A Thousand Paper Cranes

-Mono, “A Thousand Paper Cranes”

Although some might consider teaching in South Korea to be a “holiday from real,” anyone who has actually taught would likely have a different opinion, especially if they have a curriculum as challenging as mine. By the end of the semester, teachers are just as ready for summer break as the students. For many teachers in Korea, this is the first time in our lives that we’ve had both the money and the time to travel. Some teachers went home for their breaks, and others travelled throughout the country. Many of us, however, jumped on the chance to see more of Asia.

I needed to get out of Korea for a few days, so I was willing to go just about anywhere. I never really had much interest in going to Japan, even though it’s the easiest “not Korea” country to visit. It’s not that I didn’t want to go there, just that it was never a place I felt that I had to visit, partly because I thought it’d be too much like Korea. I considered some other places and almost went somewhere alone, but in the end, the stars aligned for me to go to Japan with my friend, Grayson. As we planned our trip, I was increasingly keen to go, but it was still really because I needed to get out of Korea for a few days.

“It’s French for ‘Let’s go!'”

I didn’t sleep much the night before our early flight to Osaka (Thank you, love motel noise!), but by that point, I was so excited I didn’t even care. I just hoped I’d be able to sleep that night, especially since I’m weird and have trouble sleeping in a room with other people. I was deliriously exhausted and excited at the same time. When we arrived in Japan, I got connected to the airport wi-fi until I picked up my sim card. Our trip was already getting off to a great start with a text I’d received: I was an aunt! My precious niece Layla was born while I was flying. Needless to say, I was ecstatic and instantly felt glad that I’d opted to get a sim card to stay in touch with my family. With the excitement of everything, I could barely even think. Still, we managed to get everything we needed at the airport relatively quickly but were so hungry that we decided to get something there before embarking on the long journey to our first destination.

I was never been a big fan of Japanese food and didn’t want to eat it for every meal there, so we looked around to see what was there. I’m pretty sure I shrieked when I saw the sign: Pancakes! Anyone who has spent time with me since I’ve been in Korea knows how important this was to me. I’ve tried to get pancakes in Korea more times than I can count and have always failed for one reason or another. Japan: 1. South Korea: 0.

I certainly can’t argue with that.

After some of the best pancakes I’ve ever had, we got on our first train to go to Koyasan. My brother and sister-in-law stayed in Koyasan when they visited Japan a few years ago and recommended a temple stay. We used a company that booked us in a shukubo (temple) called Daien-in. I was surprised at how beautiful it was for only about $100/person. We got there just in time to get settled a bit before dinner, which was included. We both kept saying how happy we were that we decided to do the temple stay because we didn’t know of any other foreign teachers who did a temple stay in Japan. It felt like we were a bit off the beaten path and were having a once in a lifetime experience. Our room was very nice with a beautiful courtyard view.

Dinner was a typical Buddhist vegetarian meal. I’ve developed trust issues in Korea because I’ve been deceived many times, so it was refreshing to be able to eat everything without worrying if it was really vegetarian.  My brother and sister-in-law (who is also a vegetarian) told me that the shukubo meals were some of the best they had in Japan, and I had the same feeling. I didn’t know what everything was, but I tried everything, even (accidentally) the eye-watering Wasabi. It was quite a feast, and it made us both look forward to breakfast, which was not as good but still lovely.

Feast at the shukubo. All of this was just mine!

After dinner, we hung out in the room until it was time to bathe. I’ve been to Korean spas before, so I wasn’t nervous about bathing with other women. My only concern was that I’d heard that tattoos were frowned upon in Japan, even more than in Korea, and I was worried I’d offend someone. It didn’t seem to be a problem, and after a long day of travelling, the hot tub felt especially nice. After bathing, we talked and listened to music for a while until bedtime. I knew we’d be sleeping on Japanese mats, but I was expecting thin blankets, like the incredibly uncomfortable ondol at pensions in Korea. I was pleasantly surprised because they were probably more comfortable than my own mattress in Korea. I didn’t feel like I was sleeping on a hard floor, and the buckwheat pillows provided great neck support. I still didn’t sleep a whole lot, but I slept more than I thought I would, so I was happy. Japan: 2. Korea: 0.

We woke up early on Saturday to try to go to the prayers. We were told we could come and go as we pleased, but the room was so packed we couldn’t get in. We decided to just walk around the temple a little bit until breakfast. After breakfast, we checked out the town a bit before leaving for Nara. There wasn’t a lot to see, so we didn’t spend much time there.

While we were waiting for the bus to take us to the cable car, we met an old Japanese man, who spoke decent English. He told us how he had just prayed at a temple nearby, then pulled out a flask. It took all I had to not die of laughter, especially when he offered it to Grayson later on the cable car. He was very fascinating, though, and told us about all the places he (supposedly) travelled and things he (supposedly) did. We ended up meeting him again on a train later, and he showed us pictures of his deceased family. It was quite special, and I have a feeling we made his day, too.

This was the guy!
This was the guy!

Eventually, we made our way to Nara. I was looking forward to Nara more than anything because I’d heard that deer roam freely in Nara Park. They’re my second favourite animals and are very special to my mami, sister, and me. We consider them good luck. We checked in at our hostel, ate lunch, and then headed to the park. I was disappointed because I expected there to be a bunch of deer, but we only saw a few. Still, we hung out there for a while before relaxing at the hostel for a bit.

