Once in a Lifetime


"Ichi-go ichi-e." --from the Japanese meaning “every encounter is but once in a lifetime”

Every so often you get a "once in a lifetime" opportunity. Our recent trip to Japan was just such an opportunity.

To travel alone with my fifth grader, to a country where he speaks the language and I do not, with his former classmates, many of whom will be off in new directions in the fall, to send him off to be hosted by a family who accepted him (and me) sight unseen, truly was a "once in a lifetime" trip.

This week I would like to attempt to share some of the trip with you through words and pictures. This will not be an exhaustive account of all that we saw and experienced, but rather an attempt at capturing the spirit of the trip through a few shared stories.

"Ichi-go ichi-e" was a phrase I learned on the plane. I think it might have been in the in-flight magazine. I immediately connected with the truth of it - one more reminder from the Universe to stay present, to "be here now," to let this moment be the only moment - and wrote it down. 

It wasn't until after I got home and sat down to record all my quotes from the trip that I recognized the deeper meaning in terms of this travel experience and the foreshadowing the Universe had been offering me.

This is the way the Japanese people live their lives - as if every encounter were but once in a lifetime.

Below is a video of Shinjuku Station, the busiest transportation hub in the world:

Sinjuku station in Tokyo, Japan

It looks like kind of a nightmare doesn't it?

Try moving through this station with 18 fifth graders, their parents and 72 pieces of luggage (approximately 2 pieces per person). You would think it would be almost impossible. And yet, it really wasn't that difficult.

Somehow, in spite of the need to find their way around this massive station, catch a train, and get to work on time, the Japanese people manage to maneuver around massive groups of lost and confused Americans largely without incident.

Unlike in Europe, where I always feel like the huge, ugly American burdened with her luggage, I never felt like I was in the way. No one bumped into me or tripped over me or looked at me with disgust for my mere presence in "their" country, "their" train station, "their" day.

Like salmon swimming upstream, the Japanese people made their way where they needed to be, gracefully allowing me to do the same, even if I didn't know where the heck I was going.

I just got the feeling that they honored my right to be there, even if it made their day a little more difficult. 

In Kyoto it gets even better.

The torii gates at Fushimi Inari-taisha
A friend and I were standing on a street corner in Kyoto, map open, trying to figure out how to get to Fushimi Inari-taisha when up walks a young couple. "Can we help you?" they asked, in perfect English.

Taking the map from us they conferred in Japanese then the young man said, "Follow me."

Leading us through the winding streets of Kyoto, they led us directly to the entrance to the train station where we needed to go to catch a train to the shrine. They told us which train to take, and warned us that the walk underground to get to the actual train station was quite long - a warning without which we very well might have turned around because it was a very LONG walk indeed.

When I asked them if they were tourists in town as well they said, "No, we live in Kyoto."

I was floored. Here they were, out for a walk or on their way to have lunch or meet a friend or, who knows, on the way to a scary and difficult doctor's appointment, and they stopped to help us find our way. Going five or ten minutes out of their way to help two total strangers.

My fellow parents had similar stories to share as the trip progressed and you just got the feeling that most Japanese people would make themselves late for their own wedding to help you find your way.

I can't imagine that most Americans would do the same. I can't imagine - to my shame - that I would, or have done, the same. At least not in the past.

But now I hope to do it differently. I am trying to remember that every encounter is but once in a lifetime - ichi-go ichi-e - and make the most of each one.


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