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Karma, Kismet or Coincidence

The ticket office attendant opened her mouth to say something before the rushed arigatō had even escaped my lips, but by that point I was already sprinting out the exit and through the turnstiles. I had just 90 seconds left to board the Limited Express Hida 3, and less than that if for some reason JR’s clock and mine weren’t synchronized.

Racing up the stairs—only the “down” escalator was operating, because of course it was—I launched myself onto the vehicle and only then looked out at the departures board to make sure it was the right one; by chance, I had hopped into the correct car.

The gentleman in the seat next to mine let out a grunt as he crossed his spread legs and half-closed his copy of that day’s Yomiuri Shimbun, which had spotlighted Iran’s nascent drone attack on Israel. In the bottom, right corner of the section cover, I noticed an image of Kannon, butwas neither alert nor interested enough to try and make out even a single kanji in the sub-heading beneath it.

I, too, released a sigh from inside my respiratory tract, having scarcely been able to breathe up to that point, out of fear I’d miss the train, which started moving right at that moment, if I had paused even to take in air for an instant.

She wanted my signature, I realized, when I thought back to the panicked look on the girl’s face when I darted away from the counter—I hadn’t sign the credit card receipt, an auspicious oversight.

If I had, I’d still be in Nagoya Station, and not on my way to Takayama.


Not that it made much sense for me to be on my way to Takayama.

As you’ll see if you continue reading, the bulk of this trip focuses primarily on a part of Japan that’s about as far from the Alps as you can get.

On the other hand, today was opening day of the twice-annual Takayama Matsuri, which I’d wanted to attend since seeing its floats displayed in a museum in 2015, when I first visited the city.

But I didn’t want merely to bear witness to the parade, no—I had a specific image in mind: I wanted to see the procession crossing the city’s famous Nakabashi bridge, flanked by boughs of sakura in perfect full bloom on all sides.

As I pasted two days in Takayama onto the front-end of the otherwise unrelated itinerary as I worked it out last year, I knew that this was a tall order, and maybe an impossible one; I’ve spent most of the interceding months steeling myself for disappointment.

So imagine my surprise as I disembarked the Hida and walked eastward out of the station, only to see every single cherry tree along the Miya River precisely at mankai. But not all was as it should be, not precisely—at least not yet.

The first problem? The floats were being displayed at various intersections within Takayama’s old town; not a single one was anywhere near the vermillion viaduct.

The second problem? Locals were no help.

One after another, each police officer, shopkeeper and bench-sitter I asked the seemingly simple question gave a response that was either confusing (It’ll be this evening, one insisted, in spite of the fact that I’d shown her a picture taken during the brightest part of the day) or contemptuous, with several implying that no procession would be taking place at all, that I should just give up and save myself the trouble.

This left me with a choice: Did I join the dozens of other photographers (none of whom had any better idea than I did about when we might be able to get our “money shot”) camped out waiting for their chance? Or did I throw in the towel?

Initially I picked the latter, albeit by default. Both the softness of the futon and the woody aroma of the tatami inside my guest house had proven too inviting to resist when I returned there, ostensibly to freshen up. My eyelids thudded shut as powerfully as the taiko drums I could hear being struck in the distance.

Less than an hour into my slumber, however, an alarm I don’t remember setting sounded. And while I could’ve easily turned it off and continued protracting my jet lag, I hoisted myself off the floor, to the sink to douse my face with herby Aveda cleanser, out the door and down the hill to Ikadabashi (the one that offers the best view on Nakabashi).

You know that saying about fortune favoring the bold? Well, there’s nothing “bold” about choosing to wake up when it would be just as easy to snooze. But Lady Luck certainly smiled on me that afternoon—and I smiled, as I looked back on myself in the museum nine Novembers earlier, doing my best to quantum-tunnel a message to him.

It’s coming, I imagined him hearing, quietly and far off in the distance. Just wait.


My second destination was no more sensible than my first. It was even further from the place I was ultimately headed than Takayama had been, for starters.

And as had been the case with the Takayama Matsuri, I envisioned the Saigyo-Modoshi-no-Matsu viewpoint over Miyagi prefecture’s Matsushima Bay in detail that would be almost impossible for reality to reconstruct, with its cherry blossoms in perfect condition, blue skies above the horizon and a sparkling sea surface beneath it.

