I’ve been living in London for about 6 months now and have only made it to one Zumba class… I am hitting the usual roadblocks of all the classes being at gyms. With my long working hours and regular travel, the cost of gym membership didn’t seem worth it. While I’ve been entertaining myself by playing a lot of Just. Dance, I was missing the fun of a live class so I decided to check out Frame.
They offer a huge variety of movement classes – from pilates to something involving mini trampolines. Drop-ins are welcome, though you should probably sign up a day or two in advance as the studios are small.
The highlight has been the 80s Aerobics, which was essentially this:
(but with fewer leotards, thankfully). It was a genuine aerobics class, with all the classic moves including lots of pelvic thrusts, legs lifts, jumping jacks, etc. – set to a soundtrack of Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, Madonna, and more. It was genuinely hard, and a lot of fun. The entire class was basically singing along (when we weren’t panting to catch our breath).
I also went to a Dance Cardio class, which as the name implies was Zumba-esque. While it was a great workout and much dancier than the aerobics class, the acoustics made it impossible to understand the instructor’s verbal cues. Also, the room got so sweaty that the floor was pretty slippery. I enjoyed it, but it also left me pining for a proper Zumba class with a large space and non-verbal cues.
Frame also offers something called Music Video, where they spend an hour teaching you a piece of choreography from an actual video. When the instructor announced today’s class was from Dream Girls, I wasn’t exactly thrilled… I am not a fan of musicals and was hoping for something more contemporary. To my surprise, the song was actually a bit disco-y, and the choreo was a mix of Bob Fosse with bits of Beyonce-fierceness, both of which I love.
Plus, the instructor was really into the drama of it all… he kept motivating us by saying things like “pretend like your arms are draped in diamonds!” or “whip your head around like you’ve got Beyonce’s long weave”. Obviously, I adored him. While it wasn’t a high impact workout, it was definitely a lot of fun and I enjoyed throwing myself into the dramatics.
Upcoming classes there include: Beyonce Dance Workshop, Spice Girls Cardio, and Kylie (Minogue) Butt Lift. Even if the classes aren’t perfect, I love having these kinds of options (and it’s only a 5 min walk from my house)!
After a gauntlet of paperwork and a series of appointments which were mainly designed to determine if I knew how to follow instructions, we officially moved to London!
We have up to 6 weeks of temporary housing in a furnished flat in King’s Cross. Though it is generously sized and adequately furnished, the internet speed is slower than what I had in China (despite my near daily complaints to the property manager).
Shortly after we got the keys, someone knocked on the door and handed us 2 bags of random groceries, which included coffee & filters for a non-existent coffee maker, heat & serve meat lasagna, margarine, mayo, jam, mustard and a couple pieces of fruit. It seemed so haphazard, we are pretty sure we unintentionally stole someone’s food. (Grocery delivery is very popular here.)
Banking seems unnecessarily complex. You need a bank account in order to rent a flat, but you need a residential address in order to get a bank account. Once you find a bank willing to let you open an account as a foreigner, you have to wait for a series of documents to arrive in the mail. Over the course of 10 days I received various separate letters which included the ATM card, cheques, and several different PINs – one for telephone support, another for the ATM card, and another for mobile banking. And in order to access my account info online, I have to insert my ATM card into this calculator-looking device to verify my identity:
As one of our friends said, it’s almost as if the banks have forgotten that it’s your money.
Renting an apartment was the next task. 1-2 bedroom flats often come furnished, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, we don’t own any furniture so that saves us from having to buy a bunch of stuff. On the other hand, finding an apartment with furniture we didn’t detest felt like it narrowed the options significantly.
We saw a charming converted schoolhouse followed by a place which you accessed via the lobby of a TravelLodge, a converted warehouse loft which would have been perfect for hosting a Wild West theme party, and then there was this:
At viewing #29, we encountered a modern apartment in the hipster neighborhood of Shoreditch and rapidly made an offer. (Nice difference to SF: you can negotiate the rent down.) Though its barely larger than the place we had in the Castro, it has wood floors, all modern fixtures/furnishings, and is less than a 10 minute walk to our favorite Indian restaurant. If all goes well, we will be in there by the end of November. If all doesn’t go well, I blame Barclays.
While it doesn’t feel like we “live” here yet, it’s been long enough to note some major lifestyle differences:
It’s amazing to live and work in the same city. My commute went from 90 mins each way down to 25, and there are so many great restaurants, pubs, and even theatre venues a short walk from my office door. I can even run errands during lunch! (And by “errands”, I mean “go to All Saints and check out their sale”.)
Door handles are confusing. Unless there’s a sign, it’s impossible to know whether to push, pull, or hit a button in order to operate them. I am surprised I haven’t yet broken glass or my nose.
