Aguni Island.jpg

a solo trip rarely means traveling alone

By Rachel Hartwick / Special to The Japan News

Rachel Hartwick shares her experiences as participant of the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, which is administered through the collaboration of Japan’s local and national government authorities and promotes grass-roots internationalisation at the local level.

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As my first fall break approached, I plotted my escape from the freezing rain in Fukui. Daydreaming about sunnier weather, I booked a flight to Okinawa on a whim, marking the start of my first solo travel adventure.

A fellow first-year ALT who heard I was going alone generously invited me to spend a day at his home on Aguni Island. A brief online search of Aguni highlights the three-square-mile island’s one traffic light, one police officer, and absence of buses and taxis. It isn’t exactly a tourist hot spot. But it sounded like an adventure, so I agreed.

The ferry from the Okinawan capital Naha to Aguni only comes once a day, and on the day I went, a storm erupted. The rocky waves made me seasick. I shut my eyes and wondered how I ended up alone on my way to a remote island in the middle of the East China Sea. I barely knew my host and questioned why I had decided to go in the first place.

I didn’t expect more than a place to crash, but my host took the time to show me around the island with pride, smiling and waving at every passerby. “I don’t always know who they are, but I try to wave at everyone,” he told me, adding that there’s always a good chance they’re parents of his students.

After we toured the Aguni Salt Factory and started to trek home in the drizzling rain, a couple in a car recognized my host’s waving. They told us to hop in, and drove us to the highest point on Aguni, which offers a gorgeous view of neighboring islands. The couple joined us for dinner and karaoke with my host’s coworkers.

These kind elementary school teachers let me help with their sixth-grade English class the next day, which consisted of only 13 students. Having only been to my one junior high school in Fukui, it was eye-opening to see the laid-back atmosphere of an island school: students didn’t wear uniforms, and the teachers were in flowered kariyushi shirts.

When I returned to Naha that afternoon, I didn’t have the comfort of being with another ALT, but I remembered how welcoming the people on Aguni were to me, so I started conversations with strangers. I ended up making friends from Okinawa, Taiwan and Tokyo, and have even gone back to visit them since.

My trip to Okinawa reminded me why I moved to Japan in the first place: to meet new people and learn about different cultures. Traveling alone is rewarding, but it’s only thanks to the many people who welcome solo travelers to the places they’re so proud of. Thanks to my friend and the people of Okinawa, I learned that just a smile and wave goes a long way.

— Rachel Hartwick is from Ohio in the U.S. and recently graduated with a degree in journalism. She is an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) on the JET Programme, working in Fukui.