“Oh! Looks like your passport expires soon” – these were the first words at the airport in London I remember last Friday.
I can count on my right hand the number of times I’ve left 0 tip. Last night was one of those times.
Time is a weird concept. It can stretch for seemingly forever (like when you are watching the “Time to destination” clock mid-flight) and it can compress and seem like a month goes by in an instant. This week has definitely pushed my sense of time.
7 days ago I was working in London helping to devise the digital strategy for a financial services client. Since then I have been in 6 different countries (2 for layovers) Knowing that I had a flight to Barcelona I was literally counting down and messaged the group “2 hours until I leave work, 2 hours till I leave work 1hr 59 min until I leave work” as a joke about how ready I was to join my friends in Spain.
Once I landed, time took on a Spanish air where the pace of the country slowed down a bit and dinner stretched for hours but seemed like minutes as the company was amazing. Laying out at the beach meant time didn’t matter as long as the sun was up. Then on Monday morning I took off for Japan via Rome and lost an entire day of my life to travel. I left Spain at 11:30 am on Monday and landed in Japan at 11:00am Tuesday. I slept a little bit on the plane but not much. Time passed by so slowly that day.
After landing in Japan I hiked Fuji and the first hour seemed to last for 4 and the last 4 hours flew by as I’d gotten used to the climb. I seized back that lost time by delaying sleep and ended up paying for it later. I spent the next few days in Japan at breakneck pace trying to fit everything in and experiencing the fact that I couldn’t even if I lived in Tokyo full-time.
Then comes Friday – 7 days later and at 4:30pm I took off from Japan only to land first in Minneapolis in the past, at 1:30pm and then onto Montreal landing at 7pm still on Friday. I get to spend the next few days giving one of my best friends a fabulous bachelor party surrounded by his friends and the French boys of Quebec.
As I sat on my flight from Tokyo to Minneapolis I was chatting with the flight attendant as I stretched my legs and she asked about my travels so I told her about the crazy 7 days I’ve had and the 3 more that are left. In that conversation I realized how incredibly blessed I am to be able to 1. have the time and money to do such a crazy trip and 2. have the courage to pull off my vist visit to Asia sandwiched in-between two other trips.
I am truly grateful for the mentality I’ve been able to cultivate over the past two years that made the concept of finding a cheap flight and just going somewhere a reality. I am truly grateful to have jobs that afford me the luxury of a salary and time off that allow me to do so as well. This trip has helped me grow and will continue to do so and I consider myself lucky to be able to do so.
Now to the hotel where I will drop my bags and meet the crew for dinner.
The worst part about climbing Mt. Fuji doesn’t hit you until a day or two later. I hadn’t planned for this and it cost me half a day of my time in Japan and my day-trip to Kyoto. I had forgotten that after hiking up a 4km mountain for 8 hours and 2 hours back down at pretty quick pace would be a workout. And like all workouts the muscle soreness hits you 1-2 days later. Lets just say I couldn’t get out of bed because my thighs and calves were that tight and sore.
Thankfully another Japanese tradition came to my rescue. After hoisting myself out of bed and getting some ramen to nourish my body I visited the local Onsen. It turned out to be just around the block from my Airbnb and one of the most highly rated in Tokyo. For those who don’t know, an Onsen is a Japanese public bath house that is filled with natural hot springs.
Harking back to an era when most Japanese didn’t have baths in their house, an onsen was a communal facility for cleaning and bonding. At first it was a little weird for my western upbringing but pretty quickly I let the hot springs do their magic and I relaxed, opened up my mind, and embraced the concept. You see, an Onsen is separated male & female and done completely in the nude.
You start your onsen with a pre-rinse and then a shower where you clean up and get the grime of Tokyo off of your skin. You then can alternate between one of many baths including a Jet bath, a sea salt bath, a carbonated bath, a cold bath (freezing cold!) and a lie-down bath. There is also a sauna and steam room.
