Old Friends

I’m about to embark on my fifth trip to Japan — yet I’ve never visited any other Asian country. I’ve been to London a half dozen times — yet I’ve never explored the rest of the sceptered isle, except for a single night in the Cotswolds.

It’s an ongoing dilemma for me. To really get to know a place that intrigues me, to write about it with the focus and depth that we encourage here at The City Traveler, I need to (and want to!) return again and again.

And, still, there are so many new worlds to discover. Will I ever make it to Sydney or Cairo? To St. Petersburg or Buenos Aires?

When push comes to shove, though, I seem to favor coming back to a somewhat familiar place. For me, exploring the world is less about collecting dots on a map than of gaining a truer understanding of those dots.

After several visits, that means skipping the tried and true attractions, for example, and moving out into the neighborhoods. Often it means waking up without any plans and simply seeing where your meanderings take you. As with an old friend, there’s a history in the relationship. You can skip the preliminaries, the obligations — you know the lay of the land and you’ve done the sites — now you can just settle in.

This time when I return to Japan, I’ll be embarking on day trips outside of Tokyo, then returning to the capital for the evenings. Since everything — including shops — remains open there till at least 9pm or 10pm, I’ll enjoy the best of both worlds. I’ll hit a few new towns in the region while the sun’s out, and then delve deeper into a city that after so many visits I can’t say I know all that well.

That’s the central point of returning to the same destination over and over, I think. It’s the opportunity to move toward a thorough comfort level with a place. The kind of thing where you know how to walk from the Eiffel Tower to the Arc de Triomphe without looking at a map. After five or six visits to Paris, spaced out, unfortunately, every few years, I’m finally getting to that point.

Yet there are still places in Paris, and London and Tokyo for that matter, that I’ve still haven’t seen. I’ve never visited Pere Lachaise, the cemetery where Jim Morrison and Proust are famously interred. I’ve never been to Hampstead Heath, the tony neighborhood that fronts what’s widely considered one of London’s loveliest parks.

In Tokyo, this time ’round,  I’m planning to spend some time in Ueno Park, where many of the capital’s museum are situated. I can’t believe I haven’t made it there before. That, too, is the pleasure of the beloved familiar, the old friend. You never get tired of its company and, after all of these years, it never ceases to surprise you.

Perhaps it’s true, after all, that — as Thomas Wolfe once wrote — “only the dead know Brooklyn” (or Paris or London or Tokyo)? The central appeal of these cities is, for me, their essential unknowability. Vast in area, wide in scope, and deep in layers, they are ever the same, yet constantly changing.

  • Paul Neuwirth

    JoAnn: So true. A very moving piece.