Lessons Learned From A Month On The Road

I give my final thoughts on my month traveling through Asia

Today was my first day back in classes, and I’m glad to be back teaching in Cili. That said, I still have all the memories of being on the road for a month. I’m really proud of myself for packing for a month of traveling in a carry-on suitcase, and that I did all the things I did. From cheering on the Olympic Athletes from Russia’s (OAR’s) men’s hockey team in the Olympic finals at their hospitality house in Pyeongchang, to playing with elephants in Thailand, I can’t believe how fortunate I am to have these experiences. I wanted to wrap up my trip, as far as the blog is concerned, with some things I was grateful for, and some things that I would have done differently.

Things I’m grateful for on this trip:

  • I’m grateful I packed so lightly. A lot of traveling places focus on shopping opportunities, and while I understand that helps the tourist economy in those areas, that’s not a priority for me, and I’m grateful I had the self-restraint to avoid buying a ton of souvenirs. Plus, what with all the mass transit I took, I was so grateful I didn’t have a giant suitcase to lug onto planes and trains and buses. That said, I could probably have gotten away with packing a slightly larger suitcase since my bag started to get a bit stuffed when I got a few things like my Jiji mug and my harem pants.
  • I’m grateful everything went as smoothly as possible. Especially on transit days, I got super anxious (like when I feared I’d miss one or both of my flights to Chiang Mai), but I was just grateful it all worked out. In hindsight, I would rather have a longer layover than rush through a shorter layover and risk missing my flight, but I’m grateful it all worked out with the times I had.
  • I’m so glad I had local recommendations. My Airbnb host in Chiang Mai not only was really open with communication, but they also sat down with me my first day in Chiang Mai and gave me some awesome recommendations for places to go in the city! I stayed with a family friend in South Korea, and she and I had a lot of fun going to the places that she loved in Seoul. If I didn’t have these local recommendations, I would have been so clueless, and I feel like I wouldn’t have enjoyed my time as much as I could have.

Things I would do differently next time:

  • Maxi skirts are not a wise packing decision. As I described in my packing article, I packed two maxi skirts and rotated them rather regularly throughout the month. They did the job—they covered my body in a pretty manner, they provided ideal coverage in the Buddhist temples of Thailand, and I could wear leggings underneath them in Seoul and Japan. That said, they are not practical for travel. In the month I’ve traveled, not only did they take up more space in my bag than I would have liked, but also the hems of my skirts have gotten caught on the wheels of my suitcase, the decorative finials on an umbrella stand, the skull of a water buffalo (?) on display at a roadside market stand (luckily it didn’t break), the track of a moving escalator in Tokyo Station, and (are you ready for this?) the closure clasp of my backpack when I set it on the floor. In the future, much as I despise jeans, those or loose-fitting trousers like harem pants (which I ended up buying a pair of in Chiang Mai) might have been wiser options for being on the move so often.
  • I would have gritted my teeth about the weight and brought my laptop. While my iPad and phone were more than sufficient to do the things that mattered (e.g., check emails, update social media, post blog articles), it would have been nice to have my computer to back up photos (my phone’s storage capacity started to complain halfway through the trip). Plus, while doing blog articles on my iPad is possible, I’m so used to writing them on my computer that it was something of an adjustment process to work with my iPad. I will say, though, my iPad is much more portable than my kind-of-clunky laptop, so depending on priorities, which one to bring is a dice roll.
  • I would have brought a backup pair of glasses. My old glasses had a really bad tendency to fall off my face and onto the floor, but it would be while I was away from home for a month when they would break on impact. I have a backup pair in China, but I didn’t bring them with me, so I had to make an emergency trip to Zoff and get a new pair. A vision test, frames, and lenses cost me ¥9,000 plus tax (about US$90), which is a steal compared to how much glasses cost in the U.S., but it’s still ¥9,000. That said, I love my new glasses, but I could have avoided the emergency purchase and the stress of broken glasses if I had brought my backup pair (I’m nearsighted, so this might as well have been a non-negotiable purchase).
  • I would have paid extra for free checked bags on my flights. One thing that was acutely annoying with flying through AirAsia (I flew with them in and out of Thailand) is that they have a seven-kilogram weight limit for carry-on bags (for non-metric-system-using readers, seven kilograms is about fifteen pounds—the weight of an average school student’s backpack, if not lighter). Because my suitcase was 10kg (22 pounds, which I think is amazing, considering I was packing for an entire month), checking my suitcase from Tokyo to Bangkok to Chiang Mai set me back about $200. Grrrrrrr. (In my defense, I was not aware of this until after I purchased my non-refundable tickets.) The plus side is that I didn’t have to pick up my suitcase until I was in Chiang Mai, and I was able to put my in-flight essentials into a separate bag and put my bulky backpack in the overhead bin. I’m okay with no free meals or beverages (I normally fill up my reusable water bottle before my flight anyway and buy snacks), but no free checked bags, and a ridiculous (there, I said it) baggage weight limit on top of that? I have to draw the line somewhere.

