Creative culture in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park on the Sunday

See, Japan is not all about modesty and Samurai! Japan accepts quite a bit of eccentric freedom.

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It is hard not to drool cliches when writing about Japan these days, especially when talking about the eclectic youth culture located in Harajuku, Tokyo. Just about every guidebook (this site included 10 Free Things to Do in Tokyo) recommends “people gawking” along the Jingu Bridge where you can usually catch Japan’s insanely strange youth fashion. You’ll find everything from Lolita to goth, french maids with a sweet spot for fake blood, to cross dressing little bow peeps.

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At times the Jingu Bridge area just next to Harajuku station feels a bit contrived, teenagers dressed up waiting to have their picture taken by photographers, hoping to land in a fashion magazine. Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to gawk, and if you are headed to Meiji Shrine you have to pass over the bridge anyway (this is another must see in Tokyo). But if you are looking for a slightly more authentic creative spirit continue past the bridge towards Yoyogi Park.

Travel Tip: Your best chance at premium gawking is on a Sunday when most people are out on the bridge and running around Yoyogi Park (yes, rebellious youth have to work and go to school on the weekdays too).

Map of Harajuku, Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park

To get to Yoyogi park, just cross the Jingu Bridge and instead of turning right into the Meiji Shrine with the large, beautiful, shaded, wooden torii gate, take a left and follow the sidewalk around the corner to the right. You’ll see the Harajuku entrance to the park right in front of you along with some delicious street food vendors!


Do you like these maps? Let me know if you find these helpful and I will try to include more detailed instructions on retracing my wanderings for those who want to follow along.

Guide to Yoyogi Park Tokyo

Yoyogi Gyoen (park) is Tokyo’s largest and has a number of wonderful wooded areas that will make you forget about city life for a short while. The park comes into its own on Sundays when groups gather from all over Tokyo to meet and share their mutual interest in just about anything you can think of. This includes everything from skateboarding, to freestyle cycling, African drum circles, dance troupes, cross dressing senior citizens, bird watchers, musicians, jugglers, martial arts and students practicing for upcoming plays.

For me this is where the excitement of the Japanese culture is on display best. You will still get outrageous fashions of the young and bored. But what you will get more of is the Japanese predilection for forming groups and trying to perfect a certain task. It doesn’t matter what that task is, what matters is being part of the group and progressively getting better (or trying to).

Click the Video Below to Watch My Day in Yoyogi

So while most guidebooks will tell you to come and witness “crazy” Japanese society, I’d challenge you to come and witness “normal” Japanese society. Sunday is a time for groups to gather, for creativity to be let loose, and for people to polish their stones with a singular conviction. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dancing elf, a cross-dressing little bow peep, or a juggler. They are all welcome in Yoyogi, they are all involved in the same cultural experiment, just expressed differently at times.

Once your done in Yoyogi don’t forget to take a walk around the Meiji Jingu grounds for a more subdued expression of Japanese culture. Once you are calm you’ll be ready to shop for the crazy costumes in Harajuku’s back streets and especially along the always crowded Takeshita Street, just across the street from the train station.

What do you think? Are the Japanese youth in Yoyogi creative or conformists? Is this a must see for a visitor to Tokyo?

Hiking in Dragash Kosovo

Anyone who says you can't have it all is more worried about what they don't have and that you might end up with more than them.

Recently a number of people have written me to ask EXACTLY how I have been able to travel the world for the past 12 years. After reading a friend’s wonderful post explaining in detail how he has traveled for over 10 years as well at Wandering Earl (yes, people with Wandering names have to stick together) I decided to post my own account.

For those of you who don’t know my background, I left the US in 1998 to visit Japan. Coming from a middle class family, it was my first time on an airplane and I was 21 years old! Over 40 countries (I’m sure I’ll forget to mention a few below) and various different jobs later I’m still on the road, now with my wife and my recently born son.

