One of the things people always ask me is, “Don’t you get lonely traveling alone?”

Well, I think there are times when I could see the potential to be lonely, but never quite fee lit. However,  I a) have a very high threshold for alone time, and b) traveling by myself doesn’t always mean being alone. Take, for instance, my pit-stop in Tokyo to meet up with my college friend Rachel and her sister Annabelle.

About a week before we met up, Rachel messaged me out of the blue on Facebook asking what I was up to. I told her I was in Japan — and learned she was headed there in a week! One of the joys of traveling by myself and without any plans is that when I learned a friend would be in Tokyo in just a week, it wasn’t too hard to adjust course in order to meet her there.

My second visit to Tokyo was just as exciting as my first. I love Tokyo because it’s such a mishmash of crazy things like the utterly incomprehensible Robot Restaurant, as well as peaceful and artfully arranged gardens.


From the gardens to the Robot Restaurant, all in a day of tourism.


And of course, what is a visit to Tokyo without eating all the food in sight?


Probably the best candid we could’ve asked for, featuring Rachel and Annabelle.


After Tokyo, Rachel and Annabelle headed off for Hiroshima (where I’d just come from), and I headed east to Kanazawa.

And here’s the other reason why solo-travel doesn’t necessarily mean learning to be alone. In Kanazawa, I stayed at the Shaq Bighouse hostel, and after I got some work done, I started chatting with a volunteer (Tom) there as well as one of the new guests, Collum. Tom offered to guide Collum and me to a local place for Kanazawa curry. And then after that, Collum and I spent the day wandering around Kanzawa and chatting. We visited the D.T. Suzuki house, a man who was instrumental in popularizing zen. The house was very… zen. It included a large, shallow square-ish pool with a jet that would intermittently bubble and send gentle ripples of water spreading outwards.

Collum took such a good photo of it with his polaroid, I’m almost embarrassed to share mine.


Collum and I also found a temple that offered different kinds of free sake. We had no idea what was what, except that one of them was plum-flavored.

Spending the day with Collum, who spoke no Japanese, really gave me a better idea of how much I unconsciously relied on my knowledge of traditional Chinese characters to get around. His perspective on his time in Japan was also especially interesting, as it differed so greatly from mine. Collum wears baggy clothing, has longer hair, tattoos, etc. — in short, if you think of a fashionable, sharply dressed Japanese man, Collum is very much not that.  In Japan, however, this results in a lot of judgement from people on the street. Collum also talked about how he feels like people didn’t smile as much in Japan.

I thought Collum’s experience was interesting for two reasons — one, I had never thought about what it would feel like to be a tourist in a country where the population at large would generally disapprove of your appearance. Two, it was interesting to meet someone traveling alone who does get lonely in a way that I don’t. From our conversation, I gathered Collum is definitely a more social person than I am, and more outwardly friendly, and he likes finding the same in other people — he’s the kind of person who smiles at strangers on the street and likes to see the same in return, while I see strangers smiling at me and get confused.

Later, that evening, Collum and a handful of other people from the hostel went out for drinks together — while I went out for a solo walk, followed my nose to a tiny food stall, and then returned to the hostel to do some quiet reading and writing.

Follow your nose into dark alleys.

The next morning, I went to a cafe recommended by Shaq Bighouse’s very useful book of Kanazawa recommendations, which was run by an American man from Seattle. I finally had a real cup of coffee there, and ended up getting into a conversation with the owner and two other American travels. Then — more alone time: I walked around Kanazawa by myself, visited its castle, and generally chilled out.

Just me, myself, and my chocos tan. 

In the morning, I got up to take a train to Kakunodate, a tiny town which was to be my stopover point before heading to Tsurunoyu Onsen, a famous ryokan in Nyuto onsen village. Kakunodate’s main selling point, I believe, is its samurai houses and its proximity to Nyuto onsen village.

It was very, very small, and I’d misbooked my stay at Tsurunoyu, so I ended up having to spend two nights there instead of one. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise — I got to spend an entire day just chilling out as it poured rain outside. And in the evening, I got dinner at an izakaya (a Japanese bar) with a couple from the UK (one half of whom spoke a bit of Japanese, which was great). We had a nice long meal, which included an amazing miso pizza and a lot of discussion about the differences between Britain and America. Apparently, Brits have this thing called squash which is neither the vegetable nor the game. WHAT?



Oh, deer!

The day after I visited the Peace Park, I took a train and a ferry to the island of Miyajima, which is famous for its “Floating Torii.” The large torii gate of a temple on Miyajima is set in the sand, so at high tide, it stands in the water. (At low tide, it stands on a bar of sand is distinctly less impressive. Be sure to check the tides if you want to go.)


