Days J3-5: Tokyo Decompression - Caucasian - CycleBlaze

June 28, 2024

Days J3-5: Tokyo Decompression

The alarm went off at 5am.  We thought there was enough time but the airport proved to be madness.  My wife was gracious to help see me off at this ungodly hour for an 8am flight.   

The first thing we noticed was that it wasn't raining out.  This was a major score!  Thanks to all the pre-packing the days before, it was a simple matter of getting all the heavy bags out the door and into the taxi.  The Montague bag of course wouldn't fit and the driver made a fuss about it.  They always do.  But we got to the airport which is the main thing.  

It was not looking good when there was a traffic jam leading up to the departures.  Whenever you see that, you know that everything else going forward is going to be packed.  Sure enough it was exactly like this and the airlines knew what to do in peak season:  charge more.  The folding bike cost an extra $150.  When you're in that position, there's nothing you can do about it.  I view all this as a last minute airport departure tax.

Apparently Japan is now extremely popular with Chinese group tours and that is mainly due to the devaluation of the yen currency.  Maybe it's just me but I can't help but notice the hypocrisy and short memories.  Wasn't it like yesterday when Chinese people swarmed social media and called for boycotts on all things Japanese over fears of nuclear contamination in the water?  Well they sure forgot that quickly.  Now because travel to Japan is cheap, they are swarming the country itself.  I'm sure it won't be long until another dispute happens and the Chinese government stirs up the propaganda to get more boycotts against Japanese goods and travel.  Watch it happen.  That's how myopia works, the people will act like ping pong balls and bounce every which way with the wind of geopolitics.

As predicted, everything was packed going forward:  airport security, immigration, and the flight itself.  Realizing I wouldn't be able to sleep on the flight, I used all the time to update the blog.  On arrival, it was also packed at Japan immigration.  Nearly two hours to make it through.  I could finally breathe a sign of relief on exiting the main airport area and chilling out near the arrivals shops with plenty of space and the civilized atmosphere that I had been craving.

The first thing I did was spend the remains of coins and cash from previous trips.  For that is was convenience store snacks and sushi.  Then I found out where to buy a short term unlimited data SIM for extremely good value.  Next, a bus ticket to Shinjuku Station nearby where I was staying.  A bus was leaving right away which oridinarily I would have jumped on but purposely decided to wait two buses later and chill some more.  The key here is:  what's the rush?!  It's a toxic mentality carried over from China where you're constantly looking for ways to beat the clock and spend less time in queues.  It's understandable when living with so many people but I'm getting so tired of it.  Anyways, this was a holiday, it was time to enjoy the journey.

First meal in Japan
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Rain follows me where I go
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The blog and budget updating continued on the bus where it was a really smooth ride and awesome service.  They even asked me the best way how to store the bike underneath to prevent damage.  On arrival at Shinjuku Station, they helped put the bike in a sheltered area and even assisted with unfolding it.  The bus staff thought this whole setup was awesome.  I was really touched by all this!

Unfortunately it was pissing down rain hard.  This would continue all day and night as it was part of the same storm system that had pounded us in Shanghai for days earlier.  What can I say, rain follows me wherever I go.  At least I was used to riding in it.  This would certainly make for a shitty bike ride but it was the only way to reach my Airbnb.

I had the app all set up and the directions were totally on course.  It was surprisingly easy and smooth, despite the rain.  The streets were well designed for bikes and the traffic was very courteous.  I was actually gobsmacked on how bicycle friendly and easy it was to get around in Tokyo.  None of what I was seeing matched any of the stereotypes I had heard about. 

Every so often I would pull into shelter and check my app for directions.  Although I arrived soaked, it was a surprisingly enjoyable crazy bike ride.  There wasn't any covered parking, but I saw this as an opportunity to let the rain wash the bike as it was dirty and the rain would later stop at night.  

If there is time on this stopover, I will see about finding a bike shop to do some tuneups.  Let's just see what happens.

