I sat around for a day or so trying to figure out how I was going to write this story. I experienced everything, from the sense of belonging to the total absence of it. Wholeness and nothingness. Emotional fulfillment to none at all. I will likely be forever changed by these last 12 days and I hope this article, absent of audible or visual emotion, can truly express the depth of the lessons I intend to discuss. I write my experience for anyone willing to take this information to heart in order to ignite a spark within themselves. To change, or enhance the scope of life. To bring to light an inner desire to grow beyond what you expect to be capable of.
I write this article for the adolescent mind, but by no means should it be overlooked by anyone who feels confined by the progression of daily life. This is for all who can use it and I hope the hidden layers between the lines will be studied long after the reading is finished.
Mid point last year, I decided I wanted to take a trip to the other side of the world. I had no money for it, but I had a realistic goal and I decided on a realistic time frame to be able to meet the financial, and educations requirements such a trip would take. In my early 20s, I struggled with managing even the simplest aspects of everyday life as most of us do when we go out into the world for the first time unguided, not knowing what each day will bring. At the time I had a well paying “career” as we are expected too by society with a retirement plan, a car, and a house. Some of these experiences are referenced in my previous writings and if you’re interested in learning more about those years, I’m happy to fill in the gaps with a separate peace upon request but for the moment the abridged version is that even tho everything seemed set for life and I should have been happy, I wasn’t. To tell the truth I struggled with managing money, my health was in decline, managing my time, relationships and I began to slip into depression with an accompanying mild dependency on alcohol in secret. After a few years of living this way I quit the career and within a year I lost the house to bankruptcy, crippling depression and poor health (years later I was finally diagnosed with Celiac disease and have since fully recovered my health). I was very fortunate in these trying times to have been surrounded by love and support from friends and family (these terms are synonymous with one another and shall remain so for the rest of my life). It took nearly 2 years to recover from those experiences but once I had, I began to travel in order to live and work with personal growth a constant goal to strive for. I became an intense reader having finished nearly 200 books in those 2 years so that I could learn how to live a better life from the knowledge and mistakes of those brave enough to make their thoughts and feelings public record. To this day I maintain a slightly less regimented version of this forever progressing attitude towards literature so that I may continue learning second had the important lessons the pages have to teach. This all happened by the age of 25 and I’m currently 28, so back to the present.
I wanted to take this trip to expand my view on how life was in other places. What architecture looked like. What different peoples considered good or bad. The sights and smells of a world so far removed from what I’d known but had always existed just over the horizons of this little blue ball we all call Home. What would this trip offer me? Of course I had those goals in mind and they seemed trivial enough at the time because they were nothing but mere passing thoughts just floating in my mind while I lived out my relatively normal day to day life. But how, without money of foreign knowledge beyond what is expected of most in their 20s, would I go about doing this? First, I had to solve the question of finance. How would I wizard my way to stability in just a few short months to be able to make this seemingly impossible quest a reality? Well, as anti-climactic as this may seem, all I did was set aside money whenever I could. This worked out to be an average of between $150-$200 weekly for several months. That’s really all it took. Anyone who was expecting some sort of tale of financial heroics or magic will surely be let down by this statement. That one simple commitment ensured my financial stability for the duration of my quest.
The next component was all contained in the realm of information. How would I possibly learn what I needed to know about foreign cultures without ever having been there? This will also be less exciting of an answer because it really only boils down to two distinct factors. The first being books. The same tool I used to get my life back on track in the first place was just as effective of a means to educate me on other cultures and how to manage by body language and behaviors based on the local customs. I cannot emphasize the part about body language with enough underlining importance as will be discussed later in this article. The second component is just as readily available to all of us via the same delivery system that brought you here to read my ramblings. The internet. I was able to use online maps, instructional videos, articles, audio recordings, language apps, and translation apps to navigate my way to success, in exactly the same way you’d browse social media with drinking your morning coffee. It was so easy it made me question my use of online resources much more critically and slightly altered m views on what social connectivity actually encompasses.
Once these two problems had been addressed, I was able to allow time and repetition to handle the rest and over the next several months I had gained enough of these resources to feel comfortable with my coming journey of self discovery on foreign land, on the terms of others.
Finally the day arrived and I boarded my connecting flights from Vancouver to my layover stop in Beijing before proceeding to my destination in Japan where I would spend the vast majority of my time away.
Once I got on my flight a few things became apparent to me. The first being that the world is a big place. My destination was nearly 9,000km away on the other side of the ocean. If you’ve ever felt small, board a flight that takes 12hrs and you’ll fully grasp the feeling of insignificance entirely. Another appearance, the world is very small. That’s right. The methods by which we travel have made such distances nearly obsolete yet we see it as nothing more than an everyday availability. 100 years ago this was not the case. Imagine, one human life ago this trip and this article would not have been possible as it exists today. Take a pause if you wish to let that sink in. It’s absolutely astonishing once the full depth of that realization becomes graspable with reflection.
After my first flight ended, I landed in Beijing for a 21hr layover before I can proceed to Japan. Why so long? Well, to tell you the truth it was more cost effective and I had hoped to see a little of the city while I was there. Unfortunately China currently does not have open borders and nobody in Canada without a pre-approved travel or work visa may enter the country. This detail did not show up in my, what I believe to be comprehensive research, so I ended up with 21hrs with nothing to do but sit and wait. Or so I thought.
