An Apology to the 14 Countries I’ve Visited More Than Once Without Doing Them Justice

I’d like to start by apologizing to Mexico. I know it is a country with a rich cultural background, amazing natural scenery, and world-class architecture. It’s just that in the five times that I’ve been there, it was never my intended destination. I don’t mean that in a ‘kidnapped-and-left-for-dead-in-the-Sonoran-Desert’ sort of way. It’s just that my visits (3 times to Tijuana as a day trip from California + two stops in Cozumel via cruise ship where I literally spent 80% of my time underwater) were never about Mexico and I kind of feel bad about that. It also got me thinking about the other 13 countries where I’ve “visited” more than once and haven’t always given them the attention they deserve. So Mexico, and you other countries I’ve neglected, this one’s for you.

Germany

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Castles aplenty in the Rhine Valley, Germany

The first time I visited Germany it was for a few days on my whirlwind honeymoon road trip through Europe. Staying near the famous Neuschwanstein Castle, my visit was certainly deliberate. My return however was a matter of chance. My Lufthansa flight on my way to Zimbabwe had a ten hour layover in Frankfurt, giving me just enough time to rent a car, overcome some terrible directions and taste the flavor of the stunning Rhine Valley (for more on this adventure see the post The Rhine Valley Has All You Need, Unless You Need Directions). I know I haven’t truly gotten to explore this beautiful country as much as it deserves but am open to someday doing so.

Japan

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The neon glitter of Ginza, Tokyo

Few cultures are as dominant and distinct in Asia as Japan. My first trip there – a few day layover after a visit to China – got me to Tokyo, Mt. Fuji and of course, Disneyland. I happened to pass through a year to the day later, this time on my way to Thailand, but did little more than explore Narita Airport and try to get comfy on the floor while waiting for my continuing flight. My apologies to you as well, Nippon. I know you deserve better. Maybe next time…

Spain

This one-time seat of empire boasts far more World Heritage Sites than my own U.S.A. but other than a three day layover to explore the museums and plazas of Madrid on my first visit, my second visit was limited to traversing (with much grumbling I might add) the entire breadth of Barajas Airport for my connecting Iberian Airlines flight, which was inconveniently parked somewhere near the border with France. I know Spain deserves further time and exploration to it justice. Next time I just hope they park the plane a little closer.

South Africa

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Members of the infamous Big 5, Timbavati Reserve, South Africa

My first visit to South Africa was a delightful week in 2009 where we explored the northeast’s animal reserves and traveled the awe-inspiring Panorama Route. My second time didn’t take me to any such places. Instead, I was connecting for my flight to Harare in Johannesburg’s massive airport, shopping at the same airport shops as I did 5 years earlier. Amazingly, it was all the same stuff. Next time Cape Town is calling, even if the souvenirs are the same.

Costa Rica

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Tabacon Hot Springs, Costa Rica

While my trip of 2006 was exclusively to this Central American jewel, my return was for just one day when my cruise ship docked at the shady Pacific town of Puntarenas. At least this time I was able to see something else, taking our rental car down to Quepos and the idyllic Manuel Antonio National Park. It wasn’t the two weeks in the jungle I would love to do, but at least it was better than nothing.

Jamaica

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Dunn’s River Falls, Jamaica

 
My first trip to Jamaica was on a FAM (familiarization trip) trip through Sandals resorts. For $50 agents were flown down from a snowy NY to Montego Bay, so as to experience firsthand a Sandals Resort before being flown back home later that afternoon. I took the occasion to lose my group, sit at the bar, eat like a pig, drink like a fish and nap on the beach before it was time to go home. I’m proud to say that my second visit- this time via cruise ship – allowed me even more time to visit amazing Dunn’s River Falls and drift the White River before I was again compelled to leave the country after less than 24 hours. One of these days I’ll stay longer Jamaica – I promise.

As for you, Italy, Canada, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, US Virgin Islands, Greece & Vatican City, I’ve had my reasons for coming and going and was not disappointed by my experiences there. Keep an eye out for me, as I just may return. And to you Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, get ready for my return in November 2016. I will try to do you justice, but just in case, I apologize to you in advance, as I have for these countries here.


Have you traveled to the same country more than once – perhaps just passing through? Share your thoughts by commenting below.

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A Gaijin’s Perspective of Touring Tokyo

The Japanese term gaijin, despite some pejorative overtones, generally refers to a person of non-Japanese ethnicity – particularly Caucasians. I’ll be the first to admit that such a term would apply to me. In fact, I feel no shame whatsoever. Considering all the trouble white males have inflicted upon the world throughout history, putting up with a little name-calling seems a paltry price to pay.

Regardless of ethnicity, a visit to Japan is a visit to a culture that even in this modern world – or specifically in the case of Tokyo, very modern world – still echoes a time where honor and dignity were held in great esteem. You see it in the traditional bows upon greeting; the care of a small but immaculately manicured garden; the cleanliness and pride of those handling even the most menial of tasks. Such things can easily escape unnoticed in the hectic bustle of the capital city, but all it takes is a few moments of poignant reflection to appreciate the Japanese essence of what outwardly appears to be at the apex of consumer-based society.

