locations

My Arrival in Antigua

After hitchhiking around Mexico I was relieved to get to Antigua. Not only had I heard wonderful things about it from Brayan and Ale, but it meant I could chill for a couple of days, do laundry, shower, and actually be in civilization and out of the jungle.

The part of Central America that I had chosen to repeat was the intense jungle part that had driven me to think about leaving for Europe. I seemed to have temporarily forgotten the effect that environment had on me the first time around, but by the end of the second round it was back in full force. It is just not the climate in which I thrive. Add to that the stress of mediating between my travel companions and you’ll start to get an idea of why I agreed to jump on a bus once we crossed the Guatemalan border. I was ready to be done and in Antigua.

Antigua was the breath of fresh air I needed, literally and figuratively. At 1500 m elevation, the town is hot and sunny during the day and chilly at night. I was relieved to break out my jeans and not be constantly sweaty. I say that Antigua was a return to civilization, but it is a small, old world version of civilization. The town is no more than 10 blocks in any direction, its streets are all cobblestone so if you’re not careful you will trip over the rogue stone or your own feet, and it’s composed entirely of colonial buildings and ruins left over from the devastating 1773 earthquake. Overall it looks like a little Europe injected into a Central American town. Despite its small size, Antigua is surprisingly easy to get lost in. Streets and buildings mysteriously look the same, and when following around locals and not paying attention it’s even harder to find your way on your own. I think all of this contributes to its charm.

When I arrived in Antigua I had no idea how long I would stay. Five days, maybe. A week at most. I had other places I wanted to see and thought I would use Antigua as my launching point. It was 10 days before I finally tore myself away to Lake Atitlan. In those 10 days I discovered so much more about Antigua than just its curb appeal.

Hidden within its delightful exterior is everything I missed about home. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, I’ll describe my first Monday in town. Before that day I had just seen the nightlife of Antigua (which is so great it could warrant its own post), so I woke up determined to explore this place. I met up with Brayan, who graciously offered to be my tour guide for the day. Our first stop was at his favorite cafe for a coffee that actually tasted like coffee followed by a French bakery to sample a couple delectable croissants. Off to a good start. We wove through the streets past colorful houses and half-dilapidated churches that may never be restored to their original splendor. These wounded buildings created a sad yet somehow magical setting. Even destruction is beautiful in Antigua. We ascended a hill on the north edge of town, up a concrete path in the middle of a forest that reminded me of Mount Sutro in San Francisco, to the Cerro de la Cruz. From here I could see all of Antigua in the valley below. Such a pretty little colonial mountain town. Back down, we browsed an artisan market before going to Rincon Tipico for lunch. This no frills traditional Guatemalan restaurant only has four things on the menu per day, but it may as well have one – 30Q for some of the best pollo asado, guacamole, and roasted potatoes I’ve ever had. After walking off the food coma for a bit we ran into the hostel pub crawl. We followed the 10Q beers around from rooftop bar to rooftop bar. Feeling happy, we kept the party going at San Simon, my new favorite bar that makes some of the most inventive delicious cocktails I’ve ever had. The night ended with pizza and a movie on the couch.

Sounds pretty normal right? A little wandering through beautiful scenery mixed with enjoying good food and drinks, it was like any good Saturday in San Francisco. The only difference between that description and my typical San Francisco description is fun times with good people. Except that wasn’t missing at all. Everyone I met and hung out with that day and all previous and subsequent days in Antigua were people I wanted to spend more time with. So good places, good food, good drinks, good people – good Antigua.

Days like this became the norm over the next week and a half. It didn’t take long for the possibility of staying to come up. People would ask how long I was in town and I answered that I didn’t know. They all liked that response. It was clear early on that I could have a life here. But I wasn’t ready just yet to commit to that, so I ran away to the lake to think about the wonderful world that I had just encountered.

40 Days in Mexico

I ended up spending 40 days in Mexico. What was supposed to be just the gateway into Central America became an extended exploration of our neighbor to the south.

I didn’t expect to be in Mexico so long, but I didn’t know the variety that I would encounter there. When I used to think of Mexico two things came to mind: beaches and tacos. Which was totally accurate, but there’s also much more to it. The coast does have beautiful beaches, but they jut up against dense jungle that spreads far inland, before it transitions in Chiapas to rolling hills and pine forests mixed with limestone mountains around lakes and rivers. Tacos are the staple of Mexican cuisine, and they are absolutely outstanding throughout the country, but it would be a shame to just eat tacos when the gringas, quesadillas, panuchas, sopas, pollo asadas, moles, elotes, tamales, and so many more things I’m forgetting are also insanely delicious. I could eat Mexican food every day and not get tired of it.

