A little over a year ago, I met a boy who shared with me all sorts of funny ideas. He gushed about the quality of American-made items and raved about a lifestyle called minimalism. I thought he was crazy.

Flash forward to this past semester.

The floor of my dorm room is layered with clothing and accessories that I never considered wearing once throughout the past year. With mounds of “stuff” I had accumulated throughout a lifetime of consumerism, I became stressed out by what I owned. Oh, retail therapy. I would buy a Lilly Pulitzer item in every pattern I considered decent that season. I, too often, purchased basic tops because they were on sale. All of that “stuff” accumulated faster than I could have imagined.

It’s incredible to realize that one’s own possessions could possess them so much. I picked up the remote and watched the Minimalism documentary on Netflix and made a change. I have started so, terribly slowly, but I plan to get rid of two-thirds of my belongings by the end of the year. This might sound extreme to some, but when we sit down and consider the things we actually touch on a weekly basis, two-thirds is probably not enough for most.

As a more extreme version of de-cluttering, minimalism also encourages us to really appreciate and utilize the things we have. If we only hold onto what really brings us joy, there is little chance that our possessions can cause us any stress. Our time is not spent organizing and reorganizing our belongings, and the thought of paying money for a space to house only our things never enters our minds. The concept of minimalism can extend into other aspects of our lives, too. Which friends really add value to my life? What does one person do with three bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths?

At it’s root, it’s about not being wasteful of any resources, but especially our own. Our time and money is better spent on experiences that enrich us. I would so much rather pay for a ticket to a Bastille concert than buy a shirt with their name across the front.

This is not a strict set of guidelines on how to live one’s life, but more a set of ideals which could be employed at one’s will. It is important that we do what feels right for ourselves. However, rather than falling for our advertisement culture, I consider purchases more carefully and only buy when it is necessary. In the long run, this will save me time and money better than any semi-annual sale would.


Sapporo City

When I received my itinerary for Japan, I was mildly disappointed that I was to be spending three of my four weeks in Tokyo. In the middle, I would be spending my third week in Sapporo City, Hokkaido. I had no idea where or what Sapporo was, but I was excited to find out.

I quickly was told by everyone I spoke with that there exists a popular beer that comes from Sapporo. That was where my knowledge of Hokkaido began and ended.

Sapporo at dusk

When I arrived in Japan and started talking to other students in my program, I quickly discovered that very few of us got the chance to go to Sapporo, and it seemed to be a coveted destination. Even still, the only additional information I learned was that Hokkaido is the northern-most island of Japan and is famous for many things including seafood, corn, glass, wood carvings, soft serve, milk, and cookies.

I was surprised to find out that I would be flying between Tokyo and Sapporo because it seemed like a high price for this program to spend on me, an individual who paid nothing to be in Japan. We flew out of Haneda and into Chitose, and I discovered that Japan’s airports seem totally safe without the annoying security measures.  

In Sapporo, I was greeted with a broken suitcase handle and the announcement that I wouldn’t have a host family all week. My first sixteen hours were pretty sad, but I perked up once I spent time with the students the next morning. 

Sapporo was a lovely place to run and had many parks with significantly less humidity. Rather than sulking in the fact that my peers were staying with host families and receiving far better insight into Japanese culture, I decided to stay positive and make the most of my time. After school, I went out with other group leaders and students. Since my hotel room was empty and lonely, I tried to spend a lot of time out and about with people I wouldn’t otherwise hang out with. I ended up having fun in ways I didn’t expect, and having interesting experiences in the many malls in and around Sapporo station and Odori park.

My other hotel peer and I both happened to also have broken suitcases, so one day after school, one of the staff members took us to Don Quixote to buy us new ones with the program’s money (they were rolling in it apparently). I got a sever upgrade and purchased a beautiful red, hard-shell four-wheeler. What made it even funnier was that a few days later, I received an email from a program administrator who told me they wouldn’t be able to replace my suitcase after they already had. The wonderful staff member who took us that day also drove us around the city to do some sight-seeing. We saw the ski jump from when the Olympics were in Sapporo, a temple, the clock tower, and the University of Hokkaido. We were very appreciative of his kindness and generosity.

