I’ve always considered myself a seasoned traveler. But I never realized, how much of a tourist I was. I went to famous places, took pictures, met fellow travelers and ate amazing food, but that was all I did. I’d never taken the time to learn about the places and cultures I encountered.
That changed during my trip to Japan this winter break. My experience made me realize that traveling can be so enriching if I just take the time to learn about the people around me.
I spent the first few days in Tokyo. It was fun, but I felt like an outsider. People seemed to function at a different wavelength. They were always polite, and they were always helpful, but I couldn’t connect with them somehow.
My next stop was Sapporo. I visited some family friends there and we spent the day exploring the city. At the end of the day, I mentioned how I felt out of place in Japan. They laughed then and said that I need to adapt if I wanted to experience the best things Japan can offer.
I realized then what I’ve been doing wrong. I never bothered to change my behavior. I ate on the subway, talked loudly in public places, blocked doorways and did a whole lot other things. I behaved rather rudely, maybe because a part of me didn’t care enough to make a good impression. I also always spoke in English, even to say “thank you” and “excuse me.”
I made my mind up then that I would respect the people and the culture of the places I visited. I decided to do all the things I failed to do my first few days in Japan.
After that, my trip became so much better. I began to learn about what to do and what not to do. I think the most interesting thing I learned was to move to one side on escalators. That way, people who were in a rush could walk faster. I also started to talk to people in Japanese. It was limited, but I could tell that they appreciated the gesture.
I went to Nara next. I have to say that people started treating me extra nice after I changed my behavior. I had a long conversation with a group of schoolgirls who were curious about the United States. I met an old man who gave me fruits and nuts that the local deer absolutely love. A street food vendor gave me extra steamed buns for free because I was able to say “arigatou gozaimasu” and “oishi” (those mean “thank you” and “delicious”).
One of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had was in Kyoto. I went on a hike at 5 a.m. in Mount Inari with locals to see the sun rise above the shrines. None of them could speak English, but they taught me how to wash my hands properly before entering sacred sites, how to attract cats around the area and so much more.
When I went back to Tokyo a few days later, I saw the city in a much different light. It made me realize that if there is one thing everyone needs to do when they travel, it’s to keep an open mind and to be willing to learn.