#170: How We Japan

DB, back to camera, walking downhill along tall cedars.
Kurama Temple, Mount Kurama, Japan

Stay at hostels but don’t eat hostel food. Kitchens and fridges are for the full-time citizens of hostelworld. You are already in an alien culture; you don’t need to be in another.

Drop off your bags and go hunting for food. Avoid any place with a person in front holding a menu. The ones you want beckon in other ways: a lanterned doorway on a dark side street; a wall of specials in second-floor window; a row of backs in the gap between curtains.

When the guy behind the counter says the kitchen closes in thirty minutes, say OK.

When he says all they have left is organ meat, say OK.

When he, drenched in sweat, oil splattered on his apron, says the menu has a set price, say OK.

Have the best meal of your trip.

Tell people and yourself you’ll do things and then don’t do them. Say you’re going to rent bikes and instead take the bus. Say you’ll stay an extra day, then leave early. Look for a mountain trail to hike in the morning and walk it the night before, in the pouring rain. Travel promises are meant to be broken; travel is an exercise in breaking with grace.

Tie your wet boots to the bottom of your pack and realize, as you walk around, that you’re literally kicking yourself in the ass.

Avoid chain shops that exist in your home country. For the desperate moments when you need comfort and familiarity, bring a book. Sightsee at places that are big enough to be quiet; drink and eat at places small enough to be loud.

When you walk past an alley and glimpse a group of people ducking under a three-foot door, follow.

Go into souvenir shops but don’t talk yourself into buying anything. The things you really want you’ll have bought before realizing. Get something for your travel partner to give before you both leave. Get something with a fortune written in the local language but don’t look up what it means. One night after countless lemon sours, a person at a friend’s neighborhood bar will read it aloud, will tell you tell that the wild-eyed man with the flaming sword is called “The Unmoving King.”

Stay out late enough to take the early train home. Pack hung over. On the way to the airport, stand across from a woman with a sun bonnet pulled down over her eyes, her nose and mouth wet with tears.

A few stops later, she’ll be gone. And so will you.