A frog in a well does not know the great sea.
– Japanese proverb
Falling in love with a country is much like falling into the proverbial rabbit hole. One minute you are walking in the woods unsuspectingly, the next you’re speeding down a deep tunnel, looking around you and wondering how you found yourself there.
I suppose what we don’t notice when we fall in love are the little things that build up the rabbit hole around us. When it comes to being curious about a country it may be the occasional cultural tidbits that you stumble upon online, a calligraphy documentary you’re suddenly interested in watching or a couple (dozen) anime films you binged on when you were home recovering from a bad cold.
Whether it was the Studio Ghibli films that tickled my imagination, the mochi I couldn’t stop buying at the local Japanese grocery or the infamous images of Kyoto geishas against the backdrop of red-roofed shrines that helped me take the last step before the fall I will never know.
Either way I found myself falling.
Luckily my plane stayed perfectly horizontal for 11 hours while I covered the distance between Seattle and Tokyo’s Narita airport where I landed after a day of travel.
I remember the moment I got on the express train from the airport to the city center like it was yesterday – I sat by the window just as the sun was setting over the outskirts of Tokyo. Whooshing by fields, farms and concrete buildings alike I couldn’t stop thinking that even the sunset was colored differently, more pastel than any I’ve seen before it. With big eyes I looked out and thought, over and over, “I am actually in Japan!”.
The feeling did not abate over the two and a half weeks that I hopped from buses to trains to subway cars and visited 5 towns, slept in 9 hotels and walked a total of 122.4 miles in my sneakers that were frequently removed upon entering shrines, shops’ fitting rooms and ryokans alike.
I remember walking the Okuno-in cemetery in Koyasan, one of the holiest places of Shingon Buddhism and Japan in general, both at sunset and after dark. First watching the light highlight the outline of mossy tombstones that were thousands of years old and then coming back after dark to walk the long path lit by lanterns and hear nothing but occasional creaks of the trees around me and the infrequent footsteps of a like-minded tourist.
My arms and hands still bear the tan that was first a sunburn from a 22 kilometer bike ride I took around the base of Mt. Fuji, circling lake Kawaguchiko. Where in the morning I woke up to Fujisan views from my balcony, in the afternoon I visited a fictional cat museum and in the evening soaked in a Japanese onsen (hot springs baths) that proved to be a deeply connecting experience not only to my own body but to all humans alike.
My sister will happily remind me of how I made her get up very early one morning in Kyoto and climb the thousand torii gates up to Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto, red gates swirling like serpentine around and around, bringing us to the top to see views of Kyoto like nowhere else.
We both will recall with smiles how we fed the sometimes-too-friendly deer in Nara, when one animal in particular demanded food from my sister by chewing on the belt of her dress and sticking its nose in her purse for more crackers.
Years later we will talk about the blooming cherry trees that surrounded us everywhere we went, the petals falling like rain on girls donning kimonos who squealed with delight and smiled under their pink dance to the ground. We will remember shrines lit up at night in Tokyo, subway rides where only bodies held us together on a crowded train, strange statues of hedgehogs or bears that made us laugh, the ramen we tasted, the sushi we stuffed ourselves with.
But most of all, besides the ethereal beauty of Japan, it’s combination of ancient and modern, it’s ease of traveling and the sheer depth of what it has to offer to a visitor, we will remember the people.
Their innate politeness, kindness and care. Their willingness to go out of their way to help a stranger experience Japan the proper way, whether through a five course tempura meal cooked by a chef and his wife in their 9 seater restaurant or a pair of little boys who will lead you to a shrine in the mountains and show you how to properly pray once you get there.
We will remember what it was like to get out of the well like the frogs in the proverb above and actually experience the great sea.
We won’t forget how remarkable it all truly was.