Monthly Musings: Reflecting on our First Month of Travel

Although you wouldn't think it to look at our blog, today marks one month since Tony and I left North America to travel long-term! We have been doing our best to get the blog a little more up-to-date and hopefully the gulf between our posts and reality will eventually lessen, but I wanted to break from chronology to share some reflections on our first month on the road. It seems important to share these thoughts now rather than wait until we've finished writing about Japan, so that these musings are still fresh, accurate & relevant.

Rest assured, we’ll have more posts & pictures about our time in Japan up for you soon!

Our first month traveling was largely spent in Japan and was an eye-opener for us in many ways. Many travelers experience culture shock, but for us, we experience travel shock and even couple shock. This month has been much rockier and rougher than we ever imagined it would be, and I can say that I personally struggled far more than I thought I would. I’ve traveled internationally before, so I thought I would easily slide back into my old backpacker ways, but I quickly realized that this new phase of our life was going to take some time to figure out.

Consequently, about a week into our trip, Tony and I declared that despite our dreams for Japan and this trip—ones we had allowed to grow so large, Mt Fuji would cower in their shadow—we would use this time in Japan as our false start. It would be our chance to grease the wheels & iron our the kinks, so that we could figure out what worked for us as a couple traveling long-term, and what changes we would need to make for the rest of our trip. Every experiment needs some pilot data and we realized that our previous trips wouldn’t really suffice. So Japan became our guinea pig. 

The biggest problem we faced in Japan was our pacing: in an effort not burn through yen and make the most of our JR train pass, we burned through the country instead. The flip side of this is that we burned ourselves out as well. Although we both forced ourselves to pack light for this trip (we each picked main packs with < 50L capacities), the act of having to pack up our bags—our entire lives!—every two or three days got old really quickly. We found that when we could stay in a place for longer stretches of time, our mood and spirits improved tenfold. Thus, Amendment 1 for the rest of the trip (and the cardinal rule for most long-term travelers): We need to move more slowly, even if this means that we see fewer places. For us, making the most of our time on this trip does not necessarily mean going to the most number of places. The pace of our former lives and the weeks preceding this trip has made us unused to taking the time to take time, but we have found that this is what we are craving right now.

In a similar vein, we realized that part and parcel of traveling too fast, we were simply trying to cram too much into the places we were visiting. With limited time, we felt we had to have days that were packed to the gills with activities and touring, barely giving ourselves time to catch our breaths. By the end of our 2nd week of travel, rather than feeling like we were finally relaxing into this new way of life, we instead felt stressed out and overwhelmed. After several long talks about what wasn’t working, we knew we simply had to make our peace with the fact that the world is a big place and we just can’t see, do & eat everything that any given city has to offer unless we are prepared to settle there indefinitely. Instead of stressing ourselves out over the things we WEREN’T doing, we adjusted our perspective and decided to instead focus on enjoying the things we were! Yes, we could run ourselves ragged trying to see every temple in Kyoto or eating six meals a day so that we could try every local specialty on offer in a city (ok, that last one doesn’t sound so bad!), but we have learned that such things are all well and good when you’re on a short vacation, but just aren’t sustainable when you’re engaged in a travel marathon. Once we decided to do fewer things each day but enjoy those things fully, our mood improved and we found ourselves having more fun. Amendment 2: Each day we’ll pick one or two things we’d like to do that day and then leave the rest of the day free & open to chance. Some of our best experiences on the trip thus far are ones we could not have planned and happened simply because we were willing to go slow and were open to seeing how certain things would play out. Ironically, if we had been darting about trying cram in more experiences, we would have missed out on so much!

If we hadn’t been willing to just hang out in Gion for a few hours, this amazing moment never would have happened!

