Cherish and master the art of getting lost.
Allow yourself to wander and your mind to wonder.
Explore cities without looking at a map.
Order food without asking the details.
Attend events and gatherings you have no idea about.
Befriend people with whom you have nothing in common.
Accept job offers without knowing what is desired of you.
Because only by letting yourself be completely free of bias and expectations can you truly surprise and delight yourself.
I’ve been “backpacking” for close to ten years now. My first major trip was across Eastern and Central Europe for two months after my college graduation in 2004, which coincidentally is when I started blogging. Nine years later, I still travel and stay in hostels, partially to save money but mostly to meet other travelers with whom I can socialize. To be honest, I’ve only done two proper “backpacking” trips, the two month European jaunt and a one month trip across South America back in 2007. These days my trips are much shorter, a function of living the working life and living in Europe, and I don’t even travel with a backpack most times.
A lot has changed in these nine years.
One caveat, these observations are in no ways scientific; no variables are controlled in anyway (like location of travel). Nevertheless, it’s no secret that backpacking has become increasingly popular, new hostels are popping up everyday, and the face of backpacking is changing.
Back in 2004, most of the travelers were traveling solo or in small groups (couples, sometimes a threesome). These days it’s not rare to find a group of six or more staying in a hostel. Solo travelers are actually harder to find, and as a result, it’s become harder to assemble a group of backpackers in the evening for dinner and/or drinks. The kinds of people traveling are changing as well. Back then, most travelers were young and on a shoestring, now you get all ranges of age and economic backgrounds. In my most recent trip to Portugal, I came across multiple retirees and families, which I thought was pretty cool. I also started noticing few years ago girls that traveled with summer dresses and constant makeup. When I first traveled, I don’t remember anything but jeans and cargo pants.
Hostels have also changed dramatically. Back in the day, a good hostel had comfortable beds, a nice common area (if at all), and a functioning shower. If a hostel had public computers so you didn’t have to go to the nearest internet cafe, that was fantastic. Now every hostel has free WiFi and offer a variety of added services such as a bar, guided tours, and event nights. I experienced a chorizo tasting night in Lisbon and it was fantastic, but I also had a slight sense of guilt that my experience was being too shaped by the hostel. Lockers were also a rarity back then, now they are the norm. Reading lights for individual beds are becoming quite common as well.
Staff in the hostels also used to be mostly locals. Now there are a lot of foreign backpackers who loved a city so much they decided to stay for a longer period of time, sometimes much longer.
ATMs have made traveling much easier, but I would argue that the internet has been the greatest driver of this change. For one, the ever shrinking world has made it easier for travelers to keep in touch with their non-traveling lives, may it be through e-mail, Skype, or Facebook. However, the availability and free flow of information has had a profound effect. Once upon a time, backpackers were trying to choose hostels through the few words in Lonely Planet. Now with sites like hostels.com and hostelworld, backpackers can get all the details they want and book their stay. This has gotten hostels to be more competitive, both through prices and features. I haven’t bought a Lonely Planet book in years thanks to the aforementioned websites, TripAdvisor, and WikiTravel.
Sometimes I miss the old days when I didn’t come across a room of backpackers glued to their smartphones and laptops when I walked into the common room of a hostel. Maybe this is how it feels to grow old. At the same time, I like to think that things are getting better, and I’m still enjoying my travels very much. I don’t foresee myself stopping anytime soon. Where to next?
Last week I was in Portugal on vacation, and this will probably explain the inspiration behind the subsequent few posts. The vacation was fantastic, full of sun and expected and unexpected adventures, but this post is not about that.
My last stop was a resort town in the south called Lagos, a place bustling in the summer and dead for the rest of the year (tourist life was starting to appear during my stay).
When I checked into the very underutilized hostel, the first guy I met, a German, had been there for close to a month learning how to play a guitar that he just picked up. Then I met a Korean girl who checked in three weeks ago and had no plans on leaving. She was very friendly with another guy who I didn’t really get to know but seemed like a staple at the hostel. Then there was another German guy who had been staying there for few weeks learning how to juggle.
Now there were “normal” travelers as well who came for few days and moved onto the next city. However, these seemingly aimless backpackers left an impression on me. Portugal is a cheap country, and the cheapest beds in the hostel were 11 EUR/night with breakfast making it incredibly easy to stay.
