The Meaning of Travel in More Ordinary Days

One of so many long, beautiful staircases in Montmartre

When the great shift has finished, and I’m left with a blank slate of a life and the quietest quiet I’ve known for months or maybe even years, my mind goes to Paris (and hopes the rest of me will follow).

I imagine a lot of us are there now, in some way, mentally if not physically – even if we had a trip planned. Reading that article, I realized something: if finances and responsibilities allowed, I’d be on a flight there tomorrow.

That’s kind of always true, but especially true right now.

My days as I progress into this next part of my life are marked by these kinds of realizations. It feels like luxury, after this long summer-into-fall, to be able to have the thought I would go to Paris tomorrow if I could and have it be something other than a clawing attempt at escaping necessarily hard days. I am gradually becoming a regular person again. Now that I’m moving past being completely tangled up in job searching, moving, and healing from some real heartbreak, I have sufficient brain and heart to have flights of fancy again. It feels good.

And so a dormant part of me is awakening – the part that thrills to finding how far my stash of airline and travel points will take me, or the part that feels a little frisson of excitement when I see how many airlines fly from SFO and OAK to such wonderful places. I could take one flight and end up in Dubai or Australia or Amsterdam or – well, Stockholm. Thanks to a staggering sale and the well-timed tip of a dear friend, I will be taking advantage of that one myself come February. (My somewhat curious decision to go to Scandinavia in February is not without precedent in my life, of course.) In the last week, I’ve thought or talked about going to not just Paris, but also Peru. Washington, DC. (I’ve never been. I know, it’s hella weird.) Stinson Beach. Los Angeles. Mexico City. Rome.

The power got reconnected, and the lights are coming back on in the house.

I didn’t stop thinking of traveling during the extremely stressful weeks between July and, oh, a couple weeks ago. It just had a different timbre: what if I just went to Paris and didn’t tell anyone and just didn’t come back, what would that be like, would that fix stuff? the little voice that comes from somewhere in my lizard brain said. What if you just put some underwear and a toothbrush in a little bag and went to SFO with that empty credit card and just blew this popsicle stand, huh? 

This isn’t a sign of real fear; this is a game I, veteran of a certain kind of anxiety, play with myself to find the truth in negative feelings. I feel bad right now. Ok, self, that’s fine. Is it the kind of bad we should just wade through? What if we picked up and went back to Seattle right now? Would that fix it? But I like learning programming. But I know that relationship needed to end, even though it hurts like hell. But I’m not willing to go back to that old paradigm of communication, just because it would seem easier in the moment. Cool, brain. Let’s just keep on learning. Stretching. Trying. Packing. Moving. Keep on going.

It’s been a theme of my life to be reminded, over and over again, until perhaps I really learn it, that the thousand small actions matter so much more than the one big one. It stayed with me this time. Just pack one more box. Just meet one more friend to say goodbye. One more phone call to arrange one more part of moving across multiple states.

One more, and one more, and a thousand more, and now I am really, honestly here. I signed a lease for an apartment last week, and it set off a series of events in my brain that I didn’t even realize were waiting to happen. I am good and here, and I see Oakland now as if I am seeing it anew all over again. The world has stopped being something to pass through, elbows tucked in and moving as fast as I can. Once again, for the first time in a while, life is a banquet.

And my god, but I am hungrier than a boxer at the end of the main event.

To refine this a little bit, to prevent myself from doing the travel equivalent of raiding the Hungry Man shelf at Safeway, I’m going to go back through my rather wonderful archive of travel pictures and tell you stories I’ve been sitting on for a year or more. The room to think again also means, for me, the room to write. Let’s go back to Paris and Rennes and Berlin and Amsterdam and Tokyo and Victoria and take the long way to Oakland, San Francisco, and all the points present and future.

See you in a few days. Meet you in Montmartre?

I Didn’t See the Auction at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo

A big giant fish head in a case of ice at Tsukiji Market

But you know what? That’s ok. I still saw plenty.

A thriving street and crowd in Tokyo's Tsukiji Market

This is the crowd at about 8 am on a Sunday in April at Tsukiji Fish Market. (Say “tskEE-jee.”)

