Ella Maillart had once said – “You do not travel if you are afraid of the unknown, you travel for the unknown, that reveals you with yourself.”
I truly believe that every soul has a purpose to accomplish in this lifetime. And it is vital to awaken to that purpose to bring meaning and fulfillment to our lives.
I have found my purpose in travelling. Travel to unravel my own unknown core. My soul gets nourished in faraway places. I find travel the best form of experiential learning as I learn best through human interactions. Travelling exposes me to different kinds of people, their cultures, food habits and emotional responses. However, most importantly, I find it extremely humbling to conclude how we are so similar at core yet being so diverse outwardly in our culture and heritage.
In 2016, I took to solo travelling. I always wanted to test my own threshold of conquering my fear, inhibitions and ability to find peace, joy and excitement as a lone traveler. As a traveler, it is a test to assess the degree of willingness to let go off one’s comfort zone, joyfully embrace totally different culture, food, accommodation and travel nuances and agility to adapt unexpected change.
I chose places where I knew people just in case of any emergency. Hence, I decided to travel to England and Ireland. While England’s past glory, castles, manors and its rich green pastures are very alluring, Ireland on the other hand offers raw rustic appeal with a lot of old world charm. The trip including spending a week in each country and connect with my school friends after 22 years.
Any travel requires meticulous planning and solo travelling requires even more. Planning for my solo trip was a testament to my ability to research, plan and execute with minimal hurdles within a certain budget. I packed my trip with well-explored tours to Stratford, Bath, Stonehenge, Oxford, Blenheim Palace, Greenwich, Dublin, Newgrange, Cliffs of Moher, Limerick, Irish villages and a Broadway show. I love walking. Hence, I ensured that I gathered that experience too. I walked to my heart’s content on the streets of London, Oxford and Dublin observing various human activities unfold.
During one of my walks, seeing a few turbaned Indian young men playing bhangra music in Trafalgar square was very nostalgic. It immediately transposed me to Punjab. A huge mass of crowd had gathered around to enjoy the vibrant, rhythmic beating of drums. Seeing such a huge crowd comprising of various nationalities together enjoying authentic Indian music was indeed a joyful moment for me. I glanced at people standing close by and flashed a smile. I had a similar dejavu moment listening to an Englishman on streets of Oxford playing amazing sitar which lasted for almost half an hour. What a performance! And it was immensely gratifying to watch people enjoy the sitar recital.
The world seemed ONE! Music truly binds people and anything that stems from one’s heart reaches the hearts of many.
Solo travelling enabled me to trust my six senses especially my ‘gut’. While, logical mind at times can be deceptive as it banks on facts and information, ‘gut’ can never be dismissed as it is seldom misleading. Understanding and recognizing my ‘gut’ has been one of my most extremely enriching and redeeming experience in this solo trip. With my heightened senses, I was able to sieve safe from dangerous situations and enjoy my journey to the hilt.
I had started my journey with an intent to overcome my fear of unknown and by the end of the trip I realized that I had very gracefully accomplished my fear.
This solo trip left me with a yearning to put myself through more such elevating experiences. I was determined to make each of my solo trips a deep learning chapter of my life.
Hence in the beginning of 2018, I settled on taking my second solo trip to deepen my senses and chip off my inhibitions. This time I chose a country where I would be a complete alien. JAPAN! My family asked me the reason for choosing a country where language can be a huge barrier. I took it up as a noble challenge to see if language can truly be a block!
This solo trip was a true adventure as I didn’t bank on tours to explore the country. I decided to be a complete wanderlust and discover the country. My trip comprised of two weeks as that’s what I am permitted by my daughter. When I had taken my first solo trip in 2016, my daughter was very supportive of my trip and considered the two -weeks as her ‘solo’ stay. This time when I broached the topic of my travel, there was an emotional unrest in my daughter that I had to address. Although, she was extremely supportive, I witnessed pangs of anxiety in her. This is the toughest one that a mother has to deal with. Through continuous talking and sharing my research, I tried to inject excitement and motivated her to work hard to take on such solo trips when she becomes an adult.
I did thorough research on places, food, transport and weather. I had heard so much about cherry blossoms that I ensured that I plan my trip in a manner that I truly enjoy them. I chose last two weeks of March as travel time and chose Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima as places to visit. I also decided to stay as a paying guest with Japanese family in a very interior residential area so that I can truly get privy to Japanese style of living in Tokyo and rent an apartment in Kyoto.
