Just like the first day of summer camp when we were kids, you get off the bus (or the train or the plane or the taxi) and you feel lost, more than just a bit bewildered. Everyone else seems to know what is going on and you are even a little bit scared. As you lean your bag up agains your leg, you wonder why the heck did you even agree to come on this adventure. What you would give for a friendly face, but you might as well be invisible. This is how every new stop feels for us as we travel around the world. But by the end of the week or ten days, just like at summer camp, this new place is the best place in the world and you don’t really want to leave.
Ten days ago we got off the local train in Arashiyama, a suburb in north-west Kyoto, Japan. When we arrived, toting our seven-ish bags there was a light rain and we had been counseled by the Air BnB host that the place was hard to find so it might be worth it to use a taxi the first time finding the home (we have found Japanese addresses bewildering in that they are very different than the usual US system). This was not a bustling train station; Saga-Arashiyama is the hub for visiting the famous Bamboo Forest Park and the Tenryu-ji Temple (by day, in the sunshine). When we arrived along with a light rain, the streets were almost deserted. It was 4:30 in the afternoon. We stood under the shelter of the taxi stand for a while. Nothing. Judi asked at the nearby hotel and I asked inside the train station. No help. We felt like the kid at summer camp that can’t find directions to his assigned cabin. Eventually I hiked down the road a ways and accosted a young cab driver at a local convenience store and convinced him to go up to the train station (where the kids tried to give the cab away to the family waiting behind us because they couldn’t see I was in the cab).
We were dropped off at an intersection and walked our way to a tiny path between a wall and a fence about as wide as our bags. If I was told to go down this walkway at night I could assume I would not be returning. But at the end of the path was our new home. And we have loved it. The kitchen is great, we have all slept wonderfully, there is plenty of room, we have a great shower room (here it is usually separate from the toilet room) with a deep tub with the hottest water that never runs out. At night it is so quiet it is almost alarming. Did I mention we love it?
Around the corner is the Diakokuya, which we call our “Market of Choice” – a place with a wonderful selection of groceries, but not cheap. We can walk two blocks further down the road and buy several things cheaper at the 7-11 store. At Market of Choice they even charge for bags if we forget to bring our own, we feel so at home. We love our 7-11 too – here they really are a convenience store – ATM with no service fee, good whiskey selection, tasty and healthy deli food, we bought our Hanshin Tiger baseball tickets at a kiosk here, etc. It is awesome, but no Slurpees or Big Gulps.
A week after hardly knowing one direction from another, we now take short-cuts along back streets and wave to little old people tending their plants (which is every patio and alleyway). We feel like locals (in our own minds). It is our town now: we know where the one big dog that barks lives between home and the train station, we have named various places on our route like “Weston’s corner” (where we stopped to let John and his buddy Weston FaceTime while the rest of us sat on the curb) and “the bakery patio” where, since eating on the train is frowned upon, we stop and eat our pastries from the local Peter Pan Bakery in the morning, we wave to the crew at the Resort Hair Salon where John and I got our hair cut, and sometimes we go to the other grocery store (Fresco) if we don’t want to pay Market of Choice prices.
After being just a bit scared and confused (as usual) at the start of the week, now we feel at home. John said today that when he comes back to Japan he wants to stay here. He walks back from the store by himself on occasion. But soon we will move again. We will trade the comfort of finally knowing what is down every aisle at our Market of Choice for wondering how we will find food again. It is part of the adventure. As you travel around, you invariably compare every thing to your last stop (maybe that applies to a lot of things in life) – ‘our last grocery store had ….’, ‘the beds here are (harder, softer, thinner, – fill in any option you can imagine) than the last place’ or ‘I wish we had the (stove, toilet, shower, location, quiet, action, residential feel, urban energy, – fill in any option you can imagine) that we had in the last place’.
But if you have a chance to stay for a week or more in one place as part of your trip, do it. Stay in an Air BnB place with a kitchen and take the time to find a grocery store. Eat and shop where the locals hang out. It will save you money and is actually a lot of fun. And if you are not careful you will bond with that place and those people. You will start to look at your small town train station attendant with a familiarity that is unwarranted, like believing you actually bonded with the best looking camp counselor. But it makes you less an intruder, less the passing tourist. Each time you walk down your side street back to your tiny apartment, rather than an insulated hotel, you will see something new that reflects the real lives of the real people living their real lives in the place you have come to visit. And sometimes that stuff is as good or better than the famous attraction you came to visit. I can’t remember any of the programs at the week-long outdoor school camp but I remember singing camp songs with new friends, the routine for taking showers and I swear that ‘Twiggy’ (the best looking high school age camp counselor from Pheasant cabin) sort of liked me. And I went home happy.