When I took my first solo trip to Japan, my traveling style instantly changed. But that same trip was also what got me hooked on traveling alone. Furthermore, there was an exact moment that changed my perspective not only within the realm of travel, but extending to all my interactions and thus completely changing my entire social life. Here’s the story:
In Kyoto, Japan, lies the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. If you’ve never heard of it that doesn’t mean you haven’t seen plenty of pictures as it’s probably one of the most beautiful places on this here green Earth. Highly recommended and should be on everyone’s bucket list. At the bottom of this post I’ll include some additional details about visiting, if you’re interested.
At the end of the Bamboo “walk”, you have the option to turn left and go to the very popular Monkey Park. It gets a lot of great feedback and I’m sure is a must-see. The alternative option is turning right and visiting the Ōkōchi Sansō Villa. Being that I visited Arashiyama on one of the hottest days of the year, and the idea of having any sort of animal climb all over my sweaty body didn’t sound greatly appealing, I turned right.
The Ōkōchi Sansō Villa is the former home of samurai film star Denjirō Ōkōchi, and is now open to the public for a small admission fee. The Villa features some of the best Japanese gardens I’ve seen, and since it is located at the top of a hill the viewpoints are pretty unparalleled for not having to endure a large-scale mountain hike.
It was at the top of this very hill that my life changed as I knew it.
Because most people choose to visit the Monkey Park (again, no offense to the monkeys), the grounds of the Villa was sparse for crowds. Besides myself, I only saw maybe one or two other visitors the whole time I was there. There’s one vantage point, which is at the top of the Villa’s hill, where you are surrounded on all sides by pristine mountaintops. You feel completely detached from everything and everyone else.
After standing there for a few moments, I was taken aback because it occurred to me that it was the first time I had ever been this alone before. Living in one of the biggest cities in the world, I’m constantly surrounded by people. My neighbors are never far enough away to really feel any isolation. Even when traveling out of the city to a less populated place, I’ve always gone with a group of people or at least one traveling companion. I’ve never stood on a hilltop, in a foreign land, without anyone else in sight. It was one of the most liberating feelings of my life.
I realized that had I gone to Japan with someone, standing atop that viewpoint, I probably would’ve been searching for something funny to say. Or an observation to make, like “Oh look at that tree down there, that’s an oddly shaped tree!”. But instead now, all I could hear was the effervescent symphony of nature. I’d actually never heard it sound so strongly or powerfully before. It was the first time in a very long time that I felt connected to the environment around me. I felt like I’d truly gone back to nature.
This was my special moment. As a result, I started looking at things differently after my trip. I’d notice a beautiful tree in the middle of a crowded city park where I hadn’t before. I felt a breeze more sensitively and breathed it in more deeply than I would’ve before. I found myself smiling at birds for Christ’s sakes! Who/what had I become?!
I was also now constantly talking about zen and inner stillness, which were NOT things you’d catch me talking about beforehand. My coworkers started to get annoyed with me, and understandably wanted to resume our usual state of affairs aka gossiping about our boss. But I was finding it hard to return to that state of being. I was seeing the world, and all of it’s beauty, in high definition.
Because of all the “space” I’d felt on the outside in Kyoto, that same feeling started to help to excavate my insides, and resulted in my feeling more and more expansive. I’d also realized that I needed more time to myself in my day to day life, in different ways. It felt good to sit and enjoy my lunch hour relaxing alone, rather than with the same person I had always gotten lunch with. I ate slower. I noticed more flavors in my food. Was that basil in my salad dressing? I was finding that the more time I spent away from others, recharging, the better company I’d become when I wasn’t alone.
All because of a few minutes atop a hill. These are the moments that stay with us forever as I will never forget those few minutes. In this sense, time is elastic.