Japan 2017

Japan

A few notes I took on a recent trip.

Before you go

  • Follow Tokyo Fixer on Instagram. At minimum he will get you excited. If he inspires you, he has the time and you have the budget, apparently he’ll take you to all the secret cool spots in the city for a “mere” $780 a day. Also humorous is Shibuya Meltdown which is pictures of Japanese passed out in public.
  • Apparently there is a Japanese rail pass only available to foreigners and that must be received by mail outside of Japan. I did not find out about it in time and didn’t find the cost of rail travel to be that problematic (particularly not compared to the rest of the country which is insanely expensive) but I’ve been told it is a good deal.
  • Book one night (or more) at a fancy Tokyo hotel and contact the concierge now and ask them to make restaurant reservations for your stay. (More detailed advice below)
  • Getting to and from Narita to Tokyo, a cab would cost you about $250 USD. The Skyline Express is the cheapest, fastest train I found. There’s also the Narita Express which is a competing company, stops in more places and costs slightly more.) Beware when returning that the Narita Express can sell out and the local train takes an extra hour to get there.

 

Tokyo

  • Subway – Tokyo has two competing subway systems the JR (Japan Railway which goes all over Japan including Kyoto) and Tokyo Metro. Luckily their payment systems are interchangeable. The Suica card which is the JR payment card is transferable to the NFC chip on your recent iPhone (I know it works with the X and I think it works with the 8 / 8+)  if (and only if) you don’t buy the personalized card.
    • When you arrive go to the vending machine at a JR (not Tokyo Metro) subway stop and buy a non-personalized Suica card. Switch the locale of your iPhone to Japan. Then when you go into Apple Pay, one of the options will be add Suica card. You then transfer the value from the Suica card to your phone by literally holding the two close together. Once the value is transferred you can set your cell phone back to US locale (the keyboard also changes slightly) and throw out the Suica card. From then on, you can pay for Subway by tapping your phone on the turnstile and you can add Yen to the card from Apple pay. It’s stateful though so if there are two of you, you need two cell phones and can’t share one because it would get confused about taking two trips at the same time. Also note that the bullet train you cannot pay with NFC and need to buy the old fashioned way.
  • Apple maps works better than Google maps for walking directions in Tokyo. Hilariously there are signs everywhere that say please stop walking and texting and it seems like a genuine health hazard there.
  • Tabelog is like Yelp for Japan and available in English. Foursquare is also good although incomplete. (Like the ratings it has are good but it’s missing a lot of stuff.)
  • I stayed at the Prince Gallery Tokyo which is one of the newest hotels in Tokyo. I think it’s similar in quality to the Mandarin where I also stayed one night but I found it on Hotels.com for $350 a night, vs the Mandarin which lists for $1100. It is not as centrally located though. The Park Hyatt was also super recommended to me but it was entirely sold out when I was there and the pricing I saw makes me think you’re paying a lot for the “Lost in Translation factor”.
  • The best coffee I’ve had in my life was at Streamer Espresso on the second floor of the Prince Gallery (the same building is also the new headquarters for Yahoo Japan)
  • A list of michelin starred Sushi restaurants compiled by my friend Noah (I think these are in the pricey but not insane category. I paid $400 for Sushi lunch. Mental note – don’t order the sake pairings at lunch unless you have time for a nap.):

Sawada, Tokami, Arai, Sushi Sho, Mitani, Hashiguchi, Amamoto.

  • Stay in a super nice hotel (The Prince Gallery, Mandarin Oriental and Park Hyatt all qualify) at least one night because the concierge there can help you get reservations at places you will never be able to get on your own. (Even on nights you’re not staying at the hotel.) Advance notice helps a lot. I would give your concierge a list of restaurants you’re interested in and tell them you’ll accept whatever reservation they can get. I ended up with a lunch reservation at Mitani and it was amazing. I generally avoided being the American taking pictures of his food but I asked the Chef’s permission to take a photo of this

    Uni and pureed Ikura dish because it was so amazing.

