My Tokyo Love Affair

I’ve postponed writing an entry about Tokyo in order to reflect on the things that are as vivid today as they were 30 days ago.

And so a month has passed since returning from Japan. Reuniting with the people and the comforts of home gave me as much joy as I felt embarking on the trip. Friends ask for stories about what I loved most of all about Japan, specifically Tokyo. I’m left feeling speechless in the wake of their questions. I spent a third of my time traveling around one of the world's largest cities and the few words I hope to grasp vanish as quickly as they come to mind.

My time there was surprisingly emotional, which makes it hard to narrate. Each day I fell in love with  tokens of my unscripted adventure --- the challenges, the traditions, the innovations, the normalcy.

Describing to  someone why you love something is a struggle. I often feel vulnerable to fail at capturing the essence of what was felt. Loving something is like wearing a blindfold; we stop seeing the world the way we once did, maybe we stop seeing it entirely, as we are swept away by the emotion. It's ironically still the same world through and through, just supercharged with new feelings. I took the blindfold off once returning home, but I could still see some things the way I had. 

I understood that loving something allows us to discover new depths within ourselves. I turned many corners over there, literally and figuratively, which was truly the best part of Tokyo.  So when I'm asked about my time abroad, visiting a city whose land was once valued to be worth more than the entire state of California, all I have to say is, "I hope you can experience it for yourself – living suspended in wonder as each moment floods your senses."

These are my favorite photographic highlights, and I hope they convey a glimmer of the totality that is Tokyo.


Rain at the Base of Mount Fuji

The rain has not stopped since arriving at Mt. Fuji.

Luckily there's an onsen built into the hotel where I can relax and forget that my room with a view lacks a view.

You can walk through the hotel without running into another guest. This 4-star hotel is all mine.

You can walk through the hotel without running into another guest. This 4-star hotel is all mine.

The hotel is basically deserted. The French restaurant on site is where I had lunch, read a book, and watched the rain come down.

Lunch was a steal. For 1,000 yen (~$8.29 USD, no tipping in Japan) I ate the best ham croquette with a salad and coffee.

Breakfast the next day was also impressive, as well as the hand crafted items in the lobby on display and for sale.

A traditional Japanese breakfast, included with our hotel stay each morning.

A traditional Japanese breakfast, included with our hotel stay each morning.

I don't know what these are for, but they are adorable.

I don't know what these are for, but they are adorable.

Finding More Than Osaka in Osaka

Dreary weather served as the backdrop for most of my visit to Osaka . The mountainous highway drive from Kamiyama was blanketed by a sky pocked with rain clouds, following us to a city besieged by even more rain and clouds. This port city sits at sea level, yet seems to rise above the wind, raid, and ocean. From many vantage points I could see and feel a place that was stirring up something special. 

It is hard to discover what makes Osaka special. She's a very difficult place to appreciate without a destination in mind, which is in sharp contrast to the places in Japan I've seen so far. In other places just stepping outside seems like an adventure in all directions, but in Osaka, where you are surrounded by commerce and an urban landscape, you have to make a plan. My visit to her world class aquarium encompassed an entire afternoon, which was well spent. A bit touristy I admit, but still gratifying to see creatures from around the world.

Stealing my affection away from the cultural and tourist sites are the interesting people that roam her streets. In my opinion, Osaka is a city where you can easily meet people from around the world. My conversations and adventures with just a few of them added a dimension to Osaka that has been rare to find in most cities I've visited in Japan thus far. One connection stood out for me there. For two nights I explored the city with an Australian who was visiting Osaka as well. Even though he was just passing through, Jarrod personified much of what I found to be the vibe in Osaka: engaging, funny, opinionated, stylish, and a foodie.

The first night we planned to explore the city I became lost finding the meeting spot. Once you enter the neighborhoods and districts that make-up the unique sections of the city, every street looks like the street before it, dotted with neon lights, people vying for your yen to dine at their restaurant, bars stacked on bars, gambling spots, and clothing stores -- all mashed together.