It’s properly cold here and it’s barely November. I may not survive the winter… please send sun.
While walking down the sidewalk is like some kind of advanced level of Frogger, I love hearing all the difference accents and languages being spoken – its such a diverse city.
You need to plan things way in advance, which you wouldn’t think would be a problem for me, but it is taking some adjusting. Everything from restaurants to museums to cat cafes require several weeks planning (or more). It’s time to dust off my Cruise Director hat and start planning some fun!
While The German was in NYC at his Nerd Summer Camp, I opted for summer in SF (after a brief stop in Miami to visit family) where I reunited with many friends, played surrogate mom to 6 cats and 1 dog, saw 3 concerts plus 1 singing clown, taught 9 Zumba classes, met 1 new baby and 1 new horse, ate at Tacolicious 7 times, bought 2 new pair of Fluevog shoes, worked over 429 contracting hours, and drank countless bottles of champagne.
And I was also on a billboard:
My initial re-entry to SF was rough. As happy as I was to see friends and eat so many delicious things, the city felt dirty and expensive, and the homeless situation seemed worse. And after spending every day with The German, the 3 hour time difference between us felt much larger.
It was, however, surprisingly easy to go back to work at Apple. I was touched by how many people were so happy to see me, and it’s no secret that I enjoy being productive. And of course, it was nice to earn some money after a year without a paycheck. While I quickly remembered how much I hated the commute, I was happy to jump into my summer project and get things done.
Though I initially planned to only stay at Apple for the summer, a new opportunity presented itself and today I start as a full-time employee (again), managing international design teams based out of London. It will take another month or so before I can officially move, but I am thrilled to have Apple’s help with all the paperwork and I am excited about the project and my teammates.
I will still have plenty of opportunity to travel, which is fantastic, especially as I will be back in SF several times a year. But I am also looking forward to living with The German again, in our own apartment. I have always loved London and am excited to officially call it home.
The next 6 weeks (or more) are bound to be chaotic and unpredictable, but I am excited to see how it unfolds…
Since I am getting asked a lot of the same questions, I thought I’d just pre-emptively answer them here:
The German and I got along great! I was worried that non-stop, exclusive companionship would be too much for one (or both) of us, but it wasn’t a problem. We travel really well together and are similar in many ways and complimentary in the others. While we are both independent people, I can’t imagine being apart for 3 months and am already looking forward to the first time I can go visit him. (And no, we didn’t get engaged/married.)
It’s very hard to pick a favourite stop on our trip. Lapland was a highlight – we got to experience what it’s really like to live there (thanks to our amazing hosts), and the midnight sun made it especially unique. I also loved our gorilla trek in Rwanda – being so close to a family of wild gorillas was incredible, and we learned so much about the country’s history. Melbourne felt most like “home”, with friendly people, lots of great food & drink, and evidence of creativity everywhere.
Yes, we did get tired of traveling at times, but it was a temporary feeling. We didn’t spend every day running from one tourist attraction to another (like you would if you only had a week’s vacation). We slowed down our pace when we felt fatigued, and adjusted our itinerary to suit our mood. Staying in places for a month or longer (as opposed to just a few days or weeks), allowed us to get to know a place and settle in a bit.
It cost far less than you think. We did have a lot of frequent flier miles which helped with moving from one continent to another, but we used budget airlines or trains to move within Europe or Asia, and then public transit for getting around within cities. Petsitting helped offset some accommodation costs and was a lot of fun! While we certainly weren’t traveling like backpackers fresh out of college, we spent a lot less money by spending a little more time researching things. Being flexible with plans helped keep costs down, and we spent our money more thoughtfully when we went out. (Protip: fancy lunches are much more affordable than fancy dinners.) We also balanced expensive locations (Europe) with cheaper ones (Southeast Asia).
We don’t know where we are going to live/what happens in the Fall. The German is spending the summer at The Recurse Center, where he has already made a lot of new connections and the experience will likely result in new opportunities for him. I will be contracting in the Bay Area, where I have lots of friends and former colleagues doing interesting things. We do have one-way tickets to London in mid August (because that’s when his tourist visa expires), but are taking the summer to see how we feel before making any decisions.
So what happens to this blog? I am not sure just yet…. I will probably keep it going, but update it less frequently (since reading about going to work is far less interesting than adventures in foreign hospitals or hedgehog cafes).
I have really enjoyed sharing the trip with all of you, and continue to be amazed that anyone finds it interesting… thanks for indulging me!
This trip was never intended to be a big “spirit quest”, though I often joked with my friends that I was winning the mid-life crisis contest since I left my great job and fantastic apartment to travel around the world with my European Boy Toy (ha ha).