  • People talk a lot about Jiro’s a lot and it’s definitely an option (and probably won’t be forever since he’s getting pretty old) but know that it’s in a subway station and basically a 20 minute experience. So while the food is phenomenal you’re not getting a lot of ambiance or “experience”.
  • If you’re at all into Steak, Japan has I think the best steak in the world. The place we ate at felt a bit touristy and I think you can do better but the steak was amazing.

  • AirBnb experiences was awesome. I did two:
    • Feeling Samurai Soul was awesome. It’s out in the suburbs about three hours long. You go to a guy’s house where he has you pick out an

      outfit and a sword and ultimately has you chopping through bamboo.

      Super cool

    • One Night in Tokyo was also super cool. Make clear what you’re interested in because she’s familiar with a wide swath of Tokyo.
    • I really wanted to do Play with a Japanese Sword Fighter but it was sold out. Some guys I met at the Samurai experience said they were going there the next day.
  • Definitely go to the Tsukiji fish market. The fish are brought in super early in the morning. The fish auctions start at 5am and at 10am when they’re basically done selling fish they allow the public to walk through and check out while people are basically cleaning up. There are a few ways to do Tsukiji:
    • If you are standing in the right place at exactly 10:00 (not 10:01) you can be in the first wave of people allowed in. The line gets long quickly so arriving at 10:15 you might not get in at all.
    • You can go in with a guide who can get you in before the 10:00am opening where you see the actual auctions. I’ve heard people telling stories of getting up at 3 to be there by 5, but the tour I found is this one where a guy who used to work there takes you in at 8am
  • After seeing Tsukiji go to one of the local sushi places. We went to Daiwa Sushi. Next door is Sushi Dai which is supposedly better but has a much longer line and closes at 10am. We waited in line 45 min but it definitely moves quick and is worth it. There is more order to the line than it first appears.
  • After eating definitely take some time to walk around the stalls near the market which to me were the best part. I had a

    $40 skewer or Kobe beef cooked by a street vendor with a blow torch. Also a cup of O Toro

    for $15 which would likely have cost $100 in the US and a super cool knife vendor

    .  If you want an official tour this looked cool but I did not go.

  • For nightlife my favorite place was Bauhaus. It has an amazing Japanese cover band

    with about 10 people, half of whom are performing at any one time and the other half of whom are serving drinks. A well travelled friend told me it’s his favorite bar on Earth. Afterwards around the corner is

    Railcar which is a great after spot. If you see 50 year old men hitting on girls who look 16 apparently that’s totally normal there.

  • Go to the Shimbashi area of Ginza and just wander around. Tons of cool bars and shops. Keep your eye out for Super Mario Kart

    in the streets of Tokyo.

  • Also check out the Golden Gui

    (Golden Road) in Shinjuku. It’s filled with bars that fit 4 or maybe 6 people. Just keep looking until you find one that you think will fit you and ask the bartender if you can come in.

  • Akihabara is the “electronics district” in Tokyo. It’s absolutely worth seeing although it will make you sad for the future of humanity. It’s basically filled with arcades

    and pichenko (a type of slot machine) parlors and comic book stores that are like 8 stories tall and get more pornographic the higher up you go. It is populated by 99.5% men well into their late forties smoking and reading comic books or playing video games or some local version of magic the gathering. There are tons of models and figurines for sale and the depictions of women are terribly bi-modal: either virgins (like 14 year old wide eyed giggling school girls in skirts) or whores (like super sexualized enormous breasted warriors clad in lingerie and carrying a sword four times as big as their body.)

Kyoto

 

  • Definitely take the bullet train from Tokyo, it’s fast and easy and an experience in itself. When headed away from Tokyo, the ocean is on the left side of the train and Mt Fuji

    is on the right so take your pick on which you’d like to see. Unlike American planes A is on the right and D is on the left. I chose reserved seating which is still not that expensive but a cheaper option is unreserved seating which seemed a bit scary to me.

  • For dinner my #1 recommendation is this

    BBQ place that appears not to have an English name. At first told me he was full and I asked if I could come back later and eventually he let me have a spot if I came back in 90 min. Totally worth it.