Sapporo’s old state building

After our last day of school, my hotel friend and I finally had a host – the vice principal of the school. She had a lot planned for us, and immediately after school she took us to a mountain view of Sapporo with a statue of an Amherst graduate that said “Boys, be ambitious.” We were very hungry, so we went to a fancy hotel restaurant for a small portion of tempura and matcha ice cream. Our final stop was the top of the JR building before going to her apartment and discovering that I would be sleeping on a futon mat on the floor for the first time.

We expressed our displeasure

The next morning, we had a long agenda despite the constant pouring rain. We went to Otaru and did so many things. We went to an old house/museum, a pull-off with a great view of the ocean, a fancy hotel for tea, the Otaru aquarium, a very fancy sushi restaurant for lunch, the Otaru canal, and the white chocolate cookie factory. After our long day, we ordered the world’s smallest shrimp-and-corn pizza, and ate our store-bought desserts before our authentic homemade matcha.

From the top of the JR building

Though my time in Sapporo was brief, it was amazing to spend time outside of Tokyo. Hokkaido is not the kind of place most tourists have the opportunity to experience, so I feel lucky to have had this chance.

The Sea of Japan in the pouring rain


When I met my last host family, they asked me what I had already seen in Tokyo. I listed every major tourist attraction, and they all looked at each other uneasily. They had not realized they would be receiving someone who had already spent two weeks in Tokyo and were worried about how they would make my time feel special. Our one full free day was that Saturday, so they asked me what I wanted to see. I told them that since I had already seen the concrete parts of Tokyo, I would like to see something more natural that Japan has to offer. After a few days of brainstorming and deliberation, they invited me on an overnight trip to Hakone.

After school that Friday, my host mother, sister, and I hopped on a train with our Hakone free passes. We went straight to the hotel and shared many laughs over a dinner with strange sushi and odd gelatinous shapes. Before an early bedtime, my host mother and I spent twenty minutes acting out showering because we had difficulty communicating the rules of the hotel’s onsen.

The next morning, we woke up early and spent some time in the hot baths. It is really strange to witness people who seem so conservative in daily life being so comfortable being naked in front of strangers. The first time I witnessed this kind of nudity was in the pre-pool showers in Reykjavik. Women of all ages and body types stripped down and showered in front of their peers with no apparent discomfort. Perhaps this is yet another deficiency in “American culture,” but it would be nice for nudity in a private setting to not seem so out of place to me.

After we had breakfast (their breakfast potatoes were french fries), we headed to a place I only just found out is called Owakudani. Before five minutes ago, I had referred to it as “that place with the eggs.” It is a sulphur mine/volcano thing and it smells like eggs. They also sell black eggs (only the shell is black), and there are fifty different animated characters paired with the black eggs throughout the scenic area. The only way to get to this particular tourist destination is by cable car (another thing I had to look up the name of), so we enjoyed a scenic overlook of the valley in both directions.

The sulphuric valley filled with black eggs
I really had no idea what anything was called, so I apologize for my vagueness. We then ventured to a restaurant in which I was dissed by the waitstaff. After I ordered soba noodles with a side of edamame, the waitress told my hosts that foreigners always order edamame, but what she doesn’t realize is that it was the only non-meat source of protein on the menu.

This final area in which we spent time was surrounding a large lake. After finding out that I’m a rower, they were insistent upon taking me for a boat ride. Little did I know that they meant a ride in a small row boat of which I was the sole driver. Aside from being able to turn and dock the boat like a champion, I had no more qualifications than they did to row that thing. We petted and took snapchats of the dock cat, then headed to the train station to get back to Tokyo. There were torrential downpours in the city, so we were unable to use our prepaid tickets to get home. However, this gave me the opportunity to take my first Shinkansen which brought us back to Shinjuku speedily.

Natural beauty from our tiny row boat
I very much appreciated the thoughtfulness of my hosts to take me to such a unique and natural place. It also provided a wonderful bonding platform for the three of us, and we were dancing and laughing about everything by the end. Hakone gave me a taste of what natural beauties lie outside of Tokyo, and I can’t wait to return to experience some more.

Conquering Fujisan (and Other Small Everests)

A week before I left Japan, I heard some of my group members talking about climbing Mt Fuji. One of them was going over details trying to convince others to go. I had not done any research on how long or intense the hike was, so I was interested in hearing it from someone who was planning to do it. She said it would be 6-8 hours up and about half of that down. There was a bus or a series of trains to take from Tokyo which would bring you right to the start of the route. I still had a week left before my couple of free days, so I had time to consider.

