About 2 weeks ago, I went over to visit my best friend from college, Betsy, who has been living and teaching English in Japan for over 3 years. We were inseparable in college (we sometimes got mistaken for a couple) and I hadn’t seen her since she graduated from Bryn Mawr in 2014. She had plans to come visit me in Dublin last summer, but her flight literally got cancelled while she was on the plane. It was tragic, there was lots of crying on both ends, I almost rented a puppy in my grief. But a year later, we finally got it together, prayed for no flight cancellations, and were reunited. Once again, there were tears, but of the good and extremely jet lagged variety.
I spent 6 days in the Kyoto area, where Betsy lives, and 3 days in Tokyo. It was honestly one of the best trips I’ve ever taken for so many reasons: reconnecting with Betsy, traveling to a new place by myself, visiting Asia for the first time, and investing in personal experience instead of material items. I was nervous before I left (and I’m rarely ever a nervous traveler), but I was so proud that I pushed myself and did something amazing.
It took me a little longer to get over the jet lag than I had anticipated (2 full weeks), but here’s my first post from Japan!
Day One – Madison to Kyoto
So, Japan is far away… I drove from Madison to Chicago O’Hare (park in Lot G, if you’re doing long term btw – $10 a day!) after work. And had my first flight from Chicago to Seoul, South Korea. It’s a 14-hour flight, but by some glorious magic I slept through most of it. Also, I watched Hidden Figures and cried a lot.
I tried to make the flight a little less arduous and make it feel more like part of my vacation because, let’s be honest, how often do we really take 14 hours to be completely unplugged? I read a book (Big Little Lies – review coming soon!), wore cozy wool socks, and pampered my skin a little bit. I also brought snacks I never buy for myself and hydrated like crazy. The whole thing was kind of nice, actually.
Flight two was from Seoul to Tokyo after a 5-hour layover. This was a way shorter flight, only about 2 hours, and I learned that Korean airplane food is superior to American airplane food.
After landing in Japan, I took the Narita express from the airport into Tokyo itself – the airport is about 1 hour outside of the city – and then I transferred to the Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train, which took me down to Kyoto. I finally met up with Betsy at the Kyoto train station and we made our final transfer to Ishiyama Station in Otsu, where she lives. Definitely a satisfying reunion.
I’ll be sharing a separate post of my Japan-specific travel tips, but I want to emphasize this one if you’ll be traveling around a bit: get a Japan Rail Pass! Betsy told me about it before I left so I had a chance to order one online and it made train travel sooo much easier while I was there – I just flashed my pass to the conductor at the gate any time I wanted to get on a train. Plus, if you take the Shinkansen twice it essentially pays for itself.
After taking the most incredible feeling shower ever, Betsy and I went into town for some hearty food and cold beer and all was right in the world.
Day Two – Fushimi Inari-taisha
Since Betsy had to work on my first full day in Japan, I hit the ground running by heading out on my own for Fushimi Inari shrine. An easy train ride from Kyoto station, you walk off the train and are greeted by large red gates and a flurry of tourists. But don’t be deterred, the big groups dissipate as you go further up the mountain and soon you’re gloriously alone in the Japanese forest following miles of these vibrant Toro Gates. There are some places in the world that have felt magical to me, like I’ve been in the presence of something larger than myself, and Fushimi Inari was certainly one of them.
I’m someone who is often moved by beautiful churches and grand artistic gestures, so I guess it’s not a surprise that I felt deeply connected to this place. But a friend of mine, who I would safely categorize as a skeptic, insisted that I visit Fushimi Inari because it is so incredible. Betsy kept talking about how magical Japan feels during the summer and I began to understand why.
To me, the experience of climbing Fushimi Inari felt a lot like the journey of faith. At first, I was afraid to face this challenge in a strange land by myself. I wasn’t really sure what I’d gotten myself into. I wished someone had come with me. But once I started climbing and the crowds began to dwindle, I found the excitement of going it alone. Row after row of red gates curving up hills in the dappled, afternoon sunlight. It was the Japanese magic Betsy had talked about. Even amongst the crowds you could feel that something with gravity lived here. The route was confusing and several times I thought I had reached the top, but I hadn’t. More people started to turn back to the busy main shrines in the foothills. But I kept pushing, partly out of stubbornness and partly because I felt pulled by something to make to the final shrine at the top.
I reached a few quiet shrines along the way and wow is there something ancient and profound that mingles in this place. Whether it is a spirit or God or centuries of sacredness left by humans, I felt a real fear and humility at the feet of these shrines. I had to push myself to stand at the steps of these temples. I felt strangely curious and deeply complete.
When I did finally get to the top, it took a literal sign saying “Top of Mountain” for me to believe it because the shrine there looked just like all the others. With that kind of lead up, you expect something magnificent at the top! I hadn’t considered that there might not be some bright shining reward at the end, so I was confused and a little disappointed at first. But then I laughed at myself. It was a total reminder that I needed to open myself up to this trip and I couldn’t have any expectations of what things would be like. It also made me think in a more profound way that we don’t know what’s coming in life – maybe the hard times are rewards in and of themselves, maybe we’ll work hard and there won’t be a prize waiting for us at the end, but we can’t let that stop us from experiencing life. As MyCy would say, it’s the climb.
I cried after I reached the top. Alone in the middle of the Japanese forest surrounded by miles of magical wooden gates. Jet lagged and exhausted and overwhelmed. But after months of working in a windowless office looking at a computer screen, I was just happy to be experiencing the world.
I made my way back down to the foothills in what seemed like minutes and took the train back to Ishiyama to meet up with Betsy for dinner. We sat at her kitchen table drinking cans of cold beer I bought at the convenient store in the thick heat and chatted about her students and my adventure and religion and family. It felt like 3 years had never passed, like I hoped it would.
That night we went into Kyoto for ramen, which tasted incredible after a long day of hiking. We ate gyoza and fatty broth, slurped noodles, and watched the men in the kitchen greet folks as they came and went. The jet lag was really starting to get me, though, and my calves ached from my day of walking. I was ready to pass out as soon as we got home, all warm and sleepy, and I knew I had to sleep well because tomorrow was Betsy’s birthday! Stay tuned for mile high museums, giant wooden utensils, and the best named bar ever. Next time!