Returning to Japan
A portrait of me holding a folding fan to my face
God, I’m a dork.

I went to Japan four years ago or so. This probably isn’t news if you know me– I bring it up once in a while, and it was a big deal to me when it happened. That said, in the four years since returning, I haven’t really written a ton about it, nor have I put any of my pictures from the trip anywhere except my hard drive. I kept an audio journal while I was abroad, and at one point I was working on digitizing and transcribing it, but that’s also fallen through the cracks. I have a bag of memorabilia at home that I saved with the intention of eventually scrapbooking it, a project that has been neglected as well.

This is not in any way to say that my trip was not worth it. Far to the contrary, my trip to Japan was my first significant trip abroad, and it opened my eyes to an entirely different cultural perspective than the one I grew up with. I stayed with Japanese families, met Japanese people, talked with and learned from Japanese students, explored the community of Hirado and learned– a little bit– what it was like to be a total foreigner in an unfamiliar country. I think my trip was significant enough that it inspired me to continue learning Japanese, and it’s part of the reason that I hope to return next year, and am considering teaching English there after graduation through the JET Programme. It was undeniably a worthwhile trip.

But it was, in the grand scheme of things, a taste. It whet my appetite, but now I’m looking at spending an entire year in Kyoto starting this fall (provided the program accepts me).

And I can’t wait.

The Golden Pavilion
Kyoto’s Kinkakuji, or “Golden Pavilion”

For one thing, while it was nice seeing so much of Japan, when I went with People to People, my time was very structured. There were itineraries and schedules. Everyone had to have a watch. We hopped from location to location, trying to see as much as we could in the two weeks we were there. And we did see a lot– from the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum to the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, from the tallest building in Tokyo to a small, beachside salt production process. I won’t say that I didn’t appreciate everything I saw, but with such a structured type of tour, it’s hard to think of yourself as anything other than a tourist. People to People did a pretty good job of minimizing this by making sure we got to have meaningful human interactions with Japanese, but in the end, we were a tour group.

A Japanese tour guide in front of a group of Americans
One of our tour guides, holding a bright orange “don’t get lost!” flag

When you’re a member of a tour group, there’s a lot of weight off of your shoulders. We had an interpreter with us almost all the time. We had guides who knew their way around each city we stopped in. Things like this are necessary for a tour group, because a tour group is designed to be easy and worry-free.

But you don’t learn as much when you’re not challenged. You don’t come to know a city when your guide is carrying an orange flag and leading you around– you learn it by getting completely and hopelessly lost, and finding your way back to some vaguely familiar landmark. You don’t learn a language by asking your interpreter to translate for you– you learn it by having no choice but to hear it and use it all the time. And despite the fantastic experiences I had in Japan, you simply can’t understand a culture in two weeks– you have to breathe it, feel it, and watch it ebb and flow with the seasons.

This is why I’m pumped to study in Kyoto.

I’m going to have an entire year to take the basic foundations sketched out by my first trip and fill them with meaning and understanding, and this time, it will all be on me. No tour guides or interpreters, just Spencer and the big city. I’ll have the opportunity to not only live in, but truly inhabit the city of Kyoto.

And the most exciting part for me? It’s, oddly enough, the most terrifying too– I can’t wait to be completely lost. I know that once I get over there and it sinks in that I won’t be home in the United States for a whole school year, it’s going to hurt. I’m going to be lost and frustrated for a while because my Japanese won’t be good enough. The city will be daunting, the customs alien, and I’ll feel like I don’t belong– because I won’t.

But then I’ll find it. Somehow, I’ll start picking it up. Slowly, my language will improve as I pick up on the idiosyncrasies of the Kansai dialect. I’ll learn my way around the city. I’ll begin recognizing the customs. Not because I had a guidebook telling me which way to turn and how to ask for directions, not because my tour guide was explaining it to me, but because, as a simple product of living and actively experiencing, I’ll get it. My knowledge will be mine and mine alone, because I struggled for it.

Only through suffering comes enlightenment, said my old friend. I can’t imagine a more applicable phrase. I want so badly to go to Japan and push myself hard into the situations where I’m not comfortable, where I’m being challenged at every turn, because when the blood, sweat, and tears pay off, that knowledge will be ever the more richer.

This, I think, is the key. Throwing oneself into the thick of the challenge, letting go of the safety net, and struggling to earn the knowledge you acquire– this, I think, is what transforms a tourist into a traveler.