Month: April 2015

300 Days Later

I’m back in the United States.

It happened just as abruptly as that sounds. I had started considering what to do after Japan before I even got there, and this idea of returning had always been an option, I just wasn’t sure it would win out. I thought about going to South Korea, Taiwan, or England. There was more world to see and people to visit, was I ready to give in to going back already?

Then a couple of things happened. First, my ideas about my future changed. I realized that travel, my nomadic existence, was not just a phase but a new way of life. I couldn’t imagine returning to a desk and a schedule. Not to say that I didn’t crave some normalcy sometimes, but the idea of settling down in one place with just two weeks of vacation a year, knowing that there was so much more out there that I wanted to see and do, didn’t sit well with me. So I decided that for the foreseeable future I would attempt to keep going. But in order to do that I had to work again for a bit – my money wouldn’t last forever. Which is why, when I got a very tempting offer for a summer job that would allow me to work for 20 hours a week primarily outside and live in Vermont, a place I had dreamed of returning to for my readjustment to the States, I had to take it. I start June 1.

Once I committed to going back for the summer my time abroad suddenly had a limit. I knew I had to return at some point, so how did I want to do it? I could wait until the end of May and go through the East Coast, prolonging my travel as much as possible until my Vermont start date. Or I could surprise my best friends at a girls weekend in Arizona. My friends had decided months ago to have a weekend away at Jen’s new home, which none of us had seen yet, and I sadly had declined since I was halfway around the world. But then Kwaz came to India, and when we talked about what I would do next and the possibility of spending the summer in Vermont and how and when I would come back to do that, the idea of surprising everyone came up. I missed my friends. I had a fantastic life in San Francisco and that was mostly owed to the people there. If I went straight to the East Coast I would not see them, but if I went to Arizona I could stop by SF before going east. Plus it was much easier and cheaper to fly from Japan to Phoenix, and what better way could there be to return than by showing up at the Phoenix airport and giving your friends heart attacks?

I didn’t commit to this plan immediately but let it take its place in my thoughts amongst my other options. The more I thought about it though the more I realized that I couldn’t let it go, that every other option suddenly was being halted by this Arizona idea. I tried to figure out if I could fit in South Korea before I flew back, and in attempting to look up flights to England could only compare the price to the flight to Phoenix. So I finally gave in. If every other idea just didn’t sound as good as the surprise, why not just do the surprise?

It helped that the day I would return happened to be my 300th day abroad. I like round numbers and had had some sadness that I wouldn’t be making it to a full year, June 21, but the discovery that I would hit day 300 put me at ease.

20 countries in 300 days. That sounded pretty good.

So on April 6th I booked my flight to the US. For April 17th. Like I said, it happened pretty abruptly.

And the surprise was worth it. Showing up at the airport and having the incredible warm response I got from my friends – full of repeat hugs and “you’re not real!” and “how did this happen?” – made for a happy return Stateside. I love you guys. And now, writing this from a coffee shop in San Francisco after seeing even more friends, I know that it was right to come back here before going to Vermont. Add to that the amazing messages I got on my birthday yesterday – in person, texts, and Facebook – welcoming me home, and so far the dreaded end of traveling depression hasn’t hit. Instead I now have many plans to catch up with friends and family.

I’m sure the depression will come. I did almost start crying when the coffee shop played a song I had heard on repeat in Colombia. But for now, I choose to focus on the excitement of this return. And I also choose to keep traveling.

I’m in San Francisco this week, but will be adventuring around Canada for five days next week, then back to San Francisco for five more days, then New Jersey and New York City for a couple of weeks, and then I will finally move up to Vermont for the summer. Despite deciding to return to the States, I couldn’t stop moving just yet.

And all of this is in pursuit of a larger goal of not stopping. TBD where I’m going in September, but the hope is to get back on the road for at least another couple of months. My Travel Abrodge isn’t done yet…

Nara: Deer, Temples, and Sake

Our second day trip from Kyoto was to Nara.

Nara is known for two things: temples and deer. I’ll start with the deer. The deer in Nara are described as freely roaming in the town’s parks, which initially brought to mind images of dozens of Bambi’s happily coexisting with people and nature. But the first thing we saw when we got to Nara Park was a sign warning that the deer are wild animals and they may attack you in a variety of ways, such as kick, bite, knock down, or headbutt. Bambi would never headbutt me. Bambi also didn’t have stunted devil horns coming out of its head. These were a different breed of deer, more beast than Disney character. I also would not call their presence happily coexisting in nature as much as benefiting from tourists buying deer crackers to feed them. They actually stood in the way just hoping to get fed. It felt like a petting zoo we couldn’t escape.

