Kuala Lumpur: Land of Zoolander Jokes, Political Uber Drivers, Monkeys and Amazing Views

The first leg of my recent trip was to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. To be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about Malaysia. I may, or may not, have made a few jokes from Zoolander about the Prime Minister to highlight my lack of knowledge.

Thanks Ben Stiller.

Perhaps it was best to go in with limited preconceptions, because the city and surrounding areas really blew me away. The first day, I walked out of my hotel in Kuala Lumpur into a busy throng of corporate high rises, ritzy hotels, and shopping malls that dwarfed the one I was used to going to on Long Island.

View of the city from the Kuala Lumpur City Center Park.

I spent that first day wandering the streets and taking in my new surroundings. I was approached by school children to participate in the Mannequin Challenge with them, they said they needed to find an American tourist to join them (I guess I stood out more than I thought).

As I continued to walk, I found myself slightly outside the main hub of the city and there was a sudden change: chunks of pavement missing from the sidewalk, women trying to convince me to get a massage in shady looking spas, street vendors with food that ranged from Thai to Middle Eastern to Malay, and little shops that seemed to exclusively sell knock off sneakers and the widest array of selfie sticks on the planet.

It was quite a change from metropolitan Tokyo, which I have gotten used to, and even a shift from the city I started my day in the middle of.

God bless TripAdvisor, because after a nice long walk, I found the 3rd rated massage parlor in Kuala Lumpur: Chaang (not a spelling error). For a budget friendly US $25, I got an hour and a half Thai Massage. Now, I had never had a Thai Massage before, but it was the best experience you could ask for after a 7 hour flight and an afternoon walking around the hot and humid streets of Kuala Lumpur.

Thai Massage is a combination of deep tissue and intense stretching. There were a few instances when I almost told the therapist that I didn’t think my body was meant to go that way, and then she would push/twist my leg, arm or back in a manner that completely loosened muscles I didn’t know existed.

My only complaint was that the rooms were not totally private, there were curtains dividing each “room” and the guy next to me was snoring so loudly, I thought a wildebeest was being tranquilized. I don’t know how one even falls asleep during such an intense massage but, to each his own.

I emerged from the massage a new man, ready to see what else Malaysia had in store.

The next day, I took an Uber, yes an Uber in Malaysia, to the Batu Caves. While I had some desires to check out places and neighborhoods off the beaten path, the Batu Caves were one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Kuala Lumpur area. I soon learned that sometimes the road most traveled, is most traveled for a reason.

On the trip to the caves, my Uber driver says, “Oh you’re from the USA? You’re President isn’t doing too well, eh?” I guess I had a pretty well-informed Uber driver.

After getting the political small talk out-of-the-way, I got to see a different side of Malaysia. There were far fewer businessmen and women, virtually no hotels or nice looking restaurants. Instead, there was intense poverty. People working on construction sites in sandals. Kids running around yards of dirt and rocks in front of shacks with no shoes or shirt.

Sadly, this was more of what I expected out of Malaysia.

Upon arriving at the caves, I bought a Gatorade that looked like it was packaged in 1997 from a convenience store that was light on the convenience, and products for that matter.

Beyond that, my eyes were drawn towards a giant (Worlds Largest) Murugan Statue standing in front of a steep staircase that leads into the mountainside.

World’s Tallest Marugan Statue guarding the staircase to the Batu Caves.

At the base, each man was handed a bucket of dirt, seriously a bucket of dirt, to carry to the top of the stairs (I assume for construction purposes). The rest of the journey up saw more monkeys than people. These monkeys were savages, waiting for unsuspecting tourists to drop their guard or snacks, for them to scoop up and run off with.

The top of staircase opened up to this beautiful cave where I dropped off my bucket of dirt and went into full-tourist mode, taking pictures of all the beauty these limestone caves had to offer. There were many more monkeys, birds, and even a random rooster, roaming the cave. It was nothing short of breathtaking.

The pictures really don’t do this place justice.
“But why male models?” – Derek Zoolander

After wandering around the expansive cave area, I was about to make my way out when I noticed a sign for “The Dark Cave.” I went and checked it out, and it was a tour of this beautiful preserved (for the most part, it was briefly opened to the public in the 70’s and some of the walls had graffiti on them) limestone cave that went deep into the mountain.

The cost of the tour, 35 Ringits (~$8.50) which went entirely to the organization responsible for maintaining the cave and conducting research, was well worth it. Our tour guide, Zhu, was amazing, very considerate of the wildlife and preservation of the cave.

Zhu warned us that there were poisonous snakes and spiders, among a variety of bats and other insects inside the cave. However, she reminded us that the most dangerous species alive were us, Homo Sapiens, and should we run into any of those in the cave, we should run away (Zhu had a sense of humor).

