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The Lure of Secret Places

Real Travel

From the March 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Travel's ultimate thrill may be that one special discovery—and sharing it with kindred souls

So, where are we going for dinner tonight?" I ask. My friend Mariko smiles. "It's a little place. I hope you will like it." We jump into a Toyota taxi with spotless slipcovered seats. Mariko instructs the driver in Japanese, and we zoom off.

I kind of know my way around Tokyo. I can ride the subway without getting lost, and I can tell when I'm in Shinjuku or Asakusa. But not tonight. Two or three turns into a labyrinth of side streets, and I have no idea what neighborhood we are in. Or even if we are still in Tokyo.

"Stop here," Mariko says after a bit. We face a shadowy, empty-looking building illuminated by a dim blue light over the entry door.

Suddenly that door slides open, revealing a warmly lit wood-paneled eatery. A woman in a perfectly wrapped kimono appears, bows, and motions us inside. As we settle ourselves, I notice there are no tables, only a bar. A very, very small bar. I count the seats: One, two, three, four.

That's when I realize what is up. Mariko, a new friend I've made through a mutual acquaintance, is honoring this occasion of our first meeting by presenting me with something special. Something that, as ardent travelers, we both can understand and appreciate, even though we come from very different parts of the world. What Mariko is offering me is the greatest travel gift of all: a secret place.

I've collected secret places since I could crawl—the cabinet under the bathroom sink, the quiet space beneath my bed. Of course my standard for specialness has become a little more sophisticated over the decades; what hasn't changed is the urge to discover marvelous and mysterious nooks around the world that somehow will "belong" to me, finds that I come across spontaneously or after a long and concerted quest.

Most travelers I know share this passion in some form. My friend Laura, for instance, keeps a stack of worn Moleskine books filled with scribbled notes: the address of the tiny café in Budapest where she tasted the ultimate walnut-cream pastry; the telephone number of the unlisted guesthouse in Cartagena, Colombia, where she fell asleep every night to the rolling murmur of the Caribbean sea.

I'm not much of a diarist, so I tend to keep my secret places in my head. To jog my memory, I hold onto pieces of travel ephemera: maps of Ljubljana, menus from restaurants in Shanghai, business cards, café con leche-stained paper napkins that I saved from out-of-the-way Buenos Aires confiterias.

In a world where everyone can—and does—blog about their favorite obscure noodle stall in Macau, collecting secret places may feel sometimes as obsolete as steamship travel. And yet I continue to make discoveries of places unknown to tourists, guidebook writers, and bloggers, and sometimes even to the people who live in the place I'm exploring. The reason: My definition for a "secret place" has an important qualifier. To get a spot on my list a secret place has to be special—to me.

Ko Samui, in Thailand, is a beach resort that is filled with tourists year-round; the Buddhist temple near the center of town is marked on every map. Yet it became my secret place early one morning when I wandered in and noticed, off to the side of the main altar, a device that looked like a pinball machine. Its main feature was an electrically illuminated statue of Buddha inside the glass case.

I stood in wonder before this pinball Buddha, then noticed a coin slot that read "10 Baht." I had some Thai change in my pocket, so I dropped a 10-baht coin in the slot. Instantly the Buddha's eyes began flashing red, blue, and green as a recorded voice thundered forth in rapid-fire Thai. Then, in a frenzy of flashing, whizzing, and whirring, the machine spit out a piece of paper: my fortune.

What did it say? That remains secret (even to me—most of the text is in Thai). But the next time any friends of mine go to Ko Samui they will certainly be carrying directions to my special pinball Buddha, along with operating instructions. Once you've found that secret place and added it to your collection, there is only one thing you can do to make the experience of it even better: Share it with special friends.

Tokyo is practically ground zero for secret places. There seems to be something about Japanese culture that maintains, even safeguards, a reverence for the hidden, for the spontaneous discovery. At Mariko's secret restaurant, we—along with the lucky patrons in those other two seats—eat one of the best meals I have ever had: course after course of the freshest fish, followed by servings of exquisitely shaped and perfectly steamed vegetables that I'd never heard of. The chef personally presents and explains each dish to Mariko, his regular customer.

Full of heady sake and delight, I ask Mariko if the restaurant has a business card, so I will be able to find it again some day. She laughs.

"It doesn't even have a name."

This secret place, I realize, "belongs" to her. Her traveler's gift is not the place itself, but the sharing of it with me, a like-minded new friend.

Contributing editor Daisann McLane sheds light on local ways in distant lands on her blog, .

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