All that commercialism has brought Tokyo from a pile of bombed-out rubble (courtesy of more of those gaijins) to the very definition of a concrete jungle. With a population of over 34 million in its urban area, it isn’t hard to imagine why there are so many buildings spreading in all directions. It also isn’t hard to find some decent sushi. Even a gaijin can appreciate that.

The neon glitter of Ginza, Tokyo
The neon glitter of Ginza, Tokyo

If your visit to Tokyo is for leisure rather than business, there are some sights worth taking in. Occupying some of the most valuable real estate in the world is the Ginza section – a tornado of neon lights and hordes of pedestrians. This is Japan’s answer to Times Square, with all the energy and wattage associated with it. It is also considered a shopping Mecca and you can easily lose yourself in one of the palatial department stores or high-end boutiques. Or if you’re a man like me, you can just stare at the pretty lights instead.

If it’s energy and nightlife you’re after, the Roppongi district has its fair share of restaurants and clubs to cater to the hip crowd that gathers there. Being not only a gaijin but a married gaijin (the most boring kind), this wasn’t really my scene; but there was no mistaking that this was the place to be young and single. Either that or hungry – which better explained my own visit there.

Yes modernity is the order of the day in Tokyo, but it might seem a bit unfulfilling for someone hoping to see a little more tradition. This is not to say that the small restaurants with the self-serve conveyor belts aren’t a fun way to have lunch, or that the automatic toilets in your hotel room aren’t the pinnacle of convenience. In fact, after using one such commode – hands free – I was instantly reminded of my favorite episode of The Simpsons where upon arriving in their Tokyo hotel room, an electronic toilet tells Homer that it would be honored to accept his waste, prompting him to yell out “They’re years ahead of us!!!”

Scenic Ueno Park, Tokyo
Scenic Ueno Park, Tokyo

For a taste of the aforementioned tradition, you can visit the National Museum located in Ueno Park, which also houses a zoo, aquarium and many other attractions – easily enough for a full day’s exploration. And on certain days that aren’t named Monday or Friday, you can stroll through the Imperial Palace East Garden – an oasis of green in the Marunouchi district. If you come in April you may get to see the famous cherry blossoms. You will also get to see enormous crowds and higher prices on lodging, so…it’s your call.
For those hoping to see some of the famous Japanese landscapes, the most impressive natural attraction in Japan is easily accessible on a day trip from Tokyo. Rising over 12,000 feet is the perfect cone of Fuji-san, long considered sacred by the Japanese and perhaps its most recognizable icon. Over a million people each year climb the dormant volcano (which requires an overnight stay and is only possible in the summer months of July and August) while millions of others are content to visit the resort towns nestled along its base. As a gaijin with limited time and stamina, I opted for the latter, taking a bus from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station out to Kawaguchi-ko, or Lake Kawaguchi.

Mt. Fuji as seen from Lake Kawaguchi
Mt. Fuji as seen from Lake Kawaguchi

This small town had more charm than the urban jungles to the east, with quiet lanes and even quieter eateries. There’s a cable car that takes guests to the summit of a lesser peak, offering great views of the lake and mountain. It’s almost as if an experience like this is necessary to even begin to understand the national psyche, and even a gaijin can start to grasp the appreciation for nature that permeates all levels of Japanese society regardless of the staggering industrialization that characterizes the country.

Most international flights arrive at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, sited some 40 miles outside of the city. There are multiple train and bus options to get you back and forth, all with varying degrees of cost and time; yet on average it will take at least an hour, and for the better options somewhere between 1000-3000 Yen. Or $8.50-$25 USD/6.75-20 Euro for you gaijins.

Getting around town, the subway system is extensive, albeit a bit confusing – not to mention crowded. But it will take you just about anywhere you would want to go, as well as link you with bus and train terminals that serve as gateways to the rest of the country.

Something that struck me as odd was how few people in Japan actually spoke English. Perhaps this was just some lingering American narcissism, but I had always imagined the Japanese as being obsessed with American culture. In my defense, the movies of the 1980’s always presented things that way, so it was a bit surprising not to see much in the way of signage in my mother tongue. Apparently, expecting other nations to speak my language is soooo gaijin.

Tokyo may not be the prettiest of cities, and is nowhere near the cheapest, but you don’t have to be smitten by this megalopolis to appreciate it. This is a testament to the industriousness and resourcefulness of a nation. This is a showcase of all that is good and bad with a consumer-based society. And it is launching point for exploring one of the most influential cultures of the Far East. Love it or hate it, it has a place in the pantheon of world cities, where you’ll encounter a blend of modern and traditional, a rigid work ethic tempered by an ability to party, and more Japanese than you’ve ever imagined. You might even encounter a gaijin or two. Just be sure to bow.