End of the Dark Cave tour. Happy to have avoided snake and spider bites.

I have a confession to make; I am pretty afraid of snakes and spiders. So, it was slightly unsettling to see a poisonous snake a few feet away but, Zhu reminded us that we are not their prey and that unless bothered, they would not bother us.

At one point, deep into the cave, Zhu instructed us all to turn off our little flashlights and to be silent, taking in the silence and darkness of the cave. Once those lights went out, you realize why they call it the Dark Cave. It was pitch black, and besides the woman breathing heavily next to me, all I could hear was the dripping of water off the stalactites and bats fluttering above our heads.

In that moment of silence and darkness, I had a very cool realization that I am on the other side of the world, the only American on my tour, in a cave surrounded by creatures that usually scare the crap out of me, and I could not have been having a better time. Getting out of your comfort zone is quite a thrill.

That night, after dinner, we went to a bar called Sky Bar in the Traders Hotel. The view of the city skyline was spectacular, while sipping on a refreshing Selangor Sling (gin, 68% absinthe, hibiscus syrup, elderflower syrup and pineapple juice). The bar had a swimming pool that I desperately wanted to see a drunk person fall into (unfortunately didn’t happen).

The following day, we went to the KL Tower tower which gave a stunning view of the city on a clear and sunny day. Followed that up with a walk around the KL Eco Park which had these suspended walkways up around the tree tops.

View from 350 Meters up in the KL Tower! (Petronas Towers on the left)

The night wrapped up with dinner at this delicious ribs joint, a tour of the Petronas Twin Towers and drinks at a bar called “Heli Bar.”

Heli Bar was located in a very ordinary office building with no distinguishing signs. Beyond that, it is exactly what is sounds like: a bar that they set up every night atop a helicopter pad. A definite theme of these Southeastern Asian countries is certainly a lack of safety equipment, indicated by the lack of barriers between the people drinking booze and the end of the heli pad. Having said that, the minute risk was well worth the view.

View of Petronas Towers from the Heli Bar.
View of the KL Tower from Heli Bar.

The next morning was a flight to the next country, Singapore.

In a previous post, I talked about Japan being very different from what I expected it to be, and how those differences were not as intimidating or scary as you might expect. I left Malaysia thinking the same thing. Was there poverty, and some areas of sub par cleanliness and safety-precautions? Absolutely. But, like anywhere else I have been in the world and United States (so far), there were places that looked incredibly wealthy and devastatingly poor.

My expectation of Malaysia to be more of a third world country turned out not to be the case. I never felt unsafe or scared (except of the snakes at first). I am sure it’s different the further outside of Kuala Lumpur you go, but it turned out to be an international, diverse, mostly English-speaking, hospitable, and all around fascinating place to visit and a place I would love to see more of.

Eat Shit, then Eat Sushi

When I left my job 5 months ago to go traveling in Japan, I didn’t know – or even want to know – what I was going to do when I returned.  I remember writing that I was ready to jump and learn to fly on the way down.

This is a nice image: 27-year-old guy, burned out from his job, quits and 2 days later is on a plane to the other side of the world.

I enjoyed that trip so much.  I felt free and unencumbered by the stresses of my previous job.  I was ready to carve out a new path for my life and I enjoyed taking the time to unplug.

Don’t I look relaxed?

Coming back from that trip was an eye opener.  I returned to my same apartment, had lunch at my favorite bagel place and was ready to get back on with “real life.”

Something was different.  It took a few days, but I realized that I was struggling to adjust to my life without the structure of my job or the freedom of being abroad traveling.

Now, if you are saying, “cry me a river, Jeff!  You went to Japan and don’t have a job, get over it!”  I get it.  But, while I had grandiose plans to search for my dream job and start a new professional life, I was stumped.  I didn’t know where to start.

I had just accomplished my goal of being overseas for 6 weeks.  While I was in Japan and South Korea, I never thought that I would return to the States and struggle with what to do next.

It is a weird feeling to come to grips with and something I am continuing to focus on and learn from.

I wasn’t motivated to write, I was in a bit of a funk.  I knew I needed a new goal.

I was home for the holidays, and some family members were more interested in hearing about my professional aspirations than about my trip.  At first, I was taken aback, but upon some reflection, it makes sense. 

We live in a world that revolves around our work.  It is one of the first things you ask someone when you meet them (especially in D.C.).  So, it was natural for everyone to be interested in what I was going to do next.

I was still not sure what that next step or job looked like.  I had stumbled into my previous job and climbed the ladder.  I had not encountered a job search in a really long time.

I thought about it, a lot.  I knew I was getting close to the point of needing to make some money as my sabbatical fund was running low.

I was still not sure where I wanted to go professionally, but I itched to travel again.

I knew I had to make a decision.  I asked myself, “Will the 40-year old Jeff regret having spent a few more months traveling before getting back to work?”

