March 24, 2017

Sleep & One to Two Accomplishments a Day

I've got another 3 months or so left in the sabbatical, but I'm already starting to try to tie it all together and process it.

Sunset from the boat in the Galapagos.


What, exactly, have I learned from this process?

How have I changed?

What will I do differently in the future?

What will I appreciate more than ever before? (Ummm... LAUNDRY!).

One of hundreds of Galapagos Marine Iguana Photos.  My restraint is impressive.
Interestingly, quite a bit of the most intense thinking about this year and what I want to learn from it has happened on this latest stop back in the US.  While here, I could, if I wanted, opt back into my old lifestyle: insanely tightly scheduled, super productive, lucrative, exhausting, dependent upon everything being *very* Okay, but using that infrastructural support to GET SHIT DONE.

And, to be honest, I have picked up a little work, here and there -- if the project is small enough and I can fit it in, why not do something that will finance some of the EU leg? (Scared of the upcoming expenses!) 

Heaven on Earth -- Galapagos flour sand beach

I've also done the research and spreadsheet manipulation to opt back into a structured running plan with scheduled workouts for the first time since we left.  Oh, and I've returned to making todo lists and crossing things off of them, physically, on paper, again -- a habit I've had since childhood but more or less dropped unless SHIT GOT F'D UP while on Sabbatical.

It's like this 7 week visit to the US is an early re-entry program.  I'm testing the waters and figuring out what I'll re-embrace and what I'll try to leave behind.

Pier, long tails & much infrastructure that could (and probably would) go wrong.

So, what are the huge differences between pre-sabbatical and now, in the US?

Chumphon ferry landing -- gorgeous and not chaotic at all.  Refreshing.

1. Sleep.  I have so few obligations on me while in the US this segment.  While traveling, I've got language study, geography research, transportation logistics, laundry, figuring out where we're staying, etc.  Turns out, in addition to reading a bit more, watching some more video content, and listening to more audiobook content while walking and running, I am super happy to get more sleep than I used to in the US, even more than what I get while traveling internationally (which tends to be a solid 8-9 hours). 

I regularly wake up, enjoy the early morning light, and go back to sleep.  I am extra-aware of what a privilege this is because for more than half of our time in the US, we've been staying with friends and family who have young children.  The early rising to the gorgeous light is almost always due to the kids, but the ability to go back to sleep is 100% due to the low-stress adult sabbatical without children.  I am extremely grateful and am trying very hard to be openly appreciative without gloating like an asshole.  But, it does feel, on some molecular/fundamental level, like I did need to learn how to get some good sleep and I'm more than happy to take advantage while I can.

Bangkok Sunset

2. One to Two Accomplishments a Day.  I've always been a bit of an over-achiever.  If the average person can do X in a day, historically, I'd just tell myself that obviously I should be able to do 1.5X, and then I'd do my best to meet that standard.  It's ridiculous, arbitrary, etc, but it's one of the identifying characteristics that I've held close to my core as being part of my essence -- and frankly, other than occasionally compromising my health, it's served me pretty damn well.

So, imagine my shock to learn that international travel has actually chilled my inner over-achiever out quite a bit.  Thanks to the serious reality checks I've encountered and a general lack of infrastructure resulting in an inability to accomplish tasks on anything close to an agenda I'd consider normal, I appear to have internalized the idea that if you do a good job on one or two things in any given day, then that day is a glowing success. 

Axolotl! (Osaka Aquarium)
This sojourn in the US, I'm simultaneously lazy, inspired, and also at a loss for how to organize my time once I've crossed off the #1 and #2 goals each day.  It's such a fundamental mind-shift that I can only watch my new approach with fascination, a bit paralyzed with awe. 

I *am* actually quite happy accomplishing very little each day (but incrementally, something, to be fair).  And in doing so, I'm super free to hang out with people, relax, and make time and space for what sounds fun, is spontaneous, and, yes, going back to #1, more sleep.

