When I first saw the itinerary for my year of travel, month seven both excited and terrified me more than any other destination on the list. Kyoto and Chiang Mai were the only two cities on our itinerary that I had previously visited and I knew that in visiting Kyoto I’d be forced to face a part of what I’ve been running from.
When I was 8-12 years old I lived in Tokyo. Since then I’ve been back to visit five times, this past month being the fifth. Those four years in Japan were very formative years in my life. I attribute particular parts of my personality, my world view and my thirst for travel to the time I spent there. I love Japan, although there are certain elements of Japanese culture and custom that frustrate me. I love introducing others to this beautiful country as well and seeing them fall in love with a place I once called home. For these reasons I was beyond excited to spend a month in Kyoto, perhaps the most beautiful city and undoubtedly the culture capitol of Japan.
My last visit to Japan was just over three years ago, when my Japanese sister, Chika, got married. Chika lived with my family for a year when I was in High School. We’d kept in touch over the years and she’d come to visit me in Chicago about a year earlier, so of course, when I got the invitation there was no question of whether or not I’d attend. My parents, Kris and I planned a ten day trip to Osaka, Nara, Kyoto and Tokyo. For Kris and me, Kyoto was the highlight of the trip. We fell in love with the city as we biked along the river from temple to shrine to castle, taking in the cherry blossoms and the stunning blend of history and modernity. Kyoto seemed like a livable, affordable, beautiful place we would someday like to call home. We decided then that if we could find a way, we’d move there someday. When I left Colorado seven months ago to travel, it was in part because I couldn’t escape the ghosts, the memories of Kris and the life we lived together. Remote Year was an opportunity presented to me at a time when I felt suffocated and in need of an escape. I left so I could move on and make new memories, finding new meaning in life. I knew Kyoto would be full of memories and no matter how much I’d grown and healed in the six months before arriving there, I would be forced to confront those memories once again.
Although I still think of Kris every single day, I have moved on with my life. I’ve built a new life, set new goals and found love once again. I know that what I have now is stronger and healthier than what I had with Kris, because of what I learned in our time together. I arrived in Kyoto at the beginning of July full of anticipation and excitement. Finally, I was back on home soil! After two months of not being able to speak the local language, I was finally in a country where I could communicate. Someplace I’d spent significant time. It felt good!
My first two days in Japan I hardly saw Sam. I was focused on dedicating time to myself, exploring Kyoto on my own and being an ear for several friends who were going through some challenges. I set a goal for myself to visit one temple or shrine each day, so every morning I set off on my bike to get some exercise and see where I ended up. I worked nights at our beautiful coworking space where Kayla and I kept each other sane. I felt focused and dedicated to prioritizing myself in those first few days, but I also missed my partner. In choosing not to live together, our housing assignment had placed us rather far apart. I finished work that first day at 8am and rode my bike home in the rain. As I showered and lay down in bed, I was too wired to sleep. The long ride home in the sun and the rain had energized me and as I was finally falling asleep, my housemates were just waking up. I realized then that this would be a problem. I was assigned to live in a house with 10 roommates. The house was set-up as a traditional Japanese style bed and breakfast, complete with tatami floors, paper screen doors and no insulation whatsoever. You could hear every step, every sound from anywhere in the house. With everyone on different sleep schedules, it would be a challenge to sleep or even work there.
After my second night of work, I decided to ride “home” to Sam’s apartment instead of my house. It was half the distance and after two nights apart, I wanted to fall asleep in his arms. It was wonderful! He had a studio apartment with a comfortable, full size bed. I didn’t care if I never slept on my thin, twin size mattress at the house again. From that point on I practically moved into his place. The house was so remote and dark and lacking in comfort that I barely found myself there. Although I’d chosen to live in the house, because I wanted the opportunity to get closer with some other people in the group, I had no desire to be there. It rained almost non-stop the entire month, making it hard to bike long distances, and while the bleak weather was already affecting my mood, the house just made it worse.