Now alternating between each of these baths, in the nude, can be a bit strange at first but you quickly realize that the experience is about letting your guards down and relaxing in a safe environment not often afforded in traditional Japanese culture. When you and your family were at constant war with other tribes and clans in feudal Japan there was a need for constant vigilance and alertness. For the samurai class, the onsen was one of the few places that they could relax and thus bond with their companions whom they trusted ont he battlefield.
Those same mentalities and attitudes continue today and it was an experience I was glad to have not only for the uniqueness of the tradition, but also because my muscles needed a break. I’m still sore today and am worried about being stuck at 35,000 ft’ for 12 hours this evening where I might have to get up and stretch frequently. However, I know that if I hadn’t have been able to spend 2 hours at the onsen I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the rest of Japan.
Tokyo is insane. Space is a luxury and so is time to breathe.
After recovering from hiking Mt. Fuji by taking a long nap I walked through the city taking it all in. My senses were overloaded as just about everywhere I went resembled a Times Square display of lights, sounds, smells, and experience.
Around dinner-time I stopped into a fantastic respite from the city to grab a bite to eat in a Tempura bar. Here the chefs had a mastery and dedication to their craft that was astounding. They would take tiger prawns from the tank, kill them, shell them, and then batter and fry them up with a precision that fascinated me. Sitting at the bar I had a front-row seat to the entire spectacle and it was interesting to see the ritualistic approach to their job that they took.
These chefs treated their work like a karate master treats his practice or a flower arranger treats their arrangements. With focused practice that recognizes the fact that too much is just as bad as too little and thus perfection in every action is required. It would not surprise me if tempura had a school or Ryu in Japan with traditions passed down from master to student that formalized the methods behind each action. Its the same mentality that has driven Ichiro to 3,000 hits in the MLB and it is amazing to watch in person.
Some things like this are unique and representative of the spirit of the Japanese people. Some things are universal no matter what language you speak and where you are. After dinner I wanted to test this, so I went to a gay bar.
Gay bars are universal. I’ve now been in one in 8 countries and even in Japan they have the same types of people, the same focus, and the same easy-going nature that lets you introduce yourself to someone, hear their story, and start to make friendships. It also always has that sage old queen ready to dish out life advice whether you ask for it or not. Last night his name was Phil and after chatting for a bit I learned that he had grown up in Australia and now managed a tour company here in Tokyo. He told me what to go see in Tokyo and what to avoid and as universal truths go he led myself and a gaggle of gays down the road to a drag karaoke night which felt like I was back in DC with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington.
I have barely stopped moving since landing in Tokyo because it is such a busy city and I have so little time to experience it. But I’m finding that in its own unique way, you can find the time to breathe and escape the city just by stepping through a door. I don’t think this is unique to Japan but something that I can find in my daily life wherever my life take me.
As you leave central, bustling Tokyo and head Southwest the scenery gradually changes from urban to farmland. You go through a tunnel and on the other side all semblance of city is gone and you find yourself surrounded by low mountains.
Then you round a corner and realize that those ‘mountains’ pale in comparison to Fuji. You instantly see the appeal and awe that has symmoned hundreds of generations to it. Here was my first glance at around 6:15 in the evening.
On the Mountain –
The bus pulls into the mountain trailhead at 7pm. The Sun has set fast and it’s dark all around. I grab some last minute supplies, put my headlamp on and head for the trail – start time 7:30
7:50 – I meet some Germans, Finns, and a Chinese girl all hiking at about my pace. We stop at the first station to catch our breath. The stars are out in force and at this altitude we are above the clouds so we can see the lightning reflecting off of them.
FLASH FLASH FLASH.
The lightning looks like bombs exploding in the night. The thunder sounds off. 6 miles away. The fog and clouds are rolling in now.
8:30 – I’ve miraculously overtaken a guided tour thanks to the power of a downloaded Spotify Playlist containing the empowering song ‘Make A Man Out Of You’ from Mulan. Yes. I was that guy on the mountain but it helped me push through to the station. The clouds keep rising with me and I keep pushing above them. As long as I can see the stars I know that I’ll be fine. The thunder and lightening surround us on all sides. It’s a beautiful and worrying sight to see.