My answer was no.

And that was it, I had a new goal and it was time to figure out how I could finance it.

My next decision was not glamorous, and was not something that comes to mind when I envision a person who quit their job to travel and explore themselves; I moved back home with my parents.

Yes, it was weird going back home after not spending more than a few days at a time there in almost 10 years.

Yes, it was weird actually living with my parents and not having my own place and privacy.

Yes, I was a little scared that I was taking a major step back.

And yes, I was a little embarrassed about it.

All that aside, it was the best decision I could have made to accomplish my goal.  I got a job during the day, I found a job bartending and waiting tables at night, and I prepared to work my ass off to be able to afford this new adventure.

You are probably thinking that this is not the usual way a story about a young guy traveling the world goes.  To be honest, neither did I.

I quickly learned that I was wrong, maybe this wasn’t what everyone else would want, but it was what I needed to do to accomplish the goals I had right then.  In my first post, I wrote about being afraid of what others would think about my decision to quit my job.  I learned then and had to remind myself now, that what other people think doesn’t matter. 

Was I happy with what I was doing?  Yup.

Was I hurting anyone by doing this?  Nope.

I have learned that it is so easy to worry about what others think of us.  I know I am not alone in this struggle.  But, we only have one life to live, and we can’t spend it trying to live up to the expectations we think others have for us.

It would be easy to call this 2 months of saving and living back home as a “pause” in my life, but I decided to embrace it as part of the journey.  I embraced the opportunity to spend some time with my folks, catch up with friends from back home, and save some money on rent and other expenses.

No, this isn’t how I envisioned my life at age 27.  But, by eating shit (not literally, and I love you Mom) and sacrificing some independence and free time for 2 months, I am writing this post from Tokyo and I have flights booked for Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia and Vietnam (If anyone has been, let me know about any must-sees!).

During this part of my journey, I have learned a lot, but one thing really stood out: If you really want to accomplish something big, you need to be willing to make a sacrifice as well.  Whether it is a new job, starting a business, taking a trip or just learning a new skill, if you aren’t willing to eat shit and make some sacrifices, you may find yourself stuck like I was.

I have never heard of a great accomplishment that didn’t require such a price.  Yet, we live in a world of get rich quick schemes, life hacking, job hacking and an obsession with overnight success.  A lot of us are all looking for shortcuts to achieve our goals.

Success – however you define it – requires patience, a little stubbornness and belief in yourself and what you are doing.

So, for now, I am going to eat some sushi and relish the opportunity I have created for myself.  Sure, I will think about creating new goals for when I return to “the real world,” but, from where I am sitting right now, the world looks pretty real to me.

Are you listening?

“You know, in marriage, the most important thing is you’ve got to listen.  A lot of wives complain their husbands don’t listen.  I’ve never heard my wife say this.  She may have.”

That is one of my favorite jokes by Jerry Seinfeld.  While that bit makes me laugh every time I hear it, the message really isn’t funny.

Whether talking to my boss, brother, father or friends, I hate the feeling of having what I say fall on deaf ears.  I know my girlfriend loves it when I don’t remember a detail from our conversation the previous day.

Now, you are probably thinking, “I don’t need to read this, I am a great listener!”

You are not alone.  Accenture published a study in 2014 of 3,600 business professionals worldwide.  The subjects were evenly distributed by age, gender and salary. 

Guess what percent of those subjects said they were “good listeners?”

Seriously, stop reading for a second and take a guess.  I’ll wait…

Okay, ready?

96 percent claimed to be good listeners.  96 percent!!!!!

Did you hear that?

Of course you did, 96 percent of you are such great listeners.

I don’t know about you, but far more than 4 percent of the people I know could use some work on their listening skills (myself included).

It’s important to examine why we are not as good listeners as we think, and develop skills and tools to improve.

Let’s begin with the why.

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, sheds light on this problem in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Kahneman explains that our brain has two modes of thinking: “System 1” thinking is instant, unconscious, emotional and intuitive, while “System 2” thinking is slower, rational and more deliberate.

We face so many situations throughout our day and make judgments constantly.  We rely on System 1 to make up our mind on things like, not even thinking to order tuna for lunch because you hate tuna, or not walking down a poorly lit alleyway at night while you are alone because it doesn’t feel safe, or thinking the new guy at the office, Sam, is mean because he was not friendly when you were introduced.

Wait a second. System 1 leads us to believe that Sam is a dick because of one bad interaction?

Maybe Sam was having an off moment, maybe Sam was overwhelmed with his new surrounding, maybe Sam is under the weather.  The possibilities are endless.

System 1 is capable of betraying us if we are not careful.  System 1 wants to make quick decisions, often without complete information, and can lead us to conclusions that are unsubstantiated.

