How to Propose to Your Girlfriend While Traveling the World

How I Made An Epic Proposal in Front of Mt. Fuji

Keenan Ngo
Dec 30, 2018 · 13 min read

The best part of traveling the world with your significant other is that you’re always got someone to experience new sights, cultures, and worldly things with. The downside, however, is that in over a year and a half of travel we have been away from each other for precisely four afternoons, which makes finding an engagement ring without her knowing really, really difficult. So, if an opportunity comes up, you have to be quick off the mark to grab it.

To understand how I got the ring, I first need to speak about our relationship. Yuki and I have been dating, traveling, and living together for over six years. We first became a couple when I invited her on a 2012 camping trip through the Canadian Rockies — her first time seeing glaciers. In the following years, we spent three months backpacking Southeast Asia, made careers in as structural engineers, and became Professional Engineers, all of which are recorded on this blog. We then sold everything and set out on a worldwide trip that was only supposed to last one year but turned into two very early on. During this trip we took a cruise in the Caribbean and this was the first time I started to seriously think about getting an engagement ring.

In my mind, I had set out three essential criteria for how to propose to my girlfriend:

  1. The engagement had to be a complete surprise;
  2. The engagement had to be recorded on video; and,
  3. The engagement had to be somewhere epic.

The first criteria would prove difficult to fulfill because we have spent all day of every day together. After the cruise we returned to Vancouver for Christmas and there were two afternoons when we were apart. Both were Christmas dinners where Yuki stayed home because she was sick; there was hardly any time in which I could go ring shopping.

After Christmas we visited Palawan in the Philippines, connected with family in Bangkok, spent three months in Japan, revisited Seoul, drove around Okinawa, and stopped in Singapore; all the while, I was planning for ways to get a ring undetected.

Originally I thought I’d get the ring when we visited Toronto since it was home turf and it would be easier to find jewellery shops, make comparisons, and pay in my home currency. I was never able to find an opportunity to get away from Yuki and so I looked into buying a ring at New York, our next stop. Again we were always sightseeing together and so I quickly gave up on getting away to find a ring. Besides, I didn’t know the first place to start.

We spent the fall in London, Munich, Spain, Tunisia, and Portugal before making our way back to Japan for the final Taylor Swift Reputation Stadium Tour concert. We were only able to attend the Tokyo concert because Yuki had befriended a Swiftie called Rey online who offered to purchase the tickets ahead of time and have us pay her back later. Yuki and Rey made plans to go out to the Tokyo Instax Gallery and End Game music video filming locations a day before the first of two Tokyo concerts.

Suddenly, I realized that I had an unprecedented opportunity. I Googled how to buy an engagement ring in Tokyo. It so happens that there are two main jewellery districts in Tokyo. The first is in Ginza, near the Imperial Palace, which is a high-end neighbourhood for expensive shopping. The second is Naka-Okachimachi near Ueno station, a 15 minute walk from the apartment we were staying at. I did some more research and found a very informative website that described how diamonds are graded by carat, colour, clarity, and cut.

On the afternoon that Yuki went to meet Rey, I walked her to the train station and then hurried to Okachimachi since I only had an afternoon to work with. I needed to be home before Yuki to avoid suspicion.

Rey and Yuki at the Instax Gallery

Naka-Okachimachi is a three by three block of alleys scattered with jewellery shops. Some of them sell diamonds and others sell other gems. With some hastily scribbled notes I set out, walking around to get my bearings and gathering up my courage. I was nervous because unlike in Canada where the jewellery shops have large display cases with what seems like endless rings, the shops here were quite small and it was difficult to see if they had engagement rings at all. I was also praying that the first ring I saw would be “the one” and that it would be within my budget. Any shopping after that would be to confirm that the first was the one.

When I entered the first shop I asked about rings but the woman didn’t speak English; she had to pull out her phone and use Google Translate to tell me that this was a craftsman shop. Slightly embarrassed, I left and walked around the block.

I spied a large store which had long display cases of rings, so I went in thinking that I’d get a feel for the prices and the different types of designs. A salesman asked to help me and I asked about engagement rings. He also didn’t speak English but had a handy sign for foreigners that said, “This floor is for wholesale, the shop is downstairs in the basement.”