I had arrived the day before and barely managed to make myself wander Akihabara before calling it a night. The thing to do, per every guide and every person who has been to Tokyo or maybe heard of it once, is to get up ass-early (that’s any time between 3 and 7 am, per my body’s clock), somehow get yourself to Tsukiji even though the trains aren’t running yet, and register for the tuna auction audience, for which only 3.5 seats are available*, and, and, and…

I set an alarm for 3:30 (sorry, hostel-roommates), just to see how I felt. I woke up, still fully dressed, underwires pressed into permanent grooves on my ribcage. (Woe to the person who thinks they’re just going to lie down for a quick nap at 7 pm after flying across an ocean, for thou art fooling thyself.) I squinted at the streetlight coming through my window, said a very quiet yeah no, Houdini’d my bra out from under my cozy wrap dress, and rolled back over.

I woke back up at 6:30, the first time that has ever been considered late for me. I took a shower in possibly the nicest hostel shower on earth – not fancy, but immaculately, reassuringly clean, and so needed after my 10-hour flight the day before. I shuffled out by 7:30 for a quick breakfast (ordered from a picture menu, of course) before I hit the train for my first proper Tokyo outing.

Octopus posters in a window at Tokyo's Tsukiji MarketMy first job was at a farmers’ market, when I was 14 and new and being paid under the table. (Soulard Market, I still adore you, never question.) I’ve had an affinity for open-air food markets ever since. Tsukiji is a mix of things in the way that happens when a market is both functional and a wildly successful tourist attraction: dizzying tables full of beautiful, intricately painted sushi dishes; tanks of beautiful, doomed fish; readymade food stands; and crowds and crowds and crowds. Still too shy and jet-lagged to make the most of things, I instead wandered through like a wraith, ducking down narrow alleys with counters with a scant five or six stools, peering into knife shops, and marveling at the mix of locals and tourists. (You can tell the latter from the former by their ability to maneuver a corridor or any other straight shot of pedestrian thoroughfare. This is a universal language; these days, I navigate Union Square in San Francisco five days a week, and my ability to tell a tourist at 50 paces has grown even sharper.)

This is my favorite near-miss picture:

Crabs and crabs at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Still getting used to my new camera, I knelt before these crabs and fiddled with settings for a moment before I was ready to take this one. In the moment before the shutter opened, an older man ducked down, knelt into frame, and gave me a quick peace sign and a giant, cheesy grin. He then leaped up and apologized profusely, even though I laughed and tried to ask him to do it again. It’s easy to get bitter at tourists when you just want to buy your damn fish and get home to make lunch; to see someone take the piss in such a good-humored way was a good way to start the trip.

I also didn’t go to the most famousest ramen place. I will let you figure out why.

Ramen line at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Not all of this is the line, but more of it is than you might think.

After I roamed the narrow hallways and alleys and streets, taking in my first bit of Japanese morning, I went to the more industrial area of the market. These pictures are fewer because I had to make sure to, well, stay alive.

Tsukiji Market don'ts and don'tsThis is all really good advice with not a bit of overstating present.

Once you emerge from the market aimed at individuals, you find yourself in a lively shipping yard, threaded by small, screaming trucks, one seat wide with a tiny flatbed behind, which zip around and by you in a somehow flawless ballet while emitting the most appropriately eerie high-pitched whine. No drunk indeed – you’d be street pizza.

I ended my trip with a few oysters, pulled from running saltwater by a man standing sentinel between two tanks, patiently weathering tourists taking picture after picture. I just gave him money and took these to the little eating area across the way. I couldn’t find chopsticks, so I just tipped them into my mouth, scandalizing someone, I am sure.

Oysters from Tsukiji Market

So: Tsukiji Fish Market. I shaped my plan with Lonely Planet and a featureless amalgam of “So you’re going to Tokyo” to-do lists on various travel blogs – I found them remarkably consistent. Maybe you’re more patient than I am and are game to wait in a long-ass ramen line, or maybe you’re willing to get up at ass-early and take a wildly expensive cab across town. But the way I did it was just fine too – wading through crowds, gawping at fish, dodging certain doom via people just trying to do their job ok thanks. A fine welcome to Tokyo, and a good introduction to the very particular kind of keeping on my toes that I found crucial while I was there. Plus oysters.