I’ll start with the bad news: The sakura framing Matsushima (one of Japan’s “three scenic views”) ended up being at least a few days past peak, in a way that even creative photo processing proved unable to fully obscure. While most of the clouds overhead did eventually here, moments of ideal illumination proved fleeting and few.

The good news? The rest of the attractions I saw during my brief stay in the Tohoku region proved much more impressive than I’d expected, starting with the Shiogama Shrine I’d stopped at en route to Matsushima, where cascades of “weeping” shidarezakura filled an otherwise colorless courtyard with hues of blush and bubble-gum.

The next morning I visited Hirazumi, a former hub of the Fujiwara clan that had apparently once been seen as comparable to Kyoto in proportion and prestige. After traipsing from the station to 12th-century Chuson-ji under light drizzle, I admired its fullest cherry tree while I waited for what had become a deluge to subside.

I wasn’t the only one: A spider (who was notably absent) had been collecting petals as they fell, and suspending them in its web.

Up the Shinkansen line in Kitakami later that afternoon, the billows along the riverfront at Tenshochi Park seemed only a few strong gusts of wind away from completely disappearing.

This prediction ended up coming true, but thankfully not until I was actually in the process of leaving: A hanafubuki so dense and disorienting it looked, at glances, like an actual blizzard ended up consuming the scene as I headed back toward the station.

It was a celebratory end to the ill-advised (but mostly well-executed) sakura prologue of my otherwise unrelated trip. And a reminder: Even if you do get exactly what you want, it won’t last for long.


“You’re right,” the kimono-clad woman, to whom I’d just dictated the essence of what I just told you, agreed. “It doesn’t make much sense to go to Takayama, then to Sendai and then to come here.”

We were seated on a bench having coffee, overlooking Kuyoshihama Beach on the west coast of Iki Island, the first of three bases I’d be using to explore Nagasaki’s offshore islands, which had actually been the inspirational starting point of this trip, as well as occupying up the bulk (8 of 13 days) of its length.

Across the parking lot, Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma” blared from the coffee truck, which was set up for a busy day, even though not a single other car had so much as passed in the 15 minutes or so we’d been sitting there.

The truck’s 50-something owner, who stood behind a placard explaining in detail his bean-sourcing expeditions to Brazil and Ethiopia, bopped along unbothered.

I’d briefly considered explaining to Tomoko that the male voice on this song was none other than my hometown rapper Nelly, but then I remembered: I never intended to spend more than a moment at this beach. I had a long list of others places to see within the less than 24 hours I had left on this island, which like Japan as a whole proved so much larger once on the ground than it had looked on the map.

So I bid her farewell in the kindest (but also quickest) way possible, and resumed the counter-clockwise loop I’d been making. As she blew me a kiss in my rear-view mirror, I pondered how strange her choice of outfit was, given the setting.

Cherry blossom season was long over here; there was not a particularly seasonal element to my exploration, even if the occasional tsutsuji (azalea) bush or fuji (wisteria) vine peppered color into an otherwise green or blue patch off in the distance.

But I did feel pressured to remain mindful of the time—and not just out of concern for optimal lighting.

Staff at the island’s history museum, for example, which was perched on a hill over its Yayoi-era archaeological site Harunotsuji, had nudged me when I told them about my subsequent plans.

Boats from Katsumoto Port to offshore Tatsunoshima Island would probably stop running within a couple of hours, they explained, on account of low demand during the period of the year between the final petals falling and the start of Golden Week.

I’d also wanted to return to Harunotsuji (but at ground level, this time) in order to watch the sun set behind its thatched roofs. To say nothing of the fact that amid all of it, I’d need to eat, and had my heart especially set on local beef at a yakiniku restaurant Tomoko had recommended.

Japan often feels trapped in time. But time here also has a way of trapping you, even when you think you have plenty of it to spare.


Across the sea the next day in Tsushima, I ended up facing a very different problem (or dilemma, as it were): The rain was so heavy (and, at least according to the forecast, so unlikely to stop before I flew to Nagasaki the day after that), my sightseeing list proved more or less superfluous.

