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!