Anatomy of a Photoshoot

A few weeks ago, one of girlfriend’s friends asked if I would be willing to do a maternity photoshoot for her. Apparently word of my upcoming photography skills had made its way around New York City. I had never done a serious photoshoot before so I offered to do it for free in exchange for low expectations around the quality of the final product. Fair deal, right?

The Mood Board

The first step in this process, was to put together a mood board. What in the devil, you might ask, is a mood board? The dictionary definition is “an arrangement of images, materials, pieces of text, etc., intended to evoke or project a particular style or concept”. The practical implication is that a mood board is essentially a powerful tool for an artist to convey what they have in mind, and to understand what someone else has on their mind. Let me give you an example.

Two years ago, I was trying to come up with ideas for a wall art project for my apartment. I spent multiple hours browsing around Pinterest, Instagram, and Google images to look at random pictures of wall art and seeing which ones I liked most. Anything I found interesting, I pinned into a special Pinterest board that  I had set up. Here’s a screenshot of what I had:

This is basically a mood board that is supposed to convey my artistic vision. If you spend even 5 seconds looking at this, you won’t be surprised that I ended up making this:

Pinterest is basically a mood board for millennials. It’s a way to put together a bunch of images that convey artistic ideas. As such, the first step to preparing for this photoshoot was to ask the couple for a mood board that showed what images resonated with them the most. Here’s a sample of what they sent me. Take a look and think of the first few words that come to your mind. I’ll tell you mine once you’ve had a chance to think of yours:

These are the words that came to my mind when I saw this: nature, golden hour, shoes, bokeh, romance. The point though, is that words were not enough to help me understand their vision, but this mood board gave me a pretty good idea of what the photos should look like.

Ideation, location, timing

Next step was to do the same exercise myself, and crawl the internet for images that seemed to match this mood board, but were interesting enough to draw inspiration from. An hour of searching for “maternity photoshoot” on Google, Instagram, and Pinterest was enough to give me some inspiration and ideas to try out.

Next step was to figure out a time and place. Since this was late October in New York City, I naturally gravitated towards Central Park and its fall colors. That would give me the outdoor setting I wanted. Combine that with a golden hour timing and I could see this turning out fairly well!

Equipment

I took my trusty Sony A7Riii camera for the shoot. Given the desire to get a bokeh effect in these photos, it was important to pick a lens that had a low enough f-number to allow that. Noobs – a bokeh effect is simply a photography effect that focusses on one thing and blurs out stuff that is closer or further away from the camera than the thing in focus. Here’s an example:

To get this sort of effect, I would need a lens with a big aperture, which corresponds to a small f-number. Next, since I was going for a composition that needed to show a good amount of background and wasn’t intended to have a tight frame, I would need a low focal length. Something in the range of 24-35mm. Given this criteria, I chose the Sony GM 24-70 f/2.8 lens.

Finally for the camera setting, I usually shoot on aperture priority, with a slightly warmer white balance, spot metering and linking that to the focus point. If you use a Sony, you might be familiar with these terms. If not, basically I set things up so that the exposure is metered to the same spot that I’m focussed on. It’s a setting that has worked out quite well for me, so I tend to stick with it :).

The Photoshoot

We arrived at Central Park with an hour to sunset, and got down to business. The key is to try things out, and err on the side of taking lots of pictures. You’ll likely take a bunch of not-so-great photos, but they will give you instant feedback on how to adjust things to get something better on the next shot. For example, here’s the first shot I took:

I like the background, although it could be less blurry. Lighting looks great. Maybe there’s something here.

Looking good! But – lighting is not the best, shoes are a bit too high, the hand is a little too dominant. Easy fixes – lower the hand, adjust composition, add some exposure compensation, emphasis on the shoes. And voilà, behold the final product:

Post processed using Snapseed to selectively add brightness to the shoes

Lighting came out well, the background is blurred, but you can easily make out the baby bump. The golden light is pretty solid. Success!

At this point, we kept going, and tried a bunch of things. Below is a selection of the best ones. I’ll emphasize once again that each of these took 10-20 attempts with quick micro-adjustments of composition, exposure and focus. I’d recommend following this process. Pick a rough composition and take a few test shots with the subjects in the photo. Then, make micro-adjustments of all kinds and take several more shots. Perhaps even try going vertical (mobile friendly!) with your framing. Taking multiple shots in one composition will also help improve your chances of ending up with images that are properly focussed.

Processed with VSCO with a4 preset
Processed with VSCO with c3 preset
Processed with VSCO with e2 preset

Post-processing

You’ll notice that the photos above are annotated with the presets I applied to them during post processing. If you have a solid camera like the Sony A7Riii, the photos will come out looking pretty amazing right out of the camera. A little post processing helps add that final icing to the cake, so to speak. It helps bring out the lighting, and allows you to add emphasis on certain objects (like the baby-size converse shoes). I usually just do the post processing using VSCO and Snapseed. Some people swear by Lightroom, so feel free to pick your poison!

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed doing my first maternity photoshoot as much as the lucky couple enjoyed seeing these photos. I learned a lot in this process, and hopefully this note will help you navigate your first shoot as well!

A primer on H1B visas for my American friends

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Let’s face it, the real reason I want a visa is to pose in front of Manhattan

At the moment I started writing this post, I was sitting in my parent’s house somewhere in northern India, waiting for my passport to come back from the US Embassy in New Delhi. If things went well, it would contain a renewed H1B visa which would allow me to head back to New York City (the place I like to call home). While much maligned in American public discourse by both sides of the political divide, no one really seems to understand how the visa actually works, or have any idea about how difficult it is to get. Not to mention any idea about how it affects the lifestyle of people who do manage to get it.

But fear not, my American friends. Today, right here, you are about to get an introduction to the H1B visa from an immigrant who has had the pleasure(?) of receiving it. If you manage to emerge with your sanity from under the pile of laws and regulation I’m about to throw at you, then you’re either an immigration lawyer or you didn’t actually read this post, or you might actually be the right person to affect some change. Alrighty, let’s get started!

What the f*** is a visa?

Ah right, you’re American. Chances are you don’t really know what an actual visa looks like. Wait, what’s that you said? You’ve been to Europe and they put a visa in your passport at the airport? Yeah, that’s just an arrival stamp. Wait, you’ve been to Canada and Mexico as well? Nope, still just an arrival stamp. Woah, woah, woah. You’ve been to China and Brazil? Look at you, globetrotter. In that case, you have seen a real visa and you may safely skip to the next section.

For the ones who are still here, Americans can go to 186 countries with no visa / visa on arrival. That means that for most countries in the world, you can show up at the airport and you’ll be let in. That’s a lot of freedom of movement. An Indian passport holder for example, gets access to only 59 countries without a visa. That means that as an Indian citizen, you can’t just decide to go to Paris for the weekend. You’ll have to decide weeks in advance, and then make a trip to the nearest French Consulate (which might be in another city), and submit your passport with a pile of documents proving that:

  1. You have money to spend in France.
  2. You have a place to stay.
  3. You won’t create any trouble in France.
  4. You will definitely leave after your stay. I’m sure you’re a nice person, but they’d rather you leave after spending your money.

If the French deem you worthy, you will be granted what is known as a Schengen visa. This is what it looks like:

Schengen sample

Not my photo. Credit: The Internet

With this, you can finally visit Paris, and even go to other European countries that are included in the Schengen Area. Notice that the UK isn’t in it. No, they didn’t Brexit from the Schengen agreement. They just never Brought themselves into it in the first place. What that means is that you, Indian citizen, cannot simply pop over across the channel to London. You’ll need a UK visa for that, and this is the sort of madness you are in for. You poor soul. On the other hand, you, American citizen, can easily head over to London for a quick shopping trip during your weekend in Paris. You lucky fuck.

Alright, I think we all understand what a visa is. Yes? Good.

The H1B visa and how to get it

Here is what an H1B visa looks like:

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Credit: The Internet

The H1B is technically a work visa. Notice that it contains the name of the company you work for. This means that if you change jobs, you will need an updated visa which usually means a visit to the US consulate any time you leave the US after changing jobs. If you’re thinking, “well, that sounds like a pain in the ass”, you’re damned well right it is! I’ll get into this more later. Let’s first start from the beginning.

You’re a bright young non-American who has just been offered a killer job at your dream American company. There are of course, multiple types of visa that would allow you to come to the US (depending on your skill set and type of job), but let’s say you are a highly-skilled college graduate in a science/technology field. Most likely, you’ll need an H1B visa, which is designed for “highly skilled workers”. The US government only grants 85,000 H1B visas each year, out of which 20,000 are reserved for people who hold at least a Masters degree. In 2018, however, the US government received 190,000 applications. That’s more than twice the number of visas they will grant. In fact, the number of applications was even higher in the years before.