What does this have to do with listening?

In conversation, System 1 does a great job of making us think we have everything figured out.  This is illustrated by the fact that we are rarely stumped.  System 1 allows us to have intuitive knee-jerk reactions to everything.  When was the last time you or someone you know said, “I really don’t know enough about this topic to have an opinion.”

Not often, right?

This can be very dangerous when it comes to conversation and reaching any kind of understanding with people who don’t share the same feelings we do.

What can we do about this?

We can start by not immediately judging what someone says to us.  This is not easy.  Kahneman goes to great lengths to explain how powerful System 1 is in our lives.  It is often difficult to see how irrationally we react to things without a complete set of information.

Imagine someone asking you, “Do you know everything there is to know about everything?”  You would probably laugh in their face.  Of course you don’t know everything, none of us do.

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” 

That was Einstein, by most accounts, a pretty smart dude.

Keep your ears and eyes open. Every moment is an opportunity to see the world from a new perspective.
Keep your ears and eyes open. Every moment is an opportunity to see the world from a new perspective.

If it is so obvious that there is so much we don’t know or understand, why do we frequently act like we do in day-to-day conversation (or online banter)?

This is where System 2 comes in handy.  System 2, the analytical part of our mind, needs time to process information to reach a conclusion.  We can practice paying attention to situations where System 1 is jumping to irrational conclusions, exercise restraint, and allow System 2 do it’s thing.

Truly hearing someone through is becoming harder and harder in our world of bite sized information, tweets, headlines and Facebook arguments.  With such limited information, all of our System 1’s are racing to judgment and making assumptions left and right, while our analytical System 2’s are getting lazy.

It is easy, and even feels good, to follow your intuitions as opposed to confronting them.

Don’t get me wrong, System 1’s intuition can be valuable and makes navigating this ever more complex world of ours a whole lot more manageable.  However, if we blindly trust our intuition without ever questioning our own assumptions (or of those around us), we miss out on the opportunity to learn and find common ground.

How can we help ourselves accomplish this?

Shut up.  Seriously, shut up and listen.  Stop interrupting and try to withhold judgement until you have heard someone through.  They may be completely wrong, but more often than not, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

When I say “listen,” I do not mean simply wait your turn while you are formulating your response.  Really hear what the person is telling you and respond to what they are saying.

Make eye-contact.  Besides helping you focus on the person you are interacting with, this is a simple sign of respect.  We have all been there, talking to someone while their eyes wander all over.  It is frustrating to be on the receiving end, and quite frankly, it’s pretty rude.

Maintaining eye-contact can be a bit awkward at first.  However, it is amazing how much more you retain and how improved the connection between the person you are talking to is when you look them in the eye. 

If you struggle with this, try focusing on one of the person’s eye at a time.  Sounds a little weird, but it has worked for me and is a good trick.

Ask a question.  Sounds obvious, but asking a follow-up question about what the other person just said is a great way to retain information and show you are paying attention.

Summarize.  This is similar to asking a follow-up question.  As we have established, our System 1 (quick, reactionary part of our brain) likes to jump to conclusions.  It is so easy to misunderstand someone and miss their message.

To avoid this mental landmine, summarize what you have taken away from the conversation and let the person confirm.

“So, you are saying….?”


“Would I be right to say your point is….?”

Being an active listener and being open-minded are skills that require practice.  Our brains like to play tricks on us and love when we stick to our guns.  Luckily, we have opportunities all around us to practice.

There is a consistent message that our society has never been more divided and stratified.  Regardless of your point of view, becoming a better listener can make you more approachable, likable, connected and most importantly informed.  Really hearing and understanding each other can begin to bridge this societal divide.  Better listening can help us be a better friends, mothers, bosses, sons, employees and better people in general.  And that is something worth striving for.

So, just one more question.  Are you listening?

Who Packs Your Parachute?

The Thanksgiving holiday has come and gone.  The time of year when many declare their gratitude for the people and things in their lives, on Facebook, over the phone and in person.

As the tryptophan induced slumber and Black Friday deals fade into the hectic Holiday season, I hope that the spirit of giving thanks does not.  Expressing and practicing thankfulness is something anyone is capable of and the results can be very impactful.

A study done by two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of UC, Davis and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, tried to determine the effects of gratitude.  Emmons and McCullough split the subjects into three groups and simply had them write a few sentences each week.

One group was instructed to write about things they were grateful for.  The second group was told to write about all the things that did not go their way and frustrated them.  The final group just wrote about things that affected them (with no focus on good or bad).

After this ten week study, the group that focused on what they were grateful for were more optimistic and had a more positive outlook on their lives.  The surprise finding is that this same group reportedly exercised more and made fewer doctors visits than those who focused on the negatives.

