Lessons on serenity: What I learned from two weeks in Japan

Floating Torii Gate at Miyajima Island.

By Isobel Haynes | gargoyle@flagler.edu

I’m generally a very stressed-out person. It’s hard not to be these days when it feels like the weight of the world is constantly on my shoulders.  So, when summer break 2018 rolled around, I knew it was time for a vacation. A few weeks after the semester ended, I was on a flight bound for Narita, Japan.

I expected plenty from this trip from the beginning. I’m not sure if that’s the best mindset to have, but the truth is, I expected to learn how to relax. Armed with a backpack and jet lag, I landed in Tokyo with a bounty of expectations. And in the end, I got more out of the trip than I ever expected.

The Torii Gate at the entrance of the Meji Temple- with Tokyo in the background.

About a year ago, one of my closest friends, Wyatt, and I decided to travel cross-country in Japan for about a month. There was no particular reason for our trip other than we have both always wanted to visit the country, and thought there was no better time than the present.

The stops ranged from Tokyo, the capital, to Takayama, a small town located in a mountain basin. As one of the busiest cities in the world, I suppose Tokyo wasn’t at the top of my list for relaxation. I was hoping the mountains around Fuji-San would be the place where I could unwind. But the metropolitan jungle surprised me, and it did so in the form of a Meji Temple right in the heart of the city.

Calling it a temple is an understatement. It’s virtually a palace hidden in a giant forest that seals off all the sounds from the city. The second I walked about 10 feet into the wooded area, the noises of Tokyo ceased to exist, and I was in a topiary wonderland filled with history and culture.

As the wonderful tour guide was explaining the history and meaning behind the temple, I found myself bombarded with a sensation I hadn’t experienced in a while. I knew I was in the heart of a city filled with millions of busy people, but in the woods, I took time to appreciate where I was. Even with all the people around me, I felt at ease.

That was my first lesson on serenity — taking natural pauses. I may not always be able to find myself in a beautiful mini-forest, but maybe taking a walk along the beach, or even just visiting a nearby state park will give me time to pause and take in the nature that I was surrounded with.

The Floating Torii Gate on Lake Ashi.

With Tokyo in the rearview mirror of the Shinkansen I found myself on, the Hakone region was my next stop. This was where I felt like I was going to shine, and Fuji-San was within reach along with all the relaxing nature I could ask for.

I wasn’t wrong. But it wasn’t in the cable car staring at the ancient mountain where I found myself at peace – I found it standing on a pirate ship.

The Hakone region found a way to capitalize on its booming tourism industry, and I couldn’t help but buy into it. While aboard the pirate ship, which was floating across the ancient Lake Ashi, I realized I was living lesson two.

The speaker system on the ship was explaining the history of the area and told us that the lake that we were on was about 400,000 years old. Suddenly, my 19 years of existence felt minuscule. I realized I had to prioritize. If this lake can stand here, through the horrors and glories of 400,000 years, then I can survive the useless drama that makes up young adulthood.

A tree at the grounds of Tofukuji Temple in Kyoto.

Small things — like talking to a cute boy with lettuce in my teeth, or the loss of someone who, in the end, didn’t benefit my life — doesn’t mean anything. Not in the grand scheme of things.

We cycled through some other cities, small towns and prefectures. But my next lesson occurred in Kyoto, the cultural heart of Japan.

I had separated from Wyatt one morning. We each wanted to see different sights and decided we should split up. While he went to a gorgeous shrine, I headed to the enormous Tofukuji Temple. I was one of the first people there — the temple hadn’t actually opened when I arrived, so I sat on a bench and read the news.

At 9 a.m., the temple’s grounds opened, and I found myself in the most beautiful garden I’ve ever been in. The day was overcast, but the sun managed to shine itself on one specific tree that had been marked off by concrete tiles. I don’t know why it was marked off. There was no one around to ask and no translation to explain the marker in front of it.

And that’s when I realized, why do I always need to know everything that’s going on around me? Lesson three was a hard one for me to accept.

I’m the type of person who needs to know everything, but in doing so, I take some of the beauty and fun out of my life — not to mention, I stress myself out. I would sneak into my parents’ closet and look at the Christmas presents they got me, and I would interrogate my friends to find out what they were doing for my birthday. I look up spoilers for everything I watch.

But why? Kyoto taught me that maybe I just need to accept some things for what they are, whether or not I’m ever given a reason for why anything occurs. The sun was shining on that specific tree. That tree was special. I couldn’t understand why, and I just had to deal with it.

Floating Torii Gate at Miyajima Island.

For obvious reasons, Hiroshima and the neighboring island of Miyajima were where I learned my fourth, and final, lesson.

We had found ourselves in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which I knew was going to be very emotional. At the end of the memorial, there is a loop of videos, accounts of the people who survived the attack — and those who didn’t.

I may have suffered a few hardships in my time, but listening to the experiences of these people shook me to my very core. I felt small, smaller than I’ve ever felt (which is saying something because I’m the shortest member of my family).

My fourth lesson was simple: if I want to relax then I can’t worry about tomorrow. I’m not always promised tomorrow, and even if I am, it’s not always going to be good. I learned that if today is good, I need to appreciate and cherish it.

The last lesson ties into the first lesson, but focuses on not pausing, but appreciating. Hiroshima changed me in a way I’ve never experienced before. The memorials were not aimed at placing blame on anyone – instead they were educational and wanted to teach the world a lesson on peace, so others can be spared the horrors of atomic warfare. The lesson I learned in Hiroshima was one that changed my view of the world, and I thank the city and those who educated me while I was there for the lesson.

I expected quite a bit out of my trip to Japan, and I got more out of it than I could have ever asked for. I didn’t take notes while I was there — the lessons on serenity I learned while I was there were latent.

I would notice subtle changes in my behavior or general outlook on life, and after some internal reflection, I realized where I learned them. I’m in a time of my life where I need lessons like these, and having spent the entire summer reflecting on them, I think it’s safe to say they affected me for the better.

I know as college students and young adults, money doesn’t grow on trees. But everyone should do themselves a favor and plan to go to Japan one day. I’m not making commission on every ticket to Narita sold, but I feel these lessons would go to waste if I didn’t share them. Maybe the world would be better if we were all a little bit more relaxed.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Be the first to comment on "Lessons on serenity: What I learned from two weeks in Japan"

Leave a comment