For those of you that have been following the blog for awhile, you’ll know that in early this year, I was let go from my job. I found myself for the first time since I was 22, jobless without anything lined up and I decided to test out a dream of mine. Hit the road and see what happens.
I decided on a month because I still have a handful of responsibilities at home and a ton of upcoming bills where I’d need a job to help pay off. But for a month, I was off the hook to spend as I wished. I ultimately settled on Japan with a side trip to South Korea. I certainly could have picked a more inexpensive area (hello Southeast Asia!), which is something I considered, but a flight deal came up for Japan and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to return to the land of the rising sun.
When I set out on this journey, I didn’t know what would come out of it. My other half-joked that I was going away to “find myself” but I didn’t really think of it that way. I was just seizing an opportunity to go and explore an area of the world slowly and with deliberation.
Now that I’m back at home and almost re-adjusted with my jet leg, I have come to realized that even if I didn’t “find myself”, I definitely did learn a lot about myself and about Japan and South Korea. Some of these came as a surprise to me, but others, not so much, and only confirmed things I had already suspected.
It has cemented my love for Japan
After my first trip to Japan a couple years ago, I was completely enamoured with the country. Looking back, that trip was insanity. Somehow in 12 days, we visited 5 cities. This time around, I wanted to go slower, exploring new parts of the country and revisiting others that I didn’t thoroughly explore previously. I’ll go further into my itinerary in another post, but I first went up north to Nagano and through the Japanese Alps before heading south to Hiroshima and Kyoto and ended with five days in Tokyo.
Everything I saw just made me fall more and more in love with the country. While I’ve explored much more of the country than the average visitor, I feel like there is so much more to learn and see. Every part of the country is so unique and different from its neighbours. I had so many amazing meals while meandering through Japan which also contributes to my love. The people of Japan are so incredibly friendly and helpful. When I lost my phone (see below for more info), everyone I spoke to went above and beyond to try and help me out.
South Korea was considerably harder to travel
After spending over two weeks in Japan, heading to South Korea was a bit of a shock to the system, one that I couldn’t fully overcome even by the time I left 10 days later. I couldn’t but help comparing the two countries, and South Korea always came up a little bit short. For example, the train systems were similar and yet quite different between the two countries. Japan’s ran consistently with simple connections and booking tickets was easy. South Korea was a bit more complicated as they only had a handful of connections and to go across the country, you’d have to go backwards for most of it. A lot of friends had told me that you should go to South Korea first and then to Japan on a trip and now I can understand why. South Korea is efficient – considerably more so than North America, but Japan is just so much more efficient.
I also contribute a lot of my difficulties purely to culture shock. I don’t speak any Korea, nor can I read it. English literacy was significantly lower than I anticipated (even at tourist attractions), and once you left Seoul, it was really hard to navigate. Google Maps doesn’t work in the country and trying to use their local apps was frustrating due to the lack of Korean skills. I’ll be expanding on these thoughts in a future blog post.
Even though I thought I packed well, I probably could have packed less
Having never lived out of a bag for longer than 2 weeks, this was the part that I obsessed the most about prior to travel. I think I did a pretty good job at packing. I wore everything I packed and didn’t run out of underwear (unless it was a planned laundry day!). I wished I had packed some waterproof footwear. The couple days of rain and sideways snow were truly miserable and I constantly had wet feet, but it was only 2-3 days out of the whole trip. It probably wasn’t worth hauling a pair of boots the whole time. I also wish I had a warmer jacket for those days too. While I layered what seemed to be half my clothes on, it just wasn’t enough to keep me warm, but again, it wasn’t worth hauling a thick jacket around the whole month.
For those of you headed to Japan, you don’t need to bring slippers. Every hostel I went to provided some, so my flip flops sat unused in my bag for most of the trip. Even in South Korea, most places provided slippers as well. Another item you don’t need is a swimsuit as most onsen experiences in Japan are in the buff!
Solo travel really isn’t that bad
I don’t really consider myself a solo traveler. I can count on one hand the number of times I went somewhere by myself and those solo adventures were always just a couple days, nevermind a month. In a fit of panic during my planning, I voluntold my other half to book a ticket to Seoul to meet me halfway through my trip. Looking back, while I’m sure I would have been fine on my own the whole month, I’m actually really glad that I did. I really missed him and our reunion came at a time where I was getting quite tired and he re-energized me.
That said, I was able to really embrace solo travel. I was able to make plenty of friends along the way, perfecting the art of inserting myself into conversations in common rooms. As an introvert, I alternated my hostels between ones that seemed to have lots of socializing opportunities with ones that seemed quieter so I could catch up on sleep and recharge on my own.
