About five weeks into our six week Japanese extravaganza, I hit a wall. I loved Japan, I loved being with my partner, and I loved being on holiday.
I didn’t like not being able to understand the language. I didn’t like the overwhelming crowds. I didn’t like the uncomfortable futons. I didn’t like the never-ending culture shock. And I didn’t like living out of a backpack, week after week.
I was homesick, and it was making me grumpy.
The final straw came when we set off to visit the Saga-Toriimoto Preserved Street during our visit to Arashiyama, a short train trip from Kyoto, which had been described as a historic district in which traditional houses had been converted into shop and restaurants. It was quite a walk from the main tourist strip, and our feet were getting sore, but the area had good reviews, so we thought it was worth making the trek. For whatever reason, perhaps because it was the low tourist season, almost every single restaurant and shop along the entire street was closed. While it had been a beautifully scenic stroll, as far as I was concerned we had walked all that way out there for nothing.
I was just livid. I had had enough. I was tired of this country, and I just wanted to go home.
And that’s when we saw it.
A glass window box, filled with the most curious displays. Little dioramas featuring tiny recreations of buildings inhabited by tiny little figures made out of an unfamiliar material. There was a sign pointing up a walkway to an old house perched on a bit of an outcrop, with a few English words describing a gift shop. We looked at each other, shrugged, and decided to take a look.
Inside the shop two older women were sitting drinking tea and laughing. As we entered they stopped talking and welcomed us enthusiastically in haphazard English. They enthusiastically showed us the different items they’d handcrafted – tiny little figurines and intricate scenes carefully put together with the utmost care and love. The unfamiliar medium turned out to be empty silkworm cocoons! The silkworm cocoons are typically just discarded, but here they were instead turned into endearing little works of art.
I was drawn to a sweet little girl figurine decked out in a tiny kimono, and the delighted artisan encouraged me to pick out my favourite kimono colour, as well as an adorable little gift box in which to store my little cocoon girl. She then invited us to sit with them for a cup of freshly brewed green tea. My partner speaks a little Japanese, while I know a word or two, and our hostesses delighted in our enthusiastic if not grammatically correct efforts at conversation. One of the ladies then presented me with a little origami frog that she’d just folded, showing me how to make it leap, and laughing merrily.
When it was finally time for us to make our way back to the train to head back to Kyoto, our new friends stood at the door of their shop and waved and waved as we walked away, shouting “thank you” and “good bye” in both Japanese and English, as we happily bowed and waved back.
This strange, charming exchange was exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it. I left that tiny little shop with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. My passion for Japan was reignited, and my spirit was inspired. I was reminded just why I love travel so very much, and of the kinds of unexpected experiences that can make travel so incredible.
All of this just goes to show that when you leave yourself open to new experiences, you just might find exactly what you need. Despite what popular media might suggest, travelling isn’t always sunshine and roses – sometimes it’s sore feet, bruised backs and homesick hearts, and that’s OK. We all have our down moments, and we can all just hit that wall. But inspiration can come from the unlikeliest of sources, and can strike when you least expect it. And if you’re ever in Arashiyama, be sure to visit the cocoon shop and say hello for yourselves.