So how do they decide who gets in and who doesn’t? They organize a lottery on April 1st every year. That’s right – all 190,000 of these people had to submit their application on April 1st 2018. A day later than April 1st, and you’re screwed until next year. To make things even more interesting, you yourself can’t put your name in the lottery. The company that offered you a job will have to do it for you. Let’s assume that you got the job offer around December of your senior year. Since your company is going to have to file your H1B petition on April 1st, they will need to prepare in advance to have all the papers ready. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of things they’ll need to do:

  • Fill out an H1B petition (also known as Form I-129). Depending on your circumstances, this could be several tens of pages long.
  • Prove that you meet the government’s definition of “highly skilled”.
  • Prove that by hiring you they aren’t displacing an equally qualified American worker.
  • Fees for the petition.
  • More money if they want it to be processed faster IF you clear the lottery.

Alright, it’s April 1st. You’re about to graduate from college and are super optimistic about your future (lol). The company submits your documents and you begin an agonizing wait where you pray to your favorite god of your favorite religion that you get picked by the random number picker algorithm running on some shitty computer in a USCIS office. In the meantime, you try to prepare back up job offers in case you don’t get selected for the lottery. Over the next few weeks, you might receive an acceptance or a rejection based on the effectiveness of your prayers. Let’s say that you got lucky and made it past the lottery.

Now begins the fun part. AFTER making it past the lottery, USCIS will start actually reviewing your entire application to decide whether to approve your petition or not. This could take anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months, based on whether your company paid more for premium processing or not. Let’s say that things worked out and your petition is approved.

Pop the champagne, and start appreciating the fine sport of Baseball. You’re going to America! Fuck yeah!

Of course, the rules state that you cannot actually go the US without a literal visa in your passport. You don’t really have that yet. In reality, you’ve only made it past stage one of the process. Now comes stage two. The approval of your H1B petition is sent to you by your company. It’s called a “Form I-797A” which will grant you the ability to work in the US for a period of 3 years. Even if you get this form, USCIS does not allow you to actually start working in the US before October 1st. Why? ¯\_()_/¯

Your company has done its job, and it’s time for you to do some work. You’ll take the I-797A, and go to the website of your local US embassy/consulate. There, you will have to fill out another multiple page form called the DS-160. This form will ask you (among other things):

  • Every place you’ve traveled to in the last 5 years.
  • The exact dates of your 5 previous visit to the US, and length of stay in each instance. If you don’t remember the exact dates like most normal people, well, screw you. I personally have a text file where I keep a list of every single date where I’ve entered and exited the US, where I went, and for how long.
  • A 5-page yes/no questionnaire where you get to answer fun questions like “Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities?”, and “Have you ever ordered, incited, committed, assisted, or otherwise participated in genocide?”. I’m not making this up – these are actual questions on the form.

Once you’ve filled this form out and submitted it online, you will be asked to schedule an in-person interview at your nearest US embassy/consulate. Depending on where you live, there might not be any available appointment in the next few weeks, or even anywhere close by. Let’s say you get an appointment date and make it over to wherever the US embassy/consulate is. You have to take with you a proof of DS-160 submission, and the I-797A you received from your company. You will be interviewed by an official who will ask about your intentions in the US – Where will you work? Where will you stay? What kind of work will you do? Etc.

At this point, three things can happen:

  • You said something bad, or something in your profile was not right and your visa is denied. Yes, this is possible even with an I-797A approval in your hand.
  • Something in the official’s computer said something to them and they decided to put you in “administrative processing”.
  • You actually get approved for a visa and they take your passport.

If the first outcome befalls you, well, too bad my friend. You almost made it.

It it’s the second one, they will hand you a pink colored paper called a Form 221G, which basically says that they need to do some “administrative processing” and get a “security clearance” before you can get a visa. This process can take anywhere from 3 weeks to over 3 months. In all this time, you pretty much have to sit, wait, and pray to your favorite god of your favorite religion. If things go well, they will finish their stuff faster and grant you an actual visa.

If you get lucky enough to end up with outcome #3, they will take your passport right after the interview and return it within a few days with the visa in it.

From the initial I-129 filing, to the I-797A approval, to the DS-160, the interview, the possible 221G, and finally an actual H1B visa, this process can take multiple months. Of course, there is very little guarantee that you will actually get to the end.

Still with me?

Good!

Notice that the visa is actually valid for 3 years. After that, you can renew it. At that point, you will repeat THE ENTIRE process above EXCEPT for the lottery. Yes, your company will file an I-129 and you will get an I-797A. You can continue working with an I-797A if you’re already in the US before your old H1B visa expired, but if you leave at any point after that (to say, go visit your home country), then you’ll be stuck there until you fill out a DS-160, go in for an interview to the US embassy there, and get a renewed H1B visa stamped in your passport. Of course, if they hand you a 221G on this trip, you’ll be stuck outside the US for an unknown amount of time that could range up to multiple months.

At any point, if you change jobs, or companies, you will (again) repeat THE ENTIRE process above EXCEPT for the lottery.

Getting an H1B is a major pain the butt. I’ve actually left out some intricacies in this post to keep it relatively simple. Things can get significantly more complicated than noted here.

How companies could abuse the H1B

At this point (if you’ve made it this far), I hope you appreciate how difficult the process already is. As a foreigner, you can’t just waltz your way into the US with an H1B in your hand. It takes a lot of work and persistence to make it through this process, and to do it every 3 years, and every time you change jobs.

That doesn’t mean, however, that this process is free of abuse. Notice above that I talked about how a company needs to prove that you meet the government’s definition of “highly skilled”, and that by hiring you they aren’t displacing an equally qualified American worker. This is where things get shady. Some companies act as “staffing/outsourcing” agencies where they bring in foreign workers on H1B visas, ostensibly paying them much less than equally qualified American workers. Accusations of this kind are often laid out against outsourcing firms in India. This is the sort of stuff that politicians love to talk about when they make campaign promises. The H1B visa process is incredibly intricate and bureaucratic, but it still doesn’t do enough to meet the needs to American companies while preventing abuse by bad actors. The process needs lots of simplification, but at the same time, it needs a lot more tightening up so that it lives up to its original purpose. It needs to spin a lot of plates, but sadly, no one has figured out how to do that yet.

You might ask – well, what should we do about this then? Maybe you could put a salary minimum on H1B visa workers and keep the minimum high enough to discourage foreign hires that undercut American workers. Perhaps you could create a different type of visa for outsourcing/staffing jobs and make different rules for it. Perhaps both of these are terrible ideas, and we need something completely different. I don’t know, and being non-American, I can’t really do much about this either way.

My hope, American friends, is that at the very least this post helped create empathy around what a typical H1B visa holder has to go through and why it isn’t quite what you might have thought it was like. Perhaps with this new knowledge, you can help affect change in a way that benefits everyone. I hope and pray to my favorite god of my favorite religion _/\_.

Where to run when traveling the world

Running is one of my favorite ways to explore a new city. Running packs a powerful three-punch:

  • You get a great workout that ends with a sweet runner’s high.
  • You can string together a bunch of tourist spots on your route. It’s a great way to explore the city!
  • Lots of potential for Instagram-worthy shots ;).

Without much ado, let’s dive into 7 fantastic running routes around the world.

Central Park, New York City, USA

Being a proud New Yorker, I’ll naturally start off with my favorite place to run – Central Park.

Start at the 59th street side, and run into the park. You will soon see the main central park loop (it’s pretty hard to miss the wide road). Get on that, and run all the way round the park.

Length: Almost a perfect 10 kms. Two rounds of this, and you’ll be ready to do a half marathon.

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What’s cool about the route: Most iconic park, in the most iconic city in the entire world. The route is well paved, wide, and perfect during the mornings when tourist activity is minimal. It gets hilly towards the north side, so be prepared for some climbing. Of course, you can always cut across at any point to make it shorter.

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Central Park – photo taken during one of my runs

Kamo River to Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto is one of my favorite cities in Japan. There are so many shrines and temples all around the city that you could do a run to each one separately for weeks. When I was visiting, I ran east from my AirBnB near Karasuma Oike station over to the Kamo River, and then all the way south to Fushimi Inari Taisha (which is probably the most famous shrine in Kyoto).

Length: Approximately 7 kms.

