Travel Japan: How to Find the True Magic
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Japan? Geishas? Sushi? Cherry blossoms? But if you have ever stepped on Japanese soil and experienced its quirky culture and hospitable people, you quickly understand it is so much more. (Though don’t get me wrong, the cherry blossoms are exquisite.)
I visited Japan in 2002, and yet the memories of my time there have remained etched sharply in my mind and my heart. It was my first time travelling alone, and I was terrified! I did have a friend teaching in Japan who I planned to meet, but he lived in Kanoya city deep in the southern portion of Japan.
I saw very little of Tokyo but was so excited to see the south, an area not so frequented by tourists.
So I was tasked with not only getting myself to Tokyo but then transferring from the international airport to the domestic airport to catch another flight to Kagoshima. Once in Kagoshima, I had to catch a bus to Kanoya. Oh. My. God. Myriad questions rushed through my brain like a hurricane, rife with all the possibilities for disaster. Would I get lost? What if no one understood me? What if I missed my flight? Would there be an international incident? Yes, it was all very dramatic.
And I did end up missing my domestic flight. But it wasn’t the end of the world. The beautiful and smiling airline employees quickly helped me dry my panicky tears and promptly put me on the next flight. International incident averted.
I saw very little of Tokyo but was so excited to see the south, an area not so frequented by tourists. I was not disappointed! The landscapes were beautiful and lush. The wet season was lurking but had not quite arrived, leaving my friend and I lots of time to wander Kanoya city and take a ferry across the bay to see Kagoshima city.
Everywhere we went, the people were warm, friendly, and the children were more than eager to try out their fledgling English skills.
We gobbled down delicious ramen soup, with Mt. Sakurajima, a not always magnanimous presence, looming on the distant horizon. We visited massive rose gardens, parks, and a particularly interesting beach that washed up a multitude of fugu (poisonous blow fish). They were dead…but it still freaked us out!
Everywhere we went, the people were warm, friendly, and the children were more than eager to try out their fledgling English skills. Imagine these wee kids running up to you in any public spot, and giving me an enthusiastic “hello!” This was, of course, my cue to say “How are you?” They would then criss-cross their little arms, fists to shoulders, bow, and say “I’m fine thank you!” Adorable much?
One of the teachers at my friend’s school hosted us for a family dinner one balmy night. It was so much fun. I helped fan the sticky rice, while my friend pretended to chomp down on the tiny toddler’s toes. Of course, she had never seen such antics, and (much to my friend’s embarrassment) promptly burst into an avalanche of tears.
But truly the greatest gifts were always the people themselves.
But once mama reassured her that her toes were not in any danger, she was all smiles once again. This was my first experience with one of Japan’s high tech toilets as well, and I was flummoxed to walk in and see the porcelain throne sporting a multitude of buttons!
The evening ended with typical Japanese hospitality, my arms filled with gifts and treasures that were obviously dear to the family imparting them, but they seem to derive the greatest pleasure from doing just that. But truly the greatest gifts were always the people themselves.
My most precious memory from my short two weeks in Japan came most unexpectedly during my visit to the crazy fugu (blow fish) beach. My friend and I had spent an hour or so under cloudy skies chasing the surf, and the blow fish then chasing us back up the sand. The air was heavy and warm, but the beach was nearly deserted.
Wandering up the soft sand, I noticed a huge tarp pulled into a tented structure, safely out of reach of the waves. It was a family camping on the beach, with banquet table set up with a multitude of lawn chair surrounding it. A pretty young girl, perhaps 13 years old, with a Beatles-esque haircut approached us with a friendly smile. It was the daughter of the beach campers, and before we knew it, we had been invited for dinner on the beach.
We were welcomed like a part of the family. A young Japanese guy sat a few feet down the beach and was soon invited into our group as well. He was cycling around Japan, and had stopped at the beach to camp overnight. We all gathered together, for a single shared evening.
My plate was piled high with fresh fish and veggies, and I ate until I thought my stomach would burst. Mom made takoyaki (octopus in batter, fried into little snackable balls), and we watched the sun disappear behind the horizon. A chill blanketed the beach, and my new little friend loaned me an extra t-shirt. I gifted her with my silver necklace. Conversation flowed all around me.
I didn’t understand a word.
But in the end, it didn’t matter. We made ourselves understood, though gestures, smiles, laughter, and numerous cans of Heineken beer. And that, was more than enough.
Travel Japan: How to Find the True Magic