Before we left on this journey, I had reached a point where there was no work/life balance. It was constant working, accompanied with a long commute and no energy left to see friends or enjoy the city. My main hobby was (online) retail therapy, and teaching one Zumba class per week took all of my remaining energy. This trip seemed like a good way to hit the reset button on a lot of habits.
So here are some of the big lessons I learned during our travels:
When it comes down to it, what I really need to be comfortable is: tasty food, decent wifi, warmth, and regular access to a washing machine. Places like Borneo, where there just wasn’t very good produce or decent food, got old quickly… I don’t need gourmet cuisine at every meal, but as a vegetarian, fresh ingredients are important. I love to enjoy a good meal and eating just for sustenance makes me sad.
We relied so heavily on connectivity, for staying in touch with people and entertainment, that I quickly learned that decent wifi could make up for a lot of other accommodation shortcomings… without it, every less-than-optimal aspect of our situation became amplified.
I was pleasantly surprised that I was just fine without a lot of clothing (as long as I had regular access to a washing machine). I only packed things that I loved, so I never got tired of them. And as The German pointed out, I was still allowed to buy things… they just had to be able to fit in my luggage. I did rotate things out along the way, especially once we were done with all the safari gear, but otherwise shopping became a rare treat as opposed to a stress-relieving habit. (I am sure Gilt is lamenting my disappearance.)
I was worried that I would feel lost without my job… what would I say to people when I introduced myself? How would I spend my time? Thankfully, I was relieved to discover that work doesn’t define me. The “what do you do?” question is only central to American conversations and came up much less frequently in other places. And while I certainly like to feel productive and always want to learn new things, there were many other ways to achieve this. I rarely felt bored and being in new places meant that just walking to the grocery store could be an adventure. It was nice to be able to leisurely spend time reading the news while drinking coffee, instead of rushing from one thing to another as I previously did.
Dancing always makes me happy. In Melbourne, I was going to multiple classes per day and I loved it. In Ubud, I had daily access to a studio where I could work on new choreography. Even a “bad” dance class was a good learning experience. When I return to work, I need to continue to make Zumba and other dance classes a priority, even if I am stressed and tired.
Friends are important, and it’s hard to make new ones when you’re not working and constantly on the move. It was always amazing to meet up with old friends in various places, and FaceTime dates with my friends in SF were always a treat. Zumba was a great outlet for me to meet people, but other than the odd tech meet-up, The German struggled to connect to like-minded people. Once we discovered the co-living places with built-in communities, we couldn’t go back to isolated AirBnBs. Wherever we settle, it needs to be a place where we already have a lot of friends or will easily be able to make some.
Roughing it can be good for you (though it doesn’t need to be to the extreme of climbing Kilimanjaro). The positive side of bad meals or crummy accommodation is that it helped reset our expectations for the next spot. Despite how it may have appeared in this blog (since posts about us making omelettes in a tiny kitchen would be pretty boring), fancy dinners became a rare treat that we really appreciated, and my first trip to the cheese counter at Whole Foods was particularly joyful after 4 months in SouthEast Asia.
Now the real test will be if I can hold onto this perspective now that I am back in SF for a few months…
We utilized the last of our frequent flier miles on United to get from Tokyo to Cancun. While no one was beaten and dragged off the plane, the flight attendants were less than helpful and give us inaccurate information about a number of things, as well as some unsolicited career advice. (Random small talk resulted in a flight attendant telling me I should work for British Airways – so bizarre!)
Unfortunately, our 2 hour layover in Houston unexpectedly resulted in going through US Immigration. This means they started counting down the 90 days of The German’s tourist visa from when we transferred in Houston (despite the fact that we were immediately leaving the country again), as opposed to when he landed in NYC. (There are some little-known rules that were certainly created to prevent people from making visa runs to Mexico.) This was 10 days earlier than we had planned, which has created a scheduling problem with no obvious solution.
Our brief re-entry in the Houston Airport left a pretty poor impression: there were so many employees standing around and not doing anything (or just chatting to each other), the default demeanour of all the staff was “rude”, and everything was pretty dirty. It will be interesting to see how we both feel when we are back in the US this summer (and not jet-lagged or stressed about immigration).
The impetus for Mexico and enduring such heinous jetlag was a 4 day retreat with YouTube dance fitness star, The Fitness Marshall. (His routines are a bit like Zumba but with incredible amounts of sass. I have always wanted to take a live class with him.)
My friend Sue was a willing accomplice – a dance-filled weekend at an all-inclusive resort wasn’t exactly a hard sell – so I left The German at an AirBnB in Playa del Carmen for the weekend.
The resort had over 700 rooms and a ton of mediocre reviews on Trip Advisor, including rooms smelling like sewage, only 1 hour per day of terrible wifi and inedible food. I mentally prepared myself for the worst. While the food was terrible, our room smelled ok and I was pleasantly surprised to discover the retreat group was only 20 people!