Kuala Lumpur, Petronas Park
Essentially, the big sabbatical lessons so far for me are that I've learned how to sleep more and feel good about myself while accomplishing less.  If you'd asked me before we left what I'd hoped to achieve, I can assure you that neither of these would have been in my top 10.

And yet, I'm feeling pretty great about where this appears to be headed.

Oh, that reminds me, I need to start reviewing both French and Italian... leaving for Europe in 3 weeks, and old habits die hard.

#SabbaticalLessons

March 18, 2017

Time Flies When There Are Less Complications

Welcomed with a Midwinter Night's Dram...

After Japan, E and I flew to LA and spent 5 nights with friends near Pasadena. 

A dedicated laundry room! 

A full-size American-style luxury kitchen.

Grocery stores with EVERYTHING. 

A rental car on roads with signs and driving rules we understood.

Running outside without getting lost.

Pasadena USPS office -- Ancient
And, even better, long conversations in our native language with several sets of friends we hadn't seen in 9 months or more.

I also did a day or two of work, preparing materials for a 30 minute talk and moderating a 30 minute discussion panel afterwards.  Afterwards, I spent a full day attending talks on topics that are important to my professional life, which I hadn't thought about much in the last 9 months.  I still like what I do for a living, and I really like the smart and nice people in my industry who attended this conference.

From LA, we flew on a sweetheart airline miles deal to Denver, where we spent a week relaxing in the snow and skiing with E's extended family.  The conditions were wonderful, and the mountain resort was super chill.  I tried to fit in a run at the gym, but it didn't work out, so I just called living and walking around at 10,000 feet with downhill skiing every other day my workouts.  I'd hoped to try cross-country skiing, but I ended up having to manage some work and life issues, and there just wasn't time without cutting into family time, which I didn't want to do. 

Delicious Beer Sampler in Gunnison

After skiing, we spent 3 days driving across the Rockies and back to the airport to visit friends in the adorable town of Gunnison, Colorado.  The drive is easily in the running for one of the most beautiful I've ever done (and by done, I mean sat as a passenger while E kindly drove the whole way).  Once in Gunnison, I could have stayed for quite some time.  Small town vibe, good brewery, friends, great flat running at 8,000 feet, plus an easy drive up to Crested Butte Ski Resort.  Oh, and legalized marijuana makes for a *very* chill population -- although, in Gunnison, it appeared that they may have been suffering from a slight oversupply of dispensaries.  I couldn't see how a town of less than 6,000 could possibly need more than 5 dispensaries within 500 meters of the Walmart, but perhaps that's just me.

One of many roadside cabins on the Gorgeous Rockies crossing...
Now, we're visiting friends for 8 days in Austin, TX.  They left the bay area and bought a gigantic house with 2 guest rooms, which is wonderful, since we are here at the same time as another friend from the bay area.  Most nights, we sit around the table after the children have gone to bed, and we eat great food (made in their enormous fully-pimped out kitchen) and just talk, and sip wine, and enjoy each other.

Just another Colorado view.
Every day, I head out for some running (or walking if my legs are curious why I'm running *again* after months off) and take in the slightly foreign (but oh so predictable and American) sights in Austin.   

We're here during SXSW, which is a bit of chaos and crowds, but overall, it's hard not to love this town.  Great food.  Wonderful running and outdoor parks. Some of our best friends.  A housing market that is much more reasonable than the bay area.  A tech scene that is slightly less all-encompassing than Silicon Valley.  A slower pace of life than California.

Taking advantage of TX culture

All of a sudden, I'm shocked to realize we've been in the US for almost 3 weeks.  It feels like no time at all, even though we haven't been truly at *home* for any of it.  3 weeks traveling outside the US feels like a long time.  It's about 1/3 of what we've typically booked as the max amount of time we can handle outside the US before we need to return back to what we think of as home.  But 3 weeks in LA, Colorado, and Austin (where we have no family or property) feels *normal* (thanks to graciously generous friends).  And the time just flies.  I'm a little surprised to realize it's less than a month until we leave for Europe. 

