Yesterday, there was another candle added to the birthday cake and another year in the books. This past year has been a whirlwind for me. In the last 365 days, I quit my job where I had a successful career going, flew to the other side of the world 3 times, and visited 7 countries.
I am not much for New Year’s resolutions, but, as I turn 28, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what I’ve done, what I have learned, and what I am still learning after a big year in my life.
Do what you want to do: When I quit my job to go traveling, I heard a lot of people say, “I wish I could do something like that.” You can. There are a lot of places in life where there are gatekeepers. Traveling proved not to be one of them. I was the biggest gatekeeper between me and my dreams. Quitting your job and traveling may not be what you want to do, but I encourage you to think about what you really want and do it.
Know your limits: If I had waited to have all the money I thought I would want to take my leave and travel, I wouldn’t have done it. Whether it is money, a promotion, or whatever other accomplishment you are waiting for, know what is important to you and don’t make compromises that put your well-being in jeopardy. If you don’t like the menu, leave the restaurant.
Spend time with family: My previous job kept me from a lot of family functions. Check out this article titled, “The Tail End.” Tim Urban explains how when we leave home after high school, we have spent 93% of the time we will ever spend with our parents. It is a sobering, yet helpful reminder to cherish the time we are able to spend with those closest to us, and I am grateful to have been able to spend a lot of time with family this past year.
I like bidets: The worst adjustment to life in the U.S. is the lack of bidets. They are on every toilet in Japan. A year ago, I wouldn’t have believed I liked having water shot where the sun don’t shine. But, now I want to buy a bidet attachment for my toilet. We are way behind the times in the States. The point of this one is, you never know what you might end up liking or what will have a positive impact on your life until you try.
Stop comparing yourself to others: This is increasingly hard while we are all drinking out of the fire hose of social media. Promotions, marriage, kids, vacations. Who cares? Everything happens in due time and everyone’s path is not the same.
Read: “Formal education will make you a living,” Jim Rohn writes, “self-education will make you a fortune.”
Be nice: I can’t underscore this one enough. Once you interact with people who can’t afford shoes, but make an effort to be kind and helpful to you as a stranger visiting their country, you realize that getting pissed off in traffic or because there is a long line at Starbucks is a waste of energy and mental sanity. Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be nice.
Do something that scares the shit out of you: To become more confident, you have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. For example, flying to Southeast Asia with a peanut allergy (Spoiler Alert: I survived, and it wasn’t that big a deal). “Do the thing you fear most,” wrote Mark Twain, “and the death of fear is certain.”
It’s not supposed to be easy: While a lot of this journey has been fun, there have definitely been struggles. Adjusting to life away from the routine of going to work everyday. Filling the void when the excitement of travel comes to an end. There has been a lot of inertia and mental hurdles to overcome in an effort to have a different life than I was living. The rest of the list are some things that I am continuing to learn and work on.
Set goals: If you asked me what my goals in life were a year ago, they were probably fairly short-term and generic. It was not until this year that I really spent time thinking about what I wanted my life to look like (and maybe more importantly, what I DIDN’T want my life to look like). To be honest, I struggled, and continue to struggle, with defining what I want to do. I have found some clarity by asking myself, “what would I do if I couldn’t fail?” Kind of reminds me of the scene in Office Space where they ask each other, “what would you do if you had a million dollars?” But, I felt like this went deeper. Not just having the financial security, but what would you do if you couldn’t fail. No disappointed family. No embarrassment. No feelings of wasted time.
Pursue those goals: Author Matthew Kelly writes, “People overestimate what they can accomplish in a day and underestimate what they can accomplish in a month.” Do something every day. This is something I struggled with when I found myself without the comfortable structure of the work day and going into the office every day. However, any goal worth spending time on requires hard work and the only way I have experienced success in any endeavor is through constant practice.
Write it down: One of the best things I did in my travels was keep notes and write on this blog about what I was doing and what was on my mind. It has been harder to continue upon returning stateside, but it is a joy to look back at my notes or the online journal I kept for myself while traveling.
