I am the girl who has not seen a lot of movies.
Star Wars? I saw it once, when I was six, and I got so scared, I thought Darth Vader was hiding in my closet for the next several months. I’ve never seen any of the other Star Wars movies. E.T. had a similar fate. And when my friends say, “What do you mean, you’ve never seen Jaws/The Godfather Part II/Breakfast at Tiffany’s/Saving Private Ryan/any of the Lord of the Rings movies?” I sigh and shrug.
Am I proud of this? No. Ignorance is never something of which to be proud. But I much prefer books and episodic TV over movies, so I don’t see that changing. If I watch any movie these days, it’s probably going to be a bad romantic comedy.
But there was one time in my life when I saw tons of excellent movies. It lasted from roughly 2002, when I started college, to 2010, when I drastically cut my expenses to save for travel. I would try to see as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, many of them at the $3 theater a short walk from my university.
That theater was where I first saw Lost in Translation.
I was a 19-year-old college sophomore back then. I had just broken up with my first serious boyfriend and though it was the right decision, I spent the next few months feeling bummed out. I was excelling in most of my courses but struggling with philosophy, wondering why it was so hard to wrap my head around Kierkegaard. I’d get my first singing solo a few months later. And yes, I was already blogging. It was a fairly sedate time in my life.
And I was dreaming of travel. I had always yearned to travel, ever since I was a kid who would sprint to the 900s section in the library and who would pore over her world map placemat before dinner. But back then, the idea of a long-term solo trip hadn’t even occurred to me. I’d realize it was a possibility three years later.
Lost in Translation lit a fire under me. It was full of travel moments I dreamed of experiencing myself — singing karaoke in a private room with friends until dawn, walking through a temple in the woods and coming across a traditional wedding, running through the crowds at Shibuya Crossing.
It touched me deeply, too — the intimacy that you can achieve only with a complete stranger.
Lost in Translation was my favorite film that year and has remained among my most beloved films since. I cheered when Sofia Coppola won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. And I was infuriated when the Best Actor Oscar went to Sean Penn in Mystic River instead of Bill Murray. I wouldn’t have been as mad if Johnny Depp had won for the Pirates of the Caribbean, but really? Sean Penn? That dude’s an asshole and he wasn’t that good in Mystic River. (To this day, I consider that one of the most egregious missteps the Academy has ever made. And I wasn’t any happier when Sean Penn won his second Oscar for Milk over Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler a few years later.)
The Perfect Travel Movie
I think that Lost in Translation is one of the best travel movies ever made. Why? It actually shows the truth behind travel. Yes, there are happy and beautiful and memorable times, but there are plenty of awkward and sad and confusing moments as well. You argue with your partner. You attempt to understand and be understood by people who don’t speak your language. You go to a restaurant and feel stupid because you can’t read the menu. You cling to every fellow traveler you can find, just to feel normal — but for every true friendship you make, you’re likely to meet a handful of self-absorbed idiots.
So many long-term travelers get on the road and are shocked at instances like these. Why am I having such a rough time? I didn’t see anything like this on Instagram! But Lost in Translation gets the travel mindset completely right.
Tokyo couldn’t have been a better setting for this movie. The city on its surface appears so modern and efficient and organized — yet it’s still Japan, and Japan is governed by a set of unspoken rules known only to the Japanese. Visiting Japan means that you’ll be confused so much of the time. Even on my second visit, it took me a good half hour to find an ATM, get money out, and buy a ticket for the train.
Which is why it makes sense that so much of it was shot at the Park Hyatt Tokyo — the rooms, the pool, and again and again, the bar. The hotel becomes a sanctuary when you can’t handle the stress of an incomprehensible nation any longer. And for years, I yearned to stay there myself. It has long been my “if I could stay anywhere” hotel.
Nostalgia for the Future
It’s one thing to be nostalgic about your past, or even the present — the Portuguese have the best word for this, saudade — but Lost in Translation actually made me nostalgic for the future. I knew that travel was in my future, and in this movie I saw fragments of life that would happen.
You would reach out to a friend in your time of need and get rebuffed.
Charlotte calls a friend on the phone and after some small talk, confesses, “I don’t know who I married.” Her friend absentmindedly misses the comment and Charlotte, nearly in tears, doesn’t say anything else.
That would be me nine years later, messaging the only friend I knew would be awake in my time zone, about to type out, “I think I need to leave him but we have all these flights and comps booked and I would be so unprofessional if I made them spend extra money on those flights and tours for someone who didn’t show up — what do I do?” The first time I had admitted it to anyone, ever. Instead, I typed, “Hey, are you free to talk?”
His reply: “It’s not a good time, can this wait?”
“Sure,” I replied. I never brought it up with him or anyone else again.