And after that, we'll be back in the US for quite a long while.  And, I think we'll both be very appreciative and ready to spend some dedicated time in our US-centric comfort zone when we get back.  I'm not sure I ever understood that appreciation as well as I do now and I expect to understand it better then.

March 10, 2017

Japan: Already Missing the Food

Japan is one of our favorite countries for many reasons, but the biggest one is probably the food. Yes, the sushi and sashimi is amazing. But there are many other delicious different options as well.

This visit's top food experiences (in no particular order) were as follows:

1. Matsusaka yaki nuki

Matsusaka beef is one of the less well known Japanese highly marbled beef types. I made us a reservation at a Yaki Niku restaurant in Osaka to try the specialty, and we were very pleased. The pieces were less than 1 cm thick, and easily cooked in 10-20 seconds on each side.





You cooked it yourself on a grill in the middle of the table (as well as vegetables), and it was absolutely melt-in-your mouth heaven. After the fact, E & I agree that this was probably the best overall meal of the trip in terms of value (it was expensive, but not remotely as expensive as a big steak meal in San Francisco would be), exposure to new food (we'd never heard of Matsusaka), the experience, and general deliciousness.

2. Kobe beef teppanyaki

Last trip to Japan, we'd accidentally enjoyed Kobe beef at ITOH by Nobu. This trip, we would be riding the train directly through Kobe, so E pointed out that *obviously* we had to stop and have Kobe beef in Kobe. So, we did some research and made reservations (okay, we had the Hyatt in Fukuoka make reservations for us) at a recommended teppanyaki joint.


Teppanyaki grill, crystal clean and ready to go.

We took the Shinkansen into town, checked into our hotel, and did some urban hiking (there are waterfalls smack dab in the middle of the city) to build up an appetite. We checked into the restaurant for our reservation only to learn that we had the wrong location (typical), so they called over to the correct location and asked them to hold our seats while we zipped over in a cab.


Abalone and Kobe (pre-cooking)

This meal was completely over the top. The chef sliced our beef cuts into various portions in accordance with the marbling and cooked teensy tiny pieces individually, and then told us which flavors to enjoy in which order (just salt, just pepper, vinegar, mustard sauce, and mustard sauce with fried garlic chips). The fat, fascia, and tendon portions were cooked down and rendered slowly until they were just little crispy bits in a pool of grease, which was then used to cook bean sprouts. Absolutely delicious, but so unnecessary.

3. Ichiran   

We love ramen. Ichiran has quite the reputation and we haven't ever been to one, so it was on our list for this trip. Our first visit was an accident. We'd tried to go to one of the famous Okonomiyaki joints in Dotonbori in Osaka, but the line was crazy long and I was getting hangry. Conveniently, it was next door to an Ichiran shop, so we got in the much shorter line, explained that we'd take counter or table (counter is always faster) and were handed forms to fill out.


Our first Ichiran bowls

By the time we'd finished filling out the forms (incorrectly, of course), we reached the vending machines, where we put in our cash and pushed all the buttons to get the small tickets for each of the various things we'd ordered (1 ramen each, an egg for me, mushrooms for E, nori for both of us, beer for both of us, and vinegar for me).


Seated at the counter by number

We were sent upstairs to a lightboard showing which counter seats were open, and then we were seated at 2 counter seats next to one another, with articulated dividers (so we could open the space and chat with each other but have privacy from the folks to our left and right). Each seat had a small window through which you pushed your paper form (specifying spiciness, broth richness/fattiness, noodle softness, garlic level, and a few other variables) and your tickets. The servers' hands (you never saw their faces) took your tickets and papers through the window, fixed your mistakes (we didn't realize that the second form was for ordering additional servings *after* the fact and we'd essentially doubled our order), and then food and drinks started to appear. Eventually, your perfectly customized bowl of ramen was delivered with a long polite sentence and a deep full body bow. Then the curtain was lowered over your window and you were left to enjoy the deliciousness in peace in your counter cubicle.


M Yakuniku (Matsusaka beef meal) next to the main Ichiran in Dotonburi.

