I was supposed to visit Taiwan last month, but due to COVID-19, had to cancel plans. I miss my relatives dearly, but thankfully have good memories from my trip last year to Taiwan and Japan.
This post shares my three days in Taiwan, followed by four days in Japan. This was my first ever non-business solo trip.
The last time I visited Taiwan for non-business purposes was 2012. I planned the trip to coincide with my mom, who goes back every spring. I flew from San Francisco, her from SoCal, and we rendezvoused at Taoyuan Airport to take the train to Chiayi.
In Chiayi, I ate my grandma’s love-filled cooking.
We observed some changes in the neighborhood.
I left Chiayi the next afternoon and arrived in Taipei. I recall grinning in the subway, absorbing all the visual stimuli and feeling so much joy. It was the happiest I had felt in Taiwan in recent memory.
With my mind in vacation mode, I viewed the country through a completely different lens. That lens was filled with beauty, positivity, and optimism. I found myself falling for the country just as I had as a child.
Over the next 36 hours, I visited parts of Taipei that I used to frequent and reconnected with old friends.
I think, given the right opportunity, I’d be willing to move back to Taiwan for a few more years. My priorities would not be as gungho about work, and I’d take better advantage of what the country has to offer: food, culture, people, and the outdoors.
After a fantastic three days in Taiwan, it was time to leave for Japan. My flight to Kansai International Airport departed at 7am. I woke up at at 4:30am and taxied to the airport. Thus began a series of misfortunes.
traveler’s diarrhea: initial symptoms
Before takeoff, the captain announced that we expected heavy turbulence, and thus there would be no in-cabin service. I had accidentally left my water bottle in the taxi. Shortly after takeoff, I began experiencing shortness of breath, lightheaded, and a stomachache.
That feeling persisted, and I felt my strength waning. We arrived at Kansai International Airport at 10:00am. I mustered all my energy to walk to customs and immigration. While waiting in the long line, I leaned my head onto my luggage handle, self conscious that others would grow weary at my suspicious posture. I worried that my weakened appearance would result in being denied entry into the country, or being admitted into a local hospital.
Putting on my best poker face, I passed the immigration officer. As soon as I entered the arrival area, I found a water fountain next to a bathroom and finally hydrated. The row of seats in front of the water fountain was empty, so I laid down to rest.
After a few minutes, I felt the sensation coming. I stormed into the bathroom, found a vacant stall, and vomited. I tried to regain composure, exited the bathroom to re-hydrate, laid down, and felt it again. Back to the bathroom. And again. Fuck.
I was certain I had food poisoning at this point (spoiler: it was traveler’s diarrhea). Quite frankly, I had no clue what to do. My Airbnb hostel was in Kyoto, a two hour train ride away. I didn’t know where the train station was; didn’t know the train schedule; didn’t have any mental capacity to look it up.
hungry, weak, and sick: Getting to Kyoto
After lying down for nearly three hours, around 1:30pm, I concluded that loitering at the airport was no longer productive. I had to get to my Airbnb. So I did what I knew best: pull up Google Maps, enter the hostel address, and chose public transportation as the travel means.
Google made things idiot proof and gave me the exact train to take, the train schedule, along with the subway route once I got to Kyoto Station.
I slowly walked around the airport, found the ticketing booth, made my way to the train, and boarded. We were on our way.
Hungry and weak, I tried downing some crackers I had packed. But I struggled to chew and lacked any appetite. The struggle was real, but I had to at least document some visuals.
I present to you a rare selfie, and my view from the train seat.
When not closing my eyes, I peered out the window to witness at least see some of Japan for the first time. I remember seeing a great variety of architecture: buildings adjacent to each other had widely varying heights, different style roofs, different colors, and the facades were even angled differently.
I arrived at Kyoto Station two hours later at 4pm. The station was enormously crowded, but Google Maps helped guide me to take the right subway. After exiting the subway, my overly frugal ass decided to walk the last 0.5 miles to the hostel rather than take a taxi.
The walk was painful, but we made it. Seven hours after landing in Japan, my zombie self checked into the hostel.
Over the next two days, I had diarrhea every 30 minutes, including throughout the night. That bathroom was shared by all residents… I felt so bad for them. I barely slept. Everything felt so damn miserable.