  • Also super recommended is Beer Komachi.

    A little more tourist oriented but amazing food and plenty of locals. Fits maybe 15 people.

  • I climbed

    Mt Inari which is about 10,000 painted gates on a three hour climb up a mountain. It’s definitely some exercise but not overly arduous and there’s plenty of places to stop on the way up. It’s also free and accessible by Subway. Another advantage is that after climbing for about an hour the crowds thin out and you get some solitude. On the way back down, stop and have an amazing bowl of Udon.

  • I also went to the

    Bamboo forest which is super cool but sadly completely packed with tourists. Go mid-week if you can. The Tenryū-ji Temple is at the end and is totally worth seeing. It’s worth it to pay extra to get to go inside. (Removing your shoes of course)

  • I spent a night in Kyoto at a

    Japanese Room

    at the Westin Miyako Kyoto. It had a great garden and was cool for a night but I’d be surprised if you want to spend more than one there. Check out the bathtub.

  • I found

    another Hotel on hotels.com that was fine but nothing to write home about. I did not stay there but my friend Noah highly recommends the Celestine Kyoto Gion.

  • Make sure to take a walk along the river.
  • An excellent breakfast

    is available here and about a twenty minute walk along the river

    from the core part of Kyoto.

  • I’m sure you’ll want to go check out the central market but it’s mostly crap made in China and tourist oriented shops.

 

Hakone

  • Hakone is a mountain hot springs town and the birthplace of Onsen or Japanese hotbath spa. I only got one day here and it was raining and a holiday so everything was packed. I stayed at the

    Hyatt which was great. The rooms are cool and everyone walks around in hotel supplied Kimonos. The pool is open until midnight. Worth mentioning that they are unisex. Also if you have tattoos you are not allowed in the pool. (And generally speaking Tattoos in Japan are considered only to be worn by criminals or otherwise undesirable people.)

  • It was sadly totally fogged in when I was there but there’s a cable car

    that can take you to an amazing view of Mt Fuji.

    This was as close as I got but still pretty amazing.

 

Generally

 

  • Generally it was an amazing place and I am sure I will be going back. There is extraordinary attention to detail and perfection combined with people who are generally very nice and hospitable. In Tokyo in particular there is a sense of an enormous place with an uncountably large number of tiny little places tucked in somewhere that are amazing.
  • Part of the pleasure of Japan is it feels like it’s “on the right difficulty setting.” A place like Beijing is very foreign and even after spending a week you can feel like you didn’t really crack it or see the amazing parts of it at all. American cities and much of Europe is tuned to English speaking travellers and feels like you’re seeing the exact same things everyone else is seeing. Tokyo is right at that sweet spot where initially it feels super foreign but if you stare at that subway map you really can figure out where you want to go.
  • Definitely spend some time wandering aimlessly. You will absolutely find something wonderful. I’d like to hear about it.

Minsk Wedding

I just got back from a friend’s wedding in Minsk. There were a bunch of awesome sounding weddings this season and I usually make a point of going to all the weddings I’m invited to, but given my new career situation (which I’ll be ready to talk about soon) I’ve unfortunately needed to conserve both the time and money. There’s always an exception to the rule though and my friends Paul and Jenia’s wedding in Minsk was somthing I just couldn’t miss. Highlights:

