city

Mérida

Mérida was my return to city living. It’s the capital of the state of Yucatan and apparently the safest city in Mexico. As far as a city goes, it doesn’t have as much going on as I expected it to, but it was still a good stop for a few days.

A couple of people from my Valladolid hostel were also going to Mérida that day (although we all went on different buses) and had heard good things about Nomadas Hostel, so I decided to go there too. It is a large hostel whose main draws are the pool and lots of outdoor hangout space, which were unfortunately a bit wasted due to the daily afternoon downpour I experienced. But it was a good place to meet people and find out more about what to do in and around town.

I started out by exploring the city itself. The city offers a free walking tour on weekdays at 9:30 am, which was a great introduction to Mérida and its history. Our guide was informative and showed us all the main sites in the historical center. I followed this up with more local history and art at the free Museo de la Ciudad. I wandered the chaotic Mercado Municipal Lucas de Galvez, which has a section for random merchandise like jewelry and party favors next to the produce section packed with fruit and vegetable stalls. Throughout the market people are playing music on loud speakers. It’s a sensory overload kind of place that everyone should experience. I grabbed a cheap lunch of an empanada and the spiky lychee-like fruit that I thought only existed in Southeast Asia before wandering around the rest of the historic center highlights.

Mérida went through a few phases of development that caused a strong European influence in its architecture. First was the Spanish conquest, then it experienced an economic boom during the 19th century due to its henequen fields, which coincided with an attraction to the cultural epicenter of the time, France. Because of this buildings appeared with iron balconies and a wide avenue was lined with chateau-like homes, a Mexican ode to the Champs-Elysees. Once henequen was replaced by synthetic materials Mérida became inconsequential, and was subsequently left to itself. Not much has changed since.

Mérida grew on me. At first I was a bit disappointed, since it had received such high reviews from other people, but the longer I stayed the more accustomed to it I became. I give its street numbering system major points though – streets are all numbered, with evens running north/south and odds east/west. It’s easy to navigate and so sensible.

I also finally had my first real night out in Mérida and it was a great one. We got a large group of travelers together from the hostel – Brits, Aussies, Germans, Quebecians, Kiwis, Dutch, Norwegian – and went to the Mezcaleria. In my mind we would be at a cool bar taste-testing mezcal; in reality this nightclub promoted mezcal shots and dancing the night away. Our MX$50 entry included a mezcal cocktail, and for the reasonable price of another MX$50 you could get two shots of mezcal and a beer. We were there till the 3 am closing time, dancing our asses off to a mix of salsa and international music. Just so fun.

Four nights was plenty though. With a day and a half exploring the city and two days on excursions to nearby attractions, I felt like I got a good impression of what Mérida was about.

At Home on the Road in Mexico

At 3:00 am my alarm went off. Time to get up for my flight.

Last year that alarm was overwhelmed by anxious nerves that caused me to jump out of bed at the first note. This year I groggily exerted the effort to shut it up and stumbled to the bathroom to wash my face. That’s when it happened – out of nowhere a song popped into my head that would not leave me until I was speeding through the air thousands of miles above the earth.

Here I go again on my own
Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known,
Like a drifter I was born to walk alone…

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I was aware of what I was about to do, and apparently that somewhere decided Whitesnake was my best departure anthem.

Pre-Departure Face

Pre-Departure Face

So with an apropos 80’s rock anthem playing on repeat in my head, I went through the motions like the veteran traveler I had become. Nothing phased me about the flying routine: I swiftly removed and replaced my laptop and shoes; I easily fell asleep upright without even an eye shade; I was on the free Phoenix wifi faster than it took my coffee to reach drinkable temperature. No on-board meal or entertainment? No problem, my body remembered how to survive on snacks and my mind on wandering.