How does it feel to be standing still for so long? Do these people have something to return to, or are they procrastinating starting their real lives? Have they figured out something that I’m too busy to even notice? What will become of these modern day nomads?
I only have questions, no answers.
Sometimes I dream about the slow life, when all the worries are about the day and nothing beyond, but I sense that if I ever do something like this, I would be bored and feeling guilty for not doing more. Maybe I have nostalgia for a time I didn’t live in, when today is and will always be the most important day of life, and little beyond or behind matters.
Here finally is the post on my adventure breaking into a Russian military installation, as promised in the Moscow post.
On my last full day in Moscow, I met with a friend of a friend, whom I am going to call X to protect his identity. X had graciously offered his time to show me around the city for the day, and prior to the meeting he asked me what kinds of things I would want to see. My response was “something very different.” The place he took me was beyond my wildest imagination.
Khodynka Aerodrome was an airport inside Moscow that ceased commercial operations after World War II when flights over Moscow were no longer allowed for security reasons. It remained open for military use until 2003 when it was abandoned, along with the aircrafts that were stationed there. Nine years later, the planes and helicopters are kept in an small area enclosed by shoddy barbed wire fences while the surrounding areas are slowly being redeveloped. A small hut was placed at the corner of the area where I presume the guards spend all day watching TV run by a noisy generator.
X had found out about this place through some Russian internet forums, and despite the presence of the guards, he invited me to crawl under the fence and inspect the derelict combat aircrafts up close.
The area we broke into was about half the width of and slightly shorter than a football field, packed with few dozen Soviet-era jet fighters, helicopters, and few miscellaneous aircrafts that I couldn’t categorize, lined up fairly neatly on one side. They resembled little of their glory days, now disabled, deteriorated, and vandalized beyond any imaginable operational use. What once was a result of billions of dollars worth of research, development, engineering, and manufacturing lay there as hunks of metal serving as nothing more than a reminder of the golden age of Communism.
We wandered around the graveyard peaking into cockpits, inspecting the fine details, and taking a lot of pictures. Halfway through the visit, a Russian guard walked up to us, clearly irritated with a mean demeanor. X confronted him before he could talk to me and started discussing in Russian. The tone of the conversation seemed amicable, and after few minutes, X walked up to me to ask if I had 100 rubles. I gave him a 100 ruble bill which X combined with his 100 ruble bill and handed to the guard. The guard pocketed the money and walked away back into his hut.
200 rubles. Roughly six dollars or five euros was all it took to bribe the guard into letting us stay. It was cheaper than all of the museums and sites I visited during my trip in Russia. I asked X how he knew that the guard could be bribed. Apparently the guard didn’t instruct us to leave but asked us what we were doing along with few other questions as if to feel us out. X responded by making vague suggestions about helping him and eventually a price came up. So this is how my first experience bribing a foreign official played out, not in a dark alleyway with a brief case or a money-packed handshake, but a tepid conversation under the bright sunny Russian day in a language I couldn’t even understand.
We slowly made ourself across the graveyard taking as many pictures as we could and discussing the different models of the jet fighters (it was a rather one sided discussion since I know very little about Soviet aircrafts). When we got to the other end of the graveyard, the guard came out again and informed us that we had to leave and even opened the gate to let us out.
Most tourist sites are surprisingly unmemorable, often ending up as places “I think I’ve been to.” However, this place, I will never forget. In a way it was a small window into the past that I was not a part of, a world divided in two in constant tension where these jet fighters would take off with well trained pilots willing to die for their ideologies.
X told me that they are planning to move the aircrafts soon to a museum somewhere. In a museum these planes will live another life after their death, but the experience will not be the same. The sense of abandonment will no longer exist, something that inevitably pervaded a society like Russia that went through an incredibly rapid change in the last twenty years.
I for one am glad to have seen this place before it disappeared.
This is a blog post about how city structures affect that kinds of products we innovate.
Chorus: Most cities in Japan are densely populated and navigated by foot and public transport. Most cities in the US are sprawling, having grown after the proliferation of the automobile.