Considering Japan is known for its rail services, I chose to leverage it to my advantage along with my passion for walking. When I was creating my broad itinerary, I realized that my zest to explore the places on foot will engage me walking for close to 10 kms every day. I was super excited. However, I realized that I need to equip my body for such marathons. And I did through regular workouts.
In my heart, I wanted to have a unique experience from this trip and I knew I would. I based my journey on my planning, ‘gut’ and destiny.
From the moment I landed in Tokyo airport to the moment I left Tokyo, every single day had been an intense learning and vastly humbling experience. Every interaction left me with awe and admiration for the country and its people.
My first encounter to such humility and warm welcome was on the day I landed in Tokyo. Since I was to stay with a Japanese family in suburbs, I had to change three trains to reach the place called Senzoku-Ike from Narita airport. When I came out of the station it was almost 6:30pm. It was dark, drizzling and windy. Even though I was well prepared with Google Map print out for walking from the station to my host’s house, I was clueless of the by-lane to take when I came out of the station. Completely bewildered and nervous, I approached one Japanese gentleman. He wasn’t able to offer me much help. Despite activating my international roaming for Japan on my phone, the facility was non-operational on my phone. Hence, I was unable to call my host to seek directions. I stood outside the station helplessly for a few mins wondering what to do next. A lady with her young toddler in her cycle approached me and asked me in English – ‘Can I help you’. I would have definitely stood out as an outsider in that area. After explaining my situation, she took out her mobile and located the house on Google Maps. I gently asked her to let me know which direction to take. She promptly said – “Let me take you there”. Although I heaved a huge sigh of relief, I was taken aback by her warmth and helpful nature. I was hesitant and insisted that she needn’t take that much of trouble. I could find my way if she lets me know the directions. However, she was persistent and didn’t want to leave me stranded on my first day in her country. Off we went looking for the house. After bracing through the wind and rain, we finally reached my destination. She didn’t leave even then. She waited till the host came out and she verified that I was indeed at the right house. My heart swelled with gratitude and I bowed deeply and muttered in my own way – Arigatou Adaimus (Thank you very much)!
After that incident, every single day of my stay in Tokyo and then subsequently in Kyoto, I encountered the generosity, warmth and helpful nature of Japanese. I realized that each Japanese takes it upon themselves to make a guest feel comfortable in their country. I have asked help from random people (students, office goers, young, old) on directions, locations, time, places to go or eat and each time I was left with more awe by their modesty and empathy to assist out of their way.
Japan is a different land with freshly bloomed cherry blossoms. The whole ambiance is joyful and rejuvenating. I witnessed cherry blossoms at various stages of its bloom. Watching this serene beauty of nature coupled with visiting the pristine and calming shrines (which are mostly UNESCO declared World Heritage sites) made my entire trip supremely peaceful and fulfilling. It was also very interesting to see young and old donning traditional Japanese attire Kimono during this spring season.
When I visit a foreign land, I meet many foreigners, who too are travelers like me. Each day seemed like a deep inward journey with me surprising myself with my ability to connect with diverse people, striking conversations with them in my own animated language. Travelling alone can be a disadvantage especially when photos need to be clicked. However, approaching anyone with this request was so easy and I noticed people were delighted to oblige me with my request! My heart was filled with gratitude seeing so much humility, goodness and simplicity in other travelers and Japanese people. I realized language simply cannot be a blockade when the intent is unadulterated.
My entire trip was filled with beautiful memories and each memory etched a learning on human interactions and sentiments in my heart.
My return to India was from Tokyo. I decided to take a night train from Kyoto to Tokyo so that I could spend the night in the train. Upon reaching Tokyo station, I had planned to take Narita Express to go to the airport. My planning was perfect. However, there is a saying – “Many a slip between the cup and the lip”. Two days prior to my return to Tokyo, when I tried booking my train reservations from Kyoto on the night train, I got a rude shock to know that there was no vacant seat. My best alternative was to take Shinkansen (the bullet train) at 8:40pm from Kyoto that would reach Tokyo station by 11:25pm. With no other available option, I decided to take the Shinkansen.
Tokyo station has well kept waiting rooms. I decided to spend my night there before catching Narita Express next morning at 6:15am. However, it seems that destiny had a different plan for me. I was barely seated in the waiting room for 15 mins, 2 police officers walked up to me and asked me to leave the place and go to the first floor the station. Jostling with my luggage I managed to reach the first floor, only to find it absolutely empty. My heart started sinking bit by bit. Not spotting a single person there, I smiled and consoled myself- “Reshmi, this too is part of the journey. So relax and be alert”. I found a spot next to a vending machine as a shelter to spend the night. I had 6 hours to pass before catching Narita Express. As luck would have it, I had barely settled myself there, noticed a policeman walking upto me. He gestured that I couldn’t sit there as the station will be closed soon. ‘Closed’ – when has any railway station closed at night, I thought to myself. Simply couldn’t fathom the rationale.