Live events with The Fitness Marshall are usually hundreds of screaming fans, so I assumed I would be fighting for space at every class. With such a small group, it was no problem to get a great vantage point. He even came down and danced with me at one point, which was obviously a highlight (and I was thrilled I had Sue as a witness).
Another benefit of the small group size is that we really got to know everyone. We had lots of opportunities to interact with other participants as well as the Fitness Marshall crew. And between the resort and our host (Mind Body Spirit Vacations), there was no shortage of activities.
I was originally worried I would be one of the oldest people there, but there was a huge age range and people from all over the US. Everyone was so friendly, and we had tons of fun hanging out in the various pools, doing water aerobics, exploring the resort, and of course, dancing.
Post foam party in the pool
Channelling our innder bellydancer/Britney Spears
Hamming it up with the girls on the last night
Our entire group on the last night
Totally fake laughter for a “candid” shot, plus a brilliant photo bomb
Because we can’t take a normal photo…
Sue, looking less than thrilled with her meal
While the resort lacked good service and food, it was a jungle-esque location with an abundance of wildlife. Large iguanas were everywhere and not at all timid – I nearly stepped on one that was camouflaged with the sidewalk. The wild deer were not shy and wandered very close to the paths. Best of all, it was easy to spot wild monkeys in the trees!
On the down side, it seemed like most pool chairs were inundated with ants and we saw 2 snakes, one of which fell out of a tree right in front of us! (I don’t necessarily mind snakes, but I would prefer if they didn’t unexpectedly drop from the sky.)
I was pleased that my broken rib didn’t seem to be an issue. I quickly realized that any movements involving putting weight on my right knee or elbow, like crawling across the floor, wasn’t a good idea but I was able to do most of the class without risking a re-injury. It’s amazing to think that 7 weeks ago I was struggling just to sit up – the healing powers of the human body are impressive!
Sue and I had a fantastic time dancing, laughing, and drinking tequila. A resort of that size with unlimited alcohol meant terrific people-watching, and the on-site club was particularly entertaining. (There was one middle-aged guy on the stage in the club who poured a drink down his front, pissed his pants, and kept dancing. Seriously.)
All in all, it was a really great weekend spent with old and new friends, and I would do it again in an instant!
Despite the fun weekend, I wasn’t sad to be leaving the mediocre resort for someplace with much better food. We made a stop for chilaquiles in Playa del Carmen before dropping Sue off at the airport. Then The German and I headed to Live Aqua in Cancun for a mini “vacation” before we parted ways for the summer.
We had been to this resort before, so we knew there would be no children in the pools (it’s an adult-only resort), a gorgeous stretch of beach, and great service and food. And given my prior 4 days, I had a new appreciation for the attentive service and friendly staff (and the fact that I could drink wine out of a wine glass instead of a disposable plastic cup).
We spent our days lounging on chairs by the pool, gazing at the turquoise ocean with frozen drinks in our hand.
So after an incredible 13 month adventure together, I am pretty sad to be spending the summer on the opposite coast from The German. He is off to NYC to participate in The Recurse Center (a 3 month programming retreat) while I will go back to SF. We have dealt with greater distances, but it will be strange not to see him every day. On the positive side, being apart will really allow him to focus on programming, and I will get to see all my friends (and my clothes!).
I will spend the summer petsitting for various friends around SF and doing some contract work (details on that are still being solidified). We also need to figure out where we want to live in the Fall, so consider that a cliffhanger!
Beth & Todd arrived in Japan after an epic day of traveling, including flights from San Francisco to Vancouver to Tokyo, and then a 3 hour train to Kyoto. We rented a 2 bedroom “typical” Japanese home for their stay. While this was the best of the AirBnBs we had in Kyoto, it was still very compact and not entirely comfortable – there were many opportunities for The German to smack his head on things, the stairs were so steep it was like climbing a ladder, and the bedrooms smelled strongly of boiled cabbage. We just weren’t having the best luck with AirBnBs in Japan.
Despite their jet-lag and lots of rain, we spent our first full day together running all over Kyoto, including visiting Fushimi Inari Shrine, eating ramen, drinking craft beers, buying gifts for friends, drinking several lattes, and generally enjoying all the random strange signs and other foreign weirdness.
At the famous Fushimi Inari Shrine
It was a very wet day
Beth enjoys a goth treat – black sesame ice cream
We often passed banks of machines dispensing “prizes”…
When we visited the famous Kiyomizudera Temple, a timid group of students approached The German and asked for his help with a school project. They were visiting from Hokkaido and were obviously tasked with asking native English speakers several basic questions as conversation practice. At the end, we all took photos and they gave us this hand-crafted introduction to their town as a thank you gift. The whole exchange was adorable and we were happy to help them.