Jarrod had to come find me and his first words to me (with a smile) were, "People who don't have a good sense of direction annoy me. Let's get something to eat, I'm starving." His self-assured candor delivered with an Australian accent was charming enough for me to accept the unconventional invitation to eat.

Osaka and Jarrod both have an air of being self-assured. Jarrod doesn't walk places, it's more appropriate to say he strides toward them. Similarly, the people in Osaka all look like they have somewhere to be. They don't always wait for the crosswalk light to be green (as they do in other parts of Japan).

Jarrod and I had dinner the first night and we exchanged details about our respective work and life. This is the kind of conversation I could have had with many people in Osaka, especially the foreigners that call Osaka home. While having tapas and sangria, our Osakan hostess picked both our brains about medical school in Australia and America (she was studying to be a nurse), and asked for tips about where she should go for a vacation in Australian (alone if she can't convince her friends to visit with her). Confidence and a taste for adventure seem to ooze out of most of the city's nooks and crannies.

Over the course of the evening my new Australian friend let me know how he felt about tourists who look ridiculously touristy. He also proclaimed there's nothing wrong with meeting people on Grindr. And men in high heels dancing look incredibly sexy. He's a man who knows his own mind and comes right out with what he thinks, just like Osaka is a city whose residents follow the beat of their own drum -- the Japanese here don't seem to care how the rest of the country does things. 

The next night Jarrod asked me to ditch my fake husband Frederick (a running joke from the night before) and join him for a drink. I agreed and we bar hopped for a few hours. I'm convinced bars in Osaka make their drinks three times as strong as what you get in America.  For less than $8.00 I was given a Tervis tumbler sized drink of anything I wanted (top shelf included). Jarrod and I smuggled our drinks out of the first bar (because we simply couldn't finish them) and bumped around Osaka chit-chatting. At the end of the night we split a taxi back to our hotels. At his stop he paid for the cab and darted from the taxi without so much as a goodbye. He had an onsen to get to before he passed out. 

So just like that, Jarrod was gone. I barely got to know him and I barely got to know Osaka. I ran in the park once, dined at great restaurants, discovered shrines, as well as coffee shops on every block that served the most decadent pancakes. While waiting for the train to my next destination, a Japanese lady cozied up to my friend and I. She chatted with us easily and explained that she is from Osaka and is not your "typical Japanese lady." Meeting her was a fantastic footnote in what Osaka came to represent for me on this trip -- it's not your typical Japanese city. We thanked her for the company while the three of us waited for our train and then my friend and I boarded the Hikari bullet train to Mt. Fuji, which we were told translates to "Train of Light."  

Amagoi - The Waterfall of Kamiyama

A 30 minute hike from the center of Kamiyama is the Amagoi Waterfall; the name translates to "We Pray for Rain." The villagers of the town used to visit the falls to send prayers to the heavens for a good rainfall that farming season. 

Many people still visit Amagoi, taking in the spectacular sounds of the rushing water and the feeling of a powerful, natural wonder pouring down from several feet above them. However, my host is not like most people. She didn't want to pray for water that day, she wanted to tame it.

The day we were in town our host was leading a team building exercise up to the base of the falls and invited us to join. I agreed -- a hike up to the falls sounded fun and it was perfect hiking weather.

The entrance to the trail leading up to the waterfall.

The entrance to the trail leading up to the waterfall.

Instructions, in Japanese, before the hike up.

Instructions, in Japanese, before the hike up.

The hike up was tranquil. It was yet another moment to fall in love with Kamiyama. We followed a stone path carved into the side of the mountain, barely wide enough for two people side by side.

The start of the stone path leading up the falls.

The start of the stone path leading up the falls.

As the group ascended the trail there were signs (in Japanese) marking our way that indicated something big was waiting at the top. A member of the group translated one sign for me, which  read "The Drop to Hell."

"Hey, what does that sign say?" ... "Oh, it's just marking the edge over there, saying that we're passing the 'Drop to Hell'" ... o.O

"Hey, what does that sign say?" ... "Oh, it's just marking the edge over there, saying that we're passing the 'Drop to Hell'" ... o.O

Despite the actual warning signs alluding to some kind of danger and calamity people have faced while on this hike, the natural wonder that darted the path kept me calm. The biggest hike I usually take on a normal day is to check the mail. So every step left me in awe of the undisturbed beauty of the mountain.

