Japan trip: temples, shrines and micro pigs

I'm sharing highlights and photos from my first trip to Japan. Previously: Intro, travel, Tokyo exploring.

At the end of our first full day in country, we met up with our travel group, four other families from across the U.S. and Canada, along with our local guides who would be helping us navigate our adventure. We were glad for a relatively small group, and even though none of the other youth were as young as our daughter, it was still great to have a mix of kids and adults along the way.

The next morning we met up in the hotel lobby and headed to the metro station for our first adventure.

The metro subway and train system in Japan lived up to its reputation as reliable, well designed, safe, easy to use and quite comfortable. It was our main way of getting around throughout our trip and it was so nice to see and experience such a successful, pervasive mass transit system that had clearly received significant investment over the years.

Waiting for a subway train in Tokyo
Riding the subway

Temple time

We headed to one of many Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples we would see in Japan. These incredible places each represented their own celebration of some aspect of or figure in their respective religious traditions, with architecture, landscaping and experiences that separate them from the surrounding secular world. Just to be in a building that was constructed many hundreds or thousands of years ago (and sometimes already burned down/bombed/moved/reconstructed several times), or to wander through a space that was clearly so meaningful to the people who visited, was an honor.

This day's visit was to Kinryū-zan Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. Before you get to the temple itself, there's Kaminarimon, the "Thunder Gate" that was first built in 941 and guards the entrance to the temple. As with many of the sacred locations we visited, commerce was never too far away, with a Starbucks in the background here, a little shopping or eating to do there.

Kaminarimon gate at Sensoji temple, with coffee options nearby

If you make it through that gate, you can wander down the Nakamise-dōri, a narrow street of shops and eateries that very much cater to the tourist crowds.

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Japan trip: intro, travel, Tokyo exploring

I went in to my first trip to Japan with a few concerns: would I stand out as an obnoxious, clueless American tourist? Would any of the Japanese language practice I’d been doing with our daughter be useful? Would we see and experience “enough” to make the extended travel needed to get there and back worthwhile? How much would I need to work on the newspaper from afar, and how much would the time I wasn’t working weigh on me?

The first concern was exacerbated when I subscribed to The Japan Times and read article after article about how overtourism to the country is creating challenges and sometimes harming local communities and businesses.

We visited a number of cities in Japan including Tokyo, Nagano, Matsumoto, Nara and Kyoto.

I also went in to the trip with a lot of excitement. Excitement about experiencing a part of the world I’d never been to before. About watching my daughter take in a new place and culture. About getting some distance from the day-to-day production activities of the newspaper. Excitement about my first international travel since living in Switzerland and since the pandemic. And more.

The trip we ended up taking was wonderful, and more than lived up to my expectations. We saw beautiful places, met great people, ate delicious food, got lots of walking exercise, experienced the highs and lows of international travel, and came out the other side with a new appreciation for life in Japan. I’m so grateful.

In this blog post and a handful of posts to follow, I’ll be sharing some highlights from our almost two-week trip, along with photos and links where I have them. Enjoy!

Travel there

We had a fairly smooth trip to Japan, 7,000 miles spread across two flights and 16 hours.

We packed everything in to our carry-on bags and while it was a bit more to lug around with us, avoiding any concerns about losing luggage was worth it.

During our first attempted landing on the flight to Detroit the pilot did a touch-and-go where the plane briefly made contact with the runway and then took off again, presumably because we were going too fast with not enough runway left. That was a first for me in commercial flights, though it was something I'd done plenty of during my own private pilot training years ago. The relieved clapping that erupted from many passengers when we landed for good a few minutes later was one of those nice reminders that the ability to travel the world safely by air is not to be taken for granted.

Our long flight from Detroit to Haneda airport went "left," if you're curious, cutting across Canada and following along the Alaskan coast, then down toward the islands of Japan. We spent the 13 hour flight reading, watching shows and movies, sleeping and just staring in to the distance. I was also able to do some work for the newspaper that needed to get done.

