Despite starting a year in review a month ago, I couldn’t nail down the major questions and learnings I was grappling with. While I continue to work on it, I’ve compiled a 2016 year-in-review oriented around the things that happened. Please take this as a first draft and forgive the rough edges. All photos are taken by yours truly.
Thank you to everyone who was part of 2016. It’s been a good year in many ways — finding a home in Japan, finding meaningful work, and nurturing meaningful relationships new and old. Please keep in touch for 2017!
2016 began with an artificially quick pace on the road, first in Singapore then all through India. My mind couldn’t catch up with it, and I have yet to publish any of my notes from India.
The one month trip began in in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala. After that, I took the 3-day Rajdhani Express North to Delhi with an LSE friend (without whom I wouldn’t have made the trip at all), and then to Rajasthan.
India to me was for visiting old friends, seeing the places they called home and experiencing a small part of the perspectives they had on life. I began writing some of my most candid letters on beaches, in trains, at top stations, and in forts. My best reflection piece to date, the Henro Afterword, was finished at Jodhpur beside a stepwell that I became particularly fond of.
In February, I returned to Tokyo and began hosting because I was scandalized by the amount travellers paid for lodging in this city. For the next two months, we had a steady stream of visitors from as close as Taiwan and as far as Chile. Many of my guests inspired my first evergreen posts for Tokyo, including a vegetarian survival guide for Japan, and vegetarian Tokyo map. These became my Niche Tokyo maps and my ongoing mapping project for Tokyo’s coffee shops.
As I tried to find my rhythm in Tokyo life, the regularity of hosting friends and writing Tokyo cafe reviews kept me grounded. Ritual is perhaps one of the only defenses against depression through long-term unemployment.
Inspired by the questions people approached me with about Japan and travel, I doubled back into the informative pieces I had originally wanted to write about flight bookings, Tokyo’s only accessibility map for transportation which opened my eyes to an underappreciated side of Tokyo, and a map for Muslim-friendly Tokyo to help friends that visited.
April: Family, Friends, and Food
April wrapped itself around hanami, cherry blossom viewing, friends, and family.
The sakura-lined boulevard I watched bloom for the first 16 years of my life became a sea of blossoms at Tokyo Station, my neighbourhood canals, in far-flung prefectures like Shimane and Yamaguchi, picturesque parks like Shinjuku Gyoen, and random temple corners. The soft spring snow is best enjoyed with family and friends. I am fortunate enough to have many visit Tokyo throughout 2016, whether serendipitous or planned.
Needless to say, April was not the only food month. Travel and limited time does wonders for culinary carpe diem. April perhaps stands out as the most adventurous Japanese food month, as my family and I ate our way through the historical South. Food included Iwakuni block sushi, Yamaguchi’s shingle noodles, Shimane soba, Shimonoseki’s fugu (pufferfish), soft ice cream, local crab, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, and rural homecooking at random house-restaurant in the middle of nowhere in the mountains. Other meals included Tokyo poor-man’s-food-turned-delicacy unagi (eel) at the Nodaiwa Honten, specialty tempura meals, neighbourhood ramen star restaurants, and local sushi bars in Ginza. I would never get anything done if I attempted to write about food.
Coffee was — is — year round. However, this May I had the privilege of hosting barista Carmein Tam from Malaysia and watching her brew coffee with all the equipment she brought on her holiday. I also got tastings of the legendary Papa Palheta in Singapore and Artisan Roast in Malaysia. This fateful encounter spiraled into visiting the Tokyo Coffee Festival together and an even deeper level of tasting obsession. By the time Carmein left, I had begun hand grinding as part of my morning ritual before writing.
The domino effect of my May meeting culiminated in befriending a colleague months later who was equally interested in coffee. From her, I learned about Minimal Chocolate and Maruyama Coffee, which was walking distance from my apartment. The best roaster discovery of the year was Ninety Plus Coffee, which is served at Arabica in Kyoto.
As a digital nomad, I travel light because I have a place to store my things. In 2016, I was determined to make Japan home, so I returned to Vancouver to collect those things. Of course, I collected other things like the latest cafe updates to create an indie coffee map and new favourite restaurants in the Lower Mainland (some random recommendations include Zeitoon for Persian, Zest for Japanese-West Coast fusion, and InGrain Pastificio, and Beta 5 Chocolates).
It is my humble opinion that the best way to fall in love with a city is on your two feet, more efficiently when sunkissed on two wheels. Strolls and rides through my various homes over the past decade have exposed me to round-the-corner gardens and crumbling houses alike. Being out there, sharing spaces with our fellow humans, and not flinching from the realities so different from our own is a mental exercise I prefer to keep up. What I enjoy so much about meeting locals is hearing their stories that reveal the inner workings of a city. Common knowledge that locals wave off as not worthy of documentation is in fact a bottomless pool of cultural information newcommers often struggle to plumb. My posts on being LGBTQ in East Asia and LGBTQ resources for Hong Kong began because of a casual question from a trans friend.
The long hours of summer make the happiest season. By July, I had the happy problem of juggling too many things: a new job at a local company, potential contract work, regular hobby posts, and exploring to gather more content.
