What I Learned Traveling Off the Grid

“Travel is the only expense that makes you richer,” but at what point do we miss out on the richness of travel because of our mobile devices, our cameras, and a desire to share the our travels with the outside world? Between trying to take the perfect shot of the exotic plate of food in front of you and the urge to get wifi to check in at a far-flung destination, we often miss out on the true essence of travel: being out of our element in foreign lands.

As an avid traveler and photographer, I will admit that I, too, had fallen victim to this cycle of travel. I was constantly looking for wifi to stay in touch with people or trying to get the perfect photo of the back alleys in Burma, the cafe in Vientiane, or the mosaics in Macau instead of living in the moment. The worst part of this is that I did not even realize what I was doing. It had become second nature to me after traveling in Asia for several years. Unless I was writing in my travel journal and thinking about my trip, I was more worried about getting the perfect photo than stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.

All of that changed when I shared e-mail correspondence with a friend of mine who had just gotten back from a fourteen day trip to South Africa where he did not use his phone and did not take a camera with him.

He urged me to try traveling without a camera because, with Google Earth and Google Images, you can find any photo that will remind you of where you have been while you also retain the memory of actually being there in the first place. This e-mail came on the heels of me reading an article  about how taking photos of things harms your memory of those things. I wanted to see if there was any merit to this method of travel.

With this in mind, I went to Taipei with the intention living in the moment during my visit with old friends. Other than using wifi for directions and snapping a few photos with my phone (on airplane mode), I was going off the grid. Almost as soon as I arrived in Taiwan, I knew this was going to be a special trip.

The stairs leading to the peak of Elephant Mountain (像山) in Taipei

I even left my headphones at home and I immediately noticed things about Taiwan that I had never seen before once I got on the bus to Taipei from the airport. Posted signage banning live birds from being brought onto the bus and some of the Japanese-language signage near a shipping facility were two of the highlights of this ride, but more insight was yet to come.

With my friends for the next few days I was able to notice simple things that I had not noticed in the past because of my preoccupation with my camera and my desire to share my travel experiences with others in my photos.

The sounds of hustlers in the streets hawking their goods and the sizzling of saucepans at the night market I experienced last week would have certainly gone unnoticed had I been trying to get the perfect ISO or white balance setting for a photo. With my electronics tucked away, all of my senses were heightened and I was able to capture my trip using all of my senses.

As I stood next to a putrid tofu stand in the light rain, everything about the city seemed to come alive- shopkeepers scrambled to clean up their stands while bikers raced to the nearest overhang. All the while, Chinese-language neon signage glistened in the street gutter as the rain subsided a few minutes later. This kind of experience is what I had been missing while staying connected on my trips.

I had these kind of experiences during the entirety of my stay in Taiwan. I visited beautiful cliffs in Keelung and, instead of trying to get the best photo, I spoke with my friends about them and we took time to hike cliffside trails and breathe in and think about the fresh Pacific Ocean air.

While climbing Elephant Mountain, I noticed etched stairs which denoted the mountain’s name and the distance to various points on the mountain. They had certainly been there prior to that day, but I never noticed because I was too worried about getting the perfect photo of Taipei 101 from the stairs.

These were certainly good experiences, but nothing prepared me for what I saw during my last night in Taipei at the city’s oldest jazz club/bar.

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Elephant Mountain’s staircase. 

 

Ever since my last visit to Taipei in 2015, my friends had wanted to take me to this jazz club called Blue Note. Luckily for us, our schedules aligned and we made a reservation for the bar on a Saturday night to catch an incredible four piece band that would end up playing for two hours or so.

About halfway through the evening, I took my eyes off of the band and realized that, while the saxophone and piano players were in a deep musical conversation, half of the bar was either in deep conversation with another person or a game application on their cell phones.

Instead of living in the moment and feeling the joy of the music, all they were doing was living inside of their cell phones.

Once I arrived at the airport on Sunday night, I found it incredibly easy to write an in-depth journal entry about each day of my trip through Taiwan. That would not have been possible had I had my camera with me for the duration of the trip or had I been searching for wifi at every moment.

It might seem like blasphemy to even suggest, but try traveling without your camera and your wifi the next time you travel. You might get a more wholesome experience. It helped me live in the moment instead of being captured inside my devices.

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Travel Friends are Forever

Anyone who has read this website before knows how much I extoll the virtues of solo travel and how positive those journeys can be. Those values must not be forgotten but today I am going to focus on something even more important than the solo travel experience: the travel friend everyone needs to have.

Travel is the only expense that makes you richer. Sometimes you get even richer from travel if you can go with your good friends.

My best travel friend in the world also happens to be one of my best friends from my hometown. Our quest for adventure and sightseeing has taken us to many spectacular places where we have seen amazing things and participated in many unforgettable events.

It all started on a rainy Wednesday morning in central Pennsylvania when my friend Andrew and his brother, David, picked me up for what would end up being an eventful day in Lafayette Square at the inaugural Tax Day Tea Party in Washington, D.C. The whole experience set the wheels in motion for a friendship that has led us to more than 15 states, three Canadian provinces, and two (soon to be four) countries in North America (and Asia).

From that moment onward, we began to take weekend trips to see different places in our part of the country. Often times we traveled in his Mazda to the historic triangle between Harper’s Ferry, WV, Antietam, MD, and Washington, D.C., to celebrate Memorial Day. One time we made a wrong turn and decided to stop at a special place on a state road where West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia all converged into one point on the banks of the Potomac. DSC01461

The sights and sounds that day in the Mid Atlantic were amazing.

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As we continued to travel and make long hauls of weekends, we realized that we had something few friends have when it comes to travel: chemistry. Anyone who travels a lot knows how hard it is to find a friend who has the same travel interests and travel style. Pace, interests, and reasons are often irreconcilable differences when it comes to choosing the people with whom you want to travel.

We both love roadside attractions, a very fast pace, history, and taking a ridiculous amount of photos. As a result, we began to plan an unforgettable road trip during the summer of 2012 from Central Pennsylvania to Ft. Ticonderoga and then to St. John’s, New Brunswick, Canada, by way of Montreal and Quebec City. After that, this 2000-plus mile road trip would meander down the East Coast with stops at Acadia National Park and some other historical landmarks on our way home. With all these stops and all that distance, you would think that we would do it all in about a week or two, right?