Then I landed. I had mild reactions to the stimuli that come with being in a foreign place, but I was still waiting for the “holy shit I’m actually here!” feeling to hit. Sure the signs around me were in Spanish, but I was just trying to see how much I could understand when I read them. And I had to go through immigration, but I just smiled at the colorful new stamp and was grateful that the officer continued my passport flow by putting it on the same page as Canada. And even though the questions I was asked were not in my native tongue, I just automatically responded with “Hola” “Si” and “Gracias,” even eliciting an, “Ah tu hablas Español?” To which I responded, “No no, un poquito.” I calmly walked through the terminal searching for and fairly easily acquiring the two things I needed – cash from an ATM and a Mexican SIM card. No big deal there either. Then I got an Uber (now that was a change from the normal sketchy cab negotiation) to my friend’s apartment.

I stared out the window at the new city passing by. I was fully aware of where I was, and I was excited about it, but it wasn’t stomach flipping, heart pounding, pulse racing excited, it was just excited like I was excited to go to dinner with friends last week or go on a hike in Vermont.

It’s like Whitesnake said, “Like a drifter I was born to be alone … Here I go again.” Let me try to explain it a different way – when you’re home, do you feel a stomach flipping excitement? On the road I am home. I cannot properly express my joy at being in Mexico City because it’s so natural that it doesn’t feel worthy of over-embellishment.

I may not be making any sense, I did only get 2 hours of sleep, so just trust me: I feel like I’m where I should be.

In case this is a strange let down of a post about my arrival in Mexico, I will leave you with a scene of how I spent my first evening here.

After dropping my stuff at the apartment, I realized how starving I was, so I walked two blocks to a recommended and delicious cafe. I ate my mango chutney pollo sandwich at a counter looking out at the street – no headphones, no books – watching life go by. I left the cafe and walked the ring of Avenida Amsterdam in Condesa, where I’m staying. In the center of the street there is a pedestrian path surrounded by varying thicknesses of flora through which I saw the diversity and attractiveness of the architecture here and the many bars and restaurants this area has to offer. As I write this, the sounds of a live band playing upbeat, dance-inducing Mexican music is wafting up to the apartment from one of those bars below. If you asked me to move onto this street today, I would say yes. If this first impression holds up, I have a feeling Mexico City will find a permanent home my favorite cities list.

This scene and the travel experience before it have one majorly important thing in common: I am back at it again, and I couldn’t be happier. I don’t feel lost or unsure of this decision, I feel like I have jumped right back into the swing of my life. Hopefully that is what this first post of Round Two: Round the Central America conveys.

Avenida Amsterdam

Avenida Amsterdam

The World I Saw

 

Three Weeks in The City – New York and Jersey

After SF and Canada I still had one more sojourn – Jersey City/New York City for about 3 weeks – before moving to Vermont, my final destination (for now). Having grown up constantly visiting NYC and then lived there for my first two years out of college it always had a certain familiarity to me. But when I lived in San Francisco I would return to NYC with more foreign eyes – it was a place I was still fond of but would never move back to in a million years; it paled in comparison to my beloved SF. Which is why I was surprised when I had such a positive view of NYC this time around.

This was not an immediate reaction. As soon as I stepped out of the path train station I was engulfed in people hurrying to wherever they were headed, hemmed in by the towers surrounding us. I was in Midtown. And I was reminded why I had vowed to stay away from this busy metropolis where everything is so fast-paced that stopping to enjoy life feels like a waste of time. But as my visits changed to different parts of town – West Village, Hells Kitchen, and my old stomping ground Gramercy – I was reminded of the calmer parts of New York. Of the possibility of finding a neighborhood feeling, of the joy of simply walking through the streets, now appearing active more than overwhelming, and of the undeniable energy that infects every outing in that city. My last trip into the city to have dinner with a friend I actually had the thought that maybe I could live there again one day – not forever, but maybe for a short time.