I did not fully appreciate the current frailty of China and Canada’s political relationship and was subsequently taken aside by border security for additional questioning and security checks given my status as a Canadian citizen combined with having asked the wrong question (the location of the baggage claim area) to the wrong security guard. I ended up being held for intense questioning for roughly 30min along with having to go for an additional scan via airport customs security. They believe I had entered the country for the purpose of espionage and 3 armed guards treated me accordingly. I wish to take a moment here to explain the situation in detail. I do not believe I was in danger or that security intended me any harm. They are trained in such a way to react to any potential threat that may enter the country. They behaved in kind with the intent on protecting their homes from a yet to be determined threat and I respect their right to do so and am happy they value the security of their nation with such prudence. That being said, I was obviously placed in intentional distress so they could properly assess my reactions to determine my state of mind and after what seemed like an eternity, were satisfied that I meant no harm and was simply passing through. They subsequently returned my passport and my belongings and sent me into the main hub of the airport were I could wait for my next flight.
I firmly believe they didn’t let me go because of my words. Language had limitations due to the guards not being fully versed in english and myself not speaking any Chinese. They let me pass because of my body language. This returns us to one of the books I studied before I left called Gestures, by Roger E. Axtell. The book outlines body language from around the world with astonishing clarity and detail. I would highly recommend adding it to your buy list and keep it with you forever. Using what I had learned, I was able to adopt the local body language and use it to its full effect in communicating accurately with Chinese airport security. I firmly believe this book saved not only my trip but also saved my ass from ending up in an interrogation cell. This turn of events was not considered in my planing, but I had the fortune of having done enough to learn about local customs which ended up saving me by the skin of my teeth. The next 21hrs proceeded without issue, well, other than extreme boredom, and I soon found myself heading to my destination of Osaka, Japan.
Once I landed, I had to quickly become accustomed to local public transportation in order to find my hotel which a local friend helped me book in advance. It took me roughly 1hr to find my way but I successfully ended up at my hotel roughly on time for my check-in.
This was it. This was finally the start of what I had traveled so far to experience first hand. I took my night’s rest and the next morning I slapped on my backpack, put 15,000yen in my pocket and started walking the streets in search of local experiences and culture. As a Canadian growing up in the 90s, Japanese culture was much more present in my daily life than I had ever really stopped to think about. I was, and still am, a major fan of the Dragon Ball franchise, the Transformers franchise, the Gundam franchise and the Ultraman franchise. I also had the toys. Ohh the wonderful toys. All of which could trace their origins back to companies such as Takara Tomy, which is Japanese. I still collect some of Takara’s toys even today. Particularly the new Masterpiece Beast Wars line which is based on the American animal based adaptation of the Transformers universe. I made a list of places I wanted to go. Osaka Castle, the Buddhist Temples, the vast street market districts, the restaurants, the aquarium, the theme parks and the famous gardens for which Japan is so well known. I visited each one of the places I wanted to see without fail. I meticulously documented and photographed each location with an ever increasing sense of awe. I started with history first, being Osaka Castle. This was one of the most striking aspects of my journey of exploration of culture. I took my time and spent hours wandering the complex, taking in the profound and deep history of the grounds on which I took my steps. I was every bit as inspiring as I’d imagined. More so even. I felt a deep connection to the story of that place and the complexly violent yet culturally iconic history that made it what we see today. Just like that. On my first day, I experienced the full depth of what would be the tone of my exploration of the beautiful nation of Japan.
As the days progressed I made it a point form that moment on to only use public transit to go back to my hotel at night, or hop to the next city. I saw the country through the eyes of a resident combined with those of an explorer seeing it all for the first time. The fusion of these perspectives left a lasting impression on me that I am not likely to ever forget. I visited the economic centers of the city, the ancient parks, the restaurants, gardens, the small shops, the back alleyways… All with this combined perspective thanks to being willing to walk to each of them as a local would. To experience this culture with the eyes of a resident and the soul of a traveler is process of self reflection not many will experience in a lifetime. The majority of us never wander more than 200km from home over our entire lives and this thought was forever present in my mind which made each moment more precious the deeper the experience of the culture took me. To think I was so far from home, yet the feeling of home never once left my heart even as I communicated with the people around me largely by an improvised sign language I had adapted from my having read the above mentioned book.
The Japanese as a people are among the kindest and most giving people you will even encounter. Over the course of my entire stay I felt nothing but humbled by the acceptance of the people and their willingness to show me the same level of respect they would show a member of their own family. It was truly inspiring and an honor to spend time with the people, even tho I did not speak the language and most did not understand my words. Despite this obvious limitation, our communication was flawless. Intentions were understood almost innate and instinctual. As if we had all been part of the same lives all along despite being so far removed from each other culturally. No matter where I looked or how far I walked those feelings and experiences resurfaced without fail, over and over again. It was as if it had been home all along.
I met a great friend just over a year ago in my travels in western Canada who was here on a work visa from Japan. We made it a point to see each other again while I was in the country. We spent 13hrs together exploring and learning about each other’s personal history, our families, our customs and our cultures. It will remain a defining moment in my trip because we both felt truly connected to the moment and explored many places together as we talked. We did everything that day. We explored some of the gardens of Kyoto, ate a 2 amazing restaurants, and shared many wonderful conversations and created memories neither of us will likely forget.
This is a testament and a challenge to the conventional wisdom of what it means when we say: “Home is where the heart is.” If home is a place you’ve always been, how can you truly know it is where your heart takes residence?
Before I knew it, the week had come and gone and I was on a flight home. Now that I’ve returned to my daily life, I find myself reflecting heavily on what that statement, and the word home really mean to me. I believe I will do so for a long time to come. This trip ignited a fire in me that will likely never die. It awakened me to home being a part of who I am inside rather than what location I find myself in.
This experience was truly unforgettable for me and I will make it my life goal to have as many more of them as I can before my time in this life comes to a close.
If you stuck with me to the end here, I hope these words have not been wasted. That the time it took to read this article wasn’t a passive experience, but rather a tool to plant the seed of your next journey.