Solo travelling in Japan - some anecdotes

Why Japan?

COVID was rough for me.  Not the sickness part, but the isolation.  After two years working remotely as a software engineer in Seattle, I was feeling burnt out and ready for a change.  I'd spent what felt like my entire life in school then jumped into a professional software engineering job without really considering other options.  And don't get me wrong, I don't regret my recent work experience.  I met some amazing people, made enough money to fund a bit of world traveling, and became confident enough in my technical abilities to leave my job.  Taking a leap of faith,  I quit my job and committed to spending the year traveling in hopes of learning, growing, and connecting with others.

Why Japan?  Well, of every country in the world, the food, culture, hot springs and snowboarding in Japan seemed like a great place to start.  

I decided on Japan first because tickets to the Niseko mountain ski area in Northern Japan were covered by my Ikon snowboarding pass.  So, at the end of January 2023, I bought a one-way ticket to Osaka, Japan.

Osaka: culture shock & a chubby seal

I stepped into a packed Izakaya and asked, in English, if I could order food and a drink.  The man behind the bar stared at me blankly, but ushered me to the last open seat at the bar.  I ordered a beer (which I later found out was basically the same word in Japanese "biru").  Then, realizing that I didn't have any Japanese currency or in fact speak any Japanese, I tried to explain the the man that I needed to get money from an ATM.  I left the restaurant to regroup.  What seemed like a lifetime later, after getting Japanese Yen from an ATM, I couldn't find my way back to the Izakaya.

Chubby seal at Osaka aquarium

Post aquarium, I found a very local Onsen bath house in the outskirts of Osaka. The woman at the front desk spoke zero english. After speaking in foreign languages at each other, she wrote down a number and handed me a small tube of soap and two towels of different sizes. The instructions for what happened next were unclear, but I payed and bowed politely.  We already seemed to be in a changing room of sorts.  So, I proceeded to remove my clothes, all of them, and open the door to the next room. About 15 naked Japanese men looked up at me. The walls all around were covered in Japanese text, which to me, looked more like an abstract art form than a language system. Instructions still unclear. The first bath I tried was scalding. The sauna had a TV inside playing a Japanese show where a panel of people were watching and reacting to watching another TV show.  I didn't understand a word, but it was some of the most entertaining TV shows I've seen.  I couldn't take my eyes of it. The cold plunge felt amazing.  The Onsen culture in Japan is absolutely my pace.  Weeks later, I'm writing this having gone to an Onsen almost every day since.  Hopefully this culture will spread to the states someday.  Traveling in Japan, I'm by far the cleanest I've ever been.

At Universal Studios Japan in Osaka. The cute Japanese girls, in matching outfits and short skirts, in the freezing winter wind were very much present. Standing in the waiting room for a ride with an Asian family, the ride worker gave us a few minute rapid fire spiel on what I assume was the safety instructions for the roller coaster.  I was trying not to laugh at how long the presentation was, given I had no understanding of what she was saying, and it was seemed important for whatever lay on the other side of the doors we were about to pass through.  A boy about my age from the family turned to me and asked, ‘Do you speak Japanese?’ because we didn’t get any of that.  The doors to the ride opened.

Onomichi → Imabari: cycling 🚲 in Japan

My friend Josh recommended the Japanese Shimanami Kaido cycling route to me, saying it was the highlight of his trip to Japan.  So my FOMO kicked in, and I decided, mid-winter that a 100 mile bike trip I hadn't trained for was a good idea.  The route started in Onomichi a small coastal city south of Osaka and ended 50 miles south across a number of islands and suspension bridges.

I arrived just after noon to the bike rental shop in Onomichi.  The man working there was visibly concerned about my nonchalant attitude towards the ride. He was worried (rightfully so it turned out) I wouldn’t make it before the sun set.  He also could hardly believe that I had only planned one day in advance and hadn't yet booked a place to stay for my return journey.  This man was a planner.  