I did not check the tides, and arrived earlier in mid-morning with hours to go until the mid-afternoon’s higher tides. After being greeted by some very curious and very not human-shy deer right at the port, I walked towards the sandbar Torii and realized my mistake. Some quick googling helped me find a handful of hiking trails around the island that lead up to its peak, and thinking that I had plenty of time to kill, I picked the longest trail which started in Omoto Park.

The not-so-impressive Sandbar Torii. 

Omoto Park was the furthest park from the floating torii, out past the temple, a few other shrines, and the aquarium (I wasn’t sure how much small island’s aquarium had to offer, and I did not check it out…)

Thus I commenced the sweatiest hike I’ve probably ever been on. The weather in Miyajima was a balmy 80-90 with a loooooot of humidity, and I didn’t realize how little water I had on me (under half a liter) until I was too far up the hike of uneven stone stairs to stop. I sweated through everything I had on me in at least 20 minutes, and that was probably only .5km of the 3km to the top. About a third of the way up, I ran into a couple of Americans (also sweating profusely) and we shared a moment of mutual ugh.

“How much longer?” I asked. They looked at each other. “You have… a long way to go.”

Well, I thought, feeling like I’d just come out of one of the hot yoga session I go to with my aunts and uncles. I can’t possibly get any sweatier. (Turns out, I was wrong.)

The view from the top. Worth it? … let’s not talk about it. 

I eventually made it, probably dehydrated and a little less than impressed by the peak’s foggy views. They also don’t sell water at the top, so I had to walk a bit more to get to the ropeway (which, why didn’t I take the ropeway up?) where I promptly bought and chugged a sports drink. I bought another bottle of water and drank that too.

On the hike back down, I saw an older woman with a Newport, RI bag! She and her friend were both Spanish, and though she had never been to Newport a family friend of hers had just got back from there (where they had gone to the folk festival.) Chatting with the women made the hike down feel quite a bit shorter, and I dried up a bit sweat-wise; by the time we got down there, the sandbar Torii was floating again and made the whole thing worth it.

Behold! The Floating Torii, floating. 
And the temple, also not safe from the water. 

I sat and appreciated the view and the salt water for a while, before going off to find lunch (Miyajima okonomiyaki, which is made with fried noodles and other deliciousness) and Miyajima’s strangely famous giant wooden spoon. Don’t ask, because I don’t understand it either…

The world’s largest wooden rice scoop, for when you get really, really hungry. 

And finally…

My sweaty, ambitious attempt at a selfie with a deer and the torii. I believe no selfie is complete without a group of bemused fellow tourists in the background.



The memorials for the bombing of Hiroshima are just as spectacular as everyone who’s been say they are, even when the museum was a bit crowded and cramped due to renovations.

The A-Dome, the preserved structure whose dome-like roof somehow remained intact, standing almost alone among the ruin of Hiroshima, is right along the river that runs through the city’s center. It is a striking monument that also serves as a good point of reference for the walls-length panorama of Hiroshima before and after the bombing, as well as in the simulation videos that show the bomb’s path, its point of explosion, and the effects in it had on the city.

The A-Dome 

Out of all the amazing things in the museum, which included a lot of interactive information about the decisions leading up to the bombing, the bombing itself, the effects of the radiation, and a great portion dedicated to promoting and emphasizing the importance of nuclear non-proliferation, the panoramas along the wall probably struck me the most. So much so I didn’t remember take a photo of them.

The first hall after getting to the second floor of the Peace Museum, where the exhibit starts, features a huge panorama of Hiroshima and what the city looked like before the atomic bombing. In the second room, taking up two large walls of a dark space that holds a circular table map of Hiroshima displaying a short simulation of the bombing on a loop (with smaller structures marking landmarks like the A-Dome), is a panorama of the city after the atomic bombing. A lot of the photos composing the wall picture come from the American military.

I thought these wall photos really gave a good impression of the amount of destruction caused by the atomic bomb. It wasn’t just a few buildings or neighborhoods that collapsed — a lot of Hiroshima contained more traditional, wooden Japanese buildings that were destroyed by firestorms created by the bomb. Aside from a few rare structures, like the A-Dome, which were built to withstand earthquakes, the city was leveled. I think we used the word “leveled” a lot, such that it loses its meaning (like awful, which used to mean awe-full, as in full of awe), but the huge photos on these walls really gave the impression of actual, literal, and awful leveling: an entire city leveled, reduced to nothing but rubble.

A great memorial, and a not-so-great photo. There was always a line of people waiting to leave small tokens and bow their heads before this memorial, and everyone very good about being respectful, both of the memorial and of the others in line. 