We loved the experience so much that we decided to go again, visiting the corporate headquarter shop when we got to Fukuoka (Hakata is the region that is the most famous for ramen).


Ichiran headquarters

We rounded out the ramen on the trip with 2 more bowls: one at a random ramen joint in the Raumen Stadium in Hakata (8 different small ramen shops -- decision paralysis), and one at an Ippudo shop in a basement of a commercial building in Tokyo. Both were delicious and wonderful, but neither could compare to the deliciousness of the fully customizable experience at Ichiran.

4. Izakayas


One night, E had an uni bowl for dinner.

It's hard to come up with the total number of Izakayas we visited, but it's probably somewhere around 8-10. If we didn't have a plan for dinner, we typically ended up in an Izakaya. If they had it, we always ordered Tako Wasabi. In Hiroshima, we had another cook your own meal experience (like Yaki Niku), but this one had coals instead of a gas grill, no overhead hood (smoky!) and the menu was much more varied -- we ordered gigantic clams, a squid, and some vegetables to grill along with some sashimi. On several occasions we sat at counters in front of a manned grill and ordered whatever looked good on the menu so it could be prepared and delivered over the counter as it was ready.


We did eventually get an okonomiyaki and takoyaki in Osaka,
but both didn't make our top foods list.


Skewers were a popular option with shishitos, eggplant, mushrooms, and octopus making frequent appearances, as well as more exotic options like a fried chicken (yakitori) moriawase (sampler), small beef pieces (of course), and fried cheese. Izakayas are the meals where we were the most likely to have random stuff. Like breaded and fried camembert (E was in heaven!). Or deep fried wontons around raw tuna, melted cheese, and a shiso leaf (surprisingly delicious). Or anything pickled for me. Of course, there were other delicious Japanese staples sprinkled in as well, like miso soup, ochazuke, udon, soba, somen, etc.


E's favorite Izakayas have electronic ordering systems

5. 7-11 train lunches

Because we were doing so much long distance train travel, on at least half of the days we'd find ourselves seated in a very comfortable train seat with a table in front of us during lunchtime. On those days, after getting our tickets but prior to boarding, we'd go to the 7-11 in the train station and buy the ingredients for our lunch. Typically, we'd have an onigiri or 2 each (my favorites are soft boiled tea egg, smoked salmon, and sour plum, whereas E loves roe in all of its forms), along with whatever random foodstuffs caught our fancy (octopus jerky, spicy rice crackers, yakisoba in a hotdog roll sandwich, whatever), and often, we'd splurge on train beer or train sake as well.


Typical 7-11 train lunch

6. Kaiten-Zushi (Conveyor Belt Sushi)

Because we're trying to economize, we only ate sushi 3 times in Japan. All were kaiten-zushi, and all were delicious and filling and reasonably priced. The first one, in the Osaka-shin train station was probably the highest quality fish (and the most expensive). The second one, a shop in Osaka branded by the inventor of conveyor belt sushi, was the best value by far. The third shop, a suburban chain full of families on a Saturday afternoon in Kakegawa was probably the most interesting experience, as we hadn't really interacted much with suburban/rural Japanese families.


Special orders placed on the screen & delivered via mini-shinkansen on the top belt.

I could go on, but need to stop at some point, so I'll just give honorable mention to the amazing Shabu Shabu selected and prepared by my childhood exchange student in Kamakura and say that Japan really is an amazing food destination. 



E claims he will never eat Shabu Shabu in the US again




March 5, 2017

A Running Goal after Asia

We did a ton of walking in Asia.  A few stair-heavy climbs to sights, and lots of hours of just traipsing about.  Quite a bit of the work on travel days was with 20+ pounds of packs on on our backs, fronts, whatnot.  We'd regularly look at the map, decide it was only a mile or 2 from where we'd exited transit and just hoof it with everything we owned in Asia on our bodies.  A 20 minute mile with 10+ Kg of extra weight will get the heart rate up, my friends.  Especially if there is an increase in elevation.  All things considered, after Asia, I actually feel relatively fit in a way I don't in my normal life. 