It’s going to be okay: Over the past year, this lesson has proven itself out time and time again. A few times, I thought I was in an “end of the world,” catastrophe like situation. I never was. Keep your head on a swivel. I comforted myself by asking, “what is the worst thing that could happen?” Usually the answer is not that intimidating. Mark Twain wrote, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
So that’s it for this year. It’s fun taking the trip down the memory lane of this past year, and thinking about the year to come. Maybe a little wiser? Maybe a little better? Maybe another country or two? We will see.
While traveling through Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia, I read The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. Holiday discusses principles of stoic philosophy through the writing and behavior of Marcus Aurelius, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Phil Jackson, George Washington and Ulysses Grant, to name a few.
These iconic figures, and many others, turn seemingly impassable obstacles into opportunities for success and growth. Holiday reminds us to focus on the things we have control over in our lives rather than obsess over the inevitable setbacks and roadblocks life sends our way. We choose our attitude, not what gets thrown at us.
“The things that hurt,” Benjamin Franklin said, “instruct.”
I’ll return to the book later.
I want to focus on Cambodia.
Cambodia has been my best travel experience yet. You could spend days exploring the Temples of Angkor alone. I was under the impression that there was just one big temple worth the visit: Angkor Wat. However, there are several temples, some just as impressive as Angkor Wat that I would encourage anyone traveling to Cambodia to check out.
Angkor Wat is massive upon approach and even more impressive up close. The detailed carvings on the walls and pillars are breathtaking. I was amazed that such feats were accomplished starting in the 12th Century.
Apart from Angkor Wat, a few temples are worth mention. Ta Prohm had trees growing through and atop parts of the temple. There was also a scene from Tomb Raider filmed there.
Bayon is a three-tiered temple adorned with approximately 216 smiling faces that scholars believe to be the face of Jayavarman VII (I referred to him as J the Seventh for simplicity, judge if you like, but there are a lot of names!). Did I mention J the Seventh was the creator of Bayon? And they say Millennials are vain.
Many of the temples were surrounded by amazing amounts of ruins, a result of the constant violence that has dominated Cambodia for decades. Japan, Germany, Italy, China and India have assisted in rebuilding and preserving these historic temples. Pictures really do not do these places justice, but it is mind-boggling to see how they have rebuilt parts of these temples from rubble.
Getting around the area was a breeze with our personal tuk tuk driver, Yin, who would wait for us outside each temple and take us to the next one. A tuk tuk, is a motorcycle with a little four seat trailer latched on. Yin’s services for the day, $15.
Money Side Bar: Everywhere in Cambodia takes US Dollars. Haven’t run into that on any other travels so far. Kind of strange, however, no need to exchange money at the airport, you just end up losing out on the exchange rate. On that note, the dollar goes a long way in Cambodia. Lunches ranged from $2-5, dinners from $4-10 and beer was never more than $2.50 if you wanted to spring for a Corona (gross), the local brew, “Angkor,” was $0.50-1. Cheers!
Besides temple hunting like Indiana Jones, the street markets of Siem Reap are a lot of fun. Prepare to haggle with the women who run the shops to get a good price on a t-shirt, knock off pair of Ray-Bans, or pants with elephants on them (yes, I bought the elephant pants). My Jewish Grandmother, who bargains at department stores, would have cleaned up at these markets.
The food was fantastic. For lunch, our driver Yin, took us to local spots around the temples where the fried rice and beef loc lac (beef cooked in red wine and oyster sauce) were substantial and delicious. The dinner highlight was a Cambodian BBQ joint that provided 7 types of meat, including crocodile, frog and shark, to grill at your table alongside a plethora of vegetables, noodles and rice.
The nightlife area, aptly named “Pub Street,” was quite a sight to behold. Each bar was crowded with backpackers and tourists. There were little bar carts on the street that sold Martini’s for $1. There was a cart that sold BBQ bugs, snakes and spiders; they charged $0.50 just to take a picture of the bugs if you did not have the chutzpa to give it a try (I did not have the chutzpa and out of principle did not pay to take a picture, sorry).
We took a private Quad Tour through the back roads of Siem Reap, where little kids playing along the road waved at us, and by sprawling fields and rice paddies. The tour concluded watching the sunset over a beautiful lotus flower field, while we got to chat with our guide about life in Cambodia.
The Cambodian people were some of the nicest and most accommodating I have encountered in my travels. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to help you out and did so with a smile.