One of the bridges and stone stepped paths on the way up to the falls.

One of the bridges and stone stepped paths on the way up to the falls.

Hiking up to the Amagoi waterfall in Kamiyama, Japan, drops of water trickling down the moss.

The 400 meter hike lead me to the base of a beautiful waterfall. I could write a whole post about the majesty and beauty one feels taking the trek. This post is about finding something else entirely unexpected at Amagoi Falls -- something I brought to the falls on my own.

Amagoi Falls --- where I said a prayer, but not for rain...

Amagoi Falls --- where I said a prayer, but not for rain...

Once we reached the base of Amagoi, our guide kept going. Indifferent to the treacherous climb I saw before me, unaware I was in disbelief and ready to turn back -- she invited me to follow her up.  The whole time the group wasn't preparing for a hike UP TO the falls, they were preparing to go UP THE FALLS.  

In that moment I was acutely aware I was at a crossroad -- a literal and figurative one -- a truly rare feeling. As that realization washed over me I was also making quick lists in my mind about whether I should do the climb or stay behind. 

A strong question formed in my head -- When do we truly get to experience moments that make us feel 110% alive? Do I take the falls up, with no harness or railing, and build a memory that will last a lifetime? What other  moments are like this one and how have I treated those? ... Do I have the courage to fall hopelessly in love with someone, with no safety net to catch my feelings if it doesn't work out? (Yes.) Would I gamble on myself and start a consulting business out of my home? (Yes again.)

I don't consider myself a risk taker or adrenaline junkie, but standing at the base of Amagoi I realized I'm definitely someone who lives in the moment -- even the frightful ones.

Invited to climb the falls... boy, oh boy.

Invited to climb the falls... boy, oh boy.

I chose to climb the falls. Only once did I think of turning back. Each step was exhilarating. After climbing up, and then down -- holding on to tree branches and rocky crevice, I landed back on my feet, caked with mud and moss. I had just dug my fingers into something I never thought I could wrap my arms around and I succeeded. I felt lighter and renewed, like I left something behind that I didn't need anymore. 

The echo of that day still kicks up my heartbeat.  In part because of the uniqueness of the experience, as well as the uniqueness I discovered in myself while making the climb. 

There's Magic in Kamiyama

A cherry blossom tree around the corner from the house.

A cherry blossom tree around the corner from the house.

The town I'm currently visiting is nestled in a valley on Shikoku island. It's name, Kamiyama, translates to God mountain. I have just one day to explore it and I'm already heartsick that I don't have more time and that I may never have the words to honor what my eyes are taking in around each corner.

A special kind of person makes Kamiyama home -- the corporate executive who believes we can be more connected to the world around us (which was what our AirBnB host did), the man who wants to change Japan's way of thinking about water conservation, and the architect who has had a good career and now wants to bake bread. It's a friendly place where people take care of their neighbors by sharing items from their overabundant gardens with each other, where restaurants host the community one day a month for communal dining; where the passion people have for their interests sparks a passion in you. 

For example, I had seen the video below when it was making its way around the Internet, years before planning my trip to Japan. I was shocked to learn it was made from the forests around where I stayed, produced in the town I was visiting, and the director had a home down the street from my host. 

My accommodations were in the back of an organic French restaurant run by three Japanese women (monther, daughter, daughter's friend). Wild boar is sometimes on the menu, hunted in the woods around the restaurant by one of the owners and brought back to serve to patrons. The two mornings we were there we had a "Happy Breakfast", which was our hosts moniker for the ingredients used to prepare the food: everything was organic and locally sourced.  The bread was baked in Kamiyama, from grain that grew in organic fields, and the coffee was brewed from organic beans using the natural water from the streams running through the valley, with yogurt that came from happy cows (from free-range cattle who ate from pesticide free land). 

