When I was 18, I got a full scholarship for a one-month study abroad trip to Japan.
At the time, I didn’t have much interest in international travel. But free is free, so I spent a month in Japan during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college.
That trip changed everything.
That trip ignited the travel bug.
I came back so enthusiastic about exploring the globe that I’ve based every major decision in my adult life around the goal of traveling more.
Every major life choice, from my initial career in journalism, to my decision to quit my newspaper job to backpack around Southeast Asia, to my pivot to becoming a location independent, self-employed freelancer …
Every choice I’ve made has been based around whether or not this opportunity would allow me to travel. It’s the benchmark against which all my decisions are made. It set me on a meandering path that led to financial independence.
And it all started with that trip to Japan.
The month I spent in Japan at age 18 measurably, tangibly changed the course of my entire life.
Next month I’m turning 36. That trip to Japan was exactly half a lifetime ago.
So it felt significant that I come back to Japan, alone, so that I can reflect on the last half of my life.
In early September, I flew to Japan so I could tune in to the similarities and the differences between the Paula who came here as an 18-year-old college sophomore, and the Paula who comes here today as a 35-year-old entrepreneur.
That’s why I arrived in Tokyo, double my lifetime later.
Here’s a diary of what happened next.
I arrive at the airport and realize I’m utterly unprepared. I don’t know how to leave the airport. Taxi? Bus? Train? What train line? I don’t have the address of my hotel. I didn’t bother to look up the conversion rate between US dollars and Japanese yen.
Thank goodness for free wi-fi.
I’d been slammed right before this trip, juggling all kinds of demands, and hadn’t had a shred of time to think about how to keep myself alive, fed and sheltered upon arrival. Every decision I’m making or scrap of information I’m gathering is on a last-minute, need-to-know basis.
I don’t think this is what people mean when they extol “live in the moment,” but whatevs. I’m rolling with it.
The airport toilet features a control panel with sprays of every type. Front spray, back spray, oscillating sprays, sprays with different levels of water pressure.
The control panel is so extensive I feel like I need a driver’s license to operate it. I push one of the buttons and a spray shoots out. The feeling is strange — almost as if the toilet is peeing on me — and I’m so surprised that I leap off the toilet, causing the spray to hit me squarely in the back. My shirt is drenched.
Japan – 1, Me – 0.
I’m staying in a cheap hotel, so you can imagine my surprise when I discover that this is the view from my balcony:
I’m too tired to go anywhere or explore, so I commit to taking long walks along the river, working up an appetite so that I can eat everything I see.
People often assume Japanese food is limited to sushi, but there’s a huge range of food here — everything from curries to noodles to clams steamed with sake — and everything is amazing.
My only regret is that eventually my stomach fills to capacity and I can’t eat more. Hence all the walking. Today is a triathlon of work-walk-eat, work-walk-eat.
I realize most days will follow this pattern, and the ‘work’ component is the difference between myself at 18 vs. 35.
Age 18: Fun! I just finished my freshman year.
Age 35: Fuuuu*****k, I run a company.
In other news, I buy a tube of toothpaste and spend 30 minutes cracking up by myself as I read the tube through the Google translate app.
I’ve never been more entertained by a toothpaste tube in my life.
Okay so I know this photo looks all beautiful and everything, but the truth is that I’m EXHAUSTED and jetlagged, and the streets behind me are empty because I took this photo at 5 AM, having already been awake for 3-4 hours.
And I’m stressed out because even though I’m not producing new podcast episodes, I’m still dealing with a million other things like legal paperwork filings and the extended corporate tax deadline and hiring TA’s for the real estate investing course and answering questions from my programmer and keeping the wheels turning and steering the ship and mixing metaphors.
I’m supposed to be on a month-long “sabbatical” but I feel like I’m disappointing everyone.
I’ve started to dread looking at my phone.
I’m on a sabbatical from creating new podcast episodes, but as long as this enterprise is only two people strong (myself and my CSO Erin), there’s absolutely no way for me to truly step away from making sure the wheels keep turning.
To that extent, this sabbatical has been a splash of cold water, a glimpse into the truth of things.
“Stepping away” is more than buying an airline ticket. It’s ➡️ systematically building processes that allows your company to run without you. ⬅️
I’ve done this (system-building) very, very well with my rental properties — so I know it can be done, and I know I’m capable of doing it.
But I’ve failed to do this with my online business. Yet.
During this sabbatical, I’m working on the business; I’m merely taking a breather from also creating content within it.
