Tickets booked, accommodations set, and plans taking shape…nothing beats the anticipation of travel. It’s the feeling of knowing you’re going somewhere new and exhilarating, but you cannot quite pinpoint what will unfold, who you’ll meet, or where you’ll eat. It’s the awakening of the senses (sight, smell, sounds) that you don’t get at home doing your daily routines. It’s the excitement that you will be changed and moved from the experiences on your trip.
International travel has been an love affair I’ve had for over the last dozen years or so, ever since my first international trip to Japan for my study abroad year in Tokyo in 2001-02. I had never stepped off of American soil until the age of twenty and I was ready to burst my bubble with one of the most fascinating cultures on the planet.
And so I had finally arrived…
A few other study abroad classmates had arrived in Narita late at night on the same flight. It was much too late at night to take the last train into the city. And a few hundred dollars for a taxi ride into Tokyo was not an option to be split amongst exchange students, so we opted to share bedrooms at a nearby airport hotel.
Brimming with excitement, but desperately hungry, we walked through the area near our hotel in Narita to kick off our cultural immersion experience. A line of small, compact restaurants were clearly there to cater to the bleary-eyed tourists and commuters who stayed at the nearby hotels. Each had their own niche, one with tempura and udon, one with curry plates, and another with sushi and sashimi.
We gravitated towards the tempura and udon place that had steam coming out of the roof of the restaurant. Inside the shop, we saw men slurping their noodles with fierce intensity. I had read in my two-inch-thick Lonely Planet that it was customary for Japanese people to slurp their noodles, not only to cool the noodles down while eating it, but also to note the deliciousness of their noodles. The louder the slurp, the more tasty the noodles. We walked into a symphony of slurping, but no one seemed perturbed by the raucous music besides us. We would also partake in this musical clamor, but with slight reluctance and shyness due to our newness to the country.
On the other hand, drinking our Sapporo beers brought us closer to our comfort zone while also making us feel like we were dining like the locals. With major jet lag, we were one drink wonders longing for the comfort of a soft bed and pillow to hopefully get us out of our seemingly never-ending floating state.
During our first twenty-four hours of arriving in Japan, our senses were at their most sensitive state. We saw things clearly, our first impressions were formed, and we noticed things that weren’t normal to our fresh eyes. However, it was the three of us with our huge roller bags (two to each person) that were the spectacle in Tokyo: a six feet four inches tall Caucasian, another six feet tall, and myself, the Asian giant at six feet tall. We were drenched in our own sweat, caused not only by handling our huge luggage cases through the train stations, but also by the early July blanket of humidity that greeted us in Japan as soon as the sun rose on our first day of travel.
We would be riding the train for three straight hours, with a couple of transfers to different lines in-between. We had no Japanese language skills between the three of us, and all we had was a printed piece of paper from our education abroad advisor of directions to the men’s dormitory, located approximately one hour outside of central Tokyo in a small town called Shin Matsudo. I’m not sure how we found our way to the dormitory, which was ten minutes walking distance from our final train station. But we got there and we were delighted to finally find someone who knew of our existence in the country that we were already lost in.
Everything was different in Japan from Day 1. The shops were tinier and brighter, there were trains and stations everywhere, pachinko parlors sat next to convenience stores on every block, the cars were smaller as well as the lanes for driving, and vending machines for everything from beer to condoms were on every corner. Baths were taken communal style around a central bathing area with separate sitting “shower” areas on the perimeter. Breakfast was served with rice and radish. And the heat and humidity was nothing I’d ever experienced before. Mushi atsui, very humid, they’d say and indeed it was. I ended up carrying around a washcloth in my pocket like any other salari-man for the entire summer, as I perspired like I’d never before perspired in all of my life.
I relished the newness of it all and how I was becoming my new self in the process. By seeing and experiencing the differences of the Japanese culture, I realized what my comfort zones really were. And by knowing what those comfort zones were, I had the capacity to break free of them by trying new things. In the end, my study abroad year was a year of growth that I could have never achieved if I were doing the same stuff back at my university in Los Angeles.
International travel takes you to places that you’ve never been to and that no guidebook can really prepare you for. When you arrive, you are there, seeing, hearing, and feeling everything you anticipated. You are awakened externally by the newness of everything around you and internally by the realization of your similarities and differences with the people around you.
Travel is food for the soul. You need to experience it for yourself. And once you get a taste of travel, you’ll want a whole lot more of it.