About Daniel

Making the most of my life all over the world

The Longest Layover

It seems like every year I compete with myself to find new ways of missing flights or being delayed while traveling. The worst part is the severity of my travel woes seem to be escalating, despite the fact that I should know more about travel every year. There was that time a pilot left my suitcase on the runway in Belize without telling me because the tiny airplane’s weight would have been “imbalanced”. I showed up in Atlanta during a once in a decade snowstorm in sandals and a T-shirt, where my sister came to the rescue to take me shopping. That might have saved my life: my next destination was Minneapolis. Another time I forgot to check into an oversold flight, got bumped, missed my connection and spent two days in Mexico City en route to Cabo. I learned my lesson. And then the previous champion, an American Airlines flight that traveled 4 hours towards Tokyo on New Years day, returning to Dallas without an explanation before making the same 12 hour flight the next day. On a side note, I like how these companies always offer their miles as compensation like they are doing me a favor when using their airline again is the last thing in the world I want to do. American, United and Spirit are on my “avoid if humanly possible” list. Granted, I travel a lot and frequency leads to severity but even taking that into consideration, the frequency and severity of my travel woes are somewhat exceptional.

But there is a new record holder. The GOAT of travel delays if you will. First, a little background. In early December I visited Belize to run a Pickleball Trip. The trip was running smoothly and things were going great until I woke up one morning to the Japanese government’s announcement that it would not be accepting any new reservations for the month of December. Since I typically travel on one way tickets, I hadn’t booked anything yet and resigned myself to exile for a couple of weeks. Thailand, Hawaii and Mexico were all on my list of possible destinations to wait out the storm and in retrospect, I should have gone. 24 hours later, the government received so much push back from its initial decision that it reversed course, reinstating the original policy of letting residents and citizens return. I was back in business and decided to fly on December 20th after visiting my family in Arizona.

The other unfortunate coincidence is that Japan adds US States with increasing Covid cases to their mandatory hotel quarantine list. Passengers traveling from these states are required to do a 3-day hotel stay at a designated facility and Arizona was just added to this list on December 17th, 3 days before my departure. Little did I know it would have huge consequences.

I breezed through Arizona, LAX and arrived in Tokyo. My PCR test at Narita airport came back negative and I was in the clear, or so I thought. I entered my 3 days of quarantine, no problem – I knew it was coming and I had done it before. After all, it was only 3 days. The tiniest bit of doubt entered my head when I developed a light cough. My mom and brother mentioned they caught a cold though so in my mind, I still had good odds. Then I received a message saying I was a close contact of someone on the airplane who tested positive for covid. Yikes. I held out hope though, begging for a cold, a false negative, even the flu. Alas, on day 3 I tested positive and was transferred to a different facility for my extended quarantine. Unfortunately for me, Japan takes a cautious approach to covid. My crime? Sitting next to the wrong person on the plane. My Sentence? 11 days of solitary confinement. I could have escaped sooner for good behavior or with a negative result but alas, neither one was meant to be.

I talk about this place in prison terms because even though I don’t want to make light of how horrible prison must be, in some ways it was similar. At least, what I think I know about prison. First of course is the fact that the food was terrible, I was figuring out creative ways to pass the time and I was not free to leave. This is going to sound first world problemy but coming from the multi-course dinners and cooking classes at the Conrad in Mexico, a cold lunchbox three times a day was brutal. Unlike prison, my door was open and I suppose I could have left but I’m not sure what they would have done. My guess is that if you are Japanese, they can’t enforce a quarantine. Being a foreign national though, deportation is never out of the question so I didn’t press my luck. Second, I ordered beer and razors from Amazon and they wouldn’t release them, saying I couldn’t have any alcohol or sharp objects. I’m not sure if this feels more like a protective school, a prison or a mental institution but rummaging through my packages and confiscating contraband – that is crazy. If they are worried about my mental health, why do they do things that affect mental health so negatively? For me at least, the quarantine was much worse than the covid. Thankfully I had one razor I took from the previous quarantine facility (yes, that hotel had razors, tell me how that makes sense) so I was able to shave halfway through. Finally, and the stupidest rule of all – they would only do one person’s laundry per day because they had to disinfect the washers and dryers thoroughly after each use. This is a hotel with hundreds of people! They did give me some detergent to hand wash my clothes but seriously? No laundry for 14 days? Again, not to make light of real human rights abuses around the world but it did make me think, “at what point does government oversight cross the line into abuse of power?” I’m not sure.

