Back in Japan
Two years ago I flew to Tokyo amidst growing worries about a global pandemic. As I left, the case numbers in the US were skyrocketing, and we were hearing about folks trapped by quarantine on cruise ships, and entire cities in China being locked-down. Japan however was relatively caseless, though that would change later despite many preemptive closures.
That trip was meant to be a fancy vacation with business class flights and luxury hotels to celebrate my IPO windfall, but it turned-into a somewhat lonely, anxiety-ridden hideout from fomites (this was before we knew COVID was airbourne). I couldn’t find a mask anywhere to buy, as everyone stockpiled, but I was able to wander a bit, and even let loose in Onomichi—a town untouched by COVID at that time.
I flew home, and immediately entered home quarantine, and outside of bicycling and two short trips to Oregon for a bike race and a fundraiser, I stayed home for two years. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly a hypochondriac, but the more I heard about the effects of COVID both short and long-term, the less I wanted to take my shitty, childhood-disease addled lungs with me on that journey. Fortunately, my job meant I could work from home, and it seemed both prudent and civic to stay there.
Cases are still high pretty much everywhere, but coming back to Japan this time I have 4 doses of vaccine under my immune belt, and a slew of N95 masks to give me some protection. I’m nowhere near as cavalier with my respiratory system as many folks in the malls and restaurants around me, but I tried to relax my guard slightly, mostly for my own enjoyment of Japan and food.
My flight here was a very lucky upgrade from a friend on United, to business class. $4000 is still a ton to pay for a plane trip, but for business it felt like more of a bargain. I am a nervous flyer, so the turbulence on the way to Japan was a bit scary, but I was able to sleep and watch enough Veep to while away the 11 hours from SFO to NRT.
Almost everyone masks outside in Tokyo. Walking around Ebisu, Shibuya, Shinjuku, and even Shimbashi, it was all masked faces, with the occasional nose peeking out. Inside bars and restaurants something like 50% of guests tend to follow the prescription to wear a mask when not eating or drinking. It’s kind of amazing. I don’t know if the caution here has created a huge difference in COVID rates though, as I heard vaccine uptick (especially Omicron boosters) is low. I can’t say I love the idea of wearing a mask outside all the time, except in crowded areas, but the social pressure is such that I just followed suite.
During COVID, my interest in sitting inside any one cafe or bar for an extended period of time is very limited, which I assumed would make travel challenging, and I was right. Fortunately, many places have some outdoor seating, but finding places that feel safe where I can quietly read or write remains difficult. COVID made me more of a homebody than I formerly was, and I was very much one in the past. In Japan, I go from ~5k steps a day to close to 20k, and that’s always a shock to the system.
My trip started in Tokyo, at Narita airport despite my thinking I’d booked to Haneda. A very quiet airport greeted me, leading me to exclaim at the staff I saw every 5m, “わあ！静かな！” or, “it’s quiet!” I was able to answer questions and fill out my forms in Japanese to gain entry into the country, then hopped on a train into the city. By the time I made it to Shibuya it was already dark, and I checked-in to my hotel above Miyashita Park, then got a whiskey and some food to try to stay up for longer.
The next few days I wandered around Yoyogi, Shimokitazawa, Ebisu, Naka-Meguro, and other popular haunts to find food and look around at many of the new buildings and closed shopfronts. I missed my bike, but not enough to rent a Luup bike share. I visited Blue Lug and Narifuri to drool on the custom builds and various bike components though. It’s fun to see what they’ve imported from the states and the UK wrt bags, clothes, and gear. I bought little outside of food, as one result of my one-bag travel is little room for souvenirs. I’m comically large compared to most Japanese women, so clothing is also out of the question outside of socks or hats.
In my rustiness with packing, I did forget my wall charger for my devices, but a quick trip to the Anker store in Parco sorted me out. If you want to see what I brought, you can skip down to the Gear section.
In Tokyo, I got to see my friend Kaz, and meet up with my Japanese school for an anniversary party, but mostly I ate and read, and walked around enjoying the solace of solo-travel.
I saw two movies in Tokyo: Wakanda Forever, and The Menu. I love seeing movies in theaters in Japan because all the little things are slightly different, and it’s a good excuse to chill and sit for a couple hours.
Day 7 meant a long Shinkansen trip to Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu. The furthest south I’ve travelled in Japan until now is to Onomichi, near Hiroshima, so this was my first trip outside of Honshu.
Eki-ben is the best.