Downstairs I was met by another lady who didn’t speak much English but was able to show me a tray of about 20–30 diamond rings. Three in the corner caught my eye and I was pleased to see that they were also within my price range; not that I had any idea how much diamond rings should cost. Of the three rings, the first was gorgeous and I knew that Yuki would like it. The other two were nice but just not as nice as the first.

The shop also showed me some other rings, but they said it would take a month to make. I was quite surprised that they had these fake replica rings just for display — but in hindsight it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that most people have plenty of time to purchase a ring. I, on the other hand, wanted to walk out the door with a ring today — my only day away from Yuki.

I thought about buying the ring, which felt right — but it was a size 10 and I estimated that Yuki needed a size 7. It also had lower clarity than I wanted. After much ogling, I decided that I couldn’t buy the first one I liked and that I needed to shop around. What if this store was more expensive or I found a better one?

I politely asked for a business card and their closing time so that I might return later. Outside, I hastily wrote some notes based on what I could recall about the ring and then proceeded up the street to a row of shops.

I then visited 5 or more shops of varying quality. Some of the shopkeepers spoke English but most didn’t. At each shop, I compared the design and price to the image of the first ring I’d seen. Soon, I realized that these other shops had higher grade or larger diamonds, which also made them more expensive. I also realized that I cared less about the size of the diamond and more about the overall design of the ring. According to this website on engagement rings which is really worth a read, I found that the Japanese tend to buy diamond rings over 0.300 carats and Americans over 1.0 carats. I think this is because of the mentality that bigger is better. However, a ring with a large diamond doesn’t necessarily look better. If the ring has just a single large diamond, it looks smaller to me because there is nothing to compare it to. On the other hand, if the diamond is flanked by many tiny diamonds on each side, it looks smaller because the design is so busy. I think people, driven by the industry, put too much emphasis on diamond statistics like size, clarity, colour, and not enough thought into the overall design of the diamond ring itself. Each time I looked at a diamond ring, I compared it to my mind’s image of that first ring, and would find that the overall design was never as good.

All of the shops had only 5–10 real diamond rings for immediate sale, with the bulk of their sales coming from made-to-order sales. Since this is Japan, I couldn’t just glance over the diamond rings and leave. I wanted to be polite so I had to ask about other diamond rings they might have, knowing they didn't, and then go through a process of evaluating made-to-order rings before saying that two weeks was too long and that I needed the ring today, before politely excusing myself.

The last place I visited had a nice English-speaking man who had nice rings and claimed to be able to make a diamond ring in the next few hours before closing, so I took a long look his made-to-order rings. There were some nice designs but it wasn’t until he pulled out some diamonds and set them on the rings that they looked right. It was strange that all of the diamonds in this store seemed to have a blue tinge, and I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. When his associate placed a stool behind me and a coffee beside me, I started to notice that the man was discretely turning over the price tags and removing the cheaper diamonds in favour of the larger and more expensive ones. I was starting to get uneasy and when I asked for his business card saying I wanted to compare these rings with other ones, he told me he couldn’t make the ring today unless I bought it now — that’s when I knew I’d had enough and left.

I found myself standing outside Okachimachi, the first shop with the ring I really liked, contemplating my options. Either I bought this ring, which felt right but had lower specs than I wanted, or I waited. If I bought the ring I’d be able to propose in Japan (which would be really special to both of us) or in Australia in the spring. But if I waited, when would I have the opportunity to go ring shopping alone again?

After much deliberation, I decided to buy that first ring. I was a little disappointed that it had a SI-1 clarity grade meaning that it had “noticeable inclusions (blemishes or marks) that are fairly easy to see under 10x magnification; sometimes, these inclusions can be visible to the unaided eye.” But I thought about it and realized that there was no way anyone would be able to see it unless they were a professional looking for it.

The more I looked at it, the more it felt just right. The diamond sparkled more than any other I’d seen — even with its relatively smaller size — and the design was elegant without being too busy or too simple. There’s also something to be said about buying a Japanese engagement ring. Both Yuki and I are so connected to Japan that to get the ring here feels so much more special than if I had gotten one in Canada.