However, I did not do much running in Asia at all.

All told, in the last 10 weeks I think I ran about 10-15 times in gyms (wherever there was I gym in our hotel I tried to put it to good use, often doing core and weights as well), plus another 10-15 attempts outside, most of which didn't go super well due to road conditions, safety, getting lost, etc.  The typical outdoor running attempt probably took around an hour and resulted in somewhere around 2 miles of total running plus lots of walking, figuring things out, pushups, dips, and other random exercises, typically at outdoor gyms (they are all over the place).

We've been back in the US for a week now, and I've definitely increased my running frequency, but I'm still battling a deep chest cough that I developed after my second brutal cold in a row in Japan.  Those Japanese colds were horrid (E claims I got asian bird flu), but I can't complain because my body was kind enough to keep my head nice and clear for the diving portion of our travels (when, if I'd had a cold, I would have been unable to equalize my ears, so no diving).

My runs since we've been back have been 1-2 miles of easy jogging uphill followed by 2ish jog/walk miles back down, hacking up gunk from my lungs.  Nothing fast.  Nothing high effort.  But something aerobic and it feels so good.  I totaled around 6 miles run/walking in 2 days in the hills this week and I was *sore* the third day, but I still fit in another 1 mile up running, 2 miles recovery coughing, and another 1.5 hiking up and down the hills while catching up with a friend on the third day.  So 9 miles in 3 days plus some down days for travel this week...

Clearly, I have some running ground to recover.

But, we're in the US for another 6 weeks before we head out to Europe, so my goal is to slowly increase my mileage and running fitness, and then, unless I discover a random race where we're staying the US, my next goal race is a parkrun in Paris!

Either Mont Souris or Bois de Boulogne April 22nd.  After I've actually been running consistently for a couple of weeks, I'll come up with some actual goals.  But in the meantime, I'm super excited to have a goal race for the first time since Summer 2016.

February 27, 2017

Katakana: The Japanese-English Secret Decoder Ring

My sabbatical linguistic goals for Asia were focused on one language -- Japanese. 

Trying very hard to be culturally appropriate!
The pie in the sky goal was that I would study Japanese every day and improve my limited skills both before arriving *and* while in the country (where it is always easiest for me to study a language).  Also, I was determined to be able to read both Hiragana and Katakana before the end of our visit to Asia.

Classic example of 1/3 hiragana, 1/3 katagana, 1/3 kanji at the Sake Tasting.
Turns out, the study every day while in *other* foreign countries where no one speaks Japanese plan did not go well.  The logistics of managing travel while in South East Asian chaos plus a desire to enjoy the things we did do, plus my brain attaching to the local sounds of the local foreign language, meant that I just couldn't (or didn't) want to make much time for Japanese in South East Asia.  I probably only fit in 1 Japanese study session per week for the first 6 weeks of the Asia trip.

Oh, well.  I started studying for real when we boarded the first plane (of 3) for Japan.



Hiragana is the curlier/rounder phonetic system they teach schoolchildren first.  Japanese words are written in Hiragana when they are intended to be easy to understand.  If you know your Sushi fish orders in Japanese, for example, you can easily read or recognize Maguro, Sake, Ika, Hirame, Saba, Uni, etc. which are written in Hiragana on a sushi menu (or traveling sign on conveyer-belt sushi).

Example of hiragana train help.
If you get on the wrong train in a rural area, they will often write the name of the previous and last train station in Hiragana with arrows, which is super helpful if you couldn't recognize the Kanji (complex imported Chinese characters) in the station, couldn't understand the announcements, and you need to know if you are headed in the correct direction.

Nighttime view of Kakegawa Castle.
Hiragana had already saved me a couple of times on our last visit, so I knew it was a valuable thing to know.  However, I'd originally thought that Hiragana would be super helpful, but really, it was only helpful where the level of help you need is the type of written information that would be helpful for a fluent Japanese-speaking 1st grader who is learning how to read phonetically (i.e. NOT ME).

