Sometimes travel plans don’t always go the way you’d like. That’s just a fact. And, in my experience, if you can learn to accept that you’ll be a happier traveller.
At home I am a real planner. I love a list and usually have several on the go at once. I like to know where I’m going, who I’m meeting and what I’m doing. But once you board that plane for a holiday or a long term trip, like a sabbatical or career break, all of that goes out of the window. Because unless you’re going on a package holiday where every moment of your trip is planned for you, it’s unlikely that you’re going to know what you’ll be doing every minute of the day. When you arrive at your destination there’s a whole new world to explore; different restaurants to visit, attractions to visit and people to meet.
And even if you do plan stuff to do from the comfort of your sofa, nine times out of ten something will either change or fall through once you arrive. Museums will be closed on a Monday, restaurants you want to visit will suddenly have disappeared into thin air and cultural differences will mean that things won’t always happen when you expect them to (anyone else been the victim of ‘tico time’ in Costa Rica?)
But how you handle it when things don’t go to plan makes all the difference and can shape how you remember the experience for years to come. This is definitely a lesson I’ve had to learn over the years. When I first started travelling solo I was so anxious for things to go the way I’d planned and if I ended up on the wrong train (Japan) or my bus was delayed (Costa Rica) I would spend so much time beating myself up, telling myself how useless I was, or getting frustrated with the locals.
However over time I realised that if I was going to travel long-term I was going to have to learn to a) accept the way things worked in other countries and b) give myself a break when things went wrong. So over the years I’ve managed to develop a ‘what happens, happens’ approach to travelling – although I must admit, I’m still trying to achieve that same attitude for my day-to-day life!
When we decided to go to Japan for our honeymoon we knew that this was probably going to be a motto we were going to have to adopt at some point as, not being able to speak the language and having a limited understanding of customs and expectations, we knew that something was bound to get lost in translation or we were going to mess up at some point.
And it didn’t take long for us to have one of those days. We already knew that it was going to be a tough one to get right, as we were planning to hike in the Kiso Valley from Tsumago to Magome. It’s a well known route, which is part of the former Nakasendo road which connected Tokyo with Kyoto during the Edo Period, and there are services which will take your bags from the starting point to the finish to make life easier for you.
However, what made the trip tricky for us, was that we were aiming to get from Matsumoto, where we’d just seen the castle in all of its glory for the cherry blossom illuminations, to Nagiso by train and had a very short amount of time to find the bus that would take us to Tsumago. To top it all off, we woke up to our first day of rain. Not just a little bit of rain, but that kind of torrential rain that soaks you to the skin in seconds. This didn’t bode well as, in order to reduce weight in our backpacks, we hadn’t brought hiking boots. In just our trainers, jeans and waterproof jackets we didn’t feel prepared for an 8km/5mile walk through the forest.
On the train we discussed whether we should change our plans. On one hand we were both keen to go, as it had been the part of the trip Mr A had been most looking forward to and he’d spent hours back at home carefully planning it. But on the other hand we knew that visibility would probably be poor, hence we’d miss most of the beautiful scenery, and we would spend most of our time cold and wet, longing to get to the other side. I also really didn’t want to spend any of our honeymoon being grouchy with each other and I am not a happy bunny when I have wet feet!
In the end our decision was made for us, as we arrived at the station and made a mad dash, complete with big backpacks, only to see the bus disappearing down the street. Both thoroughly fed up, we dragged ourselves back into the station to make a Plan B.
This was when the wonderful tourist information team, who are based at most stations in Japan, came into their own. Despite speaking only a little English, the lady in the office sprang into action to help us come up with a new plan for the day. In the end we decided we’d just spend the morning in Tsumago and would return to the station later to get a number of trains to Takayama, which was where we had accommodation booked for that night. Plan made, we jumped into a taxi and headed to Tsumago.
The town is famous for its traditional wooden inns that once hosted travelling samurai lords. As a designated protected area for the preservation of traditional buildings, it’s free from things like telephone poles and satellite dishes. The dark wood buildings are a drawing point for tourists and most of the photos we had seen were of the narrow main street filled with people. However, due to the rain when we arrived we were the only visitors there. As we walked down the deserted streets it felt a bit like being on an empty film set.
After a much-needed warming coffee in the only restaurant which had bothered to open its doors on such a miserable day, we decided to make the most of having the place to ourselves. We went and bought the biggest umbrella we could find (in turn having the most adorable interaction in the shop, where we witnessed the well-documented honesty of the Japanese when the owner came running after us in the rain to give us back the 500Y – 36p/44c – we had mistakenly overpaid) and set off to explore.
We ended up having an absolutely brilliant time. Mr A was in his element taking photos of the narrow paved streets and hidden alleyways. The town is surrounded by mountain views and with its atmospheric mist it wasn’t hard to imagine the days of the samurai visitors riding into town.
Having experienced the Japanese appreciation of nature at the recent cherry blossom viewings, it was also a good reminder of how nature still controls the overall experience of a trip. Although we ended up getting soaked and we were pretty cold at the end of our exploring, we had the chance to see the steam rising over the mountains, cherry blossom bursting into colour and pretty flowers around every corner.
As Tsumago was totally empty we also had time to chat to shop owners who were slightly bemused by two English people having the time of their lives in the pouring rain. They included an eccentric tailor, who did a good job of trying to convince Mr A to try on one of his gaudy creations.
By the time we got back to the restaurant, keen for some steaming hot ramen noodles to warm us up, it really felt as though we’d seen a secret side to Japan. It wasn’t the day we planned, but it turns out when you go with the flow, those moments can be just as special.
Have you ever had a totally different experience when your travel plans have changed?