  • Yes you really can consume an entire bottle of vodka on your own and not die. You just want to.
  • There is a cured meat there that is basically just the fatty part of the bacon with all the meat part cut away. Amazing.
  • Belarussian nightclubs. Wow. We went three nights in a row.
  • The “purchase of the bride” – a Belarussian tradition where the groom and friends must convince the bride’s friends to let her go with bribes of chocolates, singing, champagne and cash. We had stacks of 10 ruble notes (worth about 1/3 of a penny.)
  • Simultaneous English / Russian / Belarussian translation of the speeches at the wedding so everybody could understand. It certainly makes for short speeches.
  • There were 17 nationalities represented at the wedding. (And that doesn’t include cheating ones like “Texas”) An amazing, awesome group of folks.
  • The younger sister of the bride (who speaks both Belarussian and English) gave a very different speech in Belarussian that her family could understand than she gave to the invited English speaking guests. I won’t reproduce it here but it was classic.
  • Belarussian singing / dancing / cover-band. You really haven’t heard Guns ‘ N ‘ Roses until you’ve heard the Belarussian cover.
  • Being beaten by birch branches in the Sauna the day after the wedding. Really the whole sauna experience which involved ice cold water, scalding sauna, absolutely ridiculous hats and of course – more cured meats.
  • Going to see Swan Lake the day after the wedding at the Belarussian Ballet. (Yes mom, I really went to the Ballet!)
  • And of course – the absolutely amazing and cool friends I met there. The only thing I find sad about weddings is at the end knowing that this group of people will probably never assemble again. As I was leaving I had the urge to tell people, “See you at the Christening.”

San Francisco Bound

Today I’m heading out to San Francisco for the summer. I’m going to be working for a VC fund. I’ve already done some work with them and I’m super excited. They’re super smart, have a great track-record and seem like a ton of fun.

I’m also pretty excited to move back to San Francisco. I haven’t lived there since Dec. 2001, so this is kind of a homecoming for me. I think there’s a very good likelihood that I’ll be moving to SF permanently when school is finished in a year, so this is an auspicious start. I’ll be living in the apt. of an old friend from Echo Networks. I haven’t seen it yet, but it sounds awesome and the few photos I’ve seen look great as well. I’ve also shipped my motorcycle (an 1989 Honda Hawk GT 650 in case you’re wondering) down from storage in Seattle.

So if you’re in SF this summer or plan to be there or would like to plan to be there, please drop me a line. I’d love to catch up with old friends.

Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City

I’ve been in a lot of cities with crazy traffic. Boston has no lane markers on the roads and few street signs. I once thought that was bad.

Bangkok has congestion that means traffic jams at any hour of the day or night.

Moscow is still the only city I’ve been where I felt as a pedestrian that the cars were genuinely trying to kill me.

But still, nothing quite prepared me for Ho Chi Minh City. Every road has an endless stream of scooters carrying 1-5 passengers. Nobody stops, ever. Traffic merges and splits in a continuous and chaotic process that feels a lot like a river. Trucks and buses ease out into traffic and the little particles flow smoothly around them. Or sometimes they don’t…

Observe.

China / Vietnam

I just got back from 2 weeks in China and Vietnam, travelling with 50 awesome folks from b-school. Amazing amazing places. Travelling with 50 people naturally constrains the kind of trip you can have. The school can basically never let you get into a situation with actual danger on a trip they organize. So the parts of travel where you think to yourself, “Man, I’m really not sure what I’m going to do” (and that really turn out to be a ton of fun) basically don’t happen on a trip like this and getting out of the cities in general was pretty limited. On the other hand, we met with government officials, toured a Nike factory, a Mattell factory and a farm and met with a ton of local business people; all things you could not do traveling on your own.

The pace of change in China truly needs to be seen to be believed and honestly is somewhat frightening. Shanghai just added a Manhattan worth of construction in the last 5 years. Pudong (the famous part of Shanghai with all the iconic looking skyscrapers) just wasn’t there 7 years ago. The relationship of the people and their government is very different than we are used to. When a decision is made to develop a particular area, the people living there are summarily moved or compensated with little dissent. We met with a real-estate firm that has a downtown project measured at 3.5 square kilometers. That size of development downtown is unthinkable in the West.

The pollution is pretty unbearable (bad enough in Beijing that I really wouldn’t want to live there) but I sense that it’s something else that the Chinese will get under control before too long. The same sort of autocratic control that lets them move people will let them just announce new pollution standards that are to be followed. The situation today is a conscious choice.