Hopefully, I’ll have some more opportunities to travel and write some more articles for the blog before I return home for the summer! There are some plans in the works for a possible trip to Guilin in the next few months, so we’ll see if that works out! See you next time! Zai jian!


Six Lessons I Took From Japan: Final Thoughts

My time in Japan may be over, but I still wanted to talk about what I learned during my time there.

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my Airbnb in Chiang Mai, Thailand, adjusting to the new change of weather and getting ready for the next part of my trip. Since leaving Japan, I have thought about what I learned from my experiences there. My time in Japan reminded me to be present in the moment (like when I dressed as a maiko) and to enjoy the small things (like spotting some blossoms in Gion that I thought were cherry but now may have been plum), and it reinforced my appreciation of the Japanese culture and cities with a strong public transit system. To wrap up my time in Tokyo and Kyoto as far as the blog is concerned, here are some lessons I took away about traveling in Japan.

  1. If you don’t speak Japanese, or need to use Google Maps while on the move, a pocket Wi-Fi will be your best friend! When I first got to Japan, there was a train accident that left me stranded near the airport at 23:00 (that’s 11:00PM, for those who don’t use military/European time; sorry but I’m so used to using it now), and honestly, if I didn’t have pocket Wi-Fi to find an alternative way into the city, I likely would have been crying. It was a great peace of mind to be able to access Google Translate or Google Maps (or any other navigation app of your choice), and I’m already missing the pocket Wi-Fi here in Chiang Mai. For words that I was trying to translate on menus, I also used the app Imiwa?, which works offline, so if you need to access a word or phrase on the go, that’s good as a backup (or if you don’t have pocket Wi-Fi)!
  2. Book your airfare with knowledge of your accommodations. I booked Airbnbs in the Shinagawa (Airbnb) and Nakano (Airbnb) areas of Tokyo. I had no problems with either Airbnb, but to get to and from Narita Airport, I had to cross through Tokyo to the other side of the city, which takes about two hours. I got into my Airbnb in Nakano around 1:00 in the morning, and I had to get up for my train from Shinagawa to Narita around 5:00 in the morning to get there on time for a 9:00 flight. It probably would have been wiser to book my departing flight out of Haneda Airport, which would have been closer to Shinagawa, but there we go, lesson learned.
  3. If you want to do museums or temples on a limited time schedule, PRI-OR-I-TIZE. At least in the off-season when I went to Japan, the temples and museums were open for such a narrow window of time (often 10:00-17:00, give or take) that getting around the city and getting to visit all the areas the cities had to offer was virtually impossible. Also, a lot of places were closed on Tuesdays or Wednesdays as opposed to being closed on weekends, so that was an added complication. Do your research ahead of time to figure out what you want to see and plan your days accordingly.
  4. Get a Japan Rail Pass, especially if you want to take the Shinkansen bullet trains and are going to more than one city. Obviously, if you’re staying in one city, this would not be necessary but since I stayed in Kyoto and Japan, this was a godsend. They’re a bit expensive up front, but given that a rail ticket from Kyoto to Tokyo is about $160-$180 each way, a $300 (give or take) seven-day JRail pass more than paid for itself in the time I was there. Also, being able to use the JRail pass on Tokyo JR lines was pretty sweet, and made it even more of a bargain, considering how quickly the costs of public transit add up. This leads me to my next lesson:
  5. When budgeting time and money for your trip, take public transit into account. Luckily, Japan has reliable public transportation, but they still can take a good half hour to an hour, depending on where you’re going and if you have to change routes. Plus, they do cost anywhere between ¥150 and ¥300 per ticket, depending on where you go (when I was in Kyoto, the bus was ¥230 flat-rate for an adult). From my experience in Tokyo, Uber and taxis are both insanely expensive, so if you’re on a budget, I would use them as an ultimate last resort (e.g., if you’re going out and the metro closes for the night before you can get home).
  6. Maxi skirts might not be the best idea if you’re going on a lot of escalators. I never got hurt, but there were a few close calls with the hem almost getting caught in the track. If they wore skirts, most women I saw in Japan wore knee-length or mid-calf-length skirts—never maxi skirts, possibly for that reason. That would probably be your safest option, if you prefer skirts over trousers or jeans.

What would you want to read about my time in Chiang Mai? Is there anything else you want to know about my time in Japan? Let me know in the comments below! Thank you so much for reading, and until next time, now that I’m in Thailand, I have to say “see you” in Thai—แล้วพบกันใหม่!

[15 February 2022: upon further reflection, it was too early for me to see cherry blossoms, and I was under the impression I made that correction already. Sorry about that!]

My Experience with Geisha Culture in Kyoto

I talk about getting dressed up as an apprentice geisha in Kyoto’s Gion District

It’s no secret that Kyoto is arguably well known (if not most well known) for being something of a geisha capital in Japan. Kyoto and geiko, at this point, seem to be inseparable; even ads for the city railways in Kyoto use geisha in them. In Japanese culture, geisha (literally, “arts person” in Japanese) are professional hostesses and entertainers, well-versed in manners, culture, and etiquette to make their customers relaxed at parties and events—unfortunately, Western misconceptions perpetuated with popular culture like the book and movie Memoirs of a Geisha have placed a different image on what geisha do and their role in Japanese culture. As a result, I have to wonder about my experience dressing up as a maiko (apprentice geisha) in Gion District, Kyoto.