A follow-up to this last point is that there’s also no point in us doing things that we don’t like just for the sake of the blog or because we feel we have to make the most of our time. There is a fine balance between pushing ourselves to expand our horizons and foolishly engaging in activities we know we don’t like or appreciate. For instance, I am not a huge museum person. It is the rare museum that I truly enjoy and want to spend hours in. I’m 29, so I think I can say this trait is fairly fixed at this point, so it is silly to expect that it would change overnight or simply because we have decided to take this trip. It would also be really dumb for us to plan to hit up tons of museums everywhere we go (or, heaven forfend, multiple museums in one day!) because I’m probably going to become disenchanted fast if we do so. Same with Tony and his fear of heights; he hates them and suffers from vertigo. No amount of adventurous “this is our new life & anything is possible” mentality is going to change that. We spent some time thinking about how we’ve spent time traveling and what we did on our favorite vacations in the past, and we realized that we weren’t running around 24/7 visiting tourist attractions. We were eating good meals, walking around and observing the way of life, browsing in stores, and taking in the occasional must-see/do attraction every now and then. Amendment 3: Be realistic about who we are as people and travelers. Don’t do things that we honestly have no interest in simply because we feel like it would be an oversight not to do them. We need to take the trip we want to have, not the trip we think we should be having.

It’s good to push yourself, but with Tony’s fear of heights, this is about as high as he can comfortably go!

In many ways, our first month of travel, particularly the time spent in Japan, felt like a long, wildly dysfunctional vacation. We were so focused on being in Japan and being in the world, that we failed to do anything for ourselves that we would in “real life” and found ourselves feeling out of whack. We knew going on this trip would involve some sacrifices, but embracing this new lifestyle doesn’t mean totally forsaking everything about our old one that made us happy. I know that I need to find each time to read and write and practice my mindfulness meditation. These things center me, and while it’s tough to find the time when you’re navigating the realities of dorm rooms and busy days, it’s important that I carve out some time for these things.

I won’t lie: Japan was the backdrop to some fairly spectacular meltdowns and rows between Tony & me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we have never fought this way before, but it would be fair to say it has been a while since we got into such knock-down drag-out fights. For my part, I can say that in these instances I didn’t always act in a way that filled me with pride. There were times when I was sad, times when I was disenchanted, times when I was in full-on raging bitch mode. I got mad about things of no consequence and picked fights that neither of us could win. Knowing I was doing these things but seemingly couldn’t stop frustrated me even more. I am better than this and have worked hard to not be this kind of person. Several times I broke down in tears. Why wasn’t this any fun? What was happening to us and why were we so out of sync?

It’s true, sometimes during this past month I felt like this…

I still don’t fully have the answers for why our time in Japan was so hard for me. Not all of the time, mind you, but enough of it that I began to worry that something was wrong with me, that this trip we had invested so much of ourselves in, was a huge mistake. What I know now, is that this first month has had a lot of unanticipated stresses. Many of them we brought on ourselves because of how we planned our Japan leg and the mentality we entered it with, but some of the stress surely had to do with the fact that we’ve never traveled like this before and our expectations about how it would be and how effortless and easy it all would be were ridiculous. This is a radical change for us, and as long-term travel veteran Gillian from One Giant Step so wisely pointed out in a recent comment, we need to be inordinately patient and kind to ourselves and to each other during this time. We are still learning the ropes of travel, and in truth, I am still learning about myself and my own needs. I am confident that each day we spend out here in the world makes me a better, more insightful version of myself, and a better partner to Tony as well.

This is where the shogun of Matsumoto castle committed seppuku when conceding defeat. Thankfully it never came to that for Tony & me!

I’m focusing on the dark parts of this past month. These are the parts we’d rather sweep into a closet and pretend never happened, but I know that as hard as some of these moments were for us, the truths and insights we gained from them were hard earned and to pretend otherwise would be disingenuous. The truth is that our first month of travel was lousy at times! But we learned from it and I really believe that the rest of the trip will be better for it. As we touched down in HK, we both felt like it would be the chance to start over and have a clean slate. Our time here has been unconstrained and open-ended and we have been putting into practice all of the amendments we wrung from Japan. The result? We’re over the moon! Maybe Hong Kong is just a better fit for us, but we love this city-country-state hybrid and look forward to every day we spend here. Sure the past 3.5 weeks have been iffy at times, but we finally feel like we’re hitting our stride and having the trip we wanted to take. And really, in a trip that might span 52 weeks, when you think about it, spending 4 of them (roughly 7% of the trip) working out the kinks isn’t that bad. I’ve always said that if this trip had to have a rough patch, I’d rather it be at the start so that things just kept getting better!

