I ring the bell tentatively. The steel apartment door, painted gentle beige, is monolithic.
The chime rings out—a characteristically Japanese tune, electric and playful, yet soothing—and immediately I’m thrown into memories of childhood: spying on people through the peephole, throwing water balloons from the balcony, setting a cacophony of firecrackers off in the hall, singeing my leg.
A moment passes, then a man grunts.
‘Um … sorry to disturb, I was just wondering if I could come in. I used to live here …’ I start.
But there’s no way he understands English. I motion to my wife, who continues in Japanese. After her brief explanation the man grunts again. The words are alien, but his tone is definitely negative.
My wife apologizes for disturbing him—standard protocol for pretty much any interaction in Japan—and we leave.
It’s a disappointing finale to a mission I’ve given myself on my return to Japan 25 years after having lived there as a kid: to seek out and reconnect with the old haunts of my past.
And this kind of nostalgic travel experience, a most backward-looking of undertakings, appears to be on the rise.
We travel to experience ‘newness’—new places, new people, new foods, new experiences—deliberately moving away from the past, or at least adding to it, by immersing ourselves in an inspiring present. But when that novelty can be found by invoking the past, there’s money to be made.
From the 1950s-themed Ellen’s Stardust Diner in New York, to the Nostalgia Hotel Beijing, to Carnival Cruise Line’s Throwback Sea Days, it seems we’ve never had so many chances to dive into yesteryear.
Nostalgia itself is not what it used to be. Once considered a pathological disease worthy of shame, ridicule and even being buried alive, it’s now, at worst, a sentimental indulgence, and at best a way for travel marketers to boost business. For some, it’s the basis of their entire business.
Nostalgia Travel based near Oxford in the UK provides vintage cars and buses for weddings and other events. ‘Nostalgia is a moving feast,’ says owner Peter Skinner. ‘Depending on your age, different decades will appeal. We’ve been in business constantly for 20 years and it’s been getting busier recently.’
But there’s a difference between historical nostalgia—curiosity about past eras that one may or may not be connected to—and personal nostalgia, the kind I was indulging in, seeking out the places, sights and experiences from my own past to … to achieve what?
That’s hard to say. Nostalgia is ‘a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition,’ according to Merriam-Webster. Perhaps I just wanted to be a kid again. Perhaps my time in Japan was so great I wanted to retrieve it, or at least not lose it. Perhaps with all the stress and responsibility and turmoil that comes with adult life, I wanted to reinforce my connection to childhood. ‘I was once young, wild and carefree! Look, I’ll show you!’
Not everyone’s convinced this is healthy. Lucy Copp, a blogger from Los Angeles, has written about her own nostalgic episodes in which she compares her present to her past. ‘The consequences of remembering only the good times are disruptive to personal growth and collective memory,’ she says.
She lived in Morocco in 2009. ‘When I returned, I talked about Morocco as if it were a spiritual gift that was bestowed upon me and everything about Morocco was different (and better) than home.’
That had the unfortunate effect of making her current life in LA, ‘a web of freeways, paying parking tickets, and sitting in traffic,’ compare poorly. ‘Only remembering and revealing these things is a lopsided (or worse, Orientalist) understanding of an actual people and their culture,’ she says.
To make her reminiscing more accurate, she now deliberately recalls the bad times too, to lose the rose-tinted effect nostalgia can produce.
But my problem was different; I was comparing a place across time, rather than my time in different places. Inside my childhood memories Kobe was fresh, novel and exciting; my only tasks were to explore and discover. On my return, the effects of 25 years of age, both on the place and myself, were stark.
There was decay: the signage at a favorite shopping center, bright and inviting in memory, had faded, lost letters. There was tragedy: a favorite shop, full of curiosities and games back then, was replaced by a large patch of grassy dirt after the 1995 earthquake in the city. There was replacement: the faceless man now living in ‘my’ childhood home.
On reflection, I’m glad he refused me. I feel as if he spoke a useful lesson: move on, stop looking back, this chapter is now closed.
Perhaps that 1960s diner, for someone born in the 1970s, can be both new and nostalgic. I’ll look forward to that.
Have you had a good—or bad—nostalgic travel experience? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below or with #momentumtravel.