9:30 – I met a pair of guys from the UK and chatted with them while we all caught our breath. They are Astrophysicists working on a particle accelerator just outside of Oxford, they are here in Japan to see their accelerator. We feel the first sense of rain and decide to press on. A sign says only 3.2km remaining. The sign lies. On Fuji distance isn’t measured in Kilometers but in time. At least 4 hours to go at this pace. The fog has caught up so I must press on. Only 3.2km I lie to myself. Only 3.2km.
9:50 – The last rest station for about 30 minutes. Climbing up to it meant pushing through the fog and mist. Fog so thick you could barely see past your hands and feet. Thankfully the fog moves slower than I do. I meet up with Jim and Richard (the Brits) and we check the time to the next spot on the guidebook. The booklet advises against ‘Bullet Climbing’. Climbing up in a single go, without proper rest beforehand and without long enough breaks at each station. According to the booklet if you bullet climate you “Will get fatigued, get hurt, or may become susceptible to sickness”. I have been bullet climbing. I let Jim and Richard go on ahead. I’ll rest a bit longer.
10:40 – We make it to the next station after taking a break to gaze at the stars and a beautiful moon. I am now 3100m above sea level. Trickster gods must be about tonight because we pass a sign that reads 3.1km. Thankfully at the next stop it says 2.7km and about 3 more hours. I’m climbing so fast that I’ll beat the sunrise by a few hours. I decide to rest some more before pressing on.
Midnight – I took a 30 minute break and caught a 10 minute power nap before hoofing it up here and am now resting for a bit. I met some tech startup Americans who recommended some bars in Tokyo in exchange for knowledge about Oxford and Harry Potter. It’s now 12:30 and they say it will take 2hrs to reach the top. Sunrise is in 4:30 so I’m making great time and can afford longer breaks to catch my breath.
1:45 – I stopped for some dinner at the second to last stop 80 minutes from the summit. Turns out the friends from tech land also worked on political campaigns in the US so we spent dinner on Mt. Fuji discussing US politics. If that isn’t a sign from the gods of Fuji I don’t know what is. I also break into my apple supply and had a fuji apple, on Mt Fuji. Here is a pic.
2:45 – I’ve reached ‘Station 9’ the last stop before the summit – 30 minutes and 500m from the top. Either it hasn’t been built yet or it was destroyed recently because it isn’t much more than an open space where a lot of people can take one last break to breathe deeply and drink water. I thought the lighting storms would hit us but we have been lucky. Even better though, they are raging on below us and in amongst the surrounding area of Mt. Fuji. For whatever reason the lightening is orange and yellow, I’ve never seen that before. It is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. I’ll rest here and then continue on around 3.
4:00 – The last 30 minutes took 50 thanks to long lines of people. It definitely was the hardest part of the trek but I made it. In the last 150m my knee twisted and it made the going slow. Hopefully it’s fine after a rest on top where there are shops and restaurants and tired travellers all chatting and warming up in a long wooden hut.
4:40 – I’ve spent 30 in the hut getting coffee and curry rice and chatting with my neighbors. That’s how I met Jane (named changed) a Tokyo native who spent a few years in California and Indiana before just starting work as an analyst in Deloitte Consulting Tokyo. So here on the top of Fuji I meet a Deloitte employee just by striking up a conversation about the food.
4:50- The sun is peaking up above some of the clouds and I snap a few pictures. As I sit here waiting for some mist to clear up and the sun to rise higher I think about why I did this crazy feat and what I learned along the way.
I did it because it’s been on my list and waiting another year just means pushing it off. I did it because of the wisdom that generations of climbers have sought in the act. I did it because it was there. And I did it to have 8 hours thinking and pondering about my life and the future.
