I put my sunglasses on as I board the plane. I can wipe the tears but I don’t want anyone to see my red, swollen eyes. I want to keep looking at the country I fell in love with but the view is blurred. The window and the sunglasses are clean but my eyelids mess everything up. Soon, clouds cover Japan and this is when I realize my trip is over. The flight attendant comes to me and asks me what I want. ‘I want to come back. And a glass of vodka, please.’
Two weeks in Japan were not enough. After a bad break up, I decide to reward myself and go on a solo adventure. Signing up a Japanese language course and training karate for years made my curiosity of exploring Japan even stronger. I arrive just in time for the cherry blossom season. I was expecting beautiful flowers and a little culture shock, but I didn’t realise how much I would learn from Japanese culture over the coming weeks.
1. Experiencing hanami during sakura season
The first time I hear the word ‘hanami’ I think, ‘Who has time to go out and do that?’ Focused on our work, personal problems and political issues that make us believe the world is a horrible place, we often forget to appreciate the small details around us. I flick through the Japanese TV channels and few of them show reporters commenting on sakura. The camera reveals close-ups, long and aerial shots of lavish pink and white blooms. The reporting consists of the lines, ‘Oooh, this is beautiful, isn’t it?’ Then the happy voiceover mentions the best places to go for a flower watch.
Hanami is a traditional thousand-year-old Japanese custom that celebrates the beauty of the blooming trees. Nowadays, it is a picnic with friends or family under the gorgeous branches in the parks. I do it with some fun strangers I meet at my hostel in Kyoto. The beauty around us helps us bond and engage in meaningful conversations.
Before coming to Japan, I used a sakura calendar to plan my trip in the cherry blossom season. Every year, the dates are different and the blooming lasts only for few days.
2. Taking a traditional tea ceremony lesson in Japanese
‘It seems easier to host a tea ceremony than to be a guest at it.’ That is the conclusion I make after my first tea ceremony lesson at a special Japanese school to which my host in Tokyo, Yuta, takes me. I feel privileged to be the only non-Japanese person to enter something that to me feels like a secret society. It is is an actual lesson where most people learn the art of being a tea ceremony master. And there is me, the outsider, who doesn’t even speak the language but is enthusiastic enough to try and understand what is happening. Yuta knows I am trying to learn Japanese so he doesn’t translate anything in English unless I make the same lost-in-translation mistake too many times.
We all must sit in seiza, a traditional form of seating. We kneel and fold our legs underneath out thighs. It gets painful after ten minutes. Those of us who play the guests line on the soft tatami mat, counting an exact number of lines. The last line marks the place where our knees have to be. I have to use certain expressions when I greet the host, take a sweet or before I drink my tea. There are rules for the position of every part of my body, for the order I use my hands to take and drink from the bowl. I fear I will hate the matcha tea when I try it and this will show on my face and everyone will think I am impolite. But the tea is not that bad, it tastes like coffee but more bitter. Regardless if I like it or not, the etiquette requires me to say, ‘mmm it was very tasty,’ with passion and in Japanese.
It is my turn to play the host. I perform the routine I have watched others do, take some of the green powder, pour water and start whisking it inside the first bowl. Everyone starts laughing as Tomoko, our teacher, comments my performance. I turn to Yuta with a confused look and he explains, ‘You are doing it too fast. Slow down.’
I think about these words long after the lesson is over. So far, I have been traveling in a rush to see and experience all amazing places in Japan. I am so obsessed with this country that I sometimes forget to eat, rest or enjoy the journey. Tomoko may not realize it, but she gave me a valuable advice on how to continue my trip without having a heart attack.
3. Walking around Kyoto in a kimono
Excited to have my ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ moment, I decide to do something super touristy and go for a Geisha makeover, complemented with a stroll in the old town and a photo shoot. Wearing this camouflage for half a day costs at least 10 000 yen ($84) and for some reason I believe it is worth it.
