Shrines, Gates, and Geishas in Kyoto

Kyoto is home to the largest concentration of UNESCO world heritage sites in Japan. This one city is a treasure trove of temples, shrines, and old palaces. You can walk in any direction and within 5 minutes you will bump into either a small Shinto shrine or a soccer-field sized Buddhist temple. Aside from the historical landmarks and visual smorgasbord on offer, I would have to say that our most memorable experience was where we spent the night – in an old, traditionally built Japanese house that I reserved on Airbnb.

Modernity collided peacefully with past twice that day. The first occurred when we took the Shinkansen train lightening speeds over to this majestic, classically Japanese city. The second was when we (finally) found this anachronism we were to call home for the next couple days.

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Tokyo by Night – Cousins in Japan

The Narita Express train
The Narita Express

After about 24 hours of domestic and international flying, Jake (my cousin) and I arrived in Narita Airport just before everything closed. Luckily the high you get from descending into a city of lights such as Tokyo gave us the boost we needed to start figuring out how to secure our JR rail passes, exchange money at a bank, and catch the last NEX train to the city. Groggy and half awake, we dragged ourselves threw the turnstiles and into the first of many trains we would ride.

In a flash we arrived in downtown Tokyo. A little video game chime alerted us to the fact that we had made it to the Shinjuku district. But by the time we got off the train we had realized our first setback – Jake’s cell phone had grown legs and went missing… With the jet lag, eyeing our bags, and countless other things to keep track of, it wasn’t hard to imagine that something was going to go wrong at our first destination. We chalked the loss up to bad luck and carried on.

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Ben Returns to Asia (for a quick visit)

2015 is the year I returned to Asia for a brief visit. After leaving China in 2013, and getting myself fairly settled in the Boston area, I felt the need to reconnect with my Asian roots! Although I’ve loved being home and getting re-acclimated, a piece of my previous life was missing… the unexpected adventures, the quirky misunderstandings, and the unbelievable cuisine that you find anywhere in East Asia. So, from April 8-22 I ventured back into the wild – this time it was Japan.

My cousin Jake and I have always talked about backpacking and cycling parts of Japan and that’s exactly what we’ve done. Today I start a series of posts about this trip through Japan from the foot of Mt. Aso, Japan’s largest active volcano. (I’ll get to how badass this place is soon). We’ve taken wrong turns (and very right turns!) across this majestic land, but the one thing that has remained consistent is the friendliness and generosity of the Japanese people. They are without a doubt the masters of hospitality.

In the following posts I’ll take you on a journey across this mysterious and majestic archipelago – where the sun rises first every morning and the stars sparkle brightly every night. We started in Tokyo where the neon lights, funky costumes, and glorious Edo past is still visible. Then we’ll walk among the artifacts of previous realms in Kyoto and dance with deer in Japan’s ancient capital of Nara. After that, we’ll visit Japan’s oldest surviving castle in Himeji where the “white heron” was finished being renovated only 2 weeks before we got there! We’ll sip on fine whiskies at the Yamazaki distillery before taking the bullet train (Shinkansen) to Hiroshima. We’ll step upon ground once too radiated by an atomic bomb for anyone to visit and see the horror of those times through the Peace museum. Not far from there we voyage to Miyajima to visit the most frequently photographed landmark – the great floating Torri. And that’s just the first half of our trip!

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Cousins trek across Japan 2015
Cousins trek across Japan 2015

My favorite bits from The Interview

One word: Hilarious.
One word: Hilarious.

The Interview gets 5 stars from me. Here are some bits I’ll never forget and neither should you:

  • Hilarious! By far the funniest take on US-North Korean, geopolitical affairs I’ve ever seen.
  • Unkorean – So much Hollywood /slash/ American culture, with a speckling of Korean bits.
  • James Franco – Looks like my cousin! “They hate us cuz they ain’t us!”
  • Suuk – When did Eun Jae start her acting career?! (@MiahCouhie, @KimEunJae)
  • Manja manja! – That’s what people want, “Give us some shit!” So, true, people want the shit…
  • 50 KM west of DanDong – “Did you just say China? And did you just say Dong?” Awesome hat tip to China’s DongBei region with a Jay Chow (周杰伦) soundtrack.
  • Sleeper car – Such an awesome sleeper car shot with a mixed group of Chinese. The smoke-wherever-you-want thing is spot on!
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Through a Repat’s Lens: First World Problems in America

first world problem
First world problems…

Readers of AL.ME know that I recently repatriated from a long visit to China (8 years or so:). And coming back to your home country after being away for so long is a lot like getting over an ex. You were with that boyfriend or girlfriend for 5+ years, but now that it’s over you are dreading the recovery period… In my case, I’m getting over a country and a way of living. What is that unscientific equation? I think it’s…getting over him/her = total time together / 2. (So I’ve got another 4 years to go!)

But fresh off that separation anxiety you realize how much different your life becomes. Your eatin’, sleepin’, socializin’, shoppin’ are all very different but you just have to get used to it. This is the vaguely familiar, new normal for Repats. Now that you’re back you realize how food is more expensive but less healthy (unless you get the salad at a restaurant); everyday shopping is more expensive and there’s very little negotiating; socializing is a whole bunch of going Dutch events in which nobody owes anyone else anything; and health care feels like a scam every time you use it.

Now, to be fair, these frustrations are not as horrible as they first seem. Yes, American food is probably the result of immigrants neglecting their traditional food culture over generations, but there are still authentic restaurants I could go to. With a little strategic planning and flexible standards, shopping doesn’t have to be an exercise in getting screwed so often. Going out with friends, family, and coworkers could be a lot more enjoyable if I just concentrated on the now rather than the future. And going to a clinic or hospital… well, I don’t think I can rewire my brain to think that it’s acceptable the way it is…

What I’ve found is that my “problems” here not really problems – they’re first world problems. They are annoyances that, when combined with a lack of awareness, blow up into much bigger issues if I let them. And a big part of repatriating is finding a way to get through these sometimes difficult situations. Life still goes on. The sun still rises in the morning.

Chinese Twitter threads that I’ve seen discussing foreigners living in their country for extended periods ask: “Why do they [Westerners] stay here when they could live a developed country?” And the answer often looks like this: They are bored of Heaven and need a break from it!

Haha. Well, I wouldn’t call America heaven, but in the greater scheme of things life here is much better than it is for people in the developing world. And although I miss the good food, the warm friendships, the great markets, and the non-bankrupting health care options available there, I know coming back to the US was a great decision.