Am I walking away with profound answers? No, but I didn’t expect to. Am I walking away with the knowledge that I can push through the elements to achieve what is set my mind to? Yes. Have I gained any insight into myself? Yes – that even in a country where my grasp of the language is minimal and I know litteraly no one, I can make new friends, find coworkers, have political conversations as well as astrophysics ones. I can chat up the philosophy PhD from Indiana University and discuss Confucius, Sun Tzu, and Musashi, and I can do it all full of energy, pep, and a zest for life that is energized by nature and pushing myself to do and be more.
I’ve got a 4 hour climb down and then a bus before I can crash and sleep for a few more hours. But all in all Fuji has been everything I needed it to be, whether I knew it or not.
Ghibli studio’s Princess Mononoke was my first exposure to Japan. I saw it at a sleepover with a neighborhood friend after playing some video games and I was fascinated. After that the Pokemon craze took over my school with the card game first and the game-boy game second (Squirtle for life). I would watch Digimon on Saturday mornings, play countless versions of Megaman, and eventually sneak episodes of Power Rangers which I was banned from watching for some reason.
However, it wasn’t until high school that the real Japan took ahold of me. After fencing for a couple of years, my coach realized that I was treating fencing like a game and not with the honor and dedication it deserved. I think he also saw that it would be worth building up more arm strength as well. To solve these issues he started training me in Bushindo, the Way of the Warrior and specifically in Kenjitsu, the Way of the sword (Katana).
I was given a handful of books to read including Autumn Lightning: The Education of an American Samurai by Dave Lowry which details his training in Kenjitsu growing up in the mid-west while also telling the story of the Shin-Kage Ryu style of Kenjitsu. Shin-Kage survived as one of the most prestigious Ryu’s because the masters of the school were the personal teachers of the Tokugawa Shoganate for many generations.
I started my training with a Bokken, an oak practice Katana working to learn the forms, or kata, that formed the base of my practice sessions. I was gifted a Katana upon completion of my basic training and from there my lessons used a live (read: edged) sword. At this point my fascination with Japan was fierce and I studied a lot about it. But then I moved away from that coach, couldn’t find a teacher nearby, and stopped my practice in the Way.
Two years later, after being kicked out of BYU I was looking at clases to take at the University of Utah and I took introduction to Japanese for a couple of semesters. I then discovered that if I dropped my language and took two statistics courses I could graduate a year earlier and so again my love of Japan took a backseat.
In the past couple of years I have been distracted from Japan by a dozen things here and there, but 9 months ago, while reading a book on stoicism the lessons I’d learned at 15 started coming back to me. You see Stoicism and the Zen philosophy behind the Samurai are not that dissimilar. I picked up Autumn Lightening off the shelf and re-read it in an afternoon. The history of Japan flooded my memories again and I started finding connections to my life that I needed just then.
Since that moment I have read a half-dozen books on Stoicism, a few books on Stoicism, and 2 of the 3 original great texts of Samurai tradition. Katsujinken – The Life-Giving Sword by Yagyu Muenori the 3rd member of the Shin-Kage Ryu to serve the Tokugawa Shoganate in the 1600’s and Go-Rin-No-Sho – The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi the greatest Samurai to ever live.
This morning I landed in Japan and am on a train into Tokyo at the moment. As I see the country-side transition into city-scape I can’t help but feel the seemingly conflicting images of Japan. The Modern technological Japan that is reserved and economically driven complete with a Prime Minister who just donned a Mario outfit in Rio; and the Ancient, focused, disciplined, and deeply philosophical Japan of old. While they may seem conflicting I am certain that if I look closely enough I will see the influences and even practices in the daily lives I observe.
But to start off this journey, I’ll be headed to the root of wisdom in Japan – Mt. Fuji – where I hope to trod the paths of the ancients and pay my respect to the Japanese spirit that has absolutely had its own influences on my life.
The worst human beings in an airport can be found herded into a single location. Not the security queues, or the ticket counter, or the 10am pub crew, or the Duty Free salespeople. Its the passengers in the premium club lounges.
