Traveling with a Deeper Purpose

Last month, I embarked on a journey I was towards the top of my my list for travel destinations in one of Japan’s more unlikely places: Okinawa, specifically Naha and the surrounding areas.  When I travel, it is usually purely for leisure, sampling local foods, and taking photos at the famous locations and historical sites I encounter while walking through the streets or dashing from point A to point B. This time, the travel was very different and had a much deeper, personal meaning. 

Let me preface the discussion with now of the questions both foreigners and Japanese ask me all the time in Japan: “Why did you come to Japan?” My answer, as I have discussed before on this website, is different than many other traditional answers. I have never had any interest in manga, anime, or video game culture. I actually never really even had an interest in Japanese food before I went to Tokyo for the first time some three years ago. My reasons always surrounded the important role the Japanese plays in US military and security policy in the Pacific and the large role the Japanese play when it comes to international trade and economic might. 

There is, however, one more, more personal reason that I have not discussed on this website: my grandfather. 

My grandfather (currently in his upper-80s and very healthy) joined the United States Marines following Pearl Harbor quickly after his high school graduation. As fate would have it, he received a Purple Heart at Okinawa and is a member of one of the most decorated and famed Marine Divisions in the Pacific during World War II: The Sixth Division. One of the division’s claims to fame was valiantly fighting and winning the Battle of Okinawa. For as long as I can remember, I have heard stories about the battle, the island, and the Okinawan people. When I was accepted to my current position in Japan, I made visiting Okinawa while my grandfather is still alive one of my top priorities. I wanted to see what he saw from a first hand perspective. More than anything, I wanted to talk about Okinawa with him when I return from Japan at some point this summer for a few weeks. 

With these thoughts and conversations in my mind, I boarded a plane bound for Naha (major city on Okinawa’s main island) and looked forward to seeing the island though the lens of my grandfather. Almost immediately after arriving, I recognized the island was different than anywhere else in Japan. The presence of American military personnel, American military bases, and the English language in more places than on the main island certainly show how much of an effect American rule (until 1972) and the American military have had on the island. I will never forget hearing the jets roar past as I neared Kadena AFB shortly after arrival. The might of the US Air Force was awe-inspiring. 

I will spare the graphic details of many of the stories and discussions we had while I was younger, but it was amazing to see many of the places, beaches, and characteristics of Okinawa my grandfather described, much in the way he described them, more than sixty years after the fact. As I walked the city and the beaches, I could not imagine how much American blood was shed during the campaign and how fortunate I was that my grandfather survived the battle. 

While I rode a boat leaving Naha out on the open ocean bound for some smaller islands, I closed my eyes and envisioned my young grandfather and his friends as they were on their boats dodging fire from the small volcanic islands before landing on the main island. The feeling I received in that moment is something I will never forget. The rocking on the boat through the surf as the high peaks peaked through the water is feeling I will always remember. 

As the trip continued onward, I visited other famous war sites on the island and spoke with some Airmen and Marines I met out and about on the streets. This trip certainly was not all for leisure and I needed a change of pace when it came to traveling. Certainly the trip to Okinawa will resonate with me for years to come. 

To get back to the main point of this post, it is important to travel with a deeper meaning than just sightseeing from time to time. It enhances the whole experience and allows you to focus like a laser on different aspects- history, relationships, family ties, etc., that may often be ignored while you are out on the road. This trip was so special for me as I connected with my family’s history in a first-person way that many people may never be able to do. If you have the chance to do this, you must. 

Needless to say, my grandfather was surprised and happy to receive the post card I mailed him from Naha. 

Have you ever traveled with a deeper meaning? What stuck out most to you? 

Why Postcards Matter

Do you remember what it was like before e-mail and text messaging when you were younger and rushed home to check the mailbox or when out to the mailbox for your parents to check if there was any mail? I am 23 years old and I sure remember that. Of course I never received bills at that time, but it was always a rush to receive a letter and open it with a sense of anticipation. Every time I got mail or a postcard, a few questions always raced through my head: From whom did the letter come? What was inside the letter? Why did they even send me a letter?