The temples though were different. If they were not like I imagined it’s because I underestimated them. At first glance the Kofukuji Temple appeared as impressive as Ninna-ji in Kyoto had, with another five-story pagoda and one-story temple, but once we got entry into the Eastern Golden Hall and the neighboring National Treasure Museum it went beyond previous temple-going experiences. The Hall was filled with statues of Buddha and his allies and protectors. We were given a sheet in English that explained each figure’s importance, which I greatly appreciated. Inside the museum were more statues important to the temple, including the three-faced six-armed Ashura Statute, a highly important Buddhist sculpture in Japanese culture and history. It was spectacular. The entire collection was well worth seeing.

The Todaji Temple had the same result as the Kofukuji Temple. The approach, entry gate, and building at first seemed familiarly impressive, but once I stepped inside and saw the towering Buddha and his guards I was taken back. That was one big Buddha. The wooden sculptures, as well as the building interior, dwarfed everyone and seemed to assert their importance in their stature. Even with another large crowd, they were able to steal all the attention.

Our Nara day ended with a Japanese must-do: sake tasting. There is a neighborhood in Nara that was known for its merchants and still maintains an old school charm. We found it and one of the local shops that sells an abundance of alcohol, so we asked if it was possible to do a tasting there and sure enough it was. 3 big pours of sake for Y500 was a great deal and I learned that I like the most high quality one the best, of course. There’s no better way to wash down a full day of deer, parks, and temples than with some locally produced sake.

We Saw a Whale Shark in Osaka

We did two day trips from Kyoto. The first was a spur-of-the-moment trip to Osaka.

Originally we thought we’d spend a night in Osaka after Kyoto, but when we stepped outside on our third day in Kyoto to discover that it was miserably rainy our outside-focused plan for the day wasn’t so appealing anymore. So instead we decided to jump on a train and spend the day in Osaka. This is the great thing about flexible travel with another backpacker – so what if this wasn’t the plan, sounds good to us right now, let’s go for it.

Cities are better places to explore in the rain than temples, plus our main attraction for Osaka was an indoor activity: the aquarium. Yes we are just big kids. But they have a whale shark! Who doesn’t want to see a five-meter-long shark without fear of being attacked? Not like whale sharks attack humans, but you know what I mean. Anyway, a quick thirty minute train ride later and we were in Osaka Station trying to figure out how to get to the aquarium. Again tourist information pointed us in the right direction (so helpful all over Japan) and no more than an hour after we’d decided to go to Osaka we were entering the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan.

It, like everywhere else, was packed. Does Japan ever work? I’ve heard they actually do more than anyone, but everywhere we went it seemed like everyone else was there too. The aquarium wasn’t too bad once we got past the first animals – Japanese river otters – and into the tanks, which had plenty of viewing space. Kaiyukan has an interesting layout: we moved in a circle, constantly descending, around the Pacific Ocean tank and past other global zones on the outside. They split up each tank according to location, an approach I actually really liked, and even had Monterey Bay! I got to watch some familiar sea lions play around for a bit.

Pacific Ocean tank

Pacific Ocean tank

The main attraction was the whale shark, and it was smaller than I expected. I actually enjoyed watching the other sharks and sting rays swim around more than the whale shark. I felt bad for it; it looked too big to be in that tank, and just slowly swam in the same circle over and over again. It reminded me that I never really like places that keep animals in captivity.

Upon leaving I had a weird feeling. This was the first time I’d been to an aquarium since all the snorkeling and scuba diving I’ve done in the past year. The last time I saw sea creatures they were freely swimming around in their natural environment. Seeing them in an aquarium felt anticlimactic, and a little wrong. Nothing against the aquarium, if you like them it’s a nice one, it just felt strange being inside walls with these beautiful creatures.

After the aquarium we just wandered through the shopping center of Osaka – a rainy day was the perfect time for one of those arcade shopping streets – and had a delicious sushi lunch. For some reason I hadn’t had nearly as much sushi as I thought I would when I came to Japan – we kept coming across noodle or donburi places instead – and since it’s one of my favorite foods I was seriously craving it, so even a simple sushi bar lunch was a big highlight for me.

It was a quick day in Osaka so I can’t say I got a great feel for the city as a whole. It seemed like another metropolis with similarities to Tokyo and Kyoto, but more toned down. I’ve heard mixed reviews so I’ll leave my final analysis ambiguous.

Do I Like Kyoto?

Everyone loves Kyoto. When I said I was coming to Japan so many people told me to just make sure I go to Kyoto, and Matt had heard the same. This earned it top billing on our mental list of places we would like to get to, and why we tried so hard to find somewhere to stay there after Tokyo and Lake Yamanaka and eventually just went for it from Hiroshima. So when we finally made it there imagine our surprise when both of us had an immediate negative reaction.