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What’s cool about the route: You run right along the Kamo river, which is pretty nice in the morning. The end of this route is the incredible Fushimi Inari shrine. If you are feeling powerful, I challenge you to run up the stairs at the shrine for as long as you can ;). I’d recommend doing this run early in the morning so you get to see the shrine before tourists show up by the bus-load.

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The finish line

Queenstown, New Zealand

If you ever get the chance to visit New Zealand, make sure to spend at least 4 days in Queenstown, aka, the adventure capital of the southern hemisphere. The town is located right by a lake and surrounded by mountains. I’d recommend spending the day doing one or more of the adventure activities offered (such as rock climbing, luging, bungee jumping, or whatever else gets you going), and then ending the day with a nice run along the lake at sunset.

Start the run up along Lake Esplanade, run in towards the city center, then round the park and then keep going down for as long as you wish before turning back.

Length: Approximately 10 kms round trip.

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What’s cool about the route: The lake to your side at all times, mountains in front of you at all times, the cold beer waiting for you at the end.

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Welcome to Middle Earth

Historic Financial District, London, UK

London is a quick hop across the pond from New York City, and I go there for work some times. I prefer staying in Shoreditch because it has great food, and cool bars that make for a fantastic night out. Of course, it’s also a good place to start your run the morning after a big night!

Start from Old Street station and run south all the way till you get to the London Bridge. Run across, then turn left and run towards Tower Bridge. Stop to take photos, then continue across the bridge, turn back in around the Tower of London, and run back up the way you came down.

Length: Approx. 7 kms.

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What’s cool about the route: This is a very urban route. You’ll run through the main financial district of London, which means weaving through suited bankers on the sidewalk, unless you go early in the morning. London’s architecture is on full display, and you also run across London’s most iconic bridge, which makes for an epic photo in the morning. The Tower of London also falls along the route. The run ends at Shoreditch Grind, where you can treat yourself to a full English breakfast.

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Yes, the sun does shine in London sometimes!

The Louvre to the Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

My idea of a perfect Parisian summer morning: A lovely run past two of the most iconic tourist spots in the world, followed by a nice petit-déjeuner. On my last work trip to Paris, I made sure to organize at least on such morning for myself. Given my obsession with the Eiffel Tower, I had to include it into my route.

Start from the Louvre, turn left in the gardens, and run across the Seine on the Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor. Turn right, and then run along the river till you get to the Eiffel Tower. Then, cross the Seine back to the other side, run back towards the Louvre, round the Grand Palais and finally, down the Av. des Champs-Élysées to where you started.

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What’s cool about the route: I guarantee that you’ll want to stop and take a photo every 5 minutes on this route.

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Running up the Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor

To the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, USA

Ah California, the land of sunshine, tech companies, and Hollywood. Co-incidentally, also a fantastic place to run all year round! I used to live in San Francisco before moving to New York City, and one of my favorite places to run was at the northern tip of the city.

Start from the entrance to Fort Mason, run up along Marina Blvd, then exit on to Chrissy Field, and run all the way till the Golden Gate Bridge. Take a moment and marvel at the view. Now turn around, and run all the way back!

Length: 10 kms.

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What’s cool about the route: The bridge is awesome at sunset (when not covered in fog). I’d recommend checking the weather, and going for this run on a day that is forecast to be completely clear. The view will be much, much better in the evening. After the run, walk 3 blocks further and treat yourself to freshly made chocolate at Ghirardelli Square.

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Literally could not go further than this

Bondi Beach to Coogee Beach, Sydney, Australia

One of the best sunrise runs I’ve ever done. Sydney faces east, and gets an epic sunrise over the ocean. If you can drag yourself out of bed and head over to Bondi Beach on time, then this run will be the best 6 kms of your life.

Start at Bondi Beach, run south, up and around the hill, around Tamarama Beach, around the next hill, around Bronte Beach, around the next hill and past Waverley Cemetery. Go through Burrows Park, around Clovelly Beach, up the hill and around Gordons Bay, and finally down to Coogee Beach.

Length: Just over 6 kms, with a decent amount of hill climbing.

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What’s cool about the route: The sunrise is epic, and the views are generally great for the entire route. Grab yourself a smoothie at the end, and take a dip in the ocean!

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Along the trail from Bondi to Coogee

15 days in Bali – A Travel Guide

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Sunset from Uluwatu. Venus is right above the moon.

Bali occupies a spot in my top 3 favorite places in the world. Why, you may ask? Well, there’s so much to love about Bali – the people, the beaches, the surf, the outdoors, the food, and so much more! I took 2 months off of work last year, and I spent half of that time in Bali. I have lots to tell you, and tons of recommendations for things you should do. Let’s get right into it!

Best time to visit

Bali’s dry season corresponds with the northern hemisphere’s warm months (April-October). If you want a lot more sun and beach time, go during this time. Beware though, this is peak tourist season and it’s winter in Australia which means tons of drunk Aussies. This time of the year is also said to have better waves for surfing. I went in mid-December, till mid-January. This is in the middle of Bali’s rainy season and we did have a fair amount of rainfall while I was there. However, surfing was a lot of fun and we had good conditions to hit the water almost every day. Another plus is that this is not typically the peak tourist season, so things are cheaper and relatively less crowded.

Money

Bali runs mostly on cash, although given the amount of tourism, a lot of places do accept credit cards especially in the major tourist spots like Kuta or Seminyak (both of which you should avoid entirely). I’d recommend finding an ATM as soon as you land in Bali, right at the airport. Withdraw the equivalent of about USD 300 (which, at the time of writing is about 4,200,000 IDR) and you should be good to go. There are a decent number of ATMs in most places that tourists typically go to so you’ll be fine for the most part. Just make sure you have enough loose cash when venturing out of those areas.

Transportation

There is essentially no public transit Bali worth writing home about. I mostly used taxis to go longer distances and then rented a scooter at each place to go around that area. If you’re a westerner visiting Asia for the first time, then beware that traffic is a lot more chaotic than what you’re probably used to. Scooters are everywhere, there are roadside vendors basically right by the road, lanes aren’t really a concept and generally things on the road move much slower. It’ll take you some time to get comfortable driving in such conditions, but once you get past the initial discomfort, it’s actually kind of liberating! If you’re there primarily to surf, you can also rent a scooter with a rack for your board. Taxis are pretty affordable, and a great way to move from one part of the island to another. You could do that on a scooter, but it’ll get pretty uncomfortable if you have to drive over 2 hours in the heat.

Gas stations: Once you leave the main touristy areas, you’ll notice that there isn’t a gas station in sight. You’ll be forgiven for missing them, but gas stations are in fact everywhere. They just look a bit different than your neighborhood Chevron. Behold, a typical gas station in Bali:

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Move over, Chevron

Yes, those are vodka bottles containing gasoline. The way this works is that you pay the person at this gas station, and they will empty one bottle (or as many as you want) of gasoline into your scooter. Not quite the level of safety you’d expect in a western country but hey, welcome to Bali :).

Driving permits: Most tourists drive around without any permit whatsoever, but that doesn’t mean you should too. Get an International Driver’s Permit before coming, or get a temporary Balinese driver’s license once you’re in Bali. I’d recommend the former, since apparently only one police station in Denpasar issues Balinese licenses for tourists.

Safety: Having grown up in Asia, I like to think of traffic as a school of fish. If you stay with the flow, you’ll mostly be safe. Lanes are less of a thing in most south/south-east Asian countries so don’t try to stress out about other drivers not respecting lanes. Always wear a helmet, and make sure to either leave it locked securely under the seat of your scooter, or take it with you. I had a helmet stolen once while I was there.

Etiquette: Honking is cool, and doesn’t have the same aggressive connotation it has in most western countries. It just means “hey, heads up”. I usually give a gentle honk before passing someone in front of me whenever I’m driving in that part of the world.

Culture, Getting Around and Food

Religion: Islam is the primary religion in Indonesia. In fact, Indonesia is the country with the largest muslim population. Bali is one of the many islands that make up this country and interestingly, Hinduism is the primary religion in Bali. If you’re wondering why that is the case, find yourself a couch and read this very thorough Wikipedia article about Hinduism in Indonesia.

Language: Balinese and Indonesian are the two main languages spoken on the island. In most touristy places, locals speak English as well. Unless you know Balinese, you won’t be able to read any signs, so download Google Translate on your phone.

Getting around: Google Maps is usually reliable and worked well for me as I made my way around the island. There are some signs in English, but there aren’t really many signs on the roads to begin with, so I’d recommend getting an international data plan and downloading Google Maps (if you don’t have it already).

