My trip to Japan, in June of 2018, was the first official solo trip of my life. When I stepped off the plane for my layover in Hong Kong, my home from ages 5 to 14, I had a strange, yet familiar feeling that this trip on which I was embarking, beginning at my childhood home and bringing my life until this point full circle, would be the beginning of the rest of my life.
My family and I are permanent residents of Hong Kong, and return every three years to swipe our ID cards in order to retain this privilege. When we visited Asia last Christmas for this specific purpose, I could not locate that little piece of plastic anywhere for the life of me. Upon discovering it in the depths of my parents’ basement days after returning from Asia, it became the catalyst to my solo adventure, and I declared I would take the first independent trip of my life, with my sole motivation being to check in at the Hong Kong border. The rest was unknown. So, I booked a round trip flight to Japan, with a 24-hour layover in Hong Kong.
Japan, being an island, seems to have preserved and nourished some its finest traits, resulting in a culture so established, and so unlike any other, that each alleyway, meal and transportation experience will leave you elated. Immaculate, orderly and sophisticated are words that I listed in my notes app while roaming the streets of Tokyo my first day. Other initial observances: public bidets in every single restroom, the lack of cell phones in the streets, subways or restaurants, and the overall black, white and light blue uniform that seemed to be unspoken rule.
The food is prepared immaculately, with tiny table boxes of matcha, pickled ginger and soy sauce varieties. A set meal may cost $20 minimum, but you will be waited on and served all nine courses with the utmost patience, precision, and respect. Despite having to commute to work alongside 9 million fellow city-dwellers, the people of Tokyo keep to themselves in the most orderly, unrushed fashion - jaywalking is almost unheard of (one of the biggest differences I noticed from the West, where our restlessness keeps us in a constant hurry, endlessly trying to get somewhere that’s not here). The architecture and the overall ambiance of the city is sophisticated beyond measure. The bullet trains run relentlessly on time, the architecture is striking, yet simple, the world’s largest fish market even has a clear and organized system to it, and the various zen gardens, in the midst of the 9 million, force you to remember to slow down.
If Tokyo was mindful, Kyoto was straight up enlightened. If you google “Zen,” it comes up with “a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism emphasizing the value of meditation and intuition.” I would say this is a way of life in Japan. There are mediation pillows facing the windows at museums, with “how to Zen” posters to guide you through your experience. There seems to be a collective understanding that life will go on; that the purpose of life is so utterly simple. It’s just to live.
Despite being out of my element, and completely by myself, I accomplished more in ten days than I’ve ever dreamt of doing on my own. I teared up in gratitude at Senso-ji temple on my first day in Tokyo. I walked through the busiest, most architecturally fascinating, high-fashion district of Ginza and navigated my way through the giant subway system with only one minor hitch. I ate fresh sushi outside the world’s most famous fish market. I traveled via bullet train to Kyoto. I biked 10km outside the city at sunrise to visit the famed Arashiyama Bamboo forest, and had an epic day visiting temples, biking through rice paddies and enjoying a matcha soft-serve ice cream cone. I met a new friend from London with whom I have no doubt I will reconnect in this lifetime. I spent a whole day in a traditional Japanese Onsen, a communal spa bath with runoff from fresh hot springs (ask me about this, as it was quite the experience). I walked around Tokyo for 13 hours on my last day, through winding alleyways and across the busiest intersection in the world. I had a sardined subway experience at rush hour and devoured the crispiest, most authentic tempura one can possibly imagine.
I left Japan feeling strong and accomplished, less afraid and somehow softer, overall more mindful. I returned home with clarity and certainty, for this life, and for our purpose in it. Simplicity is a way of life in Japan, and we could all benefit from a little less complexity in our lives.