When asked “Why Japan?” Julia replied that she couldn’t think of a more distinct environment than what she was used to. While terrifying, that was attractive to her. 5,500 miles across the ocean – outside of her comfort zone and navigating new spaces and places – she knew she’d show up for herself in a way she hadn’t been able to back home. For Julia, Japan was a call-to-action, a heart-rousing dare.
Julia was afraid of missing out on the life she was leaving behind in LA. She was also afraid of what she’d encounter on her first big international trek. Would she get lost? How would she communicate? Would the worries that followed her be too much to allow her to enjoy herself in the moment? All of these thoughts swirled in her head and spilled out of her mouth as we road to the airport. I listened in silent support, letting her get it out, and identifying wholeheartedly. While I wasn’t nervous about navigating Tokyo, I was breaking a seal of my own. Julia’s trip to Japan was my first step towards turning OPEN from an idea on paper into a living, breathing reality. We were all venturing into unknown territory.
When we arrived, a significant test awaited us. It was 11pm and we’d decided to navigate to our hotel via public transportation. Things started off easy. Within minutes we had train tickets to the center of Tokyo. We arrived early on the track and busied ourselves taking photos and goofing about in a jet-lagged haze. When the train arrived we scurried on, not thinking twice about whether or not it was the right one. Three stops in, we started to look around. We didn’t appear to be headed towards the city center. Instead we were making frequent stops on what seemed to be a local train through the suburbs. A bit of anxiety started to set in. No one read Japanese, and so the signs and maps were little more than decorative infographics. Discombobulated, we peered out dark windows into an unfamiliar city, waiting for our instincts to kick in.
After a few more stops the first of many travel angels approached us – a young woman who looked like she was coming from work, despite it being almost midnight. She didn’t speak English, yet we were somehow able to comprehend that we should get off the train and ask a platform agent what to do next. At the next stop we were ready. Suitcase handles clutched and maps in mouths, we bounded onto the platform to absorb the scene. A sea of black suits and briefcases, thick and surging, greeted us. When the wave finally passed, we spotted a man in an official-looking hat standing on the platform. I stood paralyzed for a moment, revving up the courage and lucidity to approach him for help. How was I to explain our situation? How were we to comprehend his instructions? The station had at least 15 tracks on varying levels with signs in a language we couldn’t read. But, when that man looked up from his notebook to meet my gaze, I was immediately put at ease. His eyes were kind and inviting. And I’d forgotten that the visual of foreigners weighed down with suitcases and travel-weary eyes can speak volumes. Where else could we be going but to the city center? With a pocket timetable and his fingers he communicated the track, the time and the subway stop we needed. He then tapped his watch and blinked his eyes quickly with caution. We realized that we had 3 minutes to make the train and we took off running, travel drunk and determined.
At around 1am we finally arrived in Shinjuku, the neighborhood where we’d be staying. The map indicated a 2 block walk to the hotel. All we had to do was look for the 7-11, and the hotel would be right across the street. I can’t really explain what went wrong, how we could have possibly misinterpreted such a clear path, but 1 hour later we were still walking the streets of Shinjuku. In retrospect I attribute it to Tokyo, a city that local cab drivers can’t navigate without a GPS and where there is a 7-11 on every corner. But in that moment, with 12+ travel hours logged and way too much luggage and gear, it felt like a cruel trick. We were literally blocks from homebase, circling in a bewildered fog.
In our circling, we’d noticed a young couple out walking a dog. I thought it strange that they’d be out so late, strolling at a Sunday afternoon pace on a Tuesday night. Two minutes later they reappeared and asked in very clear English, “Do you need help?” As I teared up with gratitude, Julia showed them our crumpled map. We were literally one block away. They not only gave us exact directions, they escorted us. On the way, we thanked them profusely. They replied, “No problem – we were just in Italy. We know exactly what it’s like to be lost. When we saw you standing there so late, so tired, we knew we had to come back and help you.”
Our entry to Tokyo – indirect, disorienting, humbling – was an apt introduction to what it’d be like to navigate an unknown city and culture over the next few days. We couldn’t have been more out of our element, but there was a safety net of sorts in place to help absorb our fumbles. Call it travel kismet, call it luck, but somehow we were OK. We weren’t always comfortable. In fact, each day it was guaranteed that we’d have to pass through awkwardness, misunderstandings, miscommunications. But it was that state of vulnerability that led to some of our most genuine, treasured moments in Japan, such as the morning we met our “Japanese Mama”, Hamako, at that little cafe in Shinjuku. We began to look forward to those awkward moments and see them as opportunities.
Over the next week, I watched Julia’s fear of the unknown turn into curiosity and know-how. She had a sincere desire to connect with the Japanese people and their way of life. After our initial night, it was Julia who was the front line of communication with locals. She’d studied the language for weeks before our departure. I watched her roll the unfamiliar words around in her mouth and work up the courage to use them. As the days went by she was understood more and more, and that gave her confidence to keep going, to keep trying new things. She began to find the joy in it.
The notion of stepping out into the unknown can be scary for anyone, particularly during transitional periods. Yet we’re never more ripe for transformation, for growth in the right direction, than in these moments. We just have to be willing to be put ourselves out there and be vulnerable.
Julia knew that a trip to Japan would force her to show up for herself in a new way. That was certainly the case. And, as the trip came to a close, she made a promise to approach her life in LA in the same way. To be just as kind to herself, to be just as curious, to be just as open.