Here you have an amazing set-up. Free wifi, comfy chairs, space to breathe instead of squished together shoulder-to-shoulder, free food, coffee, & drinks, free newspapers and news stations, and some of the best staff in the airport. But heaven forbid it takes 30 extra seconds to check-in or they have temporarily run out of orange juice, or heaven forbid someone asks if they can store your baggage in their holding area and all hell breaks lose.
You have people with a “don’t you know who I am” attitude being treated just the same as other people in the lounge. “How DARE you … don’t you know who I am? … I’m flying business class/million miler status/1k/diamond” or whatever BS rewards level they measure their self-worth by.
I saw it this morning at the Barcelona airport with all 3 guests in front of me and a pair of guests right behind me. The greatest offenders were the pair of elderly ladies on business class flights back to the US who reminded me so much of Netflix’s Grace & Frankie. They were affronted when they didn’t need to use their Amex Centurion pass because their business class tickets already granted them access.
When a member of the staff tried to make it better by offering to store her luggage in their secure room so she wouldn’t have to haul it the 25 ft to the lounge chairs one of them blew up. I was close enough to hear a few choice words hurled at the staff. While I didn’t hear these words, it wouldn’t have been out of character for this woman to hurl a solid “Why can’t you just speak English properly” to punctuate her ranting.
As I sit here writing this I see her in a comfortable leather lounge chair, with a cafe con leche, some Iberico Ham and Manchego cheese, and a mimosa … pouting – literally sad and upset at the world.
While I have been full of judgement this morning I should take a step back and ask myself “Maybe she has had a hard trip and just wants to go home. Maybe she recently lost someone. Maybe she is sick or injured. Maybe … Maybe … Maybe.” There could be reasons she could use to justify her actions but it held up a mirror to me and my behavior.
I’ve been that person before, its a long day, a long flight a head of me or behind me, and I just want someone to take care of me. I’ve lashed out inappropriately or just been internally frustrated at the situation. Lord knows it happened a lot in dealing with the bureaucracy at Oxford where my rant came out in the form of “Don’t they teach LOGIC at this University!?!” in trying to get something accomplished. (note: they don’t, they only ask if there is precedent so they are covered if it goes topside)
I don’t know if it is Spain’s relaxed vibe, if it was Costa Rica’s “Pura Vida” motto, if it is the fact of writing these post each day and staying in touch with myself through them, or if it is something else. But I’ve found myself more and more approaching people who normally have to deal with entitled people like myself all day and instead of getting frustrated I get to know them.
I ask sincerely how they are doing, how long they have been working today and how long they have left. I joke that perhaps they need another coffee or offer encouragement that 2 more hours can go by quickly. I smile, I try to see them as a human and in return they see me as a human as well. Immediately I stand out and am remembered in a good way and they take care of me better than if I were just a jerk.
On flights I’ve seen this when I offer a small bag of mini-chocolates for the crew along with a sincere thanks for a job that may often seem thankless. While it started out as an attempt to get free perks, it has grown into a small and simple way to be a better person. On the last flight I did that one of the flight attendants caught me on my way back from the bathroom and remarked how – when she looked me up in the system – she was surprised to see that I was a Platinum medallion. She commented how she has almost never seen that basic human kindness from a medallion member.
Why is it that those who have so much take so much for granted? I enjoy flying because it is a way to remind myself about the humanity around me and a chance to practice empathy for those around me. They are calling my flight so I’ll post this now and I hope to get something out tomorrow before the Jet Lag kicks in.
“And if you look up you can see a gargoyle shaped like a unicorn” – After living in Oxford, hearing a British accent saying those words wouldn’t have struck me as odd, but I heard them as I wandered around the gothic quarter of Barcelona … in English … with a British accent.
I stopped in my tracks and looked around before catching a glimpse of a tour guide leading a group of about 25-30 tourists on a walking tour of the city. I didn’t have a ticket, I wasn’t a part of any of the sub-groups that made up this tour, but instantly I felt myself joining up with them. I trusted that I wouldn’t get lost and would learn more if I stuck with them versus travelled alone.