The route was beautiful. I crossed multiple massive suspension bridges, passed orange and lemon orchards, and small, seaside Japanese towns.  The path was clearly marked by a blue line the entire way and mostly clear of vehicle traffic.  The bike rental man was right.  By mile 40 the sun was getting very low in the sky.  I ran out of water and my right leg began cramping.  Then my right kneecap began hurting.  I made it to Imabari just as the sun was setting and ate what seemed like an entire cow at one of those fry your own beef spots.

The next morning, my legs were on fire and my knee was in pain.  I tried cycling out of the city but by the time I reached the outskirts I was grimacing from the pain.  I stopped at a drug store and picked up what, based on the completely foreign symbols, seemed to be ibuprofen and a knee support brace.  But after another few miles, I realized that I wasn't going to make it in this condition.  After a few failed attempts of explaining my need for a taxi that could carry a bike over the phone - which must not be in the phrasebook of basic english, I found myself talking to an incredibly helpful man from a hotel I wasn't staying at.  He coordinated a taxi pickup and drop off at a ferry port near the halfway point of the route, explaining that it would be far cheaper this way than taking a 50 mile taxi back to the starting point.  His kindness and helpfulness amazed me.  It's something I experienced multiple times while traveling in Japan.

My second mistake was deciding to finish the second half of the bike route after the taxi dropped me off near the halfway point.  By then, the pain in my knee was masked by the drugs I'd taken and I'd convinced myself I was fine.  Limping weeks later, that turned out not to be the case.

Kyoto: temples and cool bars

I made it to Kyoto.  At Buddhist temple, I lit a prayer candle for ‘success in love’. It was a close call between that and ‘find a good job’ or even more specifically, ‘traffic safety’.  Now, reflecting from Thailand while riding a rented motorcycle to explore the coastal beaches of Phuket, 'traffic safety' doesn't seem nearly as funny of a prayer candle as it seemed at the time.   

I met a super nice Japanese dude named Jin in this record themed bar. He barely spoke any English, and I speak no Japanese, so I started using the Google Translate app to facilitate the conversation. It worked surprisingly well. We talked about music. He likes hip-hop. His favorite song is ‘Just Wanna Rock’ - Lil Uzi Vert. He brought me to another spot that played loud hip hop music and was filled with smoke. We met some Australian dudes there. One of the guys was a photographer who couldn’t get over how popular he was on Bumble in Japan. The Japanese girls really dug his look. A different Kyoto local agreed - he looked very good.

At one bar, the bartenders wore monocles and top hats and were mixing drinks with fire, smoke and careful deliberation.  I asked the two Japanese girls next to me if they spoke any english.  One was an english teacher, the other did not.  The girl who spoke no english was a photographer and showed me some of here recent photos.  They were amazing.  The moments she captured were so clear and colorful and frozen in time.  Seeing her photos convinced me to search for a camera of my own once I got to Tokyo.

Of all the temples I visited in Kyoto.  The Fushimi Inari Taisha were the highlight. They seemed to go on forever.  More than anything, the sheer work that was required to erect the thousands of closely spaced shrines is astonishing.  If my knee was in better condition, I would've loved to have walked through the shrines for hours, but the incline and decline of the hike was painful, so my visit was short.

Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto

Tokyo: neon lights

Shinjuku City in Tokyo is wild. Neon lights up the nighttime streets.  Music blasts from LED billboards, even on compact Japanese semi trucks driving by.  Everything is designed to stimulate you and draw your attention.

Rainy night in Tokyo

I wanted to capture the lights, motion and spectacle of it all, so I began my search for a digital camera.  The first store I tried carried Sony cameras, which was the goal of my search. Both the Australian and the non-english speaking Japanese photographer I'd met in Kyoto had recommended Sony cameras as the best, specifically the alpha 7 models.  I trusted the Australians judgement.  He was, after all, very popular with the local girls.  The store clerk informed me that the Sony cameras they carried were 'only for native speakers', with the firmware hardcoded to Japanese.  Seeing as I barely knew how to operate a high-end digital camera in English, that wasn't going to work.  It turns out that 'only in Japanese' became a frequent pattern on this trip.

At a larger department store nearby, I finally found an employee who spoke some english. He was a photographer as well. Perfect. With Fuchigami as my guide, I purchased a Sony digital camera, a nice one, and some basic camera gear, so I spent the next 3 days wandering around Tokyo and taking pictures.   Here are some of my favorites.