Not us. We did it all in a span of only five days. We loaded up his Subaru and were on our way to Canada, for better or worse. DSC08147

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After many scenic stops, some ridiculous encounters with fellow travelers and locals, an interesting cab ride in Montreal, and an all-night drive between Montreal and Quebec City, we made it to New Brunswick where we met our match the following night. After taking in the beautiful cliffs at Fundy National Park, we were on our way back to the United States to hopefully camp for the night at Acadia National Park.

Andrew and I at Fundy National Park, New Brunswick, Canada, ca. 2013.
Andrew and I at Fundy National Park, New Brunswick, Canada, ca. 2013.

Horribly foggy conditions engulfed our vehicle in northern Maine and led us to drive at speeds of 15 miles an hour all night down back roads along the Maine coast to find the nearest hotel to stop for the night. We stopped at a bar to ask for directions and watched a Red Sox game with some locals who let us know that we were decidedly unwelcome. After that, we got back on the road and headed down the road with a brief stop until making it to Acadia National Park in the morning. Even though it was so stressful, we both knew more trips had to be done following an experience like that.

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We just never knew when it could happen.

As luck would have it, my vacation time from my job in Japan allowed us to meet up last summer (2014) for another high octane road trip across America, this time to St. Louis and back (via Chicago and Cincinnati).

Totaling over 1700 miles, this trip would be on more familiar territory (we both had extensive travel experience in the Midwest), but would not be short on energy or excitement. Posing with Touchdown Jesus in South Bend, Indiana, eating White Castle, seeing lightning strike the Sears Tower, meeting Swedes in Chicago, and seeing my aunt in Cincinnati all accented what was another amazing trip to one more of America’s great landmarks.

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The most remarkable thing about it is this: throughout all of our travels, we have never had a bitter dispute or bickered to the point where we were not speaking to each other, even for a few hours. Each time we have hit the road and traveled, it has been enjoyable and memorable no matter where we were in North America.

We were resided to the fact that that journey was probably our last one together as I returned to Japan and he returned to school in the United States.

As we all know, life often takes unexpected twists and Andrew and his brother are about to board a plane to come see me in Japan. During the three weeks they are in Japan, we will traverse Japanese cities and countryside and even take a jaunt to Seoul, South Korea, to get an authentic experience in the city with some of my Korean friends.

Who ever would have thought that two boys from small town USA would end up see so much of the world together in such a short period of time? Some things bring people together and help forge friendships for life.

For me, travel certainly is one of them.

I know as soon as I meet them at the arrivals gate at Kansai International Airport on Wednesday, the good times will roll again in Japan like we never missed a beat.

Travel friends and the memories you make with them will be a topic of conversation between you all until the day you pass. Get out there and travel and bring a seasoned friend with you from time to time.

At Incheon Int’l Airport, Take a Stopover Tour!

Many travelers dread the thought of a layover or stopover on their impending trip. Nothing is worse than five or six hours in a place where you have visa-free entrance but don’t want to risk missing your connecting flight. If you have a long layover in Incheon, South Korea, fear not. Incheon International Airport offers fantastic– AND FREE– stopover tour options which I highly recommend for a layover as short as even three hours.

En route to China in April, my friend and I decided to take the two hour tour option and we had a great time. here is what you can expect on one of these tours.

As soon as we got off of our plane and neared the security checkpoint, a woman speaking perfect English asked us if we were planning on staying in Korea or if we had a transit. Once she heard the word “transit”, she pitched the Incheon Airport’s transit tour to us and we happily took the bait. Our tour would be leaving the airport at 1:00PM and returning around 3:00, so we had time to grab some lunch and meet the rest of the group at the front of the terminal.

As soon as we passed through security, it was obvious as to why Incheon Airport is constantly ranked as the best or one of the best airports in the world. Dazzling light displays, beautiful open terminal buildings, and FREE showers are just a few of the things you will see past security.

A girl plays in front of one of Incheon International Airport's interactive light displays.
A girl plays in front of one of Incheon International Airport’s interactive light displays.

We met our tour guide near one of the airport exits and headed off on our tour with a small group of Americans, Canadians, and Germans. If you have bags, fear not. The tour will store your bags in a secure location while you are in the city, free of charge.

After passing over the bridge connecting Incheon Airport to the rest of the city, we made our way to Heungryunsa Temple, located atop a hill in Incheon. We first noticed the great views of the city skyline and bridge from near where our bus stopped.

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The cherry blossoms near the temple entrance were also in full bloom.

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We walked up over 107 steps at this temple which featured some gold-clad Buddhas, nice elephants, and some small gardens. It was nice to get a feel for some of the local Korean Buddhist culture while only being here for such a short time.

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Next stop on the tour was the Memorial Hall for the Incheon Landing Operation. This place was a fantastic location to learn about the Korean War and the immensity of the Battle of Incheon, a daring tactical maneuver and amphibious landing spearheaded by General Douglas MacArthur. The surprise landing and attack was the beginning of the offensive which eventually pressed MacArthur’s troops far into North Korea.

The park features some great period artillery pieces, statues, monuments, and a nice display of flags from the countries which participated in the Korean War.

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After our brief stop here, we were back to the airport where we thought our tour would finish, but there was one last surprise in store for us.

After passing through immigration, we went towards our gate and passed by one of the Korean cultural exhibitions where staff help explain Korean culture and assist you in creating a piece of Korean artwork (again, for free) to take back with you as a way to remember Korea.

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The two young women working at the store spoke flawless English and we had some great conversations! For about an hour, we talked about travel, Korea, and shared interesting stories about life in Japan and being an expat in Asia. They helped make our experience in Incheon a memorable and unforgettable one. As a matter of fact, they will be my two of my tour guides in Seoul next month with my friends from the United States.

To make a long story short, make sure you go on one of Incheon International Airport’s free stopover tours next time you are in South Korea. Also make sure to stop by one of the cultural workshops before you depart. You never know who you will meet. Who knows? Maybe it will inspire you to go to Korea for longer than a few hours!

