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.

Home Base

Buying a house is a thrilling and terrifying experience. Everyone talks about how great it is to have your own place. No one tells you about buyer’s remorse, the cold sweats at night, the sudden realization that you are an adult and don’t even know how to paint a wall, the to-do lists and startling number of zeros that each item adds. The current coronavirus situation only compounds the problem with my tour businesses, this year at least, going down the proverbial drainage pipes (yet another item on my list to fix).

My seed of doubt comes from the fact that I could probably happily travel forever. I like some places better than others, but I don’t typically feel the need to return to one place for long. Even though I live and keep coming back to Japan, I travel all over the country. When I’m not traveling in Japan, I’m probably traveling somewhere else in the world. Last year, I spent only one month entirely in Japan, every other month I spent at least a few days overseas. When I reflect on my guiding and globe-trotting lifestyle, one side of me thinks that I could do this forever because it doesn’t feel like work. The planning and organizing feel like work, but not the traveling itself.

At the same time, even seabirds need a place to land. I love returning to Nagano at the end of a tour. I sit down in my armchair, crack open a beer, and revel in the feeling of having absolutely nothing to do. No matter how tired I am or how hard the job was, that moment of satisfaction makes the long days worthwhile. The main reason I’ve even had an apartment over the last few years is for those few days a month I spend at home.

In the end, there were a few other reasons that convinced me to buy my house. First, I want people from all eras of my life to visit me in Japan. Living in a one bedroom apartment makes that difficult, although I did put my brother on an air mattress in the closet when he came snowboarding in February. Also, renting an apartment is a waste of money, even though it’s a smaller chunk each month than paying for a house upfront. If I’m going to live there a long time, it made more sense to buy. Real estate prices in Japan are not rising, but at least now I’m not throwing away money on rent. Finally, I want to turn my house into a couple of other business. The virus has made me realize that diversification is crucial. Being right next to the Snow Monkey Park and 20 minutes from a ski resort, I’m going to try my hand at AirBnB. I will also host my snowshoe and hiking customers for Active Travel  Japan. I’m going to sell T-shirts online to the Asian pickleball market too. And I want to do pickleball camps for people all over Asia, training them up to compete against the best in the world.

For all those reasons, I’m excited to announce that I am a proud (and nervous) home owner. It’s scary right now because the whole world is in a difficult situation and that makes me wonder if I made the right decision. But I know things will improve and with that, I hope the confidence that I made the right choice.

4472d3bb-de0f-48f2-9759-54e01b4aa48e

To join one of my tours or see the things I’m talking about for yourself, visit activetraveljapan.com or pickleballtrips.com and join us for the trip of a lifetime. We have tours for every season 😉 AirBnB website coming soon!

Living in Season

I’m taking the time I would have been working to do some writing. I’ve become somewhat stoic about the coronavirus, knowing I can do nothing to change the outcome. Almost daily the stock markets plunge and customers cancel, but I allow the virus less mental and emotional space. It’s not like I will be kicked out on the street and it’s not like my clients don’t want to join future tours. I just have to ride out the storm and be patient. It has been a practice in slowing down, thinking and enjoying life outside of work, as well as considering my direction when the clouds do clear. I hadn’t thought of this before choosing the title, but in a sense this is also living in a particular season.

People often ask why I live in Japan. Why not live in the States where things are admittedly easier and more comfortable? For many Americans it is unfathomable that anyone, especially a citizen would want to live outside the Promise Land. While I do like certain things about America, there are many aspects of Japan I just like better. One reason to live in Japan are the seasons. Seasons are so distinct in Japan that I would argue going to the same place in 4 different seasons is almost like going to 4 different places. Any tour inquiry I receive I automatically answer with, “what time of year would you like to visit” because the timing determines the trip. Scenery changes, only certain foods are available and activities are planned, all based on the time of year.

Food is one of the most important components of the changing seasons. In the States, sometimes there is seasonality to fruits and vegetables if they are grown locally. Practically everything else is available year-round. Want apples in Spring or blueberries in Winter? No problem, pick them while they’re green and import them from California or Chile. While that is convenient, each morsel of food now carries a significant carbon footprint and just as important, renders the food flavorless. An open secret of Japanese cuisine is pretty simple: Use freshly-picked ingredients. How could the food not taste better? Here Japan’s size is an advantage, being small enough to ship throughout the country on the same day. Further, one’s appreciation rises for something that is scarce. When apples are available all year, they are just an ordinary item. When you can only eat them from October to December, they become a delicacy. The ultimate in-season, low carbon food is wild vegetables foraged in the mountains. Every year in a salute to our hunter-gatherer days, throngs of foodie-hikers and enterprising mountain men climb into the hills and forage for food, not because they are hungry but because what they gather tastes good. All manner of leaves, shoots, bamboo, roots and mushrooms are gathered, in what is a delicious (and if you don’t know what you’re doing, deadly) tradition. “Sansai” as these wild vegetables are called, are still an integral part of Japanese cuisine. In some ways, it’s unfortunate to see Japan shifting away from its seasonality in food towards a convenience store and fast food culture. However, I think Japan still retains the ideal at least that food should be eaten in accordance with the season in which it was grown.

While I don’t know as much about art, seasonality is certainly an important component of the Japanese aesthetic. Ikebana, calligraphy, the tea ceremony, kimonos, wood block prints, origami and Japanese gardens are just some of the Japanese art forms I can think of that take the season into consideration. When checking into a traditional Japanese style inn, called a ryokan, there is typically an indented area of the room known as a Tokonoma. It contains a scroll or poem, a carving or piece of pottery and a flower or branch. All this is coordinated to be in keeping with the season, to reflect on the inside what is occurring in the outside world. It is a nice reminder to enjoy the current time because the only constant is change and something new is coming.

Finally, there are the physical changes that occur to the natural world in Japan that keep me exploring and interested. This is less unique to Japan but still a great part of living here. Bright red mountains in the Autumn, snowy peaks begging to be snowboarded in the Winter, cherry blossoms and flowers exploding in Spring and a carpet of deep, lush greenery in Summer. If you have never visited the same place in Japan in a different season, the change in scenery is drastic. It’s one of the things I love about this place.

To join one of my tours or see the things I’m talking about for yourself, visit activetraveljapan.com or pickleballtrips.com and join us for the trip of a lifetime. We have tours for every season 😉

0853bd1b-c422-45f9-9659-7c80e3d0843e.jpg