And lest you think that this first month has just been torture, I want to emphasize that it really hasn’t! It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, but it wasn’t all meltdowns and misery either. We had some amazing experiences in Japan, which we will treasure always and will surely be highlights of our entire trip. Given the backlog on the blog, we haven’t yet shared most of them, but in the next few weeks we’ll tell you all about (spoilers ahoy!): our first fantastic CouchSurfing experiences, visiting a monkey park, having real-life geisha encounters, discovering our love of sake, experiencing an amazing Obon celebration, and of course, eating lots of delicious food!

Proof that our first month had its share of great times!
More proof!

If there is any one thing that we gained from this first month of travel, I would say it is wisdom. We spent the month figuring out how not to travel, so now we are doubly excited for our second month of travel where we can really put into effect all of the things we learned! We feel invigorated, excited, and optimistic that after a shaky start, the best is yet to come. But we won’t sit around a wait for it, oh no. We’re going to seek it out and meet it head on!

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24 comments Leave a comment

  1. Laura

    Steph and Tony, this post makes me smile! I know from my own travels that it’s important you listen to yourself about what makes you happy because really, when it comes down to it, this is your trip, your money and your time. Make it was you want and who cares what others think or what you had initially planned/researched.

    I remember arriving in Nairobi and being scared and overwhelmed and deciding to spend the entire day in the hotel eating chocolate and watching movies instead of venturing outside. You know what, it was exactly what I needed and I don’t worry that I might have missed seeing or experiencing something. Listen to yourselves because you don’t want to burn out. Things I’ve realized about myself – I hate climbing mountains/volcanoes/big hills (ex. The Ice Caves (steph!), Mt.Fuji, all of Chile) and will never be good at it. So you know what, I’m going to find a coffee shop and enjoy a piece of cake while waiting for my travel companions to return!

    It makes me a little bit sad that this may have impacted some of your Japan experiences (I’m very protective of my Japan!) but I can’t wait to read your upcoming posts! Stay happy guys!

    Sep. 9 2012 @ 6:22 am
    1. Laura author

      Thanks for your words of wisdom, L’Ell. I knew if anyone understood this post, it would be you! While traveling as a couple has been challenging at times, I can only imagine that being out there by yourself would have its own slew of challenges.

      Every day we have been traveling, we learn a little more and get closer to having the trip we envisioned back in Nashville. Just have to remember that it’s a process and it’s ok that we need to figure things out along the way and find out what really works for us. But yes, we need to take OUR trip and not worry about what others would do in our shoes.

      And don’t worry about Japan – it was shaky at times, but as you will see, we had some once-in-a-lifetime experiences there that all the fights in the world could never ruin! Japan wasn’t always what we were expecting it to be, but we certainly have no regrets about the time we spent there (just my own behavior at times!).

      Sep. 10 2012 @ 9:04 pm
  2. Thanks for writing such an honest review of the first month of your trip Steph. My boyfriend and I are leaving for our own RTW trip in March and I’m wondering how we’ll adjust to being together 24/7. We’ve also formulated a really packed itinerary for our first month in New Zealand, now I’m thinking we need to schedule in more rest days. Glad you had fun too though! Japan looks amazing – are you planning on writing about how much you spent while you were there? We’re debating over whether to include it in our itinerary.

    Sep. 10 2012 @ 12:32 pm
    1. Amy author

      I really thought the fast-paced schedule wouldn’t be too bad for Tony & myself as we have traveled well together before and I figured we’d be on fire and have tons of energy at the start of our trip… but for us it really just added unnecessary stress and honestly made our first time in Japan feel very little like the trip we thought we would take. It felt like an extended vacation, and I think if we could do it again, we would cut out a few places and spend more time in each location. When you’re traveling long term, it’s really nice not to feel like you have to do ALL THE THINGS each day!

      We will absolutely write about the budget side of things for each country we visited! We have diligently kept tabs on every cent we have spent since leaving, and will share that information when we wrap up each country. I will say that while Japan can certainly eat through your budget, our time there really wound up not being nearly as costly as I feared it could be. Given that you’re planning to spend time in NZ, I bet Japan would not be any worse than there (but you may not wish to spend too much time in expensive places!). Keep reading and hopefully you’ll get all the info you need, but if not, please feel free to ask any questions you have!