Tokyo street layout
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Need an umbrella? Grab one
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The sun finally comes out
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Scooter rentals that didn't work with my phone
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The Airbnb was amazing, it was quiet and in a really peaceful chilled out neighborhood.  

After a nice nap, I wanted to check out another F45 group fitness class but figured that the trains were the best way to get there in the rain.   The trains surely did not disappoint!  After learning some of the basics, I quickly caught on and then couldn't stop raving about how efficient the Tokyo train system was.

The first real test was that it was clear I would be late for my class, but the directions all worked perfectly.  There was a little bit of luck also to be honest.  I didn't know which platform to catch the final train and asked the attendant.  He said, "It's right here" and I walked on just as the train was leaving.  Once the train arrived, I walked out at what I thought was the correct exit.  I made a guess and turned left.  This proved to be correct since I saw the sign I wanted for F45 on the street.  This was good because I could still do the class and had only just missed the warmup.

They signed me in and said, "Don't worry you missed the warmup, you're an experienced athlete, just start on the bikes."  That was station #1 in the 10 station circuit.  Since I was 5 seconds late to start, I made up the time on the bikes.   I got teamed up with an older Japanese guy who went all out on the first round of the circuit.  Maybe to prove himself?  Not sure why.  But I could tell he wasn't pacing and so I held back on purpose and let him beat me.  This was knowing full well I would kick his ass on the 3rd and 4th round when he exhausted himself.  Sure enough this is exactly what happened.  In the end it was all done in good fun and we fist-bumped each other after every round and cheered each other on.

First fitness class
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After that it was time for drinking.  There were so many choices I didn't know where to start.  Apparently someone said later that Japanese drinking culture is world famous.  Well I knew right away that I would love this country.

Overwhelmed by choices, I figured the best bet was to try the 'Tokyo Bar Crawl' as it was the most common one online, but it started at 7pm.  That was the same time as my fitness class and by now it was well after 8:30pm.  Fitness and partying literally define my identity but fitness does come first as a matter of priority.  So with the fitness out of the way, I could try and crash the party later.   That sort of worked.  While I found everyone, they wouldn't let me in without a ticket.  I did bump into Sarah outside, one of the organizers, and she basically suggested that I book the next day.  She said, "You're more than welcome to join us now, but it will cost 3000 yen and we're well into the party.  So if you book online and start tomorrow you can make full use of the ticket which includes unlimited shots."  Well, sold then!  

So I kept wandering around Roppongi and saw a lot of shady shit.  I think I made the smart move not to go into any of those establishments because my scam sense was sky high.  The fact I literally saw gambling tables at small casinos was a clue that this could be illegal.  My 6th sense proved right.  The next day I asked my sister and her husband about all this.  She wasn't aware of the gambling tables.  I swear I actually saw them.  But she said, "There are scams everywhere in Roppongi, make sure you don't bring your credit card with you there."

What I did next was find a packed Irish pub and start talking to the bartenders.  There were a lot of expats mixed with locals, yet they didn't want to talk to me or anyone else for that matter.  No worries, I was going to listen and observe.  The conversation with the group next to me proved to be interesting, one was a Canadian lamenting about the messed up political situation and why he left the country.  Well that was exactly the same with me.  His friend was a Mormon from Salt Lake, and the quote of the evening was this:  "I like fucking and I like kids."  Well, judging from the conversation, he had no shortage of both.  God help us all.

I did use my credit card at the bar and now regret it after talking to my sister.  It is now a matter of checking carefully with my statements.  One stopgap measure I do on purpose is to set a low limit of $3000.  That way if there are any scam attempts, they'll hit a stop loss quickly.

Somewhat tipsy I made my back hom on a convoluted train route.  At some point there was confusion with ticket fare adjustments.  The train attendants couldn't undertand my route.  Neither could I, but in the end we all figured it out.  After a few more clever turns later I did make it back to the Airbnb.

The next day after an amazingly blissful sleep, it was time to hit the trains again for another fitness class.  Before that, I got rid of more coins at the Family Mart nearby and made friends with the nice clerk running the place.  He showed me how the change counting machine can manage the coins perfectly and I got exactly what I needed.  This was super impressive.  He then showed me an ATM nearby.  This was great since I was looking all over for them and they appear to be scarce in Tokyo.  There I withdrew some actual cash and put the credit card away for good.