A few days later, she sent our group the pictures and went over some of the details and the issues she ran into. It seemed like a massive undertaking, but doable with the time we had. Unfortunately, I had to work fast to make a decision. The bus ticket (the cheaper and faster option) would have to be reserved ASAP in order to guarantee the perfect amount of time to acclimate to the altitude. I spoke to a few others from my group who were considering joining me, but I went ahead and bought my bus ticket. Luckily, I was successful in talking three other people to go with me, so I finally wasn’t alone!

To prepare, I read all of the major Google results when you search things like “how difficult is it to climb Mt Fuji” and “how long does it take to climb Mt Fuji” and “what do I need to climb Mt Fuji.” I decided I needed to acquire a rain jacket, a rain cover for my backpack, a head lamp, and pants. The only pants I had brought with me were business casual pants, no leggings of any kind. I made the necessary purchases and borrowed what I could. I began to mentally prepare.

For two days before, I became extremely nervous. I’m a very fit person, but what if this is really something that I can’t handle. We would be bullet-hiking which meant that we would start our hike at 10pm and hike all night and the next morning. I don’t usually do well with late nights, so I feared that would be the aspect that could take me down. I also developed a cold just in time. Suddenly, I was concerned about getting enough Oxygen to my brain if I was already having a hard time breathing. At that point, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Though I have dreams of climbing Mt Everest, Mt Fuji became my Everest for the moment.

Sunday morning, I woke up as late as I could and prepared. After we checked into our hotel, we purchased enough food and water for the whole night. It seemed like it was too much and not enough at the same time. Two ice creams later, we were on the bus trying to take a nap before our sleepless night. It was dark and colder than I expected when we arrived at the Fuji-Subaru 5th Station. Most of the fear turned into excitement as we clothed ourselves and located the trailhead.

There were few other people starting at this time which surprised me because of the large amount of information about bullet hiking available online. There were many tall men who passed us and other groups with which we caught up, but there were no long lines that I was told were the norm at this point in the high season.

The first few stations were easy to reach compared to what was in store for us, but we took breaks at each of the stations and listened to our bodies. As the hills got steeper and the rocky parts got rockier, each challenge immediately in front of us became a small Everest. We made these little goals for ourselves: getting past this hill or reaching the next station or bathroom. For me, I made personal rewards like blowing my nose or taking a sip of water. I’m not the type of person to stop when something gets difficult which sounds cool, but is not always the safest. I preach the importance of listening to one’s body, but I don’t usually practice this.

I had a lot of food with me and it got to the point that onigiris were absolutely unappealing, but I ate them to lessen the weight in my backpack. I rationed my water too much and ended up with almost a full nalgene when I reached the bottom. I was wearing a light pair of cheap Forever 21 leggings (I hate fast fashion, but I was desperate), a borrowed hoodie, and a Daiso disposable rain jacket. I was cold and my cold was flaring up and I was not feeling my best.

We always seemed so close yet so far from the summit. We reached the point of the gate with all of the 1 yen coins when I realized how truly terrible I felt. There exists a horrible picture of me where I look like I’m ready to give up on life. I made it one hill past the gate and sat down for a break. Once I got up, I took five steps and turned around. One of my group-mates asked, “Are you okay?” I turned my head and puked to the side of the trail. Almost immediately, a man who looked far more prepared than I was handed me a pill and told me to drink water. This is probably the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done, but I took that pill without having a clue what it was.

Worth every minute I felt like death

Since my system cleared itself, I felt a little better, but I was close to crashing. The sleep deprivation and lack of quality nutrients in my systems were catching up to me. I made it to the summit and took some pictures of the incredible view, but I wanted to get down immediately. As soon as I put my camera away, I abandoned my group and began my descent. The lower I got, the more alive I felt. I stopped feeling tired in anyway and was deeply appreciative of how warm and close the sun felt. I slowly started stripping off my excess layers and took in the beautiful view. Pictures, nor words, could do it justice. As I think about it, I am reliving those moments and I can see it so clearly. It is something that everyone should experience.