      Sep. 10 2012 @ 9:09 pm
      1. Steph

        Thanks Steph – I’m excited to hear more about your trip and see your monthly cost info – I love reading travel budget posts! True that NZ is probably as expensive as Japan, but yes, we are trying to limit the amount of expensive countries we go to. It’s looking like Japan might just have to go on our list though…

        Sep. 11 2012 @ 2:35 am
  3. Boy that Gillian sure is a smart cookie. 🙂

    Seriously, those amendments are priceless and I bet you refer back to them on a regular basis. My husband and I have a mantra–we’re on each other’s side. When we start to act more like enemies than allies, one of us eventually will point it out and it seems to ease the tension and get us back on track.

    Glad to see you’re figuring it out and committed to making this about you as you are now…not as what you think you should be. Isn’t that a life lesson for us all???

    Sep. 10 2012 @ 12:46 pm
    1. Carmel author

      I know, right? It’s almost like Gillian has already been out there and done this a time or two and knows what she’s talking about! 😉

      I think the hardest part about the fights on this trip is that Tony & I always affirm that we are each others’ best friend, and we really weren’t acting like it. It was important to realize that by putting the trip first, we were putting each other second, and nothing was worth that. What’s the point of doing all these things if we can’t also revel in the fact that we are doing them together?

      One of the things I wanted from this trip was to be able to take the time to really get to know myself so that I can live my very best life. It’s clear from one month that this isn’t going to be a problem! 🙂

      Sep. 10 2012 @ 9:13 pm
      1. Steph

        I’d like to think that reading all this wisdom will help us once we hit the road, but the reality of it is that I’ll probably fall victim to a lot of the same problems. Maybe learning from you guys will help us shorten the time we bicker.

        You’re absolutely right though.

        Sep. 11 2012 @ 11:26 am
  4. Sounds like it was a bit rough, but good on you guys for figuring out what works and doesn’t and being able to make changes! Safe travels!

    Sep. 10 2012 @ 3:02 pm
    1. Edna author

      Thanks, Edna! It definitely was a trial at times, but I figure that all the things worth having require a bit of hard work and effort, and we’re definitely in a better place now than when we started. As a couple, I think that’s always what you hope to find after navigating rough waters. And I really do believe that the rest of the trip will benefit from the bumps we experienced this first month! I have to remember that the fault is not in making mistakes, but in refusing to learn from them!

      Sep. 10 2012 @ 9:15 pm
      1. Steph

        Hear hear!

        Sep. 11 2012 @ 1:10 pm
  5. For some reason, this post didn’t go through to my Google Reader! I only knew it was here at all because I saw it in your recent posts section when I went to comment on your Odon post. How strange! Makes me wonder if I’ve missed over posts (grr).

    I’m sorry to hear that there were so many difficult spots in your first month, and I hope that as time passes and you both get into a routine/schedule, it will help to lessen the rows and unpleasantness. I imagine there will always be some of that – I mean, anyone traveling together in close proximity in unfamiliar places is bound to have some of that, right? But I do hope things get better quickly!

    Sep. 10 2012 @ 4:38 pm
    1. Amanda author

      Fear not, Amanda, we definitely seem to have learned from this past month and are already in a much better place! We’ve been in Hong Kong for a week now and not had a single fight or moment of unpleasantness. Not having a packed schedule has done wonders for us as we have the freedom to spend every second exactly as we like. Today we had planned to visit Victoria Peak but we both woke up feeling achy and sick so we’ll spend the day in bed instead! Sad we won’t be out there exploring more of this wonderful place, but obviously we need the time to recover and relax and we can’t argue with our bodies on this one!

      Sep. 10 2012 @ 9:17 pm
  6. Touching to read about your challenges – we’ve had some of those ourselves. The road brings all things to the surface eventually…and I think we’re the better for it. Best of everything to you two as you strike your pace.
    Oh, and Amendment 3? Excellent choice. Be free!

    Sep. 12 2012 @ 7:14 am
    1. Bethany ~ twoOregonians author

      Thanks for commenting, Bethany! I definitely agree that the road brings things out in you that might never have otherwise surfaced and that can be hard, but really, we’re stronger for having made it through!

      Sep. 16 2012 @ 9:40 pm
  7. It’s great to read this post as Dave and I are literally only 12 hours away from our own flight to Japan to start off our trip! Who knows what the trip will bring but I am sure it will have it’s fair share off stress moments and it will take us some time to figure out how slowly we need to travel without getting burnt out! Very excited at the moment though and it’s been great reading your Japan posts! Dave worked insanely hard at finding couchsurfers all over Japan and we seem to have secured quite a few – but who know how that will pan out! Fingers crossed! Can’t wait to read more about your travels!

