5 weeks of intense language and culture classes in Kyoto, Japan were the reason behind my luck in finding a group of beautiful new friends from all over the world. So often, when we think of travel, we consider the destination, the monuments, and the costs. I was acutely unaware of how much the people would come to mean to me and how they would add to my experience. It was not just the people I met by default through the PRIMO program that coloured my Japanese life, but also those who came by accident along the way.
One encounter in particular brought this home to me. One weekend I decided to head to a flea market at Toji temple. I walked through the market where vendors were clearly preparing to close up and go home, but kindly allowed me to browse their selections regardless. After scoring a cheap skirt with the most horrendous clash of colours I’d ever laid my eyes on, I started my trek home. What was not part of this simple plan, was stumbling upon a bizarre looking little corner “shop”, where a number of spectacles in the window left me unable to proceed without finding out what was behind them.
I entered this tiny room and was immediately slapped in the face with the discovery of endless piles of what seemed like junk, preventing any efficient movement around the space. There was an old man sitting in the corner peering at me over his newspaper. It felt like a test. Did she wander in here by accident? Or is she a true, hard-core, op-shopping extraordinaire who can find something valuable in this tip? I attempted to look interested in the various knick-knacks, taking about 3 steps from one end of the store to the other. I figured that was the most I could do to humour the man and turned to leave, when he asked me where I was from.
What ensued was a hilarious exchange of broken English and Japanese that was not of much higher quality. As it turns out, the shop contained all old belongings of this man, as well as some interesting creations. The man went on to tell me of all the wonderful people from all over the world that had visited his curious little shop. He told me of his art, poetry and writing that he’d written in both Japanese and English. As I looked around the room, I attempted to find a souvenir of this experience. I bought from him one of his stories, written in Japanese, the cover of which I particularly liked. For now, it hangs on my bedroom wall, and I left him with the promise that I’d come back for more stories when my Japanese was good enough to read the one I’d bought.
Unplanned encounters like this became characteristic of my favourite moments in Japan. When visiting Lake Kawaguchiko, which gives a beautiful view of Mt Fuji, we met a lovely man walking his two shiba inus. This was the first of many shiba inu encounters on our trip, so naturally we were intensely excited and stopped to play with the two pups, whose names we learnt were Coro and Lin. The man went on to tell us about how he walked his dogs every day, taking photos of them with the beautiful scenery of the area as well as tourists he’d meet along the way. His profile is the greatest thing to happen to Instagram and absolutely made our day (@corolin.fuji).
Of course, no stories of Japan are complete without bizarre and delicious food experiences. Various curious soft serve flavours caught my eye- sweet potato, bamboo and cherry blossom were all intense and beautiful flavour experiences, black sesame not so much. A restaurant where every meal was tofu based was a popular favourite among myself and fellow travellers, as well, of course, as the incredible and life-changing experience that is your first bite of Kobe beef. Dipping beautifully marinated sukiyaki beef, vegetables and tofu into raw egg (don’t knock it until you try it) is another meal I will always miss.
There was a time when I was quite against street food, mainly worried about any food poisoning that may ensue. Japan changed all this. The old but bustling Nishiki markets in Kyoto became a second home to me, trying something new each time I went. The unrivalled king of street food, in my eyes, is the warm fish-shaped pastry, Taiyaki. Filled with either red bean, custard, matcha or various other fillings, I happily threw my ¥180 at any vendor who could offer this deliciousness to me and bring me solace from the cold.
Not only did I pick up plenty of Japanese language and cultural knowledge, this trip also taught me the value of taking wrong turns and getting lost. I learnt how solo travelling and sightseeing as part of a group both have merits, and how both can lead to the creation of warm memories. Accidentally stumbling upon incredible places, people and experiences flavoured my trip and made it all the more unforgettable. Though it was a fantastic study opportunity, it was outside of the classroom where I truly learnt the most.