Inspired by the Guardian for Travelers

DUSK FALLS as I leave Abeno Station. The air cools slightly, bringing with it a gentle rain. I duck into a sushi bar as I wander home, a small place with a few locals sipping beers. I step through the noren curtain which dangles in front of the shop.

It’s quiet; a big jovial chef behind the bar welcomes me in.

What would you like? He says. The restaurant listens. Sushi, I reply, matching his playfulness as I take a seat.

He moves his hands with lightning dexterity. The sushi knife, long and slender, cuts with grace and fluidity. He holds it delicately with his index finger extended on top of the blade to navigate the fish.

The restaurant is a family affair. A woman cuts fish behind the bar as well; she’s kind and laughs with the others drinking beer at the end of the bar; cartoons play on the TV.

A stocky lad bigger than me serves and works in the kitchen. I ask for whatever the big man recommends. The chef gives me tuna, yellowtail, eel, squid, and miso soup with clams. This is my first sushi meal, one I’ll remember.

In a year, everything will be different. For now, I’m but a novice, taking what I can find. I’m pretty damn content with that.

Okini, I say as I leave, an Osakan term for arigato, thank you. The chef gives a hearty laugh and tells me to take care. I like this place. It feels like home.

The sun rises early, about 5:30 am; it’s my third morning. It’s still shocking to wake up in Japan. Am I really here? This is my life now; I’m still getting used to it.

I take an early walk through my neighborhood and can smell last night’s rain on the pavement and the flowers. The morning’s fresh and the moisture lingers in the air.

This is everything I’ve wanted for years: to leave my door and walk, ride, run, explore. To feel the change in weather as the seasons turn. To be lost, on an adventure, guided by my heart, carried by my dream.

I’m here. Yet, sometimes it’s scary to get what we think we wanted. It’s supposed to make us feel a certain way — happy? That’s not it exactly. I didn’t come to Japan just so I could be happy.

I came here to grow. I came here to experience a way of life unlike my own, so I may learn what it means to be a human being on planet earth.

I came here because of an insatiable curiosity — the style, the philosophy, the natural world, the history — in Japan these facets of being are so uniquely intriguing. I think I’m simply here to learn.

I’ve never been on my own like this. With the Japanese borders still closed to tourists, I’d wager out of everybody I’ve come across, about .5% of the people have been foreigners. I’m out of place. People stare.

I’m okay with that. I’m glad to be different.

Yesterday I walked along the Dojima River with no real destination. The feelings flooded me: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

Take it slow, I told myself. That will all come; it’s my second day, and it’s okay to feel overwhelmed.

There have been many moments like this, wondering what the hell I’m doing, wishing I had somebody to share in this experience with. But then it hits me, a wave of inspiration — I see something that wakes me up, shakes me, makes me think.

Emotions come in waves. All there is to do is embrace them. Feel what it means to be a human being, questioning the world and our place in it. Cherish the highs and the lows wherever we are.

We always get through the darkness. Always. We need it. Even stars need the darkness to shine.

The light’s within us, the bright, inspiring light of dawn; the blue and patient skies of day. The melancholic dusk and the wisdom of the night. It’s all in here, and all we must do is allow the sun and the moon to rise and fall and change the way we feel.

There’s such beauty, such meaning in accepting this. Using the emotions, digging into them and embracing them.

Paintings by Taro Okamoto. Taken by the author at Nakanoshima Museum of Art exhibit: Okamoto Taro: A Retrospective
Paintings by Taro Okamoto. Taken by the author at Nakanoshima Museum of Art exhibit: Okamoto Taro: A Retrospective

My walk along the Dojima River led me to the Nakanoshima Museum of Art, a sleek black cubic structure that cuts a sharp figure against the blue Osaka sky.

Standing valiantly before the structure is SHIP’S CAT, a statue of a futuristic cat donning steel and red armor perched atop a reflective orb resembling the moon.

I stumbled upon SHIP’S CAT by chance — yet the bizarre monument is exactly what I needed. The cat pays homage to the “ship’s cat” which accompanied sailors during the age of discovery. The cat was used to protect ships from pests, and also to comfort sailors leaving home.

According to the plaque, the monument is the guardian for travelers and a happy symbol for the local community. The helmet and armor represent the cat’s courage to face a chaotic world and overcome difficulties.

What I really like is how the cat stands at the vanguard of the museum — a sanctuary of art — a symbol of breaking down borders and ideas, a confluence of past, present, and future.

The museum faces the Dojima River, the bustling vein which connects Osaka to the ocean, the earth’s heart. The museum faces the river so its ideas are conveyed to the world: strange structures, beautiful paintings, explosive colors on canvas which stand for individuality, courage, boldness, unity.

I stand before the cat, before the beauty of Nakanoshima, encouraged and smiling.

The cat says you are not alone. You have what it takes.

I feel challenged. I feel outside my limits. I feel my soul pushing against its walls. What a thing to feel.

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