It’s freaking crowded. Tokyo is busy, but Kyoto felt congested. From the packed train station to the pedestrian-filled streets it was a game of dodge the people, not a fun task with our backpacks on. Then the ease of finding a good manga cafe that we had just experienced in Hiroshima didn’t exist in Kyoto, and after choosing one because we didn’t want to go back on those streets with our bags it took half an hour to even arrange where to store them until we checked in for our 12 hours at 9 pm. We ended up having to rent a karaoke room for them. The next day we left them in a hotel lobby that took pity on us, and the next in a locker at the train station.

We tried to regain our positivity as we ventured out to see the city. We had three days in Kyoto and allocated one each to our top priorities: 1) see the city center and Geisha district Gion; 2) temple hop; 3) walk through the bamboo forest.

As we wandered through the city center that first afternoon my impression of Kyoto was like a yo-yo, constantly fluctuating between liking the city and finding it overrated. We walked and shopped in the covered arcade, which I’ve now learned is the center of every city in Japan. They love these things. They are great on a rainy day, but they’re also just lined with stores, and when you’re traveling on a budget shopping can only entertain for so long. The one in Kyoto had a temple right off the main street, which was an interesting contrast to the commercialism surrounding it.

On our way to Gion we encountered a canal lined with full blossom sakura trees, which made for a lovely stroll one way, and then we had an equally lovely stroll back next to the big river, where Kyotans line the banks and enjoy a beverage as the daylight fades to dark (and well into dark too). Gion was again pretty to walk through at first, an area seemingly stuck in an age long ago, but then we realized it was just upscale restaurants. When we did return for dinner one night we had delicious shabu shabu (thank you Matt for the amazing early birthday dinner) and did actually catch a glimpse of a real Geisha, so in the end Gion came out on the positive side.

Temple day was fantastic and exhausting. We started big: Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. It’s gorgeous. The gold leaf-covered building reflecting in the pond beneath it is a site to see, that is if you can see through all the people. Just like the rest of Kyoto, it was a tainted experience; to get a view of the pavilion required a lot of patience (or an aggressive move) to get to the front of a mass of tourists who only saw it through their electronic device screens. Have I become jaded? Maybe. I know at this point I like the less traveled locations, so when tourists overrun a place I can be easily peeved, and since Matt is the same way we probably just encouraged each other. I took a deep breath and refocused on the temple. That’s the reason we were there, and it was beautiful.

We moved on to Ryoan-ji, known for its rock garden, and enjoyed the serenity of the landscape. The garden was nice, but it was the lake and the plants surrounding it that captured our attention. Next up was Ninna-ji, a large complex that took way more time than expected but was a great display of the variety of temple architecture. We followed a raised wooden path through large and small pavilions within a sandscape on one side and a lush pond on the other, culminating in a shrine. We craned our necks up to marvel at the five-tiered pagoda. We peeked through a gate at the colorfully painted Kyusho-myojin. And we quickly walked past the other buildings once we realized we were starving. The only problem with these temples is part of the reason they’re so wonderful to explore: they’re far from the center of town.

Once satiated we had time for one more shrine in a different part of town, Fushimi Inari-taisha. The main draw of this shrine is the thousands of torii that line a path leading up and around Inari mountain. The seemingly infinite line of orange gates are stunning, and instead of letting the crowds get to us this time we turned the walk into a game of “try to get a picture alone before anyone else shows up.” We were actually pretty successful. It was a fun end to the day.

Our last day in Kyoto it rained. Bummer. Our plan had been to go to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, an outdoor day, and for a minute we hesitated, considering indoor options. But when the rain seemed to lighten we decided to go for it. The rain was not lighter where the forest was, it was in fact more constant, but there was no turning back. What started as a wet depressing walk turned into an awesome sight. Bamboo towered up above us on either side, thousands of stalks deep. It was like a fantasy land, and I didn’t care that I was soaked. It’s not like I could get any wetter. So I slowed down and took it all in, my final view of Kyoto’s allure.

In the end, Kyoto is a wonderful place. While the city itself may have overwhelmed at times, it has an undeniable beauty and importance in Japanese history. If I went back, which I think I should at some point, I would stay on the fringes of the center of town, but not quite outside it. Our last two nights we stayed in a hostel (which luckily had opened early for the busy season, which is why we were able to get a reservation and were among its first guests) outside the main part of the city and we felt stranded at night out there. I feel like Goldilocks who never found the perfect in between. Maybe next time Kyoto.