The residents of Kamiyama are genuinely conscious about their impact on the land they call home. There's a big effort in town to be more sustainable and live off of the resources around them. Residents here barter with each other and use wood or vegetables to pay for services. Juxtapose this with other features of the town: high speed fiber optic cable delivering TV and Internet to people's homes and businesses (the fastest in Japan), a 3D printer workshop opened on one of the streets, and there's a production studio with a Kamiyama address that creates national commercials in 4k.

The headquarters of the 4k production studio.

The headquarters of the 4k production studio.

Across the street from the home is a community theater that anyone in the town can visit and use at any time of the day. We arrived in Kamiyama at 9pm and shortly after unpacking our host guided us by flashlight to the theater to show us inside. Exploring the theater at night was one of the moments in which Kamiyama stood to represent something new in the way we build neighborhoods and communities. Along with environmental responsibility is an inspiring amount of self-governed social responsibility and trust. People care for the whole town, not just the building they call home.

The next day we returned to take photos of the theater square and the town dog stood watch at the entrance (the steel grated door). Inside, a kimono exhibit from a local artist was on display. On the ceiling of the theater were patchwork advertisements for local businesses. 

On the drive out of Kamiyama, more art projects stood watch at street posts, bidding us goodbye and reminding us to drive carefully. 

However, the cherry blossoms of Kamiyama were not to be out done by amazing street art and sustainable restaurants. There were rows of trees, in full bloom, their petals dancing in the air with each wind gust -- possibly one of the most spectacular vistas in Kamiyama. They were nestled on a road, inviting travelers to pull off to the side and walk around before continuing to their destination.

Visiting Dōgo Onsen - Japan's Oldest Known Hot Spring

Matsuyama boasts having the oldest onsen (a Japanese hot spring) written about in the chronicles of Japan's history (c. 759). The onsen is also said to have inspired the imagery in Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. People drive from all over Japan and visit from all of the world to soak there, and it was just 35 minutes from where I stayed, so I had to visit.

To get to the onsen we checked another "first" off of our list: travelling on a trolley car in a Japanese city. 

Trolley car #3. The wrong car to the onsen, but still fun to ride. Free WiFi on all the trollies. 

Trolley car #3. The wrong car to the onsen, but still fun to ride. Free WiFi on all the trollies. 

Coming upon the Dōgo Onsen, the energy of the area reverberates. You feel the building before you even see it. There's Japanese tourists buzzing on the exterior and cherry blossoms on hill tops serve as a backdrop. Once inside, all of the chatter falls away to a completely serene and pleasant experience. 

West wing of the Dōgo Onsen.

West wing of the Dōgo Onsen.

There are many resources online for how to visit a Japanese onsen, and specifically the Dōgo Onsen. I'll leave those well written articles to anyone who wants more information about onsen protocol. The following is my advice for onsen novices, compiled after visiting one, to augment the general and specific accounts that others have posted online:

  1. Do your research about how to visit an onsen. It puts your mind at ease. 
  2. Then, put all the research in the back of your mind and forget about following an exact procedure. Enjoy the experience by getting out of your head. Many guests I saw had their own approach for how to use an onsen, and there are staff there to help if you have questions y leading up to the bath.  
  3. Once you get to the baths you're naked, NAKED, nAked, but so is everyone else. I went to the Dōgo Onsen with a long-time friend who I have never seen naked, and it was the furthest thing from awkward. Everyone in the bath is so naturally naked, it's not uncomfortable at all. 
  4. Let yourself experience the bath including the process of preparing for the one. It's a very unique Japanese custom that leaves you with a calm and peaceful feeling of existence for the hours to follow.

And the view of the onsen at night is more spectacular and inspiring than during the day. Once the sun sets, the crowds have typically thinned out from the shopping around the onsen, leaving just you and the centuries old exterior that has welcomed innumerable guests before you arrived.

Storming a Japanese Castle

Sitting atop Matsuyama is a 400 year old castle. Majestic, formidable, and inspiring.

View from the bottom.

View from the bottom.

Like other foreigners from centuries before, when we reached the castle gates we were forced to turn back ... due to the park's closing time. 

Side view of the main castle.

Side view of the main castle.

So we turned around and drunk in the view, enjoying an ice cream cone, like foreigners from centuries before. 

