Why travel for me doesn’t mean sightseeing

We’ve been in Kyoto for almost two weeks, long enough to induce the familiar inner refrain: “What have we been doing all this time? Why haven’t we seen any sights? Will our remaining time be sufficient for all the other things I want to see/do/eat?” I’m used to it by now, so it doesn’t make me as desperate as it used to; when it pops up I just pat it on the shoulder and say, “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. Why don’t you go take a nap?” Mostly this works, but I know the feeling is still there — like the ostinato in Boléro.


What have we been doing here, though, anyway? I was flipping through some guides today and there still seem to be so many neighborhoods we haven’t seen. Probably this is just a function of staying outside of the city center, with most of the written-about attractions located away from us. But also I have to remind myself (again) that a monthlong stay is an entirely different creature from the kind of whirlwind itinerary taken by most tourists.


Obviously, I am no guidebook disciple. First, I loathe trekking for miles into obscure streets only to discover the destination wasn’t worth the trouble (or, worse, was no longer there). Second, when I have a set itinerary (breakfast at this little-known café – hit up shops A, B, and C – lunch at that particular place, reservations recommended – stand in line for entry to famous building – dinner in far-flung neighborhood that has the best X) I get so anxious about hitting all the bullet points, I can hardly enjoy myself when I do; all the time I’m thinking, “If we don’t get a move on, we’ll miss that other thing that closes at four.” Rather than bring that kind of misery onto myself, I try to keep it simple — but is there such a thing as too simple?


I thought about this when I went out earlier. It’s cold today and the breeze tossed my hair around as I sniffled the half-kilometer to the post office, hands buried in my pockets. It’s true we’ve spent the better part of our two weeks very quietly, ambling around our neighborhood, visiting the local bakeries and making nabe at home. We’ve gone on a few outings, but I always feel I’m leading people on when I say I’m here for “sightseeing,” as that’s never been one of my priorities; it’s just a shorter way to say “not here for business or school.”


My view is that I’m happiest doing what I’m happiest doing, even if that happens to be nothing. And to be honest, I don’t feel a need to take in all the supposed “musts” in any particular city. Perhaps if I was tired of where I lived, and only had this one chance to see the world, I’d be monument-hopping with the most enthusiastic of the tourist shutterflies. But we have been fortunate enough to spend a ton of time dwelling in, and traveling to, beauty and inspiration and deliciousness. So I really don’t mind coming all the way to Kyoto and then spending half my time inside the house. It’s like no other house I’ve ever lived in, anyway. Call it a retreat.



I don’t know why I always feel so obligated to explain my travel style, even to myself. Maybe it’s that I — like everyone — have gazed at photos like this one and dreamed of seeing it with my own eyes, feeling that to do so would be somehow to transcend my normal life and achieve something more significant. But here is a definite thing I have learned from our travels. When I look at such photos, I am not seeing the scene depicted. I am seeing that feeling, that longing, a desire for my life and myself to be something other than what we are: I want to be someone who stands under Kyoto’s cherry blossoms in spring, or atop the Tour Eiffel with my lover, or whatever.


At least — I used to feel that way. After all these travels, I begin to comprehend that I will still be myself wherever I go, in spite of sakura petals raining down or fireworks blooming overhead. But of course, I’m still not immune to that desire for transformation. I think, when I start getting itchy about not doing enough, that’s the opportunity I fear I’m missing.


(PS, random: This woman is 61?!)