Akira, the only other customer eating inside a rokube noodle shop that otherwise would’ve been overflowing, seemed to empathize. He’d moved from Osaka to the island months earlier for a single purpose—birdwatching—which was literally impossible on days like this.

He was none the wiser, to be sure, when I explained to him how I’d found my way to what happened to be the closest restaurant to his rented home.

“Not that I’m a K-Drama fan, mind you,” I explained in a mix of Japanese and English to laughter from my new friend, having told him that the shop had become famous among tourists from Korea (which was actually closer to this island than mainland Japan) after being briefly featured on a KBS show years earlier. “It was just a touchstone as I was planning.”

Which—planning, this is—had proven unexpectedly difficult. As I quickly learned, the actual Tsushima island is second in popularity to the fictionalized one in Ghost of Tsushima, a video game that conservatively makes up 80% of Google search results about “Tsushima,” even in response to queries conspicuously about taking a real trip to the real place.

While I’ve never been of clichés about clouds and silver linings, the reality is that in spite of being by far the biggest of Nagasaki’s islands—it took literally two hours to drive from Izuhara Port to my hotel on its north shore—Tsushima simply isn’t home to a large number of notable attractions.

Perhaps fittingly, the ones I did end up being able to see beneath the deluge were, for lack of a better word, ghostly. As I stood under the main torii of Watatsumi Shrine, looking off into the distance into Aso Bay, I contemplated whether I might just disappear into the mist.


Tsubaki (camellia) are the de-facto symbol of the Goto islands, my third and final island destination off the coast of Nagasaki, although this is puzzling for a number of reasons.

First and foremost because camellia is a winter flower; the climate here is sub-tropical. By the time I got here during the third week of April, the only blooms I saw were decaying on the ground.

Well, the only actual blooms: Illustrated ones are everywhere, be they painted on bus stops, ferry terminals and other pieces of infrastructure, or built into the stained glass windows of the archipelago’s dozens of Catholic churches.

(Which, apart from such details—and the maybe-questionable “Hidden Christian” narrative that underlies their history—are utterly unimpressive, at least to someone from Europe or the Americas.)

And yet in many ways, the Goto archipelago proved to be the most satisfying segment of my seabound sojourn. Where its broad strokes had failed to inspire, its finer details were did short of captivate me.

This started right as the plane was landing: The volcanic soils of the fields coming into the focus were a chalky chocolate which, when contrasted against the vibrant chartreuse of sprouting rice plants and the turbid teal of the waves lapping at its lava-rock coastline, looked almost as if it might’ve been actual cocoa.

The following afternoon, standing beneath a likeness of the Mother Mary just behind the stand of palms ensconcing Takaitabi Beach on Nakadori, one of the satellites of Goto’s main Fukue island, I read a placard that took me all the way back to the beginning of the trip.

During the Sakoku period when Christians were being persecuted, it explained, local craftsmen would often disguise statues like this one as Kannon.

While it was unlikely that the blurb in my seat mate’s newspaper had related at all to this factoid, it did seem to suggest karma, kismet or coincidence.


Always one for symmetry (if not sensibility), I decided to bookend my trip with a destination that was perhaps even more temperamental than the somei yoshino trees of Takayama: Kawachi Wisteria Tunnel near Fukuoka.

I knew of its temperament first-hand, having scored highly sought-after tickets to the viral spot twice before: In 2021 (when I got rained out); and just last year, when the vines reached full bloom a full week before I was scheduled to arrive.

As had been the case with postcard pursuit over in the Alps, my trip into the tunnel had been little more than a shot in the dark. I was simply hoping, without evidence, that the third time would be the charm.

And yet the moment I emerged from my rental car—before I even caught a glimpse of the arboretum, whose entrance is literally feet from the parking lot—the grape-candy smell that perfumed my nasal passages confirmed that I had once again hit the bullseye, if once again unwittingly.

I often wonder, particularly when I miss the mark by a mile, whether I focus too much on the details of traveling in Japan, if perhaps my propensity for planning suffocates serendipity in its crib, before it even has a chance to smile upon.

But this trip suggests that a rosier reading on reality may be in order: I create the vacuum nature abhors—and it fills the space with what I adore.


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