Our first weekend in Japan, nine of us took the bullet train to Tokyo. I had booked us an Airbnb and was so excited to show off “my city.” We hit all the tourist spots: Shibuya Crossing, the Skytree, Golden Gai bar district and the Imperial Palace; and my favorite shopping districts: Harajuku and Shimokitazawa. We ate at my favorite shabu shabu restaurant and explored the Borderless art experience. We packed a lot into just three days and it rained most of the time we were there, but I was so excited to be back and once again introducing this city to friends. These few days were exhausting, but they were a highlight of the month for me. Before we left for Tokyo Sam had told me he wasn’t really “feeling” Japan. After Tokyo, he told me he finally understood why I love it.
Just a few days after our return from Tokyo, I left once again for Matsuyama. Chika had invited me to fly south to her hometown and spend a week with her parents. I could not wait. I would finally meet her two-year-old son, Kazuki, and see where she grew up. We met at the Osaka airport and immediately picked up where we’d left off three years earlier. Kazuki was not shy and let me hold and play with him. Good thing, because Chika had her hands full, also being pregnant with baby #2. It was a short flight to Matsuyama and we landed and took a cab to the Sakamoto Animal Hospital, Chika’s parents’ business and residence. I received the warmest of welcomes from Mr. and Mrs. Sakamoto and immediately felt at home. For six days they showed me around Matsuyama and Ehime. We learned to make soba, painted pottery, visited a century-old kabuki theater, went to Matsuyama castle, and explored a local festival. A particularly meaningful part of the visit was when we visited Chika’s English teacher, who had encouraged her to study abroad. We brought Chika’s scrapbook of her time in Colorado and looked through our old photos and reminisced. My visit was an action-packed week full of great food and laughter and I shed a tear or two when I said “sayonara” at the airport. Mrs. Sakamoto, Chika and Kazuki went up to the rooftop observation deck of the airport to watch and wave as my plane took off.
I arrived back in Kyoto on Tuesday and began looking forward to the weekend. I had a sake tasting event coming up on Sunday, but in the meantime the rain and nighttime work shifts were taking their toll on my mood and emotions. Sunday was a great day spent in wonderful company. We tasted 12 types of sake and then purchased beers and more sake, making a little picnic on some steps by the river. As it began to get dark we headed to our favorite yakitori restaurant and then hit the karaoke bar. It had been a lighthearted, carefree day. Unfortunately, the joy of that day didn’t last long. The next day I found my mood shifting drastically as I slipped into a depressed funk, not entirely different from what I’d experienced in Thailand the previous month.
I woke up Monday feeling stressed and unbalanced, unable to pinpoint exactly what was bothering me. I thought maybe I needed some alone time, a break from Sam. I had been spending a lot of time at his place since I returned from Matsuyama a week earlier. Despite this realization, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the apartment. I stayed there all day trying to take it easy and calm my anxiety. I woke up the next morning feeling slightly stronger and more capable to take matters into my own hands. We had our community townhall meeting at noon, which I would attend, and then I decided I’d take my journal and a book to a park by my house, where I could reflect and enjoy some much-needed alone time. I had made up my mind to spend the night at the house as well, so Sam and I could have some space. Unfortunately, this is not how my day went. I went to townhall and afterward found myself at Kayla’s apartment trying to explain what I was feeling. As I was getting ready to leave and head to the park, a monsoon swept in out of nowhere. The hope I’d had for the day vanished just like that. Every tool I could think of to deal with my feelings was ruled out. I lay on Kayla’s couch and journaled a bit, but all I really wanted to do was sleep. I finally took a nap, waking up when it was time for Kayla to leave for dinner. It was still raining and there was no way I was riding my bike 20 minutes back to my house. I went to Sam’s instead.
