture I am used to in North America, but I often find more similiarities than differences amongst the two which I think is one of the best parts of travelling. You realize how much we humans have in common, cross-culturally, that can draw us together rather than separate us.
I really loved this post and how you talked about being far away from home makes you realize how much you appreciate home. I couldn’t agree more.
All the best.
admin - Andrea, what an amazing experience to teach abroad! I taught for an month in China in college to middle schoolers. It was one of the most amazing trips I’d ever been on and only made me want to travel Asia that much more! You are so right, we realize that the human condition is of the same fabric when we see others living so differently yet so fundamentally similar with regard to our needs and wants, and it’s really uplifting and hopeful to return home from an experience like that. Wishing you a lovely school year! x Amanda
Jessica - I love this!
In high school, I had the opportunity both to host three Japanese exchange students as well as to be an exchange student in Japan for a month. My high school has a sister school (in Kamakura!), so for a month, I lived with a student and her family and we traveled about (to Kyoto and Nara, to Tokyo, to Mount Fuji, and so on). It was an amazingly incredible experience! But! I was so young! I turned 15 while I was there, and now, I don’t remember much. While there are many places where I have never been and would love to go, I’d also love to get back to Japan as an adult. Thank you for sharing your photos, which do bring back memories for me.
admin - Jessica, isn’t it interesting all that we think we’ll remember pre 20 that we don’t! What an amazing experience you had, and although you may not remember particulars I’m sure it shaped and formed you in so many wonderful ways. Thank you for sharing here! x Amanda
Laura - we travelled to Japan in February this year and loved it! Our itinerary was Tokyo, Hukuba and Kyoto. We were so very impressed with every aspect of Japan – the culture, the food, the politeness, the way that Tokyo just runs like clockwork, the architecture, the natural beauty, the coffee (!) – its such an amazing country and one of my favourites. thanks for sharing your experience!
Raven - Beautiful post. I’ve always heard that Japan is a lovely, sensory experience as you’ve described. Simple, present, graceful… Makes me want to go! I recently went to Thailand for a month with only a school backpack and upon returning, decided to pair down more than I already try to do. There’s something so primal and grounding about taking only what you can carry and I hope to make my home just like that as well. In Thailand, there as an emphasis on kindness and joy that will forever be in my heart, hopefully at the forefront of the life I lead. Thank you so much for sharing. Thank you so much for inspiring. And PS, where is your army green run coat from? It’s perfect!
Raven - Rain coat, I mean!
admin - Raven, it’s from Bridge and Burn. It’s the best jacket I’ve ever owned hands down. So warm but rain resistant. Also, Andrew and I have Thailand on our list. Whereabouts did you go there? We’d love to go there with the kids for a few weeks when they get a little older. x Amanda
Rara - Such beautiful images reminding me of my trips to Japan.
It is by far the most beautiful country I know.
I too am fascinated by the contradictions between the old and new.
I have visited three times and travelled up and down the country, sometimes alone and other times with good Japanese friends.
I love how humble and helpful the people are. It feels like the safest place on the planet, even walking the quiet streets at night in the remote mountain towns at the end of the rail line and so peaceful at all times. Such care taken over everything and the amazingly decorative food.
My favourite places would be Nagano, Matsumoto, Miyajima, Kagoshima and Kyoto – all for very different reasons.
admin - Rara, “the safest place on the planet” YES! Andrew and I said that to each other dozens of times. We hope to return someday and visit some of those places you’ve mentioned. The whole country is just stunning. x Amanda
Jenni - Your words, “Peace and relief is what I feel when I walk through the door after having traveled, no matter how far” struck a trigger in my heart as I read them. I am a prairie girl but we are currently living in Vancouver, BC where my husband is from. On a recent trip we took to New England, we had such fun galavanting around the rural parts of Maine. I felt more at home on our travels than I ever have living on the west coast. And I distinctly remember the feeling of coming “home” was one of extreme negativity for me. I dreaded it, in fact. It felt busy, and loud, and overwhelming. I long for the day when coming home from traveling can feel peaceful, calm, and comfortable. Until then, I hold your words in my heart as a goal for our living situation <3
admin - Jenni, thank you for sharing here. I hope you are soon able to feel that same sense of peace when you are at home. I know how it feels to be in an environment that is busy, loud, and overwhelming and it’s just the worst. As someone who not only appreciates but needs solitude in her life, you sound like you’re the same. Blessings to you in BC. x Amanda
katelyn - Dying to know what kind of camera you are using to capture all these beautiful photos?
admin - Katelyn, these are all taken on my Canon Rebel T5, not super fancy but it does the job! x Amanda
sarah - i finally got around to reading this and it’s wonderful! so glad to hear that you had fun and that it met you childhood expectations. i want to go back someday (i was born there) with my parents and experience the culture for myself, thanks for sharing your travels! xoxo
Lauren - Oh, I love Japan so much! I loved reading about your time there and seeing the pictures. Japan is such a special place to me, even though I’ve never been. Definitely going someday, though. Happy to see someone else love it and actually get to experience it. ❤
cailan - Dear Amanda,
I’ve been an adoring lurker here on your blog since you first began it and a longtime Instagram follower. As with so many, your unique taste and lovely spirit has always resonated so strongly with me. I especially related to and was encouraged by your early post on your and your husband’s early awareness of how your surroundings affected you and taking strong measures to create a calm and soothing home as we both (my husband especially) are outer-order-inner-calm types.
Anyway, my husband, a English professor and Dordt college, was recently accepted to speak at an American lit conference in Kyoto, and we are over the moon excited to get to travel there together next June! Of course, I immediately thought of this post and especially your account of your magical time in Kyoto. We are also planing to stay in an air B&B as well, and I was just wondering (you have have a spare minute!) if you had any tips or advice you would share? Restaurants, favorite areas for biking/walking/hiking? It is always so wonderful to get advice from someone whose taste you know you can trust.