As a result, Japanese people are much more used to using products on-the-go than Americans (it’s not easy to use various products while driving). This is why the first mainstream portable music player (The Sony Walkman) and the first mainstream portable gaming device (The Nintendo Gameboy, sorry Game and Watch) were innovated in Japan. This is also the reason why more people still use the internet on cellphones in Japan than on computers. Mixi, Japan’s largest social networking service until recently, requires every user who signs up to have a cellphone e-mail address in Japan (SMSs are rarely used in Japan for technical limitations).
As such, mobile phones and mobile internet in Japan were developed and adopted much earlier than in other countries. The iMode, NTT DoCoMo’s walled-garden internet service was the world’s first mass-adopted mobile internet service which was copied by the other mobile operators and launched in Germany (to a resounding failure). The iMode carried not only normal information like weather and fun information like horoscopes, but it also delivered transit information (especially route maps and planning) that is incredibly convenient for living in cities with extensive public transportation networks.
Most of the US is a heavily automotive society with large sprawled cities where most of the people travel on cars. It’s no surprise that things like drive-thru fast food restaurants and drive-in theaters were invented in the US. Also, because unless one is in a shopping mall, going from store-to-store often requires driving, there has been tremendous innovations in retailing for stores to become “destination stores.” While stores in Japan are more focused on selling things, lots of stores in the US focus on selling experiences. Many Best Buy stores in the US have sections of the store where you can see an entire home entertainment setup and experiences some of your potential purchases in context. Other stores like Walmart and Costco not only stock every imaginable product group, but they also contain fast food restaurants so that the experience is a mix between shopping and expedition. The sprawling nature of the US is also what brought the advent of catalogue shopping with the Sears Catalog in 1888, the legacy of which still continues today through online shopping with Amazon leading the way.
(Note: Costco does exist in Japan now, but they are in rural areas where many people have cars, and they rely heavily on the extremely efficient Japanese postal system for home deliveries)
On the other hand, the compact nature of Japanese cities create an incredible store front that millions of people walk in front of everyday. If you’ve traveled to Japan, you’ve probably noticed how small most stores are and how efficiently packed they are with products, many of which can be seen outside. The result is that there are much more opportunities to seamlessly introduce new products in Japan to pedestrians traversing the city. This leads to lots of small innovation opportunities for small companies who can survive off of few niche hits. Take for example the following foot finger separator:
Where would you even put something like that in a store like Walmart? Health equipment? Pharmacy?
Of course to think that everything can be explained by the shape of cities is an oversimplification. There are many more factors, both visible and invisible that shape the kinds of innovation that happens, and the interplay is incredibly complex. For one, I am always intrigued by Japanese consumers’ ability to integrate new technologies in their life while maintaining a strong set of traditional values. In the US, I am amazed at how accepting people are of risk and risk takers, especially in places like Silicon Valley. One thing is for certain though, no matter what shape the city or what culture may exist, innovation needs innovators, and both countries are filled with them.
I apologize for the decreased posting frequency on this blog recently. Since the new year began, I’ve been addicted to learning how to play the ukulele and sing. I learned how to play the basics when I lived in Hawaii twenty years ago, but I didn’t own an ukulele until I moved to Paris four years ago when my friends from the U.S. gave me a green ukulele as a going away party. That ukulele disappeared one epic summer night by the side of the Seine but I replaced it with a Magic Flea Tenor ukulele which was mostly decoration until my recent binge.
It’s amazing how many ukulele tabs are available online and how much you can learn from just watching people on YouTube. Since the ukulele had its renaissance last decade, there is a vibrant online community of people trying to cover all kinds of music on the four-stringed instrument. I’ve been learning mostly songs I like in general which cover everything from classic rock to 90′s pop to indie. I’m also trying to learn songs in many different languages. So far I’m working on English, Japanese, French, German, and Finnish with Spanish, Italian, Russian, and Korean in queue. Maybe someday in the future, I will have enough bravery to post a video of me playing and singing. In the meantime, if you visit me in Frankfurt, I will gladly play a song or two for you. Also, if you think there is a song I should learn, post it in the comments.
