Full Circle

Home Sweet Hotel

It’s hard to believe that the end is in sight. Our belongings are being loaded onto a Seattle-bound boat and we’re in the much-maligned state of expat limbo: living in a hotel. I’m sure the maid wonders about our odd assortment of luggage, which is mostly souvenirs and fishing poles at this point. We’re in the same hotel that we started this whole adventure in back in December, so it’s a rather fitting way to neatly tie up this whole experience. I’ve had a lot of time for reflection this past week as I took up the role of professional appointment-sitter, waiting for movers and couriers and inspectors to make the rounds through our apartment. It’s fun to look back and see how far we’ve come in such a short time.
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The Great Thai Adventure

We’ve returned from our trip to Thailand – ten days of beaches, rainforests, and more fruit smoothies than you could possibly imagine. It was a great adventure and a nice chance to see another side of Asia while we’re in this part of the world.

I made a few observations in between longtail boat rides and endless bowls of curry, which I can now share with you as my field-tested advice for travel in southeast Asia. You might not find all of these tips in your average travel guide, so pay attention:
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Planes, trains, automobiles, and a voyage on the high seas

Being car-less for the past 8 months has forced us to be creative in selecting our modes of transportation to get around Japan. While trains and bikes are the go-to options for daily life, neither was very practical for a week in Hokkaido. The train system on the north island – particularly the east side – is relatively sparse and infrequent (though I feel silly for writing that, because Japan’s lousiest train system still puts Amtrak to shame). It worked out to be much more efficient to rent a car and to take advantage of frequent regional flights that operate between the handful of airports.
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Journey to the Great North, kind of

The island of Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. It is viewed much like the Alaska of Japan: a mountainous frontier populated with wild animals such as foxes and brown bear. In winter, Hokkaido transforms into a legendary winter wonderland when the cities host snow festivals and the northern coast along the Sea of Okhotsk develops sea ice. That’s right, I said sea ice.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized that Japan’s Great White North was at a mere 44 degrees North latitude, which puts this drift-ice-laden island south of Portland and even Rome. It’s not exactly the North Pole.

The other remarkable thing is that Hokkaido wasn’t developed by the Japanese government until the 1800s, though there was of course a native population and remote outposts long before then. This means that the island doesn’t have the 1,000+ year old temples and other historical sites typical of Japan’s other islands. Instead, Hokkaido has farms and cities that are modeled after western countries, due in part to American agricultural consultants that were hired during the formal development years.

All of this gives Hokkaido a flavor very unlike the rest of Japan – and we had to go see it.
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