A Tale of Two Cities: Tokyo and Bangkok (Part 1 – Tokyo)

It’s been about two weeks since I’ve left behind my home, my friends, and my life back in the US and set off for parts unknown. I’ve begun another several-month long period of travel, with no particular plan or direction in mind.

This is a journey of self-discovery. I am not simply here in Asia to do the tourist circuit for a couple weeks, snap up some travel deals and some photos of white sandy beaches, and drink as much beer as my liver can handle. I want to lose myself here in this new world of unlimited possibilities and boundless potential. I want to pursue my Buddhist practice and integrate more of it into my life; to bring new levels of love, compassion, tolerance, patience, and understanding to myself and to others.

My original intent was to transport my business along with me by working from my laptop, but at this point it does not look like my business will survive without me feeding it constant attention. I’ve recently lost 3 important clients (which can only be replaced through extreme difficulty) in a very short time, cutting my income by about 75%. All that it really means is that the universe is prodding me along in a new direction at a hurried pace so that I can continue to grow. I’ve charted out all of my expenses and assets and set aside a daily budget of $30 USD. I can survive for 4 or 5 months simply on savings alone, which will give me enough time to figure things out as I grow into my new lifestyle.

I’ve packed only the following items: 2 tank tops, 2 t-shirts, 2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of Vibram five-finger knockoffs (from Marshalls), and a pair of vans. I brought 3 books, some supplements, my laptop, and some resistance cables to work out with. That’s pretty much it. I didn’t bother to bring any toiletries with me except for deodorant. My backpack is so light, and it takes me only about 60 seconds to pack and unpack everything. It’s a blast.

Prior to this trip, I sold my car and for the last several weeks rode my bike, the bus and trains to get to where I needed to go. I removed all of the extra crap out of my life that was simply taking up space. It was simple, stress-fee, and sustainable living by the beach. But all my money went to living costs, and I wasn’t able to live out the life I felt I deserved. Girls didn’t want to date me because they couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to live the same way as everyone else. Whenever I’d get a glimpse of what appeared to be a promising deal which could take my business to the next level, the door was shut on me. I’ve had doors slammed in my face for the past 3 and a half years while I’ve been trying to keep my business humming. Calls, e-mails, and meetings that lead to no where. Cancelled orders. Contract disputes. Contractors who disappear.

It’s been humbling, and it’s shaped who I have become in a big way. About 85% of the time I spend working, as a business owner, is unpaid work. Think of the time you spend trying to build a nice portfolio – you’re working on your own time. Always having to learn to new skills, reading several books a week. Entertaining clients and potential clients and tire-kickers.

And so on.

The beautiful city of Chiang Mai
Now then, let’s get to the real reason why you’re reading this post. After two weeks of traveling, I’ve settled into the northern town of Chiang Mai, nestled in a mountainous region of Thailand near the border of Burma. Chiang Mai is the cultural heart of northern Thailand and was founded by the ancient Lanna kingdom. It’s a very livable town and comfortable to settle into, and it’s almost perfect (but I’ll devote more attention to Chiang Mai in another post).

The first leg of my journey out of California had me fly up along the northern coast of North America, past the bay, Seattle, Canada, Alaska, and down around Russia, finally arriving at Tokyo’s Narita airport. I had about an 8 and a half hour layover, and my departing flight was from Haneda, which was on the other side of the city. So I had plenty of time to have a look around and goof off in Tokyo. Sounds awesome, right?

Descending into Tokyo, I was struck by how rural the area east of the capital was. Expecting to see a giant megalopolis (Tokyo is the size of London and New York COMBINED), nothing but farms, small towns, and forests dotted the landscape. Each place appeared to be so neat and tidy.

Finally, we touched down and it was off to the races. Although I was quite fatigued from the long, uncomfortable flight (I had the lucky draw of American Airlines), the sights and sounds of Tokyo were not lost on me. Japan makes an instant and lasting first impression: and it’s all about presentation, presentation, presentation.

The culture of Japan is VERY Japanese, and it’s everywhere. Think of Times Square, times five thousand. It is literally thrust into your face, in train televisions, on signs, in the mannerisms of it’s people. There’s a certain distinct personality to Japanese culture and the people of this nation embrace it with reckless abandon. If there’s any country in the world where one is certain to experience the greatest culture shock, it most likely would be Japan.

Coming off the plane, I had two priorities: 1) find food and 2) see some of the city. On the plane, a Japanese man who lived half of the year in Austin, Texas helped me to learn several phrases in Japan so I wouldn’t be a complete disaster. In near-perfect hand writing, here’s what we scribbled:

Water — Mizu
Bathroom — Toilet
Do you speak English — A-go Hanase Masuka?
Thank you — Arigato
Food — Tabemono
Goodbye — Sayo-Nara
Can you help? — Oshiete – Kudosai

Arriving at the airport I befriended a businessman from London who helped me find my way to the train which would take me to Tokyo Station, in the heart of Marunuochi business district, directly facing the imperial palace. I took my iPad mini out of my backpack and thought I’d try to get wifi. Unfortunately I was prompted to log in, and not speaking Japanese, didn’t make much progress on that end. So I mostly hung out at the back of the car and stretched out as much as possible.

