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
Onomichi → Imabari: cycling 🚲 in Japan
Kyoto: temples and cool bars
Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto
Tokyo: neon lights
Rainy night in Tokyo
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 from the Summit
Tuesday February 21, Kutchan Japan - Journal EntryA 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 👀.
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.
Japan: some thoughts
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."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
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.