Panic had started slowly gripping me. I spotted a lady sitting at Japan Rail counter. I walked up to her. Explained my predicament and asked where I could get some shelter in the station to spend the night. The lady in her strictest voice asked me to leave the station. I simply couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Her instructions were clear – ‘The station will be completely shut down and closed. No one is allowed to stay inside the station’. I begged her to allow me to stay at one corner. Instead of showing any consideration, she took out a map and suggested that I go to the nearby capsule hotels to spend the night. She wasn’t ready to listen or understand my dilemma.
The moment of my vulnerability kicked in and I could sense my hands and feet shaking. I tried to stay calm although my heart was crying out loud for help. My mind was racing through various options to consider, but I drew blank. As I dragged myself and my luggage and made a turn round a pillar, I suddenly saw a group of 10-12 Japanese sitting on plastic chairs. They seemed like passengers who were waiting there. Mustering up hope, in my animated way, I asked one of them if I could sit there.
When difficulty strikes, the purpose is to teach you a lesson. Until the lesson is learnt, the wave of difficult time ceases to be over. Barely seated there for 20 mins, this time 3 policemen approached us and escorted seated passengers to the doors of the station. I was speechless. How could they be so cruel to their own people?
Among those stranded Japanese passengers, there were two females – one in twenties and one in seventies. Using animated Japanese words and gestures, I managed to influence them to stick around me for the rest of the night. I got to know from them that the station gates would open at 4:30am. We had close to 4 hours before the gates would open.
Finding a safe spot just outside the gates, we sat down on the floor.
My mind racing through the absurdity of the situation. I have travelled to 17 countries around the globe. Never ever, had I come across a situation where railway station is completely shut down at night. Well, there is always a first time for everything in life!
None of us were prepared for this awkward situation. The temperature slowly started dropping and in no time, it became chilly. I took out my limited warm clothes and offered the elderly lady my shawl. She took it and instead gave it to the young lady. The elderly lady was wearing a windcheater. She was more concerned about the young lady as she barely had warm clothing on her. She took that shawl and covered her legs. I offered her my warm shrug as well. The old lady covered the younger one with that shrug. She took every effort to make that young girl felt safe and comfortable. I offered the old lady to use my suitcase to sit. She again refused and explained that she would stand to keep herself warm. I was completely appalled to see a seventy-year-old lady standing through the night.
As the night unfolded, I witnessed amazing discipline, tenacity and compassion. That night revealed a very different picture of Japanese people and society.
None of the passengers complained of any inconvenience. No one created fuss. I am sure like me they too would have not expected such turn of events. But, everybody accepted the norm.
While 3 of us stuck together, other passengers had wandered off. We spent those hours chatting, laughing at our situation, exchanging notes of our respective journey and at times dozing off. Their eyes sparkled with curiosity to know that I was from India. They wondered even more to know that I was travelling alone. Sitting through the night, not even for an iota of second I felt scared of my safety and dignity. Sitting there, I had a certain level of calmness and assurance, something I had never felt before.
Apparently, in Japan, there is a complete lockout and shut down of all stations from 12-4am to ensure smooth maintenance and safety of Japan rail system and security of all passengers. Through the glass doors, I could see the railway maintenance employees working through the night to fix railway tracks and other repairs. Every worker worked with purpose and diligence.
From the Land of Rising Sun to the Land of Humanity, Japan has loads to offer to the entire world. It is perhaps the only country that I think is a perfect blend between technological advancement, tradition and heritage. Unless, one visits this country, one will be deprived off this perfect balance.
As the night slowly slipped into dawn, I paced through the past two weeks in my mind. This trip was perfect barring the incident at hand. I kept thinking on what went wrong. That’s when I realized how enriching this trip had been. In a span of couple of hours, I was left me with deepest level of life’s fundamental lessons:
- Always be ready to expect and accept the unexpected. Life becomes easier to deal with
- Make the best out of an adverse situation. No point cribbing and complaining
- Act of solidarity, compassion and empathy doesn’t require a language
- Your Intent is key to your happiness
- When to be firm for the larger good – Know when to bend and when not to
In its truest sense, my solo trip to Japan turned out to be one of its own kind.
As of now, my wings are rested, until I find a new destination to fly to.
by Reshmi Raghavachari
an avid traveler