The guide was part of a company (New Europe Tours) that have tour guides who give free, engaging walking tours of cities for free and they are paid on tips. The company also sells other tours like a Tapas taste of Spain tour that do cost money but this one was free. So I joined up and got to explore the gothic quarter, learn about the unification of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, how that led to the rise of the Spanish Inquisition, and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
We went to the Jewish quarter and saw the 5 street section of Barcelona where Jews were forced to live in with a curfew of 10pm. with 10-20% of the city being Jewish this became a cramped part of town so much that the buildings lean inward as they get taller so they can accommodate more space.
We learned about some of the traditions of Catalan and about the various differences between Spain and Catalan before taking a break at a bar the tour company had a deal with. At that point I had to peel off and head to the Sagrada Familia but I went up to the guide and tipped him well for the tour I’d snuck onto because it was well worth it. I highly recommend doing these tours in whatever city you visit for the first time.
Later at the Sagrata Familia I was walking through, hearing Spanish everywhere I went when all of a sudden I heard “David? Is that you?” – Now naturally David is a common name and whenever its said I perk up. I turned around and saw my friend from the MBA who was travelling with us. We had come to the church separately but found each other. Later in the day this happened again at a restaurant.
I often find myself waking through London with headphones in – especially on the noisy tube trains – but I think I’m cutting off one of my sense whenever I do that. Headphones block out the world and isolate you from others more effectively than almost anything else. Had I been walking with my headphones I’d have missed out on a fun tour, a meal with a friends, and a meet-up in a gorgeous church. So while I may use headphones occasionally I’m glad that today I wasn’t and that I have this reminder to be present and see what happens.
We live in an age of unprecedented connection. Yesterday I finished my internship in England, it was a rainy London summer day when, at 5pm I hopped on a train to the airport. I boarded at 7:30 and landed in Barcelona in time for a late dinner and sangria with friends.
Today we woke up and started the bachelor party in style as we walked throughout Barcelona, got locked in a room with an hour to escape, ate phenomenal tapas, walked to the beach to enjoy the ocean waves, the beautiful sun, and each other’s relaxing company.
We are citizens of 4 continents coming together on an amazing cheap flight to celebrate our friends who are about to get married. We speak English, French, German, Spanish, Portugese, Tagalog, Romanian, Swedish, and probably more. We come from a dozen industries and backgrounds with many of us meeting each other for the first time in our lives. And yet, we are having an amazing multi-cultural time in a city that lives at a different pace from what we are used to.
We are blessed to be able to make a decision and fly down here for a week, financially, nationally, and attitudinally. We can afford to take the time and spend the money to travel. Our countries allow us to with relative ease and we have taken the time to keep a passport up-to-date. And we are unafraid to experience something completely new with a mix of old friends and new people who until yesterday were unknown and who tomorrow will be friends.
We get to experience the culture of a new city and a style of living that is so different from our own if only for a moment in time. For me, travel is about all of these things and is something that motivates and energize me. It makes me want to go to work so I can keep exploring and meeting new adventures head on.
This is something I only discovered two years ago but is something that I’ve learned to love intensely. What makes it more interesting is that I am actually following a trend among my peers. Did you know that 83% of U.S. lesbian and gay men have a current passport, compared to 34% of all adult Americans? We spend almost twice the amount on travel than the average American as well. It may be stereotypical but I love to travel because I get to practice and see tolerance of other lives and lifestyles and think it is an absolute shame that more people don’t get the opportunity.
These two things in combination came together today and I’ll let one of my friends explain it as he did this evening back at the hotel before dinner.
“You know what I find cool today, we had a big group of married people genuinely interested in your life. With you being comfortable being you. The way society should just be. People who just met you are 100% accepting because it’s not stigmatized like in the States. And people are actually “pushing” for more info – they are genuinely interested.”
Our world is getting more and more inter-connected. Easier to live, work, and push for greater experiences. Not just for gays like me, but for everyone. The news wants you to think the world is coming apart at the seams, that crime is on the rise and terrorism is at your door. The reality is, it’s better than we think and we just need to stay connected, experience something new, and learning more about each other.