The idea for this post was originally from June 2017 during my Japan trip, but I never got around to finishing it. Better late than never!
As I boarded the Vancouver-bound plane, I spotted an obviously non-Japanese man wearing a Kimono-like outfit. Let’s call this man, “Donatello”. His movements were purposeful and he was almost comedically courteous to everyone around him (given the context), as if he were the host of a party. Donatello’s face displayed a perma-smile that said, “Wow, did I ever have a life-changing experience in Japan.”
This was not the first enthused tourist I had witnessed while travelling in Japan. I saw many “Donatellos”, arms akimbo, with a slight backwards lean, appreciating a monument that I had just passed with no reaction.
As I imagined these tourists performing in tea ceremonies and meditating among deer in Miyajima, cherry blossoms abloom, I reflected upon my own lackadaisical itinerary of temple crawling, and the marked absence of “Donatello-level” enlightenment.
Truth be told, I’ve always felt deprived of travel as a kid. The most exciting trip until my early teenage years was a 40 km drive to Blaine, Washington where we stayed in a timeshare for two nights. Naturally, every trip would be cherished.
While I do marvel at the Japanese’s technological contributions to the world, I can’t say I’ve ever had more than a passing interest toward manga or anime, the Japanese language, or their culture. Plus, I had just visited Hong Kong, which has taller skyscrapers, an even higher population density, and just as much visual stimulation. Anything less would leave me unimpressed.
All my trips up until now happened to have been exciting experiences, so I was totally unprepared for the “huh” feeling of visiting the oft-romanticized Japan.
It turns out I was travelling for the wrong reasons.
While I had no expectations per se going into the trip, on some level, I was looking to be impressed by something new.
The sad reality is that new experiences become few and far between as we age. I’ve resigned to the fact that I may never play the character of the enlightened tourist. But, it is ok.
When you feel like you aren’t getting the most out of your trip…
Don’t confuse details with the actual experience.
I’ll be honest. Much of the food in Japan was not as good as I expected. However, the disappointing taste was just a side note to the awesome fact that I was dining with my brother and sister in a completely foreign country.
Similarly, the fond memories of great food on my other trips can be seen as the cherry on top of the actual experience, which was trying new food with friends and family while on vacation.
Whether you enjoyed your trip or not, you will have stories to tell.
Keep your previous disappointments in check.
If you keep a running tally of underwhelming experiences pretty soon you could allow your ego to become actively annoyed at a particular city. This sabotages yourself from actually noticing the good experiences that come your way.
Don’t “make memories”.
I think this is a life-tip in general, but it is especially important when travelling. If you are always thinking, “what a great experience”, or, “this will make a great memory”, you will be too busy in your own thoughts to actually enjoy what’s happening. Kick this bad habit. Good memories will happen anyway.
Some of the best memories are not from “planned experiences” like visiting a certain attraction. Me and my siblings’ new inside joke is just how much trouble we had navigating the multiple rail systems in Japan.
We certainly were’t thinking, “Our boarding time is at 6pm, so let’s get on the completely wrong train and arrive at the airport at 6pm”, just to make a fun memory! (Yes, this happened)
Remember that we all travel for different reasons.
If you are not a culture person, don’t feel obligated to visit the major attractions. Some people skip all the temples in Japan and just go for hikes.
If you don’t travel for food, don’t stand in line for a restaurant because someone said, “OMG, you have to try this place!”. You are not betraying them if you don’t.
My traveller friend who always has crazy stories to share tells me he survives on inexpensive food such as the American shrine, McDonald’s. For him, food is fuel for exploring more interesting places.
You don’t have to do everything as planned.
“I flew thousands of miles to visit this country, so I must push through and do everything as planned”. We often use this thinking as an excuse not to take breaks. However, the stress of trying to fulfil an itinerary may turn your trip into a blur of events. Instead, take a break at that coffee shop by yourself or with your travel buddies. Take a breather and reflect on all you’ve accomplished so far.
I’ve learned that experiences are what matter when traveling, either abroad or in your own city. Travelling to find that elusive “new feeling” is an exercise in futility. Nothing can guarantee you will feel newness, happiness, or excitement.
The “emotional outcome” of any particular moment is an inscrutable function of personal standards, preferences, moods, and the mystery meat you had for breakfast.
If hopping onto a plane were the ticket to happiness, we wouldn’t need therapists or God. Fortunately this is not the ticket to happiness. Otherwise, travelling would be a lot more expensive!