My hotel was a semi-cursed one called CrossLife that I never figured-out whether it was religious or not. It did have a very good public bath with psychedelic digital art, and was close to a lot of stuff.
I ate around Hakata, being turned-away by a single restaurant when trying to get soup. I can tell my Japanese is getting better by the host reacted positively to my “Good evening!” and did a double-take when he saw me, then hustled me out with a “oh we’re full”.
Fortunately, a classmate gave me a hot tip on a fantastic beer spot called BEERKICHI and I found an ambient record bar that had a lot of whiskey. I tend to make friends in Japan at bars, which is only unfortunate because that means I stay a little too long.
Regardless, Fukuoka was fun and I think I’ll go back again sometime with friends. There’s a lot of outdoor activity to do that I didn’t try and many parks to visit.
My final day began with a headache and stomach-ache, a lesson and a lunch with my teacher. I felt rough. I hopped on a train to ride north to Osaka.
Arriving in Osaka with a killer hangover wasn’t how I wanted my visit to this city to begin. I snagged a quick meal and tried to sleep it off. It worked.
The next day, I wandered around Amemura and Dotombori for coffee, and vegan donuts. Biotop and Canelita were my favorites this time. Later I saw White Noise, then got more wine and yakitori at an upscale izakaya. I finished my night with some expats who run a Canadian pizza place over whiskey before heading back to my hotel and staying up a little too late reading.
My second day was just long enough for coffee at LiLo, then a Shinkansen ride back to Tokyo. Trips within trips are fun because you get to enjoy the sense of “returning home” when you get back to the main city you’re visiting.
Back to Tokyo
I checked-in to All Day Place in Shibuya and realized I’d left my little Dyneema wallet on the train along with about $50. I keep my cards separately, which is fortunate. There’s no chance I’m getting that money back, but I hope whomever found it enjoys the cash!
This mistake gave me a mission: find a new little lightweight coin and cash wallet or bag. I wandered Harajuku, Omotesando, and Shibuya before finding a little pop-up that makes parachute-fabric bags with good zippers, and picked-up a green pouch. Little missions always liven up a trip, whether it’s to find a specific cuisine, game, or item. In many ways, not being able to eat dairy is its own mission while in Japan, since so much food has butter or milk inside.
Later, I went to the basement of a mall and found fried spam for dinner. Masterful.
The rest of my trip was enjoying yakitori, more vegan breakfast sandwiches, and a lovely lunch time sashimi and tempura.
With one last bowl of ramen in my stomach, I took a train to Narita, had a drink at the ANA Lounge, then boarded. Once again I had an upgrade to business class thanks to Laurence, and despite turbulence, my flight was generally pleasant.
I’m almost home again as I write this, from the BART. I can’t wait to see Snorri, and process the trip a bit.
This trip I tried something different and brought an iPad Mini with a Magic Keyboard and trackpad instead of a Mac or iPad Pro. A Mac is great until you need to use it away from wifi, a situation I often find myself in while in Japan, and even with a keyboard and a trackpad, the iPad Mini is almost a pound lighter. Additionally, unlike a MacBook, it’s possible to bring the iPad without a keyboard when going to a coffee shop and planning to read or do some light editing. More than halfway through my trip, I’m pretty convinced this is a great way to travel abroad. Locally, I can usually tether to my iPhone, but when in Japan GoogleFi blocks tethering generally (though testing shows this might not be the case anymore), so bringing a device with a SIM slot is the smart play.
In total the weight of my gear and bag was around 8 pounds, which is similar to what I bring when backpacking. Outside of not forgetting a charger, I don’t think I would change much about my packing. The weather in Japan in December is often around freezing, and it rains a fair amount, so bringing less might’ve been uncomfortable.
Outside of my iPad, here’s what I had with me:
- 65w Anker GaN charger with 2 USB-C and 1 USB-A port
- Apple Duo Wireless Charger
- Whoop charger
- AirPods Pro 2
- Kindle Oasis
- Hobonichi Techo + Kaweco Sport fountain pen
- Marché convertible musette
- HDMI->USB-C cable for iPad to TV watching (Plex allows full-screen)
- Outlier Merino beanie
- Kind of Guise merino sweater
- Topo Designs Bouldering pants
- Ornot & Silca wool socks
- Velocio & Enve wool shirts
- 3 pairs of wool Icebreaker or Organic Basics Tencel underwear
- 3 bras from Organic Basics
- Houdini hoodie
- MAAP Transfer rain jacket
- Adidas Sambas
- Matador dry bag
- Sonicare toothbrush
- Two Airinum masks
- HRT stuff