Taipei in Photos (Day 2)

Following a jam-packed first day in Taipei and a long night’s sleep, I was ready to go for another grueling day eating the best street food and seeing the best sites Taiwan had to offer. It’s a good thing, too, because this day was even more grueling than the first day. First up on the schedule was a rendezvous with one of my friends from college, both in Japan and the United States. David and I were off to Taipei Station. Stepping into the main atrium at the station, I felt like I was back in Japan, with high ceilings and shops in every corner at the station.

Taipei Station

Once we arrived, we found Karina in a Taiwan-style restaurant and recounted and rehashed our stores from college and talked about what we have been doing since we last saw ourselves in Philadelphia nearly two years ago. I often echo this sentiment on many of my posts on here, but I am always grateful when I meet my friends from college at different locales in Asia. Many people lose touch with their friends from college, but I am very fortunate to have been able to keep in touch with so many people given how busy all of us are.

After downing some delicious fried pork, some noodles, and some other Taiwanese delicacies, we were off to our first stop of the day, Freedom Plaza.

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After a short trip on Taipei’s subway system, dubbed the MRT, we were greeted by the sweltering humidity that had built as the day progressed. A quick stroll and turn to the right led us through the gates in this photo and into Freedom Plaza. I was very impressed with the size of the plaza in the middle of a bustling metropolis like Taipei. Traditional buildings flanked the plaza, with its focus on the Taiwanese national flag situated in the middle of the plaza. We were on our way to see the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall at the other end of the plaza. As soon as I saw it, images of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., filled my mind. The similarities between the two memorials are striking: a hike up several levels of white stairs led into a large, high-ceilinged rom with one main focus: a gargantuan statue of a national leader. Once you first see the statue, it would be almost impossible not to think about the Lincoln Memorial. While the materials are different, the exuding feeling is similar. The statue of Chiang Kaishek dominates the massive room.

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Following some perusing in the museum area of the memorial, we returned to the statue area to watch the changing of the guard ceremony. That, too, was exciting and very interesting to watch.

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Once the ceremony was over, we returned to the MRT to go to a different part of the city with another food in mind: mango-flavored ice cream. Following a short ride on the MRT, we arrived at the ice cream parlor and sat down to have more conversation and discuss my thoughts on Taipei before Karina had to go to work for the rest of the afternoon. Although we had planned to speak about Taipei, I noticed something interesting about the people who sat down next to us: they were speaking Japanese!

Quickly I was in the midst of a conversation with these three Japanese tourists about life in Japan. This was a very interesting conversation and my friends did their best to communicate with them even though they did not understand our Japanese conversation. Little encounters and conversations like this make learning and speaking another language very enjoyable for me. No matter where I go, I usually run into Japanese tourists at famous landmarks in Asia. The Japanese tourists were on their way and we lingered for a while longer to reminisce. It was a great morning with Karina.

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The three of us took a bus to Taipei 101and split ways, with Karina going to work and David and I continuing on to hike up Elephant Mountain, the most famous viewing point for Taipei 101. We saw the night view yesterday, so naturally we were headed up in the afternoon for a daytime view of the world’s second-tallest building. On the way to the mountain, I noticed Taipei copied another famous Philadelphia landmark, the LOVE statue.

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The humidity continued to increase and by the time we made it to the base of Elephant Mountain, my shirt was completely soiled with sweat and so was David’s. The sweat was dripping off the faces of everyone descending Elephant Mountain following the climb, so it was obvious that we would suffer the same fate following the twenty minute hike to the outlook point at the top. Scenery at the start reminded me of Macau, which was also unexpected.

As the hike up the narrow stairs began, I could not wait to see the spectacular views of Taipei 101!

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David and I passed some children and elderly visitors making the hike and finally made it to the first landing, and, oh, was it a sight to behold! Taipei 101 cut through the sky and was spectacular. I posed for a photo with the world’s second-tallest building even though I was soaked with sweat.

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Ten minutes later, David and I made it to the top and climbed up some large boulders to take in the skyline and snap some photos. the cameramen already atop these boulders made for an interesting foreground.

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As the sun began to set, David and I moved in unison with it, descending Elephant Mountain’s steep stairs.

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Then, in the middle of our descent, I encountered one of the most beautiful views of a skyline I have ever seen: the setting sun illuminated the humidity and smog which engulfed Taipei on that Sunday afternoon. The resulting view was fantastic. I will never forget this scene as long as I live. Taipei101

David and I stopped at the base of Taipei 101 for some photos and then were off to see more of the city before it was too late in the night. This evening’s purple lights were fantastic.

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First up on the night’s agenda was another night view of Taipei from a different location. Following a long motorcycle ride, we found out that location was closed due to road construction, so we quickly changed plans and decided to go to Taipei’s second most famous night market and included a stop at one of the city’s most famous temples, too.

Much like the previous night, David and I indulged on many foods and drinks as we walked through the narrow stalls and dogged the rain drops that intermittently spritzed throughout the night. Milkshakes, hot meat sandwiches, finger food, and pork ribs were all on the menu tonight. I am always impressed with the intricate nature of the woodwork that always adorns the temples in Asia.

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Temple

After a few hours enjoying the food (and wi-fi) in the market, my time with David in Taipei was essentially over. It was amazing to get a tour of one of Asia’s most bustling cities from a local perspective while also rekindling a lost friendship. Seeing Taipei from atop a motorcycle, in its back alleys, and from its most famous lookout points helped me appreciate one of Asia’s most underrated destinations. While I fully admit my feelings for Taipei over the first two days are largely dependent on the willingness and eagerness of my friends to be fantastic hosts, I recommend Taipei to anyone whom is seeking adventure and i unique mix of Eastern and Western history.

Aside from a random traffic stop at 2:30 AM following a very late dinner, this trip was stress-free and amazing. To this point, Taipei is certainly my favorite destination in Asia, alongside Macau and Seoul. Only one more day remained in my Taiwanese adventure and the next post here will certainly provide insight into my third and final day in Taiwan.