And I’m balancing that with jetlag and multiple time zones and 4 countries in 5 weeks across Europe, DC and Asia, and I don’t want to sit in my hotel room answering questions and sending emails all day.
That’s a reflection of the lack of systems that I’ve built.
CLEARLY the answer is not “plan a trip and put up an away message.” That doesn’t address the root cause.
CLEARLY the answer is, “restructure so that you’re not the bottleneck.”
That’s a tall order.
But it’s worth it.
So bring it on.⠀
I have to check out of my hotel (I tried to extend but they were booked), which makes me grumble.
I take the subway, then walk several blocks, to a new location that’s neon, lively and crowded.
I walk into a random restaurant for lunch and I’m surprised to discover that I’m supposed to order and pay through a vending machine.
Here’s how it works: There’s a huge display in the store window with plastic replicas of all the dishes. Each dish is marked by a number.
You choose your item, approach a vending machine, punch in the appropriate number, pay, and then the vending machine prints out a ticket, which you hand to the cook behind the counter.
It’s like a 1990’s version of ordering on an iPad.
I wake up at 4:30 AM and silently applaud myself for “sleeping in.” I’m getting closer to normalizing to the local time zone. At this rate, I’ll be adjusted by the time I’m ready to head home.
I shower, check my messages, and at 6 AM I wander outside in search of breakfast. HOLY DRUNKIE, there are sloshed people everywhere. Evvvvverrrrywhere.
The minute I step onto the streets I’m surrounded by stumbling girls in skin tight dresses and stilettos, and stumbling guys looking sloppy and yelling and getting into harmless-looking little street brawls. IT’S 6 AM PEOPLE, HOW ARE YOU STILL UP?!
I’m clearly in the party district and I didn’t realize it.
I gotta get out of here.
I need to escape the party district, so I check into a hot springs hotel.
This hotel is shoe-free. We’re required to leave our shoes in a locker in the lobby; everyone walks barefoot or in socks in every public area. The hallways, the elevator, the lobby restaurant: everyone is barefoot or in socks.
I realize some people might have an aversion to this. But for me, this is a dream come true.
A hotel in which it’s socially acceptable — nay, it’s mandatory — to be barefoot in public?! YES!!
I conclude that there’s no reason to leave this hotel. Like, ever.
The waiter at breakfast asks if I’d like an egg.
Sure, I reply.
When he returns to the table, he hands me a cold raw egg and an empty bowl. WTF?!
Here’s the inner monologue that follows.
Okay. Calm down. It’s clear that I’m supposed to crack this raw egg into this empty bowl. And then what? Do I slurp it? Dip things in it? Use it as conditioner?
All right, I’ll do it. When in Rome and all that jazz. But it might be a good idea to learn the Japanese word for “salmonella,” just in case.
OMG I still haven’t updated my estate plan.
Behold the craziest breakfast ever: octopus, duck, mackerel, salmon, clam, beef in a hot pot, raw egg, tororo, matcha with red bean, fermented soybean, radish, dried plum, miso soup, tofu, three kinds of sushi, and snow carrot juice.
I’m living Eat, Pray, Love: Japan edition. Except I’m stuck in the “eat” phase.
Good enough for me.
I drop into a nearby cat café. I’ve been to a few in the United States, but this one has a distinctly local vibe, complete with vending machine coffee, a 10-minute time limit, and Japanese animations playing on a screen in the back of the room.
I’ve read online that Tokyo also has an owl cafe and a rabbit cafe. The rabbit cafe’s website has an FAQ page with instructions for people who want to bring their own rabbits with them to the cafe. When you make a reservation, the website says, please note that you’re “Accompanying the rabbit.”
The idea that you’re accompanying the rabbit — not vice versa — makes me deliriously happy for reasons I can’t explain.
Here’s a difference between 18-year-old Paula vs. 35-year-old Paula:
At age 18, I was thrilled that I could buy alcohol from vending machines in Japan. I’d buy tall cans of screwdrivers and other mixed drinks, grinning with glee at the concept of buying booze from a vending machine.
At 35, I’m thrilled I can buy coffee from vending machines.
There’s a convenience store that sells fruit sandwiches, which consist of kiwi, mango and some type of fluffy cream between two pieces of white bread. It’s surprisingly delicious.
Most of my meals don’t come from convenience stores, which is a sharp contrast to a younger version of myself.
The first time I came to Tokyo, I ate a ton of cheap convenience store food, sampling every type of Japanese candy in the aisle.
These days, I walk in circles in an effort to work up an appetite so I can eat another bowl of salmon roe or chicken katsu. I’m just as much of a frugal foodie as ever, I’ve just replaced candy with protein.