I think my change of heart had a lot to do with expectations. As I said before, I had built up San Francisco as my ideal location, the place I wanted to settle once I thought I could stop moving around for a while, and was disappointed when it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I expected to hate NYC, I did last year when I visited before I left, so when I actually found it enjoyable I was pleasantly surprised. It probably also has to do with the familiar feeling I associate with it. To this day, when I say “the city” I mean New York. I remembered subway lines and bar locations, and it took me all of 30 seconds to resume my NYC-pace walk.

The other half of my time during those three weeks was spent in Jersey City. This is a city that has really grown on me. It has everything you could ever want in a smaller, calmer setting. Great food, chill bars, and a beautiful walking/running path along the water with a view of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the NYC skyline. I can see why my parents chose to move there (especially since their apartment looks out at that view) and friends have relocated there. I look forward to visiting again soon.

Jersey City was also the place where I finally did nothing. Memorial Day Weekend I had my parents’ apartment to myself, and I didn’t leave for 72 hours. That is not an exaggeration. I’ve been living a life where I pack up my belongings and move locations every 72 hours, so not having to even leave the apartment was a welcomed break. I slept in, I watched movies, I snacked on American foods I’d missed, and I watched the sunset with a beer and my drum on the balcony. It was bliss. I took a true break, my first real weekend in a year, and it was everything I wanted it to be.

But what really made this time great was the time I got to spend catching up with so many people from all walks of life – dinner dates with middle school, high school and college best friends; my traditional Capitol Grille steak lunch and a midday Mets game with my dad; Mother’s Day brunch and a BBQ with extended family; my 10-year high school reunion with so many people I haven’t seen in so long (thank you all for reading, I had no idea, you made my night); and Pitch Perfect 2 and one-on-one beer pong with my SF roommate and other half. It was a busy and wonderful few weeks.

It was a lovely sojourn, but by the end I was ready to move up to Vermont. I felt like I was just biding my time until I could get to all the things I wanted to do this summer. Before I left on my RTW trip I felt like I was living temporarily in NYC and SF, just going through the motions until my departure. Now that I was back in the US but not at my final stopping point, I again felt very transient. It’s a lifestyle I’m not too fond of after a year of completely living for today. Then again, this summer is three months of temporarily living, waiting until the fall when I leave for my next multi-month journey. So I will just have to get used to this feeling that I don’t like. But it’s only three months, so I’m trying to view it as a rest more than waiting for life to start. We’ll see how it goes.

San Francisco, I Still Love You but I’m Happy I’m Not Moving Back Yet

Going back to San Francisco I had conflicting feelings. When I left I knew that I would return one day to live for a long time. After dreaming about moving there for 15 years and having the best time of my life while I lived there, I had developed the feeling that SF was my place. And then that feeling was confirmed as I saw other cities around the world and still maintained a love for SF. So naturally I was worried that I was setting myself up for trouble. Would I be able to leave once I returned? Or once I set foot back in the city I saw as my place would I want to forsake my plan to continue traveling and settle back into a new version of my old life?

At the same time, I was looking forward to it. I was about to return to my place as my enhanced self, and even better I was about to see all my close friends and family who still lived there. The anticipation was palpable.

Both the worry and excitement stemmed from a strong love for the city. So imagine my surprise when, after just three days, I was ready to get the hell out of there.

It felt so strange to be back. The city still looked like San Francisco but it didn’t feel like it. Something had shifted. I don’t want to repeat the conversation that everyone is having about the gentrification of SF, but suffice it to say that I felt it was no longer the city I had idolized since I was 8 years old. It’s hard to express what exactly it was – I could talk about any of the usual suspects like the unavoidable homeless situation or tech industry dominance – but in the end it comes down to a feeling. In the year I was away, we, San Francisco and I, had grown in different directions.

Being back around talk about rent prices, office life, and IPOs was jarring. There were times I went silent and just observed the conversation around me. It wasn’t just an inability to contribute but a feeling of distance. The subject matter was so vastly different from what I had grown used to and, in all honesty, not something I missed. I had spent a year talking to people who found value in experience not in the workforce, and it’s not that either one is better than the other it’s just a difference of opinion. I had chosen the experience, removed myself from the workforce, and fallen in love with that decision. Now that I was back in that world I could see just how divergent I felt.

