When in Rome..... or Japan?

In April my husband and I decided to sell all of our belongings, leave our jobs and home in Argentina in search of a new life in Europe. Since we’d been working nonstop, running a polo ranch in rural Buenos Aires for the last 7 years, we decided to take a few months off before settling down again in our new lives.

Travelling has always been a huge passion of mine and I’ve been lucky enough to visit over 20 countries. But this time it was different, we had a goal set for our travels, it wasn’t just about going on a relaxing holiday. We were going on a journey to help us understand how and where we wanted to end up and to start planning the next chapter of our lives. We decided to fly first to the UK, then to Amsterdam, Japan and Spain.

We started our travels in the UK and tried our hand for the first time at house-sitting, a cheap and more personal alternative for accommodation. It’s a great way to meet people and if you like pets, even better.

When travelling I like to do so with a purpose as opposed to just consuming. I like to observe the way the locals go about their day to day lives and participate in as many “normal activities” as possible as opposed to sticking to the tourist track. Especially things like; eating where the locals eat, travelling on public transport, talking to the locals about what makes them tick and really getting a feel of the culture. Luckily in Amsterdam we have a friend who showed us around (there is no better way to see a country than through the eyes of someone who lives there) and on our last night we ended up in a traditional Dutch pub on a Friday night. It was definitely a unique and wonderful experience. What hits you as soon as you arrive in Amsterdam is how friendly and happy everyone is. This pub was the epitome of happiness, it was a congregation of dutch people letting off steam and being incredibly joyous together as one, singing and laughing and chatting as a group. There was no tension, no bad attitudes just huge positive vibes. It was incredibly refreshing and such a warm atmosphere.

After 4 days in Amsterdam we headed off to Japan. The contrast between Amsterdam and Tokyo, the Dutch and the Japanese couldn’t be greater. This was the main reason we wanted to travel to Japan, to experience something worlds apart from our lives back in Argentina, and it didn’t disappoint.

Unfortunately jet lag curbed our first couple of days, the 7 hour time difference just killed us and it felt like my body and mind didn’t have a clue what was going on. This was heightened by the constant neon lights, robot and cat themed restaurants, the crowds of people, the 24hr non-stop arcades and just the general foreignness of everything that is Tokyo. I’m pretty sure that the first couple of days it chewed us up and spat us out but as we started to get used to the pace we started to really enjoy this mega city. Since I like to get under the surface of places, our main activity for the first week was just observing how the Japanese go about their lives (and learning). Your first impression is that they have weird habits, they’re reserved, serious and addicted to technology but actually they’re incredibly friendly, highly respectful of other human beings, majorly disciplined (no doubt that this quality has played a massive role in their success) driven, spiritual, completely trustworthy and selfless. Yes they appear to be private people but this is just them being respectful. What amazed me the most is how no one makes eye contact, so although you feel like the odd one out this is short lived because no one looks at you or anyone else for that matter. Despite the crowds no one bumps into you (again incredibly respectful of personal spaces), the cities are clean and my favourite thing about Japan……the trains! Never delayed, really spacious, quiet, fast, comfortable and no one is ever sat in your seat. It was a real pleasure to travel from East to West of Japan all thanks to their bullet trains. It took us a while to get used to their subway system (another city underground) but once you do you appreciate the efficiency and again, punctuality.

One of our favourite days in Tokyo was spent at the biggest fish market in the world. We got their early so we could see everyone at work and it really was a unique experience. Fish is a major component in the Japanese diet and this market was on a huge scale. There we were at 10am eating the best, freshet sushi ever tasted.

As the days went by I felt like I was getting to understand a little bit more about the Japanese and the important rules of etiquette. Incredibly they have one of the highest rates of suicides (put down to the social pressures, unemployment work demands, ambition and lack of sleep) yet they also have the longest life expectancy rates. This juxtaposition is seen throughout Japan. The generation gap between the more conventional self-sacrificing parents and grandparents and the creative and experimental younger generations seems to divide the culture into two groups. Japan has the latest technology and a futuristic feel yet you can still get a sense of its traditional and spiritual roots.

From Tokyo we travelled to Kyoto; this town is steeped in rich history and heritage. Beautiful ancient temples and shrines and impeccably dressed geishas walking the streets in their kimonos, Kyoto helps you find a bit of peace after the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. One of my favourite activities in Kyoto was getting a shiatsu massage from an old, strong Japanese lady. Neither of us spoke the same language but that didn’t matter as she managed just fine to find my weak spots and it was an incredibly relaxing and fulfilling experience.

From Kyoto we travelled to Hiroshima (the site of the 1945 atomic bomb) and Miyajima (the island of gods, off mainland Hiroshima). Both these places are a testament to the determination and hard work of the Japanese people. After trekking up the 535m mountain (in an attempt to show our own determination) through the world heritage primeval forest you’re rewarded with the most magnificent views over the bay of Hiroshima, incredible to think that not too long ago it was submitted to the most horrific of war crimes. On our way up we were treated every so often with curious shrines including the 1200 year old flame, lit by Kobo Daishi as part of his 100 days “Gumonji” training (a secret Buddhist practice) This island definitely felt like a place of legends and miracles.

On our final day in Japan (now back in Tokyo) we both wanted to do different things so off we went in opposite directions. I was interested in visiting one of the many parks (again to immerse myself into the Japanese habits). Despite the whirlwind feel of the city, amongst the many skyscrapers there are lots of tranquil green parks dotted around one can go to and find ones zen. I went to Yoyogi Park, I was secretly hoping to find some Japanese enjoying their activities and that’s just what I found. After walking around for a while I sat down on a bench for a rest and as ever, once you actually stop still long enough to actually see and take in your surroundings you usually find what you’re looking for. To my right there were a group of boys practicing some form of martial arts, to my left a group of choir singers, on the other side a dance group with silver fans, moms with babies practising yoga, a guitarist on the next bench along, painters and many runners and cyclists. It was a hub of activity and it gave me a sense that the Japanese lead a healthy, interesting and diverse lifestyle. Each activity ended with either a screaming routine (some form of release perhaps) or with the martial arts group they ended with a song (I’m guessing the national anthem).

I’m definitely a more is less person but the trip to Japan really got me thinking about living a more minimalist life. Maybe it was because of the small compact hotel rooms still with everything you need or maybe it was just me growing as a person but I really am starting to believe that a life of enough is the way forward. Why do we always pack so much stuff when we go on holiday anyway? I probably only used about 20% of the clothes and 5% of the shoes. In retrospect, I guess our move from Argentina was the starting point of this new simpler life. I took great satisfaction from de-cluttering and leaving with just the essentials. I’m convinced that consumerism is not the way to feel fulfilled and I believe that people will eventually start to move away from this perpetual state of buying in a hope to fill a void. In my experience throughout my life the simpler it’s been the happier I’ve been.

There are so many great things to write about Japan but it’s definitely better experiencing it first hand. My experience was you get out of it what you’re willing to put in, which I suppose is a lesson in life. For me travelling is all about attitude. The days we went out there with positive vibes and open for adventure were our best days. I would also say that you’ll never be able to see everything in one visit so choose carefully your ‘must see’ list and really slow down to enjoy them. I revisited a shrine on my last day we had seen on our first and it was a totally different, more enriching experience because I wasn’t in a rush. When you arrive somewhere new you’re always excited to see everything and you hurry through things, this is a shame especially when visiting holy places where the longer you take the richer the experience.

Next stop on our journey, Spain……to be continued.

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