I may share more expansive comments later on the gear and gadgets that I used for this trip, but one worth noting early on is Airalo (affiliate link), a service where you can buy eSIMs to provide cellular data access when traveling internationally. In the past we've opted for our mobile carrier's offer to use our regular mobile data plan while abroad for a non-trivial daily fee, which can quickly add up and doesn't give much flexibility. With Airalo I was able to pre-purchase 15 GB of data on Japan-based mobile carriers for roughly US$20 total, install the eSIMs on our phones, and then activate those lines when we landed. It was so nice and gave us peace of mind for staying connected, getting directions and looking things up wherever we were. It looks like Airalo supports purchasing plans in over 200 countries.

When we landed we did the whole "wait in long lines and answer important questions about our legal and travel status while completely exhausted" dance, before meeting our driver for a shuttle to our hotel.

Tokyo, first impressions

Our first experience of Tokyo was driving (notably on the left side of the road) through the downtown rush hour bustle at the end of the business day. In many ways it was a familiar experience: people looking at their phones, listening to their headphones or chatting with friends or coworkers as they navigated their way home from work.

But it also stood out to me early on that the vehicles were generally much smaller, the bikes and related bike/pedestrian pathways more numerous and the mass transit options more plentiful than anything we're used to in the U.S. Midwest.

As is usually the case when we leave the Midwest, we noticed the strong deference by vehicle drivers to pedestrians and cyclists, which held true throughout all the places we visited in Japan. (And that doesn't even begin to touch on the significant investment Japan has made in its excellent subway and rail infrastructure, more on that soon.) Pedestrians seemed to return the favor; when the crosswalks stopped indicating it was time to cross, everyone (except the occasional clueless tourist) stopped and waited, no jaywalking here.

After driving in to and through Tokyo for a bit it was tempting to think we had some sense of its size and shape, but we did not. "Oh, this part kind of feels like Chicago, maybe?" quickly gave way to "I can't believe it just keeps going!" (Tokyo proper has around 14 million people, greater Tokyo is closer to 40 million; Chicago proper is around 3 million, greater Chicago is around 10.) The place is amazing, huge, sprawling, and other than the neighborhoods right around our hotel, at no point during several days there did I really have my bearings.

Checking in to our hotel, the Villa Fontaine Grand Tokyo - Shiodome, was smooth and easy, made possible by the English-speaking hotel staff who knew exactly what we needed to get across the finish line from a long day of travel.

After we unpacked and converted some dollars to yen using the currency converter in the hotel lobby, we went in search of food. We wandered a bit and had to ask directions once but quickly found a place attached to a nearby subway station. Though we were tired and unable to summon even basic Japanese phrases, we were able to order a meal that hit the spot: dumplings, fried rice and chicken.

Our first meal in Tokyo

After being confronted with high prices for airport food and snacks on our travels, we gratefully noticed that our meal and drinks were only about US$17. This was partly due to the USD to JPY exchange rate, one of the factors contributing to the flood of tourists visiting Japan. (The lack of tipping/gratuities as a practice in Japan also meant no awkward "one more question for you" screens on tablets when paying for food and meals; hopefully it also means that the workers involved were receiving a fair wage.)

Then it was back to the hotel for some much-needed sleep.

Tokyo, day 2

We'd planned for our first full day in Tokyo to be mostly an acclimation and resting day before meeting up with the rest of our travel group that evening.

After breakfast at the hotel, I grabbed a copy of the local newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, something I try to do any time I travel.

July 5, 2024 front page of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper

Since becoming a newspaper publisher it's been fun to compare and contrast how different publications handle content decisions, layout, ads, fonts, spacing, etc. but even before then I've appreciating reading about what events, issues and stories might be on the minds of local residents. Reading through a paper printed in Japanese using a live translation app was slow-going but still enjoyable.

We decided to walk over to Hama-rikyū Gardens, one of the many beautiful public parks in Tokyo. Surrounded by a mote, it's a lovely combination of ponds, bridges, lush green landscapes and wide open spaces.

A bridge in Hama-rikyū Gardens

But the overriding factor in our experience was the high heat and humidity, which turned out to be a theme on the trip as a whole. While we had a few cooler days along the way, most of the time we were just sweating it out in 90 degree temperatures wherever we went.