I was happy I had planned the trip to wander around Vancouver Island for 6 days. I needed to get out of there, and the first night sitting next to a campfire on a random beach underneath the stars I felt more like myself than I had the whole week. It was a necessary break from the shock of returning.

When I went back to SF the second time I felt much better. This could partially be because the first week back was such a whirlwind of seeing people, trying to say hi to everyone I possibly could while I was in town (something I did to myself and in no way regret), and this time I was much more low key. But I think it also has to do with expectations. I had gotten the initial “this isn’t what I thought it would be like” out of the way and was okay with the fact that I did not want to be there. I was even happy about it; if I had still felt such a strong connection to the city then it would have been much harder to leave again. How things turned out, I have no doubts in my mind about staying away for a couple more years. It made the nomadic choice easier to accept that I thought it would.

Having said all that, I am incredibly happy I went back to San Francisco en route to Vermont. I couldn’t imagine not having seen my SF friends when I returned to the US and I had a fantastic time catching up with them. I was able to celebrate my birthday and my friend’s birthday in the same week with tons of friends at some old favorite places and with food I didn’t even know I’d missed (BBQ and tacos); I got to experience some of the best parts of wedding planning with my sister and her fiance (a catering tasting and dress shopping); I played laser tag in the streets of the Marina to celebrate the big 3-0 with the craziest twins I know (it was as fun as it sounds); and from brunches, lunches, and dinners to late nights at apartments I got to be a part of my friends’ lives again. It was everything I wanted my time in town to be and I thank you all for welcoming me back with open arms.

Kumamoto Castle

Before I left Japan I wanted to get in one more architectural site. Kumamoto city was a necessary junction between Nagasaki and Mt. Aso, and it happened to be home to one of the most impressive castles in the country, so I planned a one day stopover to see it.

It is a pretty incredible thing to see an early 17th century castle in the center of a modern city. Kumamoto city looks pretty much like any other city in Japan: clean streets, an efficient network of bus and tram transportation, temples interspersed amongst low- and mid-rise blocks, and a pedestrian-only covered center of town. But then, peering above or around these modern conveniences, is a monument from a time long ago.

I walked from my hostel through this 21st century scene and up a gentle slope to the entrance of the castle. Crossing the gate into the castle grounds felt like stepping back in time. The foundations rose around me like giant stone waves, arcing at first gently and then steeply to ward off potential intruders and protect the wonderfully crafted wood structure perched above. The castle itself is rightfully renowned; its tiered construction and sweeping rooftops are the archetypal Japanese style. They portray beauty and stability, pleasing in arrangement and visual character.

Inside the castle felt very much like the Hiroshima castle experience. The first floor had a well thought out exhibit about the castle’s history and construction, but as I climbed up the exhibits drastically dropped in interest and content. By the third floor it was just pictures of other castles around Japan. The top again became the main attraction with its sweeping views out over Kumamoto to the mountains beyond. Unfortunately it was an overcast, drizzling day so I couldn’t see my next stop, Mt. Aso, in the distance, as you usually could.

I ventured up the second, lower tower and actually had a few minutes up top by myself. Not as many people seem to climb this side. The view of the surroundings were not as good but the draw here was the ability to look at the main tower from a halfway up point.

Aside from the main castle tower I went into the Honmaru Goten Palace building, where I saw a unique kitchen set up and a pristine long hall where the daimyo would receive visitors, which culminated in a gorgeously decorated room for the most important guests. The gold panels and colorful paintings made my jaw drop. I exited the palace the long way, walking down and around the stone walls and remaining turrets, until I reached the bottom and got one last good look at the impressive castle up above.

I wouldn’t go out of my way to get to Kumamoto, but if it works in your route it’s worth a day to see this beautiful piece of Japanese architectural history.

