About ten years ago, I was in the Middle of Nowhere, Japan at 2 in the morning waiting for the trains to start running again. I’d been taking local trains from Kyoto to Hiroshima – it’s cheaper that way – and had ended up in some small town with a few hours to kill between the late night trains and the early morning trains.
As we walked into the crisp morning air, waiting to see what this sleepy town had to offer, my traveling companion took a deep breath and exclaimed, “I can’t wait to discover the real Japan!”
I didn’t really know what that meant.
We’d both been living in Hirakata-shi, Japan for about two and half months. I’d spent a lot of time in Kyoto, and a little time in Osaka. I’d taken classes in Aikido, gone to Japanese baths and Sumo games. I’d spent a weekend in Tokyo and had traveled to other well known sites.
I was far from an expert in all things Japanese, but I didn’t think I was any more likely to find the “real” Japan having drinks with drunken businessmen at 3 am (as we ended up doing).
And what is the “real” anyplace, really?
I grew up in Oakland, CA and lived there for sixteen years. But I haven’t lived there since I was sixteen. People ask me for things to do in Oakland and I’m like…um, visit the zoo? Or they ask me for directions, and and I’m like, look at the AC Transit map?
I honestly don’t really know what people do for fun in Oakland, and I don’t really know how to get from point A to point B. But I do know Oakland. I know it from my perspective. As a collection of memories and experiences. It’s part of who I am and I can only see the city through my own eyes.
When my mother and grandmother visited Ireland together about 15 years ago, a local told them they needed to “find the craic.” Pronounced “crack,” the craic is a gaelic term for…where it’s at.
The term is actually borrowed from the English “crack” (from Middle English crak) and means literally “loud conversation.” It’s use is somewhat controversial. “The craic” is a stereotypical representation of an Irish pub, simultaneously embraced for its Irish spirit and derided for being a stereotype…and a fake Gaelic word made up from the English.
So, it gets complicated.
When I visit a new place, I try hard to see my experience there as…my experience there. I will almost certainly never know the “real” wherever – if such a thing even exists.
All I can do is see and learn and think and experience.
Whatever I find is whatever I find.