Hiroshima

I was pleasantly surprised by Hiroshima. We went to see the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, as most everyone who visits Japan does, but ended up really liking the city for more than just the museum.

To be honest, the museum was a bit of a let down. It’s hard to say that and I might get some criticism for it, but after hearing that I had to go to Hiroshima just for this I suppose I expected a bit too much. Maybe it’s because some exhibits were closed and the A-bomb dome was hidden under scaffolding for research purposes. It is of course necessary to recognize this horrific event, and seeing the exhibits about the day the bomb exploded and the effects it had was hard but important. But in the end I appreciated the Peace Memorial Park more, with its symbols of peace, banners of stories from people who experienced it, and messages of hope that we as humanity can learn from this and never repeat such an act of mass destruction. It was perhaps less obvious than the scorched clothing we’d seen inside, but that’s what I liked about it. Regardless, together, they were a well-done tribute to what happened that day decades ago.

The museum was our first activity of the day, which happened to be Matt’s birthday. What a way to celebrate. So we took some time to process, sitting in a park under the gorgeous cherry blossoms with a view of the castle, silently contemplating, until we fell asleep.

We woke up refreshed (and slightly less hungover). We walked over to the castle and ventured inside. Japan is scattered with beautiful castles from its history like the one at Hiroshima. It’s an elegant structure of traditional wood construction on a strong stone base for protection. Inside the first floor was a nice exhibit on the history of the building and a place to try on a samurai outfit – a must for the birthday boy – but as we climbed higher the exhibits were less thought out. One floor was dedicated to toilets samurai used. The main draw was the top floor where we could see out over all of Hiroshima.

The rest of our time in Hiroshima was about experiencing the city by wandering. We walked a lot in this city, as we tend to do everywhere, but found it especially pleasant here. Hiroshima is a manageable size, easily explored on foot, and while it is modern it still has charm. Its rivers and streetcars aided this impression. This was also perhaps the best cherry blossoms we saw; they lined the rivers and in front of the castle, adding a pretty pink hue to all the views.

We learned that residents of Hiroshima are huge baseball fans. There was a game that day so the city was flooded with people in red jerseys. Matt really wanted one but apparently they aren’t sold anywhere in the city. Where do people get jerseys? We were baffled; he was sad.

We also learned that residents of Hiroshima are very friendly. We were there on a Saturday night, and after a delicious Japanese BBQ dinner went exploring in the nightlife neighborhood. When it struck midnight Matt turned another year older, so I shared this information with some guys in a bar that had karaoke and they treated him to an off-key but endearing rendition of Happy Birthday, then took us out to a club. Hence the rough next day.

The day we left Hiroshima we were excited to get Kyoto but a little sad to leave. It had exceeded our expectations, and encouraged our love of Japan. But it was time to move on to Kyoto. This time we had a bus booked, but still no accommodation. On to the next manga cafe search.

Winging It to Hiroshima and Manga Cafes

The day we went to Hiroshima was a giant question mark. To me, this was fun. We took it step by step, and every time we successfully completed one leg of the journey we felt accomplished.

First we had to get to the bus stop at Lake Yamanaka and hopefully get on a bus to Mishima, whose departure time we were basing on a picture I’d taken of a timetable posted at the bus stop. The sweet woman from our ryokan drove us there and anxiously waited until we got on the bus. It showed up when the timetable said it would and we got on. Step one, check.

Then we arrived in Mishima – luckily the bus dropped us right at the train station – and had to get a ticket on the Shinkansen train to Hiroshima. There were seats open on a train leaving in 20 minutes. Perfect! See how things just work out when they’re meant to? Although it set us back US$150 each for the ticket, we viewed the chance to ride the world’s fastest train as more than just a mode of transportation, it was a worthy part of a Japan visit. Step two, check.

Then we arrived in Hiroshima and had to find a place to sleep. We went to Tourist Information in the train station and they tried calling a couple places, but again cherry blossom season reared its ugly head and everything was fully booked. So Matt pulled out his back-up plan: “Do you know any manga cafes?”

Manga cafes, or internet and comic cafes, are a unique part of the Japanese culture. They’re places where you can rent a chair or cubicle for a set time – by the hour or in 3, 6, 9, and 12 hour blocks – to read Japanese manga comics. These are not comics for kids, but rather slightly pornographic adult graphic novels, so the manga cafe has a certain reputation amongst foreigners despite its total normalcy for Japanese.

