Thursday, June 28, 2012

Exploration: Abroad and at Home

The last few blog posts have been about very specific details of my trip abroad and about the culture surrounding them. Toilets and vending machines in Japan are awesome. I was there in time for the cherry blossoms, and they were amazing. I joined a nihon buyo club and had a great time learning a traditional dance. But some experiences of traveling cannot be condensed into single events or specific details. Some experiences are built up over many events, constructed from feelings and impressions. One such experience for me while I was in Japan was the experience of exploration.

In a new country, exploration occurs pretty much constantly. You are exploring the sidewalks you walk on, the people you encounter, the culture around you. Sometimes, you even go out and intentionally explore, taking the unusual path and getting lost on purpose, for the sake a wholly individualized experience. For me, exploring like this was so much fun. I could describe it with prettier words; it was exhilarating, inspirational, exciting. But really, the best phrase for it is just pure, unadulterated fun.

During the early part of my visit, I wandered away from the classrooms and dormitory on a rare occasion when it wasn't raining. It wasn't sunny, but the lack of rain was good enough for me. Taking along my camera, I drifted towards some unspecific direction, with really no purpose in mind except to look at whatever there was to see. Although I was familiar with the buildings in the center of campus, I had no idea what was behind them or what the mysterious section of woods off to the side contained. So I decided to just walk around. I kept my camera on to record what I saw and my random musings, for posterity's sake, or something like that. 

What I discovered was a street lined with cherry trees; a cute, little convenience store a short block away; a couple picturesque farm plots; a bike rental company; and a large, beautiful garden behind the campus. This garden contained a myriad of unfamiliar plants, trees, and flowers. I was fascinated by the lack of grass, which usually covers American garden-parks. Instead, there was soft, fragrant moss everywhere—even on the pathways. And then, I found a bridge.

(The magnificent bridge, surrounded by leafless trees of early spring.)

It's almost embarrassing how excited I was to find this bridge. It felt like I was walking through the wardrobe into Narnia or using the rope to cross the creek into Terabithia. I had no idea where it would take me, but it looked so mysterious. The thrill grew as I chanced upon sets of stairs leading in two directions. The first path led me to a house and another farm; turning back, the second one led into the heart of the woods near the campus. I discovered a series of raised wooden pathways over creeks that spindled out like capillaries. I noticed how remarkably different the pine trees were compared to my home in Colorado; tall and bare until close to the top where they flourished out in dark green, soft needles. I found a kind of bright green tree with delicate leaves that seemed to float in the air on barely noticeable, thin branches. A couple branches of some tree had wound around each other, forming a rope-like structure that looked man-made. Fiddle ferns grew on the ground, curled up so they appeared almost alien. Although it was not some raw, untouched forest, it felt entirely undiscovered and revolutionary to me. I was disappointed when I came out the other side, finding myself once again near the campus buildings.

(The stairs that went up.)

(The stairs that went down.)

Luckily, these exploration experiences peppered my entire stay in Japan. I followed an unknown path beyond a lighthouse during a school excursion to find myself standing a hundred feet over a beautiful, rocky coastline. Hawks and large sea-birds dove and surfed the winds around me. There, a nice couple offered to take my picture. Back at campus, I took an afternoon to explore to the books in the library, discovering illustrated books on Japanese folklore, an interesting book on the history of chemistry, and texts on traditional dances of obscure cultures. Thoroughly exploring shops at the mall exposed me to the nearly infinite variety of “cute” merchandise in Japan, delicious watermelon puree drink and, conversely, gross placenta drink, as well as super expensive taco ingredients (which were too pricey even for my desperate taco cravings).

(The beautiful, tempting path beyond the lighthouse. How could you not explore it?)

The results of my explorations were always interesting and rewarding, but the real pleasure came from the exploration itself. Simply giving myself over to curiosity and welcoming any result filled me with pure happiness and a cleansing sensation. My existence in those moments was not complicated. I had no preferences, but I was interested in everything. I had no goals, but I felt accomplished whenever I made a found something new. I think this basic level of curiosity rivaled that of an infant. The world was new and amazing to me, and even the smallest detail contained endless entertainment. I think it is the purest state of being; to explore the world, to observe the world, to delight in the world.

The experience was so impressive, that I think I have been chasing after it since I've returned, like searching for the sensation of a first high. Curiosity and exploration gets lost in the bustle of the every day. Responsibilities or even just weariness keep us from opening ourselves up to experiences that have no purpose; they stop us from indulging or perhaps even noticing our natural curiosity. In light of my experiences abroad, I am trying to change this in my life. It's not easy. I have classes and homework and regular work and chores just like everyone else. Not to mention, my boyfriend is currently less mobile due to a hip injury, and my desire to include him in my adventures often prevents me from having them at all. But I forget that curiosity doesn't always mean going out and finding some unknown path in the woods. It can mean turning on my computer and reading about some new fact, then following that interest and learning more. For example, I just finished reading an National Geographic article about the leading theory on how the statues of Easter Island were transported from miles away. I realized I really don't know anything about Easter Island. Instead of just letting my interest end with the article, later I'm going to do some reading about the island and learn more about the culture and its history. Following a curiosity, no matter whether its in concrete or digital form, is always stimulating; and for me, often has the added bonus of inspiring stories I can write.

There may be no point to indulging in curiosity. It doesn't always provide any rewards except perhaps as a conversation piece. It doesn't make money; it doesn't get anything done. However, I really believe curiosity is the most defining and basic characteristic of the human species. Humans love to learn, which is something we often forget when looking at education and homework, but it's true. We want to know things just for the sake of knowing them; because they're interesting, because they're fun. Perhaps that is a goal and a reward enough in itself. So go out and explore, even if it's just from your couch. 

(The sakura lined street near campus.)

(The mossy pathways and bright green trees of the garden-park.)

(The awesome twisted wood in the forest.)

(Floating leaves.)

(A bad, blurry pic of the fiddle ferns that look like they're from Star Trek.)

Below are some of the videos I took while exploring. I swear I'm not as ditzy as I think I sound. I apologize for the awful quality. :) Also my camera has a time limit on videos, so some of them start/cut abruptly. Again, sorry.

The tree lined path. 

Exploring the garden, interrupted by a full memory.

Continuation of the exploration of the garden.

Discovering the bridge. 

Wandering up the stairs.

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