Nothing does this sea of clouds justice.

The way down was monotonous and I was alone, but it seemed to go by so much quicker. I made some calls using my pocket wifi (this mountain was a little too connected), and spent some good time with myself. I made it to the bottom and bought the matcha ice cream and bottled green tea I had promised myself. It was so good, and I could cry now that those things are not readily available to me. I bought some souvenirs and waited for the rest of my group to return before we caught the bus back to Tokyo.

My handy North Face backpack and my beloved Asics

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t sleep that whole day. I also made the decision to make the most of my last night in Tokyo and stay out all night. I was running on adrenaline and could barely even nap during my flight home. This was perhaps the greatest and most rewarding few days of my life.

It took everything in my power to force that smile

Running through Tokyo

As an active person and a dedicated member of my crew team, it is necessary for me to be able to train over the summer. With my circumstances in Japan, the most effective training I could do was going on longer runs in the mornings. Since I was in Tokyo and Sapporo, it was most convenient to run in the early mornings before there were too many cars on the road or people out-and-about.

My first run in Tokyo was near the hotel, and it took me to Tokyo Tower. I was without wifi, but with a glance at a map, I had a relatively painless (my foot hurt) time finding my way around. I love getting out into cities during my runs because I can go places people don’t usually want to go to on foot, and it gives me a head start in exploring.

Tokyo Tower

My first week, I had the nicest venue on which I held my runs. My host’s home was only five minutes away from the Sumida River which has a nice path along its banks. This provided me with a decent distance in one direction with the potential to do loops if I wanted. Regardless of my route, the view was beautiful. I look back on Iceland as having the nicest running path along the ocean, but this river path takes a solid second. After it rained, there would be little crabs peeking out from the grass (they scared me at first because I assumed they were giant spiders). Depending on the haziness of the day, the Tokyo Skytree could be seen across the Sumida.

Sweaty selfie with the Skytree

My second week consisted of dirty runs through Shibuya. My hotel was in a less-populated Shibuya area, but the easiest path was to run toward the scramble and the advertisements that didn’t look as grand in the light of day. There were many smells from piles of garbage set out for the morning pick up. This was definitely not an ideal running situation, especially with having to dodge the morning rush of subway-goers. However, by familiarizing myself with the tourist traps of Shibuya when few people were around, it proved to be easier to navigate during the crowded times of day.

My week in Sapporo was interesting because I was still in a city, but it was a much smaller city. I never really saw a time of day that was crowded compared to the madness of Tokyo. My morning runs were really good because I found a park that I could run around.

One of the many beer gardens sprinkled throughout Odori Park, around which I ran laps

In addition to the ease of navigation I had, the weather was so much nicer. Though we had a couple of rainy mornings, the temperature was so much more tolerable and the low humidity allowed me to breathe again. My runs this week were some of the most productive.

The TV Tower, another fixture of Odori Park

My last week in Tokyo was in a far less populated part of the city. Once I ran out of the residential area, the early hours of my runs allowed me to avoid running past open doors and commuters. I like running in the morning because I can get a feel of how a space actually feels in the absence of others. My last run was kind of emotional as I was realizing that my amazing month was coming to an end and that I had to say goodbye to so many great people.

One of the many temples on my final Tokyo route

One if by Disneyland; two if by Disneysea

I remember considering how much effort it would take to go to Disney before I left. It seemed like a lot of work: an hour-long train ride and an expensive ticket that my host families would most likely not want to deal with. What I didn’t expect was that every single person who lives in Tokyo and 75% of Japan’s total population has been to Disney.

Tokyo Disney offers amazing deals I have not found in the American Disney parks. The price-per-day is already cheaper, but they also offer special pricing for evening passes. On the weekends after 3pm, passes work out to be around 50 USD, and weekday passes after 5pm come out to about 40 USD.

Because no one is ever interested in joining me until after the fact, I visited both of Tokyo’s Disney parks by myself. Since I was without a host family my second week in Tokyo, I hopped on a train to Maihama station without giving it too much thought. I had just received my pocket wifi, and it was my security measure for taking the correct trains home. After a bit of confusion (I might have taken an express train when I needed to take the local), I made it to the gates of Tokyo Disneysea, the most unique of the world’s Disney Parks. Immediately, I was blown away by how intricately-designed the scenery was. First, there was the globe, and then there was the large central volcano sculpture. Every corner of this park was thoughtfully laid-out and detailed. Except for not knowing how to get out once I entered the Journey to the Center of the Earth volcano, it was easy to navigate.