There was a cafe just across from the train station so we said what the hell, let’s go check it out. This place was awesome. Sure we had to sleep in a glorified cubicle, but the mat covering the ground was big enough for two and more comfortable than any number of bus chairs or hard wood hostel beds I’ve slept in in the past year. Plus this cubicle came with a free unlimited drink bar (coffee, sodas, even soft-serve ice cream) and free wifi. There were ping pong tables, pool tables, and darts if you felt like playing a game. Some even have karaoke rooms. For just Y100 we could use the showers, which were actually pretty nice. The cubicle also had a computer and TV screen where we could watch movies – there were a couple English options – and we could order food to it (we did this our last night in Hiroshima, to properly experience the manga cafe). Step three, check.

Hiroshima was our first but not last experience in a manga cafe. Due to the inaccessibility of hostels, we ended up in manga cafes for four nights: 2 in Hiroshima, 2 in Kyoto. As a result, I now have member cards to two different cafes, so although I haven’t had to stay in one again since Kyoto I know it’s always a back up option. I do have to say, the one in Hiroshima (Aprecio) was far nicer than the one in Kyoto, plus they let us store our stuff there during the day, which no other place did.

The main problem with manga cafes though was that we had no home base. When we checked in at 6 pm, we had to check out at 6 am the next morning, and unless we wanted to pay way more than it should be for 24 hours we weren’t able to check back in until the next night. So when we had a long night out celebrating Matt’s birthday and got kicked out of our cubicle at 6 am, we were forced to wander the city all day nursing a brutal hangover and take a nap in a park. When the time came that we could check back in, strategically timing it for when we wanted to wake up the next day, we were pretty damn happy.

These places probably sound kind of ridiculous for so many nights’ accommodation, but honestly I’m happy to have experienced it. It was strange and definitely not something I could have done without months of unusual accommodation experience, plus the company of another backpacker who was just as up for any situation as I was. But if you ever find yourself stuck in Japan with nowhere to sleep, find a sign that says “24” in the middle of a lot of kanji symbols, most likely with pictures of some of the bonus spaces, and try out this uniquely Japanese option.

How We Ended Up in a Ryokan at Lake Yamanaka with a View of Mount Fuji

We arrived in Tokyo without a plan. All we knew was that we had two nights booked at a hotel and would figure out the rest when we got there. That’s how I’ve been living around the rest of Asia, buying bus tickets the day I leave and finding a bed when I get there, and Matt’s been doing the same for the past year all over the world, so it was against our every instinct at this point to try and book things ahead.

Unfortunately that is the only way to travel in Japan, especially during cherry blossom season. We first experienced this frustration in Tokyo when our two nights were up and we had to find somewhere new to sleep, and everything was full unless we wanted to spend US$200 or more for one night (obviously we did not). Eventually we lucked out and found a room in a hostel for a few nights, but then what?

Kyoto was fully booked. Osaka was fully booked. And the overnight buses to get to either were fully booked. Any ideas we had for our next move went out the window so we had to get creative – what else is around Tokyo that has accommodation and can buy us a few days to figure out the rest? We’d heard good things about Kamakura, which was just an hour south of Tokyo on the way to the Kansai region, so we checked the area. Matt found a place in Yamanakako for two nights. He booked it before it disappeared.

We hightailed it to the bus station and got on the next bus to Yamanakako, which happened to be leaving in 10 minutes. Things were looking up.

It turned out that we actually weren’t going near Kamankura but to a lake closer to Mt. Fuji, Lake Yamanaka. This was a happy accident – Matt was dying to see Mt. Fuji and I was right there with him. Ideally we would’ve been able to climb it, but that season doesn’t start until July, so just being in its presence would have to be enough. It was.

This random detour was a highlight of my time in Japan. Yamanakako is a tiny lakeside town with one main road and an incredible clear view of Mt. Fuji. With the exception of the handful of French in our guest house we barely saw another foreigner. We stayed in a traditional Japanese ryokan, which meant our room was a big rectangle with bamboo mats on the floor. When we arrived the owner, who didn’t speak a word of English, poured us hot tea at the table in our room as a welcome. When it was time to sleep, we laid mattress pads on the floor; of course we put down more than necessary to make pretty much the entire floor into a huge bed. I felt like a kid making a fort. And we each got kimonos to wear down to the in-house onsen (basically a hot tub), which we visited each day we were there.

When we went out for dinner we walked into the only open nearby Japanese restaurant and were gawked at by all; we were the only foreigners in there. It was fantastic. They sat us right between two tables of Japanese men, clearly locals who were regulars at this place, and while we ate our selection of local specialties and drank our beers they asked us questions in broken English and hand motions, and one guy even showed us pictures of his family, including a son who is in the U.S. Army. The second night we went back and had nabe, a delicious meal of assorted seafood cooking in a hot pot on the table. We loved this place.