Beyond the terrain and food there’s a cultural importance that permeates Mexico, both historic and modern. Mayan ruins aren’t just around, they’re everywhere, and they range in style from pristine tourist traps to majestic hidden archaeological sites. It’s actually possible to visit so many Mayan sites that you can’t fathom going to another one, but you don’t regret seeing as many as you did. Towns of interest vary as much as the landscape, from the modern, bustling, energetic capital of Mexico City, my introduction to the country that immediately started my visit off on the right foot, to the quaint, beautiful, and still bursting with options San Cristobal de las Casas, my favorite town in Mexico thus far, plus everything in between like tourist-central Playa del Carmen, expat haven Tulum, and often overlooked but charming in its own right Vallodolid.

Then there’s the people. Everyone hears about the negatives of Mexico – the dangerous drug cartels, the kidnappings, the clash between the Zapatistas and the government, the bus robberies – but the negatives just make headlines. What I encountered was the opposite. I met helpful people, people who didn’t care if my Spanish was beginner at best, who wanted to make sure I liked their country, who took care of me, who greeted me with a smile. Whenever I talked to travelers about why they couldn’t leave Mexico the welcoming people were always one of the main reasons.

So at the end of the day I’m not surprised that I agreed to repeat my route and stay in Mexico longer than intended. I was never in a rush to leave. I feel bad that I underestimated my neighbor to the south, and that I didn’t give it the time it deserved earlier. I will probably go back to Mexico when I have to do a visa run from Guatemala. Because this beautiful country captivates everyone who visits it. And because of the tacos.

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.

“Where Should I Go?”

Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten lots of destination-related questions. I love fielding these questions – I could talk about the places I went for days on end. Not that I don’t also love helping with backpack choices and solo travel tips, but the locations themselves are what drive us all.

So I figured why not post what I’ve responded to the question, “Where should I go?” It might be useful to other people and a good place to point friends to in the future. Plus I just can’t imagine answering the other most-asked question, “What was your favorite place?” How could it ever be possible to pick one place? I’ve been able to narrow it down to some highlights but even then I feel like I’m leaving out so much. This is probably the closest I can come to any kind of “top places” list.

So here they are, my “where you should go” recommendations:

I will always tell people to go to South America. I spent three and a half months there and personally preferred it to the other regions. As I traveled I found myself constantly wondering how expensive flights were from Asia to South America, and this wonder has not ceased now that I’ve returned. Actually South America is part of the reason I came back to the US – it was unreasonable to go straight from Japan so I planned to go by way of the US. Some of the places that I recommend looking into are:

  • Colombia. I will never stop loving Colombia and it’s one of the first places I want to go back to. The Caribbean Coast is gorgeous and hot, the cities are fun, and the mountains great to explore. It has lots to offer and some of the friendliest people.
  • The Amazon. The Amazon in Brazil, just outside of Manaus, were 6 of the best days of my trip. It’s not an easy itinerary, at least the one we did since we slept in hammocks in the jungle and caught our own dinners (piranha, peacock bass, etc.), but it’s a very cool experience. Plus if you go here then you can go through Rio, which is a fantastic city.
  • Buenos Aires. One of my favorite cities in the world. If you want a more urban trip definitely go here – drum shows, theater performances, weekend markets, insane nightlife, delicious food. There’s also some low-key escapes depending on how long you’re there, like the Tigre and Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay.
  • The Salt Flats in Bolivia and the Atacama Desert in Chile. If you want otherworldly nature go here. The Salt Flats is a three-day tour through landscapes that don’t look like they should be real, and the desert is a Mars-like playground for sandboarding, hiking, biking, and stargazing.
  • Machu Picchu. This is a bit of a bonus since I did not go there on this RTW trip – I was there in 2012 with friends – but it is still one of my top South America experiences so it just didn’t feel right to leave it off this list. We did the 4 day/3 night Inca Trail through SAS travel – our guides knew everything and told stories along the way, we had really good food, and the hike was the perfect mixture of challenging and fun. Plus Cusco is a great place to spend a few days acclimatizing.