Waking up naturally to sunlight pouring into my room, grinding my beans, and walking 5 minutes to write in the park, with my feet dug in the fresh soil (yes, hippie roots) made my day even before most people’s began. Watching the neighbourhood baseball games, tracing the sun’s gradual slide above the lush green tree, noticing the wild grasses reach my knees, and the natural ebb and flow of the Arakawa (river) was what made the historical canal district of Fukagawa, with over 100 bridges, home.
All through August, the great rivers of Edo (Tokyo) are alight through the night. Flashes in the sky are reflected in the dark rivers of the Sumida River, Tama River, Arakawa, and Edogawa. Lined along the banks, sitting on the cool evening grass at the parks, or in the breezy balconies of apartments, the people of Tokyo marvel at the brilliant fire flower spectacles.
Sauntering down the block 15-minutes from my apartment to one of the “smallest” of Tokyo’s hanabi taikai with the rest of the local families and laughing couples, listening to sassy announcements of “No Pokemon in the area, please move on” from the elderly volunteer MCs, was one of the warmest embraces this sprawling metropolis gave.
August was also the month I came into possession of a second-hand Fujifilm X100, which has since inspired me to look at the world again as a photographer. That month, I completed three photo essays of Japan’s rural areas: the Kunisaki Penninsula in Southern Kyushu, Gujo Hachiman nestled close to the Japanese Alps, and Yahiko village in Northern Niigata.
September: Fuinki (Mood)
September was a tough month. After tasting 1 year of a fixed home after two years with none, I finally noticed the ravages that uprooting oneself could do to mental wellbeing.
And yet, even as I washed up at my three respective homes with a mixture of exhaustion, stress, and boredom, Tokyo invited me to dig deeper. I returned to my anime comforts and I built on my otaku collectibles photo essay of Mandarake. Except, now I was in Japan, just a trainride away from the train stations, intersections, and neighbourhoods that inspired the animated interpretations.
Commercial areas like Shinjuku and Shibuya that I had avoided (after visiting years ago) were suddenly stages, places not just filled with hordes of people, but with a mood.
September was topped off with a farewell trip with a good friend. We both visited Korea for the first time and checked out the awesome independent cafes in Seoul.
I don’t know why people become nomads. In my case, it was more circumstance. What I do appreciate about the nomadic life is the opportunity to revisit old homes often. Old homes always have a surreal quality. It’s like inspecting one’s jars of preserved expectations with the originals in reality. I run around in circles comparing homes — comparing me, the people I’ve left behind, the cityscape, the cultural norms.
In October, I returned to Hong Kong for the first time in half a year, the longest I’d been away since 2012. I will summarize the trip as being nothing like I had expected even though I’d never articulated any expectations. It also exceeded my expectations. With a camera, time, and no agenda, I saw Hong Kong with a fresh pair of eyes. I learned to fall in love with the city that first drew me back to Asia 7 years ago. I rediscovered the foods I’d grown disinterested in. I had surprise encounters that kept me up at night. By the time I left two weeks later, I was intensely glad to be back in Tokyo. I also had a renewed desire to return to Hong Kong, right away. Thankfully, the next trip was only a month later.
November was mostly a work month — happily. Happily, work messes are rarely documented. In their place stand the smiles of people I shared the off hours with.
My thanks go to all the friends in India who made my trip to the subcontinent so reassuring, fun, insightful, and inspiring; to the new friends in Tokyo who opened up so readily and made the city feel so warm from frigid February to chilly December; to old friends who got in touch and made time to catch up with a 24-hour overlap; to my Tokyo visitors who kept me appreciative of my new home; to new friends from all walks of life who shared in craft-making activities, crazy hikes with stunning views and pitch black paths, adventures in Tokyo and beyond; to the friends in Hong Kong who make the city the most welcoming home to return to; to wonderful colleagues; and to all the people who have been generous with their time, resources, and sympathies.
My special thanks to the many people who accompanied me on my mapping adventures and enthusiastic critical readers who helped produce some of my best informational pieces (yes, the privileges of travelling is coming).
December was neither a whirlwind, nor a snail crawl. Perfect isn’t quite accurate, either. Now that I think about it, it’s like the rest of the year: varied, spiced, and generously flavoured. The 31 days included memorable dishes from Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei, and Vancouver — a privilege and retrospective miracle.
I’ve crossed paths with friends after a decade, individuals I’ve gone to great lengths to see and people whom I’d entirely forgotten about. In between are the new people who click and respond and the ones who take a bit longer to. Perhaps the only thing that makes me a true nomad is that I am never quite sure who I will run into where, but no goodbye feels final.
Time marches to a beat. In human time, it is officially 2017. However, dawn has not yet arrived. There is still time. As I step into 2017, a list of to-dos already awaits me. It is the price for wanting to dig roots, for having something to pursue. Maybe, it’s about time to try.
This is the 3r iteration of a year-end reflection that I’ve been trying to do for a month. The more cerebral and personal one will be released soon once I have sorted my learnings, most important moments and significant experiences.
Thank you for reading! A final thank you to my readers who gave words of encouragement and essential critical feedback on early drafts. If you have any ideas / thoughts, feel free to get in touch.
Originally published at thecupandtheroad.com on January 1, 2017.