There were, however, a few redeeming factors I could keep focusing on and reminding myself of to stay positive (mentally, not with covid). First, Nagano Prefecture has given me a lot of writing work for its English blog GoNagano so I was able to buckle down and write several articles. Both for work and for the hours killed, I was thankful for this distraction. Second, my AirBnb property near the Snow Monkeys is almost fully rented out at peak season prices, exceeding my expectations since there is no international tourism to Japan right now. I couldn’t have stayed there anyway and the government paid for quarantine so at least financially, I came out ahead. Third, because everyone on the plane was considered a close contact of the Omicron variant, they were all required to spend at least 5 extra days in a quarantine facility even if they tested negative. I feel a little bad for celebrating other peoples’ misery, but it makes me feel better to think that even if I had tested negative, I still would have have spent some time in quarantine. And finally, I do feel bad about this one. The day I moved from the 3 day quarantine to the extended quarantine facility, I met a girl on the bus. We exchanged numbers to compare experiences and commiserate. She has the Omicron variant and they are requiring her to test negative to leave the facility. They haven’t told me but apparently I have the Delta variant because I can leave after 14 days, regardless of my PCR test results. I feel terrible for her and would be depressed in her situation but there is nothing I can do.

All that to say, I’ve learned a few lessons from quarantining. First, I never want to do this again. Throughout the pandemic, I have returned to the US to visit family and for work but if it involves another hotel quarantine, I’m not going. Staying locked up in a room for two weeks affects a person’s mental and physical health. This experience goes in my “been there done that” box. Next, I contrasted Japan’s response to the pandemic with America’s and believe it reveals a lot about each country. Americans are almost never willingly sacrifice individual liberties for the benefit of society as a whole. Japan on the other hand, is willing to stomp on some people’s freedom if it furthers the public good. In Japan, the people giving up those freedoms largely do it willingly because they don’t want to be a burden to society or go against the grain. Unfortunately for me, I was (unwillingly) the person giving up my individual freedoms. However, Japan’s freedom from lockdowns and lack of huge waves of cases is because people follow the rules when asked. America can’t contain the virus because no one follows the rules. America’s definition of freedom is freedom to do whatever they want. The government isn’t going to tell them what to do. Japan’s definition is freedom from things like covid, poverty, crime etc. even if it means trampling on some individual liberties. I’m not saying either system is better, but these values are reflected in how each society functions. Finally, I have refrained from criticizing any country’s response to covid because I didn’t have enough information. My thoughts now are that at some point enough is enough. Especially with the Omicron variant looking less severe than other strains it’s time to start opening up. Every country in the world has covid and closing borders is slowing down but not stopping anything. Let people build natural immunity and let’s move on with our lives. If you’re an anti-vaccer and willing to play Russian roulette with your own life, go for it. I’m not an expert but I don’t see how else we move forward and end this.


Why Fukushima Should be on Your Japan Travel Bucket List

To the casual observer zipping by on the bullet train, everywhere in Japan can look similar at first glance. Japan is after all surrounded by ocean, 70% mountains and the rest is mostly either rice paddies or houses. But within this chain of islands the size of California, there is actually a tremendous amount of cultural, climactic, seasonal and culinary variation packed in. It takes a little digging, but Japan is a place that one can continue learning about forever. For me at least, that is what keeps me interested and constantly exploring Japan’s fascinating history, culture and natural treasures.

What makes Fukushima Prefecture special then? In the 10 years since the tsunami, by outsiders Fukushima has been defined by the tragedy that shaped it. I have to confess that I’m also guilty of this too. It’s easy to get an image of a place fixed in your head. But Fukushima is so much more than that. It has incredible natural beauty. It has a long, interesting history. Its food is sublime. And most importantly it is filled with people that love their home and want to share it with people like you and me. Let me tell you a little more about my time in Fukushima and why its worth checking out on your next trip to Japan.

First, nature in Tohoku is some of my favorite in Japan. Because it is one of the largest and least populated areas of the country, nature in Tohoku somehow seems more untamed and wild than the rest of the country. Indeed during the early part of Japanese history, Tohoku was the untamed North, the area past the wall that no respectable Japanese dared enter. A good example is Numajiri Onsen, where I got to visit on my last trip. Hiking 45 minutes into the mountains from the top of Numajiri Ski Resort, the trees give way to rock and a pungent sulfur smell permeates the air. This is how you now you are near Numajiri Onsen. Dropping down into the valley that can only be described as other worldly, there is a milky white hot spring river with the timber from abandoned mining buildings scattered around. Indeed up to a few decades ago, these were active sulfur mines used for weapons. They are abandoned now though and hot springs water has taken over the network of tunnels. We look around for an unclaimed bathing spot and hit upon one. Putting on my helmet and bathing suit, I bathe in my first ever completely natural river onsen, a truly unique experience. The coffee and cheesecake provided by the guide hits the spot and I finally feel like I have arrived.