But then go to the market next to Kitano Tenmangu Shrine where I stumble upon a stand that sells second-hand traditional dresses. I buy it and start making plans of how to accessorize it, instead of renting one for a short time. It costs $150 in total but I can, at least, keep the outfit.
I put on my new wooden flip flops and white socks when I go out to meet Taka who is going to show me around Kyoto. As we greet, I point at the bag I am carrying to explain my weird shoe choice. He takes me to a public toilet in the station where I can change into my kimono. I spend the next twenty minutes inside, wrestling with the belt that seems impossible to put. But I better wrap it around my waist and get out of here soon. I don’t want my new friend to think I have stomach problems. But when I do go out, I see the grumpy face of a Japanee granny in the mirror. She doesn’t say anything when she approaches me to adjust the obi belt. My back straightens from her strong pull. I show her the exit door as she starts to explain something to me. I need Taka’s help.
Both adjust and discuss my dress. I feel as useless as a shop window mannequin. Apparently, there are pieces that I have missed and this is why it is not working. But the granny manages to wrap my belt as Taka learns something new. Suddenly, he jumps in excitement, ‘Picture, picture! Where is your camera?’ He snaps a few shots before the woman is done fixing my dress. Later that day, I understand his eagerness to capture this moment. I look like a giant next to her.
4. Staying in a temple & chanting with monks
I feel nervous before my very first telephone conversation in Japanese. To make it more intimidating, it is with a monk from a traditional temple in the country. I would have otherwise used email and Google Translate. I write my script, practice it a few times, take a deep breath and dial the number. It works, we understand each other, even when I ask him to repeat some words several times. He starts making my reservation, asking me when I want to come and how long and want to stay. I tell him and he confirms. ‘For how many people?’ It is just for me. He is getting anxious on the other side. ‘Ugh… It is not possible.’ What do you mean? Why? ‘Rules.’ This is one of these rare moments when I wish I wasn’t a solo female traveler.
I find a temple that is lone-female-friendly in Koyasan, a five-hour journey from Kyoto to the mountains. I book by room online. It is the most I have ever paid for accommodation – $100 for one night, which is a lot for someone who usually stays at hostels or Couchsurfs.
I expect the temple lodging conditions to be modest. Instead, I get a huge traditional Japanese room where I find a multi-course vegetarian dinner, the typical Buddhist shoji cuisine. But there still are rules for handling solo female guests – monks always come in pairs when they come to do my bed, clear my table or wake me up for the morning prayer.
Before sunrise, I am invited to pray and participate in a ritual I don’t quite understand. As the only non-Japanese person, I just sit and observe the chanting monks, soaking the serene energy in the room. Suddenly, all of us have to perform a certain routine, one after another. I watch and repeat, make many mistakes but, at least, I try.
5. Sumimasen! The importance of communicating in Japanese
Before I head to Japan, friends warn me I am going to a country where people don’t speak English. ‘Yeah, yeah. This is just a stereotype. I am sure there are plenty of locals who can communicate in English.’ Few days later, I almost end up sleeping on Shirakawago’s dark and still snowy streets, under the heavy rain. I arrive in the village at night and can’t find the way to the house I have booked. There is only one other person who arrives at the village with me, a guy about my age. I assume he speaks English and ask him if he can help me find my way, phone my hosts or, at least, show some moral support. Instead, he runs away.
From now on, I can only rely on my luck. I know how the house looks – dark wood and thatch roof. Just like any other house in the area. There are no street lights. Soon after wandering around, my clothes and backpack are soaked. I look like a sad character from a romantic French drama, alone and confused under the rain. My luck better works now. I start making plans to hide somewhere I won’t freeze and wait for the long night to pass, wearing layers of wet clothes.
Then I see a shadow in the distance. An umbrella, a person. I start shouting, “Sumimasen! Sumimasen!”, which means “excuse me!”. He hears me and turns. This time in Japanese, I ask for directions. He takes me to the house, where a warm home-cooked dinner waits.