My friend Sharon and I wandered through the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest in Kyoto, Japan. As the name suggested, this area abounded with bamboo trees. These particular bamboo trees were rather tall, extending endlessly towards the heavens. They were thick for bamboo trees, and obviously sturdy, yet they were not immune to swaying in tune with the wind.  The orchestra of rustling leaves combined with the shade from the height of the trees and created a peaceful feeling throughout the park, as if it were a sacred place. As we turned the bend of a winding path, we found ourselves before a small house with a beautifully sculpted garden. Works of art (paintings), framed and affixed on easels of varying heights, were interspersed throughout the garden. The art was surprising, but it seemed so natural in the setting that it was easy to imagine it had grown from magical art seeds and sprouted into masterpieces right there. We quickly realized this wonder was a tea house and decided it was time to stop for tea.

We found ourselves inside of a small, approximately 12 foot by 12 foot or 2 meters by 2 meters, one-roomed tea house. The floor was made of straw Japanese tatami mats and the walls were lined from floor to ceiling with works of art, original pieces and copies of the greats. In a minimalist Japanese style, there was no furniture – no chairs, no tables. We left our shoes in the entry way and settled onto the floor, making ourselves comfortable as we were the only patrons there. Which was a good thing; because it seemed hard to imagine that more than one small party could fit in that space anyways. We ordered our drinks, coffee for Sharon and tea for me, and then waited, happy to enjoy each other’s company and feeling pleased with our find and inspired by our surroundings.

Dictionary-thick guidebooks are written on the city of Kyoto. It is the cultural capital of Japan with endless shrines and temples, countless World Heritage Sites, museums, gardens, and geishas. It is a place where the history and allure of the past thrive within the setting of a modern, international city. When I read my Lonely Planet before the trip with Sharon, I felt overwhelmed with everything there was to do and see. I forgot the most important part of traveling – to simply “be” wherever you may find yourself. In essence, to take your nose out of your guide book and to wander without following Google Maps, to exist in the present so that you are able to stop for tea when you find a jewel rather than pass it up because you are confined to an unyielding, self-inflicted itinerary.

Often times, the spontaneous experiences are the highlights of a trip. Everyone sees the top attractions in the guidebook. Yet the places you discover when you allow yourself to explore are yours.

What’s your travel style? Do you prefer guided tours, setting your own agenda, winging it with no plan, or a combination of all three?

Have you ever had an experience where you unexpectedly found something completely amazing?