Buying the ring gave rise to another challenge. As I talked to the sales associate, I remembered that another Swiftie that Yuki had met online had offered her tickets to Taylor Swift’s first concert night, so I would be able to pick up the ring the next day. We were planning on going to Tokyo Dome in the afternoon before the concert to meet other fans and when Yuki went in I’d come home. This would be a perfect time to pick up the ring.

But first, I had to figure out when the concert started so I asked the saleswoman to look up the opening time on her phone. It was a good thing she spoke English! Then we confirmed that the shop could alter the size of the ring by the next evening.

Given that I was buying an engagement ring abroad, and on such short notice, I was prepared to sacrifice ring uniqueness — so I was very surprised when the saleswoman told me that I could choose a free gift to add to the ring in the form of a birth stone, pink, or blue diamond. I asked her what I would do with it and she told me that it would be put on the inside of the band. As well, I could also have the inside engraved. I had to ask what most people put and she told me that it is either Yuki’s or my initials. I decided “YK” was most suitable because it could refer to “Yuki Kishimoto” or “Yuki & Keenan”.

While they were processing my payment and making sure I got an 8% tax discount for foreigners, I had a sip of coffee they gave me. Then it was done and I made my way home, happy and excited.

I arrived back to the apartment to find Yuki on FaceTime with her mom. To my horror, she immediately smelled the coffee on me and I had to make a lame excuse about walking around Ueno and going to a coffee shop. She wanted to know which one and for a moment I thought she’d discover my secret because she has a history of finding Christmas and Valentines presents beforehand. Fortunately, her mom took her attention away and I was momentarily saved until dinnertime.

It suddenly occured to me at dinner that Yuki didn’t actually have tickets to night one of the concert. The Swiftie had only promised to give her one if she got extra free tickets, but we hadn’t heard anything from her, so we didn’t think Yuki would be going. Suddenly I didn’t have my alone time to get the ring without raising suspicion. I began thinking up with excuses like being sick or having to pick up a Christmas present… but I knew those were weak excuses.

I was, therefore, incredibly relieved the next day when we were outside Tokyo Dome taking photos with new friends and I found out that that Swiftie had arrived with a chaperone and they’d decided to give the chaperone’s ticket to Yuki instead. My secret mission was saved! Yuki went to the concert and I returned to Okachimachi to pick up the ring. The same saleswoman was there and greeted me with a big smile, but mine was bigger.

For the next month we continued our Japan tour with the ring safely hidden at the bottom of my backpack, in a roll of toilet paper wrapped in socks. At each new town, I looked at the attractions we would visit to find something iconic where I might be able to propose. We visited several Christmas light displays that I considered proposing at, but they weren’t quite epic enough.

When we arrived in Odawara I intended on proposing at the Hakone Shrine under the floating Torii gate, because it would make for a great photo with an iconic Japanese element to it. The day, however, ended in clouds and a long queue of people taking photos at the gate, so I wasn’t able to make it happen and had to resort to my backup location: Mt. Fuji.

This was a blessing in disguise because the day that we road-tripped to Mt. Fuji (which you should read here) was one of the most memorable days of our trip. The views of Mt. Fuji were glorious and we met a nice Japanese man who took photos of us and gave us some of his own. We had a great conveyor sushi lunch, found stamps at the World Heritage Information Centre and ended the day at the edge of a lake in front of Mt. Fuji. The entire day was wonderful.

Before setting out on the trip, I picked out a location using Google Maps that would be private enough but with a lakeside view of the mountain at sunset. When we arrived, the sun was already setting so I had to hurry us down to the lakeside and set up the camera with a tripod. I took a few photos of us first, to position Yuki in front of the camera, and then set the camera to record the video:

I proposed to Yuki and she couldn’t have been more surprised and happy. The video turned out even better than I could have hoped for. The music fits it near-perfectly, without any editing, and we both love that we are silhouetted, which makes it all the more romantic.

Not only did I get the surprise I’d hoped for, but I also got it at the most iconic monument of Japan, in the most epic video imaginable! Looking back, it seemed like the kami were with me the entire way. The entire journey was set out and all the pieces fell into place perfectly. After Yuki said “yes”, we took some photos (for real this time) and then she wanted to hear all about the story of how I got the ring.

“…I’m gonna marry that girl…”

Adventure Arc

Keenan’s Adventures

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