Part two of a 3-part series, after How to Sabbatical, Pt. 1: Jump Off the Train, and coming soon How to Sabbatical, Pt. 3: Re-Entry.
This is one of the best things I’ve ever done in life, spiritually and professionally.
Preparing for the trip was equal parts overwhelm and sheer joy. I had the start and end points — from Iceland vacation in August with my girlfriend, to returning home from Japan before the U.S. election in November. When I left home what I’d booked was exactly this: One-way ticket to Iceland, Iceland to Norway, train through Norway, Oslo to Berlin, and a yurt on the coast of Japan two months later. The rest I would improvise.
Apart from some European zigzags, this would take me in a line directly around the world. From the first moment I believed this could be true, through now and forever, it is an absolutely stunning feeling.
I packed for all seasons and dreams: Icelandic hikes, Scandinavian kayaking, Paris cafes, London theaters, Berlin clubbing, and long days in hot hot monsoony Tokyo. As my partner in crime, I chose a black 30L backpack, about 1.5 wide x 2 ft tall. I wanted to be as mobile as possible, and enjoyed the challenge of ultralight travel. Shoes needed to walk all day, hike glacial lakes, and look good in a restaurant.
While thrilling to globetrotting, another part of me — perhaps the raised-Catholic part, perhaps something else — felt there was no way I could survive it. How could my tiny female self go off into the world alone, to countries where I didn’t know a soul or language, to forests and remote coasts, to metropoli of millions, and around the globe to my own doorstep? I was Icarus — surely my wings would melt and I’d fall from the sky. How did I dare.
And so on some level I didn’t fully believe I would ever return, and sorted my affairs accordingly. All my accounts, all my everything. I wrote down the master password, sealed it in an envelope, and gave it to my girlfriend with instructions on what to do if I didn’t return, i.e. go in those accounts and take everything. All this preparation made it clear to me who I trust, and the legal reality that my parents were my next of kin. (Spoiler alert: For this and many other reasons, I asked my girlfriend to marry me shortly after I returned. This exercise here— finding all my damn passwords — is what planted that seed.)
Oh the rush of a one-way international ticket. I was no longer my job title, and by this time I’d more or less grown into saying I was a photographer, or nothing and no one at all disappearing into the world. My camera rarely left my hand as I captured the streets of Reykjavík and Dublin and Berlin. Nightly I would transfer the best shots from my camera to my phone, then edit and post them — putting together collections. Here are some of the best. Posting daily on active street photography communities on Instagram, I met people as I went along. Shortly after arriving in Japan, I was tapped to host a prominent account, which was a fantastic honor. Such joy to be able to put my waking hours into that passion, to which I applied the same rigor and energy that I had the office. I continued to write and publish photography articles, and amassed a body of photographic material that I still draw from over a year later.
I also… kayaked past the Queen Mary II during a storm in the Norwegian fjords, drank from an Icelandic waterfall, felt a monkey brush past my bare leg in Arashiyama, hung off the Cliffs of Moher, built a fire alone under a full moon on a hilltop on the Japanese coast. I drank champagne and gin with old friends and their loves in Paris and London, and made some new pals at a music festival in Tokyo on one glorious night of bands and drinks and smoking and dancing flamenco on the bar after closing. I saw Sirs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart on a West End stage together —twice, discovered $5 jazz and wine in a tiny underground hole in the Pigalle, jammed to a live bar band in Dublin, and rocked out in hot little jazz bars and DJ clubs in Shibuya. I took trains across Norway, UK, Ireland, Japan and under the English Channel. I took $97 flights to Paris and ferries across the Irish Sea. I dyed my hair red on the last day in London.
And… got locked out of my Paris apartment way too late at night, got lost in a bad part of Berlin with luggage and crying and no money or connectivity, accidentally ate a fish-eyeball burger on some Japanese island that made me sick, accidentally offended Danes in a cooking class, melted down in Ireland as many FEELINGS came to a head, got spooked in the infinite black sky of my rural coastal yurt (is it the wild boars tonight? men? god I hope it’s the boars), brought the wrong shoes and limped from shooting pain, and got so very lost so very many times in Tokyo.
I walked all day, every day, for months.
Nothing bad ever happened.
I tried to see every beautiful thing in those places that I’d ever wanted to see. And I spent all day, every day, looking into the faces of their people as I went about with my camera. I feasted with every sense, blowing my synapses clear open. See, hear, taste, smell, touch. Feel. Walk. Walk. Walk. Play. I took in some of the most glorious experiences and spaces ever created by nature and humans.
Paying attention, taking notes. How is this made. How is that designed. What makes this world-class. A work of art. This train station. That garden. That tower. These delicate dishes of shōjin ryōri Zen Buddhist cuisine.
Working at a desk, I often feel disconnected from my body or that I am wholly a brain. On the trip, I returned to a fully mind-body-soul way of being. My artwork, however visual, was fueled by all the senses, and viscerally felt like an extension of my spirit. I have thousands of art photos from this journey, and upon seeing every. single. one. to this day, I know where I was standing, where exactly on Earth, and what it sounded and smelled like. When I returned to Japan a year later, I felt I was seeing ghosts.
Apart from ordering food, buying tickets, or the occasional rendez-vous, I was happily silent and solo day and day out for months. I barely even heard my own voice. One day, however, I had rude service at a café to point of a waiter vigorously spraying another table’s crumbs on me. I complained heatedly in French to another server. Normally I wouldn’t do this as a foreigner, but on this day I would. not. have. it. My salade niçoise and red wine were comped, and I used the windfall to promptly go and buy a lipstick tube of Chanel #104: Passion. Red, natch. I was on fire. Something about this moment has stayed with me, a stepping stone in lifting my voice, that day and beyond.
Beyond my literal voice, my creative voice grew stronger every day — both aesthetically in my photography, as well as in professional intention and direction. I grew clear on what I would do next and what it must involve: Environmental design, space design, connected designed human experiences beyond screens. International focus or discovery. Bigger-picture design systems. Public speaking.
Here’s the last morning of the trip in my Tokyo “home” of Shibuya with my beloved Fuji in hand:
Then I hopped a plane back to America the week before the 2016 election.