One side of the hand-ilustrated guide to Chitose
Recommended attractions inlcude the Kirin Beer Park and the Salmon Aquairum
Eating Our Way Through Kyoto
People usually visit Kyoto to see all the beautiful temples and shrines, but our real priority was food. We joked that the goal was to eat until you hurt, then walk 20 minutes and eat some more.
One night we had an 8 course tasting menu highlighting local tofu, served to us in a traditional private dining room. I loved it but The German didn’t care for the texture or subtle flavours and would probably be ok never eating tofu again.
We also visited the okonomikyaki spot I frequented when I was studying in Kyoto. It was just as good (and giant) as I remembered:
One night we gorged ourselves at Japan’s “Gyoza Champion” spot – they had dozens of different dumplings and we did our best to try them all.
And we also made regular stops for street food snacks, mochi, and green tea ice cream:
Todd enjoys some takoyaki (breaded octopus) at a local shrine
Our favourite ice cream spot – Beth is having black sesame.
It was strawberry mochi season, which I took full advantage of.
Political (?) Posters
We became obsessed with these posters, which we assumed were politicians campaigning for election (but I couldn’t read the kanji, so who knows if that was accurate).
We decided the dynamic hand gestures were far better than boring headshots, and the one who looked like he was conjuring a spell was our favourite:
And then there was this:
We weren’t sure if these wifi ads were mocking the political posters or if they just looked similar to us because we couldn’t read anything. Regardless, we all agreed that those politicians wouldn’t stand a chance if they were running against that adorable cat!
Beth & I made a quick trip to Nara to see the giant buddha and the abundant deer.
Both the giant buddha and the building that housed it were impressive:
One of the statues supposedly had healing powers, so I treated it like a free doctor appointment and made sure he saw to my rib and elbow:
After that we headed for the dangerously interactive deer:
The signs didn’t lie – the deer knew we had snacks for them and weren’t at all timid. Beth was very popular and not exactly thrilled about it… one attempted to eat her sweater in hopes of finding more cookies.
That said, they weren’t without charm. The deer have learned that bowing is more likely to get them a snack:
High Class vs Trash
After 5 days in Kyoto, we said goodbye to our smelly AirBnB and took the shinkansen back to Tokyo for the remainder of our adventures together.
We had one day where we alternated between refined, sophisticated experiences, like finely crafted cocktails at a bespoke cocktail bar:
Gen Yamamoto seated only 8 people at a gorgeous bar made of 500 year old Japanese oak. The cocktails were unexpected combinations of local ingredients that were tasty and refreshing. It was a delightfully refined experience.
We followed this up with Robot Restaurant, which is a robot-filled day-glow assault on all of your senses. It’s like nothing you expect, yet somehow conveys all the strange delight that is Tokyo. Videos and photos don’t do it justice, but Todd’s expression kind of says it all:
Other Tokyo Antics
In addition to Robot Restaurant, we had numerous other “only in Tokyo” experiences, including:
An outing to a Yayoi Kusama exhibit which included a large number of her paintings, sculptures, and installations, including one were we got to contribute to the art:
Some of the many large flower sculptures
Everyone got 5 stickers to contribute to the decor of this space
A trip to the fabulous Ghibli Museum, which was a Totoro pilgrimage for me. There were many interactive exhibits, including a life-sized cat bus. (No photos were allowed inside, unfortunately.) Getting tickets was a challenge, but absolutely worth the effort.
Totoro mans the ticket booth
A visit to the Line store, home of enourmous stuffed animals and the most complex yet wonderful photo booth ever. (Line is like the Japanese version of What’s App or Facebook Messenger, only they have adorable mascots integrated throughout the app. The store is full of all sorts of products with the characters on them, and a photo booth that magically made us look young and cute.)
Beth’s audience is not impressed with her musical skills
Biggest stuffie ever!
My skin has never looked smoother!
Stalking some Harajuku girls as they were shopping in a mall:
Cuddling some hedgehogs:
Watching rockabilly fanatics in Yoyogi Park:
And making our own onigiri with our housemates at Roam. (Onigiri are rice balls filled with pickles or seafood. Their normal form is seaweed-wrapped triangles, but for this event we got more creative.):
These were the demo models – they made it look easy!
Mine had a unibrow
Beth made a cat
Japan has a lot of great food, and our non-stop eating continued in Tokyo. It seemed like we were planning what to eat next before our current meal finished. The Japanese have a concept of eating until you’re 80% full (“hara hachi bu“), but we joked that our style was closer to eating until we were 180% full. When we learned about the word “kuidaore” – eating until you pass out – we felt like it was our new theme.
