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!]

Here Come the Pre-Travel Butterflies

Disclaimer: This article contains references to anxiety. I am not a health professional; this article is based on my experience dealing with anxiety. Please consult your doctor or a licensed medical practitioner if you feel you need medical advice.

Being excited to go on a new adventure, but also constantly on the verge of crying from nervousness.

Suddenly second-guessing every single packing decision you’ve made.

Wondering why you’re so nervous about traveling when this is something you’ve always wanted to do, or something you have done many times before.

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Sound familiar? It might be pre-travel anxiety.

I’ve dealt with this kind of anxiety before, so I’ve been working to handle it in a productive manner. For this trip, however, I’ve been dealing with a potent combination of pre-travel anxiety and PMS, so it’s been an additional challenge. Do I actually need two more tops to go in my suitcase? (Jury’s still out.) Should I reschedule my flights so I’m sure I have enough time to get through customs? (I did.) Do I actually need to eat this whole bar of chocolate? (*hides the empty wrapper*)

Especially when I’m traveling solo, I view my peace of mind as worth every penny. I try to think about what I could be doing to help my nerves before I travel. Some tactics I’ve been using to calm my anxiety include:

  • Walking around to get some fresh air, sunshine, and exercise
  • Limiting caffeine and excess sugar to avoid exacerbating anxiety symptoms (e.g., restlessness)
  • Cleaning my apartment so I have a nice, tidy apartment to come home to
  • Writing how I’m feeling so I don’t bottle everything up
  • Adhering to the packing list (no crazy additions to avoid overpacking)
  • Finalizing last-minute details (e.g., how to get to my accommodations from the airport/train station and loading up my iPad with entertainment options)
  • Planning a daily routine when I’m in-country so I know where I can get breakfast and snacks near my Airbnb

I hope this gives you a starting point for dealing with pre-travel anxiety. I feel like planning a trip is part of the adventure, so I hope this makes the planning process much more enjoyable.

I’m not sure how often I’ll be blogging in the countries I’m traveling to, but I’ll be posting to social media as often as I can, and I intend to work on articles as I go. Let’s get this trip going! Until next time, zai jian!

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Around the World in Fifty Pounds or Less

To bring or not to bring—that is the question.

To bring or not to bring—that is the question. Preparing for a trip is always the most nerve-wracking part of a trip for me, and my preparing for my year abroad in Hunan Province was no exception. Almost everything from a fancy formal dress to my knitting projects were up for debate. Ultimately, I decided that I would do my best to avoid my habit of being a serial over-packer, and packed only what I knew I would need for my adventure of teaching spoken English for a year in Hunan Province, China.

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This was me in my head when I learned I got accepted for the program
(GIF from Tumblr)

I purposefully packed lighter than I usually would for this trip for a few reasons: 1) I was going to be in China for a year so buying extra things would likely be inevitable, 2) this was sort of a kick-start for me to practice minimalism, and 3) I would likely be so busy planning lessons and going on trips with my cohorts that I wouldn’t have much time afterwards to do things like knit, paint, or cross-stitch. Along with the guidance from WorldTeach about what to pack, I used guidance from the blog Lauren Without Fear; the link to her post about packing for a year in China is here.

 

Things one can buy in China:

  1. Shampoo and conditioner. They have brands like Pantene and Head & Shoulders in China. Bring a travel-sized one to get you started, and then buy a full-size bottle while you’re here.
  2. Makeup/beauty supplies. For some reason, I was under the impression that I wouldn’t be able to find nail polish remover while I was here. I was able to find some at a local convenience store, as well as at a local Watson’s (a convenience store chain that sells Western products like Neutrogena).
  3. Laundry supplies. Most convenience stores I’ve been to in Changsha have some kind of laundry detergent for sale. I’ve also found a lot of drying racks at local supermarkets, so I’ll likely buy one when I get to my site (clothes drying machines, in my experience, are virtually nonexistent in China). If you must bring your own laundry detergent, bring a small amount of powder detergent; a little goes a long way. (Be advised, though: one thing I haven’t been able to find here are color catcher sheets like these.)
  4. Toothpaste. This falls under a similar concept to the shampoo and conditioner. Unless you have a brand that you absolutely love or need to use, bring a travel-sized bottle and buy a full-sized tube when you’re here.