Charming Nagasaki

I wound up in Nagaski more by coincidence than desire to see the city, and now I view my short visit there as a testament to why I should follow even the smallest of signs from the universe.

It was the night after Matt left. I was alone in my hostel in Tokyo and unsure what my next steps would be. Should I stay in Japan and go south to Fukuoka? Or maybe hop over to South Korea or Hong Kong? Or go to the airport and find the next reasonably priced flight to somewhere random? (I still want to do this third option one day. Movies and TV shows always have people buying tickets at airports, who really does that? Hopefully me one day. I want to go to a major airport, look at the departure board, and pick a flight that sounds good. Maybe next trip.) Then I met my bottom bunk mate Franka who had just arrived in Japan and already discovered the frustration of accommodation. She had had to book a double room in Nagasaki, her next stop, for just herself because it was all that was left. So, she said, if I did end up going south to Fukuoka and wanted to come by Nagasaki for the weekend, she had an open bed in her room.

Once I decided to explore Kyushu after Tokyo, Franka’s Saturday arrival in Nagasaki – the day that I would leave Fukuoka – turned out to be perfect timing. Nagasaki made sense for my route and was supposedly a highlight of Kyushu, and with the option to share a room that would help cut costs for both of us it seemed like a logical next stop. So I messaged her to see if she still wanted a roommate. She did.

Nagasaki is a charming city. It has a mixture of cultural influences: it has Japan’s oldest Chinatown and was at one point in history a major Dutch trading post (hence Franka’s interest in going there, she’s from Amsterdam). It is a pleasant city to walk around, with enough activity to feel alive but not too much to overwhelm the small streets. There’s plenty to explore, from the picturesque Nagasaki River spanned by stone bridges to the covered arcade and surrounding streets lined with local shops and restaurants to the numerous temples and shrines. And for further excursions the streetcars are easy to navigate while adding to the delight of the city.

I had one of my favorite mornings in Japan in Nagasaki. Our fantastic hostel, Nagasaki International Hostel Akari, has a program where locals volunteer to take around visitors for an hour. Franka and I spent the morning with Ayumi, a sweet 29-year-old teacher who grew up in Nagasaki and is teaching herself English. She volunteered so she can practice the language. She took us first up to the Suwa Shrine – a great place to look out at the hills of the city – where she taught us the ritual of throwing a coin into the trough, bowing twice, clapping twice, and bowing once more, for good luck. This luck seemed to work when we visited the small zoo next door, home to many birds and monkeys, including one peacock who showed off his gorgeous feathers during a mating attempt with the females sharing his enclosure. Ayumi proclaimed us very lucky for getting to see this rare show. Next up was the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture, which was meant to be just an exterior look but again luck took over and we were invited inside to see a samurai play about the kite festivals, and a lesson about not trespassing on a farmer’s land in order to win. We made our way to the Meganebashi Bridge (Spectacles Bridge), known to be the most beautiful of the stone bridges due to its pair of arches, where we jumped out onto the stones below for a picture. What was supposed to be an hour tour turned into a whole morning, and we were having such a good time that we asked Ayumi to join us for lunch. She took us to Bunjiro, a lunch spot that specializes in tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) and is clearly a local favorite. I don’t ever eat fried food at home but found this meal delicious. And the best food award goes to Japan.

While the sites and the lunch were amazing, the best part was seeing them all with Ayumi. I always value time spent with locals, getting to talk about what life is really like in the place I’m visiting, so I really appreciated that she took so much time out of her day to show us her city.

I could go on about other parts of Nagasaki – the peaceful Kofukuji Temple, the wonderful handmade ceramics shop where I got a sake set for a wedding gift, and the accidental but fun night of drinking games in the hostel with more new international friends – but that would make this already long blog post inordinate. There is one more thing though that I feel I have to relay.

