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Personal Essay

What Japan taught me

For me, I usually end a trip in tears. Immersing myself in a place so deeply that I’m devastated to return home is just how I do things when traveling. Most people get a “breather” when they vacation, and “recharge their batteries” so that life back home doesn’t seem so mundane and exhausting. But trips abroad, to me, have always felt more like real life than vacation, a life that I don’t need to “recharge” from. This has been my attitude toward traveling since my first passport stamp: an escape, more than a break.

This trip to Japan was so many things: challenging, emotionally and physically draining, confusing and even frustrating at times. It was also beautiful, surreal, inspiring, and profound on every level – I happy cried a very healthy amount.

But the biggest thing Japan taught me was that real life can feel like a vacation, and it has nothing to do with where you are or even what you’re doing. It’s all in your head. Standing in the middle of thousands of bustling people on their way to work, school, etc., going about their daily lives and not looking up once, while I stood in amazement at the place they call home showed me that. Reading prayer tokens at countless different shrines and temples with the same pleas written over and over, about family, health, safety and love showed me that. Coming home to a place that looks brand new showed me that. And that is why this trip was so special to me.

Exploring Japan was like one big metaphor for life: it’s exciting, it’s hectic, it’s unexpectedly beautiful at times and sometimes the weather is complete shit, but as long as you stay positive and keep your wits about you, you’ll eventually end up on top (of a shrine).

I tried my best to go into this trip with no expectations, because they usually ruin everything. But, that’s basically impossible when you’re thinking about something for months and imagining what it will be like, even Googling the hotels you’ll be staying in to see how comfy your future bed looks. It also took a lot, financially, for this trip to work, so I unknowingly placed a lot of pressure on it to be amazing so that I would feel it was “worth it.” Saying that now is so insane to me, because not only did Japan far exceed my expectations, it was priceless, and something I wouldn’t give back for ten times what I paid in tuition.

One of the things that surprised me the most was how present Japan’s values are in most aspects of life there. It really does feel like another world, but it has as much, if not more, to do with the way people live as it does the distance. Respect, honor, unity and peace exude from every squeaky clean street, friendly shopkeeper and person on the subway who would sooner get stuck in the closing doors than shove their backpack into someone’s face. I didn’t expect to feel so far from home in that way, and it really showed me how much more considerate of others we could be here and still function efficiently. If Tokyo can do it, Austin definitely can. And I love bouts of road rage as much as the next guy.

For others planning to visit Japan (which should be everyone reading this), I would recommend, if you can, to come for at least a week, if not two. In my 14 days there, I only barely scratched the surface of what Japan has to offer, and didn’t even cross half the things off my list of must-do’s. There are just an infinite amount of things to get into, places to go, and different cities to check out. It’s not really a one-and-done type of destination, so go prepared to get as much as you can out of one trip, because you’ll likely be thinking about round two not long after (or so I’ve heard). I hope to spend more time in Tokyo, Kyoto and Okinawa in the future, and I’d also like to visit Hakone, Nagoya and more of the countryside. I’d also like to finally see Mount Fuji for myself, but I don’t want to jinx it again.

I am happy to report that after a spectacular journey to Japan, I am glad to be home. My bed feels comfier, my dog is somehow cuter, the trains are way less annoying and my apartment feels like the Ritz. And God did I miss shorts. Even sitting here writing this essay in my kitchen at 2 a.m. the night before it’s due, I couldn’t be better. Life is good, and it always has been, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to really learn about perspective during my trip. I will carry lessons learned in Japan with me in both my life and my future adventures, like to stop drawing a clear line between the two. Thank you, Japan, and thank you, SJMC, for an experience unlike any other.

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