The first ride I rode was the Tower of Terror which had a long wait, but it was the ride I was most invested in experiencing. I don’t know why it came as a shock to me, but the whole ride was in Japanese, so I had little context to understand the whole Harrison Hightower story. There were single rider lines available for Indiana Jones and Raging Spirits (one of my students that week claimed to have seen me in line at Raging Spirits, but I have my doubts). However, the Indiana Jones single rider queue started past the entrance for Fast Passes, and I came upon it at a time that this line was wildly crowded. Once it died down, I had a short wait, but it was annoying that there wasn’t a separate single rider entrance. After getting on some rides more easily, I realized I had to make a big decision about the new Nemo Searider ride. I had to make sure it was my final stop because the wait time was not going down, and I wouldn’t have had time to do anything else. I went for it and waited slightly less long than was quoted. The ride was very cute and worth it, and I felt like I understood everything despite it being narrated in a language of which I have no comprehension.

These were my first moments set loose in Tokyo responsible for feeding myself, so naturally I first ordered a kawaii Minnie popsicle and a churro. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the big food item in the Tokyo parks was popcorn. I love popcorn! And not just any popcorn, but flavored popcorn! I first tried the tomato herb and felt right at home. I’m a big popcorn-eater, so I was thrilled for my dinner to consist of my favorite snack foods. Next, I tried the curry flavor which was amazing and better than the one I make at home, though I hate to admit it. There are moments when one can sit in the shade and eat some good popcorn or ice cream and recognize that Disney is actually a magical place.

The next day right after school, I hopped on another train to Maihama, but headed to Tokyo Disneyland this time. I had two fewer hours in this park since my ticket started at 5pm, but it was the more traditional Disneyland/Magic Kingdom-type of park that I’ve seen a lot of. With only five hours, I was struggling to devise a plan to ride everything I wanted. I grabbed a cone of ice cream and got moving. With a box of soy sauce and butter popcorn in the middle, I rode all of my favorites (Haunted Mansion and the tea cups) along with the more unique-to-Tokyo attractions. While reading an ebook on my phone, I was handed a surprise Fast Pass from a kind woman in line for Space Mountain which cut my wait time down tremendously. I waited for the super-cute Monsters, Inc. ride, and saw the underrated Stitch-invaded Tiki Room show. I had to sacrifice Big Thunder Mountain, but I covered a lot of ground in the short time I had.

By the time I got home, I was Disney-ed out and my feet hurt from all the fast-walking. In making plans for my time in Japan, I had assumed that Disney was something I could skip since it’s so available in the US, but I failed to realize how big Disney is to the world of the kids I would be working with. Disney offered me a discussion topic with my students and gave us some common ground to build relationships upon. Apart from the kawaii culture that I witnessed, I could see that Disney carries a lot of meaning to so many people in Tokyo. Additionally, I did not run into anyone who rolled their eyes over the subject of Disney, something that is common in the US. Even novelties can be given deep meaning if the effects of their existence can bring people closer together.

Scrambling to Shibuya

Shibuya was one of the few places that I looked up before arriving in Tokyo. I knew that it was a tourist center of the city and that it could be considered the Times Square of Tokyo. According to my itinerary, I knew that I would be spending time in Shibuya during my first week, but I was not yet aware of how much time I would spend in this overcrowded series of city blocks.


Our first encounter was during my night on the town before the program began. The lights were bright, and the consumer culture was evident. It was impressive at first glance, but there was not much substance behind the numerous storefronts.

The school I worked with during my first week was located in Shibuya the Yamanote Line delivered my host sister and I there each morning. Our time there consisted of stepping from train to bus and seeing the city through the window (while struggling to get the bus wifi to work).