WARNING: This is a long post.  For word nerds, it is exactly 2,382 words long. For time nerds, it will take the average reader 15 minutes to read and 10 more seconds to understand. Proceed carefully as you will not get this time back. You can of course just read the headlines in about 3 minutes if you don’t want to understand anything that I spent so long writing.

For the regular readers out there I thought I had already told you how, especially in:

5 Steps to World Travel and Getting Paid to Do What you Love

or maybe in 3 Strategies to Help you Succeed and Travel the World. Still not convinced that I’m not trying to hide anything, then check out How to Manage Uncertainty—Don’t where I lay out 7 steps to help you travel and live free of worry.

We Want the Dirty Details including Money Money Money…Money!

But I also know that it can be difficult to relate to such a life sitting behind a pile of bills, late payments, and screaming kids demanding your attention.  I was sitting in my hometown bar a few years ago reminiscing with a buddy about the countries he visited me in. A hard drinking, hard working local took exception:

“Who the fuck do you think you are? Stop lying, no one could have been to so many places. What are you 30 years old? [I was 28] Get the fuck outta hea (that’s New Englander for “here”)

My sister was bar tending that night and told him to quite down. Drunk Dave turned quiet, grabbed his beer tighter and just repeated softly “it’s just not possible”.

Well it is possible, but I’ll be honest, it does require a number of sacrifices, leaps of faith, and the ability to go against the collective wisdom of just about everyone you know and love.

I try not to speak too much about money here on Todd’s Wanderings, since I do like to keep some privacy to myself (most of the bad things I have thought and done in my life qualify). But in this post (and probably the only time) I’m willing to open up about my non-blogging finances and show you just how little you really need to travel the world. As you will see, you can do it while heavily in debt, you don’t need nearly as much as you think, and long-term travel doesn’t have to equal abject poverty. In fact, due to lower costs of living, beneficial tax breaks, and a personal desire for simplicity and lack of acquiring “things” I think I have led a higher quality of life outside of the US than I could have if I stayed (wars and bombing raids included).

1998- Study Abroad in Osaka, Japan

In 1998 I was all set to go on my university’s study abroad program to Japan. At the last minute it was canceled as there were only 2 people signed up. Undeterred the two of us created our own program, found a school to enter and arranged everything ourselves. I was a poor collage student, paying for my school all on my own through student loans and scholarship. I had saved roughly $1,000 for extra expenses (yes, I worked during college). That was not nearly enough, but as a first time traveler what the hell did I know.

Luckily, as we organized the whole trip ourselves I had to pay the tuition upon arrival. Japan is a cash society so I carried $12,000 in traveler checks (yeah that is a lot of $100 checks!) with me on the plane. As I flew over the Pacific Ocean for the first time the exchange rates went crazy and when I landed I didn’t need all $12,000 to pay for school and was able to use the savings to live and travel.

I also cashed in a $1,000 in inheritance to pay for the 900 mile, 88 temple walking pilgrimage I went on after school ended. Life has never been the same since.

Counties Visited: Japan and Jamaica (yes, spring break called)

Money Saved: Nope. Maybe your expectations are too high for me.

Balance Sheet: Still sinking in student loan debt

1999-2001 Shiga, Japan- JET Program

I was lucky and graduated university with only $30,000 in debt. Yes, that’s a lot but that is also how much my private university cost per year!

After graduation I got a job as an assistant language teacher with the JET Program in Japan. This was a fantastic first job and I earned roughly $36,000 per year. I got 20 days of paid vacation, left work at 4 pm everyday, and didn’t have to work in the summer time. I spent all of my money traveling around South East Asia, and exploring Japan.

Counties Visited: Japan, Spain, Vietnam, and Thailand

Money Saved: $0

Balance Sheet: Still sinking in student loan debt

2001 Peru, Parent’s Attic, Chiba-Japan- Private English School

After 2 years in Japan I was looking for a change and returned to the US. I didn’t have a job so I moved back in with my parents and lived in my old room. Despite not have much money in savings I headed down to Peru for a few weeks to hike the Inca trail and explore the Andes Mountains.

