By Charlotte Discombe
In my personal opinion travelling is more than just about getting away from your worries and your normal routine of get up, go to work and go to bed. For me travelling is about the experience – that once in a lifetime experience.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of experience is:
– Practical contact with and observation of facts or events;
– An event or occurrence which leaves an impression on someone;
– Encounter or undergo an event or occurrence.
In this sense an experience is something you, as a living and breathing human being, take part in or have a connection to. However, unlike an everyday normal event an experience is something that stays with you even after the experience has finished.
Travelling is an experience itself. You experience time and liminality; the act of being in between places and time frames. But travelling also allows you to experience many of the world’s vast cultures.
A QUICK NOTE
In a moment I am going to recount a month long visit to Japan where I travelled to Tokyo, Nara, Kyoto and Hakone. I wish I had the time and the words to delve into all of my experiences of these places, but alas that shall have to be saved for another day. For now, I hope you enjoy this small account of several ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences in the mountain town of Hakone.
JAPAN: THE EXPERIENCE
I had never been to Japan before. I had travelled around parts of Asia but Japan was a totally ‘new’ place for me. After finally finishing my degree I wanted time to explore. Despite having a little knowledge of Japanese culture after studying Noh theatre, Japanese modern history and anime, I still did not know what to expect from Japan. In fact in hindsight I really was not prepared for the experiences that were about to hit me.
After a couple of days in Tokyo experiencing singing subways, old Japanese heritage sites mixed in with gigantic skyscrapers and an earthquake, we headed out into the mountains.
Hakone is a little town on a mountain just opposite Japan’s most famous, and arguably most beautiful, volcano – Mount Fuji. The town is only a few hours inland from Tokyo, the main city on the coast of Japan, and is a place where (again in my personal opinion) I truly experienced Japan.
Despite being a popular destination for tourists wanting to see the magnificent Mount Fuji, Hakone manages to maintain many of Japan’s sacred traditions that have been passed down through the generations. This is in contrast to the historic cities visited such as Kyoto and Nara which, although filled with historic relics from Japan’s complicated past, have become a lot more commercialised and metropolitan. Don’t get me wrong, these are obviously still amazing places to go and visit and experience for yourself (as previously mentioned), but my time staying in Hakone will be something I will never forget.
To get to the countryside we took the subway, then get on a bullet train – the fastest train in the world going at a rocketing 200mph – and then got a civilian train into the mountains and onto Hakone. I remember this journey vividly. The day was hot and sticky. All the trains were packed and uncomfortable. It was the weekend and many of the locals were also travelling in order to enjoy the countryside in the sun or see loved ones. I remember worrying about mosquitos and about the fact that I had not had the Japanese Encephalitis vaccination (not a good idea folks when you’re going into the countryside). I remember a lovely lady trying to teach me how to write my name in Japanese calligraphy, such a wonderful and friendly beacon in a sea of unfamiliar faces all speaking a language completely unknown to me.
When we finally got to Hakone we were met by the owner of the house we would be staying in. For next couple of days the group had the pleasure of staying in a traditional Japanese house, experiencing the richness of old Japanese culture and rituals.
This house was right on the side of the mountain and was a very long way up from the small town station. It was a sacred place and provided many of the locals with public baths to wash in. There were a few rules that needed to be respected:
- No shoes were allowed in order to keep the outside world away.
- Western clothes were frowned upon as guests were invited to immerse themselves within Japanese traditions.
- Tattoos were not allowed, or at least needed to be hidden as to many Japanese tattoos are a sign of the Triad (the gangs that have caused Japan so much violence).
On our arrival to the house we shared the ritual of bathing with the other guests and locals of the town. For someone very self conscious about her body, naked or otherwise, this was at first a very unsettling experience. Not only was I to be fully naked in front of my travelling companions, but also in front of men and women who I had never met before and would probably be sitting down to have dinner with in the next couple of hours.
After taking our first wash in the baths we were then given lessons in how to put on and wear a kimono – the clothing we would be wearing during our stay. I never thought something that looks so simple could be so complicated. There were layers and layers of material that all needed to be folded in a specific way to create the kimono. We could even wear our PJs, a rather fetching pair of yellow trousers and belted top, under the kimono. This was again was a completely new experience for me to try!
Once finally suited and booted (or words to that effect) we were shown around the house – yet another experience to add to my ever-growing list.
The house was a bungalow with spongy floors and wooden panels. Furniture was at floor level: we slept on the floor, ate on the floor and drank tea on the floor. There were many window panels covering the whole house, giving the impression that we were outside amongst the trees and wildlife within the wilderness that surrounded us on this mountain. Our bedroom had one massive window panel that looked out over to Mount Fuji. I have to say that waking up to see the sun rise over Mount Fuji every morning will be an experience I will never forget – an image that at first look seems so calm but when looking closer you could see smoke emerging from the volcano, a sign of the unrest right underneath our feet.
THOUGHTS ON THESE EXPERIENCES
Day after day the self-consciousness I felt on this first day, after taking part in so many new experiences, gradually faded. These experiences have become memories and these memories are still with me now. Even the experience of ritualistically washing in front of strangers whilst naked in a public space became pretty liberating.
I admit I have probably bored you by going into very specific detail about said experiences. I haven’t even gone into the fact that meal times were set and the meals were very true to traditional Japanese food. OR the fact we walked up the mountain in our kimonos to even smaller villages and experienced tea ceremonies. OR the fact we got right up close and personal to Mount Fuji. The list could go on… However, I hope you realise that this specific detail is important to me and it is what ‘made’ my trip to Japan. This was and still is what I travel for. I was taken out of my comfort zone in small ways and as a result I got to experience a small but AMAZING part of another culture. If I had not travelled to Japan and to the little town of Hakone, these experiences that I will never forget would never had happened. So if there’s just one bit of advice I could part to you it is travel to experience. Don’t just go travelling to get away, go to experience something new. I promise you won’t regret it.