Fuchigami, the world's best camera salesmen

City view from the Tokyo Skytree

Tsukiji Fish Market - Wagyu beef

Hakodate: taste of celebrity

Vending machines in Hakodate

After Tokyo, I started my journey to the snow country in the North.  On the bullet train, I made it most of the way across the country in a few hours.  The speed and stability of the Shinkansen is something to behold.  Before making my way to Sapporo, the capitol of the north, I stopped in the smaller city of Hakodate hoping that another couple days in the Onsen would help nurse my injured knee back into snowboarding condition.  

Because walking, which it turns out is a major part of traveling, was now difficult, I'd been spending a lot of time in internet cafes, reading, writing & brainstorming some new programming ideas.  Starbucks in Japan is like an oasis for the weary tourist.

At one of these lush watering holes, with a matcha donut and Cappuccino in hand, I had a funny experience.  The following is from my journal, remembering that day:

Sunday February 12 - Starbucks, Hakodate Japan - Journal Entry

The funniest thing just happened to me.  I found a spot on the second floor of the Starbucks in this town.  I took out my laptop and was doing some reading, browsing, and journaling.  Two Japanese girls sit down on the bench table next to me.  For the next hour, I get the sense that they're watching me very closely.  Each time I get up to get a coffee or use the bathroom, their whispering stops and they stare without staring.  At semi regular intervals, they switch sides of the bench they're sitting on, in what I assume in retrospect was an attempt to catch my attention, just from the sheer motion of it all.  

So at this point, I'm thinking, as you probably are, that I'm just over caffeinated and imaging this, or at least the intensity of it.  But then I sit down and look over at them and they're just full on staring at me.  So I say 'hi' and ask if they speak any English to diffuse the stare a little bit.  They shake their heads no and giggle.  And then, seeming to surprise herself, one of them asks in broken english if they can take a picture with me.  I say yes, of course - laughing, so they both take their phones out and take selfies with me.  The girl who asked to take the pictures was clearly embarrassed by the boldness of her question.  Her hand was shaking.  Totally messing with the selfie.  So I took her phone and got a selfie worthy of my newfound celebrity.  After the photo op, they both just stay crouched right next me.  Staring at me.

Celebrity level of admiration (without cause) mixed with a massive language barrier was very unfamiliar territory for me.  So, over caffeinated and unsure how to handle this situation I find myself in, I begin packing up my things.  While packing, I get the sense that the girls are also in uncharted waters, possibly realizing that I'm not actually a celebrity or maybe just frozen in hopes that the situation will diffuse on its own.  I smile, laugh at the strangeness of the situation and wave myself back into the desert.  The frozen winter that is.

Sapporo: post cold-plunge clarity

Intersection in Sapporo

In Sapporo, I stayed at a hotel with an Onsen occupying the entire 3rd floor.  My days were spent ordering gyoza, spicy ramen from the Ramen alley and Sapporo beer, then cycling between hot baths and cold plunges.  I feel like if there is a heaven, days would be similar up there.  On the last day in Sapporo, I rented a car to make the drive to the Niseko ski area.  Pulling out of the Toyota rental car lot into the snowy left lane with google maps narrating the Japanese directions was a driving experience I don't think I'll forget.

Snowy road to Niseko

Niseko: powder

Niseko Powder from the Summit

Tuesday February 21, Kutchan Japan - Journal Entry

Today was one of the best days I remember having in a while.  Kind of, almost, maybe a perfect day.  I woke up, cooked bacon & eggs for breakfast with fresh coffee in the lil' kitchenette in my place.  I got to the Hirafu gondola early and found a wild first run.  High speed, through the untouched powder and into the trees.  It felt like surfing.  Frictionless.  I was on a serious adrenaline high back at the lift line and struck up a conversation with another boarder, complimenting his snowboarding, saying it looked like a surf board - it did.  He was also riding solo, and after chatting for a bit, he offered to show me some of his favorite spots on the mountain.  For the next few hours, we took lifts up to their highest drop off points, then continued on foot uphill for another 20 minutes or so to different summits.  We rode insane powder run after insane powder run.  It was amazing and exhausting.  The best snowboarding of my life, so far.