The results make sense; the more you concentrate on what you are grateful for, as opposed to the bad breaks, the easier it is to see the good around you.

Gratitude for those closest to us makes us hopeful and inspires confidence.  But, what about people we deal with every day who are not our closest family and friends?

In this light, I’d like to share the story of Charles Plumb.

Charles Plumb, a former US Navy Pilot during the Vietnam War, flew 75 combat missions before being shot down over enemy lines.  He ejected from his plane and parachuted into enemy hands.  Plumb was held for 6 years in a communist Vietnamese prison before escaping and returning home.

One day, Plumb was at a restaurant with his wife when a man approached the table and said, “You’re Plumb!  You flew fighter jets in Vietnam off the carrier Kitty Hawk.  You were shot down!”

Plumb, asked how the man knew that.

“I packed your parachute,” the man replied.

Plumb discusses this story in lectures across the country.  He tells his audiences that he could not sleep the night after encountering the man in the restaurant.  That night, Plumb imagined what the man looked like in his Navy whites.  He thought about how many times they may have passed each other on the ship without so much as an acknowledgment, since Plumb was a pilot and this man was merely a sailor.

Plumb now asks his audiences, “who packs your parachute?”

Don't forget the people who pack the parachutes in your life.
Don’t forget the people who pack the parachutes in your life.

Life will always make things busy for us.  Life will always make it easier to push forward than to stop and appreciate those around us.  How many times do we fail to say hello, please or thank you?  How many times do we fail to recognize the accomplishments of those around us, especially when those accomplishments allow us to succeed, both personally and professionally?

If we learn anything from Charles Plumb’s story, it is that the power of appreciation shouldn’t be reserved for those close to us or those we perceive as worthy of our acknowledgment.   Gratefulness should be incorporated in our daily lives, at home, in public and at work. 

Let’s focus on thankfulness at work, a place where lack of appreciation is a common complaint. Glassdoor, the online jobs and career website, published their “Employee Appreciation Survey,” of 2,044 users in 2013:

  • 81% of employees say they would work harder when boss shows appreciation
  • 38% of employees say they would work harder when boss is demanding
  • 37% of employees say they would work harder out of fear of losing their job

People are far better motivated by appreciation than by fear.  The crotchety, unappreciative boss, like Bill Lumbergh in Office Space, who only shows up to deliver bad news or tell you when you screwed up, is not effective. 

As Peter Gibbons goes on to explain later in the movie in his meeting with the Bobs, “my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”

It is easy to find shortcomings in our co-workers, bosses, employees, family and friends when life stresses us out and keeps us busy.  It is easy to criticize those around us (or tell them they forgot about the cover sheets on the TPS reports).  It is easy to be blind to all the small contributions made by those around us that lead to our successes in life.

Finding ways to be grateful and positive towards the people you interact with has a favorable impact on the person giving and receiving the appreciation.

Tomorrow, find an opportunity to specifically thank two people throughout your day.  It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant, but don’t just say “thanks,” while hardly breaking eye contact with your phone.  Look the person in the eye and let them feel your appreciation.

While you are at it, let that person know how much their effort means to you.  Give the barista at Starbucks an “atta-boy” for making a great latte.  Thank an employee or co-worker for something they do everyday that might otherwise go unrecognized.  Thank your boyfriend or girlfriend just for being there for you when you’ve needed them.

This may be a bit uncomfortable at first.  We may find it hard to recognize others because we are envious, or we fear that shining a positive light on others casts a shadow upon us.  We may find it difficult to praise others because we feel that a person “should” be doing something. 

If the challenge is jealousy, you should still give the compliment.  The other person will feel good and hopefully you can find motivation to take the necessary steps towards accomplishing your own goals worthy of acknowledgment.  Even if we feel that a person “should” be doing what we are thanking them for, it builds self-confidence for the person receiving the recognition and when we feel appreciated, we are willing to do more for each other.  While it may seem counter intuitive, the best way to build your own self-esteem is by building up another’s.

On the flip side, many of us have a well conditioned reflex to deflect or brush off any appreciation.  We often feel unworthy of such praise.  When we do not practice being grateful for what we have and focus on the negative, hearing positive feedback feels foreign to us.

Not only is this preventing us from feeling good about our contributions, but it inhibits the person delivering the appreciation from having the experience of brightening someone’s day.  We owe it to ourselves and those around us to remember that we are worthy of praise and gratitude.

So, as the Facebook “Grateful for Us” captions fade into the holiday season, don’t forget to remain thankful to those around you.  Don’t forget to think about what you are grateful for.  And don’t forget who packs your parachute.

Japan in Review: Different Ain’t So Bad

Imagine walking around Times Square in New York City.  A family of Japanese tourists approaches and asks you for the name of the block you’re standing on.

You explain that you are on 47th, between Broadway and 8th.