Note: Geiko is another name for geisha that refers to a geisha in Kyoto (source); since I’m in Kyoto, I will be using geiko and geisha interchangeably. A maiko is an apprentice geisha that ascends the ranks for over five years before she becomes a geiko; there are distinct differences in appearance at each stage of being a maiko/geiko that are thoroughly explained in this article.

I am fully aware that I was not dressed as an authentic maiko (e.g., my collar was not right for being the level of maiko I was otherwise dressed as), and I realize that this is most likely by design. Because there are still working maiko and geiko, the companies that allow for these costume experiences have to be careful not to tarnish the real maiko and geiko‘s reputations, lest they risk getting shut down by the authorities (source). As a result, there were a significant amount of rules that I had to follow when I was in the full maiko regalia, like no eating (they never eat while working—likely also because they didn’t want to soil the kimono), no drinking (likely so as not to soil the kimono—also, I remember from watching a documentary on geisha that they don’t drink unless they’re offered drinks), and no smoking.

For this experience, I chose Kyoto MAICA for the price and the good reviews I saw online. They are nestled in a side street a short walk away from Keihan Railway’s Gion-Shijo station. They have different plans for photos and style options, starting at ¥6,500 (roughly US$65). They also have plans for guys to dress up as samurai! (For the record, this is not an ad for MAICA; this is just my experience.) I booked a reservation the day before, and I would highly recommend doing so, even if it’s not mandatory. One thing they told me to do was bring makeup remover, because you cannot leave the place with the makeup still on, and I did not see any makeup remover for guests to use (though I’m sure they had some in case people genuinely forgot to bring it). They asked for no photos during the process of hair, makeup, and dressing (in fact, they asked me to lock up my phone), so I only have photos of the finished result—sorry, y’all.

After I chose my photo plan, they asked me to select a kimono; I chose a rose pink kimono with a gradient to a soft golden taupe with flower detail, because I was nervous about wearing a more intricate pattern. They then showed me to a room with coin lockers for my clothes and bag, and asked me to put on a juban (the base layer of a kimono) and tabi socks before going into makeup. They then gave me a full face of makeup, including the white base makeup on my shoulders that left the nape of my neck bare (the nape of the neck is apparently an erogenous zone in Japanese culture, from what I remembered in my research), and then they put me into the kimono.

I imagined that wearing a kimono was likely an experience from what I saw on the Internet, but when they asked me if I needed the ladies’ before I got dressed, I then realized, “things are about to get real.” The maiko‘s obi is worn higher than a typical obi to mimic a more girlish figure, so it’s naturally going to constrict your ribs a bit (while I could breathe normally, I couldn’t help but think of Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean throughout this process), and a kimono‘s usual hemline trails behind you so that was something I had to be careful with (when we went outside, the ladies tied it up as you can see in the photos so the hem didn’t get wet). After the kimono was on, they asked me what kind of wig I wanted. Because my hair is auburn and short (even though I’m growing out my pixie), I went for a full wig, but they do offer partial wigs, depending on your plan.

After the workers made sure everything was perfect, we went downstairs to do the photo shoot. The professional photos you get with your plan are done indoors in a small studio area with screens and props like fans, a traditional tea ceremony display, and a parasol. My plan included going outside to take photos; it was raining that day, so we weren’t able to get a ton of photos outside, but I was still satisfied with the ones we got.

I ended up getting two professional photographs printed as well as tons of photos on my phone that came out really well. When we were done with photos, I was asked to wash off the makeup before I got back into my street clothes (one of the ladies working there helped me clean the makeup off my shoulders). They also had a room where the guests could reapply their usual makeup before they left, which I personally thought was a nice touch.

Final thoughts

If you want to dress up like a maiko or geiko and get good photos done, then this is perfect for you. That said, while I have no regrets about this experience, I do kind of wish that there was a more educational version of this for Japanese culture enthusiasts, or people who want to learn more about the maiko and geiko besides dressing like them. Because the maiko and geiko are renowned for their privacy and discretion, I’m not sure if “Life As A Geiko 101″ would be able to happen, but for Asian Studies majors like me, and other people who want to know more about their extensive training, etc., the makeup and costume are a good place to start, but might not be enough. As for me, I was worried that dressing like a maiko without learning more about their life was straddling the line between “culture enthusiast” and “stereotypical tourist”, especially in this day and age with our growing awareness of cultural appropriation. I will admit, though, that when I was in the kimono, I felt very feminine and graceful (minus my trepidation about the high-platformed shoes, especially with the state of my knees); with my research of Japanese culture, particularly that of the geiko and maiko, I hope to take with me their refined grace, poise, and appreciation of art and culture.

Tomorrow, I’m heading back to Tokyo for a few more days, so let me know what you want to read more of in the comments! Until next time, またね!

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