Outside of the Peace Museum, there was another memorial that included an eternal flame where people lined up to make a small donation and a prayer. Another monument I found striking was the Children’s Peace Monument, which was built to commemorate a girl who died of leukemia due to radiation from the bomb, as well as the other child victims. It was a poignant reminder of the effects of the atomic bomb’s radioactive damage.

The Children’s Peace Monument

Overall, despite the heat, I truly appreciated the museum, memorials, and monuments. It felt like a very respectful and powerful work dedicated to future peace.

Kyoto and its temples

On my second day in Kyoto, the friendly but stickler-for-the-rules man at the Musubi-an Arashiyama guesthouse helped me make a pot of coffee, and I bummed around the hostel in the morning doing a bit of work in the quiet.

In the afternoon, I snacked my way through the Nishiki market, nomming on free samples of all sorts of pickled things. My favorite thing that I ate was a fried ball of dough filled with curry, onions and potato. After the Nishiki market, I made my way to the International Manga Museum (which was filled with a lot of Japanese people filling the hallways and open spaces reading manga), and then to the Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is famous for its hundreds of torii gates, which are large gates that mark the entrance to, or are just positioned inside of shrines.

I really liked the Fushimi Inari Shrine, but it was very packed with people. Eventually, I found a little side trail and hiked around the shrine for about an hour and a half, then headed out. I stopped to buy rice wrapped in pork topped with kimchi (soooo good), and then headed back to my hostel.

Where I got a discount ticket for a bathhouse a five-minute walk away… and went to another onsen. The Fukuno-yu was a bit larger and more developed than the Funaoke Onsen, with a large indoor pool, a smaller indoor pool filled with milkier water, and two outdoor pools. One of the outdoor pools was large and artfully lined with rocks, and the other was a cold-bath next to the outdoor entrance to the sauna. Dumping cold water on myself, I sat in the sauna by myself, mouth-breathing my way through 3/4s of a 15-minute hourglass timer, and then poured cold water over myself again.

Relaxed and clean again, I walked back to the hostel in my PJs.

The next day, I walked through the Arashiyama district of Kyoto (including the Bamboo Forest, which actually was very underwhelming), visited the Kiyomizu-dera temple (sadly under construction), and walked through Gion, the geisha district of Kyoto (no geisha spotted…!)

However, I still loved walking through Kyoto. I think my favorite things about Arashiyama and the other parts of the city that have more temples is the fact that so many people rent traditional kimono (and whatever the male version is called) and kinda just spend the day walking around and visiting temples in them. There were enough people doing this that it wasn’t like that one couple walking around in traditional clothing; I also appreciated that it was largely Japanese tourists who were wearing these clothes, so it felt a lot less like the commercialized exploitation of “minority” costumes that I so often see in Chinese cities, particularly in provinces like Yunnan, and more just like a thing people do.​

After spending three nights in Arashiyama, I moved to a different hostel in more downtown Kyoto, by the Kyoto train station, for my fourth night. The morning I dropped my bags off at the new hostel, I headed to Kyoto station to take a train to the famous traditional Himeji castle.

Himeji Castle

The outside of the castle and its grounds were spectacular. The inside of the castle… was maybe not worth the incredibly long and humid line. Since the main castle tower had five floors with very narrow ladder-stairs between each level, natural bottlenecks were created. As a solo traveler, I was able to eel my way through the line (and was also encouraged to do so by the attendants!) and made it in and out faster than most groups of people, but still. I love Japanese architecture and the open spaces and clean lines of inside of traditional buildings, and the feeling of smooth cool wood beneath my bare feet (they make you take your shoes off in many castles). But at the same time, the open spaces also make it fairly uniform and potentially not worth waiting in line for forty minutes to see large empty wooden rooms, especially if you’ve seen this kind of architecture before.

My undying love for onsen

I flew to Osaka from Shanghai on Thursday, August 10th.

In Japan, a convenient tool for foreigners is the Japan Rail Pass, different versions of which are basically a pass for all the Japan Rail trains, metros, etc. that go throughout Japan. When you get to Japan you can buy some of the regional passes, like the three-day Japan West pass or the Japan East pass, but if you want an all-Japan pass, you have to buy it outside of the country, and the bring your voucher to a JR station and exchange it for the pass. While in Shanghai (part of the reason why I hung around there for about a week), I ordered a JR pass and had the voucher express-shipped to my hostel in Osaka. It’s possible to buy a 7, 14, or 21 JR pass. I got the 21-day JR pass, which pretty much decided for me how long I was going to spend in Japan. (Sometimes you just gotta let the little things make decisions for you…)

After a quiet evening in Osaka, I got up early the next morning to get my JR pass and take a shinkansen (high-speed train) to Kyoto, which would be my first big stop in Japan.