The Japanese family looks at you with bewilderment and repeats the question, “what is the name of the block?”

A little confused, you clarify, “we are on 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue.”

Street map of Times Sqaure.
Street map of Times Square.

Unfortunately, you have not helped the Japanese family and they move on in search of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. still lost and confused.

Now, imagine you are in Tokyo.  You are a bit lost and ask someone, “what street are we on?”

The person looks a little confused, points across the street and says, “that is block 24 and we are on block 25.”

You probably hang your head to the side as you try to make sense of this answer.  Going for it one more time, you ask, “what is the name of this street?”

The Japanese local responds, “that is block 24 and we are on block 25.  Streets do not have names, blocks have names.  Streets are the empty spaces between the blocks.”

Street map of the ward Shibuya in Tokyo.
Street map of the ward Shibuya in Tokyo.

All of a sudden, that run in with the Japanese family in Times Square starts to make sense.

The Japanese not only label their blocks as opposed to streets (some major streets have names, but not most), the house numbers do not go in order based on location, they are numbered based on when they were built.

When I was in Japan, I couldn’t wrap my head around how they managed to navigate with such a backwards address system.  I couldn’t understand how anyone knew where they were going.  Yet, this system works just fine in Japan.

Addresses were not the only thing that appear backwards and upside down in Japan to a foreigner (or Gaijin in Japanese).  When I told my friends and family I was traveling to Japan, they all said I was in for a major culture shock. 

After spending 6 weeks in Japan, with a trip to South Korea mixed in, I realize my friends and family were right.  However, the differences are not as extreme as you may think; a little weird for sure, but sometimes things that are different and a little weird aren’t necessarily so bad.

When I arrived, I felt like a child.  I pointed at menus to order food.  I relied on seven words of Japanese and Tarzan-like English to communicate.  I smiled and nodded a lot in an attempt to not offend anyone (I probably offended some people anyway, but at least I tried).

I’d have a rush of excitement when I got the hang of something or learned a new word.  The same type of excitement you experienced when you were able to ride your bike down the street without training wheels and not fall off.  I wasn’t accomplishing anything spectacular.  I was getting used to walking on the left side of the sidewalk, receiving change with two hands or walking up the right side of an escalator as opposed to the left.  It was all about the little victories.

There is a lot to get used to. 

Everything in Japan opens late.  There are a few exceptions, but most stores and restaurants don’t open until 10-11AM, even on the weekends!  Imagine if we did that in the States.  There would be a mass hysteria if us millennials couldn’t roll out of bed and get a bottomless Bloody Mary with our Eggs Benedict for brunch.

Once things are open, Tokyo is an amazing city.  Having spent most of my life in New York and Washington D.C., one of the most glaring differences is the quality of public transportation.

Being better than the Washington D.C. Metro is not much of an accomplishment.  However, in Japan, trains are always on time, run every 5 minutes, connect to every corner of the city, are wonderfully air-conditioned and are – drum roll please – clean.

When I say clean, I do not mean simply free of visible debris, I mean spic and span.  In contrast, when I hopped on the D.C. metro upon arriving back in the States, I had to avoid an empty “Big Bite” 7-11 container, covered in mustard, on the only open seat.

During my first few trips to the train station in Japan, I noticed there were all these yellow paths with little ridges leading everywhere.  Given how concerned the Japanese are about safety, I was shocked they would have such a blatant tripping hazard all over the place.  I felt like skipping along and singing “follow the yellow brick road,” until I was informed that they are there to help blind people navigate the train station safely.

Guides for the blind. Luckily they are used to walking on the left side of the walkways.
Guides for the blind. Luckily they are used to walking on the left side of the walkways.

The subway system is not the only place that is clean, the whole city is pristine!  It is common to see city workers and store owners, cleaning the sidewalks and the exteriors of buildings every day.

There is virtually no trash on the ground, not even cigarette butts.  On it’s own, this is not groundbreaking, but it is impressive when you realize there are virtually no public trash cans on the street.  I am not exaggerating, you would often walk blocks and blocks before running into some small receptacles outside a convenience store.  Each bin is labeled for burnables, glass or plastic. 

Furthermore, these few trash cans are never overflowing like you would see at a park or neighborhood with a vibrant nightlife on the weekends in the U.S..  The Japanese are very careful with their trash situation and you don’t see many people carrying Orange Mocha Frappaccino to-go cups on the street.  Japan puts even the most progressive college campuses to shame that think they are reducing their carbon footprint.

This is not to say everything is perfect.  Most public restrooms are often not equipped with soap or paper towels.  You know you are in a fancy shmancy area when the bathroom has paper towels.  Most locals carry lots of hand sanitizer and follow the BYOT rule (Bring Your Own Towel).