We'd brought clothing with us that was more in line with what locals seemed to wear — almost always pants or long skirts — but because of the heat we almost always opted for the much more touristy-but-comfortable look of shorts and t-shirts. So much for not standing out.

We wandered around some more but mostly hung out at the hotel, read, watched TV, re-packed our day bags and got ready for the adventures ahead.

Stay tuned for additional posts about our trip coming soon!

Air travel and the carbon footprint of distributed work

In touting the benefits of distributed models of work, which I do often, there's a temptation to make the point that not having an office building and the energy-intensive practices that go with it (commuting, for example) must translate to a lower overall carbon footprint for distributed organizations.

While I think a lower carbon footprint is a possible benefit of distributed work, and one very much worth pursuing, it should not be taken as a given.

In fact, my experiences with distributed work (and in the tech world particularly) indicate that there are many, many energy-intensive practices to be considered, including:

  • The energy required to light, heat and cool residences with home offices that might otherwise go unoccupied during the day. I imagine temperature control in cavernous co-working spaces is also energy-intensive.
  • The computing power, equipment and energy usage at the growing number of data centers that support the many online services created and used by distributed workers (from collaborative office suites to audio/videoconferencing tools to Slack-bot cottage industry startups and more).
  • Any additional tendencies for distributed workers to have supplies and equipment shipped to them individually on a regular basis, compared to bulk buying or centralized shipping to an office. (Amazon next-day delivery is killing people.)
  • The materials, production processes and energy usage of laptops, phones and other devices that facilitate working from anywhere. Yes, there might be similar energy usage in an office environment, but whereas a physically central org might have an IT staff to repair/refurbish those items, with distributed that all mostly happens via shipping and may be less likely to facilitate re-using and recycling older devices.
  • Air travel and related energy usage to enable in-person meetups of distributed workers.

The last one feels important to dwell on for a moment.

Aircraft usage and flying account for a growing percentage of the climate change impact of human activity, some estimate 4 to 9 percent. "Take one round-trip flight between New York and California, and you’ve generated about 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that your car emits over an entire year," says the New York Times, citing the EPA.

So from an energy usage perspective, "I don't commute to an office anymore" starts to feel like a bit less to celebrate if at the same time one is flying around to meetups or conferences several times per year instead. More so if your office might have been a reasonable walk or bike ride away.

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Switzerland living

Imagine stepping out of your apartment and across the street to hop on the city train that runs by regularly. A few minutes later you transfer at the main station to a regional train that quietly whisks you away from the urban center. Soon you're in countryside, and within an hour you see the largest waterfall in Europe churning and misting over the next hill.

You follow the well-marked paths from your station to the falls, where you can get close up via various observation points, let your young traveling companion swing around on a playground, or explore a neighboring castle. Then you hop on a boat that takes you down a cool clear river, one full of history and poetry as it defines the border with another country. Swimmers float by, laughing and splashing.

You get off the boat at a shady clearing nestled in the trees and see a beautiful swimming pool complex and cafe on the river. You spend a couple of hours playing and sunning. When you're tired you take the boat and trains home, and get ready for the next day's adventure.


This was just one of the days that came to pass during three weeks living in Switzerland this summer, and it's a good example of the kinds of adventures that my wife, daughter and I (along with a friend who visited us for part of the trip) had in that time. With a centrally located apartment in Zürich and our travel passes in hand, we were fortunate to explore a lot of different corners of this awesome country. From snow-capped mountains to rushing rivers, lush woods to bustling lakefronts, beautiful cities with amazing architecture, innovative museums and interesting festivals, we saw a lot.

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An adventure in Croatia

I recently returned from my first trip to Croatia, where I spent a week hiking, biking, kayaking, rafting, exploring and eating throughout the country. Between grieving my mom's death, working through her stuff, the busy-ness of work and trying to stay caught up on the rest of life, I hadn't had much time recently to do something purely for fun and purely for me. When my sabbatical was coming up this was one of the first things I planned, and I'm so glad I did it. (My mom also loved to travel and explore new places, so I think she would have encouraged it, too.)

Chris on the mountain

Croatia multisport trip map from rei.com.