Food: I would highly recommend eating as much freshly caught fish as you can. It’s delicious, and tastes even better when paired with Bintang (Bali’s favorite beer). I’ll recommend actual spots in my itinerary below.

Other stuff: If you’re visiting Bali during the rainy season, buy a poncho over there. It’ll cost the equivalent of about 5-10 USD, and is very useful if you’re driving a scooter in the rain. Mosquitoes are a thing, so make sure your bed has a net around it. That said, malaria is not a thing to worry about in that part of the world, according to the CDC.

ALRIGHT! You’re all set with Bali 101. Let’s get to an itinerary!

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Do not attempt to walk this

This itinerary is a bit more biased towards people who want to surf. If that’s not your goal, simply reduce the time in Uluwatu, and increase the time in Ubud and northern parts of Bali. I’ll make a note at the bottom about other places you can visit if you’d like to modify this itinerary.

Uluwatu (Days 1-7)

Where to stay:

  • I stayed at Padang Padang Surf Camp because my goal from the trip was to surf as much as possible. It’s fantastic – they provide equipment, lessons, breakfast, transportation to and from beaches, the whole shebang. They have a nice pool to chill at after a long morning surf session. They will also arrange massages for you to calm those shoulders after all the paddling. If you want to surf on your trip, I would recommend staying here.
  • Anantara Uluwatu Bali Resort: This is more upscale than a surf camp, and accordingly costs more. This is located on the western coastline, which means that you’ll be treated to incredible sunsets every night.
  • Suarga Padang Padang Resort: Just down the beach from Anantara. Same idea. They have a nice bar that looks right over the sea, which is open to everyone (not just people staying there).

Experiences:

  • Surfing, lots of it. If you’re not an expert, I would highly recommended staying with a surf camp. Otherwise, either rent a car with a rack, or a scooter with a rack attached to the side to carry your board. Padang Padang Beach on the west side, Green Bowl beach on the south side, and Nusa Dua beach on the east side are all great. As always, check conditions before heading over. May the waves be with you!

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    Typical sunset moment at Bingin Beach

  • Freshly cooked fish by the sea: Walk down to Bingin Beach and you’ll see a few spots that offer freshly caught fish. The way it works is that you look over their catch, pick a fish that you like, have a seat, crack open a beer, and wait for fish to be served with a side of rice and lemon. Fantastic experience, best done at sunset time.

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    In my belly. Now!

  • Uluwatu Temple: Perched right at the edge of a cliff on the western tip of Uluwatu. Nice half-day excursion.

Bars and Restaurants:

  • Buddha Soul: Best freshly made fish that I have ever had in my life. I ate there more often than acceptable over a one-month period.
  • Bukit Cafe: Next door to Buddha Soul. I’d recommend checking out their desserts.
  • OM Burger: If I could have my way, I’d rename this to OMG Burger, mostly because I absolutely loved eating there. Don’t expect an America style burger with piles of cheese, meat and more meat. Their burgers are a bit more interesting, and healthier.
  • Cashew Tree: For some bizarre reason, this place is most exciting on Thursdays. So, go there on Thursday. Drinks are great, and they usually have live music on that day.
  • Single Fin: Fantastic 3-storied venue right on the edge of a cliff. Their big nights are Wednesdays and Sundays. If you want to splurge a bit, get a table – costs less than half of what you would pay in Manhattan, but the view is pretty rad.

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Single Fin Bar

Canggu (Days 8-9)

Canggu is where Silicon Valley residents head to for a “working remotely” kind of trip. It’s hip, cool and less obnoxiously touristy as compared to areas like Kuta. If you’re going there from Uluwatu, it’s a 2-3 hour journey that is best undertaken in an air-conditioned taxi.

Where to stay:

I would recommend staying at a hostel, anywhere around Jl. Pantai Batu Bolong (that is the name of a street). The easiest way to get around over here is a scooter so get one, but make sure to not drive when drunk :). I stayed at the Canggu Beach Hostel, which was a bit farther from the main streets than I would have liked, but it was still just a 15 minute ride on the scooter at most.

Experiences:

  • Surf at Batu Bolong beach. Although, if you’re coming from Uluwatu, perhaps you’d want to try something different.
  • Beach Clubs: Think pool by the beach, beer in your hand, bar inside the pool. If that sounds like something you’d like (who wouldn’t?!), then head over to Finns Beach Club. It’s a fantastic place to spend the afternoon, and get a tan. Potato Head Beach Club is another great spot just down the beach from Finns. You can’t go wrong with either. Note that beach clubs tend to have a higher level of security, and are clearly designed for tourists willing to spend a little. You likely won’t be able to take water bottles inside – of course you can buy bottles of water once you have entered.
  • Just drive around! There are lots of rice fields around Canggu, and it’s very liberating to just grab a scooter and drive around until you find something cool. Fantastic morning activity, especially after a little breakfast.

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    Best way to get around

Bars and Restaurants:

  • Pretty Poison Bar and Skate Bowl: This is a bar/club with a skate bowl in the back yard. I remember heading over here at 10PM, and watching skateboarders do tricks while sipping on a cold beer. A very interesting experience, but also a strong start to a big night.
  • Old Man’s Restaurant: Located right at Batu Bolong Beach. Great place to grab food and sip a beer after a dip in the sea.
  • Echo Beach Bar: Same deal as Old Man’s, just up the beach. Pick your spot!

Ubud (Days 10-13)

Ubud is right in the middle of Bali. It’s very different from any of the coastal areas in terms of what it has to offer. It’s a good base to stay at while you explore the northern parts of Bali. Again, I would highly recommend renting a scooter here to help you move around.

Where to Stay:

I stayed at the Puji Bungalow hostel, which was great. It has a pool that serves as a great way to meet other guests and socialize. Any hostel/AirBnB in the area around Jl. Raya Ubud (the main street) should be fine.

Experiences:

  • Day trip to Mt. Batur: Mt. Batur is an active volcano that offers absolutely epic views at sunrise. Not only that, the whole area around the mountain has naturally heated hot water springs. I would recommend doing this as a day trip from Ubud. You can do this in two ways – either sign up for a tour to hike up Mt. Batur for the sunrise (your place of stay will very likely offer bookings), or drive yourself up during the day to get to hot springs in the afternoon. Or, do both :).

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    Mt. Batur

  • Day trip to see rice fields and temples: Get yourself a scooter, fill her up, and drive up from Ubud towards the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces. Once there, you can park on the road side and hike around. The rice fields go up and down the hills pretty much as far as the eye can see. It’s truly a beautiful sight. Spend a couple of hours here, and then continue driving over to Pura Lahur Batukaru, a Hindu temple that was built in the 11th century. Spend some time exploring it, and then head back down to Ubud. This trip will likely take you about 6-7 hours in total, plus some time for food along the way. I’d recommend packing some food, and also keeping a poncho to keep you dry if it rains. Pro-tip: Make sure your helmet has a visor – it makes a lot of difference when you’re driving through pouring rain.

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    Pura Lahur Batukaru

  • Monkey Forest: Temple complex in Ubud that is crawling with monkeys. Go if you like monkeys and are cool with feeding them.
  • Ubud’s Art Market: Walk through little alleys that offer local art and handicrafts. If you’ve seen “Eat, Pray, Love”, this is the market that Julia Roberts’s character walks through. Pro-tip: Take your camera if you like photographing colorful markets like me, because you won’t be disappointed.

Bars and Restaurants:

  • Umah Pizza: I ate here at least twice. Generally good pizza.
  • Mingle Bar and Cafe: They have a second floor balcony situation that was pretty nice. It overlooks a street that is full of shops and offers nice people-watching while you drink some cold beer.
  • CP Lounge: This place offered an entire line of 12 rainbow-colored shots for a handful of dollars. They have pool tables, nice outdoor seating, a dance floor, and a generally fun vibe. Great spot for a night out.
  • Bamboo Bar and Restaurant: Offers live music, usually featuring a local band, great beer and late night food.

Gili Islands (Days 14-15)

The Gili Islands are a group of 3 islands located a two-hour boat-ride away from Bali. One of these islands (Gili Trawangan) is a bit of a party island. The other two are more laid-back. Unlike Bali, and like most of Indonesia, the Gili Islands are primarily muslim in terms of religion. It’s an interesting juxtaposition of a very religious indigenous population that doesn’t drink alcohol, and a bunch of tourists doing pretty much the opposite, all on the same little island.

Where to stay:

If you’re there to party, stay in a hostel near the east coast of Gili T. All of them are roughly similar, but they fill up well in advance for any big holiday. If you’re looking for something more low-key, stay on the west coast of Gili T, or on the two other islands.