Sam welcomed me in, knowing I was in a rocky place. He did his best to comfort me and make me feel better. I had some clarity in my emotions. I was able to identify the following catalysts for the way I felt. The first was my lack of full-time work and lack of set work schedule. I was only working 3-5 hours per day, but still expected to answer work related questions or hop on calls at the drop of the hat at all hours, day or night. Working the night shift was hard enough on its own, particularly because I was no longer working a full 8 hours straight. I would fall asleep for an hour at a time and then wake up groggy to check my email and see if anything had come through, maybe answer an email or review a deck, before falling asleep again for another hour. This schedule inevitably meant I wasn’t getting enough sleep. That combined with the rain had me feeling constantly tired and unmotivated to get out and be as social as I would have normally. As I mentioned before, I was spending all my time at Sam’s apartment and no time at the house. No matter how much Sam and I enjoyed each other’s company, sharing a tiny studio apartment would test any relationship. We were living on top of each other and that took its toll on us as well. And finally, although the memories weren’t as prevalent as I’d anticipated, I still had moments that would remind me of Kris. I’d feel his ghost while riding past a temple we’d visited together, or standing on the platform waiting for a train. In a still moment by the river I’d remember his face. All of these factors combined had put me in a funk and although I knew I’d rise out of it, the oppressing anxiety and depression scared me. Sam once again tried to talk me through it by reminding me things would get better and suggesting ways I could get on top of it. I had to remind him that I didn’t need his analysis and problem solving, but just needed someone to hold me through the worst of it until I could get ahold of myself and find the strength to rise above.
On Tuesday morning I woke up feeling better until Sam said something that triggered me and set me off again. I lashed out at him, then started crying hysterically, punching the wall and slamming the door. Looking back on it now, I don’t even remember what it was that set me off, but my behavior was too much for him and he left the apartment. I packed up all of my stuff and wrote him a note, before leaving for good. We had three nights left in Japan and I knew it would be better if I retreated to the house and took some time for myself.
I didn’t do much those final days in Japan. I worked nights from the living room and during the days mostly stayed at home finishing up some tasks I’d been putting off. I did laundry and packed my bag, interacting with a few of my roommates who happened to be around as well. I was good to myself, taking the time and space I needed to pull myself back together. I had read back on my goals for the month and realized I wasn’t sticking to them as well as I’d planned. I hadn’t so much as looked at my budget, I hadn’t made any effort to search for work, I didn’t make time to reflect and journal and I hadn’t done any hiking. In those few days, I did my best to make up for my neglect and I could feel it immediately. Early in the morning of my first full day at the house I texted Sam. I was laying awake and finally really understanding what had happened. I apologized to him for letting my problems become his. I had been neglecting myself to the point where I needed him to care for me, because I couldn’t care for myself. He responded and admitted that he’d been needing some space, but hadn’t wanted to push me away, because of the position I was in. Because he wasn’t attending to his own needs, he wasn’t able to effectively help me with mine. We’d both hit our breaking point. We agreed to take some space over the next few days, interacting only in passing, so we could meet at the airport with fresh enthusiasm.
My final day in Japan, it poured rain. In fact, Kyoto was hit by a minor typhoon. My roommate, Claire, and I went to a chocolate café that she had discovered by our house. It was a small, unassuming Japanese style house with tatami mat floors and a beautiful, lush garden. We walked in and were greeted by the owner, Sheri, a wispy blond Canadian woman. She seated us at a small table facing out toward the garden and came to talk to us throughout our stay. She had a soft, airy voice and spoke as though lost somewhere else in time. She spoke of the state of the world and times that had changed, but overall she expressed her hope for humanity. We ordered matcha and fine, artisan chocolates, made by her husband, a highly respected Japanese chef. Out of the goodness of her heart, Sheri gifted us each an antique serving plate from the Edo period (1603-1868) that she had picked up at the antiques market. The whole experience with Sheri at the chocolate café was the perfect way to end our time in Japan. We left in a state of calm and peace, remembering the simple beauty of the café, its garden, the chocolates and Sheri herself. Of all the times I’d come back to Japan, this had been the hardest for me. I wished it had been different, that it had brought me more joy. But as we left the café, I realized that I’d hit another milestone in my journey toward growth and my experiences in Japan were just a part of me finding myself and becoming a stronger, more grounded individual. I will keep going back to Japan, because a part of me belongs there. And my next visit will hold new treasures for me to discover.
At the airport I met Sam and fell into his arms, looking forward to a week with just him in the Philippines. We would have a week together before I’d head to Malaysia, leaving him to a month of whirlwind adventure. As an Israeli citizen, he would be denied entry into Malaysia, a Muslim nation, so he’d made other plans. I was glad to have him to myself for a week before five weeks apart. We said goodbye to our group and then boarded our flight, ready to head off to our next destination.