Deciding it was better to be working abroad than unemployed in the US I found another job teaching in Japan for about $30,000 a year and moved to Chiba (near Tokyo).  Living near Tokyo was tough but I stilled traveled and managed not to save any money. I kept paying the minimum on my student loans and saving money for travel.

Countries Visited: USA, Peru, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore and Thailand

Money Saved: $0

Balance Sheet: How long can I keep treading water before I drown?

2002-2004 Shiga, Japan- Elementary School English Teacher

Unfortunately, I had to admit that being broke and living near a big city like Tokyo was just not fun.  So, I called in some contacts and found a new job back in my old area of Shiga Prefecture, Japan. Getting back to the Japanese countryside was great as was the return to my JET salary of $36,000 a year.  Money and free time still went to paying for jaunts to South East Asia as well as slow travel around Japan.

Countries Visited: Thailand, Myanmar, South Korea

Money Saved: $9,000

Balance Sheet: Getting smaller. $20,000 still in the hole.

2004-2006 Graduate School in Boston, Thailand and Japan (yes again)

Five years after graduating I was out in the world but making the exact amount of money as when I started. I was also chained to a job and was only able to travel during vacations. Plus, teaching English might be great for some people, but it was decidedly not my passion. It was time to make a change. I got into graduate school for International Relations and moved to Boston.

I visited Japan (yes, an ex-girlfriend) over winter vacation, broke up and then for the summer between year 1 and 2 I got an internship in Thailand. I lived in Bangkok for 2 months, toured the country, visited Cambodia again, and then headed back to Japan for 1 month to walk the Shikoku Pilgrimage again. I paid for it with a $2,000 grant and with a work for shelter and travel agreement with the NGO where I volunteered.

I paid for 2 years of graduate school the only way I could, I took out massive amounts of loans (private and government subsidized), blew through my $9,000, worked part-time, and maxed out credit cards. In the end I decided I would rather live the life I wanted and owe money than be miserable with a mortgage :)

Countries Visited: USA, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, Canada, Las Vegas (trust me it’s like another country)

Money Saved: Ha!

Balance Sheet: took a beating- $100,000 in debt (Credit Cards and Student Loans)

2006 San Francisco, Timor Leste (East Timor)- Intern, Governance and Conflict Consultant

Biking in Timor Leste

Life is serious business filled with nice hats and big glasses

When you are $100,000 in debt, what is the smart thing to do? I did the opposite and took another internship, this time in the expensive city of San Francisco for 3 months. I was paid exactly $3,000 to keep me alive and slightly breathing. I cobbled together a string of couch surfing and sublet agreements and slept in 5 different houses over the 3 months. I even managed to drive the length of route 1, party in La Jolla for the 4th of July, and enjoy Big Sur on the way back.

The phone rang one day, 1 week before my contract was up, and I was offered a 1 month assignment in Timor Leste (yes, the number “one” seems to be important here).  I said yes without the slightest hesitation, dropped a bag and flew out a few days later with no intention of returning. I lived in Timor for 6 months, traveled the country, and explored Bali and the rest Indonesia.

Oh, by the way, Timor Leste was when I first created Todd’s Wanderings!

Countries Visited: Timor Leste, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Singapore

Money Saved: Just glad I was able to start eating again

Balance Sheet: Still $100,000 over my head.

2007-2009 Sri Lanka (the civil war years)- Human Rights Advocate

With a few months of experience under my belt in my new profession I followed a girl (now my wife) to Sri Lanka right when the civil war was starting back up. It took me about 3 months to find a job, but I found one, worked my ass off as a human rights advocate, and eventually turned it into a Country Director position. The NGO had no idea that I was going to do that, but it just shows what you can accomplish if you try something new.