What I'd learned last time was that the average thing I'm trying to read in Japan (menu, sign with directions or warnings, etc.) is likely 1/3 Hiragana, 1/3 Katakana, and 1/3 Kanji.  I know about 50 Kanji from my Mandarin studies and even though they pay dividends in both Japanese and Chinese, I didn't intend to do any more work on them this trip (because they are hard!).


Katakana
Katakana is a separate, 2nd phonetic writing system (more angular and sharp) that is used to transliterate foreign words into the Japanese phonetic system.  Initially, I was a little annoyed that I had to learn 2 different phonetic systems for the same sets of Japanese sounds.

Hiragana "Gi" flashcard -- typical Japanese vocabulary with explanations.
But then, I started my Katakana flashcards.  The Romaji (Roman alphabet transliteration) for all of the examples were so easy to understand.  Unlike Hiragana where I can only sound out things and match them up if I *already* know the word in Japanese, Katakana is for FOREIGN words.  Guess what?  Most of the foreign words in Japanese are from English!

Katakana "Gi" flashcard -- note the English cognates.

All of a sudden, just by learning 48 phonetic symbols, I could read things and sound them out and understand a *ton* more of what was going on.


Wa-shi-n-to-n-ho-te-ru-pu-ra-za
Washington Hotel Plaza
The only visible sign for our hotel from the street
Katakana for the win!
I've *never* studied a language where there was an imported subset of the language that was derived from English and called out to you in a completely separate writing system.  It's seriously mind-blowing.  You just learn a character set and something that is incomprehensible is magically translated into English-sounding words with a heavy Japanese accent.

I basically walked around sounding out
signs all day and night.
 
I tried to explain it to E, but I'm always getting excited about linguistic stuff and wanting to ramble on about it and we are more than half a year in to the year of travel, so at this point E usually just sort of just mumbles appreciation for the points I'm making and half-listens.  That is, until we sat at an Izakaya and I sounded out the various sections of the otherwise incomprehensible drink menu:

Bi-ru (long i, like ee in English) -- Beer
U-wi-su-ki (long U, like ewe) -- Whisky
Wa-i-n  -- Wine
So-fu-to-du-ri-n-ku (long O, like sew) -- Soft Drink
A-i-su-ku-rii-mu -- Ice Cream

And so on...And then, his mind was blown too!  He's watched me try to remember the vocabulary necessary to translate a menu too many times to count.  This was not that!  He could listen to me sound things out, and, often, because he was only listening to the noises, he could understand what it was supposed to be in English while I was still focused on the Katakana and how to pronounce each one correctly. 

French Fries? フライドポテト (Fu-ra-i-do-po-te-to) (e like Spanish, "ay")

Katakana is like a secret Japanese decoder ring for English speakers!  There are even multiple words that have a traditional Japanese pronunciation as well as a Katakana imported foreign pronunciation and you can just totally cheat and use the foreign pronunciation.  I've *never* leveled up in my comprehension of a language as fast I did learning Katakana.

Typical hand-written menu

We had fun deploying this power for the rest of the trip.  We could now go into small local restaurants with no English or pictures and handwritten menus (where we couldn't cheat with Google translate) and bumble our way to get seated, and then sound out the portion of the menu in hiragana and katakana and order.  It was great -- typically 50% of the time we knew what we were getting, 25% we knew some of what the ingredients were but not all or the preparation so we were usually pleasantly surprised, and 25% of the time, the server either refused to serve us what we requested, or explained in more detail because we clearly didn't fully understand.

Final Thought: Of course the best example of leveling up and superpowers I've ever experienced in real life come from an experience in Japan.  Of course.

February 25, 2017

Japan: The Route (JR Pass optimization)

First Shinkansen of the Trip
So, for most of this year's travels, we've been planning a few days to a week or maybe 10 days in advance.  We'll put some hard dates and locations in the excel spreadsheet (of course there is one!) for things where we actually need to be somewhere (flights, holidays, weddings, visits with friends, etc.) and then just fill in the blanks as it strikes our fancy.