Experiences:

  • Go for a run: Gili Trawangan, also known as Gili T, is the biggest of the 3 islands, but it’s just about 4 miles in circumference. This is a great for running and is especially fun around sunset time. A couple of spots along this route have weights and benches right on the beach. One spot around the south-east side of the island has hammocks that hang just inches above the water. They are very Instagrammable.

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    How’s your Monday?

  • Party on Gili T: The eastern side of this island is where the party is – there is a strip of bars located on this side, along the beach. The way it works is that people float from one bar to another, often carrying drinks outside as they walk along the beach. I was there for New Years at the beginning of 2017, and it was a wild, wild night.
  • Go diving: You’ll find diving schools on all three islands. Pick one, and head down into the water!

Bars:

I’d recommend just walking up and down the eastern strip of bars on Gili T and going into any bar that seems cool on the evening you’re there on. You’ll likely end up rolling from one spot to the other, as opposed to just sitting in one place. I’d say, just grab a drink and roll with the flow!

Closing Thoughts

Bali has so much to offer that it’s hard to summarize it all in one post, or even a whole series of posts. My recommendations are more tailored towards someone traveling on a budget, and wanting to experience the outdoors. If surfing isn’t your top priority, then I’d say reduce your stay in Uluwatu. Go diving in Amed on the east coast of Bali. Tulamben on the North-Eastern coast of Bali is also a fantastic diving spot. If you want to see another beautiful island, carve out a few days to spend on the island of Nusa Lembongan, off the south east coast of Bali. If you prefer more mainstream touristy areas, then stay in Kuta or Seminyak. Just beware of pickpockets, and keep your scooter locked when parking in those areas.

I hope this post helped you find cool things to do during your time in Bali – have a fun and safe trip!

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Wooooo!

A Beginner’s Guide To Photographing The Milky Way

I’m more of a street photographer, because the barrier to entry is lower. I can simply walk out of my apartment, and I’m ready to click. Last week I was out in San Francisco for a work trip, and decided to use the opportunity to try to get a photo of the Milky Way. Now, like most budding photographers I had no idea where to even begin with this. I have a nice camera (Sony A7Riii) and a tripod. I’ve also taken pictures with a tripod before, but the Milky Way presents more challenges. For starters, I had a lot of questions:

  • Where should I go to get enough ambient darkness? It needs to be far from a city, but where exactly?
  • Where in the sky would the Milky Way be on a given night?
  • What would the weather be like on that night at that location? What if it’s cloudy?
  • What camera settings should I use? What lens?

That’s a lot to figure out. But, I did figure it out, and got this photo on Friday night:

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I figured I should write about this to help others who are trying to nail that perfect shot of the sky. I’ll start from the basics, and walk you all the way to the final result.

Camera, lenses and equipment

First of all, you’ll need a camera with a good resolution. “Good” is a relative term here – it really depends on how big you want to blow up the final photo. In my case, I wanted to print it and hang it on a wall in my apartment, so I needed over 4000×3000 pixels. If you have any SLR camera, or generally, any interchangeable lens camera, you’ll likely be fine. I use a Sony A7Riii, and I love it.

Focal Length: You need a lens that has a big field of view, something around 24mm. This is because the Milky Way is huge and stretches across the sky. You’ll likely want to showcase the size in your photograph, so pick a lens that gives you that field of view. You could try to use a wide angle lens here, but I went with my 24-70 Sony GM.

Aperture: The Milky Way is pretty faint compared to brighter objects like the moon. To the naked eye, it appears as a band of stars and haze that stretches across the sky. To photograph it, you need your lens aperture to be as wide open as possible. My 24-70 Sony GM tops out at f/2.8, so that’s what I set it to.

ISO: Again, you’re trying to photograph a very faint object so you need high ISO sensitivity. However, you can’t go too high because then you risk introducing noise. I went with ISO 3200. Anything around 3200-4000 should be fine, but you’ll have to experiment with that on the spot.

Shutter speed: You want a lot of detail and therefore need to give your sensor time to collect more photons. However, if you keep the shutter open too long, stars will move in the sky and your photo will contain streaks instead of dots. A good rule of thumb is to divide 500 by your focal length in mm — so for a 24mm focal length, your exposure time should not be more than 21 seconds. This should make intuitive sense – if your focal length is huge, then your lens is able to track small movements, and therefore should not be kept at a low shutter speed. I ended up using a 20 second exposure, but again, experiment with it!

Tripod: You cannot take a long-exposure shot without a tripod, or at the very least a stable surface. Your hands won’t cut it. Get a tripod, or rent one for the night.

Location, date and time

Photographing nature requires patience, research, and a willingness to accept failure. You might have seen fantastic photos of the Milky Way on the internet, but the chances of you getting something like that on your first try are miniscule. You need to accept that chances of failure are high and adjust expectations accordingly. Think of it as a learning opportunity :).

Location: You need to be somewhere far from city lights. You’ll also want a place that is reasonably accessible and where you’re willing to get yourself to. I did a bit of googling, and decided to go to Davenport Beach, California.

Date and Time: It’s 2018, so the first question you need to ask is – is there an app for it? Turns out, there is! It’s an app called “PhotoPills” – it’s not free, and costs around $10. However, it’s a really great app and comes with tons of features, including one that tells you the position of any stellar object on any date at any time. All this data, on your phone. What a time to be alive. They also have fantastic tutorials on their website. Once you’ve downloaded the app, use their 2D Map-Centric planner to figure out the best date and time. The tutorial for that is here. Ideally, you’d want the moon to be closer to the new-moon phase so that it doesn’t dominate the night sky in terms of brightness.

Weather: This is a big variable. You might have perfect sky in terms of the Milky Way’s position, moon-phase etc, but clouds can ruin everything. I used Accuweather to get an estimate of what the weather would be like on my target date and time. Keep an eye on this, and adjust your plans accordingly. Definitely check the weather before you start moving towards your planned location.

Alright, I have the equipment, I have a location, everything looks good! What now?

Get to the location. You’ll probably have to be outside for an hour or so late at night, so make sure to pack warm clothes, a banana, some water etc. Keep a Swiss knife as well – it’s useful for everything from tightening screws, to uncorking champagne after you’ve taken a winning photograph.

Set up your tripod, and mount the camera. Tighten all the knobs and make sure your tripod is stable. This is important – you don’t want your expensive camera and lenses to get damaged by falling over mid-shoot. That’ll be a downer for sure, so triple check the stability of your setup before anything else.

Now, set your camera to manual mode. I used f/2.8, 24mm focal length, 20s shutter speed, 3200 ISO. I then switched the camera to manual focus. Next, I focused on the people in front of me, so a focus distance of about 5m. Set your focus distance according to the scene in front of you. If you’re trying to photograph just the sky, then set the focus distance to infinity.

Finally, set your camera to a timer-release, press the button and step back. Do not touch the camera or tripod until the shutter has closed. Once you’ve gotten a photo, adjust the tripod, camera angle, composition, and then re-take until you’re satisfied. I’d recommend experimenting with shutter speed, ISO settings etc. until you’re happy with what you have. I even applied an automatic white balance to give the photo a slightly warmer feel.

I have a winner!!

FANTASTIC! Head back indoors, and fire up Photoshop. Adjust brightness, contrast, or whatever else you wish to tweak. Remove any unwanted artifacts/objects. Here’s a great tutorial to help you with that.

You’re all set, my friend. Now sit back, crack open a beer, and celebrate your first foray into night-sky photography. I’ll leave you with another (#noFilter) photo that I took while on the beach:

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15 Days In Japan – A Travel Guide

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Sunset from Kichijōji station, Tokyo

I just got back from Japan, and need to keep myself awake for two more hours to avoid a painful jet-lagged week at work. Naturally, I figured that writing about my trip would be the most productive use of this time!

Japan is a fascinating and quirky place. You can easily spend months exploring the country and still be amazed at what you’ll discover. For this post though, I’ll focus on a 2-3 week itinerary and then note a few other places that we would have visited if we had more time.

Before I get into anything else though, you’ll need a Japan 101. So let’s dive right into it!

Best time to visit

Spring is usually the best time to visit Japan (late March – early April). Cherry blossoms are in full bloom and the weather is absolutely perfect. However, this is peak tourist season so everything gets booked up and flights can be expensive. Plan early if you’d like to visit during this time.

Hiking enthusiasts: Mt. Fuji is closed for hiking in April, so if that’s your goal, you should consider coming in the middle of the summer.