Lanterns at Tokyo's Tsukiji Market

*Ok, it’s like 40 or 60, but every recommendation drips with doom at the LIMITED SEATS and YOU ARE GOING TO MISS IT no really GET THERE AT FOUR, GET THERE THE NIGHT BEFORE AND CAMP OUT LIKE YOUR SAD BUDDY DID FOR THE PHANTOM MENACE, oh god you’re already blowing it, it’s too late.

Entering Ueno Park in Tokyo

Ginger at at Ueno Park in Tokyo
Here’s a thing about traveling a good amount in a shortish period of time: wherever you go, there you are. And you get to find out exactly what that means.

I have a cat tendency. I spot them, I study them, I follow them, and when I come across them, I feel I’ve intersected with the actual life of the place. (Other repeated things I enjoy: coffee, outdoor food, pastries, popular city parks, walking tours, and cemeteries. These constants give me some easy, interesting comparisons between the places I go. Coffee in Japan is much different than coffee in Paris, for instance. I love them both.)

In Ueno Park (which I will get into more soon), this was the second cat I saw. The first was grey and soft and gently misted over by the day. An older lady was kneeling next to him, opening a carton of milk and then pouring some into a bowl. The cat dug right into it. I considered taking a picture, but I decided to observe and leave it be, imagining she was doing a daily or weekly ritual of giving this cat a little treat.*

Real estate is tough in Tokyo, and I understand that pet-friendly housing is exceptionally hard to come by, hence the explosion of cat cafes. So to see a woman doing a bit of gentle caretaking for this furry friend in the city’s most popular park felt like getting a glimpse into how people stay sane and balanced in a place of such extremes. Furthermore, there was a particular beauty to  a private moment taking place within sight of what I immediately named the Selfie Tree, a red bud tree so profusely blooming that 1. it was a solid, searing tree-shaped field of magenta, and 2. it was perpetually surrounded on all sides by singles and groups selfieing in front of it. Behold:

Selfie-ridden red bud tree in Tokyo's Ueno Park

If I hadn’t also spent a morning at Shinjuku Gyoen, I might declare this the most-selfied flowering tree in Tokyo. I grabbed a snack from one of the nearby tents so I could munch while watching people take pictures in front of this tree, over and over again, delicately keeping the shoulder-to-shoulder hordes out of frame. I wonder where the pictures go, whether they’re only for social media or if they get printed and added to some more permanent archive. I wondered this while biting off Hello Kitty’s waffle head.

A paper bag full of Hello Kitty-shaped waffles

Twenty of these for ¥500 (about US$5 that day). A bargain at any price, though, to be honest.

Ueno Park was my first day setting out alone in Tokyo. This trip happened when cherry blossom season was about 60 percent past, which meant that while I was scouting cherry blossoms, so was most of Tokyo. We didn’t plan the timing this way, but I recommend it, and not just for seeing blossoms. The flowering trees there are lusher and bigger than the ones in Seattle, so I found them worth seeing for that reason. But to visit a country at the same time that the locals are marveling and flocking to see the area’s natural beauty with the same fervor as someone who crossed an ocean to do it – that’s a special thing. While I never felt of Tokyo (hard to do when you’re a 5’8″ white lady with some pink hair), in that moment, I felt brought along for something special that Japan has been rejoicing at for centuries. I do love some flowering trees, to the point that they’re among my favorite things in Seattle. But to see locals picnicking on tarps, feasting and sitting and watching and taking picture after picture, all of us thrilled to be there, all of us so glad at that moment? That’s worth crossing an ocean for.

*Once, years ago, when my small cat was sick and had trouble taking in calories, I tried giving her cream, hoping the nutrition in it would outweigh any lactose-intolerant effects. Later, cleaning diarrhea off the side of the litterbox, I apologized profusely. She was unimpressed. But then she is always unimpressed.

On Arriving in Tokyo Alone and Having to Self-Initiate

I am told sometimes that I am brave for traveling, and then I am told, separately, that I am brave for sometimes traveling alone. I tend to be surprised at both of these statements, because this world is a pretty safe one and because, all told, I haven’t done much solo traveling.* I’m trying to change that balance, and I did a little of it on my most recent trip.

I spent most of my time in Japan with my best friend, but I rolled solo for the first couple of days. This, of course, meant arriving by myself with no one to meet me, something I haven’t done since I went to Iceland last year. Iceland is a well-oiled tourism machine; I was relying on Japan to be easy to navigate just because of the sheer density of things. A country can’t have so many people leading such productive lives if, say, getting from the airport to its most major city is a pain in the ass.