After we said goodbye to Ayumi, Franka and I went to Nagasaki Peace Park. Nagasaki was the second and last city on which the United States dropped an atomic bomb at the end of World War II. I felt a need to see the site where this happened, like I felt the need to go to the museum in Hiroshima, to acknowledge and mourn this horrific event. Just like Hiroshima, Nagasaki has turned this event into a call for more peaceful relations across the world. The Peace Statue points one hand up to the sky, signaling the threat of nuclear attack, one hand to the left symbolizing peace, and has closed eyes in prayer for those who lost their lives. Nearby is a stone pillar marking the hypocenter of the explosion and preserved areas of land where debris is visible embedded in the dirt. There is another museum here but we chose not to go in; the park was enough for me, causing contemplation and reflection through its simple yet powerful monuments. It was an echo of how I felt in Hiroshima.

Just like the morning with the city and Ayumi, I valued the conversation with Franka even more than seeing the sites of Peace Park. As we explored we talked, an American and a Dutch, about the dropping of the atomic bomb, war, the attacks on 9/11, and other world conflicts. It was a candid conversation, serious yet still light, between two new friends from different parts of the world, and one of those moments that just happens in a trip like this. I really appreciate those moments.

Nagasaki was unexpected and maybe that’s part of the reason it was so great to me. So thank you Franka for leading me to this wonderful experience.

There’s More to Fukuoka Than Tonkotsu Ramen

My mental state during my last 10 days in Japan is hard to describe. I had suddenly booked a flight back to the United States so I knew this was it – the end of my trip abroad, the big trip I’d dreamt about, worked towards, and lived for for most of my recent past – and that affected my experience in a couple different ways. On one hand, I knew I had to go out well, finish strong with adventures in cities and nature, and stay true to how I had lived for the past year. On the other hand, I was distracted. Soon I would be reunited with some of the most important people in my life back in the country I called home. My mind constantly wandered to how I would carry out surprising my friends in Arizona and what food I would stock in my parents’ kitchen in Vermont. But I still had the island of Kyushu to explore so I pushed those thoughts to the back of my mind and forged forward. I wasn’t done just yet.

Two days after I made the decision to go Stateside I flew from Tokyo to Fukuoka, the largest city on Kyushu. First brought to my attention by my train companions in India, all I really knew was that it was the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen, which I was supposed to eat near a river, and a good launching point for nearby excursions. At first Fukuoka seemed to me like a big personality-less city. Sure there were a few pretty temples, as always, but for the most part it seemed to me like a city of sterile streets lined with nondescript buildings. I didn’t have an immediate connection with it. But as I continued exploring the city grew on me. It was more relaxed than its neighbors to the northeast but still had enough things to do.

Looking back, the parts of my visit that stand out in my mind are a stroll through Ohori Park and a leisurely rainy day at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Also the yatai, I can’t leave out the yatai.

Ohori Park is on the outskirts of the tourist center of Fukuoka, which is actually a very walkable 20 minutes. When I went I expected to find a lawn to sit and read in, but when I arrived I discovered there was a lot more to this park. I entered at the site of the Fukuoka Castle Ruins. All that’s left of the castle is the stone foundations but in and around them is more parkland, quirky trees, the end of the cherry blossoms, and a fantastic view of the city. Well worth a stroll. I continued to the lake, which is actually huge and a hub of activity. On the path surrounding it people were jogging, pushing strollers, doing calisthenics, or simply passing the time on park benches. In the center of the lake there is a strip of land connected by a few picturesque arching bridges. It was a lovely walk with water on either side and places to stop and contemplate the scene. I chose a bench on the far side, after walking the center island, to sit down and read for a bit. It is so nice that Fukuoka has a large, welcoming park so easily accessible.