A Lazy Onsen River

Another reason to visit is that the food in Tohoku and especially Fukushima is some of my favorite in Japan. While it doesn’t have Michelin star restaurants like Tokyo, the refined flavors of Kyoto or the loud street stalls of Osaka, food in Tohoku is unpretentious and comforting. It’s the soul food that will put some meat on your bones and get you through the long harsh Winters. Examples include Kitakata Ramen and Sauce Katsu in Aizu Wakamatsu, Kiritampo Nabe in Akita, Gyutan Yakiniku in Sendai. These are just some of the famous dishes that people from all over Japan come to try. I think the purity of the water and the environment create delicious ingredients and you can actually taste the difference. You can’t forget the sake too because some of the oldest and most famous breweries in Japan are from this region. Newer trends like craft beer are gaining popularity as well but whatever your preference, you’re going to like what is on offer.

Sake Tasting at Yamatogawa Shuzo

Next, Fukushima has some fascinating history and culture. During the Boshin War that ended the Edo Period, the Aizu Domain was the last supporter of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The plot for The Last Samurai is partly derived from a French military captain’s accounts during the Boshin War. Driving around the town of Aizu Wakamatsu, the taxi driver mentions where such and such battle took place or where the imperial army invaded etc. and as a student of Japanese history, it’s fascinating. Not only that, buildings like the Sazaedo Temple and Tsuruga Castle remain, adding to the impression that you have taken a step back in time. And for an even earlier Edo Period post town experience, you can visit the nearby Ouchi-juku thatched roof village.

Sazaedo Temple

Finally, people in Fukushima are just so darn friendly. From the waiter at the ryokan in Higashiyama Onsen telling us about which order to drink the sake in to bring out the most flavor, to the owner of Shiokawaya explaining every step of their farm to table ramen process, people here really love Fukushima and want to talk about it. They are proud of their home and their heritage. I never visited Fukushima before the tsunami, but I get a sense that it has brought people together rather than torn them apart Everyone is bonded by that common experience and while they will never forget, they also want to move forward and make this place better. Fukushima Friendly really is a thing, kind of like Minnesota nice or Southern hospitality.

Kitakata Ramen at Shiokawaya

Overall, I had a great trip and wanted to share my experience. Like I’ve said before, the Tohoku region and especially Fukushima are worth putting on your Japan travel bucket list when international travel resumes. For more ideas or itineraries, visit activetraveljapan.com. Thanks again and I hope to see you in Japan soon!

Hiking to Namekawa Onsen

Team Japan

I often wonder what it is that drew me back to Japan. I grew up here of course and have that sense of belonging but so did my siblings and they are happily living in the US. What specifically made me want to come back and not them?

First, I can’t discount the influence of a single encounter. I was living in Colorado at the time when my sister told me about a ski resort that was looking for staff. Having nothing better to do I thought, “what the heck” and spent the Winter snowboarding in Shiga Kogen. I didn’t have any plans to move back to Japan until then and that single introduction probably changed my life. Who knows if I would have found a different path back to Japan (I have the feeling I might have) but when I spent that Winter in Nagano I knew I had to stay.

Now that I’m here though, there are a few specific reasons that I just like Japan better than anywhere else. First, Japan is an endlessly interesting place to study. Churchill’s riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma quote actually describes Japan better than Russia. There is a simultaneous depth of culture and weirdness that in my opinion is not found anywhere else. For example, any aspect of Japanese culture from its history, food (which has it’s own branches), art forms, religion etc. is a rabbit hole that you could spend years going down. As a guide, I’m constantly making new discoveries because of the sheer volume of things I want to know. After living here 23 years I’m still asked questions about Japan on every tour that stump me. Second, I relate to Japanese peoples’ personalities better. Most Americans are willing to bare their life stories within a couple of meetings but in Japan – as with myself – it takes some time. It’s not that Japanese people don’t open up, someone just has to be in the inner circle before they do. There are a few ways to get into that inner circle including alcohol and speaking Japanese so I often experience a side of Japanese people that someone who doesn’t speak Japanese simply can’t. And perhaps superficially, Japanese food is just healthier and higher quality than American food of the same price. It’s easy to eat healthy and feel good here whereas in America it takes a conscious, concerted effort.

Another reason I have stayed is that I feel like I have more to contribute than I would living in the US. Speaking English and Japanese in Japan is a valuable skillset whereas in the US it wouldn’t be a significant advantage. In the US the competition for everything from houses to jobs to venture funding is fierce whereas in Japan, there just aren’t as many people competing for the same resources. Macro economically competition is good so it’s the reason the US is so far ahead but as an individual, it’s nicer being in a small pond. I definitely have a competitive advantage here that I wouldn’t in the US. I stand out here and while I hated that as a kid, I realize that it’s valuable as an adult. It’s no exaggeration to say that everyone who meets me remembers me because I’m this weird white guy that speaks perfect Japanese and those connections often come in handy sometime later.

Finally, this is a bit simplistic but despite its issues, I fee like Japan is still one team. I hate to say it but being ethnically homogenous probably helps. And while I am not, as you may have noticed, ethnically Japanese, I do feel like I’ve been let onto the team. I feel like I have skills that can contribute to making a better society, to brining more business here and to diversifying Japan in a positive manner. That’s what makes living here interesting for me.