Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Beauty of Solo Trips

After more than half a year in Japan, it donned on me that the only time I really spent alone was at home. At work, I was among colleagues and students, and if I went out by myself, it was often only to run errands or buy groceries.

I figured it was high time for a solo trip. Day-trips are great for traveling alone. They encompass all the fascination and reflection that make solo trips great, but are safe from the loneliness that often inevitably sets in when taking multi-day trips alone. I decided to go back to Kanazawa, a nearby favourite city of many Toyamites.

The trip was more than I could have ever fathomed. I found myself walking far greater distances than I ever did while traveling in groups, now able to trespass the small streets and hidden gems that can only be discovered by foot. In addition to visiting my usual favourite spot, the Kenrokuen Gardens and Kanazawa Castle grounds (which were unbelievably beautiful and full of life for midwinter), I also took a considerable hike over to the West-end of the city to check out the Higashi Chaya District. I'm so thankful that I made the big detour.

The Higashi Chaya District is a perfectly preserved Edo-period series of streets, lined with shops, tea houses, restaurants and private homes. During the Edo period and even today, it is popular as being a big Geisha and Maiko district. A couple of geisha parlours have been preserved in their original conditions, and I was lucky enough to tour one of them. It was amazingly intricate for what looked on the exterior like a small, simple place. The rooms were all in perfect condition. Before leaving, I decided to take them up on the offer to have green tea and fresh sweets. This small decision led me to what became a moment of spiritual transcendence. The tea room was a long, dimly-lit room with cushions and placemats facing out over a narrow, small, but beautifully-lit garden. The leafless tree branches glowed of a deep blue, contrasting marvelously with the lighting inside the tearoom. The faint sound of a Japanese flute and mandolin could be heard in the background. A large bowl of frothy matcha and an elegantly crafted bean sweet were served (often served alongside green tea to counter the bitterness). When I finished the tea, I remained in the room up until the place closed. I didn't want to leave. I was immediately thrown into a state of relaxation and found it hard to do anything but sit and meditate there. I could have stared out at the garden longer than at any feature film.

I suppose many people romanticize Japan as having this Zen philosophy that manifests itself in most of what they do. I guess I sort of did. Despite experiencing many relaxing and uplifting moments here (most notably the 6am monk prayer chants atop Mount Koya), there was something about this simple tea room and garden, and something about being all by myself, that really made it something I had imagined but never yet experienced.

I capped off the evening with a stop at this small but very cool French restaurant and bar in the Geisha district. The food was authentic and amazingly prepared. I will definitely be returning. I reflected on my afternoon while making the long trek back to Kanazawa Station, also a sight worth mentioning. The station entrance is a massive and intricate chrome atrium. At the mouth of the entrance stands the largest tori gate I have ever seen, made of enormous pieces of wood, weaving in and out of one another, looking like a tori gate version of a Trojan horse. I had only ever driven into Kanazawa with friends, so totally missed seeing the station in my former trips to the city.

All in all, it was a very memorable trip, even though I do not have anyone to share the memories with. Sure, I took photos and bought a couple of souvenirs, but the most important thing I took back with me to Toyama was the memory of an experience so personal and so unique. I look forward to more solo trips in the near future.

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