Dear Japan: I Love You.

I have always had wanderlust and am a bit of a nomad. I would be the first person to say that people who can and do travel are blessed beyond measure. Whether we travel to the next county, state, or foreign country, there is an opportunity to learn and grow because we shift outside of our regular routine. The further we shift, the more we are pulled into experiencing, understanding, and accepting of differences.

This fall, I shifted quite a distance – to Japan. I had limited knowledge of the country, its culture, and its people. My total experience with anything Japanese was from what I learned in history classes, reading “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden, and eating at Benihana’s. My perception from these experiences would change after I arrived in Japan. Not slightly, but by a wide margin.

If someone asked me why my husband and I selected Japan, I couldn’t give you a straightforward answer. Still, there was some alluring pull to take the plunge and go. With my limited knowledge, I didn’t know what to expect but hoped to have an open mind and heart. I am glad I did.

Before we embarked on the fourteen-hour flight and time zone difference from the East Coast, my dear friend Linda (a master quilter) asked me to learn about Shashiko. This traditional Japanese embroidery style began over four hundred years ago. Worn-out pieces of old cloth were stitched into layers to produce a sturdy garment passed down through generations. Talk about upcycling! The quest to learn about Shashiko provided a goal to shoot for on the trip.

Although my husband and I agreed we’d try to adjust to the local time zone when we boarded the flight to Japan, even three movies didn’t put us to sleep. The meals on the flight should have provided a portent that my aversion to fish would be challenging. But I was too fascinated and amped up on adrenaline to pay attention.

This adrenaline continued to pump as we arrived, passed through customs, and retrieved our suitcases. We had been up for over twenty-four hours but acting like kids on spring break. At the Shinjuku Station, we purchased our ticket at the kiosk. At the risk of dating myself, this train station makes Grand Central look like Petticoat Junction. We boarded a train to head to our hotel, and this is where the mystical and magical journey in Japan began.

A young couple with two toddlers and a newborn sat across from us on the train. We were getting anxious, fearing we might have missed our station. My husband showed his phone to the couple with the name of the station we were looking for, hoping to convey we needed help. Although their English was limited, our Japanese vocabulary was “Arigatou” or thank you. Yet, despite this language gap, it is incredible how connection forms when we seek to communicate through kindness. They instantly understood our dilemma and gestured that they would help us. We conveyed that their children were darling. My husband showed pictures of our nearly two-year-old twin grandsons. One was wearing a fireman’s costume. The man’s eye lit up, and he gestured to himself, “Me.” He was a fireman. They ushered us off the train and walked us through another station, down the escalator, and onto a new platform. Once they were assured we’d find our way, they returned to the same platform they had exited to help us. I can only think of one word to describe the moment. Humbled. Despite all the apparent differences between us – our age, language, and culture – they spoke the universal language of kindness.

With the help of a not-so-helpful GPS, we navigated our walk to find our hotel in Tokyo. Whether people spoke our language or not, they possessed an ability to discern our distress and approached us to help. The maps on the phone screen, pointing, and smiles became a great way to bridge the language barriers. This was a recurring experience on our trip, no matter what city we were in. People always stopped and offered assistance. Often without being asked. These exchanges were always followed by reciprocal “Arigatou’s” and slight bows. They were thanking us for the help they provided.

Born and raised in New York, I used to believe that the Big Apple was not only the epicenter of the universe but also one of the most populated cities in the world. Having traveled, I was quickly disabused of that mindset. On this trip, I learned that Tokyo is the world’s most populous metropolitan area, with 40.8 million residents as of 2023. Tokyo is Times Square on steroids with some MAJOR differences. The streets were spotless everywhere you looked, with nary a trash can. It was both perplexing and admirable. Although trash cans are almost our national flower in the USA, most of us would agree that our streets are far from pristine.

It’s hard to imagine how people are not squished together in such a populous city. And yet, it was like some invisible spacer gave a bit of berth to people as they navigated the sidewalks. Even when the trains get super crowded, a sliver of grace and respect surrounds the passengers. As I watched younger passengers give up seats to the elderly or other needing passengers, I harkened back to a time when this was commonplace at home. Somehow, this tradition of courtesy and care has nearly vanished.

We quickly learned the Japanese incorporate fish into every meal. Period. Given that I won’t eat heavily disguised fish (read: McDonalds) or canned tuna like Chicken of the Sea – I began to think this would be the one vacation where dieting would finally eliminate the few pounds I’ve been trying to lose. Fear not. Some of the best eggsalad sandwiches were sold at the 7-11 stores, and waitstaff went above and beyond to replace the fish with vegetables. And in the spirit of being open to the experience, I decided it was time to try fish again. My aversion is still intact.

We stayed at Lake Kawaguchiko near the majestic Mount Fuji. What an incredible sight from a large picture window in our hotel room. The hotel was traditional Japanese culture. You remove your shoes and sleep on “Shikifuton,” placed on the floor. This type of sleeping has many physical benefits; you can prove you can still get up off the floor at a certain age.