The day we went exploring was everything it should’ve been. We started at Fuji Sengen Shrine. At the base of the mountain, this is the beginning of the pilgrimage up Fujisan, a place to stop and pray to the mountain and for a good ascent. It’s a beautiful complex; a handful of red buildings with swooping roofs are surrounded by soaring pine trees. It’s quiet, peaceful, and encourages contemplation.

After the temple we went to a viewpoint over Lake Kawaguchi. Fujisan is a spectacle, a majestic feat of nature. From the flat surroundings it rises up, a solo peak dominating the landscape, perfect in its conical form. I couldn’t stop staring at it. This mountain means more to the Japanese than just a land mass; it’s a spiritual place, a place that permeates art and writing throughout Japanese history. Being there, seeing it, I can understand why. It is inspiring.

We walked down the hill, enjoying the euphoria of what we’d just seen, and to say a proper goodbye we grabbed a bottle of sake (we chose a local one that had the image of where we were on the label) and found a perch across the lake from Fujisan for sunset. We sipped, we stared, we took tons of pictures.

The next day we tried to leave. I say tried because the awful problem of everything being booked had not disappeared, and we had nowhere to go. We wasted hours trying to figure out a next move before giving up. It was too late in the day to go anywhere, so we had to stay one more night. Despite the fact that were in this tiny lake town before tourist season really hit – it looks like a blast in the summer when you can actually boat, swim, and hike the mountain, but was still too cold for any of that – it was also all booked up. We found another ryokan with one room available, attempted to hitchhike around to the other side of the lake before finally being picked up by the bus, and had another beer and Fujisan sunset while we came to terms with our plan.

Which was to go back to our instincts. Tomorrow we would go to Hiroshima. We had no tickets and no hotel room booked, we were just going to figure it out as we went. That’s how we’d survived for a year, why change things now?

The Many Activities of Tokyo

Tokyo. That crazy, electric, energetic city. It’s huge, it’s crowded, its subway map alone is overwhelming, and I freaking love the place.

I spent more time in Tokyo than anywhere since Buenos Aires – 10 days in total – so again it’s hard to know where to begin. Tokyo was my introduction to Japan and a break in the middle; I was there for my first six days and returned for my final four days on Honshu (the main island of Japan) before going to Kyushu. In those 10 days I felt like I got to know at least part of the giant metropolis through wandering its neighborhoods, mastering (I think?) its subway, tasting its food, and seeing its tourist attractions.

To truly understand the love I have for Tokyo, you just have to go. I’ll try my best to imbue the feeling I got from the city into my description of it, but it’s really just the energy of the place that is so addictive. Even after 10 days I’m itching to go back, and I know I’m not the only traveler who feels that you can never have enough time in Tokyo. It has so much to offer from calm park days to jam-packed tourist attractions that I can’t imagine ever being bored there. To go day by day would take way too long and probably bore even my most avid readers (hi Grandma!) so I’ll give a highlights overview of what I did there.

I walked. Extensively. From the hostel to Shinjuku to see the multi-story glowing signs hanging off the sides of buildings advertising restaurants on the 9th floor and I don’t even know what else. Through the shops of Harajuku and Shibuya, pausing at one of the busiest Starbucks in the world to watch one of the most-crossed intersections in the world flood with people and just as quickly empty out for cars, on repeat. (Except around 4 in the morning when we had the intersection more or less to ourselves, a stark contrast to the daytime insanity and a fun way to pass the time between leaving the bars and going to the fish market.) Through Ueno park at dawn and midday to see and take many pictures of the sakura (cherry blossoms) in various states of bloom, and to visit the Tokyo National Museum to brush up on my Asian art and cultural history. And finally around Asakusa to take in the remaining traditional Japanese buildings from the Edo period, including the popular Sensoji Temple, a relic from a time before the flashing lights took over Tokyo.

I ate. Japanese food might be my favorite in the world. The fresh sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market is among the best I’ve ever had, but really you can’t go wrong in any sushi restaurant in Tokyo. Then there’s the donburi places – including my favorite meal in Tokyo, tuna don at a random street corner restaurant in Shinjuku – and the udon and soba noodle places. And the yakatori street – Memory Lane – where we adventurously ordered the 10 skewer plate and tried everything from liver to heart to intestines to skin. I will never eat intestines again, this was worse than eating tarantulas. So maybe not all Japanese food is my favorite… The most fun part about eating in Japan though is the crazy types of places you can eat. First there’s the different ways to order: from a vending machine – insert money, push button, bring receipt to counter, receive food – or by pushing a button at our table, alerting a waiter that we were ready (brilliant). Then there’s the theme restaurants: we went to a maid cafe, where our waitress called Matt Master and me Princess and our food was shaped like a bear; Capcom bar, where diners can play Street Fighter while enjoying their game-named food and drinks; and Alcatraz E.R., the prison/hospital themed restaurant that serves drinks in an IV or other ways that may be best left to your imagination. Even food is an adventure in Tokyo.