Having said all that, you can’t go wrong in Asia either, of course. A lot of people are intrigued by the extreme difference of the culture in Asia and I was right there with them. Some of my favorite experiences happened in Asia. Here are my recommendations:

  • The Temples of Angkor/Siem Reap, Cambodia. Another one of the best weeks of my trip. The architecture is stunning, and spending your day on a tuktuk riding past ruins is pretty amazing. Siem Reap has a fun streak to it on Pub Street but it’s really all about Angkor here. I would love to go back to Cambodia and get to Koh Rong on the coast, every backpacker’s favorite beach. Also depending on the length of your trip you could add Laos, which has great outdoor activities to offer but wouldn’t be the first place in Asia I would recommend. I do want to go back though; I was pleasantly surprised by that country.
  • Myanmar. Like everyone says, go now, before tourism totally changes it. This country just opened up a few years ago and you can already see the changes, and how it’s not ready to handle them yet. But the people are the kindest I met anywhere and the scenery is beautiful. It will be vastly different from home though so that has to be something you’re okay with.
  • I hesitate to recommend Northern Thailand because I had a really different experience there at a festival, but the time I spent in Chiang Mai was great and with everything I’ve heard about Pai it’s one of the places I most want to get to next time I’m there. Most people I met traveling in Southeast Asia put this at the top of their list. If you happen to be planning a Southeast Asia trip in February go to Shambhala.
  • Another qualified recommendation is Vietnam. Some people love it, some hate it. I had a different time there due to a family visit but if you’re curious about it then it’s worth checking out. Hanoi was good and Halong Bay/Lan Ha Bay were spectacular. Plus it had the best cheapest food and coffee of my entire trip.
  • Japan, especially Tokyo. Fascinating culture, energetic cities, gorgeous landscapes, friendly people, efficient travel, and the best food, there’s no way to go wrong in Japan. Tokyo was actually my favorite, despite the popular opinion that Kyoto is best, for its quirkiness, modernity, and variety of activities. If you have time try to make it to the island of Kyushu – it’s much more low-key but still wonderfully Japanese.

Lastly, New Zealand. Of the Australasia portion of my trip I preferred New Zealand. The scenery is unbeatable, the adventures are endless, and the atmosphere is so chill it’s hard to ever want to leave. I still play with the idea of moving to Wanaka for a while. Go to Wanaka! I love that place. And the Abel Tasman Coast Track. And Milford Sound.

If anyone has any more questions about locations (or anything) just ask! I love talking travel, obviously, and am more than happy to help if I can.

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.

Final Thoughts on Japan

Japan is a fascinating country. I went curiously, having always had a desire to see what it was like there, but also unexpectedly. Along with the fact that I didn’t know I was going to be there until a month before I went, all I knew once I arrived was that I’d be there for at least two weeks with Matt, but I had no idea what we’d see or where we’d go. I ended up staying for a month and seeing more than just the normal Tokyo – Kyoto – Osaka highlight reel. I can only thank Matt for convincing me to go to that wonderful place. Looking back now, Japan has become one of my favorite countries of the trip.

When people ask me what I thought of Japan I describe it as so forward and so backward at the same time, 2080 and 1880 living simultaneously. Parts of the country are so modern, from 9-story glowing signs adorning the sides of glass towers to the most time-accurate trains running up to 200 mph. These parts live in harmony next to historic buildings and a rich cultural history and appreciation that permeates the entire experience of being there. People dressed in traditional clothes wander past a temple into a covered shopping arcade, literally crossing the boundaries of time. At times I was surprised by some of the cultural differences, like the inequality of gender when I was at an after-work bar surrounded by only men in suits. And then there’s the overall quirkiness of Japan, like the obsession with video game centers and toy stores.

The people are incredible, even though most don’t speak English. Despite the language barrier they still went out of their way in friendless and helpfulness, like the woman from our ryokan who drove us to and made sure we got on the right bus or the woman at my hostel in Fukuoka who made fresh miso soup and onigiri every morning for all the guests staying there, even though she was a guest herself.

The language was also interesting. Remember that scene in Lost in Translation where the commercial director says 30 seconds worth of Japanese and the translator says, “He said ‘turn to camera'” and Bill Murray responds, “That’s all he said?” It’s so true. Every time I walked into a restaurant or out everyone there said a long string of Japanese that I think was just “hi how many people” upon entering and “thank you bye” when leaving. And it wasn’t until my last night that someone finally explained to me the difference between “arigatou ” and “arigatou gozaimasu,” thank you and the formal version of thank you that I should have been saying all along. They love to throw “gozaimasu” around attached to other phrases too.

Unfortunately Japan is not really a backpacker-friendly country, especially during cherry blossom season. If I do return one day I’ll make sure to plan ahead: get a train pass and book accommodation. It did work out in the end, but it would have saved us from a lot of stress to have had a plan. For this reason I’d probably avoid it on another low-budget-spontaneous-type trip.

Bus rides though were a breath of fresh air. After my frustration traveling around the rest of Asia, having a reliable timetable and functioning bus stations was a relief. This was my main form of transportation around Japan and honestly pretty pleasant, and much more affordable than the train. Plus the cleanest rest stops I’ve ever been in and, of course, genial, helpful drivers.

