I had doubted and dithered over whether to visit Vietnam, but travel guides represented it as such a fixture of southeast Asia tours that I booked a short stay in the capital city.
After the metropolitan sprawl of Bangkok, Hanoi startled me. It exuded character – a strange and fascinating blend of chaotic market and modern brilliance, embellished throughout with the remnants of colonial French architecture.
I arrived wide-eyed at my hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter, where property has purportedly sold for $15,000 – per square meter.
The reception staff scolded me when I arrived in Siem Reap. “You booked your tours already?” she tutted. “That’s my job!”
Their recommendations graced my open days with a cultural extravaganza, high-flying adventure, and a culinary exhibition. For the outings I had pre-determined, the staff arranged all my transport departing and returning to the hotel. Truly, Golden Temple outdid themselves in surpassing all my expectations of what a hotel might offer their guests.
Last year I scanned countless Indochina tours, weighing the prices and musing over the itineraries. When Cambodia made the menu, I spotted the same key ingredients popping up: Angkor-Wat, Phare Circus, zip lines … but never all together in one recipe.
I settled on a simple solution: concoct my own tour.
The day after church and wandering in Bangkok, I chased this ambition to Siem Reap: a city with its own dedicated airport that welcomes visitors to the ancient temple complexes.
After the dearth of English-speaking churches on Japan’s remote southern islands, I determined to steer my Indochina circuit around Sunday services. Thus I dedicated the weekend after my Thailand tour to Christ Church Bangkok: a lofty Anglican establishment with a promising website. Once the 7:30am “traditional service” concluded, I would venture forth to sample more of the city’s attractions.
As soon as I parted from my guide in Kho Pha-Ngan, though, the logistics tangled. My cushy airport bus broke down on the highway, relegating us to a dusty half hour under an overpass before a van pulled up. I landed uneventfully in the capital, but then the route from the airport to my hotel cowed me with a labyrinth of transfers. I resorted to taxis – turned down a VIP service asking triple the going rate, passed on an opportunistic haggler just outside the official taxi stand, and at last entrusted myself to a driver with a meter and receipt book.
He deposited me on my hotel doorstep, where I discovered that the fare exceeded my supply of cash.
For the last half of our Thailand tour, we sank into the sand and sun of an outlying island: Pha-Ngan, where coconuts swayed overhead and the waves lapped the back doorstep of our beach houses.
The tour had arranged a relaxed collection of activities for us: massages on the beach, free afternoons, lazy mornings. Alive to the possibilities of a tropical retreat dedicated almost solely to tourism, I decided to charge the itinerary with a few optional excursions.
We stumbled off the sleeper train and collapsed gratefully into mini-vans for the trek south to Surat Thani, where we would overnight in a sprawling nature reserve. “Just imagine Jurassic Park,” as our guide introduced us to the lush waters awaiting. A narrow-nosed craft sped us to our accommodation: floating bungalows!
We whiled away the afternoon kayaking, dipping in the bathtub-warm water, and sallying forth in vain hopes of spotting wild elephants. I hummed “Just Around the Riverbend” as I paddled a circuit around the aquatic hotel, awash with wonder at this magnificent world.
Thus commenced the first activity of my adventure tour from Bangkok to Koh Phangan, a nine-day package aimed at twenty-somethings abroad in Asia for the first time. I had booked it partly from curiosity, partly to benefit from professional guidance in the wilds beyond Japan. The prospect of a restful trip had allured me, spiced with excursions I might have chosen for myself, without any of the logistical effort.
I hadn’t anticipated an enthusiastic welcome to the religion of Thailand.
Japan’s Disney parks (Land and Sea) had delighted me so much, I determined to visit Universal Studios before returning west for good. My hosts outdid themselves in arranging transportation and tickets for me – recommending a convenient bus route over the expensive, multi-transfer train; carving through the brambles of Japanese websites. I could have kissed them for gratitude.
On Wednesday morning, the younger sister and I embarked at 6am for three hours via the highway, eager for dinosaurs and wizards and “jet coasters,” as it’s said in Japanese. The mountains of Okayama fell away, then up sprang Osaka’s skyscrapers, as we rolled right to the theme park’s front gates.