Money

Japan is a technologically advanced country in every possible way. Yet, they somehow don’t seem to like the idea of credit cards very much. Most places take cash only. This includes almost all subway ticket booths in almost all the cities we went to.

Japan isn’t opposed to all forms of plastic money though. Prepaid cash cards, known as “IC cards” are a very popular means of payment and are accepted at almost all train stations, and at most convenience stores. There are many different types of IC cards, and most of them are compatible with each other. The Suica card is popular in the Tokyo area, the Icoca card is popular in the Osaka area, and so on.

However, even prepaid cards don’t work everywhere. Japan has vending machines all over its cities, and most of them do NOT accept any prepaid cards (although this is changing fast). A lot of restaurants are cash-only and may or may not accept IC cards. Some Shinkansen trains (aka the Bullet trains) don’t accept IC cards, but some do.

As someone wanting to travel around Japan, this sounds fairly intimidating. So let me give you a tl;dr recommendation that will solve all your problems. Here are the 3 things you need to do:

  1. Take your credit card, and use it where you can.
  2. When you get to Japan, get a Suica Card or Icoca card from any train station (including the ones at the airport). Put a few hundred dollars on it. Use this if a credit card doesn’t work. You can also buy a Suica card online.
  3. Go to an ATM at the airport and withdraw about 200 dollars worth of yen (that’s about 20,000 yen). Use this if nothing else works.

You’re all set, financially.

Transportation

Japan has the most advanced, efficient, and punctual train network that I have ever seen in my life. Trains run at the accuracy of seconds. They always arrive on time, always leave on time, and transport more people every year than Earth’s entire human population. Trains and stations have tons of signage. Most cities have signs in English as well. The trains itself usually announce every stop in Japanese and English. If that wasn’t enough, they also have stuff like this which tells you exactly where you are in the train, and where the exits are at the upcoming station:

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One can only wish for this in the NYC Subway

Incredible stuff. I was floored by the attention to detail here.

Needless to say, the most efficient way to get around the country is via train. The Japan Rail pass is a great way to get unlimited access to all trains run by Japan Rail. However, as we discovered, there are several other train companies in the country, each with its own set of trains that are not covered by the JR pass.

Just within Tokyo, there are at least three companies that own different trains within the city. When changing from one company’s train to another, you have to exit the ticket gate for company A, and then enter the gates for company B. One of the companies in Tokyo is Japan Rail, so all their trains are covered by the JR pass. The other two are not. To make things more confusing, each company has a different logo, so unlike London’s underground, where you have the same identifying signage for each subway station, you have to look for three different kinds of signs in Tokyo.

We stayed near Yoyogi Station in Tokyo. This station is serviced by a JR train line called the Yamanote Line, and also by a non-JR train line. The entrance for the former is referred to as the “JR Yoyogi” station, while the entrance for the latter is referred to as just “Yoyogi station”. Google Maps will give you the right directions, but won’t tell you which train transfers require you to exit and re-enter at a station.

Again, all this is really tough to wrap your head around as an aspiring traveler about to visit Japan for the first time. Here’s your tl;dr recommendation:

  1. Get a JR Pass. Make sure you order it 2-3 weeks before your trip, since they deliver the receipt to your non-Japan address. When you land in Japan, visit the JR counter at the airport with this receipt to get your actual pass.
  2. Use an IC card for all non-JR travel (most trains should work).
  3. Use cash for everything else, like a random bus or such.

You’re all set, transportationally. Yes, that’s a word.

Toilets

One of my favorite things in Japan. The toilet. Check out this typical toilet control panel from one of our AirBnBs:

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The most advanced toilet ever

Toilets in Japan have heated seats, they play music to drown out embarrassing bodily noises, they have spray and bidet functionalities to ensure that you leave with a sparkling clean bum, and the best part – public toilets are usually very clean. Unlike the US, I never saw a homeless person sleeping outside (or inside) a public toilet.

While I highly recommend trying out all the buttons when you get the chance to sit on one of these, I do have to point out one important thing: Most public toilets (and indeed half of our AirBnB toilets) DO NOT have any hand soap. This can become a real problem when you’re moving around and exploring a city. No wants to touch your dirty hands, and you probably don’t want to touch anything with said dirty hands either ;).

My recommendation:

  1. Pack a small hand sanitizer and carry it with you as you walk around town.
  2. Try the heated toilet seat. Relax, close your eyes, and enjoy that feeling.

You’re all set, hygienically.

Culture and language

Coming from the west, I was pleasantly surprised by how polite and helpful Japanese people are. Every time you walk into a restaurant, you’ll be greeted by the entire staff. If you’ve gone to a Japanese restaurant in New York City, this might seem familiar. When you leave a restaurant in Japan after eating, you’ll likely have someone bow you out, and thanking you for visiting.

Suits. You will notice A LOT of people in suits. You’ll see them everywhere (in bars, restaurants, paddle boating on a lake, you name it). The suits all look similar (dark, usually black), and I certainly sensed an undercurrent of uniformity and order when I looked at the people around me. There is actually a Wikipedia article on this.

Another thing you’ll notice is the high prevalence of cute cats, rabbits, and bright colored stuff. This is explained on the basis of a Japanese cultural phenomenon known as Kawaii. And yes, there is a Wikipedia article about that too.

A weird and fascinating place for sure!

It’s worth noting here that almost no one speaks good English. You might encounter an English speaking Japanese person here or there, but most of them won’t be able to communicate with you in English. However, we did not have any trouble getting around since almost every train station had signs and directions in English. Of course, this might not be guaranteed in all places, but Google Maps is always there to rescue you.

My recommendation for you:

  1. Get an international data plan for your phone, and turn it on for Google Maps so you can make your way around.
  2. Download the Google Translate app. Select the option to make this available offline. The app has an awesome feature where it lets you take a photo of a sign, and translates it. Very useful for reading menus.
  3. Learn some basic Japanese phrases on your flight over.

You’re all set, linguistically.

Food

Food – probably the #1 reason why most people visit Japan. Tokyo has more than twice the number of Michelin stars than any other city on the planet. The Japanese are perfectionists by nature, and when it comes to food, they leave no stone unturned to deliver the absolute best. Here’s a quick run-down of the kinds of food you need to try on your trip. Actual recommendations for restaurants are in my itinerary below.

  1. Sushi: The obvious thing you have to eat. I was a noob sushi eater until I went to Japan and had a 21-course Omakase style sushi dinner. It cost $200 per person (plus wine, which the sommelier paired with our meal courses), but it was one of the most incredible meal experiences of my life. Do it. You owe it to yourself.
  2. Yakitori: This is basically skewered, grilled meat. Absolutely delicious.
  3. Shabu Shabu: Japanese hot pot. I had this way too many times.
  4. Sukiyaki: Similar to Shabu Shabu, except that the meat is cooked skillet style.
  5. Pizza: Yes, pizza. Trust me – Japan knows how to make great pizza. I live in New York City, so this opinion means something.
  6. Strawberries: Holy shit. I have never had strawberries as incredible (and as expensive) as the ones in Japan. I ate about one box a day, and even considered paying someone to ship me strawberries from Japan on a regular basis.
  7. Whiskey: Japanese whiskey is the what the cool kids drink these days. For good reason! It’s delicious, and soul-soothing. Don’t believe me? Here’s what the experts are saying.
  8. Sake: Drink it with every meal. And then take a bottle home for a night cap.

You’re all set, gourmetically. I may or may not have made that word up.

CONGRATULATIONS ON COMPLETING JAPAN-101!!

Now that you know a little bit about Japan, let’s get into an actual itinerary. This is based on a 15 day trip that I just came back from, but I’ll include notes about places we would have visited if we had more time.

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We definitely did not walk this

Of course, in this map, Google is assuming that you’ll walk the whole way. Please don’t. Or, go for it!

Tokyo (Days 1-6):

Tokyo is like New York City on steroids. Yes, it’s possible to have such a city. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the people and all the lights, so I’d recommend pacing yourself as you explore this great city.

Where to stay:

  • We stayed near Yoyogi station, right between Shinjuku and Shibuya (both of which are full of tourists and crowded). The JR Yamanote train line (which runs in a circle around the middle of Tokyo) was right by us, and took us to most places we needed to go.
  • Shinjuku is like the Times Square of Tokyo (with more character than the actual Times Square). It has lot of lights, lots of noise, and way too many people. I’d recommend not staying right there. Instead, stay close by in a quieter part of town. You’ll be spending a lot of time in Shinjuku but will likely not be able to sleep there.
  • Ginza is a pretty cool (although slightly upscale) part of town with lots of nice bars and restaurants. If you’d like to try something different from a typical tourist, stay here. The Tsukiji fish market is located close by – wake up bright and early (4AM) and go watch a fresh fish auction.