Part of this is because in most of our travels, it's been impossible to know exactly how things will turn out, how long it will take us to accomplish what we think we'd like to do, and how the next step of travel will work, so it's just easier to go with the flow.

Hiking Fuji-san is totally a bucket list item (look at those switchbacks!) but not this trip.
Japan is pretty much the opposite of the rest of the countries we've visited this trip with respect to ability to plan.  Everything works here.  Since we were still in Southeast Asia mode, we didn't get around to booking our flight to Tokyo from HCMC until about a week before we took it (but we've had our flight back to California since before the end of 2016).

So, about a week before we arrived, we finally knew we were flying in to Tokyo (we'd actually hoped to fly into Fukuoka, but we waited too long and the flights were too expensive), we knew we were leaving from Tokyo, and we knew we had 18 nights in between.  We had no real idea where we were going, just some rough "that would be cool" inclinations.  Folks, what I can tell you is that this is not how most foreigners "plan" their trips to Japan.  For good reason.


One of infinite underground tunnels between train and metro stations.
First, there's the JR pass.  This is a very big expense, but if you use it wisely, it can save you quite a bit of money.  We did not research the pass very much other than asking a friend what he recommended.  He said to get the Green Car upgrade so we could just book day of and not have to worry about trains being sold out.  So that was our plan.  Green Car.  In Bangkok, when we started to look into actually buying our passes (you supposedly can't buy them in Japan, but one of the vendors offered to ship to our hotel in Japan when they couldn't deliver to us in Vietnam, so I'm not sure how exactly that all works and/or is enforced).  The JR passes come in many different configurations, some less expensive based on the regions where you would use it (which we didn't know yet) and the full country pass comes in 3 different time options: 7 days, 14 days, and 21 days.

So, speaking of speed and transport -- a mazda car won LeMans in 1991 (With a Wankel engine!)

To get the most value out of the pass, you want to be using it on the high value legs, which, for obvious reasons, tend to involve the (almost but not quite fastest on the system, which are not included in the pass) super-fast Shinkansen that pass through the big cities, like Tokyo.  This meant that we either had to spend 4 days in Tokyo on the ends and go with a 14 day pass in the middle (which would have been the most economical thing to do) or go with a 21 day pass and just acknowledge that we'd be missing out on 3 days of value because we wouldn't even be in the country.  But, we've already spent quite a bit of time in Tokyo on previous trips.  And, we really wanted to spend most of our time elsewhere.  So, this is where I did something very much against my nature and advocated for the 21-day full-country pass, which was lazy because we were going full country only because we weren't sure where we were going, and would be quite wasteful and expensive with 3 throw-away days compared to the 14-day option.

Ltd. Express Sonic Kyushu from Fukuoka to Beppu
Jetsons styled train
 Rotate your own seats when the train changes direction

Mind you, at this point, we were still firmly in go-with-the-flow SE Asia.  First, we had stereotypical chaos for the region trying to identify where and how to get the passes in Bangkok.  Fine, we found an online provider who promised to ship in 2 days' time, so we placed the order and asked for them to be shipped to our hotel in HCMC.  I emailed to confirm that it would arrive on time and finally got a vague response about Tet and how they couldn't guarantee it (even though the website offered a 2-business-day guarantee and Tet was, technically, over).  Fine, we canceled the online order and went in person on a business day to a JTB authorized JR pass reseller in HCMC.  The receptionist was there, but the rest of the staff were all off, having taken the rest of the week as holiday even though, technically, Tet was over in the middle of the week.  Finally, the next Monday, we returned and successfully bought our pass vouchers, hours before we were to take the fast ferry to Long Hai. 

Rainbow over Beppu Ferry Landing

Please -- Learn from our mistakes -- research your route ahead of time, figure out what regions make the most sense to visit (and when), maximize the 7 day interval options so as not to leave days on your pass unused.  And order your passes well in advance (the vouchers are good for 3 months, so in hindsight, I really should have managed this while we were in the US for the holidays, except, of course, I had no idea from where and when we'd be flying to Japan...)

