When Brendan and I left on our five-day honeymoon to Japan after permanently departing our home in Sydney, I naturally harbored fears that we would end up unable to communicate or get anywhere. The main reason for this concern was that we hadn’t really planned the trip, save for our accommodation and a train trip to Kyoto. Things had been so crazy between our wedding in April and planning the move from Sydney back to the States throughout May, that we’d only done the bare minimum to plan. A few phrases from my two semesters of college Japanese more than 10 years ago still floated around my brain, but I knew more complicated questions like, “Does this have beef broth in it?”, key for a vegetarian and a non-red meat eater, would never form properly on my lips. How would we ever stick to our dietary restrictions in this foreign land of sushi and Kobe beef without being able to articulate our needs?
The result was that we ended up doing exactly what travel is designed to make us do – said “F%$! it” and let ourselves be guided by the journey instead of guiding it.
We found that when we took a breath and let each day of the trip happen, we received incredible kindness from the Japanese around us and stumbled upon sights, restaurants and bars we might not have otherwise seen had we completely mapped out our days. Instead of letting the frustration of a language barrier, a big, intricate city and scores of similar-sounding street names overwhelm us completely, we surrendered our control to Tokyo (and Kyoto for one night).
Lost near the red light district of Roppongi one night, a sweet dental hygienist and her coworker literally walked us to the restaurant we were trying to find and then left us with her number in case we got lost again and needed help.
The next night, we popped into what was clearly a local’s bar fronting as a frat house basement (or the other way around) with old school hip hop blasting as the Australia/Japan World Cup-qualifying soccer match played on a huge screen and dinner was scooped out of a crock pot. Caught up in the moment, in being in Japan, a newlywed and having just left the country I’d called home for more than three years for a new adventure, I high-fived the bartender when Japan scored a goal (sorry, Australia). A Japanese man came over and introduced himself and bought us three quick rounds of shots as the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to one of the patrons. We would have stayed all night had we thought we could handle the continuous flow of hard liquor before our early-morning, three-hour train ride to Kyoto the next day.
But we slipped into the streets of Shibuya and got another surprise: throngs of tipsy Tokyoans cheering and chanting over the Japan soccer team’s tie with Australia, which qualified the team for the World Cup. Group after group skipped by and held up their hands to us for a high five, embracing us into the celebration of their sports success.
After trekking around Kyoto for hours looking at temples in the heat and worrying we’d be shunned from restaurants looking the way we did (read: sweat-stained tank tops, shorts and mosquito-ravaged calves), we were welcomed into a beautiful, traditional restaurant where we were invited to take off our rank sneakers, given a booth, offered sake to try and left with a bell to ring when we wanted something from our very pleasant waiter. In the pub we went to afterwards, the bartender poured us sake in addition to the drinks we ordered and invited us to try umeboshi, salty plums, with the three locals sitting at the bar. We even ended up breaking some of our dietary restrictions as I sat happily slurping up ramen in beef broth and nibbling on pork dumplings in various Tokyo eateries.
I’m never one to say you should travel a certain way. Everyone is different and some people are at their best when their trips are planned to a tee. But after more than a year of the detailed planning involved to throw a wedding and make an international move, I very happily, and surprisingly, loved letting go in Japan.
When’s the last time you gave up control while traveling and let the trip “just happen”?