Alone on a hill in Agerola, Italy, I sat in the bathroom, looked at my unhappy reflection, and started to draw a self-portrait on the toilet paper.
What was I doing here?
Six months into my “great adventure” around the world, and I was the same girl I was when I first left for this trip. Scratch that, I was lonelier. Where was my Eat, Pray, Love experience? Wasn’t I supposed to transform in some way? Come to a great spiritual awakening?
In my travel journal I had written:
- Come out at the end of this trip changed in some way
- Meet unique people with ideas I’ve never heard of before
- Live stories that you will remember for the rest of your life.
But, maybe that was asking too much. Eat, Pray, Love is just a book and movie, after all, and perhaps traveling is just that – visiting new towns and moving on. What is there to guarantee some grandiose change?
A few months later, as I was scootering through the rice fields in Bali, I noticed a familiar scent. It didn’t come from any particular direction or shop, but simply resided in the air. With one deep inhale, I identified it as the scent of Japan. I was surprised to have even recalled the aroma, considering I hadn’t been to that country in six years.
* * * *
Being Japanese-American, many of my early summers were spent visiting Japan from my home in New York. My mother would take us kids to the Chiba prefecture on Honshu, so we could be close to our grandparents, as well as our culture. My childhood was filled with the scorching heat of the island, eating delicious white peaches, and trying to catch bugs with my mom. I’d wake up at 5am, due to jetlag, and my grandpa and I would walk to the small, local temple together. We would throw in 100 Yen, clap our hands twice, and bow. I imagined Kamisama (god in Japanese) greeting me like her best friend, and my six-year-old self would ask what she was doing today.
As I got older, I visited Japan less often. Somewhere in the transition between child and young adult, my life started to falter. When I was there last, at age 17, I decided not to return for a long time due to social issues such as sexism and racism. On top of that, I was going through my own teenage cultural identity crisis, something very common for mixed-race kids. When I returned to New York at the end of that summer, I vowed to turn my life around and work on creating a better, happier version of myself. So, I shut the door on this dark phase of my life and moved forward.
But in doing that, I inadvertently shut out all of my childhood. Focused on only looking ahead with positivity, I forgot how to deal with any present pain. When my Japanese grandpa passed, I was the only one who didn’t go to his funeral. I was on a flight to Paris instead.
* * * *
Perhaps it was the scent, that day in Bali, or perhaps it was the loneliness creeping into my heart, but I made the decision then and there on my little motorized bike to book a long overdue trip back to my motherland.
Arriving in the noise of Tokyo, a nostalgic excitement raced through me. The city had transformed in the previous six years. Despite the changes, I saw my childhood woven in the little streets and grand buildings. Each path I walked along came with a memory I had forgotten.
One morning, I took the train to the countryside where my grandmother lived. While Tokyo had evolved into what seemed like a whole new city, time stood still in the small town of Chiba. Nothing had changed.
Together with my Obaachan (grandmother), I walked to the temple my grandfather used take me to more than a decade earlier.
Guilt flooded over me. I was now facing every emotion I’d suppressed related to my grandfather’s passing. I could feel his love, his undeniable presence in the nature around me, and in our memories that lived in this town. I stood in front of this temple, in front of the Kamisama we used to bow our heads to, and bowed my head deeply as I let my tears fall. Kamisama greeted me like an old friend, despite the fact that I neglected her for years.
I was starting to realize something. Maybe I wasn’t meant to find new experiences or transform into a bigger, better person with this trip. Instead of learning new things and making new friends, I was reconnecting with lost memories and mending old relationships. In Zurich, I rekindled a friendship with my best friend from elementary school. In Japan, I reunited with the memory of my late grandpa. Throughout this entire adventure, I’d rebuilt the love and trust I used to have with Kamisama as she guided me on my journey. This trip wasn’t taking me onto new roads – it was making me revisit the old ones.
Without knowing, I’d been living my life in two parts – one as a troubled pre-teen and one as a happy young adult. This trip let me accept my younger self, and connect my two souls – an outcome I realized was much more valuable than the goals I had originally written down.
So, in an odd sense, I did transform into a better person – just not in the way I had expected. That’s the beauty of travel: you never know where your roads will take you. Sometimes they take you back in time.
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