Tantalizing Taipei (Day 1)

I have just returned to Japan from a grueling, three-day tour of Taipei with my good friends from college, and there is only one word that can describe the experience as I think about it in retrospect: tantalizing. Eating the delicious street food in Taipei’s famous night markets, traveling through the city with my friends on motorcycles, and making new friends are the experiences that make this trip unforgettable in every sense of the word. Taiwan will always have a special place in my travel heart. My parents always talked about “doing what the locals do” on vacations to the American South, and I was finally able to experience “doing what the locals do” and “eating what the locals eat” while in Asia and I will not forget it anytime soon.

Following months of discussion with my Taiwanese friends about when I would make the short journey from Osaka, Japan, to Taipei to see their country, I was off on a Saturday morning flight to begin a nonstop weekend of sightseeing and indulging in local style. Things started off rather uneventfully in Japan as I took in a remarkable sunrise at the airport.

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Sunrise at Kansai International Airport Terminal 2. (c) Erik Jacobs, erikabroad.com

Following the short flight and about an hour long bus ride from Taoyuan International Airport to the Far Eastern Hotel, the trip was set to begin and I could not have been any happier. Meeting my friend, David, from college in Taiwan was something that I had always planned to do but never knew exactly if or when it would happen. To make a long story short, I joined the International Students Association at my university following my return from Japan in the wake of the Great Tohoku Earthquake in 2011. My friend and I joined because we wanted to return the favor that Tokyo residents had given us during our time there. Showing them around America and helping them come to love the United States seemed like second nature to us. I made some great friends in this organization, and it is always a real pleasure when they host me and how me the ropes of their homeland much like we showed them America.

After a few minutes of waiting outside the hotel in the sweltering Taiwanese heat, David showed up on his motorbike and we were off to his university to drop off my bags and head to our first stop of the day, a pool party in the heart of Taiwan!  Along the way, I was quite nervous because it was my first time riding on a motorbike. Aside from worrying about falling off of the bike as we weaved in and out of traffic, I had to contend with my concerns that other bikes would hit us. Add my insatiable desire to take photos into the mix, and it was a stressful and enjoyable ride to the university.

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Riding through Taipei.
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First time on a motorbike, Top Gun style.

 

After we made it to the university, we met with one of David’s Taiwanese friends, Eric, and continued onward to the pool party. Along the way, we passed Freedom Plaza, which is a gargantuan monument and plaza in honor of Chiang Kai-shek, the founder of Taiwan. It was cool to drive by here given how many lectures and discussions we had in my AP American History course with Mr. McKenrick about the Red Chinese and Nationalist Chinese, but more to come on this landmark in my post about my second day in Taipei. Here is how the main gate looked from the road.

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Our marathon day then continued as we traversed some shopping areas in Taiwan, as my gracious hosts wanted to make sure I had some famous Taiwanese bubble tea and chicken cutlets the size of your face. I didn’t believe them, but I sure did when they arrived a few minutes after our order was placed.

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After some more bites to eat and a stop at Starbucks so I could use the wi-fi, we checked into my hotel and were off to more famous Taipei attractions, on motorcycles, of course.

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First up on the list of things to do on Saturday night was a stop at the world-famous Shinlin Night Market, located in northern Taipei. I first heard about this location on the Travel Channel and was tying to see if it would live up to the muster. Fortunately, the bustling corridors of tourists and locals, vendors and peddlers lived up to all of my expectations. I told my friends that I wanted to try “all of the foods the Taiwanese eat at these places,” and we sure did. First up on the list was a food I saw on one of Anthony Bourdain’s shows, the oyster omelette. I love oysters and eggs, so what’s not to like about this option? It was delicious and hit the spot! The coolest part about this market is that there is also an underground section!

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Market

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Next up were two more famous Taiwanese dishes, stinky tofu and fried crabs. I also head about both of these on the Travel Channel and I can confirm their deliciousness. I am always skeptical about eating new foods, but for some reason I was a little more willing than usual on this trip. The tofu tasted delicious for something that smelled as putrid as it did and the crabs were just as I had hoped: crunchy, salty, and delicious.

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After these foods, we passed by some delicious fruits and tried some more great street food, papaya milkshakes! They were tantalizing. On the way out of the crowded market, the sounds of Chinese merchants, Japanese tourists, and the pattering of feet created a harmonious sound that somehow brought calm and order to the chaos. Shinlin Night Market was one for the ages as far as I am concerned. The only downside to it all was the cockroaches infesting the parking garage. No more commentary on that!

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Those of you that read this website that I fixate on a few things when I travel. First and foremost, I try to capture the energy and excitement of the moment in which I am by taking candid photography. After that, there is nothing more interesting than architectural photography. In Asia, the unique blend of Western influences (Macau, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia) and Eastern style make for some exciting photographic canvasses. The modern cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Singapore also offer spectacular nighttime skylines and viewing opportunities. Few things compare to shooting Shanghai from across the Bund or Hong Kong from Victoria Harbor. Taiwan also offers a spectacular night view, but the trek to get there made it all the more worthwhile.

Once we were done at the night market, David, Eric, and I hopped on our motorcycles and headed to a more secluded, “locals-only” location to view Taipei 101 and Taipei’s Ferris wheel all at once. My friends said this site was relatively unknown until more recently, and for good reason. We turned up an unpaved roadway and ascended a large hill for nearly ten minutes over bumps, potholes, and ruts to make it to our final destination. With little surprise, we were greeted by dirt on our clothes from the kicked up dust, and a lot of Taiwanese locals posing for photos with and taking photos of the city skyline. It was remarkable. Unlike other cities i have seen in Asia, Taipei is dominated by Taipei 101. There are few other buildings in the city which stand out or even rival its height. Other cities I have seen usually have a “high-rise district,” much like Shinjuku in Tokyo, but that is not the case in Taipei. As we stood there, I thought about where I was and with whom I was.  Looking out over a vivid green Ferris wheel, the world’s second tallest building with one of my good friends in college was a beautiful sight. After a while at this spot, we headed out for some more late night food before splitting our ways, only to rendezvous the following morning for my Taipei exploration.

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My first day in Taipei was fantastic, but I had no idea how much better things would get as the weekend progressed!

