I love traveling with friends. Nothing compares to laughing your head off, even years later, about the situations you’ve been in together, and reminisce about what you saw and who you met. (For example, trying to open our hotel room door in Las Vegas at night and after five minutes realizing that we were on the wrong floor and that this wasn’t our room at all, wouldn’t have been half as entertaining if I had experienced it alone. Weird example choice. I know.)
But sometimes, it’s time for me to head out on my own again. So this term break, while my colleagues went on adventures like road tripping Australia or jumping out of planes in New Zealand, my adventure looked a little different: Traveling Japan by myself to reconcile with the country I used to admire and to reconnect not only with Japanese people but also with the person I used to be, before all my health issues in Japan took over my life and my personality.
Shortly after arriving in Japan 9 months ago, those health issues started and turned into horrid experiences like the infamous ’hospital day’ and the countless doctor’s appointments that followed, not to mention the sleepless nights I had when I didn’t dare to close my eyes in fear of suffocating in my sleep.
The consequences of all this weren’t only anxieties but I also felt myself turning into a generally scared, doubtful and passive person, who’d rather spend the weekends inside resting and hiding than going out and seeing new things and interacting with new people. Even when my health temporarily allowed it and I went on weekend trips, they were entirely organised by my colleagues and I just passively tagged along.
To sum it up: I had lost faith in myself as a capable person who could function in the world on her own. That’s why, as a major trust exercise for myself, I decided to go on a trip all by myself again, like I’d done several times in the past prior to when things turned…bad. A trip where I had to do all the planning, all the decision making, and all the dealing with whatever would happen along the way. Scary, but necessary. And if everything went well, I wanted to take this exercise even a step further: To be able to enjoy being out on my own again. To be able to enjoy moments and feel comfortable in my own company. To smile to myself when something was beautiful and laugh when something was funny.
On day one, I’m traveling on the Shinkansen (bullet train) for the first time, which for me is equally as exciting as getting on Disneyland’s Space Mountain. As we depart, I’m being informed that this train is operating on the Nozomi Line. Nozomi means hope, so I figure I’m off to a good start. A nap and a 7/11 sandwich later, I find myself about 800 km removed from Yokohama. Hiroshima, here I come.
My hostel is easy to find. It’s run by an elderly man who is immediately talking away in Japanese. I try to keep up, but our weird conversation makes him laugh. He asks me why I have a walking stick and I explain that my foot hurts. (I strained it while jogging two weeks before.) I tell him that I’m heading out on an evening walk to see the Atomic Bomb Dome. He explains to me where to catch the bus that will take me there, since he doesn’t want me to walk all the way with my injured foot.
Rebel that I am, I nod and smile and then walk there anyway, because in my opinion the only way to get a feeling for a city is walking through it, getting lost and having to ask for the way. Which is exactly what I’m doing, several times. One woman I talk to is particularly kind and shows me the way by walking with me for a bit, even though it’s the opposite direction than where she was headed. When we cross the road, she protectively takes my hand. Even though this is kind of a weird moment with a complete stranger, it’s oddly comforting. I get to the Dome just before sunset. (What’s going through my head then and there I wrote about in a different post.)
Back in the hostel, I confess to the (let’s fondly call him) grandpa that I walked all the way and he shakes his head. He tells me it’s my bath time now. I find this weird, because it seems like I’m in someone’s private home instead of a hostel, but I go with it anyway. He shows me the bathroom and when he explains to me not to pull the plug of the bathtub because other people will use the water too, I laugh a lot. He looks at me seriously and says that foreigners do that all the time. I promise him I won’t.
The second day is dedicated to visiting the Peace Museum and the Peace Memorial Park to educate myself about the history of Hiroshima. While walking past the Peace Flame, something flies into my left eye and stings immensely. I’m pretty much blinded and sit down on the ground, covering my eyes with my hands, realizing how people walking by must be thinking that I’m crying because I’m overwhelmed with sadness. Very quickly, I’m approached by a couple from (how I learn) Israel, who give me a tissue and advice on what to do. Again, I’m glad about the spontaneous kindness of strangers.
Day 3 I decide to go on a 70 km bike ride without any prior training and a strained foot, which in hindsight is definitely one of my poorer life decisions. My thought process went something like this: If people can jump out of planes, I can at least ride a bike. The internet described it as an “easy day trip“, which might be the case for Lance Armstrong, but certainly not for me. After 60 km (which looking back I have absolutely no idea how I pulled through), sheer exhaustion hits me and I decide to hand in my bike at an earlier drop off point and take the bus back from there, like the internet says it’s possible. When the lady at the drop off point informs me that there are no buses from where we are (60km away from where I started out, with the sunset approaching), I can’t help but cry (you saw that one coming, didn’t you?) and picture myself sleeping on a park bench.
The lady is an absolute angel because she researches how I can get back to my starting point, which involves taking three different buses and her driving me to the nearest bus stop, in her car, during her work time. I’m absolutely overwhelmed with her kindness and can’t stop sobbing. At the bus stop, she writes me a note in Japanese about where I need to transfer so I can show it to the bus drivers. She asks me what my name is and tells me hers. Before she drives off, she gives me a sandwich she had in the car. I only realize this later when I’m reflecting on the day, but this scenario right there was a major turning point for me. It made me remember that even when I’m on my own, I’m never alone. There are always other people out there, other humans, who will step in and help if help is needed.
The following day makes up for the pain and the tears because a dream of mine, which I’ve had for years, comes true. I set out to Okunoshima, aka Rabbit Island. Equipped with twelve packets of rabbit food, I spend four incredible hours feeding bunny rabbits all across the island. Four hours of doing exactly what I want, with no one nagging me to keep moving and to stop taking so many pictures. Four hours of bliss. On the way back to Hiroshima, something magical happens: I get out my Japanese phrase book and start studying again. I had given up on it months ago when I got ill and hadn’t touched my books since. Finally actually wanting to study again makes me feel positive about the future.
Day 5 to 7 I spend visiting more World Heritage sites, running away from deer, and engaging in classical lost in translation conversations with Japanese high school students. My final hours in Hiroshima city I spend sitting in a cafe by the river. One of the staff tells me that he used to live in Tokyo until he moved to Hiroshima ten years ago. He says he likes it better in Hiroshima because “it’s more calm and people run less“. I tell him that’s exactly how I feel, too.
I came to like this place a lot and value the experiences I had there. I wasn’t able to swap overly exciting stories with my colleagues after the break, because my “exciting stuff” had mainly happened on the inside, but that’s ok. Those internal changes where and still are extremely important to me, and they wouldn’t have taken place if I hadn’t been traveling on my own.
Not only did I reconnect with Japan, its people, and myself, but I also remembered that even when I, the capable person who can function in the world on her own, trip up and fall, there will aways be people who catch me, even if they don’t know me at all.
And for that, I feel eternally grateful.