Of the foremost quartet of islands that make up Japan, I have visited three: Hanshu (Tokyo and Kyoto), Kyushu (Kagoshima and Fukuoka), and Hokkaido (snow festival!). Yesterday I tripped across the bay to Shikoku, the daintiest of the four.
The ocean liner train sailed over a mammoth suspension bridge, opening up vistas of intricate coastline and miniature islets. Just an hour’s journey landed me in Takamatsu, home of the Ritsurin Kouen – one of Japan’s loveliest and most historic gardens.
A friend put me in touch with his friend here, whom he has only met remotely — and at last, after failing to synch up during my Kyoto trip in 2019, we arranged to meet.
She and her family rolled out the red carpet (and the sushi!) for me, gently folding me into their loving, erudite, serene domestic circle. A clan of academics, the mother met the father in graduate school as a visiting student from Taiwan. He still researches plant molecular biology. Now their elder daughter investigates Scottish missionaries in Asia, while the younger sculpts heteromorphic dogs as a professional ceramicist.
This weekend, they treated me to a cozy futon, Japanese cooking, and a tour of their hometown.
With a full heart, I visited my island haunts for the last time yesterday. My contract with JET ends with July, and the new Assistant Language Teacher for Tokunoshima High School arrives this upcoming week.
For the month of August, I am embarking on a multi-country odyssey — testing the skills acquired over my two years of solo living and solo traveling in Asia. More than that, I have committed to live my nomadic weeks in line with the principles that I want to govern my life: care for others before myself, worshipping God in his creation through my sub-creation, resting in his providence and care. As he has blessed me with bountiful opportunities to travel his marvelous world, I want to enjoy them in a spirit of faithful service.
Before venturing further afield, I am passing another week in Japan, gently parting from the place and people so dear to my heart. Of all my souvenirs, I will treasure most the farewell photos from the past few days, with my many teachers and friends.
After our race through Tokyo, my sister and I settled in for a week of life on a small island in the Pacific.
I had eagerly anticipated introducing her to what have become my everyday scenes: the sushi lunch cafe that’s hopping during business hours, the formidable sea walls flanking the coast, the memorial library where I delight in abusing the grand piano with my fumbling fingers.
From Tokyo, we caught a Pokemon-themed plane to the southernmost tip of the main islands: Kagoshima-shi, the city center of my home prefecture. We checked in to JR Kyushu, a suave business hotel set inside the train station itself.
Then I conducted my sister on a twenty-four hour tour of Kagoshima’s culinary champions: tonkatsu (the Japanese version of schnitzel, or breaded pork), cherry blossom pastries, chestnut cakes, and – of course – shirokuma: the iconic shaved ice of the region. Drenched in sweetened condensed milk, studded with fruit, it had topped my list since November 2021 for treats to delight guests. My sister opted for the red beans variation, while I bought the classic.
We scooted downtown for a late night stint at the nearest onsen, a public bath with piping hot mineral waters, powered by the city’s neighboring volcano. On the way home, we paused to purchase a bulk pack of frozen dumplings from a vending machine (a vending machine!) before retiring for a long-awaited rest.
Sunday morning brought us amidst a relentless downpour to my first English church home in Japan, the dauntless Calvary Chapel. As ever, the congregation welcomed us warmly – with a hearty brunch and many invitations to return soon. The assistant pastor’s wife even accompanied us back to the station, where she saw us safely aboard the bus to the airport for our final flight of the week: home to Tokunoshima.
We invested in recovering for most of the day following our Disney extravaganza. Stephanie foraged for breakfast at the FamilyMart convenience store around the corner, returning with a bag bulging with salmon rice balls and melon pastries. I tapped through maps and metro schedules, charting our course for the time remaining in Tokyo.
I had deliberately decided to revisit my tour of the year before, at the same time of year to minimize surprises, with many of the same destinations at mind. It didn’t try my imagination much to consider places I would willingly wander again, and SkyTree topped the list. A fabulously elongated mall, it attracts most for its city view, but that afternoon we sought its mix of unique treats and quirky shops.