Trails Through Tokyo

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had a great time with my friends in Tokyo last weekend. It was definitely needed to get my mind off of issues I was having both in Japan and back home in the United States. Do you ever have a weekend that just magically comes together and makes for an unforgettable time for everyone involved? It seems like that happens to me each time I take the Shinkansen or the plane back to Tokyo. It seems like every time I hear the harmonious melodies emanating from the Yamanote Train encircling Tokyo, all is right in the world.

After our night out in Shinjuku, my friend and I woke up rather early on Saturday for another day of sightseeing at some of my favorite spots in Tokyo. While it had been nearly three years since I had visited some of these places, it is amazing how small shops and memories come back to you when you are back in a familiar environment, regardless of how long the lag time is. First up on the list was my old neighborhood in Tokyo, Jiyugaoka.

This neighborhood is well known as one of the ritziest and most elite neighborhoods in all of the city, and for good reason. The boutiques, bakeries, and designer stores are abundant. Here there are any gardens and the streets are narrow near the station. I love this neighborhood. The only catch is that I lived in a dorm here, not an apartment. You can get a feeling for the neighborhood as soon as you step out of the station. The fashion-conscious japanese take their fashion very serious in Jiyugaoka. Here’s how the station looked on Saturday afternoon in the sunlight, as the hats umbrellas, and skirts were a sight to behold.

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As we exited the station, all the sights, sounds, and smells of the area triggered long lost memories to return. Acting on a spur of the moment impulse, my friend and I ventured to my old dorm building, somewhat off the beaten path, about ten minutes walk from the station. I was pleased that the gardens remained even though the tenants had changed. One of the nice memories of living where I did was picking up fresh vegetables from the garden each night as I walked home. Those veggies would be setting on a slab with a change can right next to the road. Always on the honor system, it would pick up radishes and onions for the evening’s dinners…

Following some more touring of the neighborhood and a quick stop for coffee, we were back on the Toyoko Train and headed to another favorite spots of mine: Shibuya Square. I changed trains every day in Shibuya Station and I still don’t know how I mastered the maze of corridors and halls that make up one Tokyo’s busiest stations. After a few wrong turns, we made it to the world’s busiest pedestrian crosswalk. As Japanese pop music came from the stores and people bustled to-and-fro, I again felt at home in the busiest city on the planet. After some sightseeing and a little shopping, we were off to some more nice places along the JR line: Takeshita Street and Shinjuku Gardens.

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First up was Takeshita Street, known for its bustling shopping streets and unique stores. We spent time there and marveled at all the different types of people that pass through there in a matter of minutes. From the foreigners to the otaku to the businessmen on their way to their next appointment, there are so many different types of people in this neighborhood. Lest I forget, there were also many, many camera-wielding tourists. After some ice cream on a storefront stoop, we were off to Shinjuku Gardens via Omodesanto.

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I thought Shinjuku Gardens would be a fitting place to end our day excursions because of the sheer number of beautiful scenes and benches on Jericho be could rest. Tokyo is very walkable, depending on where you get off the train, but a day of walking and people watching certainly takes it’s toll on you. In Shinjuku Gardens, we marveled at the ornate setup of the foliage and took time to watch the carp and koi swim through exquisite ponds while we also looked at beautifully pruned bushes and shrubs. While I must say the towering buildings in the background give a nice touch of modernity to the park in the summer, the best time to come to the gardens is during the cherry blossom season, often in the first week of April.

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After a few hours here, we wrapped up our tour and headed back to our hotel to take a nap before meeting some of my friends later in the evening. More on that one, later.

In Japanese, there is a word for dear or missed memories, and it happens to be one of my favorite Japanese words: 懐かしい. (Pronounced natsukashi.) Days like this in Tokyo remind me why I love the city so much and why it it is important to live in the moment whenever you are doing something. No one would have predicted the 3/11 earthquake nor how quickly I would have had to return after such a disaster, but I was able to relive better times in Tokyo with one of my dear friends from language on a beautiful, yet scorching, Saturday in Tokyo.

I finish this entry with a photo of the station board in Jiyugaoka. It is very 懐かしい for me.

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Meandering Through Malaysia

Almost as soon as I started my journey from Singapore to Malaysia, I knew my two day stay in Kuala Lumpur would be full of interesting surprises and unexpected turns along the way. 

It all started when I made my way to Woodlands train station, located in northern Singapore, to board my overnight train to Kuala Lumpur. For starters, this train station could have been one of the most poorly designed and signed stations into which I have ever gone. There are several different  busses and trains that depart from Singapore for Malaysia and the busses and trains have their own immigration checkpoints and checkin procedures. If only it was labeled as such. I arrived at the station two hours before my scheduled departure to ensure everything went off without a hitch, and, boy, am I glad I did. 

I walked through a long, cold, Soviet-looking corridor through the terminal and up to a set of immigration gates. What had been a cursory process in Singapore, Thailand, and all other destinations up to this point on my trip suddenly hit a snag when the immigration officer told me that i was at the bus terminal instead of the train terminal. Other immigration officers came and escorted me into a quarantine area as they ran all my documents before personally escorting me back to the immigration check at the train station. Following a lengthy wait, I was stamped out of Singapore and awaited my entry stamps for Malaysia at jointly operated checkpoint. 

I had heard stories about folks who had gone to Israel that had faced hassles entering Malaysia and were even denied entry, so I was a bit antsy given I had been to Israel in January. Certainly the border agents would not know as I had no entry or exit stamp, but that crossed my mind. I faced a lengthy series of questions as they scrupulously flipped through my passport before stamping my passport.

I lain in my bed for the overnight train when I heard two fellows speaking English in the cots near me so I struck up conversation and who knew? They were also Americans working in Japan. We had a great chat and plan to rendezvous at some point in the future. 

Eight hours later, my train rolled into Kuala Lumpur’s Sentral Station and when I disembarked I knew I was in a completely different world. Many different sights surrounded me in the train station: women bustling in every which way wearing burkas, Muslim prayer rooms, and signs written in Malay. Given this was my first time in the Muslim world, I should have expected that, but it still took me a bit off guard. 

Following a quick coffee, I was on my way to my hostel in Central KL when I ran into something oddly familiar- a Girl’s Generation (Korean pop music group) ad in the station. 