During this time we enjoyed the hell out of Sri Lanka and I got to start enjoying traveling for work and adding fun to the end of each trip. It is an amazing thing to get paid to travel! I also set the stage for my debt reduction and retirement savings plan. Read the post How to Manage Uncertainty—Don’t to see my strategies here. Basically, I cashed in some investments and paid off my credit cards, rolled the monthly interest savings into my student loan payments, started saving for retirement, an eventual house, travel, and food when I had a chance.

I started off earning $38,000/year and left making about $47,000 a year. But with no taxes and low cost of living, life was good.

Countries visited: Sri Lanka, Maldives, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Switzerland, England, Japan, Dubai, USA

Money Saved: Probably about $15,000 over 2 years

Balance Sheet: Owed about $89,000. I was beginning to learn to how to swim.

2009-2011 Kosovo- Consultant, Peacebuilding, Rural Tourism

The war finally ended and it was time to move on. We did the only sensible thing and my wife and I packed up and moved the Balkans. She took a job with the UN and I started consulting. When consulting work dried up I landed a job working for the United Nations in the divided town of Mitrovica in Kosovo, and moonlighted pro bono writing a hiking guide to southern Kosovo. Yes, this was the beginning of combining my travel writing with development work.

Let’s just say working for the UN in a non-family duty station (yes, I had my family with me) is very good for the bank account. This part of my life is a bit too fresh to share all the details with you but you’ll get an idea in the overview at the end of this section.

Between the UN, consulting, and having a baby boy in Japan I did quite a bit of traveling these 2 years. I am also a firm believer in saving money when it is available so I kept my normal lifestyle and socked the savings into paying off debt, saving for a house and…you guessed it… traveling.

Countries visited: Singapore, Timor Leste, Sri Lanka, Austria, Kosovo, Turkey, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Croatia, Slovenia, England, Netherlands, Jordan, USA, Japan, Maldives, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Italy

Money Saved: $40,000

Balance Sheet: Owed about $56,000 in student loans. All private loans with high interest rates have been paid off, I never carry credit card debt, and the rest of the loans are at a low 3.25% interest so they get the minimum payment for life and the savings will go into investments.

You don’t have to be rich, or poor, to Travel the World

I don’t expect you to run out and mirror my life. But I hope that you realize that traveling the world is a decision that you have to continually make. Sometimes you will have money, other times you won’t. That is the nature of having a freer life. But it can be done. I’m still doing it, my wife is doing it with me, and now our son has joined the party. Besides the travel aspect we are doing the type of work we love and getting paid for it.

In terms of my blogging money I earn about $1,000 or more a month. Most of this goes back into the business in one form or another. I have plans to implement a new strategy that will hopefully expand this income but even if it doesn’t I’m quite happy with it and the additional security it brings me and my family. My goals for my website and writing endeavors are to provide for my family when we don’t have other jobs, eventually replace our current income, and continue to prove we can get paid to do the things we love.

Never underestimate the value of living in a cheap country, or following your dreams!

What are your secrets for traveling the world?

Drinking black Label scotch in Sri LankaSome names and circumstances have been changed to protect my ass.

Not too many things get your heart beating like downing a half a bottle of Black Label whiskey and being hugged by a killer

In the bathroom I called my friend who worked for the Sri Lankan government. It was 3 am and yet somehow he answered. “Where are you?”

“Have you ever heard of (name to remain anonymous)?”

“Of course I have. Where are you?”

“I’m in his suite at the (fancy hotel to remain anonymous).”

“What? Get the fuck out of there! I’m coming to get you.”

Whiskey does strange things to people, and after downing a half a bottle the world seemed like a gentle, gummy bear filled place. A night out, or rather in, with a group of gangsters sounded like a great idea. I hung up on my friend with assurances I was OK and headed back to finish the rest of the bottle.

Clubbing in Sri Lanka During the War

I have always had a problem with curiosity, and the chance to drink with a group of gangsters just couldn’t be passed up. I was worldly; I could take care of myself. Who knew the evening would end with me worrying for my life. Well, probably a sober me would have known that. But Whiskey Todd went with the flow and didn’t let anything stand in the way of a good time. After club hopping amongst Colombo’s hip, sweaty, young and extremely wealthy with the gangster’s nephew for the evening, I was ready to head anywhere.

