What do cemeteries, deer and takoyaki have in common?

Hint: Japan.

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Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima

Breaking the comfort zone: Part I

I still remember the smell of the air the first time I set foot in Japan. That unique scent of  sea, salt, algae and hot sidewalks.. 

Japan has a trademark on that smell.

I had not slept for the entire 11-hour flight from Paris, choosing to feel every single thing on the way.

The takeoff, the friendly smiles of the flight attendants, the screams of a nearby kid who was not as happy as me to be on board the plane..

The movies, the snacks, the air turbulence (actually pretty cool!)

The clouds beneath me and the stars above

By the time I was in Osaka, I was a half functioning human being, but full of adrenaline and want. I got to the hotel but was physically unable to close my eyes.

And how could I anyway? With the Pacific ocean sprawling shamelessly in front of my floor -to-ceiling window?

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My first time seeing a body of water this size.. and it had to be the Pacific!

So I went back out, I stepped foot on the cobbled beach, I took in the hot, salty air and I felt happier than I’d ever been.

How in the world..?!

You’re probably thinking how I got here in the first place.

You see, I was studying Japanese for a year when I decided to try my hand in a speech contest. The prize was a 3 week trip to Japan.

I had 3 minutes to speak about a topic of my choosing, and I picked The Săpânța Merry Cemetery.  I’ll tell you about that one another time.

I’d never spoken in front of 200 people before, and it was terribly exhilarating and amazing and fun  – and awkward – and all kinds of new.

I remember someone asking me how long it takes to drive from Bucharest to Săpânța , and in my excited state I said it takes about 9 years.

Not hours (which is what I thought I said) Years. By car.

That would have been an amazingly slow car..

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I sure made an impression, because back at the reception, the Japanese ambassador and his wife remembered me and made a joke

And I stopped caring about the embarrassment and appreciated the chance it gave me instead: speaking in that auditorium made me comfortable with public speaking and that would later matter the world.

So I didn’t get the 1st place, but the girl who did had already been to Japan before; and because one of the rules was to have never been to Japan, her prize went to me.

Lucky much?

Making Friends on a Different Continent

Ina,lovely Ina from Bulgaria next door, became my partner in crime for enjoying the next 3 weeks for the Japan adventure.

With her, I learned that just because I’ve not traveled before,doesn’t mean I’m not good at finding my way around in a new place.

We exercised our Japanese skills, we took each other’s photos to immortalize the moments. And we had a blast.

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We cried a little at Hiroshima, and we had fun watching deer snatch ice-cream from tourists‘ hands on one of the Top 3 most scenic spots in Japan,  Miyajima island.

Breaking the comfort zone: Part II

Then I was told we’ll be doing a home-stay weekend. I honestly had no idea what that meant.

Apparently, it means you get to spend the weekend living in an authentic Japanese environment, with regular people, and immerse in the day to day lifestyle of a Japanese family.

My allotted family was a mother with 3 super cute kids, aged 5 to 12.

And it completely took me outside what I knew was familiar.. I mean, my only interactions with 5 year olds, till then, were when I myself was a kid..Only this one here spoke only Japanese.

Yes, I could manage with some Japanese (as much as one can after 1 year of intensive, hard core study) but not nearly enough to engage in a conversation with someone the age of 5.

Hilarious was an understatement.

So they took me to the Osaka History Museum and we tried on some of the old traditional clothing, which I looked completely horrible in.

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Absolute beauty,  Japan 15 century style

We lit firecrackers in front of the house, and we went to a manga store where I bought mangas  for most of my colleagues.

I’ll admit, it made me uncomfortable at times, but I am glad I saw the face of plain, regular Japan that you don’t get out of a trip, or movies, or books.

What Japan taught me: Always try things twice

 I didn’t enjoy almost any Japanese food while in Japan. I liked the takoyaki and the omuraisu comfort food, and that’s it.

Takoyaki are these delicious ball-shaped Japanese finger food made of batter cooked in a special pan and usually filled with pieces of minced octopus.

Here’s takoyaki in the cooking below: 

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Takoyaki balls of yummyness

But I disqualified a lot of other amazingly delicious foods, sometimes without even trying. 

Like the shabu shabuHere’s a picture of me looking forward to it.

That evening, I fell asleep half hungry.

I didn’t give myself the chance to get used to the newness. I have since learned not to approach many things (food included) that way.

What Japan taught me: Always try things twice

I had tried sushi before as well, but somehow decided it wasn’t for me. Then years later, on a beach in Santa Monica, I rediscovered Japanese food and realized how much I’ve been missing out on.

You may not like some things right off the bat, and that’s OK.

Just make sure you give them a second chance before deciding if they’re what you want or not. You might be (pleasantly) surprised by where that takes you.

So here’s me with a question:

What is the one thing that travel taught you?

Leave your comments below, I’d love to hear your story!

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