Experiences:

  • Shibuya crossing: Walk across the busiest intersection on the planet. Or, if you’re brave like us, walk across while dragging your suitcase.

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    This was oddly satisfying to watch

  • Harajuku: This is like SoHo in New York City. Lots of main-stream shopping, but also lots of really quaint, boutiquey stores.
  • Takeshita street: If you want to get a taste of the Kawaii culture I mentioned above, walk through this street in Harajuku. I’ve never seen such a cuteness overload in my life. Bunnies, Hello Kittys, and the color pink. Everywhere.

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    Bunnies, kitties, and pink

  • Imperial Palace: Ah, to be an emperor and have an entire palace right in the middle of Tokyo. Life must be good over there. The grounds are perfect for an afternoon stroll in the spring. Cherry blossoms everywhere, waiting to be Instagrammed as shown here:

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    Like I said, highly Instagrammable

  • Roppongi Hills: This was a cool part of town and is lovely to just walk around in. There’s a museum here called the Mori Art Museum, which was really nice. Couple of lovely bakeries in the same building where I ate way too much dessert.

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    I’ll let you figure out how we pulled this off (Mori Art Museum)

  • Inokashira Park: This is a bit further out from downtown, but it was an absolute gem at sunset during cherry blossom season. We rented a boat, and hung out in the middle of the lake as the sun went down over the pink foliage all around us. Highly recommended.

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    Sunset and Sakuras

  • Robot Restaurant: Oh boy. Where do I even start. This was the most insane and over-stimulating thing I have ever seen. You will either love it, or hate it. There’s no middle ground. Check it out and judge for yourself! Pro-tip: Take ear plugs with you. You’ll still be able to hear everything, but your ears will thank you later. Oh, and eat dinner before you go there. It’s not really a “restaurant”.

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    Robot Restaurant – absolute insanity

  • Chureito Pagoda: One of the most iconic views of Mt. Fuji. This is a 2.5 hour journey, and requires a few train changes. The pain is definitely worth it! On our way to the pagoda, we stopped in Hachioji and ate some delicious ramen. Great day trip!

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    Mt. Fuji in the background

Bars:

  • Golden Gai: This is a little area in Shinjuku that is full of tiny bars, each of which seats like 4-6 people. A little touristy, but we loved it! The drinks were great, and our bartender was super friendly. There is also a karaoke bar right as you walk towards GG – perfect spot to exercise your vocal cords after a few drinks.

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    Me attempting to sing “Castle on the hill”

  • Zoetrope Whiskey Bar: This is hidden away inside some building in Shinjuku. It’s a little hard to find, and run by one guy. It has a 20s vibe, and several hundred types of whiskey. I’d recommend doing at least one tasting flight.
  • Gen Yamamoto: Everyone you ask will recommend this place. It features a very skilled mixologist, and an incredible cocktail tasting menu. The one mistake we made was not reserving seats here. It gets booked up several weeks in advance to save your spots as early as possible.

Food:

  • Sushi Tsu Roppongi: One of the most intense meal experiences of my life. A 21-course Omakase style 2.5 hour marathon. This will cost you over $200 per person (plus wine), and you will eat every sea animal possible. Highly recommended – just prepare yourself mentally before you go there. Reserve in advance.
  • Nabezo Shinjuku Sanchome: This is a shabu shabu and sukiyaki place in Shinjuku. They serve two different kinds of broths in a container shaped like Yin-Yang. One of the broths is healthy, and the other is pure evil and absolutely delicious. Take your pick.
  • Afuri Ramen: Hole in the wall kind of spot – you place your order via a vending machine of sorts. The ramen is delicious, and not too heavy.
  • Bill’s brunch: There will be a day when you’ll crave a good ol’ western breakfast with eggs and bacon. When that day arrives, go here. The wait can be about 30-40 minutes though.

Hakone (Days 6-8):

After 5 days in Tokyo, you’ll probably want a couple of days of peace and quiet. Head over to Hakone to get just that! Hakone is a smaller town about 2 hours away from Tokyo by train.

The Hakone region is serviced by the Odakyu Railway Co. Your JR pass will not work on this, so I would recommend buying an Odakyu Railway pass that covers your entire stay in Hakone. This pass works on buses as well. You can buy it from Odawara station, which you will likely pass through on your way to Hakone (the Shinkansen from Tokyo stops here).

Where to stay:

  • A lot of people prefer staying in Ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), but they get booked out months in advance, especially during peak tourist season.
  • We stayed at K’s House hostel, about 20 min walk uphill from the main train station. The have a really nice patio with a nice view of the hills, and Japanese-style rooms.

Experiences:

  • Onsen: The first thing you should do upon arriving in Hakone is to find the nearest Onsen (Japanese hot spring), and take a nice, long bath. Onsens are usually separated by gender and require you to take off all clothes. Don’t be shy.
    If you stay at K’s House, they have an Onsen for guests.
  • Hakone Shrine: Everyone and their mothers visit this shrine when they come to Hakone. The shrine is cool, but one of most photographed spots is the Torii (gate) that stands in Lake Ashi. There will be a line of tourists waiting to take pictures here.

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    A very unique pose, in a very unique location

  • Lake Ashi: After seeing the shrine, grab some pizza by the lake and take the boat to the other side. The lake is nestled within hills, and you might get a great view of Mt. Fuji from here on a clear day.
  • Open-air museum: One of the must-do things in Hakone. We didn’t get to it because it rained the day we were planning to go there. But that doesn’t mean that you should miss it!
  • Owakudani: You can get here by taking the rope-way up from Lake Ashi. This is a geologically active area so you might see fumes of Hydrogen Sulphide creeping up from the surface of the mountain.
  • Climb Mt. Fuji: If you’re feeling adventurous and have a couple of days to spare, go hike Mt. Fuji. I wanted to do this, but April is not a good time to go up – the snow starts to melt around April, and the weather up there can be very cloudy and rainy. Best time to climb is somewhere in mid-summer. The hike takes a full day, and you usually stay in a hut near the summit to catch the sunrise. Number one item on the agenda for my next trip to Japan.

Food:

  • Karuta: This is small, yakitori restaurant up in the hills of Hakone. It’s a 5-minute walk from K’s house. The food was absolutely delicious and we ate there twice.
  • Kinosuke: Another yakitori place, right in downtown and close to the train station. The grilled chicken was amazing.

Kyoto (Days 8-11):

Kyoto is cool, hip, and very different from bigger cities like Tokyo and Osaka. For one thing, Kyoto is organized like a grid. It is also a bit more spread out, and the public transit situation is less amazing as compared to bigger Japanese cities.

One of the interesting things about Kyoto is that there is very little to do between 5PM to 7PM. Most things will close at 5, but that’s too early for dinner. I’d recommend waking up early, and visiting the shrines, markets and museums during the day. Take the 5-7PM down-time to rest and recharge before going out for dinner and drinks.

Where to stay:

  • You’ll notice that most of the things you’ll want to see as a tourist are located a bit outside the main city. A lot of these shrines and temples also happen to be fairly far from each other. As such, I’d recommend staying somewhere in the middle and spending an entire day on each side of the city.
  • We stayed right by the Karasuma Oike station and found that to be fairly central relative to the places we wanted to visit.

Experiences:

  • Kiyamachi Street: This is lovely street that runs north-south right by the river. It is lined with Sakura trees and is an absolute treat during cherry blossom season.

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    Sakura trees in full bloom

  • Arashiyama Bamboo Grove: Generally speaking, Kyoto gets a lot of tourists and you’ll find most places to be packed by 10AM. I would recommend waking up early and experiencing things before everyone else does. Arashiyama is a bamboo grove towards the north-west of Kyoto. It’s very Instagrammable when empty, except that you’ll never find it empty unless you wake up at 5AM. So do that.
  • Otagi Nenbutsu-ji: If you walk a bit north of Arashiyama, you’ll end up walking up this really pretty street with a bunch of cute stores and temples along the way. Here’s me outside one of them:

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    Channeling my inner MJ (Nison-In Temple)

    If you go all the way up, you’ll get to Otagi Nenbutsu-ji temple, which is a buddhist temple built in the 8th century. Fair warning though, this is pretty out of the way and you’ll have to wait up to an hour for the bus. If you’re tight on time, I would recommend not going all the way up to this temple.