Truth is that I had no idea who I was out with that night. He was a friend of a friend and needed a drinking buddy for the evening. With my wife away for the week on business I stepped up. Nothing good happens when wives are away.

At that time Sri Lanka was still embroiled in its 20 year civil war. The Tamil tigers had control of over a third of the country, and the tropical city of Colombo was packed, corner after corner, with checkpoints. Young soldiers with automatic weapons stopped everyone who approached, hoping one of the frequent bombings didn’t occur at their checkpoint.

We left our last club for the evening with the nephew asking me to join him. “My uncle’s in town and I need to say hello. It’ll just take a few minutes.”

As we approached a check point in his large black Mercedes-Benz ML5500 SUV a soldier waved us over. We were both drunk. “Should I run it? I’m drunk and have an arrest warrant in Slave Island.”

“No, stop.” I was lucky I got it out in time. I was starting to get my first hints of whom I was with. Yes, like I said, a half a bottle of whiskey dulls the brain a bit. “They only care about bombs, and as soldiers they won’t call up your info.” Thankfully he stopped and a few minutes later we were on our way across town.

Into a Gangster’s Room

“Listen, I have a confession. My uncle is a big deal, and not exactly on the right side of the law. Just keep your cool and you’ll be ok.”

I followed him into the enormous roof top suite and into a world one assumes only exists in movies and cheesy crime novels. The Boss, his Lieutenant and the Muscle sat around a coffee table drinking Black Label. South Asians love their Johnny Walker Black Label. The bedroom door was open and a passed out Ukrainian hooker lay sprawled across the bed. (Please don’t read into the fact that I called her a hooker. I’m sure she was a perfectly nice person).

Everyone except for the Muscle was smart and handsome. I sat in the free spot next to the Muscle, who could only be described at thick and slow. I kept quite as the family reunion took its course. Inquires into business, questions about family, affectionate offers. Next it was my turn.

“Do you want a hooker? I can have her call a friend.” The Boss nodded toward the bedroom.

I declined politely.

“Don’t like Russians huh? How about an Asian?

I explained that I was married.

“We can hit the Casino and I’ll get you a Chinese hooker.”

I convinced him I only needed the whiskey.

The Love of a Killer

Suddenly, the Muscle next to me shot straight up and lunged at me, giving me the strongest hug I’ve ever experienced in my life. That is if a hug and being squeezed to death were the same things. The boss jumped and everyone tensed.

“It’s OK.” I gave the Muscle a hug back. “I like you too.”

“Let him go” the Boss said quietly but forcefully.

“It’s OK,” I repeated. Was I trying to convince them or myself? The Muscle squeezed tighter, not wanting to let go. The boss stepped forward and looked the muscle in the eyes. He finally released me, sinking back into the couch in a drunken haze.

“He’s too drunk, and he killed someone the other day.”

Oh…I just realized where the fuck I was and it was time to leave. I sat through offers of being taken to the north to meet the rebel leader, offers of drugs, offers of guns, and more offers of hookers. After what I assumed was a polite amount of time, given the circumstances, I made my way to the door promising to meet them again when they returned to Sri Lanka from their homes in England.

The sun was rising, and the nephew walked me out to catch a cab. Just a friendly tip to anyone who finds himself or herself in a similar situation: When you have made it out of a criminal suite alive, leave it there and don’t pick a fight.

I don’t know how it happened but between the suite and the road the nephew and I ended up in a screaming match. I spent the next week trying to smooth things over behind the scenes before my wife returned. It took 6 months before the nephew and I could be in the same room together, and I could stop worrying about suddenly disappearing.

Eventually things got worked out. But I learned a lot about choosing my drinking partners more carefully, especially during war time.

What is your craziest drinking story while traveling?

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