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As someone interested in the British Empire and European influence in Asia, I was very excited to see Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur. I had heard stories from my Malaysian friends and friends who had visited that Kuala Lumpur is a bustling metropolis where dilapidated colonial-era buildings stand side-by-side with the well preserved buildings and new buildings towering over them. I was in for a treat as soon as I stepped out of the station near my hostel. In front of me were various types of colonial buildings and newer hotels/apartments, but this motorcycle stuck out to me, especially as the Petronas Towers loomed large in the background. Image

From here, I went to my hostel, checked in, charged up my camera and phone, and took a short nap on account of the fact that it was extremely difficult to sleep on that overnight train. The second day of my trip was already fully booked with a tour of the Batu Caves and some other areas in KL, so I set out on foot to explore a swath of the area near my hostel: Chinatown, Little India, Merdeka Square, etc. were all within walking distance.

First up for me was the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. As the power center of British Malay, this elaborately constructed building certainly has stood the test of time. Unlike in other colonies, the British incorporated local and Muslim architectural elements into what would be the center of their operations in Malaysia for many decades. The domes, clock tower, and facade make for an interesting appearance which both stands out and fits in with the surrounding area. One of the most interesting pieces of art nearby is the Queen Victoria fountain, brought from England in 1898 to commemorate Victoria’s rule and British influence in Malaysia. Below is a photo of both of them in Merdeka Square. 

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Aside from this building, several other interesting buildings surround the square. An Anglican Church and former private British club flank the other sides of the square, which used to be a cricket ground. Certainly a must-see place if you are in Kuala Lumpur. 

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The other element of the square which I found fascinating was the enormous flagpole. I have always been fascinated with flags, and this is certainly the largest flagpole I have ever seen in my life. Eerily similar to the United States flag (and the British East India Company flag), I took a double take when I arrived in Merdeka Square. The dominating presence of the flag speaks for itself  as a symbol of Malaysian pride. 

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From here, it was off to see some colonial architecture and visit Chinatown before a trip to the Petronas Towers in the evening. 

On my way to Chinatown, I encountered some of the dilapidated and gorgeous colonial-era buildings about which my friends told me! It was truly a sight to behold. The chipping pastel paint brushing up against street signs and traffic lights is a scene that will not leave my mind when I think of Malaysia and walking the streets of Kuala Lumpur. 

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Then I stumbled upon the Malaysian Heritage Trail and saw some more beautiful colonial-era buildings which had been converted into shops, restaurants, and other places of business. It was another beautiful scene which shows off the history and richness of Kuala Lumpur. 

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Chinatown was a whole different animal. With bustling markets and the smell of street food percolating through the air, I don’t know how anyone could not enjoy a stroll down its narrow streets. That is, of course, so long as cars were not trying to make it down the alleys as well. Image

I encountered never before seen foods and shared some delicious chicken at a street side market with a fellow traveler before eventually returning to my hostel to change and head out into the Malaysian night.

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If you ever go to this part of Kuala Lumpur, I am sure you will notice what I did at this point of my journey: the streets are higher than the sidewalks at certain points in the city! I could not figure out what was so peculiar about the streets until I tripped up the stairs when leaving a shop. Years of new pavement, sewage systems, and electrical utilities are certainly the cause of this. Here’s a look. 

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I could not wait to see the Petronas Towers in person and the two skyscrapers did not disappoint. I arrived at twilight and was fortunate enough to see the lights turn on from below. The glistening eight-sided spires connected by the skywalk was certainly a sight to behold for all. Add into the mix the luxury malls beneath both towers and I could see why people would come to these towers for a day out on the town. 

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the interesting people I met in Singapore was in Kuala Lumpur not his evening as well. My new Korean friend and I rendezvoused at the fabulous SkyBar inside Traders Hotel to have a drink and take in the breathtaking view of the Petronas Towers from 33 Floors above Kuala Lumpur. I usually am not keen on spending big bucks for a drink, but if you love cityscapes, skylines, or just breathtaking views, you MUST go to SkyBar. Add into the mix that there is a pool inside the bar and I don’t know how you cannot go. I was very happy to meet up with my friend and discuss Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and other travel destinations in such an unlikely place. 

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As the rain began to fall for the first time on my trip, we decided to head to the streets to feast on the cheap street food that is omnipresent in the city. Once we arrived at Jalan Petaling Market, we were very pleased. Delicious street food was everywhere for the taking. I enjoyed an entire deep fried frog and some other delicacies on a stick and she had various other types of local fare. The gentlemen running all of the stands were very nice and helpful when it came to suggesting what to eat. This was my first time going to a real street market in Southeast Asia outside of the tourist-ridden markets in Bangkok and I am thrilled I went.  The food was delicious and the company was nice, as well. 

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As the rain picked up and the night wore on, my friend and I split our separate ways and I took a cab back to my hostel where I thought the night was over, but not before I made some more friends on the road. 

My hostel boasted a rooftop bar so I headed up there to see if any interesting people were still awake. I met a fascinating traveler from London and we had a few drinks discussing our travels, our college experiences, and our current travels before going our separate ways. 

Early to arrive and late to bed, my first day in Malaysia was phenomenal. From the historical buildings to the Petronas Towers and the markets in between, I was thrilled to be in KL and could not wait for what the next day had to offer. It was a marathon day of meandering through Kuala Lumpur’s narrow streets.

 

 

 

The Amazing People I Met on My Journey in Asia

I have just returned home to Japan (as strange as that still sounds when I say it) from a grueling, non-stop trip through seven different countries in Asia that started at the end of December. When I travel, I always enjoy taking photos, sampling street food, and going to the famous places. On this trip, however, one thing stands out from everything else as to why I will remember this trip: the amazing people I met at all points during my journey. 

I have had my fair share of encounters with travelers back in the United States and Canada during a number of road trips and day trips I have taken over the past few years. My friend Andrew and I always had a knack for meeting interesting folks. During a 2000-mile foray into the Northeastern United States and Canada’s Maritime provinces, we met interesting characters at rest stops in New York, inside custard stands in the rolling hills of Vermont, at the dance club in Montreal, and at a nice cafe perched atop Quebec City on a rainy and blustery July morning.