The trains were again amazing, and I found the location of the fitness class.  This time it was Orange Theory in a somewhat suburban location.  Unfortunately the class was full despite being told by friends that they never are and you can show up without a booking.  So this drop in method didn't quite work.  But they could book me in for the next class available.  I used the extra time to update my budget and the blog.

The studio was four years old but it seemed totally brand new.  Business was no doubt booming.  Once I got there again, they gave me the rock star treatment.  I kid you not, the front desk staff and the coaches literally danced and clapped their hands and basically whooped and hollered as everyone walked into the studio.  The music was thumping loud also.  I couldn't tell if this was a gym or a nightclub.  The coach was amazing in the class, and despite everything being done in Japanese I caught onto the cues and he kept giving me thumbs up.  I also fist bumped all the neighbors near me.  People everywhere were smiling and genuinelly happy.

One guy next to me even apologized and said, "Sorry I took your spot on the weight floor.  It is my fault."  I said, "Really?  I thought I messed this one up, it happens all the time with me anyway."  We had a laugh over that and fist bumped on the way out.  Afterwards, there was a problem with the locker but the staff were super helpful to sort it out and then the shower facilities were amazing.  I most certainly booked another class for the next day as it was only $17

Heading up to fitness class
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The train system is quite good to say the least
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Improvising with laundry
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I just love the peaceful and quiet streets in the middle of the city
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Bon Appetite
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These machines were everywhere
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Making excellent headway on getting rid of these coins
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After that I went for a walk with my brother-in-law and we got along really well.  We mostly talked about stocks.  He proved enormously helpful in finding a bicycle shop where I could get some repair work done and everything was sorted.  In turn he got a stock tip from me.  The bike ride back to the Airbnb was absolutely perfect, and now the sun had come out.  It swas really easy biking around Tokyo and blissfully little car traffic to deal with.  It was bike nirvana to be honest, and now I regretted only staying 3 days.

Once back at the Airbnb there was a ton of stuff to get organized, mainly to keep constantly sorting my shit and plan logistics for the rest of this trip.  It's a bit of a huge mess right now at the beginning, as trips always are when starting on the heels of massive job stress.  But as time goes on the load will get lighter and more streamlined.  Already the Japanese coins are sorted and spent.  Now there's just 6 more countries to go.

It was then time to head out to the Tokyo Bar Crawl that I had booked.  Finding my way there, I was immediately struck by how professional and well organized the event was.  These guys knew exactly what was happening, and the crawl was indeed a daily event. They told me they normally have 30-50 people show up every night.  They coordinate with a rotating list of nearby bars and clubs.  Most of the people on the crawl are travelers and with some locals and expats too.   The Japanese organizers proved beyond a doubt that they can combine fun, freedom, and efficient management all at once.  If you do a bar crawl with this company, then you are in very good hands.

The people I met were extremely interesting.  The main group I hung out with consisted of a couple from Vancouver on a short holiday, an Irish woman finishing up a gap year, and a guy from the Netherlands.  Drinks were easily ordered with friendly service for cheap prices.  We all wore nametags and the people were open, nice, and easily mixing with everyone.

This turned out to be an awesome group as it didn't take long before we started talking about politics.  I was quite astonished at just how many travelers there were in Japan and all the places they were going to.  When telling them that I would be in Armenia and Georgia later on they were fascinated and wanted to know why.  I tried to explain the basics, and more of this will come later here in the blog.

The next topic was one I didn't want to initiate but I couldn't hide from forever.  At some point they asked about my job.  I told them I worked in China nearly 20 years and was on a stopover while flying back home.  The Irish woman then told a horror story about when she had to change planes in China and got detained because the bureaucracy at immigration is not designed for transit flights.  She said "I had to lie on the forms to get through.  It was horrible and I don't mean to say what happened is representative of all China."

I said,  "Actually it is representative" and the entire group laughed.