The day I went to the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum it was raining. Luckily Fukuoka has some good covered options for rainy days – the underground mall in Tenjin is right next to this small museum. Located on the 7th floor of an office building FAAM could be hard to find, but it would be a shame to miss it. It is just a few galleries housing rotating exhibitions but it only features contemporary Asian artists. Two of the galleries are free and one is a small charge (I stuck to the free ones, Japan was brutal on a budget traveler). The first exhibit was all quilts. I did not expect such a traditional medium to be on display at a modern art museum but I am happy it was. The quilts were modern patterns expertly executed and I found their placement in this gallery intriguing. Leave it to the Japanese to still consider quilts as part of the contemporary art scene.

The second exhibit though is what captivated me. A collection of contemporary artists from around Fukuoka, the paintings in this gallery made me pause, appreciate, and smile at their beauty, complexity, and talent. There were multiple pieces on display that I wish I could have taken with me. And in the most interesting twist of all, an artist was also in the gallery creating a new piece. I wondered when I walked into the room why there was music playing – a change from the typically silent museum experience that I thoroughly enjoyed – but when I turned the corner I discovered it was for the artist Miyamoto Daisuke who was right there, painting, adjacent to a work of his that was a part of the show. I must have sat on a bench for half an hour and watched him decide where to make quick calligraphic lines or blot on thick paint until it dripped, all in hot pink. I revisited the gallery before I left to see he had turned the canvas so what were previously drips were now strong horizontal lines and he had started to add yellow.

In between my sessions watching Daisuke I sipped on a mocha in the cafe overlooking the city. I wrote a little, read a little, and reflected on where I was and what I was doing. It was one of those quiet moments that I have enjoyed in cities across the world over the past year. It was 3:00 in the afternoon and there I was, after seeing a stunning exhibit, relaxing with a mocha, looking down at the bustling city and across at the tall office building housing floors of desks stacked like pancakes, scenes in which I used to belong, just another one of those people rushing through life, and now found myself detached from, a quiet observer happy to have liberated myself from all that came with the nine-to-five existence. I was content. I never wanted it to end. But I felt at peace with the decision to go back to the US, knowing full well that instead of rejoining the rat race I would continue to run the opposite direction, towards what I had no idea, and that was the point.

My final highlight of Fukuoka is probably what it is most known for: yatai. These small street stalls seat maybe seven guests and serve a variety of skewers, gyoza, seafood, and the famous tonkotsu ramen, which has a very rich broth made with pork bone. The first night I went to one of these alone, on a street by the fishing docks, but it was apparently still too cold; there were just three options instead of the typical back-to-back row of stalls and they had their walls up, making them into tiny dining rooms. I slurped my ramen in between two men chatting up the chef. If only I spoke Japanese; they were friendly dining companions with whom I would have loved to be able to communicate more. The second time (my last night in Japan) I was with two new friends at the location on the canal where there was a line of stalls. It was picturesque and busy. Both times I had the ramen and while it was a good treat it’s just too rich for me. But it’s a right of Fukuoka passage so I had to try it.

I departed Fukuoka pleased with my time there. What started as a potentially hard situation with my distracted mind and unsure feelings on the city ended as a relaxed urban experience attesting to the things I have realized I love most in cities around the world: parks and small galleries. I also had decided on, and booked, a plan of how I would spend my final days in Japan: Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Mount Aso, then back to Fukuoka to fly out. With a mixture of city, castle and volcano, it seemed to me like a good overview of Kyushu. And it was.

Sleeping (or Not Sleeping) in Tokyo

As I mentioned before, accommodation in Japan was a constant issue my first couple of weeks there – the time I think of as the Honshu portion of my Japan month – resulting in a lot of short term hotel stays or manga cafes. So when I decided I would go to Fukuoka next and spend 10 days exploring the island of Kyushu I booked all of my hostels up front. That’s when I discovered the joy of Japanese hostels; friendly, clean, amenity-filled places where I easily met new people and had a home to hang out in any time of day. But before that happened I found myself in two very different situations that both seemed to fittingly describe the adventure of finding accommodation in Tokyo, or not finding any at all.