At another level, I’ve been wondering where this motivation to learn ukulele has come from. While it’s nice that I’ve finally found my musical groove 25 years after my parents put a violin in my hand, I really should be learning German right now, but between work, Ultimate Frisbee, going out, ukulele, and the occasional blogging, my schedule is pretty much filled. My Ultimate team is getting on my case about learning German and they’ve been really supportive, but I need to take some of the energy devoted to ukulele and channel it to learning German. I just don’t know how to entirely control my motivation. Any ideas?
In the meantime, I will do my best to keep this blog going with the usual musings from my slightly unusual mind.
I signed up for Yelp back in April 2007.
I started Yelping (writing actual reviews) in January 2009.
Four years later, I’ve finished my 500th review.
For those that haven’t followed my Yelp saga, I’ve been writing reviews in seven words (except for my 500th). The purpose was to provide a concise review that Yelp often lacks (I still advocate a subject line for all reviews), to practice my short prose, and to have a running notebook for all the places I’ve visited.
In the four years…
- Yelp has expanded to 19 countries, and I have reviewed a place in every single one. Now that they’ve bought Qype, they may be expanding faster than I can keep up, and no, I’m not going to countries just because of Yelp.
- I amassed 56 Firsts, 91 Friends, 21 Fans, 90 Compliments, and 210 Useful, 288 Funny, and 207 Cool review votes.
- I became an “Elite” for 2010 and 2011 when I lived in Paris and attended many Yelp soirees being lavished with free food and alcohol.
- I got a passing mention on the Yelp blog.
- Not a single establishment identified me and tried to bribe me.
To be honest, Yelp has been mostly useless in Frankfurt for looking up restaurants and establishments. There simply isn’t enough reviewers and reviews for a meaningful set of data. Tripadvisor is much more useful for choosing restaurants. It was the same in Paris until the community managers rallied the people who started reviewing places. They are looking for a community manager in Frankfurt now so hopefully it’ll start picking up.
I plan to continue Yelping as I’ve been doing. Sometimes I wish Yelp had a better image than they do now. Every so often I come across someone who likes to lecture me on how Yelp is hurting small businesses. I do realize that Yelp does need a business model and make money, maybe they could be a little less aggressive, if what’s written about them is true.
Having eaten sushi in many different countries, most recently in Irkutsk, Russia, I’ve started thinking about what sushi means to different people and cultures.
In Japan, sushi is a traditional cuisine where freshness of the ingredient and the ambiance of the restaurant makes all the difference. Sure there are conveyor belt sushi restaurants trying to bring down the price of sushi so that those who choose can eat it more often, but the traditional sushi bar with the chef that knows your name is still at the heart of the culture.
Not surprisingly, there is little experimentation with sushi, because you don’t change tradition.
In the “West” (Western Europe, US, Canada, Australia), sushi is an exotic cuisine from the East. It’s what you go to eat when you want something different from the ordinary along side French, Turkish, or Mexican cuisine. Restaurants try to be authentic which at times could mean the ambiance is “too Japanese,” and almost always Asian people are working there even if they aren’t Japanese.
In up and coming and developing countries, sushi is not only exotic, it’s a new age cuisine. It’s a sign of the coming times and what’s important isn’t the authenticity but the idea of it. The restaurant in Irkutsk resembled a hip bar more than a Japanese restaurant, blaring MTV video clips and serving champagne.
The menu barely resembled sushi as well:
The only similarity between the sushi here and in Japan was that both rice and fish were involved, and you could use soy sauce as flavoring. I’ve seen this in other countries too:
Even the dessert is somewhat sushi-like, although nothing like this exists in Japan:
The first reaction from anyone Japanese would be “what the hell is this…” but I don’t mind at all as long as they don’t claim to be authentic. I’m sure the same happened in Japan when it started westernizing after the war, and there are still plenty of Japanese infused western cuisines in Japan:
The bigger issue I see here is not how sushi is being treated outside of Japan, but the fact that most Japanese people, and more importantly companies, don’t see this at all.
Japan is cool.
It’s a tiny island nation in the corner of the Pacific with the world’s third largest economy. It was never colonized, and it went toe-to-toe with the Western powers since the late 19th century, first militarily then economically. Outside small nations like Singapore, Taiwan, and Israel, it’s really the only developed country that’s not historically European (i.e. White) (one more recent exception: South Korea).