Todd was excited to try Koba beef in Japan
This gummy bear was nearly the size of Beth’s head.
The German is very excited for his wagyu steak
Massive bowls of udon
Fancy tempura lunch!
More fried things!
Todd selected from 16 kinds of beans for this cup of coffee
Possibly the best pizza ever
Since we were all constantly taking the same photos, The German started taking these:
And when we all took too long to photograph our food, he invented something we now call “Finger Bombing”:
It’s a great way to annoy your friends who ceaselessly take food photos.
Upping Our Posing Game
At every shrine, temple, and flowering tree there were many yukata-clad Japanese taking photos of each other. They didn’t just go for the ordinary tourist shots in front of an attraction, but would turn their back to the camera and gaze thoughtfully in the distance, or gesture gently to a flower. We did our best to incorporate these new techniques into our own photos:
Contemplating this bejeweled deer
Beth contemplates the beauty of this temple
Highlighting the pokemon claw machine
Appreciating the flavours of this sake
Though this eventually devolved into our usual antics of impersonating things and generally being ridiculous. (You really can’t take us anywhere.)
We have no idea what Woz is advertising
We couldn’t resist posing for the jumbotron
We saw this guy in so many ads that we were overjoyed to meet him “in real life”
After spending a couple hours sampling all the sake at the airport lounge, we parted ways with Beth & Todd… saying it was fun to be with them in Japan would be a major understatement. (We spent as much time laughing as we did eating!)
Beth & Todd are heading back to SF while The German and I are en route to Mexico. I am signed up for a 4 day retreat with a YouTube dance fitness star (The Fitness Marshall). (My good friend Sue is meeting me there, while The German relaxes at a nearby town.)
After that, The German and I will head to Cancun where we will officially end our year (or 13 months) of travel!
Though we were originally dazzled by the fact that AirBnB #2 had actual furniture, we did ultimately have to admit that it lacked any charm… the furniture was pretty uncomfortable and the decor mostly consisted of “House Rules” signs. That said, it was unquestionably an improvement over the last place, especially because the wifi was obscenely fast.
Speaking Japanese (I Really Think So…)
Having failed at finding an in-person option for Japanese tutoring, I decided to try some Skype lessons via the website iTalki (which was recommended by someone I met at Roam Tokyo). You can choose between experienced conversation partners or professionally certified teachers for almost any language.
I first had some sessions with a conversation partner – a Japanese woman who teaches English professionally. She did a great job keeping the conversation flowing while correcting my grammar, and was also happy to role-play any day-to-day scenarios where I felt less confident (like making restaurant reservations over the phone). And as a bonus, she sent me a recommendation for a vegetarian restaurant in Tokyo.
I also had some sessions with a professional teacher. She paid close attention to my intonation (which is very important in Japanese) and had a number of exercises designed to help improve my speaking speed. Though both types of sessions were valuable, I could certainly tell the different between the two.
I took advantage of the great wifi and scheduled quite a few sessions. Just being forced to use Japanese daily has been great, but having this outlet for reviewing the situations I encountered and correcting my grammar has really helped.
Thanks to improved confidence with my Japanese, I was able to purchase prescription sunglasses from a local shop, enjoy a cat cafe where no one spoke English, ask strangers to help me identify onigiri that didn’t contain fish (because reading is still a challenge), and even successfully made restaurant reservations over the phone!
I hope I will keep these up after I leave Japan, too – I spent far too much time studying it in college to let it all fade away.
Seeing Old Friends
Our string of rendezvous continued with my college pal Erik. I hadn’t seen him since before his son was born:
It was like no time had passed! He & Stephanie looked just the same as when they left San Francisco 15 years ago. It was fun catching up with them and meeting their British friends over countless sushi rolls and glasses of sake.
Our next date was with our former colleague from Apple UK, James, and his girlfriend Lauren. We caught up with them over an elaborate tempura dinner:
It was fun to talk tech, catch up on mutual friends, and exchange travel tips. (And the tempura was exceptional.)
It’s easy to feel isolated in Japan… As the movie Lost in Translation highlighted, the cultural differences make it very difficult to meet locals. And until my rib is fully healed, I can’t go to Zumba, which was another way I connected with people during our travels. This means we especially valued having these encounters with various friends throughout our time in Kyoto.
Once the last of the sakura petals had fallen, I was able to focus on some other local highlights like Nishiki Market (full of local delicacies), Nijo Castle, green tea parfaits, and cat cafes.
