When I woke from my nap, my body was still strapped to the coffin-like dimensions of my seat. The musty air reeked from the odor of swollen feet, while the loud hum of machinery shook the cabin.
I came to my senses and checked the panel in front of me — another eight hours before I landed. I shuffled around in my chair for a more comfortable position and sought dreams of my time in Japan that was yet to come.
This was my first time traveling to Japan and, although my time then was short, I had designated a full 10 days on this island for the holidays with my own personal tour guide: my younger brother who’s spent the last few months in Japan teaching English.
He met me at the south exit of that airport in Osaka. Among the foreign signs, smells and activity of the busy terminal, I found solace in a familiar face. He had a scarf, an onigiri and a “road beer” waiting for me, a term that we would come to abuse in the following days.
We began our trip in Osaka, specifically the downtown canal of Dotonbori, a popular nightlife destination for tourists, outfitted with the Vegas-esque ambience of fluorescent lights, local bars and street food vendors serving takoyaki and okonomiyaki.
The journey to our next stop was long, despite the operating speeds of up to 200 mph for our Shinkansen train. Japan, while an island country, was still large, and traveling between major prefectures was similar to that of states both in distance and — unfortunately — cost.
Upon arriving at the capital, we fought hard to occupy ourselves for the next six hours before the New Years countdown. Beyond the glamour of Tokyo’s impressive skyscrapers and blinding neon signs, he brought me to the darker portions that the city had to offer.
Piss Alley and Golden Gai, networks of alleyways that were hidden between major streets, featured an indeterminable amount of barbecue holes and bars that could only seat several patrons. This, along with the help of road beers, fueled our night until the new year. We celebrated, just the two of us, in the streets, underneath the billboards of that electric city.
Hostels and bullet trains became our homes, and my suitcases became a heavy burden that inadvertently slowed our progress. Convenience stores, located on just about every block, shelved foreign snacks, delicious hot meals and alcohol — our primary source of energy for the duration of the trip.
Each destination had specific attractions that we set out to see: the ominous loom of the Sagano Bamboo Forest and thousands of torii structures in the hills of Kyoto, the friendly snow monkeys that bathed in the hot springs of Nagano and the map-eating deer of Miyajima.
As the last few days of my trip were coming to an end, I began to lose interest in the vacation. The local cuisine of rich ramen and delicate soba fell flat, and the wanderlust of seeing traditional architecture and shrines soon vanished. Our excitement and joy awkwardly slowed to a crawl as the reality of our departure from one another became more palpable.
While my brother had shown me as many corners of Japan as he possibly could, it was never about the exploration.
That’s because the most memorable moments on my trip weren’t hiking through the snow-capped trees to see monkeys, or standing on the bridge of the atomic bomb site in Hiroshima.
It was the back of his tan overcoat and beanie as I followed him everywhere. It was the snowball fight we had in that small park in Nagano while locals walked past us, ushering their kids to move along.
On that final day, everything else seemed to fade away as we stood there at that last station with tickets for trains heading opposite ways. For a moment, we stood in silence. I wanted it to last forever, but it was abruptly ripped away by the whistles of our departing trains.
My trip to Japan was never about traveling. It was about going halfway across the world to see my best friend. I was eager to come home, but glad I was able to experience the new home that he worked so hard to get to.
I hope he knows how incredibly proud I am of him, and I couldn’t have cared less what country I ended up in. Of all that Japan had to offer, he was my destination, and what an amazing destination it was.