    Sep. 15 2012 @ 1:33 am
    1. Vicky author

      So exciting! Have fun in Japan, you two! I am really excited to see the country through your eyes as every journey is unique! And really, don’t feel bad if you find you need to go slower than you anticipated. For trips of these lengths it’s a good thing to have days where you do nothing travel-related! 🙂

      Stay safe and Tony & I will be reading!

      Sep. 16 2012 @ 9:43 pm
  8. Natalie of Book Line and Sinker


    I can’t believe I was so off the grid that I missed the kickoff to your trip! I’d been eagerly anticipating it since you first mentioned it a few years back.

    Just spent the better part of 2 hours reading all of your posts and admiring the gorgeous photography. I’ve been reading portions to my husband and we are hoping to get autographed copies when you publish your travel memoir!

    In my opinion, you are by far one of the best writers in the book blogging community and these posts are no exception. Tony’s talent as a photographer is matched only by your prose! (I know he’s writing, too, and I see you taking pictures as well.)

    This post is great on so many levels. You’re really giving readers an honest look at epic traveling. Ant and I have found (in our small-scope trips of 1 month or less), that we can’t see everything and actually enjoy ourselves more if we pick 4 big activities or sites per every 5 days of travel. I always have quick or easy places of interest in case we have more time, but that general rule has served us well on road trips across the country and our trips abroad. We enjoy the downtime and have actually stumbled upon some great things that we would have missed if we were over scheduled. Eellike the small towns and try to find new things.

    My unsolicited advice? Check your guilt at Customs and just have fun. You won’t see it all. Get a lot of rest and don’t forget to step back, put down the camera, and just be in the moment, as cheesy as it sounds. 🙂 Also, international grocery stores are an awesome way to spend 15-30 minutes–climate controlled, entertaining, interaction with locals, and free!

    Looking forward to your future posts!

    Sep. 25 2012 @ 9:16 pm
    1. Natalie of Book Line and Sinker author

      Thanks for the kind comments, Nat, and good to see you around these parts! I desperately need to head over to S&TI! and post about some of the books I have read and also remind people that Tony & I are traveling and are posting more regularly over here. Life has just been too crazy lately to get content up on either blog at the rate I would like!

      We’ve definitely been doing better about giving ourselves downtime guilt-free and since reaching China, our breakneck travel pace has definitely slowed. We are seeing the things we want to see, but if all we do in a day is wander the streets and eat some weird food, we are happy!

      And yes, grocery stores abroad are always fun! The weirdest thing is that here in China, supermarkets seem to only sell candy!

      Sep. 26 2012 @ 6:31 pm
  9. cody

    if you could do it all over again what would you change?

    Oct. 11 2012 @ 5:42 pm
    1. cody author

      Good question! We have had some time now to think about how we could have started this trip differently, and I think that while we really enjoyed Japan and think it’s definitely a great gateway to Asia for new travelers, we probably would have benefited from visiting a country where it is easier to go slow right from the start. We are in the Philippines now and it is both so cheap and laid back that it really lets you just soak in the moment and reflect on where you are. I think given how busy we were leading up to our trip, it would have been nice to acclimatize to our new way of life in a destination that promoted some R&R and more downtime.

      Oct. 14 2012 @ 8:51 am
  10. I’m really looking forward to these monthly musings post. I have just booked a one way flight out of NZ for May 2013 and am planning an open ended trip. These types of posts are really good reminders to think about pacing myself and shifting into a different mindset for longer term travel.

    Nov. 27 2012 @ 4:46 pm
    1. 30Traveler author

      Thanks so much for the compliment! I think we are likely to shift these musings and reflections into our summary posts on each country, as so far, every place we have visited has taught us something and prompted us to update our travel style. When it comes to travel, it’s definitely an ongoing journey!

      Nov. 28 2012 @ 8:40 pm
  11. Greetings, I just finished your first month today (after finding your blog via Mark’s China Blog) and I have to say, you guys rock! I’ve done a lot of reading on Japan in travel books and your experiences bring it all home. From the planning to the honest (travel / marriage) summary here Dr. Steph, you both should be very proud of your accomplishments. This is a super blog and I can’t wait to catch up on your year!


    Oct. 29 2013 @ 2:28 pm

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