The German & his very manly ice cream
Those aliens are supposedly edible
If you look closely, there’s an egret on the egde of the pond
Falling Petals (aka Sakura “Snow”)
The entrance to Nijo Castle
Part of the Nijo Castle grounds
This poor fellow had a skin condition, so they made his wear this humiliating outfit
He fell asleep and was audibly snoring as I pet him
This is Momo – I am obsessed
Someone is sleeping with the boss…
Green Tea Parfait – various chewy rice blobs, green tea & vanilla ice cream, and grean tea whipped cream
We are spending the next 2 weeks in Japan with our very good friends, Beth & Todd. Since I haven’t seen them for 8 months, I would be excited to see them anywhere but it will be especially fun to explore Kyoto & Tokyo together. I’ve been saving all the major sights and activities for their arrival, so I anticipate every day will be jam-packed with adventure!
We took the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto. The whole experience was delightfully civilized – the train was perfectly punctual, very clean, and had spacious seats with a window at every row. Tokyo Station had an impressive array of food packaged especially for travel so we enjoyed a nice lunch during our 3 hour journey.
Unfortunately, it was downhill from there. The weather was cold, grey and rainy, and our AirBnB was comically problematic. Because it was peak cherry blossom week, we should have booked a place 6 months in advance (or more). There was very limited availability event a couple months out, so we took a gamble on a listing with no reviews and only one photo because it was reasonably priced. (Any hotels with rooms open were close to $1000/night because everyone wants to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom in Kyoto.)
Though nicely styled on the surface, the AirBnB turned out to be very poorly designed in function. It was one small room plus a tiny bathroom with the trains running outside the front door. Our host suggested we buy earplugs (gee, thanks), but having lived on Market St in SF, the train noise wasn’t the biggest issue.
It was clear that the host never lived there – the only furniture were the Japanese futons for sleeping and a coffee table. There weren’t any garbage bags, or cooking implements, and there was only 1 plate. In order to use the induction burner, we had to unplug the refrigerator (there was only one plug in the vicinity). The shower & sink were in one small corner together, making it awkward to use either of them.
Worst of all, the host lied about the amenities and there was neither a washer nor wifi. While we could certainly go a week without washing clothes, the lack of wifi was extremely inconvenient and we burned through all of our data on our local SIMs in 5 days. This issue highlighted all the shortcomings of AirBnB – we paid for things that weren’t provided yet it was impossible to communicate with a real person from the company. (While I could handle basic communication with our host, the complexities of explaining that we felt scammed were beyond my vocabulary).
As a result, we spent far more time in Starbucks that I care to admit. Though I am not a huge fan of their coffee, I was incredibly grateful for their decent wifi. (Hotspots are pretty rare in Japan, unfortunately.)
Noodles with Friends
Our disappointing AirBnB didn’t prevent us from having some fun, though. Getting noodles with friends started to emerge as a welcome theme. Blake & Santiago, pals from SF, were visiting Kyoto with Blake’s parents. We all took a break from our various cherry blossom strolls to meet for soba at a restaurant that has been making it for hundreds of years. As you’d expect, the noodles were fantastic and it was fun to see them. The German especially enjoyed exchanging sympathetic tales of banged knees and near misses on concussions… the struggles of being tall men in Japan. (Blake & Santiago make The German look short).
We spent another day with them, powering through several top sights including a temple with some beautiful gardens, the bamboo forest, and a monkey park. We really enjoyed seeing them and exploring Kyoto together.
“Everyone, point at the best bamboo!”
Blake’s Dad had no idea he was being followed…
We were very lucky in that we managed to hit Kyoto just in time for the peak blooms. Like Tokyo, everyone was out to admire the flowers and take millions of photos. However Kyoto-ites upped their game and often had professional photographers in tow. We saw a number of shops where you could rent a kimono, get your hair & makeup done professionally and hire a photographer for the day.
People in Japane are always so polite.Without being asked, people would queue up to take photos from certain vantage points, or patiently wait to cross a bridge or take a narrow path while others were taking photos.
I spent the first few days going to all the major cherry blossoms spots and taking far too many photos… here is just a small sampling:
All the fallen petals collected at the end of the canal…
Japan is known for being safe, clean and orderly and I am pleased that none of that has changed. I would much rather queue for the subway than push my way on.
There are far fewer smokers than I remember. Even the sidewalks have designated smoking areas!
Though finding vegetarian food in restaurants has always been a challenge in Japan, I had forgotten how great and reasonably priced prepared food is. Every place from 7-11 to supermarkets to fancy department stores had a huge selection of freshly made food – it was a great way to sample a lot of different dishes and though I occassionally had to ask a clerk to read the kanji to me, it was otherwise easy to find vegetarian options.
Having failed at finding in-person Japanese classes (the shortest ones required a one-month committment), I scheduled some Skype lessons with native speakers. While I can (mostly) understand what people are saying, my speaking is still coming very slowly (and likely inaccurately) so I hope some tutoring can help me rapidly improve.