It’s a country with virtually no natural resources that still has the largest electronics industry manufactures the thirds most cars in the world. It’s incorporated Western influences into its society while retaining its own cultural identity, and the people are incredibly humble.
When I travel to less developed countries, the local people often talk highly about Japan and its wonderful cars and electronics. Japan is an incredible brand, but Japanese companies don’t use it to their advantage.
It’s no secret that many Japanese companies are failing to globalize, not being able to keep up with American innovations or the wage advantages of China. Japanese companies operate outside of Japan in two ways. One is to provide high quality products at a fair price, because that’s how these companies helped the people and country develop from the ashes of war. This is still working for the automotive industry where quality is a key differentiator, but for other consumer goods where quality is becoming cheaper and good enough is good enough, it’s no longer working.
The other is to make products that fit the needs of the local consumer. I don’t argue against that, but what’s happening now is that Japanese companies end up copying the most popular brands in the country which is often American or European. There is very little differentiation as a result.
Maybe the operating mode for Japanese companies in developing countries should not be to blend in but to be more Japanese, to use the Japan brand and provide something people aspire to, not just need or want. It should be cool and different, something the parents never had access to. Advertisements should feature Japanese geishas and school girls with the Tokyo neon night scape as a backdrop, not blond models on the beaches of California or the Mediterranean. It doesn’t have to be authentic, but it should be exotic.
When I taught English in China during the summer of 2001, one of the key field trip was to McDonalds in a distant larger city. McDonalds for the Chinese at that point, was the future, no matter how depressing that may sound to the western trained mind. McDonalds means different things to different cultures around the world and they use it to their advantage. In Hong Kong, they even offer an in-house wedding service.
All this could sound too capitalistically imperialist to some people, but I do believe that with the cultural attention to detail and desire for mastery, Japanese companies make some of the best products in the world. What they need to get better at isn’t the end product itself but getting it to the people not just in the distribution but the story, creating a dream of a better future, something the Americans are incredibly good at. If not, like sushi, people will keep consuming their own version of Japan, even if Japanese people aren’t involved in it.
Recently I noticed that few of my Japanese Facebook friends who i don’t know very well have liked a lot of my posts.
With my American sensibilities, this felt a little bit weird to me.
Then I got to thinking, how is “Like” translated in Japanese?
The answer is “Iine!” which doesn’t translate directly to “Like” but more like “it’s nice” or “it’s good.”
Translating “Like” into Japanese is actually not easy, because it overlaps with the word for “Love” (verb, not the noun).
So it’s understandable that Facebook decided to choose something slightly different.
However, the connotations are now slightly shifted. “Like” usually assumes that there is a contextual reason for you to like something. This is not quite the case with “Iine!” which is more supportive and can be handed out more liberally.
This is why it feels slightly odd whe someone “likes” a post that is completely irellevant to him or her.
However, if I consider the “Like” as an “Iine!” it makes more sense.
Ah, the intricacies of multi-lingual global social platforms.
(Picture from Big Mouth Media)
After reading this, most of my friends probably rolled their eyes and thought, “this is so Sushi.”
I believe that pairing matching socks after a load of laundry is a waste of time. This is why I try to only have one type of socks for all occasions, simple long black socks. The drawback to this lifestyle choice is that when some of the socks start to fade and/or develop holes, you need to change the entire batch. I held off doing this for a while, putting up with holes or sending some to the grave, but few months ago I decided to execute the great socks swap.
The interesting result of this activity was that I got to calculate exactly how much my socks expenditure is. I bought 35 pairs of new socks (7×5 packs), which is more than enough but I took into account losses and early failures, for a total of about 24 euros (I lost the receipt). Yes, you can find socks for really cheap in Germany. My last batch of socks, purchased in California, lasted me about 4 years (2008-2012) which (assuming they are equally priced, which sounds about right) calculates to 6 euros per year, 50 cents per month, or a little over 1.5 pennies per day. A lot of people talk about moving things to a subscription model, but if you want to make my socks consumption into a subscription model, it has to cost no more than a can of coke per month or few toothpicks a day. Maybe I would pay 3 cents for a delivery of fresh socks every so often, but I doubt anyone can make that business model work. Somethings are still best purchased outright.