The hostel guy told us there was a fire ceremony at the park, so we decided to go back to look for it. We never found the ceremony, and we just wandered, even though we were walking against the crowd. We came upon a different part of the (surprisingly big) park we’d completely missed earlier. I found a couple more deer, and though it was dark, I suddenly saw hundreds of glowing eyes! I tried to get pictures but couldn’t get good ones in the dark, so we agreed to come back the next day. We continued walking and found a cool cemetery, temple, and a pond, all of which were beautiful at night.

For me, this is heaven.

On Sunday, we moved to a hotel, which was a nice change from the hostel. We explored beautiful Nara and through the market before heading back to the park. I was a bit like a kid, so excited to feed the deer, and I took so many pictures. I think I had to be dragged out of there.

There was a restaurant called Nino that we wanted to go to for dinner ever since we saw it on Saturday, but it was always closed. I’m not sure why we were so set on it, other than that they had Italian, but we were disappointed every time they were closed. I guess we have good intuition because we finally got to go there for dinner, and it was perfect. The food was amazing, and the staff was super nice. We were sad that they were closed on Monday because we wanted to go there for lunch. We actually stayed and drank for a while just because it was so nice.

On Monday, we traded Nara for Kyoto. I didn’t know much about it, except that it was bigger, so I went without expectations. It was love at first sight. As crazy as it sounds, it reminded me of London for reasons I can’t explain. Our hostel, which was a cool, old theatre, was very close to Nishiki Market, so we spent most of the afternoon shopping and exploring that area because the market seemed endless. We were going to try to meet up with a friend after dinner, but it didn’t work out. We ended up going to an area by the Kamogawa River. There was a musician playing beautiful, soothing music on the bridge, and we were so entranced that we both bought his CD and took a picture with him. We spent the rest of the night hanging out by the river, listening to music, and enjoying being able to actually see the stars.

The view from our spot at the Kamogawa River. There were a bunch of people on the other side, and we couldn’t understand why we were nearly the only ones on our side when ours was clearly better.

Tuesday was my last full day in Japan, but I still had a few things I wanted to do. Besides Nara Park, the only other thing that was really on my list of things to do in Japan was to see Fushimi Inari Shrine. I was somewhat afraid that it wouldn’t live up to the hype, but it was mystical and stunning to see in person.

Pictures really don't do it justice.
Pictures really don’t do it justice.

The only way the shrine could have been better is if there were fewer people. It was quite crowded, making it difficult to get some of the pictures I wanted. We managed to find a few places that seemed to be neglected by other people for some reason. My favourite was where they had origami cranes. It was positively breathtaking. The legend is that if someone makes 1000 paper cranes, a wish will come true. It made me think of the Web series “Emma Approved,” in which a character called Martin wanted to make 1000 paper cranes “in an explosion of better feelings.” (I won’t spoil it, but if you watch the series, you’ll see how his quest goes in the end.) I thought of how I would like to make 1000 paper cranes myself in hopes of my own wish coming true. Maybe someday I will. Grayson told me about an instrumental song called “A Thousand Paper Cranes” by a Japanese band called Mono. Though I can’t speak for both of us, seeing this at the shrine definitely had a profound impact on me. It’s one of those moments I like to think I’ll remember forever.

A thousand paper cranes for one wish...
A thousand paper cranes for one wish…

We did a little bit of shopping after the shrine, including buying chopsticks with our names engraved on them. I also wanted to find a yukata or kimono. I never thought I’d buy one, but after wearing yukatas at the temple, we both wanted one. Grayson had already bought his, so we looked around near the shrine and then at Nishiki Market for one for me. I found some that I liked, but a lot of them seemed to be pretty generic. I saw one on Monday that I loved but didn’t buy then because I wanted to keep looking. I couldn’t get it out of my mind, though, so we set off on a mission to find it.

After looking for quite some time, I was losing hope. Grayson mentioned that maybe it was in Nara, and then I started thinking I was going crazy and feared that I had, in fact, seen it in Nara. I almost bought another one I didn’t like nearly as much. I couldn’t even remember exactly what the one I loved looked like, except that it was green and unique, but I could picture the store and knew I would know the kimono if I saw it. I felt bad for dragging Grayson around to look for it, and I was just about to give up when I saw the store. I made a mad dash for the store, and thankfully, the kimono was as gorgeous as I’d remembered. I tried it on, and we both agreed that it was perfect. (Maybe he was just tired of looking.) Every time I saw a woman wearing a kimono after that, I said, “Hers is pretty, but mine is prettier.” I only speak the truth.

Me trying on my kimono
Me trying on my kimono

After another busy but successful day, we decided to explore Gion Corner, where the geishas work. It was rather quiet, but I saw a couple of geishas go by in a taxi. We walked around the area for a while, then walked back to the Kamogawa River. I wanted to try sake before I left, but we were both in the mood for a low-key night. We decided to get some sake and beer at a liquor store and hang out by the river again. We went back to the same spot as the night before and played great music for each other again, including “A Thousand Paper Cranes” by Mono. It was the perfect end to a great trip.

We may not have had a chance to see all that Japan had to offer, but I’ve no doubt I’ll be back. To my surprise, I really fell in love with Japan. The people (with the exception of one woman on my last day) were amazingly nice and never gave us a second glance, like they do in Korea. I’d heard that they don’t speak as much English there, but I didn’t experience that. All the food was amazing. Several of the people I met understood what “vegetarian” meant more than Koreans do. It was an absolutely beautiful country. I was a bit nervous about the trip before we left, but I think it was one of the first trips in my life where nothing really went wrong. I’d hoped that being out of Korea for a few days would make me appreciate it more. Instead, I appreciated Japan more than I ever expected. It made me crave more adventure and wonder where I’ll go next. I don’t know what my future will bring, but I guess I’ll figure it out while I’m working on my thousand paper cranes…