However, one of my now-cherished travel traditions is the Hallucinatory First Day. I have experienced this in Rejyjavik, Honolulu, Paris, and London, and I will write about it more fully at some point. For now, here’s the brief version: the Hallucinatory First Day is what happens when you arrive somewhere seven or more time zones away from what your biology is familiar with. Sleep-deprived from a long, likely uncomfortable flight, you arrive somewhere new and get to navigate an entirely different way of living while also being about 20 IQ points short of what you’re accustomed to.

The HFD has become one of my favorite parts of traveling. However, because I have seldom experienced it while traveling west, I wasn’t sure of what to expect.

I flew business class on the way there (something I’ll also go into greater detail about later), but I slept weirdly and warmly, and so I arrived tired and sweaty. On the way through the terminal, searching for my train into the city, I was approached by two women – one an interviewer, one a translator – and a person with a camera, where they interviewed me about my fashion.** Was I here on leisure? Yes. Was I, a fashion-forward person***, planning on going to Harajuku? Yes, it was a particular goal while I was here. What was my impression of Japanese fashion? Very avant-garde, very interesting, so often so big, bright, and daring. What did I know about Japan or its history?


While, in ordinary times, I have a decent-enough grasp of Japanese history, I have no idea of what I said at that point. Something about it being long and very interesting and quite distinctive from the rest of the world and did I mention a 10-hour flight had eaten my brain and I am not doing this justice, hahaha, oh god. Yes?

They released me after that. I was so out of it I forgot to ask what they were going to use the interview for. So, in a month or two, I will probably be featured in my own version of number four on this list, which will be called “The Inarticulate, Confused Gaijin.”

Free again, I followed the signs downstairs to the train, seeking something called the Skyliner. (Another train name highlight: the Romancecar, which took us from Tokyo toward Hakone.) And there, I said something that I only said one more time after that moment: “Eigo ga hanasemasu ka?” Of course the clerk spoke English. Her job is to deal with confused tourists. She sold me my ticket; I headed out.

It’s a strange thing, or it is to me, to arrive somewhere so far away with no one waiting for you. Beyond the feeling, generally not warranted, of fearing what could happen if you went unaccounted for for even a few minutes, there’s something poignant about not being expected or even necessarily wanted. It’s also the feeling of having no obligations, and that is the part to focus on.

The train zipped into Tokyo, and in just the first few minutes, I realized a good amount of what’s beautiful about Miyazaki’s work isn’t his imagination (although that is certainly it too). Part of it, for non-Japanese audiences, is his faithful and well-selected elements of Japanese life. The traditional houses, the three-quarter-sized trucks and vehicles – they’re just there. It’s a compact place. That’s just what it looks like.

I pressed my forehead gently to the train window and watched beautiful, unfamiliar territory go by, punctuated dramatically here and there by sakura.

I held this time carefully because, like the flight, I recognized that it was probably my last oasis of predictability for some time. At the end of the ride, I had to navigate buying a multi-line subway card (something seemingly only 15 percent of fare machines offer, and good luck picking which one) and the subway, and the skipping, blinking way of Google Maps in Japan, and, finally, my hostel. I have a review on there; in short, it says, “It’s not perfect, but it’s $25 a night in Tokyo, so whatever.”


My flight landed at three; I got to the hostel at about 5:30. At 5:45, I found myself hiding behind a curtain in my bed in a six-bunk hostel room.

I guess I’ve not talked about this before, but here’s a thing about me: when I travel alone, that first day – that first step outside – is incredibly difficult. My usually latent agoraphobic, meek tendencies come rushing to the forefront, leaving me in my hotel or bunk or AirBnB or whatever, hating myself and convinced that I am about to waste a ton of money and time and opportunity, and I am just a terrible weak person, and people are walking outside there like it’s no big thing, but I’m hiding inside, and I will clearly hide inside FOREVER until it’s time to slink in shame back to the airport.

This has happened in Reykjavik. And Rennes. And Paris. And now, it has happened in Tokyo.