Once you get past those short comings, the bathroom situation is actually quite lovely.  Unless you find yourself stuck with a squatty potty, every toilet is complete with a bidet and heated seat.  Talk about a big variation, either a hole in the ground to squat over, or a luxury spa for your bottom.  I was skeptical of the bidet at first, but once I got used to it, a little rinse before reaching for the toilet paper is a massive upgrade.  Japan is the land of the cleanest streets and the cleanest buttholes, just bring your own soap.

The dreaded squatty potty.
The dreaded squatty potty.

The bathroom feature that blew me away had nothing to do with cleanliness.  Toilets in restaurants and nice areas have noise makers that produce the sounds of a toilet flushing or birds chirping.  Imagine, you never have to be embarrassed about the plippity ploppity and splashy noises you make when nature calls.

Another big difference in Japan is related to crime: there is none!  Every English-speaking bartender and local says that if you miss the last train home, you could pass out on the street with your wallet in your hand and wake up with it in your pocket.

I did not test this theory out myself, however, the way people behaved made you feel like crime is less of an issue as it is in major cities in the States.  It was common to see people asleep outside the train station after a night of drinking.  People did not lock up their bikes.  Business folks would go to the bathroom at coffee shops and leave their laptops on the table.  Stores had large displays of goods outside without anyone making sure anything walked away.

I realized how conditioned I am to think that some degree of crime is normal.  When I first arrived, I thought these store owners were crazy and these people were stupid to leave their bikes and belongings unattended.  By the end of my trip, I realized they weren’t the silly ones for being so trustworthy, I was for being so speculative.

I am sure you have seen the ads on trains in the U.S. that warn you to keep your phone and bags close by so they are not easily grabbed by thieves leaving the train.  There are no such ads to be found in Tokyo.  There are, however, signs reminding you to give up your seat for the elderly, a pregnant woman or someone with a disability.  Different for sure, but that really highlights the priorities and concerns of the community in Japan.

Not all signs or ads are quite so noble.  A few examples include: cautioning drunk people to be careful by the tracks, warning you not to use a selfie stick near the tracks to avoid being electrocuted, and my favorite, a sign by the escalator warning men not to take pictures up women’s skirts (for real).

Anti-Pervert Warnings.
Anti-Pervert Warnings.

Maybe some folks are a tad perverted in Japan, but at least they are taking measures to curb such behavior.  This sign is not the only precaution for creepers.  All Japanese cell phones have a security feature that ensures the phone makes the “click” noise when you take a picture.  This way, no one can take a picture of you without everyone around knowing.  Luckily, phones in the States can be set to silent, which helped me take this picture of some dude passed out on the train one morning…

Catching a snooze on the morning train.
Catching a snooze on the morning train.

Moving on to food.  There are definitely some interesting features and practices in the world of Japanese food.

First, the Japanese love vending machines.  They are everywhere.  You can’t walk more than a block without running into a machine selling water, soda, alcohol (yes alcohol, no open container law!) or hot coffee.  The hot coffee brand “Premium Boss,” oddly uses Tommy Lee Jones and a stoic Japanese dude in sunglasses as their spokesmen.

Tommy Lee Jones: The Premium Boss
Tommy Lee Jones: The Premium Boss

Vending machines are not limited to soft drinks and Tommy Lee Jones sponsored caffeinated beverages.  A lot of restaurants use vending machines for you to place your order.  You put in your money, pick your meal, a ticket prints and you hand it over as you walk in.

Ramen vending machine.
Ramen vending machine.

With my experience in the restaurant business, I am skeptical about how this would fly in the States.  The Japanese are not big on substitutions, while most Americans read a menu as a list of suggested ingredients that can be interchanged at will.

The Japanese don’t allow such requests just to be a pain.  They want you to order items as is to ensure a quality product.  There is nothing more frustrating in the restaurant business, than a person who would create their own dish only to be disappointed that it isn’t as good as they expected (that’s why it isn’t on the menu!).  I actually respect the Japanese for sticking to their product and not allowing for variation they do not control.

A lot of friends asked me if I ate sushi for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Surprisingly, I ate less sushi than I would have expected.  The sushi I did partake in is leaps and bounds better, fresher and cut in vastly larger pieces than any sushi spot in the US.  If your idea of sushi is the roll variety, covered in spicy mayo and crunchy toppings (sorry Dad), you are in for disappointment.  I do not believe there is any spicy mayo in the entire country.  This was exclusively sashimi and nigiri land, and it was glorious.

The one time I did have sushi for breakfast at the Tsukiji Fish Market. It was as good as it looks.
The one time I did have sushi for breakfast at the Tsukiji Fish Market. It was as good as it looks.