This led to me telling more stories.  I could see from the body language that the group was all leaning in and very curious about what I had to say.  This is astonishing because typically people act as if I don't exist.  How ironic is that for the Middle Kingdom when foreigners used to be treated nice. 

I tried my very best to be fair and balanced and not just say negative things.  The Chinese high speed rail network got a lot of positive "press" from me and I explained the key places you could go. The woman from Vancouver said, "I would love to travel around China, there are so many places to visit."  But she said it in a tone of sadness and we all know why:  the political situation deterred her from making a trip she otherwise wanted to do.  Her partner jumped in with, "It's just too Orwellian.  Big Brother is watching us with all the cameras.  It wouldn't be a fun trip."

I said, "Sadly, yes, and the other side to all this is that you will quickly encounter many barriers.  Things just aren't set up for travelers like you guys.  For example, you'll find out you need to scan these fucking QR codes for eating at restaurants.  People don't like using cash, and the payment system behind the QR codes is not designed for international users despite them trying to change it after covid."

We changed topics to something else and started meeting some other people.  There was a dart competition to win free drinks and I scored a direct hit.  The joke of the evening was whenever someone said they were from Canada, everyone would say, "Sorry sorry sorry."  Yes so that's our national image.  Hey, at least we make friends with other countries all over the world.  A regular Youtube guy I followed explained it this way:  the strong countries are the who make friends and alliances with others.  As we learned in basic politics class, democracies don't fight one another.

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Like sheep being led to the slaughterhouse, we all climb up to the next club
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The next legendary quote of the evening came from one of the bar crawl organizers.  He stood up on the podium and just like a teacher took charge and laid down the law.   He said "You all get one welcome free shot at the first bar then unlimited shots at the next.  I want everyone to listen to me!  Pay attention!  We've had some serious issues with the unlimited shots on previous tours."

The audience fell into a hush expecting him to tell us to control our drinking.  He said "The issue is that people are not drinking enough!   So when you get those shots I want to see everyone going for more.  Are you ready?  Let's all have one fucked up Saturday night!!"

And with that, the group was off.  He went on to explain that the bar crawl ends at a nightclub for those who want to stay, but those of us (like me) who are dictated by the trains, we would leave before the last one stops running.  He did say "If you wanna go all night, feel free.   The club gets packed after midnight and many people stay all night."

This put me in a major dilemma because I could literally get messed up in Tokyo all night and fulfill the dream they talk about in the movies.  But then the trains would stop running.  It is notoriously hard to get around without them.  Biking wouldn't work while inebriated either

In the end I went with a compromise to hit the first three bars with the new friends I made and then grab the trains.  This turned out to be an excellent call as the last venue we were at was basically a club anyway.  Not only that, but everyone started getting into it and dancing.  The vibes were real.  For that moment, I lost myself in the energy and the freedom of the room, just vibing with everyone and forgetting all the bullshit of the last year.  The pulsating rhythm of the music, the infectious energy, and the fact that I was doing all this in Tokyo made me realize that I was finally free.

The others had the exact same idea and we carried on the party outside for a little bit more before all heading for the trains.  The organizers wanted me to go the club, as I did too, but compromises had to be made.

While waking up at a decent hour the next day, I just lay there soaking up the quietude, the serenity, and the peaceful vibes of the room.  This was another sense of being free.  It is notoroiusly hard for me to find the right balance as an ambivert, but for this weekend at least I believe I had fucking nailed it.

This Airbnb is amazing bliss
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The early start the next day was because I had booked another fitness class at the same place as before.  This time everyone seemed to know me and where I was from, and random people were coming up to have conversations including an older guy who wanted to know all about my trip.  He went out of his way to give me a positive impression of Japan and make it clear that I was welcome, which I greatly appreciated.  Somewhere I had read that this is what they are known for, they want visitors to have this impression and I'm getting a sense they are genuine about it.