The nice things about these chats with fellow travelers is that they were short, sweet, and fleeting. It brought a breath of fresh air to our travels, and even revitalized our travel spirits. One of these encounters actually saved one of our trips in its entirety. We were actually planning our swift (and earlier-than-planned) return to the United States in the face of sleep deprivation and unprecedented tropical moisture in Quebec City this past summer.  We were seeking out a cafe with WiFi to plan our return trip home until met a couple and their daughter from New Brunswick that inspired us to keep going and make it the whole way to the coast. From that point onward, I’ve made a point to chat with people I meet along the road or in the airport. 

Almost from the beginning of this journey in Asia, I had some fascinating encounters with other travelers and even ended up making some new friends along the way. They were good omens for what was to transpire on this trip. 

The encounters all started during my flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok early last week when a gentleman sat down in the middle seat next to my window seat. I thought he seemed a bit rushed and in a hurry so I contemplated not saying hello and turning on my iPhone for the duration of the flight. Fortunately I trusted my instinct to say hello and strike up a conversation. After a few minutes of casual chatting, he ended up giving me the best travel advice for Bangkok and the surrounding areas. As it turned out, he had made many trips to Thailand and his advice helped me make the most of my stay in the Southeast Asian nation.  Add to that the talk we had about international business, marketing, politics, and the beers we enjoyed at 10,000 feet, and it was a flight I won’t soon forget. He gave me his business card and I am sure we will remain in touch and keep up with our future travels as we o across Asia and the globe. 

This conversation was just the beginning. During my second night in Bangkok, I had just finished up a day tour which included riding elephants. I was quite exhausted but decided to head out into the city instead of taking a nap at my hotel. After a few hours of walking, I ended up winding through some of the red light district and settling down at an outdoor bar to enjoy a drink in the warm evening and do some people watching.  A middle-aged Westerner was sitting at the seat next to me, so I decided to say hello. After a few Jack and Cokes, we had ended up discussing his military service, my life in Japan, his current life in another, very different, Asian country. We ended up making our way to another eating establishment in the city and shared stories like we had known each other for quite a long time. At the end of the night, we exchanged e-mails and I am sure we will continue to be in touch. Just a few kind words made for quite an interesting and memorable evening. 

The following night in Bangkok was by far the most unlikely of all. In an earlier post, I remarked on how I made friends with two Japanese-speaking girls in Hong Kong in the most unlikely of circumstances. The new friendship I made in Bangkok was even more unlikely! While waiting for some famous street noodles, I sat down across from a middle-aged couple that was just finishing up their noodles. As fate would have it, they were Japanese. Just before they got up to leave, I asked, in Japanese, 「それはどうでしたか。」(How was it?). With a  look of befuddlement, they sat back down and we had an engaging conversation about my life in Japan, their life in Japan, and what it was like to be in Bangkok. We never used any English because they could only speak Japanese. After teaching me some of the Hiroshima dialect, the gentleman’s wife retired to the hotel and her husband and I continued on for some more drinks and food at various different establishments. He used to live in Bangkok several years ago, so I had another unlikely tour guide for what to see in my final day in the city. As it turns out, he works as a schoolteacher for the same age group of children that I teach. We had talks about Japanese school life and really had a good time. We plan to meet in Japan in the near future to continue our discussions.  

Things went rather well in Bangkok, but I could not have expected how well they would go in Singapore when it came to making new travel friends. 

When I arrived in Singapore, I was excited to tackle the city about which I studied so much in college for one of my final papers. Seeing British landmarks, examining the skyline, and going to the top of the Marina Bay Sands were at the top of my list. After quickly checking in at my hostel, I was on my way to the Sands to take in the tourist-only view of the city and had zero intentions of getting to the pool and bar which only awaits hotel guests. 

While I was taking a photo of the view of the city from the photo deck, a woman bumped into me and ruined the scene I had tried to capture using my miniature tripod. She was very apologetic and I was eventually into a discussion with her and her husband about traveling in Asia and my life in Japan. This was our first night in Singapore. They were at the Sands and I was at a hostel in Clarke Quay. They graciously asked if I wanted to join them in going to the pool. How could I say no to the chance to see somewhere I had always wanted to see and would never get to see unless I could afford a room at the hotel? 

With an enthusiastic “yes,” I accepted their offer. We shared a drink at one of the bars overlooking the harbor and we took photos of each other atop the building at the pool. They retired to their room and I remained on the roof at the pool until it closed. Yet another unlikely encounter with other amazing travelers that took me to the most unlikely of places. 

I had met a new, exciting, traveler on each night of my trip and knew this would have to come to an end at some point, but I was mistaken. The new encounters just kept coming. 

The following evening after my day trip to Indonesia, I returned to the hostel looking to experience some of Singapore’s nightlife and hoped another solo traveler would be looking for the same thing. A lonely looking girl was sitting in the lobby so I struck up a conversation with her. As it turned out, she already had plans for the evening with another person she had met at the hostel, but would be in Kuala Lumpur the same time I would be in Malaysia. We exchanged e-mails and decided to meet there for some street food since we were both solo travelers and were looking for other interesting people to meet along the way. 

Shortly after she left the relaxed lounge, another person arrived and sat down next to me. He seemed eager to speak, so we started chatting about our stay in Singapore (it was also his first time)- the sights we had seen and what we planned to do over the next two days. After a while, we decided to head out into the balmy Singapore night. It was a great decision and we had a good time at one of the most famous nightclubs in the city. The following morning, we headed out to Merlion Park and some other sites around the city before returning to the hostel later that afternoon. 

As we sat in the lobby killing time before our checkout and departure, another fascinating person walked into the room. This person was not a backpacker at our hotel, but rather a Singapore native who was there to meet up with a friend and give a tour of her hometown. After a brief conversation, the three of us found out that we would be in Hong Kong for New Years’ and made separate plans to rendezvous in the city if time allowed. Nothing like this had ever happened for me during previous hostel stays.  

Not only did I meet some awesome people in Singapore, we would meet yet again in different cities in the future. 

