The last time I was in Japan I was 15 years old. A student of the language and culture at high school in New Zealand, the opportunity to travel to this foreign land was tremendously exciting. Lifelong friendships were forged with my host families and Kings College classmates over the course of two very memorable weeks. Always the good student, this was the first time I had ever found myself in trouble at school. Overly confident with our near fluent Japanese and awe-struck with the availability of beer vending machines that required no age verification, my classmates and I made our way through the bars of downtown Tokyo. It was a teenager’s dream. Well, that is of course until we got caught.
Threatened with being forced to return home on the first flight back to New Zealand, we were left to ponder until morning how on earth we would explain this to our parents. After a sleepless night and a breakfast for which I had no appetite, our teachers casually informed us that they had changed their minds, and we would continue our travels. But should we dare make contact with a bar or beer vending machine, we would – without hesitation - be on the next plane home to New Zealand.
This episode was a defining moment for me (I waited until I had left home and was well into my 20s before confessing to my Mum). For the remainder of the trip I refocused on my studies and travel in Japan, and learned to view the Japanese culture through a lens of deepest respect and appreciation. I continued to study Japanese throughout high school and many years later still feel a deep connection to this land full of age-old tradition and protocol. I knew one day I would return, yet never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined the reason would be to pursue an aquatic adventure.
From the moment I received confirmation of my booking for my Tsugaru attempt earlier this year, I was very eager to once again reconnect with and immerse myself in the intricate layers of traditional Japanese culture. And I wanted to do this as respectfully as possible. Together with my Mum (who also studied Japanese) and the support and enthusiasm of my Adobe Japan colleagues, Tomo, Aya and Akira, we did just that. Not only did they all generously devote 4 days from their busy schedules to support my swim, but they also graciously guided Mum and I through these intricate layers of their culture.
Two days before my swim, Tomo and Aya joined my Mum and I in Aomori, about 2 hours drive from the northern tip of Honshu. After presenting Tomo and Aya with gifts from New Zealand, they surprised me with an enormous Adobe banner covered in countless words of support and encouragement from their office of 300 people. Tears welled up in my eyes as I read each carefully crafted and meaningful message.
That evening before enjoying a traditional Japanese meal, we prayed together at the Utou Jinjya Shinto shrine. This majestic 2,000 year old shrine is nestled amongst the modern metropolis of Aomori. Somehow it just felt right to pay my respects to an ancient culture where tradition is always effortlessly woven into the present. Tomo gently reminded Mum and I of Shinto protocol. We bowed once before entering the grand red gate, and we made our way down a long path towards the shrine. After washing our hands in an adjacent well, we approached the shrine. To begin our prayer, we bowed twice and clapped our hands twice. As I tried my best to pray for the safety of myself and my crew, and also for good weather, I was overwhelmed with emotion. In this moment I was struck by the enormity of the journey that lay ahead, and I knew this was simply only the beginning.