You would mess up.
Remember that scene when Bob wakes up in the bed of the jazz singer? In a fraction of a second, you can see every emotion on his face. It’s not the usual “Oh my God, I cheated on my wife!” — that would be too easy, too expected. Instead, he opens his eyes and winces and in a fraction of a second you can read an encyclopedia on his face: “Goddammit, I’m such an idiot. Why did I do that? Why did I drink that much? Do I really have to sleep with every woman who shows a modicum of interest in me? And now she’s singing in her bathrobe and I need to figure out how to get out of her hotel room without offending her…”
Well. We all make mistakes, Kate, and you’re no exception.
Six years later, you would go out for drinks with a blogger colleague in Chiang Mai and wind up wildly making out with him at arguably the sleaziest club in town. You would wake up, hungover and mortified and ALONE THANK GOD, the next day. Several years later on the other side of the world, he would say, “Hey, remember when we made out and it was no big deal?” and you both would finally have a good laugh over it.
You would dance.
My favorite scene is when Charlotte and Bob and her friends go out for a wild night in Tokyo. There’s music, karaoke, and at one point they end up dancing to Phoenix’s “Too Young” in someone’s apartment.
That scene when everyone is dancing and letting loose is the absolute pinnacle of the movie. It’s the personification of that moment when you’ve consumed the perfect amount of alcohol, enough to dance so much better but to have control over your words. Even throughout the awkwardness, the misunderstandings, and the loneliness, a group of people across cultures have found a way to enjoy their time together. Everybody’s dancing, ooh yeah…
As I watched that scene, I dreamed of dancing like that around the world. And I would.
Twelve years later, two friends and I would burst out of a jeep in rural Western Australia, not even pulling to the side of the road first, just because we wanted to turn up The Fray’s “Over My Head” and groove in the middle of absolute nowhere.
Eleven years later, I would be in a salsa club in Antigua, Guatemala, with seven of my new best friends. Randomly the music escalated — and despite never having heard the song before, all eight of us instinctively jumped and DROPPED THE BEAT like no other beat had ever been dropped in history.
Eight years later, I would be in a rollicking town hall in Lerwick, Shetland Islands, twirling around to traditional folk music with kilted locals until 8:00 in the morning.
Seven years later, I would be dancing in unison with Sharpied, paint-covered backpackers at riverside bars in Vang Vieng, Laos.
But even two, three, four years later, before I became a traveler, before smartphones even existed, I would find bliss dancing in sweaty Boston basement clubs. All I needed was “Return of the Mack,” a stranger to grind on, and my girlfriends to chase him off if he got weird or high-five me if he didn’t.
It’s 10:00 PM and I’m sitting in a bar so familiar I swear I’ve been here before. Tiny pinpricks of light peek through the floor-to-ceiling windows, rooftops flashing bright red, the entire city of Tokyo before me. It’s one thing to know that Tokyo is the most populated city in the world (by metropolitan area, at least); it’s another to see it for yourself. All height and sprawl — the only city that comes close to it is Toronto.
This is the New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. You need to pay to get in, but it’s free for guests.
No, I’m not drinking Suntory, toasting relaxing times. That would be far too heavy-handed. Instead I sip the Radio City, made with Grey Goose Earl Grey, pink peppercorn syrup, and soda. I smile at the irony of drinking cocktails named after Manhattan landmarks when my actual apartment lies in great proximity to them.
A curly-haired female singer leads the band, just like in the movie. They are quite good. I’m sure they have to be to get a gig like this. Unlike Bob Harris, though, I’m not getting drunk and bedding any of the musicians.
I’m surrounded by people around the world. Japanese couples. European businessmen and women. Everyone here is the star of their own movie.
I am finally here, lost but fulfilled, in a haze of booze, jazz and cigarette smoke.
You got there, Kate.
It took a lot of work. A lot of sacrifices. And a metric fuck-ton of privileged circumstances of birth. There was the time you were owed $9,000 by various vendors and were down to $200 in your checking account. The time Russians attacked your site so hard nobody could access it. That “hidden surf spots in South Africa” feature you got assigned for a magazine after they rejected your “adventure activities in South Africa” idea, the most difficult thing on the planet to both research and write.
It paid off. You worked your ass off, you tried new things before anyone else did, you stayed original while so many bloggers copied you, and you got here on your own merit. You got to a point where not only you could afford to stay there as a guest — albeit briefly and not often — the hotel offered you a free night’s stay because they wanted you there. They wanted you there that much.
A fabulous suite in Tokyo. A place where they called you “Ms. McCulley” wherever you went. Just a 17-hour door-to-door journey away from your Manhattan apartment.
This is what it’s like to have a travel dream come true in your thirties.