I rendezvoused with the first girl form the hostel in Kuala Lumpur and we enjoyed an evening of sampling the interesting street food all across the city after going to SkyBar and checking out the amazing Twin Towers. As it started to rain, we split ways and were on to our next destinations the following day. I couldn’t get over how we had just met in Singapore the previous day and then toured and ate our way through Kuala Lumpur the next day. We may meet again in Seoul when I go to Korea later this year to visit friends from college. 

More of the same transpired in Hong Kong as I met up with the other girl from Singapore on New Years Eve after the fireworks. A group of us went out into the city and enjoyed some of the post-fireworks festivities after having only met a few days earlier in Singapore. It was a great time and yet another completely unlikely scenario. 

How often do you meet someone from a totally different country in one city and then meet them again in a totally different country mere days later? It always pays to be open and talkative at hostels or at other places when you are on the road. You never know anyone’s story or what they may be doing next. 

My last night in Hong Kong was just as interesting as the previous five nights. Two Scottish guys rolled into the dorm room at the hostel as I was preparing for an evening of sightseeing and photography in Hong Kong. They were very interesting fellows who had just arrived in Hong Kong after a few days in Vietnam. We were telling our stories of travel in Asia and I decided to join them on their trip to the night market in Kowloon and then head back to Hong Kong Island to watch a soccer game with them at one of the British expat bars in the area. After a few drinks and a few other stops along the way, I returned to the hostel for a few hours of shuteye before heading to the airport and returning home. These engineers were some of the most interesting and intriguing people I met on this while journey. 

When it is all said and done, the things I will remember most from my most recent adventure will not be the food or the sights, but the people I met and the friendships I made in all stops along the way. Whether they were a fellow American Expat, an American businessman, a Japanese teacher, a Korean university student, a Hong Konger living in Canada, a Singaporean local, Australians on vacation, or Scottish engineers, it was great sharing conversations and stories with them along the way. Unlike other people I have encountered on the road in the past, I have a distinct feeling I will cross paths with more than one of these folks again during our travels. 

Speak to people as you travel. You never know which person will lead you to an unforgettable adventure or the place off the beaten path in your next destination. Hostels and planes are invitations to meet some of the most interesting people on the planet. I met some amazing people on my journey through Southeast Asia.

 

Rendezvous Week – Old Friends in New Places

I have enjoyed the bulk of my time liven gin Japan and Asia since I arrived in Kobe this August. I’ve made some new friends, experienced some great things, and gone to tons of new places. Most of this journey has been fun, but this week has been the most enjoyable week yet.  This week has been “rendezvous week” for me, as I have met two friends from Philadelphia in Kobe throughout the course of the week. 

The three of us have had delicious meals sampled amazing Japanese food, and enjoyed our fair share of conversations and hot sake. I am very glad we were able to rekindle our friendship a half a world away from where it started. 

Today marked another kind of rendezvous which I enjoyed very much. Two summers ago, I attended a language school in Calfironia which was one of the most demanding and rewarding experiences of my educational life. For eight weeks, I used zero English. Throughout those trials and tribulations, amazing, new, friendships were made as we all struggled to make it through the grueling coursework and language study. Ever since that school and my study abroad experience in 2011, I have been amazed by how “small” the Japanese-speaking foreigner community is in terms of running into each other all around the country and the world. It seems like I always have a friend from language school either visiting Japan or coming here to study abroad. 

Today, I met up with one of my best friends from language school in Osaka. He is in Japan for the week visiting some friends and doing sightseeing and we were fortunate to have free time to meet in Osaka this afternoon. It was so great to see him and speak about where our lives are going, rekindle lost memories from language school and chat about the past. As I said, “it was a long way from Lancaster,” the place where we last met while he was still in school. 

We enjoyed some delicious ramen in the heart of Osaka and also had a photograph taken in front of the famous Glico advertisement in one of the busiest parts of the city. It was great to explore the city I know rather well with an old friend from so far away. 

I’ve said it a million times, but I will say it once again: going to language school was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done on so many levels. I am sure we will meet in Japan again this summer when he returns. There is nothing like having old memories come to life when you speak about such formative and transformative experiences like language school. 

The lesson of the story here is that you never know when you will run into people whom you’ve met over the years and your certainly don’t know when you will rekindle old friendships and relationships. Always keep an open schedule and be flexible. These moments are often fleeting, but I am enjoying this week. 

 

Off to Southeast Asia on Saturday, but I have one more rendezvous in store tomorrow!

More posts to come as time allows!

A Great Weekend with an Old Friend in a New Place

All of us are often told ‘all good things must end’ as a means through which we can accept friendships ending, moving on from previous commitments, and many other things in our lives. Unfortunately as a matter of time and circumstance, many things in our lives certainly do come to an end no matter how much we wish they would not. Several weeks before I embarked on my journey to Japan, I had an informal barbecue with a friend in Philadelphia and knew it would very likely be the last time we discussed Asia, politics, and had a good meal before I returned to the United States at some point in the future. That’s the way things usually work and the reality of the situation was painfully obvious. 

This weekend, I am happy to report I was terribly wrong in thinking we would not see each other again before I returned from Japan. Several weeks ago, I received an e-mail that my friend would be coming to Japan on business for a week in December in Kobe. 

After rendezvousing at the Shinkansen station here in Kobe, we made our way off for a few drinks and a good dinner last evening to catch up and talk about the last four months of my life in Japan, how things were going at the university, and just to discuss life. I am often amazed when I meet friends or acquaintances in far off places, removed from where we met or knew each other in the past. This weekend was no different. I was having dinner with one of my favorite professors from my university in Japan, of all places. 

On saturday, we explored Kobe, a place where this person lived in the past, discussing the chances and upgrades to what was in the city twenty year ago. We got dinner with a mutual friend of ours at a great sushi restaurant in Rokko and that brought back even more memories from semesters past and other discussions. It was a remarkable day. 

More of the same continued as I showed my friend my apartment and we went to some more far off places in Kobe. 

I’ve attached some photos from our stops in Arimaguchi and some other spots around the city. 

Maybe, sometimes, you can truly relive the past and remake friendships. This year it has happened twice for me. May the rest of the week be as rewarding and interesting. 

I will have a few travel posts coming in the near future. A massive adventure is on the horizon. 

All images and content (c) Erik Jacobs, 2013. erikabroad.com All Rights Reserved

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