There are a lot of great things to eat away from raw fish.  Yakitori, grilled meat on a stick, was very popular and a delicious meal or snack.  Dumplings were pervasive and amazing.  The Japanese take their noodles very seriously; udon (thick noodles), soba (buckwheat noodles) and my favorite, ramen (not instant), is available on every block.  Ramen also doubles as a late night snack spot.  I am fairly certain ramen is some type of ancient hang over remedy.

My favorite ramen spot. This style is called Tongotsu (Pork Bone) ramen.
My favorite ramen spot. This style is called Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) ramen.

Most restaurants in Japan encourage reservations and are skeptical of accepting walk-ins.  There were several instances when a restaurant would be reluctant to seat a party of 2 at 6:00PM because they were holding that specific table for an 8:30PM reservation.  The restaurant manager in me wanted to shake them by the collar and explain to them how much money they were losing with this practice.  Upon reflection, I began to respect these establishments for running their businesses the way they want to and avoiding anything that might diminish the experience for their customers.

The music played in restaurants and bars is pretty spectacular.  One afternoon, I went to a restaurant that did not have an English menu.  After a five-minute ordering process with the one lady who kinda spoke English, I sat down and took in my surroundings.  I realized they were playing “Endless Love” on the radio.  Don’t get me wrong, this soulful ballad by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross should be appreciated by different cultures, but I was definitely the only customer who understood the words.

One night at a bar, there was an eclectic Funk band performing.  Until you see a Japanese man sing “She’s a Brick House,” you simply have not lived.

Besides all the institutional and cultural differences, I had some experiences during my time in Japan (and South Korea) that I would never have done in the States. 

I rode a go-cart, dressed as Luigi from Mario Kart, in the streets of Tokyo. 

Classic Asian tourist picture driving a go cart.
Classic Asian tourist picture driving a go-cart.

I went to a baseball game where the there is no middle-aged man screaming, “ICE COLD BEER HERE!”  Instead, there are petite Japanese women running around with back packs filled with kegs.  Oh, and the team’s name is the Tokyo Yakult “Swallows” (referring to the bird, get your head out of the gutter). 

Draught beer on the go!
Draught beer on the go!

I went to a Robot Show, which consisted of four acts that can only be described as some sort of live anime with monsters, robots and people.  They were playing drums, and then fighting, and then dancing to Michael Jackson music, and then fighting some more.  I am pretty sure there was supposed to be a story line, but the volume of neon lights, smoke and debauchery made it hard to follow.  Luckily, they serve beer.  If given the opportunity, go to the Robot Show and prepare to get weird, really weird.

One of the music scene's from the Robot Show.
One of the music scene’s from the Robot Show.

I bathed naked at a natural hot spring spa called an Onsen. (For obvious reasons, there are no pictures to accompany this experience)

I went to the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea.  I was close enough that I could hear the propaganda North Korea blasts through speakers to entice the South Korean’s to defect over the border.  In retaliation, the South Korean’s play Korean Pop music back at North Korea (can’t say they don’t have a sense of humor).

Spying on Kim Jung Un.
Spying on Kim Jong-Un.

I went to the official “Cup O’ Noodles” museum and made my own “Cup O’ Noodle.”

I have the artistic skill and sense of humor of a 10 year old.
I have the artistic skill and sense of humor of a 10-year-old.

I went to an Owl Cafe, which did not live up to the Harry Potter like expectations I had.  PETA would have disapproved, but how often do you get to hold an owl?!

We are ready for our close up!
We are ready for our close up!

While there was plenty of weird by American standards, there was also plenty of normal.  Lots of beautiful parks, fascinating museums, cultural festivals, delicious food and impressive temples, shrines and architecture.

At the end of the day, I have learned from the people in Japan that the world is a lot less daunting than we often make it out to be.  Yes, things are different.  Yes, things can be a little weird, but my experience in Japan has led me to believe that weird and different isn’t necessarily as bad as we anticipate.  Often, our fears and lack of understanding paralyze us from doing something that can turn out to be amazing and unforgettable. 

It is easy to watch the news these days and think that the world is a dangerous and scary place.  However, walking the streets of Tokyo felt just as safe, if not safer, than the streets of D.C. or New York.  Do you need to use some common sense and avoid some sketchy areas?  Of course you do.  Are there still some bad people out there?  Absolutely.  But, it seems like the world is generally filled with a lot of good, decent, friendly and hospitable people.

One of many that wanted to take pictures with me while riding go carts.
One of many that wanted to take pictures with me while riding go carts.

This extended time out of the country has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.  I always dreamed of having an experience like this and until now, I had always had an excuse to avoid taking the plunge.  If I learned nothing else, I learned this: If you want to take a trip or experience something new, don’t wait for all the traffic lights of life to turn green (because they won’t) and don’t let fear get in your way.  Be like Nike and “Just Do It.”

Now that I am back in the States, I am not thinking about if I will take another trip like this, I am thinking about when and where.