After a couple days of hanging out with some new friends made at my hostel, I’m on my own again. And you know what? I’m surprisingly feeling relieved about it. I thought that I would hate traveling solo especially for so long (I’ve never done it for more than 2-3 days), but that’s not the case at all. I’m loving the freedom that comes with being on your own, deciding what to do and when, or more importantly, what not to do. So to celebrate this new found realization, I took myself out to dinner for the most amazing beef yakiniku (where you grill it yourself) Hida beef is famous in this area and I can definitely understand why. Look at that marbling! This was melt in your mouth tender. I normally hate eating by myself in a restaurant, but this new found love of going at it solo makes it not so bad. Plus, being in a foreign country makes it so much easier. Why so reflective? Just ask the sake brewery I just visited where I tasted 16 different types of their sake (this is also famous in Takayama).
I loved the freedom of deciding what to do and when to do it. I fell into a rhythm within a couple of days where I’d wake up, decide what I was going to do that day, go out and do it, then retreat back to my hostel to rest for a couple hours before heading out for food and drinks with new friends. Or, if I didn’t feel like doing anything, I just didn’t. While I had some sense of FOMO (fear of missing out), my desires won out every time. Definitely not something you can do when you travel with someone else!
Just like at home, you have your up days and down days
This realization surprised me a bit. You see on travel blogs and travel websites everyone singing praises about life on the road. Certainly, I’m a bit guilty of this as well on this site and on my social media, but on previous trips, I truly was happy the whole way through because they were so short. On this longer trip, I had the opportunity to experience both the ups and the downs that are associated with longer term travel that I didn’t get on my shorter getaways.
For the most part, I had way more ups than downs, but on my down days, I was so miserable. They were mostly due to weather. I don’t do well when I’m cold or wet and just kind of shut down. When I left the north of Japan for the warmth and sun of Hiroshima, I was so thrilled.
I had intentionally planned my trip with time in between for me to rest and to have rest days where if I didn’t want to do much, that was an option. I’m so glad I had the foresight to do that and to know how much I would be able to handle based on previous travel experiences. The first week of my trip was quite busy, but then I slowed down drastically after that.
Losing a phone while traveling really really sucks
I’m not entirely sure how this happened, but I think it fell out of my bag when I was taking out my camera to take a photo in Kanazawa. It happened after a couple of consecutive miserable days so I already wasn’t really myself. It was a terrible blow to my enthusiasm towards travel. Nevermind the cost of the phone itself, but what it represents especially when traveling. Communication with those at home. Access to information. Maps.
However, it forced me to buck up and actually use my brain and rely on my gut and common sense to travel. I had to look up information before I went out instead of planning on the fly. If I needed help, I actually had to ask people. I had to use paper maps. I’m actually really proud of myself for managing without a phone for so long. I got really good at navigating. I got good at getting lost and then finding where I was again. I had gotten lazy when it came to travel and this forced me to practice skills I hadn’t used in a long while.
It also forced me to live in the moment a little more. Instead of hiding behind a phone when I was out eating a meal by myself, I was forced to be mindful of what I was I was enjoying. Normally, I would pass time on the train or on the subway by putting my nose to my phone, but without the distraction, I watched people instead.
Note to future self: purchase travel insurance! Not just medical travel insurance, but insurance for your stuff. You’ve lost enough things on the road to warrant this!
Time to learn some Mandarin
Speaking of notes for myself, I should really learn some Mandarin. It would have been really useful on this trip. I can speak a little, but I’ve forgotten most of what I learned in university. Because I was alone most of the time, locals assumed I was a local, speaking to me in Japanese or Korean until I looked at them blankly in confusion. Then they’d tried Mandarin which was met with the same confused look. No one thought I spoke English. Especially in South Korea, more people spoke Mandarin well than English so that would have been extremely useful given my difficulties mentioned above.
Long term travel isn’t for me
I’ve know this one for awhile, but this month long adventure has definitely proved it to me. I’ll be expanding on this on an upcoming post. I don’t enjoy packing and repacking constantly. Even if I stayed somewhere for 5 days, it was still too fast! At no point did I feel rushed in my itinerary, but living out of a bag got draining the longer I did it. I like having a home base where I can nest and do normal things like cook or watch Netflix all day without feeling guilty (the dreaded FOMO). I missed having privacy – I can only take so many hostels bunk rooms.
The only way I can see long term travel working for me is if I stay in a city for a couple weeks to a month, renting out an Airbnb.
So there you have it, some immediate reflections on my time spent in Japan and South Korea. I’ll be sharing a ton more about my trip in coming posts, but I wanted to get the reflective thoughts out first before I forget them all!
What are some things you’ve learned on your travels?