Things one should bring with them:

  1. Deodorant. Roll-on deodorant is relatively hard to find in China, from the accounts I’ve read. I’ve seen some spray-on options for ladies’ deodorant, but I’m not sure how well they work. I took no chances and brought a year’s supply.
  2. Feminine hygiene products. Ladies, if you use tampons, bring them with you. From what I see in Chinese supermarkets and convenience stores, most if not all Chinese women use sanitary pads. I don’t even remember seeing tampons in the Watson’s nearest to us in Changsha. If you use a menstrual cup, you should have no problem; if you’re worried about washing the cup with tap water (which is not safe for drinking in China, though I’ve been brushing my teeth with it and have had no problems thus far :knock on wood:), use bottled water, which one can purchase for three kuai (about half a US dollar) at any convenience store.
  3. Dental floss. From the accounts I’ve read, decent-quality dental floss is not as easy to find in China as it is in the U.S. Again, I took no chances and brought some with me.
  4. Medications for digestive issues. If you’re going to be in China for a while, bring medications for diarrhea, gas, and other digestive issues. La duzi (“pulled stomach”, or traveler’s diarrhea) is common among travelers that aren’t accustomed to greasy, spicy food, and Hunan food is both. I remember having la duzi while I was studying abroad in Beijing, and that made homesickness worse (I remember I had some medications like Pepto-Bismol, but I was being stubborn and didn’t take them that much—that’s another issue). Worst case scenario is that you have it but you don’t need it; it’s better than the other way around.

After reflecting on my previous long-haul flights from China to the U.S., and also flights from the U.S. to other countries, here are my tips for surviving the flight to China (or any other long-haul flight you may take):

On the flight

  1. Stock up on entertainment. I don’t sleep easily on most flights (and if I do, I can’t do so for the entire flight), so for me, a full iPad with TV shows, movies, and Kindle books is essential. If you fell behind on your favorite podcasts, now’s a great time to catch up. I meant to catch up on “Welcome to Night Vale” on my flight to Beijing, but I forgot to download the episodes. Oh, well; it gave me the opportunity to finish Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. (As I’m typing this, I’ve just started A Court of Thorns and Roses.)
  2. Pack a good portable charger. Especially if you don’t have an in-seat charging station (or you do, but a not-so-courteous fellow passenger is monopolizing it), this is practically invaluable, especially on long-term flights, or if you have multiple stops and can’t take a break to recharge. My dad let me borrow his for my time in China, and it’s been practically invaluable with us being on the go so often.
  3. Bring slippers. To save on space and weight in my suitcase, I wore my bulky hiking boots on the plane. Sure, they were comfy and supportive for walking through four airports, but they’re not comfy enough for sitting on a plane for thirteen-plus hours—also, they’re not the most convenient going through security checkpoints, despite my reasons for wearing them. Slip off your shoes and put on some slippers (over your compression socks, if need be). Your feet and legs will thank you later.
  4. Layers, layers, layers. On a recent trip to Europe, I think my family expected the stereotype of a super-cold airline cabin. That was not the case; especially on our flight back to the States, we were miserably warm. Layers that are easy to take off would likely be your best bet, especially if you’re going from a cold climate to a warm one (or vice versa).
  5. Bring a bottle of water. Especially on long-haul flights like my most recent flight from New York to Beijing, hydration is key in the very dry airplane air. Get a large bottle of water to carry onto the plane with you, and avoid ordering sodas, caffeinated beverages, or alcohol on the flight. Some airlines might even refill reusable water bottles! If in doubt, just ask the flight attendant.
  6. Bring a sheet mask. This ties in with bringing a large bottle of water, but because I get really bad anxiety when I travel, it also ties in with the idea of reducing stress. I like to imagine that as my skin absorbs the moisture from the sheet mask, the sheet mask is absorbing my stress. If nothing else, your skin will thank you after a long flight of dry airplane air. My mind goes back to when I packed my lip balm in my checked luggage for a flight from Beijing to Houston, so I spent thirteen hours with dry, chapped lips. Oy vey.
  7. Resist the temptation to over-pack your carry-on. I didn’t know how much we were “expected” to pack for the fellowship, and I didn’t want to be that person that ridiculously over-packed (Galinda in the musical Wicked comes to mind). So, I ultimately decided on one rolling suitcase that would be my checked bag, and a large duffel that would go in the overhead bin. After lugging a decently-sized backpack and an at-least-thirty-pound duffel bag through four different airports, I regret that decision with every bone and aching muscle in my body. If I had to do it over again, I would have likely swallowed my pride and forked over the money for another checked, rolling suitcase.

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Galinda in Wicked (Photo from Pinterest)

Around this time next week, I plan to be in my placement of Cili, Zhangjiajie District. Until then, we’re practicing teaching in a Chinese classroom setting with trial lessons before we start at our schools, so my time is mostly spent planning lessons, having classes and group discussions, and exploring Changsha with my fellow cohorts before we all disperse throughout the province. I hope to be back here with another article next week! See you then! Zai jian!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and do not reflect the views or opinions of WorldTeach or its affiliates.

 

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