At first, I thought Cambodia must be a great place to live in the world since everyone is so pleasant. Unfortunately, I was reminded that while Cambodia is a great place to travel to, it is a tough place to live.
According to our quad tour guide, corruption is pervasive at all levels of government, including the police force. For many, an annual salary is in the $100’s.
Cambodia has been strife with Civil War predating the Vietnam War, and continued until 1999. Sadly, I vaguely remember a very small part of my World History classes covering the Khmer Rouge and the constant tragedy that has plagued the people of this country. This is not a history lesson, but if you are interested in learning more about this not too distant history, there are worse places to start than a quick Google search.
This was the first time I have ever been in a country that had been so recently impacted by such atrocities. It is estimated that somewhere between 1 and 3 million people were executed or died of starvation or disease under the rule of the Khmer Rouge and resulting struggles.
Today, Cambodia is a country of 15 million people, 50% of which are under 22 years or age! Their economy is growing thanks to a boom in tourism, but their environmental, corruption and education rankings are some of the worst in the world.
I really had an exceptional time in Cambodia, everything from the temples to the food to the quad tour to the night life was a unique and memorable experience. Having said that, on our last night, we talked a lot about the people of Cambodia and I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for my own life.
Disadvantages and obstacles, that I have been lucky enough to avoid were all around me and, inadvertently, the topic of the book I brought with me on the trip.
Returning to The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday explains that the secret of “turning trials into triumphs” involves three parts:
Part one, “perspective.” Holiday writes:
“We choose how we’ll look at things. We retain the ability to inject perspective into a situation. We can’t change the obstacles themselves- that part of the equation is set- but the power of perspective can change how the obstacles appear. How we approach, view, and contextualize an obstacle, and what we tell ourselves it means, determines how daunting and trying it will be to overcome.”
Part two, “action.” “We all either wear out or rust out, every one of us,” said Theodore Roosevelt, “my choice is to wear out.”
The Stoic Philosopher Seneca wrote:
“In the meantime, cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, not to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases.”
Part three, “will.” Holiday writes:
“After you’ve distinguished between the things that are up to you and the things that aren’t, and the break comes down to something you don’t control… you’ve got only one option: acceptance.”
“Let’s be clear, this is not the same thing as giving up. This has nothing to do with action- this is for the things that are immune to action. It is far easier to talk of the way things should be. It takes toughness, humility, and will to accept them for what they actually are. It takes a real man or woman to face necessity.”
Think about it for a second, imagine you are one of those 50% of the Cambodian population under the age of 22. Imagine the unfair challenges and disadvantages you had to face growing up in the aftermath of civil war and genocide. Imagine living in a world dominated by corruption, where it is really a privilege to go to school and learn to read. I think it would be really easy to crumble in the face of such adversity.
The people of Cambodia, just like any of us, cannot control the circumstances to which they were born. However, as far as I could tell, they choose to make the best of it, take advantage of what they can, earn a living, and care for their families. To be honest, I wouldn’t blame anyone there for looking at tourists like myself with disgust. And yet, they were some of the happiest, nicest, and most hospitable people I have come across so far, and that is including countries in East and Southeast Asia which are far more prosperous and advantaged.
I know America has its own issues these days. I also realize that there are atrocities in the world being carried out right now. I am not trying to make a point about who suffered more. But, it takes some incredible strength to endure what the people of this country have endured, and continue to endure, and carry themselves in such a positive manner.
It is certainly a reminder for me to be grateful for the advantages I have had, grateful for the people in my life and those who paved the way for me. It is a reminder to put obstacles and unfortunate situations in their proper place. Things happen that we have no control over, what we can control is how we react to them and what we are going to do moving forward.
Alter your perspective; remain objective, tame your emotions and focus on what can be controlled. Action; will you wear out or rust out? Will you meet adversity with energy and an eye for opportunity? Will; manage expectations, accept what we cannot change and persevere in the face of inevitable adversity.
Thank you Cambodia for the unforgettable experience and the lesson in perspective and gratitude.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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 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 plippityploppity 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).
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
I went to the official “Cup O’ Noodles” museum and made my own “Cup O’ Noodle.”
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?!
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.
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.