Meeting some truly wonderful hostel residents
Many fellow residents noticed my lack of well being and helped. They bought me white bread, sports drinks, medicine, and checked in on me periodically. They were:
- John from Portugal
- Sarah, a teacher from Alabama living in Japan
- Emma, a nurse from Alabama visiting Sarah
- Antania, a government employee from Thailand
- Amy from Australia
- Ph.D chemist from Mumbai
- Azucena, a flight attendant from Mexico
- A Polish guy
Their ages ranged from 23-36. I wish we had taken a photo together, for their acts of kindness truly made a world of difference.
condensing all Kyoto sites into one day
Near the end of my second day in Japan, I began gaining strength. With only one full day remaining in the country, I was determined to go out. Since I was already in Kyoto, I ruled out the other cities and committed fully to explore the city. At 7am on my third day in Japan, I finally began my vacation.
Fushimi Inari Taisha: this is the shrine with orange columns that you’ve seen in at least one person’s social media profile photo. I started my day here, but found myself just staring at a sea of tourists. It’s quite impressive how some people are able to get a picture of just themselves next to these columns. Seemed impossible to me. I found more joy in the adjacent walkways that had far more trees and far fewer people.
Rengeoin Sanjusangendo: this is a Buddhist temple with nice surrounding gardens. No photos allowed inside the actual temple, but it contained 1,001 human-sized sculptures inside. Look it up, it’s really cool.
Ginkaku-ji: a silver-colored Zen temple with Zen gardens. The temple itself is tiny, but the garden was mesmerizing. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
Kinkaku-ji: a gold-colored Buddhist temple. Now this temple was impressive. The entire premise was absolutely flooded with tourists, and for good reason. The temple stands behind a cool green lake littered with bonsai trees.
Arashiyama Bamboo Forest: this is the bamboo forest that you’ve seen in at least one person’s social media photo. While most certainly a tourist trap, I’m glad to have visited: amidst a sea of tourists, I walked right by Dora, a friend whom I hadn’t seen since college! She moved to Chicago for graduate school and was on spring break. What a coincidence!
Okochi Sanso Garden: a garden and tea villa next to the bamboo forest. I had some decent matcha tea along with a chocolate. What I will always remember about this place, however, was the bathroom and toilet. Despite being out and about for the day, I still had to use the restroom every hour or so. When I approached the toilet in the men’s room, the bidet detected my presence and slowly lifted the toilet lid. I also kid you not, the sun ray from the small window also lit up the toilet seat. This toilet was beckoning me to sit!
Kimono Forest: a subway stop with lots of decorated pillars
There you have it. All these sites scattered around the city, accessed via public transportation and walking!
Here were some notable observations:
- The bus system was incredibly convenient, at flat rate of 210 Yen, and arrived and left consistently on time.
- Every public toilet seat had a bidet. All were super clean. I could dedicate an entire post (or start a new business) that reviews and ranks Japan’s best public toilets.
- Most roads have dedicated bike lanes.
- Nobody jaywalks despite a narrow road. Even road that are 10 feet wide. I jaywalked once, felt guilty doing so, and complied the rest of the day.
- There were many similarities with Taiwan: many people wore face masks while outdoors, Family Marts and 7-Eleven convenience stores were around several street corners, and hair styles looked similar. I finally got to witness the heavy influence Japanese culture has on Taiwan.
- The city is super clean. The only other city this clean I’ve ever seen is Songdo, the planned city on the outskirts of Seoul, Korea.
- Egg are sold by 10, not by the dozen.
The last day: two more sites and eating my first and only Japanese meal!
After a good night’s rest with fewer-than-usual bathroom breaks, I woke up with enough energy to explore two more sites before my 5:00pm flight back to the United States.
Nijo Castle: a 17th century castle and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle had multiple rooms designed to impress visitors. One room showcased tigers which were not present in Japan. The artists got inspiration from tigers in China, put their own mythical interpretations on it, including that every 3rd cub born is a leopard. The rooms occupied by shoguns had a lot of paintings of mountains and clouds that are meant to help them maintain tranquility.
Nishiki Market: a flea market. I was on a mission to find some food, but the restaurants at the market were not open yet.
By the time I got back to my Airbnb to check out, I was determined to eat one real meal. But feeling the time crunch for my flight, the best I could do was eat at a restaurant in Kyoto Station.
Even though I only spent one day exploring Japan, and despite the traveler’s diarrhea, I thoroughly enjoyed the company I had at the hostel and the sites I saw. I ended up spending less than $100 USD during my time in the country, which may have set a world record. I can’t wait to go back to see what else the country has to offer.