One is left wondering at the wisdom of the level of investment the West has made. The cost advantages of China create a prisoners dilemma of sorts for Western firms. If you assume your competitors are going to take advantage then you need to as well to stay competitive. And of course the allure of a 1.5B strong market is pretty strong. But investing comes at a high price. The weak state of IP laws seem like no accident. There is a very conscious effort to extract IP broadly speaking (know-how, expertise, etc…) and I have no doubt that China will one day have very strong IP laws, except they will flow the other way. They will protect China from the West. Many of the Western firms we spoke to seemed to have an increasing leeriness, that perhaps they hadn’t gotten as good a long-term bargain out of moving operations to China as they’d initially believed.

One of the most interesting things I saw was a local company called Li Ning. If the products, logo and general positioning seem familar, that’s because they are. Everything is virtually cloned from Nike, including the stores which very much resemble Niketown. They’ve even signed Shaquille O’Neal as a spokesperson. This kind of development represents a new and especially frightening kind of IP infringement because their products are not exactly counterfeit. They are “legitimate” clones that resemble Nike products in almost every way except that they cost much less. I expect we will see a lot more of this type of thing in the coming years.

Obviously lots more interesting stuff to talk about, including wonderful Vietnam, but I’ll have to save that post for another day. A bunch of photos from the trip are here and also on Facebook.

Getting back to it

A blog that is 5 months stale is embarrassing. Better not to have a blog than to leave it stale. Despite the best entreaties of my parents I’ve never been a great diary keeper – my old justification was that I was too busy living things to write them down. Somehow that argument gets older as I do. With this, I try again.
In case you’re wondering if I ever made it out of Gili Trawangan, I did. I went on to Malaysia, Malawi, Zambia, Dubai, Russia, Estonia and England before coming back to the US and driving from Seattle to Boston. The photos from my various travels are posted here. Needless to say it was an amazing, life changing experience.

I’ve been asked many times what the highlight of my trip was. This may seem mundane to some but I’d have to say it was the 12 days I spent on the beach in Thailand. My daily itinerary was wake, relax, eat, 2hr yoga, beach, 1 hr massage, nap, dinner, party, sleep. 12x in a row.

There was a great group of 6 of us hanging out together and we rented motorcycles and drove all over the island, finding random beaches, bars and restaurants. Eating barbecue on the beach by flickering candlelight with just your friends and nobody else in sight is something you must experience.

All my other vacations and even the rest of my travels have been about doing stuff – sightseeing, meeting people, perhaps partying. The time in Thailand, the knowledge that I could stay as long as I wanted and thought that I had 4 months of travel still in front of me allowed me to unwind in a way that I’ve never experienced before.

Gili Trawangan

Getting to the Gili Islands is hard. Well, there may be an easy way, but I did not find it. While I have come to believe the Lonely Planet and it’s brethen are a bit of a scourge on the traveller, the minimal info on how to get somewhere is at least helpful.

This is how I went: Fly Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur. Spend the night in Kuala Lumpur. Fly to Bali. Take a taxi to the harbor. Realize that you’re at the wrong harbor and take another taxi (1.5 hours) to another harbor. Take a 5 hour ferry to Lombok. Arrive 11pm. There are no hotels at the port. Hire a private van (for way too much money) to take me to San Giggi. Wake up a hotel owner in the middle of the night to get a room. Wake up and meet the same drivers (at slightly better rates this time) to take me to the port to the Gili Islands. Pay 8000 IDR (About $1!) to take the ferry to Trawang. Arrive 11am or so. Elapsed travel time about 48 hours.

All along deflect (sometimes not so successfully) people trying to “help” me get a good deal, offering me a “special rate” etc… You start to wonder if it’s worth it.