When I was younger (and to this day) I also get similar feelings when I am posting mail and slipping it into the mailbox (all the while hoping it either a) arrives at its intended destination or b) wondering how long it would take to arrive in the recipient’s hands.

I will also readily admit that I like the taste of the seal on envelopes and even the taste of the old-school lickable stamps. I think there is something uniquely human intrenched within each of us that wants to send a real letter (or post card) instead of a text message or e-mail, and that is why I am writing this article.

Whenever I set off on international travel or domestic travel to famous or interesting destinations far from my hometown (in the United States) or in my current base (Kobe, Japan) there are a few things that I must take with me. First of all, my camera and my phone (for GPS) absolutely must come. Secondly, my passport comes along. The third thing I bring with me is a small notebook in which I keep with the addresses of my close family, friends, and a few other people with whom I exchange travel correspondence via snail mail. Other than that, all other things (except toothpaste and deodorant) are either optional or can be acquired on-site if there truly is a need.

I am sure many people think the concept of carrying an address book or list of addresses with me on my travels is quite odd, but I will explain why it is so important and overlooked. Many times when we travel, getting caught up in the moment of snapping the perfect photograph, practicing our language skills, sampling local street food, or just hustling from point A to point B allows us to escape from our troubles with work, stress, relationships, etc. That stress relief is a great thing, but one of the most important aspects of travel (at least to me) is sharing the experience with our loved ones, our friends, and others that may have an interest in our travels or experiences. Anyone can take five seconds and fire off an e-mail saying they are in such-and-such city and they are thinking of you. Even more people can take two seconds to send a text message and let their friends know they will be out of touch for a while.

Sending a post card to convey your thoughts, feelings, and emotions about your travels takes time, energy, and thought. Not everyone is willing to expend the energy to actually make a personal connection with people when you are out on the road. I find this interaction one of the best ways to truly enjoy travel and take in everything that may have flown over your head or passed by your eyes on a high-paced trip.

I always try to send postcards from interesting places when I travel. Nothing beats the response I get from people that did not know I was traveling. Receiving a postcard from somewhere like Seoul or Busan, South Korea, Kyoto, Japan, or Quebec City, Canada, truly made their day and sparked a genuine interest in travel. Their responses always focused on how kind it was to take the time to write the card and share what was happening at that moment with them. Those on the receiving end of the card really enjoy receiving the card, but the whole act of writing the card can be rewarding in itself. This came to fruition for me for the first time on Saturday  when I was writing cards to my family amidst controlled chaos in Senado Square, Macau.

My friend and I had settled down near the fountain in the middle of the tiled plaza to sample some San Miguel beer (famous Hong Kong/Macau drink) and just take in some sights and sounds when I remembered I had a few postcards to send back home. This triggered an interesting journey where I had to go to a stamp vending machine to get some stamps for my recently purchased cards due to the post office being closed on Saturday. Once we had settled back down at the Square, I finally had the chance to take in and gather all of my thoughts and transfer them to the old postcards I had purchased in one of Macau’s back alley. The most challenging thing about the whole process was figuring how much saliva to put on the stamp to make sure it would stay on the card! While the message itself would not be instantaneous, the true message and emotion of that day will certainly be evident when my family receives those cards. Everything from the cantina bar song playing in the background at the plaza to the architecture of the square to the crookedness of the lickable stamp should come alive when the recipients receive their cards in the next few days. When they read that card, see the foreign stamps, and know it was actually written where the stamp says it was, I know they will start thinking about the destination and what it is like.

I like to send handwritten letters, but the postcard will always have a special place in my heart. It helps you gather your thoughts and helps those you love truly understand what your travels meant to you at the time you wrote that card. Who knows? Maybe your card will inspire your family and friends to go somewhere, someday. I know when my parents received a card from the Turks and Caicos several years ago, my mind has been set on going there ever since.

Just remember this: The thought REALLY does count.


Mailing a card from near Senado Square, Macau. © Erik Jacobs, 2013.

To make a long story short, take a few minutes out of your trip to send a postcard to your friends and family. It will mean more to them than you can ever imagine. You might even enjoy gathering your thoughts for a few minutes.

Postcards still matter.