If there are two things I can say for certain about myself, they are that I am very emotional and I am terrible at goodbyes. The two are a terrible combination so you can probably guess what it was like when I received an email about my upcoming flight to Cape Town next week. I found myself trying to ingrain in my mind snapshots of every beautiful day in Kyoto to make sure I would never forget every little detail of the small life I made for myself here. Sitting on the second floor coffee shop renovated from an old traditional Japanese house with a wonderful iced latte and a view, I watched people go about their days- some locals and some tourists. I wondered if they got to experience the same dizzying feeling of gratitude and wonder I felt in the past 5 weeks.
I wonder if any of the people passing through the streets below me had to learn quickly how to use the subway to get around. Perhaps it is the area I grew up in, but it was the first time I used any public transportation other than a bus. When I first arrived, I refused to use the subways because my head would spin trying to navigate each line, the correct platform, and what stops to get off. I would walk everywhere I needed to go; While it did familiarize me with the city, I knew it was not a feasible commute forever. To take baby steps I decided to redownload Google Maps until I was confident I would not get on the wrong train. Soon enough, I was ready to tackle the shinkansen, or the bullet train, to different cities. The transportation is very sophisticated in the organization and efficiency of time. People know to stand on one side of the escalator and let the people who walk pass on the other side. There are electronic cards you use to tap in and out and priority seating for those who need it. Trains were always on time- to the exact minute- which was a big difference from my limited experiences in transportation. Saying learning about Kyoto through how to navigate it was most definitely a learning curve is a severe understatement, however, I am thankful that with time and the internet, I was able to travel to many hidden gems around Japan.
My favorite gem during my time in Japan was a place hidden in the mountains but not necessarily in terms of tourism. Nara is a prefecture south of Kyoto and next to Osaka that is known for its very famous deer park. There, the deer bowed to thank you for feeding them. I went there as part of an excursion for my study abroad program, CIEE. We stayed at a traditional ryokan (hotel), slept in yukatas (summer kimono), and ate a traditional Japanese dinner. It even had an indoor onsen (bathhouse)! Our kind tour guide excitedly explained the history behind the massive Buddhist statues so we got to truly immerse ourselves in Japanese culture. It was interesting how different the deer in the deer park were regarded as opposed to in Pittsburgh. There, deer are just pesky animals to watch out for in the dark but in Nara, they are celebrated as beautiful creatures of nature. It was one of my favorite experiences so far mainly because of how connected with Japanese values of tradition and respect for nature we were. It served as a grounding point for my experience in Japan. I had grown so accustomed to seeing the bustling crowds and tall buildings in the big cities that I forgot to get an authentic view of what a country’s history looked like before its modernization.
It feels bittersweet that I will not get to eat more juicy Japanese strawberries or see any red torii gates until the next time I visit. The incredibly joyful and hospitable people of Japan are the ones who truly make Japan magical. I will miss them dearly but I know they will be glad to know many souls around the globe, even mine in the suburbs of western Pennsylvania, love their country. The feeling I get when thinking about the next leg of my Summer adventure can only be put into words in a quote that gets me teary eyed everytime by Winnie the Pooh: “How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” I hope one day soon I will be back in Japan looking above a different crowd of travelers from a coffee shop, but for now it is time to prepare my jacket and passport for a Cape Town winter!
おげんきで (Be healthy/all the best)!
Tour of our ryokanThey set up our futons for us while we were at dinner!