 Then you get here and you realize it is. Gili Trawangan has about 800 inhabitants and I walked clear around it in about 3 hours this afternoon. There are no motor vehicles anywhere on the island and the pace is truly laid back. If you really need to be taken somewhere you get on a horse drawn cart. There are kids around which were nowhere in Phangan although I didn’t notice it at the time. The room I am staying on, a beautiful little bungalow with a clear view of the ocean about 25 meters away is $25 a night. The most expensive place I have seen on the whole Island is about $40 per night and truly gorgeous. There is very little intrusive selling here, at least by standards of the region. Add a yoga class and this place would be perfect. 🙂

Bangkok

Although my time in Bangkok was short, I must admit I am not a huge fan of the city. Look like you are hesitating for about 5 seconds (or walk down the street with a backpack on) and someone will be on you trying to sell you something in a pretty intrusive in your face way. I actually wanted to get a tux made (Harvard has a thing for formal parties apparently) but the feeling of constant pressure and of getting ripped off was so overwhelming that I ended up just abandoning the idea.

It feels like a classic example of the tragedy of the commons: I am sure that if everyone could collectively back off a little bit the “yield” of dollars from each tourist would go up, but nobody can do so individually under the assumption that everyone else will keep pushing as hard.

 

Bangkok is also an interesting example of what really happens in a place where there are no trademark laws. Because every suit maker claims to offer “Armani” or “Prada” suits and none actually do, one becomes very skeptical of any commercial claims at all. At a restautant or hotel you can see what you are getting but any commercial good that requires the assumption of quality (clothes, watches, movies, software, travel, etc…) becomes very difficult to assess and ultimately something to avoid. This doesn’t feel like the best way to run things.

I did have an enjoyable time walking through the shopping district although a shopping mall is a shopping mall pretty much the world over. I went into a “computer mall” that in another life would have been like heaven – if you like to assemble computers out of their constituent parts, you are in a great place, but that is not me anymore.

I went by the Pat Pong night market and I had a hard time imagining that I wanted anything. Aside from the fact that essentially none of the clothes fit me, the feeling of impending rip-off is just to overwhelming to ignore. I left without buying a thing.

Perhaps surprisingly, I didn’t go to any of the “shows” in Pat Pong either. I am not sure if it was just that I was turned off with the whole place but the men with their little lists of physically improbable acts and the ever present sex-tourist farangs with their tiny little Thai “girlfriends” were a real turn off. I ignored them all and went back to Kao Shan (which seemed almost calm at this point) and had a few drinks with the other backpackers. The next day I headed for the Gili Islands.

Samui

All good things must end and so after the full moon party it was unfortunately time for our little group to head our seperate ways. Dan and Yara headed for Singapore, a bunch of the couples headed down to Kolanta for some relaxing (and no doubt romantic) time and I headed to Ko Samui to meet my college friend Beth and then head on to Bangkok.

 

Although I didn’t love Ko Samui physically after a place like Phangan, it was really fun to see Beth and her friends and hang out with some familiar faces. Time has an odd way of drawing people close. Beth and I were never that close in College but we rented a scooter and drove around the island (got lost really) and had a great day, heading for a buddhist temple (until we realized we were dressed too informally to go in) checking out the beach and generally just chatting the whole way. I got a flat tire on my bike (for the second time!) and was once again impressed with how entrepenurial and helpful the Thai people can be. 150 Baht ($5) and about 20 min and I was on my way, good as new. Yara had said that a similiar incident in Zimbabwe would have taken a week to fix and I can believe it.

The Perfect Zen Day

I spoke a little before I left about what the perfect Zen day would be. Here is the rough schedule, amended for the experience of actually living it:

  • 10 am wake up
  • 10-12 lie in bed, read in the hammock, take a walk through the totally quiet town
  • 12-1 eat “breakfast”
  • 1-3 Yoga class. Amazing
  • 3-5 Hang out on the beach. Chat with people. More reading. Thai Rummy.
  • 5-6:30 Thai massage $7 for an amazing hour.
  • 6:30 – 8:00 nap
  • 8:00 – 10:00 food and hang out with friends.
  • 10:00 – 2:00 or later: party.

Some days we would take the centre out of the day (even the yoga class!) to “do something” like drive up to a remote beach or try to go sailing. (Unsuccessfully as it turned out – low water levels this time of year make sailing difficult.)

 

If you get the opportunity to live a week or longer like this, I highly recommend it, especially if you can have the psychological feeling of letting it go on as long as you want, rather than having the end of a vacation looming before you.