Before visiting Japan, I believed in two types of trips: travel and vacation.
A vacation constitutes visiting a destination to find enjoyment in as little effort as possible. Cruises, all-inclusive resorts, and tours all fall under this category.
Travel, however, satisfies totally different needs. While there can certainly be moments of ease and relaxation, I define travel as visiting a destination for the challenge.
Both trips provide clarity and refreshment in different ways. As a tourist on vacation, you place yourself in a situation where your wants and needs are easily satisfied. As a traveler, you revel in the challenge of satisfying those very same wants and needs. The successful traveler makes efforts to meld into their new environment. When my boyfriend and I were backpacking in Mexico, we took great pains to speak the language, avoid tourist traps, and mingle with locals. We came back to the States refreshed in a different way than if we had just come from an all-inclusive resort, but it was just as valuable.
Tourists pose for tacky pictures, stand out in a crowd, and allow hotel concierges to make reservations in their names. Travelers are discreet about their ‘newness,’ understand the language and culture well enough to blend in, and do their own research on important sites and how to get to them.
Or so I thought.
You see, my trip to Japan didn’t fit my self-defined versions of either ‘vacation’ or ‘travel.’
I totally intended this trip to fall into the travel category, and it certainly didn’t turn out to be a vacation. While every day in Japan was a challenge, our lack of language skills created a gaping barrier between us and the cities we visited — while traveling in Japan, we were indisputable tourists.
I tried desperately not to be this way. But I discovered quickly that reading about Japan was not a tangible enough connection to allow for the authentic experiences I craved. We needed help — and a lot of it — all the time. We were not discreet, we were mostly confused, and at times, though we tried very hard not to be, our lack of situational awareness most likely made us a little obnoxious.
In my previous travels, I have often celebrated the feeling of being a part of something so different than anything I had ever been used to. But in Japan I constantly felt that I was standing on the edges of some very exciting event, only my view was blocked by an overwhelmingly tall crowd. On very few occasions did I feel that I was actually ‘getting it.’ And so the only way I found to experience anything at all was to do it in what I had previously dubbed the vacation-y way: we took tacky photos, stood out horribly in crowds, and allowed others to make arrangements for us.
And you know what? That was okay.
It was presumptuous of me to expect that I could understand a place after only a few weeks, with no working knowledge of the local language, and no one to guide me. But gosh darnnit, I tried. And that’s worth something too.
Years ago, I found myself a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago. During this time there was a lot of talk about ‘your camino’ versus ‘the camino.’ You walk the road in whatever way you can, by whatever means you are able to. It’s an analogy for life, and it works for travel as well. While it would have been ideal to learn Japanese before visiting Japan, and to stay longer in the country, and to establish connections with local people in order to better understand the culture — the resources available to me simply didn’t allow for all of that. As a result, I wasn’t able to understand all of the intricacies of Japanese culture. But I was able to catch a glimpse of it — and that’s better than never having seen any of it at all.
I’ll see the world however I can see the world. Sometimes I’ll be a traveler, and sometimes I’ll be a tourist. All that matters is that I see in the clearest way available to me.