Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels
Reminiscing memories of past travels is always tinged with nostalgia, but it comes with a special pang of sorrow during a global pandemic. Most of you have probably, at some point during this quarantine, thought about all the travels you’ve been on in the past as a way to relive the old familiar world – a world that most, if not all of us, if we’re sincere, have taken for granted.
Maybe you’ve found yourself scrolling through Facebook albums and Instagram posts or taken out a box of old photographs and worn-down mementos you’ve collected during your travels. Even though it’s bittersweet, I’ve found that doing this once in a while – letting our minds escape beyond the walls of here and now – can be a tremendous help mentally and emotionally. Hence this little trip down memory lane.
I’ve been blessed to have had the opportunity to visit several countries throughout my life. And every time I get asked which country is my favorite, I always have the same answer: Japan. Right after my answer comes the general assumption for us young people (I guess), “Oh is it because you like anime?” Now, I do think anime is one of Japan’s greatest cultural assets and a very valid reason to love the country, so I’m not totally surprised when people assume that. But it wasn’t my reason. Assumption number two would be, “Is it the weather?” I know. It’s almost as if every Filipino is a sucker for cool weather. And can you blame us? It can get absurdly hot in the Philippines. (It’s one of the main reasons Pinoys love their malls. Air conditioning.) But a lot of countries have great weather, so that’s not exclusive to Japan. “Is it the Sakura, then?” The Sakura or cherry blossom is another very understandable reason to fall in love with Japan, but again, it’s not that for me.
So, what is it? What made Japan stand out in my travel memories? Maybe some of you have guessed it. It’s the people. In all my travels, both at home and abroad, I don’t think I have ever met such a kind and gentle group of people as the Japanese. I’m not saying I’m so incredibly well-traveled, but I have been here and there. Whenever I think of our visit to Osaka, one thing comes to mind. One cold night somewhere in Osaka, my family and I couldn’t find our way back to our hotel. We were on the side of the road struggling with Google Maps until we finally gave up and just asked for directions. We approached a young lady carrying around a bike as she waited patiently for the pedestrian crossing light to turn green. She gave us directions, then we thanked her and started walking. Not 10 seconds later, she came up behind us and said she’ll lead the way. We said she didn’t have to since it was quite late, plus she was lugging around a huge bike, but she insisted and gladly led us to our hotel (which was quite far, it was probably a 15 to 20-minute walk!).
We thanked her profusely, but it didn’t seem like such a big deal to her. She smiled kindly and walked all the way back. I could forget that moment. Even before that, I’d already noticed how warm and pleasant the people of Osaka were. But that moment was to be such a vivid testament of how kind-hearted they can be. That night made me realize that there are different forms of hospitality. The one I’ve grown accustomed to was all sunshine and smiles, but theirs, I think, is more tender and gentler, delicate hospitality if there ever is one. I’ve found Osaka a beautiful city surrounded by lovely cherry blossom trees contrasted with awe-inspiring modern architecture. And yet, for me, the city’s absolute best feature was the unforgettable warmth of its people.
If you enjoy watching K-dramas or listening to K-pop (or simply a regular fellow Pinoy), you probably know where I’m going with this (or not). Back in 2018, my entire family decided to go abroad together for the first time. Now, where to? Well, there was no stopping my titas (aunts), mom, and lola (grandma) from ganging up on the rest of the family and insisting that it must be to none other than the epicenter of Hallyu, South Korea. Most of my family members have been to Seoul once or twice, and they all claimed that it was the best place they’ve been to (and these guys have been to many places). They said it checks all the boxes: mesmerizing sceneries, incredible cuisine, endless tourist attractions, great weather, and terrific people. Sure enough, as soon as we landed, I quickly discovered that all of it checked out. When we landed, it was already evening, and it was cold (for us at least). After being dropped off by the airport bus, we were, naturally, a bit lost (are we the only ones who get lost this often when traveling abroad?). As we walked the streets of Seoul, those of us who have been to Korea laughed at us first-timers as we shivered and regretted underestimating how cold Octobers in Korea could be.
We wasted no time and spared no effort in taking in as much as possible the following days. We toured Nami Island, Myeongdong, Petite France, Bukchon Hanok Village, Everland, and more. My titas also tried their luck – and actually succeeded – in meeting famous actor Lee Min-ho! As for me, to this day, I remember as if it was yesterday how my poor 6-year-old cousin lost a tooth while we were in Nami Island but soldiered on and still posed for pictures like the dutiful daughter she is (any kid with Pinoy parents knows what I mean). Meanwhile, one of my titas lost the hotel keycard and stood lifeless as she paid for it at the hotel lobby; my tito nearly missed his bus and suddenly left us all in a panic, and someone couldn’t handle the cold that she got sick for two days (that someone is me).
(This could very well be the same bench in Nami Island where I collapsed nauseated from sickness yet utterly grateful and happy to be enchanted by autumn’s magic. Nami Island, everybody, a place so pretty you can even forget about being sick.)
That was the first time we traveled as a family (I sure thought at some point it would be the last), and it was truly a chaotic experience. But you know what? I honestly wouldn’t have had it any other way. I would rather shiver in the cold, miss the train, lose the hotel card, get a tooth knocked out, and drag my half-lifeless body during a whole-day bus tour (there is no rest for the fully paid passenger, says mother) than have a smooth and hassle-free tour on my own or with anybody else. In the end, out of our South Korea family trip came some of the funniest and most memorable travel moments we’ve all had – memories we continue to talk and laugh about even today.
Writing and reminiscing about these travels have reminded me that perhaps in life, it’s not so much as where we are, whether stuck at home or having a grand adventure somewhere, what time we are living in, whether during a pandemic or not or even what state we’re in, that really counts. Maybe the old cliché was true all along. Maybe, just maybe, it’s the people who matter most to us that matters the most. So if ever you decide to take some time to write about your travel memories, let me know how it goes! I hope that this little exercise would help us reflect on what was, look beyond what is, and find a glimmer of hope for what could be.
( Zia Kalong is a regular Philippine Daily Mirror columnist. She is a Filipina writer nurturing a deep love for cultures, stories, and the written word. Her mission in life is to find beauty in both the curious and the mundane, to share the story of the Filipino people, and to stay caught up in the wonder of the world.)