I played. First around the city in the arcades, where we attempted to be DJs and drummers, went deaf in the Pachinko halls, and relived middle school birthday parties at laser light bowling (I kicked Matt’s ass while bowling the best game of my life). Then on a rollercoaster that wove its way through a building in the middle of the city; 30 seconds of zipping around with an amazing view of Tokyo. Then we went to Tokyo Disneyland. In my opinion, Tokyo Disney is halfway between California Disneyland and Florida Disneyworld in terms of size and rides – it has all the favorites like Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and of course Its a Small World – but far surpassed both in terms of line length. 3 hours was the norm for Thunder, Space or Splash Mountain and didn’t waver all day. When any line was under 100 minutes we were actually excited, that was short. Even so, nothing can diminish the fun of a day at Disneyland. We also watched some other people play: first at the Tokyo Dome, where I did my duty as an American and brought French Matt to his first ever baseball game, and we both marveled at the fans who were nothing like what I’m used to at baseball games, with their organized chants and movements; and then at a sumo stable where we watched a morning sumo wrestling practice.

I drank. No visit to Tokyo is complete without nightlife. We united with the Haas group (again!) for costumes and private room karaoke. We went to a club till the subways started running again (subways shut down from midnight to 5 am, so…). We pretended we were Bill Murray and Scarlet Johanssen at the New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt, a fitting farewell on both Matt’s and my last nights in Tokyo. And my personal favorite, we bar hopped around Golden Gai, a small 3 blocks filled with 200 tiny bars. From our favorite generous pouring sake place to a raucous beer joint serving international brews from Anchor to Bah Bah Bah, there is something for everyone.

I feel like this post is just scratching the surface of my time in Tokyo; each neighborhood, the Giants game, Disneyland, Golden Gai, and the Fish Market could all have their own entries. I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up writing some addendums to this post on any of those. But hopefully I’ve at least been able to paint a picture of the sheer variety of ways to enjoy yourself in Tokyo. I had a fantastic time there and am so happy it was my introduction to the quirky, modern, efficient, beautiful, spirited country of Japan.

And Then I Went to Japan

For months I had no plan after India. I had tons of maybes – Sri Lanka? Nepal? Europe? – but none of them were Japan. Not that I didn’t want to go to Japan, I’d just always viewed that part of Asia as its own trip separate from this year. So how did I end up in Japan?

It started with a friend I met in Uruguay. We’d kept in touch and talked about traveling together again at some point, and when we realized that the Rickshaw Rally in India was not in the budget for this year he threw out the idea of meeting him in Japan. At first I jokingly agreed, not believing I’d fly halfway across Asia to a place I had no intention of going to hang out with someone I knew for two days six months ago. But as I continued to travel according my plan I got increasingly annoyed at having a plan. Suddenly every idea I had about what to do after India felt like following the normal route, the expected what’s next, a plan I’d come up with because it made sense for where I was instead of the adventure of discovering somewhere new just because I wanted to go there.

I remembered Matt and Japan. I remembered how I’d left my trip open-ended so I could go somewhere totally random if inspiration struck, and that traveling with a friend I’d met on the road who had a good idea of where to go was always something I had in mind. And why not Japan? I’d always wanted to go, the culture seemed fascinating to me, and it was cherry blossom season after all, the best time to go. So from a shoddy internet connection in Bagan, Myanmar I bought a flight from Delhi to Tokyo. Because why the fuck not?

From the moment I left India I viewed Japan as an addendum. I felt like my RTW trip was done and anything else was just a bonus. So when I landed I threw my spreadsheet to the wind and didn’t look back. I knew Japan would be expensive – and it definitely is – but if I ran out of money the US wasn’t too costly a flight away. Not to say that we still didn’t try to be backpackers in this not-backpacker-friendly country, as will be apparent from my future posts, just in the interest of transparency I’ve kept the expenses of Japan separate from my RTW trip totals. Which I’ll talk about later.

