Trials & Tribulations Of A Solo Traveler In Japan

I was lucky enough to have met Sofie in Rishikesh. She quickly became one of my favourite people – traveller, storyteller, kind soul, yogi and talented artist. Despite being on the road, she was kind enough to write a guest post for me on her time in Japan. And true to herself, she has created a lovely story filled with personal observations and her trademark artwork. Enjoy a snippet into the life of a solo traveller with heart, life and belief.

I am sitting in the attic of a Buddhist temple complex, freezing my ass off.

Below me I can hear little children running back and forth through the poorly insulated, cedar wood hallways, and I can smell lunch cooking: steamed rice, miso soup and fried lotus root.

Sofie Image1As a Californian, Japan is the furthest from home I’ve ever strayed—the furthest any Californian can stray for that matter. After watching the sun set over the Pacific Ocean my whole life, it’s a pretty amazing experience to watch the sun rise over that very same body of water.

And while everything is different, from the food to the toilets (yes, they are super futuristic) somehow everything is the same. Maybe I’ve seen too many places in my life; temples and cathedrals and monasteries and mosques, exotic fruits and street food and curries, Eiffel Towers and London Bridges—to me it’s all just wood and paint and spice and stone. The differences are an illusion.

Sofie Image2A special drum used in Jodo Buddhist ceremonies.

I arrived here in December to visit my brother, who is teaching English in Kyüshü, south Japan. We celebrated Christmas as best we could, but being the non-Americans that we’ve both become, it pretty much concluded with a lot of sake and watching the sunrise over the eastern Pacific.

And diving like maniacs into the ocean shortly after.

When January came and school started up again, it was time for me to pack my bag. I stuffed all the excessive sweets and socks (and bottles of sake) that I couldn’t resist buying into my tattered North Face and bid my dear brother sayonara.

I quickly learned that Japan is expensive.

Luckily, I found a little monastery nestled away from the flashy, expensive cities and glass high rises. The small community of nuns and monks needed help with the upkeep of the old buildings they live and pray in. In exchange for a helping hand, they have agreed to feed me and put a roof over my head for the next few weeks.

Turns out, these people are far from the traditional stereotype of Buddhists that we Westerners often carry around in our heads. The first thing one of the monks said to me was, “I rike techno music.” Apparently he is one of the world’s only monk DJs (and he goes by the name of “DJ Monk”) and loves dancing and playing the Shaku Hatchi, a kind of traditional Japanese flute.

One of the nuns, over her giant glass of sake, informed me in broken English that she is not only an artist herself, but also an avid gymnast who competes in gymnastic tournaments all over the world. Her travel sketchbooks looked so similar to mine—messy and filled with excited recollections, sketches of food she’d tried and people who she’d met along the way, and short survival phrases and words I know only too well—the essentials like “delicious” and “where is the toilet?”

Under these roofs, daughters, sons, mothers, husbands and a handful of rambunctious, naughty children and grandchildren spend their days. Yes, they live on the other side of the planet from the place I call home. Yes, our languages are frustratingly different; Japanese writing is upside down and backwards to my eyes. And yes, every day I am met with another new and confusing challenge when trying to accomplish the most simple of tasks.

Sofie Image3Japanese people also struggle with chopsticks sometimes!

But the love is here. The need for (and joy of!) eating is here. The desire to be warm at night, to be surrounded by family and love is here. And the interest in foreign cultures and art is here too.

And I am reminded, once again, that we are not so different after all.


Story and illustrations by Sofie Engström von Alten. Find out more about this amazing, talented woman and her beautiful work on her travel and art blog:


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