We stopped for a meal on the mountain (I ordered my favorite gyoza, Sapporo, ramen combo).  After eating, a cute asian girl approached me as I was strapping back in.  She said she'd noticed me in the restaurant looking for a seat, and knowing how hard solo traveling can be, was trying to get my attention to offer me a place to sit at her table.  For some reason, I thought she was offering me her entire table, which I thought was strange, seeing as I was fully geared and about to ride down the hill, and no longer inside the restaurant.  But I soon realized, as an empath, that the details didn't matter, she was interested in me.  We exchanged numbers and she invited me to get ramen with her that night at her favorite spot in the ski town of Kutchan nearby.

After boarding, I went to an Onsen 30 minutes away from the mountain and bathed in an outdoor bath surrounded by snow.

So, little aside, I have social anxiety.  Especially when it comes to dating and planned socializing.  It's a strange thing.  Going to dinner with this girl is something I wanted to do, but the thought of it made me so anxious.  It's like a preemptive self sabotage I do, where instead of excitement I feel fear.  This is something I'm working on in my life both through therapy and just putting myself into these situations.  It was also a motivating factor for going solo traveling in the first place.  A jump into the deep end of sorts.

So, anyways, the ramen was amazing, the girl was super kind and it was a great experience.  C'mon @brain.  She had just traveled through Thailand and recommended some cool places to visit (that's where I'm heading next).

Overall, I feel like I connected with the world around me today in ways that I rarely do.  I felt very alive.  Do what you love and try your best to connect with people along the way.

A couple days later, I met up with the snowboarder riding a surfboard, the one who likes to hike.  So we did more hiking uphill, in the freezing cold wind far past where the highest lifts will take.  On one particularly back-country-esk route down, the dude fell into a crevice in the snow that was melted away by a hot spring running under the snow.  He was going fast and gapped the six or so feet before slamming into the far wall of the pit.  He twisted his leg, likely just a sprain of some kind, but it was scary and could've been much worse.  He was able to ride the rest of the way down so I gave him a ride back to his car.  After many apologies on his end for messing with my day of riding, we parted ways.  That was the end of his ski trip.  I was just glad his injury wasn't worse.  Careful out there 👀.

Japan: some thoughts

Some essential Japanese phrases I learned along the way:
"sumimasen, watashi wa nihongo o hanasemasen" - sorry I don't speak Japanese
“nama biru kudasai” - draft beer please
“domo arigato gozaimasu” - thank you very much
"taihen oishikattadesu" - it was delicous
"o kaikei onegai shi-masu" - the bill, please
"hai" - yes
"ohayo" - good morning
Everything is very exact in Japan from the bus and train times to the inventory of items required when sending a packing internationally.  I found out the latter after having to repack my souvenirs and winter gear multiple times to get the correct Yen values and item descriptions on the customs forms, and then having to remove any items with batteries once the box was taped up and ready to go. My package was then flagged by the x-ray machines in the post office for having a small packet inside which wasn't listed on the item descriptions.  This delayed the whole process significantly.  It turned out to be a packet of spices buried in the grocery store box I was using for the shipment.  The whole process took so long, that even the post office workers were laughing by the 4th or so time I was reopening the taped up box to restart the process again.  But it was just the way things worked there.

A psychotherapist I met while snowboarding in Niseko explained to me that Japanese people are very overworked, but productivity in the work is very low.  This, in her view, is because people in Japan don't ask for help.  The take their burden of work solely as their own because they don't want to bother others, even at their own detriment or when help is needed.  This is actually something that I can relate to.  I often find it hard to ask for help.  I think I'd fit into this part of the culture If I was ever to live in Japan.

The Japanese people I encountered were the kindest, most polite and respectful people I've ever met.  Refueling my car at a gas station, the well dressed attendant bowed and thanked me multiple times "arigato gozaimasu, arigato gozaimasu"  before walking behind my car to the exit and ensuring that I made it back onto the road safely.