I deal with this by setting small, achievable goals, designed through my knowledge of myself to lure myself outside to a proper experience. In Reykjavik, I breathed deeply, wrote in my journal, and told myself I had to walk outside by noon. In Rennes, I confessed my freaking out to Tom, who had just left for a business trip, and he invited me outside for a quick meeting at the train station before he was due to leave; since I would already be outside, my assignment to myself on the way home was to go to the grocery store and find greens and French milk. In Paris, I was still weary from my recent panic in Rennes, and it was enough to tell myself there was cheese outside waiting for me to eat it.

And in Tokyo, hiding in my Orange Is the New Black new arrival-style women’s bunk bed, I told myself that I had to go outside and find dinner. If I found food and still wanted to come back inside, I was allowed to. That was enough for a satisfactory day.

My first meal in Tokyo came from FamilyMart (I’ll get to that soon). I used yen for the first time and bought cheese, sushi, and pastries. Aglow with the feeling of functioning even minimally in a new place, I walked around Akihabara for an hour, watching the Friday-evening crowds emerge from offices and subway exits, shaking off work and drifting into the weekend. Pink-clad, blurry with weariness, and clutching my convenience store bag of food, I wandered among them. In Akihabara, I was amazed at how elegantly such large crowds of people walked past and around each other. Akihabara is apparently special, because I did not witness this pedestrian ballet anywhere else.

First nights are for low expectations. First nights are for fumbling with new cameras, taking ordinary pictures for the sake of documenting how new everything is.

Hamster habitrails in Akihabara in Tokyo

Those stairs! They are so distinct and interesting. Whoa!


Those signs! I sure wish I liked anime, because I would be in business here. (Turns out that cartoons on signs and ads are very commonplace here, and the level of cuteness does not change with what is being advertised or said.)


That – wait, am I in Rennes? Paris? Bruges? What’s going on here?

(I would end up asking myself that question far more than I ever thought possible.)


Wow! I sure wish it wasn’t a uniquely terrible idea for me to consume alcohol right now! Because this looks like some kind of beautiful oasis!

I bought my food. I wandered for an hour, relearning how to listen to my gut, how to hear what delighted me and what felt like the small string that I could follow to find something beautiful. And then I walked back through the drinks machine-laden alleys to my hostel, where I ate my sushi in the park across from it. And there, I saw one of the first things that I truly, deeply loved about Tokyo.

This park, small and unmarked on Google Maps, is fine-grit gravel and a few pieces of playground equipment arranged prosaically, but there is one astonishing sakura tree in the corner. That night, it was at 75 percent bloom. And beneath it were two separate large parties of revelers, expertly organized atop their blue tarps, shoes neatly lined up at the edges. Banquets were laid out on low wooden tables brought out from someone’s home. One table had a minikeg of Kirin on a small riser. And, still in their work clothes, locals laughed and toasted and kneeling in the closest they could get to nature in that moment, enjoying just that barest bit of proximity to one of their country’s loveliest and most fleeting bits of beauty, immortalized in verse and art and collective consciousness.

And I sat on a bench, watching them, enjoying that sushi more than perhaps anyone has ever enjoyed convenience store food, pleased with myself for having made a long journey and for having the inclination to do so at all.

Then the wind whipped up and yanked my empty food containers away from me, sending them dancing across that fine gravel like a deliberate taunt. The revelers didn’t seem to notice me sprinting across the park for my trash, one of the first indications that the way I look rendered me largely invisible (or at least uninteresting) to Tokyo residents.

But, as I’ve said, more on that later. I have a lot to say.

I gathered my trash, dumped it in the lobby garbage can, and headed back to my bunk.

It was 7:30. I would sleep solidly until 4 am, when I woke up and considered a trip to the Tsukiji Fish Market (until I realized I’d actually slept too late for that). Then I’d go back to sleep until six, and then 6:45, when I would give up and get out of bed. After a deeply satisfying shower in a surprisingly immaculate shower room, I left just before 8 am.

In a trip full of the unfamiliar, this switch was perhaps the weirdest one at all. But that? I will get to that too.


*Iceland, a day in Puerto Vallarta in 2009, two days in Paris last year.

**Fashion = a bright pink coat, matching hair, and a couple different loud patterns in an outfit chosen with comfort in a plane seat chief in my mind. This ensemble got me mistaken for a Nintendo employe at SeaTac; apparently it weathered the flight better than I thought.

***Hahahahaha. Oh man.