  • Kinkaku-ji: This is the most famous Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. You might have seen it in photos – it’s a big golden colored structure with a lake. This is located towards the north of Kyoto and will take about 30-40 minutes to get to from Karasume Oike.
  • Nishiki Market: One of Kyoto’s most famous markets. Great to walk around in the early evening. It has one of the most famous kitchen knife stores in Japan (Aritsugu knives), and lots of little shops and restaurants.
  • Fushimi Inari-Taisha: Kyoto’s most famous Shinto shrine. Located diametrically opposite to Arashiyama, so I would recommend not trying to do both in one day. This place is absolutely amazing, but crawling with people. I woke up at 6AM and ran to it. Once there, use the opportunity to walk through the hundreds of Torii gates that line the trail, which goes all the way up and down the hill. It is an amazing, and incredible experience. Try going all the way up to the summit – the higher you go, the fewer people you’ll encounter.

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    Worth the early wake-up

  • Gekkiekan Okura Sake Museum: This is located all the way to the south of Kyoto. It’s not very big, but provides a great view into how sake is made. They also do sake tastings and sell sake for you to take back home.

Food:

  • Pontocho Alley: This is a little alley that runs parallel to Kiyamachi street. It is lined with several great restaurants and bars. I would recommend coming here for dinner every day. Walk into any restaurant, get a seat facing the river, and enjoy a fantastic dinner while looking at the view.

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    Pontocho Alley

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    Sukiyaki dinner, somewhere in Pontocho

  • Kushikura: This is a yakitori place that was recommended to us by someone who owns another restaurant in Kyoto. It was probably one of the most delicious yakitori I’ve had. We were lucky to be able to walk in, but I’d recommend reserving spots.
  • Sentido: This was a cute little coffee shop where we ate breakfast every day. Great vibe, and nice sandwiches.

Bars:

  • Hello Dolly: This is a bar located in Pontocho. Plays jazz music and serves delicious cocktails. Highly recommended.

Nara (Days 11-12):

Nara used to be the capital of Japan in the 8th century. You can visit either as a day trip from Kyoto or Osaka, or (as we did), go from Kyoto to Osaka via Nara while staying there for a night.

Where to stay:

  • Nara isn’t very big so anywhere close to the park is fine. You’ll be able to walk to most places from there.

Experiences:

  • Nara Deer Park: Deer roam freely in this park. You can buy deer food and feed them! Just remember – they are still wild animals and you should exercise caution while feeding them. Deer are said to bow if you bow to them – give it a shot and tell me if that worked for you ;).

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    Not pictured: Us feeding a deer

  • Sanjo Dori: This is sort of the main street to walk along, with most restaurants located around it. If you get lucky (like we did), you might get to see the mochi making process live. It is an incredible thing to watch.

Food:

  • Cafe Wakakusa: Lovely little cafe that serves crepes. They also have a cute dog that we played with. Perfect place to have breakfast.
  • Mellow Cafe: Great vibe, decent food. Serves a bunch of different kinds of cuisines – Italian, Indian, American.

Osaka (Days 12-15):

Osaka is like the Chicago of Japan. Second largest city, edgier than Tokyo, fewer tourists, lots of interesting things to do. It is also a good base to do a bunch of day trips to other parts of southern Honshu.

Where to stay:

  • We stayed near the Dotonbori river (just north of it), which is close to the major shopping and food districts. The area is very walkable and has lots of bars and restaurants.
  • The public transit system in Osaka is decent enough to get you to the places you’ll want to go so it won’t be a major issue if you stay elsewhere.

Experiences:

  • Osaka Aquarium: The have two whalesharks, a hammerhead shark, and a lot more. Definitely worth a visit!
  • Dotonbori District: This is like Osaka’s Times Square. Lights, tourists, theater, giant crab mounted outside a building with moving legs.

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    Dotonbori River

  • Orange Street: Quaint and interesting street with lots of boutiquey stores and a few cat cafes. I would recommend going to one and feeding the cats – it’s quite the experience.
  • Osaka Castle and Museum: This is an impressive museum – it is about 8 stories high with a long line for the elevator. Skip the line and take the stairs to get there right away. The view from the top is great. As you make your way down, learn about the history of Osaka and the castle via some really cool 3D holograms. The castle’s grounds are lovely to walk through.

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    Osaka Castle grounds

  • Nakanoshima Park: Walkable from the castle, this is a park located on an island. We found it a bit underwhelming, but that was probably because it was a cloudy day when we decided to go there.
  • Ror Comedy Club: An underground comedy club that is clearly targeted towards westerners. Nevertheless, the acts were great and we went out with a couple of comics after the show.
  • Shinsaibashi shopping district: Spend and afternoon walking around – lots of interesting stores, along with the usual mainstream stuff. We went here on our last day to do some shopping.
  • Day trip to Hiroshima: This is something we wanted to do, but couldn’t because of a massive hangover following a night out with the comics from Ror comedy. It takes about 2.5 hours to get to Hiroshima via the Shinkansen train from Osaka. If you make it out there, check out the Peace Memorial that serves as a reminder of the destruction that can happen when a nuclear bomb is dropped on a city full of people.

Food:

  • Barbacoa Churrascaria: Brazilian barbecue. They keep bringing meat to your table until you tell them to stop. See if you can last more than 30 minutes.
  • Good Spoon: Fantastic place to get brunch. Even better when you’re hungover.
  • Don Shop Shabutei Mitsuderasuji: Shabu shabu restaurant, where we ate our last meal in Japan. It was thoroughly satisfying.

Bars:

  • L&L Bar: Same venue as Ror comedy. Drinks are average, but vibe is great. Also, the comedy club is right there.
  • Farplane: Women’s clothing store on the outside, interesting bar with a gigantic penis inside.

Closing thoughts

This has been a long post with a lot of information. I wrote it in a way that would answer all questions that a first-time traveler to Japan might have. I hope this helps and I would love to hear about your travels in this wonderful country!

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Tokyo Tower

What’s The Most Interesting Place You’ve Been?

Back in November 2017, I saw this job opening at the New York Times. They wanted to hire one person to travel to all 52 places on their “52 places to visit in 2018” list. The qualifications included stuff like “has prior experience at a magazine, publishing company, newspaper, digital publication, film, or other media organization”. Well, Facebook is kind of like a media organization, right?

Naturally, I applied.

One of the questions in the application was “Describe the most interesting place you’ve been to in 500 words”. Here’s what I wrote…

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25-year old Sameer

It was the middle of June in 2012. My plane from Amsterdam landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania. A few months ago, a friend had reached out and asked me to join for a climb up the tallest mountain in Africa. After initial skepticism, I had agreed. As we drove from the airport to our lodgings, we saw it in front of us, towering almost 20,000 feet above anything else in sight. It was awe-inspiring and intimidating.

Shortly after dinner that evening, we met our guide. His name was John, a middle-aged, extremely fit Tanzanian man. This would be his 67th ascent up the mountain. After a general briefing, he said: “If anyone gets altitude sickness up there, we WILL ask you to turn around. Even if you can see the summit from where you are, you MUST turn around. Failure is hard, but at least you will live to fight another day”. Everyone was quiet as that sank in.

Next morning, we started our ascent with a group of porters. All of them were Tanzanian, and most of them did not have proper hiking gear. One of them was wearing flip-flops. I asked him how he was able to hike without proper shoes. He responded with a smile, in broken English, “My body is used to this. A good pair of shoes is beyond my budget and feeding my family takes higher priority”. I later tipped him all the money I had.

After four days, we arrived at Camp Barafu, 15,200 feet above sea level. The plan was to hike up to the summit overnight and arrive by sunrise. High altitude was taking its toll on all of us and I had a throbbing headache that was reminding me that I could have trained harder. We started our slow crawl up the mountain face in the darkness, one step at a time, pausing every five steps to breathe. Ahead of me was a long line of headlamps snaking up the mountain like a gigantic worm. Snow started appearing on the otherwise barren landscape, shining brightly under the light of the moon. The clouds were far below us, and the sky was full of stars. So many stars that I didn’t even think was possible to see from Earth. It felt like a dream, except the pain in my legs was very real.

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One of our guides

Eventually, the sky turned pastel pink and the summit appeared in front of us just as the sun rose above the clouds. We saw a sign declaring that we had made it to Uhuru Peak, and that all paths there-on led downwards. A girl from the group asked me if I had the energy to do a salsa dance move right in front of the sign. I obliged, and we produced eight counts of the worst salsa performance in history.

It didn’t matter. We were at the top of Africa. All of its nature, beauty, and people lay below us, bathed in the light of the rising sun. In that moment, I felt alive.

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Uhuru Peak – 19,341 ft above sea level