As the class was going on, my neighbor bonked on the treadmill and I tried to give her some encouragement with a fist bump later on during the workout.  I also fist bumped as many other people as possible during the workout including the coaches.  Later on after class I realized I had forgotten my credit card to pay and they wouldn't take cash.  That same neighbor saw my predicament and she offered to pay for my class.  I was really touched by that and refused, but she insisted.

Unfortunately there was not much time after as I had to rush to another community event.  This time I met a woman who shared that her husband (obviously not there) is a raging alcoholic and a Russian who has Korean ethnicity.  The situation is rather complex, as apparently they were given Russian citizenship after the war but their families were also separated from North and South Korea.  It is something to read up more on and my brain can't quite understand all this now.

I met lots of other people at this event too. It is obvious from the body language that there are open vibes here and people are easily mixing freely. Why I even bring this up is I have seen the opposite countless times, that is people in closed off groups who talk to only those they know and ignore "strangers" as if they are not even people.
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Next I was off to spend the rest of the day with my sister and also my brother who flew in from Vietnam on a stopover with his family.  Unfortuantely I was starving as there was no time to fucking eat all day, but my nephew wanted to play in the park.   I took an immediate liking to him and designed all sorts of games with a soccer ball and other things he could play around in the park.  We started chatting about all kinds of things.

At one point he asked, "Rank your three favorite countries in order."  I said, "That's an easy one:  Thailand, USA, and now Japan in 3rd spot."  He said, "And China is number four right?"  I said, "To be honest, China is at the bottom of the list."  Then he said, "So why do you live there?"

That's the million dollar fucking question now isn't it.

If you can answer this question and explain it to an 8 year old then there's a chance you might actually know this stuff on a deep level.

I simply told him, "Listen, there was a time, believe it or not, when China was heading in the right direction and opening its doors to the world.  This was when life was at the peak.  It wasn't hard to get a visa, you could freely go in and out, stay at hotels, do business, find jobs, basically do whatever you wanted.  People were all super nice too.  In Shanghai especially you could meet people from all over the world.  It was becoming a world city just like Tokyo.  I learned Chinese, traveled all over, helped hundreds of students graduate, made more friends than you can imagine, and people asked if I was going to stay there forever.  I said yes, absolutely without a doubt.  I'll find a wife and get married too."  

He said, "So you used to love it so much, what changed?"  I said, "It's not simple, but around the time when you were born, all the stuff I talked about started going into reverse with the leader who is currently in power."

My nephew then said, "So is there going to be a war with Taiwan?"  I said, "Hopefully not.  We don't know.  If anyone thinks they can predict the future they are wrong.  For sure it would be completely stupid to invade Taiwan, but we are dealing with a leader who doesn't make rational decisions and doesn't make alliances with other countries.  We don't know how he gets his information or what goes on in his head.  All we know is he might just invade Taiwan anyway and take half his country down with him in the process."

He then said, "So if that happens are you going to leave?  What if they bomb the airport?"  I said, "The smart thing to do would be to leave well in advance BEFORE any of that happens.  Listen, I survived the Shanghai lockdown.  Based on that, I don't think they'll bomb airports.  What they'll do instead is lock everyone down again at home prison.  It will be impossible to leave.  The Canadian Embasssy won't be able to do anything either.  They couldn't help anyone during covid.  If you try to leave when the Embassy warns everyone to get flights out of China, then you're already too late."

He said, "I think you're right.  Did you know my grandfather predicted the Ukraine War more than two years before it began?  He said that Russia was going to invade in 2022."

I asked, "How did he know that?"  

He said, "He's a psychic."  

I said, "Wow, and I bet he realized that foreigners in Russia would be told to leave by their Embassies.  You saw firsthand how all the western businesses pulled out.  Even Russian citizens tried to get out.  Many, many, many of them did.  I will be no doubt be seeing this on my trip in Armenia and Georgia.  You saw how hard it was for them.  The smart ones got out when they could.  Sadly, and I really don't want to say this, but I believe that's the same direction we're in with China now, it's just a few years behind Russia."

We then had a delicious sushi dinner with the entire family gathering.  By now the count was 9 people.  Exhausted after all that, I hit the sack.

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