Our final route (with a few additional stops between Nagoya and Tokyo, but more or less on the lines shown here).

Anyways, there we were.  We had vouchers for the whole country and 18 days to use them.  We'd thought we might want to go visit Sapporo during the Snow Festival.  But... by the time we got around to thinking about booking hotels everything within our price range was completely sold out.  Okay, one decision made, we'd just stay off Hokkaido (the main North island).

After reading the guidebooks and considering our options, we decided to hit a few musts:  Osaka, Hiroshima/Miyajima, Fukuoka/Kyushu (visit with my friend from Italian Language school), Shikoku, and a visit with my childhood exchange student, likely in Kamakura, as she loves it and we'd never been.

Totally snowing on our Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka.

Osaka.  I'd heard it was a great food city, that the people were warm and friendly, and that it was just a great place.  So, we headed straight there on the highest value use of the pass this trip after one night in an airport hotel and an hour wait to exchange the vouchers for the JR pass at the Narita JR station.  When we arrived it was so cold that even with my gloves and hat I wondered what the hell we were thinking with considering going north to Hokkaido -- it was snowing on our Shinkansen south to Osaka from Tokyo!

Sunset from Miyajima.

We proceeded along our loose route, booking as far in advance as I thought was reasonable, but each time we kept getting screwed by finding decent rates 4-7 days in advance, only to try to book 2-3 days in advance and find everything gone or much more expensive.  Lesson:  Don't take your SE Asian (or South American) travel norms with you to Japan -- do some advance planning.  You do not have to worry about whether you will get to where you are planning to go on time.  You Will Arrive On Time!

One of a million photos of Miyajima Torii.

We maximized the JR pass the best we could and in the end, we essentially broke even.  The optimizer in me was dying to construct an itinerary that would have saved much more money, but that was not to be on this trip.  We paid $739 for the 21 day pass and when we're done, we'll have taken JR shinkansen, local rail, and metros that totaled roughly the same amount if we'd been in 2nd class.   The big differences were:

1) we were always in the Green Car, which means we always had 2X2 seating (2nd class is 2-3) and plenty of space to put our luggage up and enjoy our train snacks;

2) we never had to worry about the 2nd class car being sold out, which based on the boards we saw, could have been an issue for at-the-moment ticket purchases;

3) we never had to actually *buy* tickets.  We had to stand in line and get reservations for the shinkansen and reserved seat trains, but we never had to pay, and we didn't have to do anything other than wave our pass at the agents as we walked through for local non-reservation trains;

[edit to add #4] 4) On regular JR lines with Green Cars, you can sit in any available seat on a Green car (comfy reclining seat, 2X2, table - which makes eating so much less awkward, plenty of luggage space vs. adding your baggage to the cramped normal service cars and feeling like a jerk) and a conductor will come at some point to verify your pass is Green and confirm where you will be getting off (at which point, the lights above your head will turn green instead of blaring red and screaming that you are illegally in the seat).  Today, we learned some of the true value of these seats when we boarded the wrong train (but right time!) and the attendant came before we left, she asked for our destination and when we told her she explained that we needed to get off the train.  Extremely helpful!

JR-branded Shikoku-map train sake.  Brilliant (and delicious!)

We only paid out of pocket for 1 big leg of travel and that was the ferry from Beppu on Kyushu to Yawatahama on Shikoku.  At $30 per person for 3 hours, this ferry was high end luxury and an amazing value compared to its competitors between the islands in Thailand  (it helped us avoid some serious backtracking by rail to get to Shikoku on the pass).  This is potentially some of the money we would have saved and a rail route we would have taken for free if we had those 3 mythical unused days on our pass. 

And, sometimes your reserved seat is in a theme car, because Japan.
Overall, after getting over the sticker shock, I'm very pleased with how it worked out.  Realistically, we could have only known exactly when we'd be arriving and leaving Japan if we'd planned it as the first portion of the trip, and that would have been insanely cold.  So, given our constraints, I think we probably did the best we could.