Unexpected Lessons From Japan

My husband Dean and I have been back in the States for about 2 weeks now after taking an 11-day trip to Japan. This trip was an early 10-year anniversary celebration for Dean and myself (actual anniversary June 5).

One of the most common questions we’ve gotten about our trip was simply, “How did you decide on Japan?” Dean and I are very different, but we have known for a long time that if we ever got the chance to internationally travel, we would go to Japan. For starters, I went to Japan 19 years ago when I was in 8th grade.

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Me in my host family’s home (April 2000)

 I had the opportunity to participate in a “Junior Ambassador” program with my school, and we had the chance to meet and connect with a Japanese student of the same age. We got to meet their families and stay in their homes – a pretty awesome experience to have as a 13-year-old. As happens when you travel somewhere new, you usually want to go back someday. This trip was my “going back” opportunity. Besides that, over the past 3 years we have really gotten more interested in Japanese culture – manga, anime, sushi, etc. We have a sushi night once a week (local Abilene sushi, although it’s actually pretty good!) and normally watch an anime film or show while we have dinner. It was pretty cool to see and experience in person some of the things we had seen in the shows we watched.

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Tomoe, on the left, and her sister on the far right were my host family

If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you know from our pictures that we did a lot – we went to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka – this included visiting places like Akihabara, Disney Sea, Studio Ghibli Museum, Fushimi-Inari… through the social media lens, where I have strategically chosen the best of the best pictures (and filtered them beyond belief), it looked like the trip of a lifetime. That’s always how it is on the other end of the screen, isn’t it? Perhaps there’s a twinge of jealousy or longing as you scroll through a friend’s travel pictures.

Well, it was an awesome experience, and I am super grateful that we had the chance to go – however, there is always more to the story.

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I expected that Japan would be fun and amazing – that we would get to eat amazing food, see the sights, and feel like pro-world travelers by the end of our time (not totally unrealistic, except for the pro-world traveler part!) I did not expect to have so many growing experiences and learn so much about myself by the end of the trip. Here’s a few insights I gained from the experience:

1. We didn’t know as much Japanese as we thought we did. I definitely underestimated the challenge of a language barrier. Even though there were a lot of signs in English, it was still much more overwhelming than I thought it would be! Dean had been studying Japanese for a few months before we went – he had even learned how to read Katakana pretty well, which was somewhat helpful. But we still had moments where we were very much at the mercy of nice Japanese people to help us. It definitely gave me a lot of empathy for those who are not native speakers in any country. Even if you do know how to say a few phrases, there’s a big element of self-consciousness about speaking in a different language. Will I say it right? What if they answer me and I don’t understand? I had one interaction where I spoke in Japanese to a cashier asking, “how much is this?” and she answered me in English. But I was proud of myself for trying. Not knowing the language meant that we unknowingly made a few faux pas, like sitting in the wrong places or misunderstanding how to order at a restaurant – but we got by with a lot of “sumimasen’s” and “gomen nasai’s.”  IMG_20190513_171605

2. Jet lag is not a joke. The last time I traveled internationally was in 2007 to Scotland – so a good 12 years ago. That means I would have been 20 years old at the time. I think my 20-year-old self handled jet lag much more easily than my 32-year-old self did. I don’t even remember it being a big issue before. Well, this trip the jet lag was difficult for me. I get anxious before traveling on trips anyways, but I just could not sleep at night despite being exhausted and running around the entire day in Tokyo. After about 3 nights of only getting 4-5 hours of sleep, my body decided it was done with that. What I mean when I say my body decided it was done, was that I had a breakdown and started crying in the middle of the day and was exceptionally grumpy – yes, more than usual for those of you who know me… ironically this happened while at the Disney Sea park, which was my most anticipated outing of the trip. In spite of that, we figured out how to make the trip work for me and things got better.