My beloved backstreets.
My second week was the most Shibuya-intensive. I stayed in a hotel a few blocks from the central scramble area. Again, we had to take a train each morning with a transfer at Shibuya station. This encouraged me to stay out after school since I had to tap out of the station anyway. Because of this, I discovered Tokyu Hands (a DIY store in which I spend too much money), the Patagonia store (where I bought stickers and nothing else), and purikura (a photo booth that photoshops you into an alien). I went on adventures simply because they were convenient. It was easy to hang out with students after school because Shibuya is centrally located, and there are plenty of things to do. It was also cool to go on my morning runs through the normally-busy blocks that were desolate before 7am. This week made me appreciate Shibuya for more than only what it appears to be.

During my final week in Tokyo, I’m pretty sure my school was in the middle of nowhere, but I still managed to wind up in Shibuya after school. I was vaguely familiar with its layout, so I felt like an insider.


Our time together came way too soon, but on my last night in Tokyo, I found myself running through stations to catch the last train of the night to Shibuya. Even though we never made it to a club or a karaoke place, walking and talking through the backstreets of Shibuya was the perfect way to end my marvelous month in Japan.

Traveling with my mommy.

I’ve heard so many people say, “My mom is my best friend.” I don’t know if it’s the post-Gilmore Girls excitement, but it’s becoming increasingly common. However when I say this statement, I actually mean it.

We have been each other’s traveling companion for as long as I can remember. We would go on road trips to the ocean when I was young, and my mother gave me the title “Sputnik.” I helped her navigate and kept her awake during the long hours on the road. As my interests evolved, most of our trips were within the tri-state area to see Broadway shows or concerts. By the time I graduated from high school, our beach trips became long-distance affairs to places that couldn’t be accessed with a motor vehicle alone. At times, my personal plans have gotten in the way and prevented any kind of vacation from happening.

This is one of Sputnik’s relatives who I met in the Museum of Political History in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Because I’m away from home for all but a couple weeks of the year, the most time I spend with my mother is while we are on vacation. This year, our cross-country road trip was our vacation. The day after I finished up in Death Valley, I picked my mother up from LAX. We drove through Rodeo Drive and the beautiful Beverly Hills homes and named all of the songs we could think of that referenced this area. We spent two nights in an Airbnb in Marina del Rey while we explored Venice, Santa Monica, and the Hollywood Hills. (I swear every movie I’ve seen since then has taken place in LA.) This first leg of our journey together was relatively drama-free, aside from my mother’s fear of the wide freeways.

We tend to have one big fight on our vacations, and they are always about something ridiculous. In Grand Cayman, I dropped an iced coffee, so we fought about how controlling I am. Regrettable things are said, but we get over these rows quickly.

My mommy and me in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
This road trip was different and I hope it is representative of what’s to come. Perhaps we are finally realizing that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to plan vacations together, so we have more incentive to enjoy the little time we spend together. The biggest issue I had with my mother was her constant reactions to my driving, i.e. putting on her “passenger brakes,” gasping when she saw brake lights, etc. I think her biggest issue with me (aside from dragging her to four National Parks) was the night I yelled something vaguely inappropriate in the driveway of our Airbnb. Her reaction was to grab a bottle of lotion and threaten to squeeze it at me. We laughed about it afterward.

I intend to work toward making all of our travels and time spent together this painless, but it is not always preventable. Any two people in such close proximity for an extended period of time are bound to fight unless they are constantly walking on eggshells. Who wants to do that? I love my mommy and I can honestly say that she is my best friend. I never feel like I have to hold something back, be it a criticism or an underlying issue I notice. I can’t imagine being so close and comfortable with another person which I can view as a positive and a negative. As my life changes, I see that she will not always be my Sputnik, but she is my first and most special.

Who do you travel with? What issues do you run into?

The Majesty of Japan’s Bathrooms

We arrived in Narita International Airport, and an immediate observation I heard was, “The bathrooms are really cool.” I’ve seen my fair share of artist-designed or themed bathrooms, so I assumed this comment had something to do with the décor. 

Upon entering for myself, my first reaction was thinking, “Wow, its hot in here.” The room appeared quite ordinary and more uncomfortable than most restrooms I’ve encountered. As I would come to learn, the magic lay within the stall.

The toilet fixture itself was more advanced than my first cell phone. It had many buttons I didn’t dare press, but I was impressed by the complexity of something used only out of necessity. This experience did not stay with me until I found my second Japanese bathroom.

