A few years ago, on a cold, white December evening, I found myself sitting in a small apartment, out in one of Tokyo’s hyper-modern suburbs, where the streets are quiet with the absence of the ever-moving crowd that seems to inhabit the heart of the city.
Seated on the wooden floor, one of those sharp Japanese knives in my hand, I was absorbed in the delicate task of slicing mushrooms. On the couch next to me, a young Japanese man was instructing three or four of us Westerners in the art of carving a perfect cross across each mushroom’s cap. The room was filled with laughter and indistinct chatter. In the kitchen, our host was preparing the tempura batter in which the mushrooms were to be tossed, while at the dining table, a massive bowl of sushi was being mixed expertly by another guest.
Over the years, I have accumulated dozens of such memories: in India I remember eating a home-cooked curry so hot I couldn’t breathe. In Iceland I tried out marinated shark in the labyrinthine Reykjavik market. In the Thar desert I had chai made with fresh cow milk, and in China I helped my host cook a traditional Cantonese meal in her tiny, cosy Guangzhou studio, the sound of the rain battering her window in the background.
Some of those memories might seem trivial in comparison to the wonder and excitement the world has to offer to a modern traveller. After all, there are golden temples to explore, mountains and glaciers to hike, camels to ride across sand dunes, and bright cities to conquer. To do so, aspiring adventurers might be tempted to stay on the beaten track—to travel through a country by hopping from TripAdvisor ‘Top 10s’ to Lonely Planet’s ‘Must Dos’—snapping a quick token photo before moving on to the next thing, making sure to crop out the German tourists taking selfies in the background.
Don’t get me wrong: I have, at times, enjoyed ticking items off my bucket list. There is nothing quite as satisfying as saying: “I’ve been there, I’ve done that.” But except for a series of generic photographs anyone could’ve taken, there isn’t a lot left to contemplate once the trip is over. Because ultimately, it is in the blanks between each “must see” attractions that the real journey happens: in the hours spent musing in the streets of an utterly foreign city, in the few words exchanged hesitantly at a street food stall, or in the evenings spent sharing a meal in a small, crowded living room.