The train from Osaka to Kyoto took under an hour. Both cities being a little bit more south, the weather was hot and a bit humid — though not nearly as bad as Shanghai and HK had been, so I felt okay. Still, lugging my back through the Arashiyama district, which is where I had booked a hostel for three nights, I was sweating pretty profusely by the time I arrived at the Musubi-an Arashiyama Guesthouse. This is when I first discovered how strict many hostels in Japan can be about their check-in and check-out hours. The guy at Musubi-an was very nice and let me drop off my bag early, but he literally carried it inside for me and I had to go somewhere else.


I decided somewhere else would be Funaoke Onsen, which I found on WikiTravel and which Google said was just 40 minutes away by various modes of transportation.

Funaoke Onsen was a small and very local place. By this I mean the patrons who frequent the onsen always bring their own towels, bath things, etc. Used to more touristy onsen, where towels are rentable and bath things like shampoo and conditioner are usually provided, I paid the fee and waltzed right into the onsen without realizing how I’d brought nothing with me except the clothes I was wearing and a small day pack including my water bottle.

But that later — onsen description now! In Japan, onsen are same-sex only. There’s a changing room where you can leave all of your clothes. In this onsen, there was a very hot bath, a moderately hot bath, and a cold bath. There was also a section with seats by jets, a section with smaller jets and a sign that read “electric bath do not enter if have heart problems“, and a small covered outdoor bath as well.

I love Japanese onsen. There’s something about soaking in a bunch of hot tubs in your birthday suit, surrounded by friendly and completely unselfconscious elderly Japanese ladies that is just so relaxing and comforting. Nudity is so completely sexualized in America that being anywhere except by yourself completely nude is taboo. Even female locker-rooms are bound to have at least one person changing awkwardly under their towel. Even with your closest female friends, there’s always that brief moment of, “Oh do you mind if I’m totally naked for a moment?” I don’t know what it’s like in guys’ locker rooms or among guy friends, but if TV sitcoms are any guide, it’s even more taboo.

In Japanese onsen, it doesn’t matter if you mind or not, because most times any type of clothing, including bathing suits, are banned from the baths. Some women have a wash cloth that they might drape over their front as they walk from bath to bath, but it’s never done with the awkward furtiveness that would happen in the US. Instead, you sit down in front of a long row of showers heads and spigots so that you can thoroughly wash yourself, and then you get to soak in a tub just enjoying the heat and the water.

Since the Funaoke Onsen was so local, and I went in the early afternoon, basically the only other people who were there were Japanese grannies who were having their daily wash. As as I wandered around the room, blind as a bat and trying to acquaint myself with the different pools (the signs were mostly in Japanese kanji, but since kanji are traditional Chinese characters, I can often understand what they mean — I just had to get very close to the placards ands squint at them), a handful of old ladies took me under their wing and lead me from bath to bath.

The jets were cool. The electric bath with the warning sign? Extremely strange — it was basically filled with a bunch of outlets and the electricity jolted you through the water. Interesting sensation, but I didn’t stick around in that pool for long.

Finally, I made my way to the cold pool and the sauna. One of the old ladies mimed filling a bowl with the cold water and dumping it over myself, picking up a mat from a shelf outside the sauna, and then taking it in. I shivered my way through the cold water, and brought a mat into the sauna. Once in there, another old lady pointed a spot for me to set down my mat so I could sit and enjoy the heat.

And oh boy. This sauna was possibly the hottest sauna I’ve ever been in. The heat was immediately overwhelming, and so intense that I could only breathe through my mouth — the air was so hot, it felt like it was scorching my nostrils if I breathed through my nose. So I sat there, completely still, while the old Japanese ladies watched news on the TV (I still have zero idea how the managed to get a TV working in a hot AF sauna, but Japan’s technology will never cease to amaze me, I suppose.) Finally, after about four minutes, which felt more like twenty, I picked up my mat and headed out. As soon as I left the sauna, some of the old ladies in the cold pool mimed pouring bowls of cold water over myself again. It felt amazing this time.

Totally relaxed and cooled off, I headed out of the baths room and into the changing room, where I realized I hadn’t brought a towel.

I did, however, have a lime-green bandana I’d used to wipe some sweat off my face after dropping my bag off at the Musubi-an guesthouse… So I wiped myself down with that, stood in front of the AC and fan and air-dried for a while, and then put my dress back on.

Successful day, if you ask me.