The food is also probably my favorite on the trip. Vietnam would be tied, and definitely wins in the affordability category, but the sheer variety of Japanese food – donburi, sushi, tempura, noodles, tonkatsu, onigiri, hot pot, skewers – and the fact that all of it is delicious tips the win in Japan’s direction. It also wins worst dish of my trip for the intestine yakitori. I would even eat tarantula again if I had to pick between that and intestine.

All of this combined with the beauty of the country and the energy of the cities hopefully conveys why I found Japan to be not simply great but also captivating. I definitely will return one day.

Asosan

Waiting for the train in Hospet, my former Japan resident current travel companion told me to try to hike “Mount Ahhso” if I had time. I felt younger than my 27 years when I laughed at what sounded like Mount Asshole and made him repeat the name a few times before he finally spelled it out for me. A-S-O. Mount Aso. Got it.

Fast forward to Fukuoka and me planning my final jaunt around Kyushu. I knew I wanted to get in one more mountain stop – a small village and a good hike, like all the places I’d loved so much in the past year – so I looked up his recommendation and happily discovered that Aso was located on the north part of the island in a place that would logically complete my Kyushu loop. Perfect.

I took a local train between Kumamoto and Aso. I remembered the train ride from Inle Lake to Kalaw and how I’d fallen for that town, and even though this train ran much smoother than that one did the romantic feeling and pretty scenery assured me that I had made the right decision in going to Aso. This was confirmed when we pulled into a small station and upon exiting I could see what looked like the whole town in front of me with the volcano billowing smoke in the not-so-far distance. I forgot to mention – Mount Aso, or Asosan, is the largest active volcano in Japan. Unfortunately this billowing smoke was not a good omen for my hike; it meant that I couldn’t go to the crater, the main attraction. There were still other hiking routes though up and around the mountain so I was not deterred.

I walked the block and a half to Aso Base Backpackers, which quickly became one of my favorite hostels of the trip. It felt like a modern lodge, with a wood-burning fireplace, a fully stocked and beautiful kitchen with an assortment of teas and coffees (my favorite was the apple tea), and a variety of seating options from a large tree-trunk table to the distinctly Japanese raised section with a leg-oven table (you sit with your legs underneath a table that is covered by a blanket and has a heater hanging from the top – it keeps you really warm). I went over the trail map with the receptionist and mapped out a plan for the next day. Even though the crater was closed I could hike from the hostel up the mountain, around a loop trail to see other inactive craters, and back down in about seven hours he estimated.

It only took me 4.5. That is, once I got going. I woke up the next morning to slanting, cold rain. I waited an hour with my Japanese breakfast sandwich (a soft-boiled egg inside an onigiri, delicious) and coffee until I gave up and went for it anyway, as bundled up as possible.

The hike up was eerie and mystical in a way, since I was walking entirely in cloud cover. Once in a while it would part and I would see a cow standing nearby in a field or a green grass-covered cone of a former volcano or a glimpse of the valley down below. Because I could barely see 10 feet in front of me I missed the turn for the path I meant to be hiking and ended up walking on road all the way up, but I chose to look at this mistake as a good mistake – I got to see a larger variety of scenery and hike up a different side of the mountain than I would hike down.

When I reached the top the weather was at its worst. I was actually in a cloud and it was seriously windy. I stopped by the visitors center and the woman said it would be that way all day. I asked about the loop hike and she said, “No, dangerous!” I went anyway. I didn’t climb up a mountain for nothing, I wanted to see some craters.

I couldn’t see anything. The path was a series of steep staircases that led to nothing but mist. The wind was so strong at one point that I had to sit down so I didn’t get blown off the side. I had no idea how far I would have fallen since I couldn’t see more than a couple of feet around me, if that. I had to admit defeat and climb back down. This actually was dangerous.

Once I got back to level ground the clouds parted, which at first was a frustrating tease now that I could have completed the loop, but then I got to see what I really came for: a huge puff of dark gray smoke rose out of the active crater. At least Asosan gave me this incredible sight as a reward for my trek. I had never been so close to an active volcano before; there’s something really mesmerizing about watching smoke pour out of a mountain, like watching fire burn.

I cheerily walked back down the path I had meant to take up, singing songs to myself and sometimes running to change it up a bit. The sun came out and I could see Aso town down below. The landscape was gorgeous.

The rest of my time in Aso was exactly the relaxing experience I wanted it to be. I went to the onsen (and luckily did not get kicked out for my tattoos), wrote at the cozy leg-oven table in my alpaca gear, and had my two final vending-machine-ordered meals at a local restaurant slash market (udon and katsu don).

I knew that the next day I would go back to Fukuoka and the day after that I would fly back to the United States. I looked back at my last week in Kyushu and was proud of myself for arranging the perfect assortment of locations. I was going out the right way.

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.