First I had to get to Japan, and what a marathon that was. When I booked a flight from Delhi it seemed easy enough, I thought I’d be back up north in Rishikesh and just a quick overnight bus ride away from the airport. Then our India plan got turned upside down and I ended up in Hampi. To even get from Hampi anywhere is a bit of a challenge, let alone to Japan, but I tried to view it as its own adventure. I finally experienced an overnight train in India, something that was supposedly an essential part of India travel, from Hospet to Bangalore. And because of this route I met a friendly Canadian couple with who I shared a rickshaw to Hospet from Hampi (who ended up being in my train car) and while we killed time waiting for our train the man, who had lived in Fukuoka, Japan for 3 years, gave me all kinds of tips on what to do in Japan. It’s because of this interaction that I’m currently in Fukuoka. I also got to see Bangalore briefly on the hour bus ride from the train to the airport.

Then I got to fly Bangalore to Delhi, which had no benefit to me really, I don’t even remember this flight, but I do remember that my Delhi to Colombo and Colombo to Tokyo flights had some good movies and I got a decent amount of sleep. Then it was just a 2 hour subway ride from the Narita airport and I was finally in Tokyo.

It was a marathon to say the least. From leaving Hampi on March 17th at 5:00 pm local time to arriving at the hostel in Tokyo on March 19th at 3:00 pm local time, it was around 40 hours of travel. Nothing I couldn’t handle after the last 9 months, and the excitement of actually being in Tokyo was enough to keep me going. I couldn’t believe I was there, somewhere I had no intention of being, and reunited with a friend I hadn’t seen for 6 months. What I knew was that it was going to be quite the adventure. What I didn’t know was how long I’d be in Japan. The stamp in my passport gave me 90 days, and when I arrived all we had planned was 2 nights at this hostel in Tokyo.

So… now what?

The End of Part 3: Reflections on my Time in Southeast Asia and India

It’s hard to put into words how I felt at the end of Part 3. I’ve tried to isolate my thoughts about Southeast Asia and India apart from the end of my RTW trip as a whole, to reflect on my reaction to that part of the world specifically, but I don’t think it’s possible. Just like leaving Australia I couldn’t ignore my longing for South America and anticipation for Southeast Asia, leaving India couldn’t be separated from the effects that months of travel had had on me.

It’s not that I was less enthusiastic. If you go back to my blog posts when I first arrived on the Asian continent I was full of hope for what was to come. As I hopped around I had a ton of incredible experiences that have been highlights of my past year, from exploring the ruins of Angkor Wat and the waters of Gili Air to interacting with people in Myanmar and the landscape in Hampi. And I could never forget the formative time I spent at Dreamtime and Shambhala, places that reached to my core and made me truly think about what I value most in life. For all of these things and more, I look back at Southeast Asia with a fondness that will never waver.

But despite all of that, I still hesitate when trying to express what those four months were like to me. Along with the highs, I had the most lows of my trip. I had to flee Vietnam due to an unsettling feeling, I was nearly robbed by a guy on a motorbike and had lingering aftereffects of such an experience, and I had transportation issues from missing a bus to losing money on an unsuccessful tatkal train ticket attempt. These things couldn’t have any effect other than bringing down my overview of this part.

And then there’s the experience of traveling around this part of the world that I may have alluded to in location-specific posts but haven’t outright said yet. It can be sensory overwhelming. Maybe there’s a reason my favorite places were removed from the main trek. The soundtrack of cities was honking horns and zipping motorbikes, people yelling and dogs barking. Intense smells wafted through the air from curries to human piss. I smelled burning crops the other day and felt a wave of familiarity. Months of “walk at your own risk” takes a toll on someone who likes to explore on foot.

At some point a fellow traveler said to me, “You’re either a South America person or a Southeast Asia person.” I wish I’d never heard this. As much as I tried to see Southeast Asia from a clear perspective, in some way I already knew the outcome that was eventually confirmed: I’m a South America person. I don’t really believe it’s that black and white of course, and I sort of hate myself for even admitting this, but there’s just something about South America that vibes with me and Southeast Asia that doesn’t. It’s a feeling, a gut reaction, that can’t be put into words. Does the fact that it was my first three months as opposed to my last four months of a long trip matter? Probably, it shouldn’t be ignored, but I honestly don’t think that’s the reason.

Southeast Asia and India are dynamic places, I don’t want to take that away from them, but as energetic as that could sound it’s also explosive. So in the end I suppose I would say Part 3 was every bit the experience I wanted it to be. That might confuse you after how this post has gone, but let me elaborate. Color, as my friends in Bali would say. I didn’t expect Southeast Asia to be easy. I didn’t want it to be. I wanted to be challenged, dirty, exhausted, and exhilarated by somewhere so unlike anywhere I’d been before. It delivered. I was fascinated by it and experienced intense emotions throughout my time there. I truly believe that I have come out of Part 3 a better version of myself having experienced the things I did.

So now that I’ve come to that realization, I without a doubt recommend going and will happily continue to offer advice on my favorite places. I intend to return myself one day.