3. I missed Abilene more than expected. I know Abilene gets a bad rap for not being very exciting or anything (*cough, cough, Dean!) but I can tell you I definitely got homesick for it. I guess though it may not have been Abilene specifically, but more the “home” aspect I longed for – the familiarity, my house, comforts, and of course, Calvin. Yes, we left our almost three-year-old son behind for 11 days, and it was hard. I don’t have regrets about doing it, but it was hard. When I had my breakdown in the middle of a pizza restaurant at Disney Sea, it was mostly about missing Calvin. I am thankful to be able to say that he was completely safe and taken care of by my parents during that time, and he mostly handled the separation like a champ, which was better than I was expecting. The other thing I didn’t realize was that constantly trying new things can be exhausting for some of us (aka. ME). Some days I really just missed having a bowl of cereal or a peanut butter Cliff bar and watching Netflix. It was just different – a lot of different, non-stop different. For some, this is a thrill. For others, it’s a thrill up to a point (that’s me again.) It’s not a right or wrong thing, it’s just a personality thing. I knew this about myself already, but was acutely reminded of it during our time in Japan.

4. My 32-year-old body was not as resilient as my 13-year-old body. It’s not like this one was a big shocker, but I was a bit surprised at how physically exhausting walking around all day was, mostly because I’ve been keeping up running and working out regularly for a little over a year now. I guess walking and running use different muscles, because I really messed up my foot while on this trip. I am still dealing with muscle pain in my left foot 2 weeks later. (To be fair, I haven’t been resting it as properly as I should – I’ve still gone running a few times pushing through the pain… I know, shame on me.) Next time I do a trip like this, I will be all about major arch support and shoe inserts!

5. Less is more. Our first three days in Japan were probably some of the most jam-packed. We did Akihabara, Disney Sea, and the Ghibli museum the first three days – all while trying to cope with jet lag and culture shock. In hindsight, I think it might have been better to plan some slow days at the beginning to just adjust and settle in. You can understand though why three days into our trip I was running ragged and a bit of an emotional wreck. Basically there was a constant tension between wanting to see as much as we could and not miss out on anything, and resting enough to be able to enjoy the things we did see. I had to compromise and make the choice that if I wanted to really enjoy anything, I needed to do less. I mentioned earlier that Dean and I figured out how to make the trip work for us – basically what worked was us doing one big outing in the morning, going to lunch, and then coming back to the hotel for me to take a break. Sometimes while I did this, Dean would go out on his own and explore/sight-see, since he is the type of person who thrives on travel and new experiences.

6. (not a new one) Dean and I are different people, and that’s okay. If Dean were to write a blog post about the trip to Japan, I know it would look totally different from mine. Sometimes when we are together, it really can be amazing how different we are. While this can be inconvenient at times, we’re learning how to navigate this better and better. This trip was no different – we realized that doing the same thing would not work for both of us, so we compromised and made it work. While I wish that I could be more like Dean and thrive on new experiences, I was reminded that it can actually be really energy-draining for me. I also have to keep in mind that this is not bad, it’s just different. I need to be able to accept myself and know my limits, and I’m thankful that Dean is willing to accept my limits too. 

Lest anyone misunderstand this post to mean I did not have an enjoyable time, that’s not the case – I certainly did. Again, it was an awesome experience and opportunity, and Dean and I are already dreaming of another trip to Japan. But, in typical “Erica” fashion, I wanted to let my blog be a venue for being more open and honest about my experience, in a way that posting pictures to Instagram just can’t accomplish.

For a 10th anniversary trip – it really was a success. We had fun, got to try new things, and Dean and I learned even more about each other and decided to accept each other’s differences, specifically in our travel styles. I think that also sums up our 10 years of marriage in a nutshell – we’ve had fun, tried new things, and have learned so much about each other over the years. And most importantly, we’ve decided to accept each other for who we are, despite our differences. If we can keep doing that, I expect we’ll make it to our 20th, 30th… maybe even 50th anniversary one day.

Happy Anniversary Dean!

One thought on “Unexpected Lessons From Japan

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