I buy a green tea ice cream sandwich and start walking aimlessly in an effort to work up an appetite.
As I’m looking at one window display, I noticed a sign says “claw crane game corner.” (Incidentally that’s a fantastic tongue twister.)
Remember shopping mall video arcades from the mid 90s? Imagine one of those, except instead of video games, every item inside is a claw crane machine, the kind where you use the claw to try to grab a prize.
The best part is that this place is almost completely empty, except for one guy wearing an extremely expensive-looking and well-ironed dark grey suit.
He’s dressed like a McKinsey consultant or a mid-sized regional bank EVP, but he’s standing at a bright pink-and-white claw crane game, trying to win a plastic toy.
When he leaves I walk over to his machine to take a closer look at what he he trying to win, and it’s this.
Oh. Okay then.
I wake up at 2 am, start work at 2:21, and by 11 am I’ve already put in a 7-hour workday. That includes a break to watch the sunrise from the balcony while sipping canned vending machine coffee, and also a break to soak in the hot springs.
By noon I still haven’t eaten so I wander the neighborhood, sampling street food. Among other things, I eat a fish-shaped pancake filled with sweet potato. The sign out front tells me that sweet potato is “which all the women love.”
That’s one of countless hilarious signs I’ve seen on this trip. There’s also the most adorable “Danger” sign I’ve ever seen:
And the SOS button that’s begging to get pushed. It took every ounce of self-restraint to not push this button. I mean, look at it!
It’s located inside a bathroom stall, and I kept imagining a rescue team busting through the stall door the moment that someone pushes the button.
I visit another cat café. This one has fewer cats, less than a dozen, but they’re carefully hand selected, each one representing a different breed or a variety of cat. There’s a big coffee table book with a one page bio over each cat: name, date of birth, breed, personality characteristics.
I assume this place will be full of tourists but I’m the only non-Japanese person here, with the exception of one other couple. “Couple” is a strong word, because they’re speaking in English and it’s clear that they’re on an awkward first date.
The eavesdropping here is incredible.
I visit an amusement park that has only one roller coaster.
I’m there alone and everything at this park seems to be targeted at the age-4-and-under crowd, but I’m loving it. There are rides and games and an entire room of claw crane machines, so I listen to Spotify and entertain myself for a few hours.
I realize this is a huge difference between a younger version of myself and Paula of today.
Sure, I might look ridiculous at a children’s theme park by myself. The college version of me would have felt self-conscious about this fact. But at 35, IDGAF.
Age and experience breeds confidence.
It’s my last day here and I’m feeling simultaneously homesick and yet also wistful about this trip coming to its end.
One of my favorite aspects of slow travel is my ability to return to favorite spots. I like finding little cafes and returning once, twice, or if I like it enough, becoming a regular.
Over these past two weeks, I’ve visited a handful of tourist spots: the national gardens, a kabuki theater, the Skytree building, the 41st floor of the Park Hyatt (made famous in the movie Lost in Translation).
Yet the memories that stand out the most are the conversations that happened in little cafes and restaurants that I frequented often enough that I repeatedly chatted with the staff and other patrons.
Or the random conversations with locals as we soaked in the hot springs.
This is the common thread between 18-year-old Paula and 35-year-old Paula: both versions of me love the spontaneous, natural interactions that happen during travel, when you strike up conversations with whomever, about whatever.
Travel is about the people, the spontaneity, the small moments.
That’s the magic that ignites the travel bug.
I felt it 18 years ago. I feel it today. And 18 years from now, I’m sure I’ll feel the same.
Everything that’s worthwhile is stressful and scary.
Travel is stressful and, at times, intimidating. But we do it because it’s worth it.
Investing in index funds. Asking for a raise. Starting a business. Quitting your job. Everything worthwhile involves fear and risk and feeling over-your-head and yet it’s So. Damn. Worth. It.
We don’t take risks because we’re fearless. We take risks in spite of our fears, and that’s what makes us courageous.
I spent three years developing a course on rental property investing, called Your First Rental Property. I built this course, in part, because buying rental properties is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.
I built this so I could spare others from repeating some of the same mistakes that I made, and so others won’t be held back by their fears. I don’t want people to spend years sitting on the sidelines, debating whether or not they’re ready to make a move.⠀
So I built a 10-week course that will guide you from novice to confident real estate investor.
Enrollment opens again on Monday, May 18th. If you want to be notified, join our VIP list to get all the updates!
See you in class!⠀
P.S. If you want more details on Your First Rental Property, click here!