We have a week and a half before our pals Beth & Todd arrive from SF, at which point we will go into hard-core tourist mode. In the meantime, we gleefully changed to a new AirBnB. While it was objectively kind of drab and lacking in charm, it had incredibly fast wifi and actual furniture so it felt like a major upgrade. We are both much happier.
I wanted to stay in Bali until all of my stitches were removed, so we abandoned plans for Hong Kong (and possibly Taiwan) in order to minimize how many non-refundable flights and hotels we had to cancel or change (plus I was still hoping to catch a glimpse of the cherry blossoms). We wound up taking a red eye from Bali to Tokyo as it was the only non-stop option. (We were also trying to minimize how much hobbling through the airport I needed to do.)
Unfortunately, the flight was full so we landed at 8:30am, fairly discombobulated from lack of sleep. Tokyo felt delightfully dry compared to Bali’s intense humidity, but going from 85° to 45° was far less pleasant. It was immediately obvious that we didn’t have the right clothing for this weather.
The German was trying to handle most of the luggage on his own, given my broken rib and still unsteady right leg. It basically took us 3 hours to get from Narita Airport to Roam Tokyo (involving trains, lots of walking, and eventually a taxi). However, I was pleased that my rusty Japanese was sufficient to navigate us there, plus purchase the advance tickets we needed for the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto.
We decided to spend a week at the Tokyo branch of the coliving place we loved so much in Bali. Having fellow travelers and a friendly staff seemed like a great way to ease into our Japan experience.
The Tokyo location has only been open a couple months. It did feel like the staff were still figuring things out, though they were incredibly friendly and helpful if we asked for anything. The rooms were huge (by Tokyo standards) but pretty sparse – pretty much just a bed and a bonsai, but it had a very zen feeling to it.
We didn’t get as strong of a sense of community as we did in Bali – it may have just been our timing, or perhaps Tokyo is so exciting that people spend more time exploring the city than hanging out on the property. Still, we really enjoyed the folks we did meet, the kitchen was fantastic, the location was great, and the wifi was blazingly fast.
The room is mainly just a bed and a bonsai tree
We were lucky to score a room with 2 windows
The communcal kitchen
Some of the seating off the kitchen
Though we were exhausted from the red eye flight, we didn’t want to miss a chance to see our friend Celine (whom we last saw in Lapland). She was in town for a gaming conference and was also exhausted (from an intense week of meetings and conference after-parties) so we thought we would have a low key dinner and then call it a night.
Having no reservations on Friday night in Tokyo, we wound up at a pizza spot that served only two types of perfectly crafted pizzas. The whole place was barely larger than their wood oven. As anticipated, they really had made pizza an art form, and we all agreed this was some of the best pizza we have ever had.
Halfway through dinner Celine got an invitation to join some folks for a drink. One thing lead to another and we ultimately wound up at a night club where our host ordered a jerobaum of champagne:
So there we were at the club, me with my broken rib and fleece shirt, surrounded by stylish Tokyo-ites dancing to hiphop. It was a hilarious yet fantastic way to kick off our time in Japan!
We were fortunate to arrive in Tokyo just as it was hitting peak cherry blossom season. Despite the chilly temperatures and regular rain, the locals didn’t hesitate to spread out tarps in the parks to picnic beneath the blooming trees.
People would often queue at certain spots, just to get the optimal perspective for a photo.
And on weekends, it was common to see kimono-clad ladies strolling together, pointing out especially beautiful branches of blooms. As The German noted, it somehow felt similar to Christmas.
At night, certain spots would be overflowing with people strolling past the trees, sipping pink sparkling wine and taking tons of photos.
While the trees were undeniably beautiful, the people-watching was just as much fun.
Fun with Friends
We were excited that we had a steady string of friends who would be in Japan at the same time as us. In addition to seeing our Finnish friend Celine, we also met up with my pal Dan from SF.
Here we are enjoying modestly sized bowls of udon:
We also spent several hours wandering around Tokyo, which included a stop at Uniqlo where we purchased their signature down jackets:
Due to a the bizarre rules and some communication confusion at a popular cake spot, we wound up eating strawberry cakes while the Incredible Hulk loomed in the background:
It’s always nice to see friends while we are traveling, and especially fun to have wacky adventures in Japan with them!
Though I am feeling better every day, I am still moving at a pace that is considerably slower than normal and my knee doesn’t have the stamina for long periods of walking. At times, it’s frustrating – I’d love to be out and about exploring Tokyo all day, but I know my body is still healing. On the plus side, I see improvement every day: moving from sitting to standing no longer involves an awkward baby-giraffe-like dance, my left knee is looking almost normal, and I no longer need to take the pain killers to get a decent night’s sleep.