I coordinated the trip through REI's Adventures program, which offers adventure/active travel and vacations around the world. I really appreciate that they focus on using local guides to facilitate small group trips full of context, history and authenticity in a true spirit of exploration, instead of just shuffling hoards of people through a standard tourist experience in all the standard locations. In Croatia this meant constant conversation with our two guides about the political and cultural history of the areas we visited, delicious home-cooked meals at the houses of everyday Croatian people, adapting our plans to the moods and weather of the day, and being able to linger in beautiful locations we had biked or paddled to, before and after the tour buses or cruise ships had come and gone.

Big falls at Krka

This is my second trip with REI (the first being a week in the Galapagos Islands), and I felt fortunate that both times we had excellent guides (thanks Marin and Valentin!) and a group that was easy-going and enjoyable to spend time with. Celebrating our milestones and accomplishments over meals together each day was a real treat.

Mountaintop lunch

Croatia itself is just beautiful. The landscapes are so varied: lush national parks with waterfalls everywhere, open plains, islands dotting an amazing coastline, bustling cities. It has modern infrastructure and a high standard of living, but reminders everywhere of the not-so-distant periods of war and conflict.

War is not far away

Tourism is on the rise and is perhaps the country's main "export," and so they are wrestling with how to balance the many benefits that brings with the concerns of congestion and environmental degradation.

Dolac Market

Trogir across the water

In addition to the joy of learning about a new place and getting outside my cultural comfort zone, the trip also served as a challenge to myself around physical fitness. The trip activities were rated as "moderately difficult" and I knew that I would need to do some preparation to go from my relatively sedentary lifestyle to being fully ready to take on a week of day-long physical exertion. Apparently I do pretty well with goal-oriented training; adjusting my diet, doing bike rides around town with a loaded-up trailer in tow and working out at the gym three to four times per week in the months leading up to the trip was a lot easier when I could do it in the name of not totally embarrassing myself in Croatia.

And it paid off! Each day I was more than able to keep up, sometimes even being the one who was pushing for a bit more speed or distance. Biking felt especially good and I think I was smiling for most of a 22-mile ride through the rolling countryside.

Ready to bike

There was some cumulative fatigue by the end of the trip, but it was the kind that left me content and proud.

Chris on the water

You can view all of my posted photos from the trip.

Now I'm on to new adventures and travel in the months ahead, but I hope I'm back in Croatia again before too long; there's more to see and do there!

2018 Year in Review

I know, I know. It's the end of March and it feels a little late to be reflecting on a calendar year that has been retired for three months now. But I've gotten in the habit of doing this - see 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2011 - and there is part of me that needs any small bit of closure that writing this post might bring.


If you had told me a few years ago that 2018 would be the year I lost my mom, I wouldn't have believed it. But the year was indeed consumed by continuing to accompany her through cancer treatment, worrying about her health a lot when I wasn't with her, and then finally saying goodbye to her in December.

I've written some about what that loss and grief has been like and so I won't repeat that all here. But there was little I did, planned, thought about or worked on that wasn't somehow affected by the constant low-level stress and anxiety of knowing a loved one was facing tougher and tougher odds for survival. I wrestled with finding the right balance of dropping everything to have meaningful and special experiences with mom while I could, and living my own life as fully as I could knowing that she found comfort and pride in hearing about our adventures and accomplishments as a family.

Those struggles and that grief brought out some of the best moments, too, when it comes to the love and support shown by friends, family and community. I still can't fully believe or begin to recount the incredible ways that people have reached out and, through gestures big and small, helped make life easier for us during the hardest times. I am so grateful for this and yet I've felt woefully incapable of expressing that gratitude while the fog of grief still swirls around me.

Parenting a preschooler continued to be an almost all-consuming experience. The year started with me entertaining her with puppet shows and craft activities and now she entertains us by breaking into song, dancing on her homemade stage, telling us the latest scuttlebutt from school and amusing us with endless creative scenarios and ideas for play. Helping a human develop, figure out the world, absorb language and deepen her emotions has been incredibly moving and wonderful. Exhausting! But wonderful.

I was thrilled to have a couple pieces of my writing included in publications beyond my own websites, and I still want to get back to doing more of that.