In the tiny (and I mean tiny) hotel room, The even tinier bathroom was filled with more technology than I have access to at my college. There was a panel on the wall which offered multiple bidet and water-shooting options. Even the shower and the sink were connected and had intense knobs to turn to transfer water flow. Before seeing Akihabara and the advanced electronics available in Tokyo, I saw a theme emerging.

Except the bathroom, this is the entire room, but don’t worry the TV was at least 50″
My first host family pushed the limits of my expectations. During the house tour, the most time was spent showing me how to flush the toilet (there was a button on the wall) and turn on the shower (there was a button, no knobs to turn in strange directions).

I found my first toilet/sink combo in a school. After I flushed, the back part of the toilet began dispensing water with which to rinse one’s hands. Of course, there was no soap available, but that seems to be typical here. One is not always expected to wash their hands after using the toilet. This is strange considering most restaurants give wet towels for washing up before a meal. I can’t quite understand their standard of cleanliness. 

I could count on one hand the number of normal-to-me toilets I’ve encountered which is saying something because I drink a lot of water. From the houses I’ve stayed in to the schools which I’ve taught at, the commonality is the complexity of the toilet. There is a trope about how Australia’s toilets flush in the opposite direction, but there is a truth that Japan’s toilets are the best in the world.
Japanese bathrooms are almost never air conditioned, even if the rest of the building is freezing. Perhaps this is to prevent people from lingering (I’m guilty of finishing books in the bathroom), but it makes for an uncomfortable place to relieve oneself. 

What’s the coolest toilet you’ve seen? I’m honestly wondering if there are some cool-bathroomed-countries out there that I should add to my list, so please let me know! 

Welcome to the Airbnb California

The concept of Airbnb was terrifying to me at first. Why would I want to deal with someone when I wanted to relax and sleep? On vacations, my mother and I have always stayed in hotels. My father’s vacations usually include camping of which I was never a fan. I prefer privacy in a bug-free, air-conditioned environment, but upon planning my first cross-country trip Airbnb came to mind. Not only was it the cheapest option, but it would be easy to test out the service in short, one-night stays in various cities across the US. A crash-course in Airbnb, if you will.

My first experience was in an apartment that we had all to ourselves. There weren’t many options in the area, and I used my first-time-customer coupon. The space was clean and offered more than what we needed, but I couldn’t help but fear that someone was hiding in a closet. Perhaps I’ve seen too many horror movies, but I thought this would end up like Vacancy. Though I thought it would feel strange to have to share a space with someone, it would certainly be better to face your killer than to wait for the surprise. (Kidding!)

There were extenuating circumstances that led me to book an entire-home Airbnb, but there is a real issue of gentrification from renting out entire spaces. Haven’t we all seen that episode of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? From here on out, I’ll stick to private room rentals, but it was as rookie mistake.

The few rooms we stayed in while heading West were really great examples of the utility and convenience of Airbnb. Once I was on my own, I fully realized I would need to stay in Airbnbs alone if I wanted to travel anywhere cheaply for the weekend. My first solution was to look for places that were hosted by women; I would feel more comfortable with a woman. Another issue was aligning that preference with location, price, and reputation. In looking for a place in Fresno, the best-fitting one was hosted by a man. Ahhh! However, he did have good reviews from other solo-female travelers, so I went for it. It, of course, ended up fine, but I would have really appreciated if some of those solo, female reviewers had gauged their perception-of-safety level.

On my East-ward trip with my mother, we stayed almost exclusively in Airbnbs, and it was a breeze now that I was a seasoned user. We stayed in some really cute places, and we stayed in a place where we kept the lights on all night because we saw a cockroach.

Cute shelves in Tennessee
I’ve found that when I’m by myself, I definitely prefer to have present hosts. As an extrovert, I like to have someone to talk to.
Whatever this is in Tennessee

Overall, I’ve been really lucky with the places I’ve stayed through Airbnb. The worst I’ve seen was not the owner’s fault, and it is true that you get what you pay for. When I choose the absolute cheapest place, it will not have the comfort or amenities of a slightly pricier place. Airbnb has been a great addition to my travels, and I can’t wait to utilize it further in more countries. 

My best advice is to look at the reviews, and leave reviews so others know if it is truly worth it or not! I would also love to see more solo travelers specific their gut-safety-feelings.

If you have used Airbnb, how has your experience been?