Tokyo's Marunuochi Station at night.

After getting off the train, I followed some of the signs trying to find my way around the huge station. while marveling at all the Japanese hustling and bustling about. Wanting to take a picture of some of the things I saw, I dug around for my iPad. Only to realize it wasn’t there. OOPS. I had set it down on the train, and forgotten to pick it up. I rushed back to the platform but the train had already gone.

This felt like a big blow since I’d planned to use the iPad as an integral part of my travels, and despite feeling completely stupid, I resolved to enjoy Tokyo and make the most of the short time I had there regardless. Walking out of Tokyo Station, I was in awe at everything I saw. Struck with wide-eyed wonder, I took in as much of it as I could. Everything was done on such a grand scale, and it was all so new, and so clean. I had never seen so many men (both young and old) suited up in formal business attire. Every single suit was new, freshly pressed, and spotless. Many of these men were my age and as a self-employed individual who usually does business out of sandals and tank tops (or a t-shirt if I’m feeling formal), I was very impressed.

Anyway I made my way straight out of the station towards the Imperial Palace. It was about 5:30PM by now and nearly time for supper. All around me, everything was so neat, clean, orderly. The palace proper was closed by now, but all around there is an enormous park, complete with gravel pathways, moats, and stone walls. When I got there, thousands of Japanese people were jogging around the perimeter of the palace. I’m not sure if they were acting independently or part of a larger group, but it all seemed very coordinated. They wore athletic uniforms. Other groups were stretching near the park entrance.

Taking part in the fun, I began stretching myself and then joined the main group jogging alongside them. The air in Tokyo is so clean, and it was nice to get the blood flowing after sitting on a plane for so long. I still had plenty of time before I had to go to the airport, so I resolved to find something to eat.

The first place I found I didn’t have any luck. Oddly, in order to place my order I had to insert Yen (which I didn’t have) into a vending machine. I couldn’t just order from one of the employees directly. I tried to explain to him that I wanted to pay with a card, but since he couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t understand him, my attempt to order food ended in failure. But my stomach wouldn’t let me give up, and so off I went down another street to check out some more restaurants.

I had better luck at the next place. Entering inside, I was greeted with exactly what you’d expect from a Japanese sake and noodle house. The waitress greeted me with a warm welcome as I stepped inside. Business men who had recently gotten off work slurped their soups. Fortunately, this time they understood me when I asked to pay with my card, and I ordered up an udon noodle dish and some cold sake (turns out this little meal cost me $35 USD – as I noticed when I checked my bank statement later. Ouch!). An older gentlemen sat down next to me, and he spoke some limited English. He kept wanting to know why I wasn’t staying in Japan. “It is very beautiful,” he explained. I tried to tell him I was only there for a layover, but would be back someday.

Walking back towards the station, I resolved to head onward to my next destination, bidding Tokyo goodbye. However, getting a new ticket for the train turned out to be a struggle, as I could only purchase in Yen. Fortunately a very polite man helped me get sorted out, walking me to the currency exchange, and then taking me directly to my train stop.

All in all, it was a great first impression of Tokyo and Japanese culture. It had been over 25 years since I’d set foot on Japan’s shores. Everyone was incredibly polite, and friendly, though hardly anyone spoke more than very limited English. The sheer amount of wealth, and the degree of cultural activity of Tokyo is staggering.

All my life, I’ve had an affinity for Japan and I long to go back and explore the country, taking as much time as I need to immerse myself and get lost. This will consistently linger near the top of my mind until I’ve developed the sufficient means necessary to make this goal a reality.

When I was a kid, my dad would often take me to a local restaurant in Solana Beach called “Samurai.” I used to love that place. There were dramatic Japanese paintings on the walls, and the friendly chefs would cook delicious healthy meals for us in the teppanyaki style. Images of painted samurais with dramatic cast-iron looks captured my imagination. Being from the US, I’ve never really felt like I’ve belonged to any distinct culture or ethnicity. My grandparents were Italian, but other than the delicious meals my grandmother cooked for us every Sunday, I don’t feel the same emotional attachment to Italy as I do Japan.

I love the idea of the Japanese spirit – the honor, the sacrifice, the courtesy and the striving for perfection in whatever task you set out to do. I’m a total dork who geeks out in ecstasy over old-school Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa films. My love affair with Japan will continue throughout the course of my life, and it remains one of my life’s dreams to go back and truly embrace it.

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