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2017 Year in Review

Happy New Year. As arbitrary Gregorian boundary conditions go, I've been really looking forward to the end of 2017. And as I've done in the past I'm posting a few thoughts from the year. (Previously: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2011.)


Though I know the machinations of U.S. politics and culture are not a primary concern for many people in the world, it felt like a year where I could not get out from under the dark cloud of the current presidential administration and the things we are naming and learning about ourselves as a society. I'm someone who usually follows news and politics closely, so it was tough to balance awareness, engagement, activism and appropriate amounts of anger with self-care, long-term thinking and finding any kind of focus or calm. I don't think I did very well with that process, and I've watched it take a toll on me, people I love and communities that I care about.

On top of that I spent a lot of time and energy this year accompanying my mom through her cancer treatment and related medical adventures; it was a source of always-present, low-level (and sometimes high-level) stress that was never too far in the background. I was of course always honored to bring care and support where it was needed, but it was hard watching her be consistently miserable while wondering when or how things could get better.

It was a year of incredible growth for our daughter, going from a barely walking toddler with a relatively small vocabulary to a whirlwind of a kid who runs through the house asking us hard questions, telling stories and expressing strong opinions. A day doesn't go by that I don't look at her in amazement, or that my wife and I aren't asking to each other, "did you know that she can do that??" Witnessing and participating in literal child-like wonder has been a special bit of grace in these times.

Oh yeah, and I turned 40.

All in all, it felt like my ability to focus and be fully present to much of anything was severely limited throughout the year. I hope 2018 is better and am taking some steps to make it so.

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2016 Year in Review

With another year gone by, I'm again sharing a few reflections on how 2016 went. (Previously: 2015, 2014, 2011.)

New house, staying in Indiana

Sky TrainWith a big shift in my wife's professional life and an intentional wrapping up of most of my local commitments that required regular attendance at in-person meetings, this year found me as physically untethered to the city of Richmond, Indiana as I've been since I first came here in 1995. We spent much of the year asking whether we should stay, or take the opportunity to explore living in new places outside of the U.S. midwest. (Someone even started a rumor that we'd already moved away.) I reflected a lot on why I've stayed in Richmond this long, what we'd be giving up if we did go, and what we'd gain by living somewhere else.

There are changes happening locally and regionally that concern us, and there are times we want our daughter to have more diverse experiences than we can find in Richmond, so we know we'll keep considering these questions. But we decided that our wonderful community of friends and family, the difference we feel like we can make locally, and the opportunities we still have to see and live in other parts of the world all added up to staying in Richmond right now.

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Living in Prague

Continuing the tradition of taking a month every year to live somewhere else, Kelly, A. and I have just returned from a wonderful month in Prague, Czech Republic.

Karlův most

Previous years have found us in Asheville, NC, Washington, DCPortland, OR and various parts of Ecuador. As I wrote about last year's trip:

It's just long enough to transition away from full-on tourist mode and get to know a place a little bit more from a local point of view. Immersing ourselves in a new landscape is also a great way to get perspective on the world and the rest of our lives - what we value, what we miss, what we want more or less of and how we might make that happen.

This year's trip was different in a few ways. Our last three have all been in the U.S. so we were excited to again be overseas and where we didn't know the language. It was also very new to do this kind of trip with our 11-month-old daughter. We wanted to challenge ourselves in these ways and while it was hard at times, overall it was a really fun and amazing experience.

View from Letná Park

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Remote workers want community too

I've been spending more time with people who do most their work remotely. Since writing about the advantages of distributed/remote teams versus working in person, I've been paying attention to all of the time remote workers spend figuring out how to be around other people in just the right doses. They're looking to be in the same place with some fellow humans who have a common sense of purpose, or who at least share an understanding of the remote work lifestyle, even if just for a little while.

This leads me to wonder if the future of remote work isn't just a bunch of people on their own, working from home offices or coffeeshops, but instead an arrangement of remote workers coming together in person for a sense of shared experience. Ironically, it might even end up looking a lot like traditional notions of where and how people work, but probably with a lot more freedom, flexibility and fun along the way.

Here are some of the signs I see:

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