Truth is, I was likely born with the “travel bug”. I was born in London to my British Father of Greek descent who spent his childhood in Egypt - and my American Mother of Irish/German descent, who spent her early adult years traveling through India, Africa and Europe. When I was a baby we traveled around Europe and eventually settled in Colorado when I was two. Though it would take a little more time for the travel bug to show up in my life, once it did, there was no looking back!
I started studying Japanese as a freshman at East High School in Denver, CO. I think I had heard too many friends gripe about learning Spanish and French - so I figured if I was going to learn a language, it would be something exotic. The instructor, Mr. Shioya (Shioya-Sensei) made the classes really fun as we learned not only the basics of the language but the culture itself. Soon I was learning about the art, history, food and culture of Japan and devoured it!
Towards the end of my first year studying Japanese, I was selected to participate in a month-long student program that upcoming summer to visit Yamagata, Japan - which is Colorado’s Sister State. Yamagata is a very mountainous region (Yama means “mountain” in Japanese) in the northern part of the main island and is known for its beautiful scenery and mountain onsens (hot springs). My inner travel bug was doing cartwheels with the opportunity to travel to Japan.
I flew from Denver to Tokyo in July of 1990, then immediately boarded an 8-hr. bullet train which took us up to Yamagata. We had been traveling for days by this point and though I was so deliriously tired after all that travel, my heart was full as I took in the scenery. When we finally arrived at the ryokan (Japanese guest house), I settled into my traditional room and had never slept so good on a futon in my life! The next morning, I put on the traditional robe and wooden shoes (geta) to head down to my first traditional Japanese breakfast: dried (whole) small fish, rice, pickled vegetables and this horrible smelling dish called natto, which is fermented soybeans and is a delicacy in the area. It was quite a culture shock for an American teenager like me!!
The whole trip took me out of my comfort zone as I stayed with three different host families in throughout the region. My first hosts were a lovely middle-class family in Yamagata City and I spent my days going to school with the teenaged daughter and hanging out with the family at night. The daughter was the only one who spoke any English in the family (which I found to be the case for all the families I stayed with) and I soon adjusted to Japanese life - including strange toilets, and extremely hot baths!
My 2nd host family was very wealthy and was also located in Yamagata City. The family was a nice couple with a teenaged daughter and a beautiful dog - they even a yard with grass (which was quite a luxury in Japan!). The father was the President of a large plastics company and drove a tricked-out Toyota Crown that had a dashboard navigation system. Yes, in 1990, I experienced my first dashboard navigation system with satellite traffic maps and even a button that you could watch live television! I came back home with tales of the future - no one could believe it!
Though staying with the 2nd family was lovely and I got to experience many luxurious experiences, meals and gifts (including a hand-painted kimono which I still have today) my time with them was mostly spent looking at different landmarks from the window of the father’s car, or getting out to quickly take a picture with a bunch of random Japanese people in front of the landmark. He did take me to one of my favorite places in that part of the country which was an area called Yamadera. It was a trail through the mountain that takes you dozens of temples, each more picturesque than the last, and with areas to put little prayer talismans at. It was magical being out there in the forest!
My last host family was my favorite - they were a modest family of rice farmers in the middle of the countryside. The area was beautiful and really serene and I still reminisce about walking through the rice fields and seeing more shades of green than I knew existed! I took a daytrip with the host father and daughter on a fishing boat in the Sea of Japan, which was the host father’s favorite pastime. That day we sat there and watched him cast the line and come up empty again and again as he got more and more frustrated. Finally, he handed the fishing rod as a way to pass the time - all of us were completely stunned when it quickly came back with 12 little fish on it! I truly had beginner’s luck that day and the father was fuming in the corner! The next day the grandmother was thrilled to cook up the “lucky” fish for the family.
That month flew by as I not only got to practice Japanese and meet some amazing people, but I also got to learn about of cultural activities such as origami, flower arranging, traditional dance, music, dress and how to make some traditional Japanese foods - even hiked up Mt. Chokai and visited the mountain onsens (hot springs). Being the only foreigner in the area, people would wave to me from buses - I felt like a bit of a celebrity!
The month in Japan was truly the trip of a lifetime and it had a lasting impact on me. Afterwards, I deepened my studies in Japanese and went on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in International Affairs with a Minor in Japanese from the University of Colorado. I even worked for one of the leaders of our trip at the Japanese govt. office, JETRO. I have also been traveling all over the world ever since my first trip to Japan - truly the travel bug had manifested in my life and I am happy to continue feeding it with trips all over the world and out of my comfort zone.