After roaming around Honshu we returned to Tokyo in a whirlwind. It was Matt’s final days not just in Japan but in traveling – he had to return to France – and we had a few things we still needed to check off. First the Tsukiji Fish Market, which we would try to go to around 4 am for the tuna auction, and sumo wrestling practice, which started around 7 am. We already knew that finding a place to sleep for a Friday night would be difficult, so when we realized that we had a few really early morning activities planned and had already experienced the late night bar scene of Tokyo, we decided to forgo any attempt at accommodation our first night back and only booked a place for Saturday. Why waste money on and time searching for somewhere we didn’t plan to spend more than a couple of hours anyway?

We got to Tokyo Friday at 8 pm and put our backpacks in luggage storage at the train station. That’s it, we were committed. All night out in Tokyo. Let’s do this.

We went straight to the Shinjuku neighborhood, knowing we could find a lively scene there. We bar and restaurant hopped, returning to our favorite haunt of Golden Gai for its compact variety of bars and congenial drinking companions, until it was time for the fish market. We wandered around the wholesale market while they prepared for the day’s sales until a guard discovered us – technically we weren’t allowed in that part until 9 am but had explored unnoticed for almost an hour – and had a 5:30 am breakfast of fresh sushi, then hopped on the subway to see the sumo wrestlers. We lucked out by asking a man on the street (through a charades act of a man stomping) where we could find such a practice, and he helpfully led us to a sumo stable, which would have been impossible to find on our own. We watched alone for a quite a while before a tourist group showed up. From there we still had time to kill before we could check in to our next hotel, so we wandered the shopping district of Harajuku looking for gifts before returning to get our bags and making our way to our destination. We checked in at the hotel at 12:30 pm on Saturday; we slept till 5 pm.

Tokyo made it way too easy to not worry about finding somewhere to sleep. There’s always something going on there. So we turned what could have been a stressful mess resulting in a strange sleeping arrangement into an activity-filled night and morning out in the action-packed city.

My second accommodation story in Tokyo was after Matt left and I was left to find solo options. This is how I ended up staying in a capsule hotel.

Capsule hotels are known to be something you should experience when visiting Japan. I’ve never seen anything like them anywhere else. For starters, I was lucky to even get into one since most are men only. I found one in the center of Shinjuku that had a female floor and was able to book Capsule 8136 for one night. Check in was at 4 pm and check out at 11 am for everyone; no one is allowed in the capsules during the day. The floor was filled with two levels of capsules stacked tightly in a U formation. The capsule itself had enough room for me and a few important things, plus a built-in outdated TV and radio and an overhead light. Everything was controlled by dials and buttons on a panel straight out of a 1980’s movie space shuttle. A shade rolled down in the opening for privacy. I sent a picture to my friends who said it looked like I was sleeping in a microwave. That was a pretty accurate description.

Each capsule had a corresponding locker for safe storage (although it did not fit luggage, which was relegated to an overflowing shelf in the hallway) and had inside it some highly fashionable tan pajamas, slippers, and a towel. The attached bathroom was a room of Japanese wonder: toilets whose lids opened when you entered the stall and started playing sounds to drown out the natural sounds of someone using the bathroom, showers with all hair and skin cleansing products ready for use, and a room full of sinks and beauty products as big as my first NYC apartment. In the morning I learned why it had to be so large and well-stocked: all the capsules had emptied out and it was full of women primping for their day. Since everyone was required to check out, the common spaces were overflowing with people all getting ready to go at the same time.

The capsule hotel was a good option for a night when I knew I was just going to check out the next day anyway to go to the airport, but I wouldn’t do a long-term stay there. I heard of other ones that include spas but they seem to be the men only ones. My only option would have been a sauna for an extra $15. Plus they all have a no tattoo policy in those types of spaces, and given my previous two new tattoo posts you know how well that would have gone over for me.

Oh Tokyo, you never fail to disappoint in your unique, quirky, lively, fascinating offerings.

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.