View from the top.

View from the top.

Even though we didn't get to see the interior of the main castle, our timing to visit the park was perfect. The grounds were sparsely populated since it was the end of the day, which meant that the gardens at the base of the hill top were ours alone to enjoy.

Notice there are no people in the photos, not one tourist. Amazing!

After leaving the park, we stumbled onto a local coffee shop run by a friendly Japanese woman, and enjoyed a well earned cup of amazing, on-the-spot-brewed coffee. 

Kick-Starting at 6am and Driving in Matsuyama

I've opened my eyes  at 6am, everyday so far... filled from head to toe with the kind of energy that makes you want to tackle a whole country.  Contrast this to my usual morning routine in the U.S., where I'm rarely up before 8am and rarely do I have that kind of energy before two cups of coffee.

The day starts with a moment of quiet gratitude, in part thanks to the view that greets me, which gets me ready to check my email. Even though my day is just beginning, on your side of the world the day is ending and the typical maelstrom of email takes on new "leave no survivors / Category 5" levels. 

Morning view of the mountains, one side of the house.

Morning view of the mountains, one side of the house.

Morning view of the sea, other side of the house. Photo Credit: Clint Keepin.

Morning view of the sea, other side of the house. Photo Credit: Clint Keepin.

My office in Japan until April 1st.

My office in Japan until April 1st.

Being up that early leaves me lots of time to be productive. So, I learned to drive. Here's a few things about driving in Japan:

  • Driving on the opposite side takes time to get used to. My secret is just to follow the leader
  • A car horn is hardly ever used
  • Drivers follow the speed limits
  • Even busy traffic intersections can be relaxing 

I drove more in one morning just for fun than I usually do an entire week back home.  In addition to learning to drive, waking up at 6am allowed me to accomplish so much more before lunch:

  • Have breakfast
  • Walk around a city for 2 hours
  • Grab two cups of coffee
  • Do some grocery shopping
  • Have lunch

How Long Does It Take to Get To Japan?

One of the inevitable questions people asked after learning about my trip to Japan is, “How long does it take to get to Tokyo?” They’re always satisfied with my usual response of, “It will take eleven hours to get to Tokyo from LA.”

From where I sit though, on an Airbus A380 flying over the Pacific Ocean, it’s taken me years to get to Tokyo. Each moment of my life had to knock down the subsequent moment. A culmination of decisions and experiences preparing me to take this trip. 

Part of what I hope to get out of this month of travel is unplugging from all that’s familiar, which includes not counting the minutes to get from point A to point B. When I get up to stretch my legs during this 11 hour precursor to arriving in Tokyo, I think that this flight must have its fair share of people counting the minutes in some way – the minutes until their drink arrives, the minutes until their child falls asleep, the minutes until their legs wake up from falling asleep, the minutes until we land. My trip to Japan will not be remembered by the minutes though ...  eating sushi and drinking sake, walking around historic castles, or doing yoga under cherry blossom trees ... I'll weigh these things differently. 

Instead this trip will be remembered by the ways I am reintroduced to everyone and everything I have back home. I’ll look for you (the tangible and intangible) in the steps I take across Japan. You: the humorous, the hard working, the star struck, the love sick, the curious, and the creative. Each of you have helped me build a path of possibility that put me in seat 49C on flight SQ11.

You’ll be with me in the moments that expand my understanding of how the world works and how I work. Some of you are expecting souvenirs, so please accept my sincere apology in advance that the souvenirs from this trip will be impossible to hold. That isn't a tenuously mounted offense against being accused of being cheap either! I could show you pictures, send you post cards, and buy you Lucky Cats. Instead, I’ll give you a question I asked myself before taking my trip to Japan --- what’s the one thing you have been dancing around and how long have you been dancing around it? Whether its words unspoken or trips unplanned, how much longer do you need before crossing it off your list and receiving the experiences that will ultimately change you? 

Your jet lag pro reporting in ... After 6 hours of sleep on the first day in Japan I felt wide awake and good enough to run around a park near my hotel in the morning. These images are from around Hibiya Park in the Ginza district.