Our next stop was Nikko, a town at the entrance to Nikko National Park. We crossed the Shinkyo Bridge and entered an incredible forest of trees displaying the changing pattern of fall colors. The park was filled to capacity as people stood patiently in line to enter the Rinnoji Temple. Rather than join the crowd, we wandered further into the park along a quiet path. We came upon rows of Jizo statues, the guardian deity of children and travelers. When the weather turns cold, the locals will take care of jizo by dressing them in red bibs and hats. There was a sense of reverence in this setting. A deep respect for the past and the ancestors that came before.

On board the Shinkansen, or bullet train to Westerners, you don’t feel the nearly two hundred miles per hour speed as it glides along the track. We arrived in Kyoto with its colorful shrines, multitudes of temples, and geisha gracing the town. After a short walk from our hotel, we discovered a bamboo forest. Witness trees that have persisted for millennia, silently watching our species and our impact on the environment. I looked at these tall, lean trees and stood in awe under their canopy. In many ways, trees remind us of our diminished role and the temporary place humans have here.

We had not planned to go to Hiroshima, where the first nuclear weapon was used against humans, killing tens of thousands of people, obliterating the city, and altering the course of a country and its people. Something within told us we would regret not going. We shifted our plans and boarded the bullet train again, one part excited and another apprehensive, knowing our U.S. history there. As we walked through the Hiroshima train station heading for a cab, a Japanese woman approached us and asked if we needed help. The people who helped us were not part of any tourism. They were everyday people going to work or home. Yet something within these people enabled them to recognize when others needed help. We explained we wanted to take a cab to the Peace Memorial Museum. She asked, “Where are you from?” We flushed and responded, “The U.S.” She smiled and said, “Thank you for traveling so many miles to come to Hiroshima.” It was heartfelt. The woman walked us to a tram and told us it was less expensive this way. She told the conductor to notify us when it was our stop.

As we rode on the tram, I couldn’t help but wonder if I ever thanked a Japanese tourist for visiting my country – especially in light of the history. The conductor let us know when we arrived, and we crossed the street to the Atomic Bomb Dome. The ghostly remnants of the only structure that remained standing in the area where the atomic bomb exploded. The building was preserved as a stark and powerful reminder of the destructive force humanity created. This symbol moved me in a way I had not expected. I found myself bowing and offering prayers for forgiveness, for peace, and for our collective remembrance of war’s carnage. It was a somber experience – understanding the death toll of many children whose lives ended and the ensuing suffering.

While no memorial could ever fully capture the carnage, emotion, and destruction experienced in Hiroshima, the Peace Memorial Museum serves as a stark reminder urging us to avoid war and to seek peace. An inscription bears witness, “No one else should ever suffer as we have.” It is hard to articulate what words cannot express. Like the trees that, while seemingly standing independent of each other, their root system is inextricably linked. Somewhere within our deepest selves, we must remember that our species is the same. We left the museum in silence. What could we say? Though we didn’t live at this time, we are somehow tainted by and complicit in our inhumanity to each other.

Bus loads of people arrived as children sang songs of remembrance and songs for peace. The crowd grew thicker and thicker outside the museum. A woman moved through the crowd with purpose. She touched my elbow and stood beside me. Our eyes connected as if our souls recognized the other. “Hello, my sister.” She said softly. Her English was minimal. My Japanese is non-existent. As we looked into each other’s eyes, I felt a connection I could not explain. “We are all God’s children.” She continued. I agreed.

There is vast beauty in the world, and Japan is no exception. It is a land of wonder, filled with unique architectural features, many temples, and a pervasive feeling of calm, respect, and humility. No matter where I’ve traveled, I have always found good people. People who might look different than me, have different beliefs and ideologies or are culturally miles apart. But what you discover is despite those differences, we share many things. Our planet. Hope for a better future. Peaceful existence.

If someone asked me what makes Japan unique from all the other places visited, I would have to say the people. I have never experienced a place where kindness is pervasive, and humility is as natural as breathing. This country has a certain mystical quality where grace is not just a word but a way of being, and harmony is ingrained in every way they move about their life. I cannot say whether being the first country to experience nuclear war gave these people a unique lens through which to see the world and the people within it. The Japanese people offered this kindness, hospitality, and peace to each other and to the vast number of foreigners who visit their beautiful country.

Dear Japan: I love you for reminding me to be kind and providing a brief glimpse of what peace could look like in our time.


P.S. Happy Thanksgiving.


  1. I rarely get the opportunity to read written books. I appreciate the opportunity to read thank you for the kindness and encouragement may all that read come to a better place and understanding for humanity.

  2. David says:

    Excellent capture of your memories, feelings and wisdom on this interesting journey. A great love story! We can learn a lot from the Japanese.

    • Thanks for the post. I, for one, learned so much from this visit. It is nothing short of amazing that a country that experienced the first nuclear weapon can transform the experience into a message of peace instead of hatred and revenge.

  3. David Wiener says:

    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing your journey with all of us. Let’s hope more people wake up to the idea of kindness and humility over aggression and superiority.

  4. Linda B says:

    Thank you. I just felt a moment of hope and peace waft over me. Your reflection of Japan, your experiences and the people you met lend hope that peace, kindness and joy does still exist in this world. Thank you for taking the time to see it, hold it in your heart, and sharing it. May we each do the same today and everyday! Beautiful. Arigatou!

  5. Darlene Smith says:

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience and it made me think about all the wonderful people in our world

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