The mind is a strange thing. Consciously, you can’t process or hang on to all that much. Trying to come up with a linear, rational explanation for everything you encounter is a slow, strenuous process. You can’t do it on a day-to-day basis for most things. And even if you could, you’d be constructing rationalizations from the things you can hold in “active” memory, which isn’t all that much.
The unconscious part of your brain, the gut, has access to a lot of things that your conscious mind doesn’t. So your “gut” can see patterns your brain can’t. When something feels wrong, but you can’t figure out why, the difference between the information that your conscious mind can access and the amount your unconscious mind can access is often the reason.
So you learn to “trust your gut”. And that can be good.
At a previous job, I first met the team about a month before my start date. And one of the people on the team – I knew instantly that this was going to be a terrible fit, and that this person would likely be why this job would eventually end. And I could point to a lot of reasons why. Obvious misogyny, overwhelming arrogance, etc. etc. These things are obviously bad. But unfortunately, they’re easy to rationalize away. I won’t have to work with him directly all that much (wrong). His work won’t impact my work (wrong). Blah blah blah. Rationalize away. But my gut was right. I didn’t trust it, and it cost me dearly.
So trust your gut.
But also don’t.
Because your “gut” is also a collection of patterns. Habits. Biases. Your gut may tell you “this guy is weird and different”, but it’s actually just that he doesn’t look like a lot of the people you normally interact with. That gut feeling… it’s racism. That indignation, when a woman on the team questions your decisions – I’m the boss, I’m way more experienced than her… that’s misogyny. And at some point or another everyone feels some version of this. The difference between someone who acts in racist/misogynist ways and people who don’t isn’t always what they think, it’s how they respond to what they think.
Trying to understand that certain “gut” reactions are the accumulation of patterns and experience and knowledge, but it’s locked away in a place that is impossible to directly access, and that certain “gut” reactions are the accumulation of biases and social constructs… and they both feel and look the same at first… it’s difficult. It leads to a lot of second guessing. It leads to a lot of difficult contemplation and self-analysis. Most of it’s not all that pretty (and if it is, I’d question whether you’re staring at yourself hard enough).
So trust your gut. But question it. Ask yourself why your gut felt one way, and see if your mind feels another way. In some sense, if I have, for instance, a negative reaction to a [different in some significant way] person in some context, and my gut says, “Hey!”, and my mind says, “Yeah, that’s not a great reaction, and it comes from (relative) lack of exposure,” the gut is me reacting to my history and society. The brain in this case is me exerting my will and striving for something better. Does it always succeed? No, of course not.
But this is one place where I think sometimes when someone screws up publicly initially then apologizes, this is where the difference between and good and bad apology can totally change how I react to a situation like this. Because we all have biases, and many of them are not good. Sometimes people can react “automatically” based on those biases, then they catch themselves, assert that this is not who they want to be. A good apology addresses the damage done, explains where the problem was, and how that person will work to be better in the future. So a good apology to me is the transition between a gut reaction and a thoughtful one. And I don’t blame (most) people for their guts.
A bad reaction (sorry if you felt..) shows you’re saying, “My biases do not need to be questioned,” and isn’t an apology at all.
But the gut/mind problem goes beyond just large-scale prejudices. It also goes to a lot of “how you respond at work” issues. My gut often tells me to get demonstrably angry. My mind tells me to not. I think if folks believe I’m a good leader, it’s because I often go *against* what I want to do based on my gut, and wait until my mind has a chance to formulate the kind of person I want to be.
So should you listen to your gut? Yeah. Sometimes. Is there a clear place to draw the line where you should & shouldn’t listen to your gut? No. But I think it’s still straightforward. You should always listen to your gut. You should question that feeling. You should say, “Is this reflective of who I want to be?” and then make the determination of what to do from there.
I think if that’s the only step you take, you’ll make a significant improvement in your life.
But it’s also not easy. It leads to a feeling of constant second-guessing. It’s a lot of work, and often interrogating your biases is unpleasant. It’s much easier to go with your gut and let it take you wherever. It feels better. It’s cathartic. But it also leads to a life led without improvement or direction, where you’re simply a passenger, with your biases and history driving the bus.
So yeah. Listen to your gut. Interrogate it. And then be the person you choose to be.
When I was starting out in positions of leadership, I felt like my job was to give each individual in my charge the best opportunities, give them increasing responsibilities and creative ownership, and to help them learn and grow as teammates who could one day hold positions of leadership of their own.
I don’t think that’s necessarily the wrong set of things to hold dear as a starting manager. But the one thing that’s changed the most about my attitudes as a leader is that when someone’s struggling to be a good teammate, or a good manager, there’s a certain set of flaws that I’ve never seen anyone overcome, and that in those situations, the 100% best thing you can do for the team is to fire them as fast as possible.
One of the biggest mistakes I made in my last job was that I kept on a “brilliant asshole,” because they were a critical bit in getting the project shipped. I’d continue to address their behavior in every way that I could short of letting them go, but I couldn’t fire them until we’d shipped. It would only be another few months.
Of course, those few months dragged on to a year+. And I knew that entire time that this person was unsalvageable. For that year+, a huge portion of the team bore the brunt of my mistake. They dealt with a teammate who generated great individual work, but had a catastrophic impact on their team. I heard the feedback. And I delayed, because firing them would push the launch back inevitably by 6+ months. But we ended up pushing the launch 6+ months for other reasons anyway.
I hoped I could make a difference in their attitude, and help them grow as a teammate. I couldn’t. I’d repeatedly give them direct and honest feedback. They’d say they’d do X, Y, and Z, but ultimately, they knew that firing them would have a really heavy cost, and I think they hid behind that in order to not change. But at the same time, when you have someone who’s this combination of abrasive, domineering and condescending… I’ve never seen anyone with that kind of personality change to the degree that they go from an intolerable drag on the team to even mid-level competent. I’ve never seen it. Ever.
There’s a point when you’re a team lead where you can’t think about the individuals. Where I could invest hours and hours of my time, and of the team’s mental energy to changing this person. But I absolutely should not. It’s my job to fire them and get them out. I don’t have to be mean about it, but I do have to be ruthless about it and efficient. Because it has nothing to do with that individual, and it has everything to do with the team.
One smart person cannot make up for the drag of an energy vampire on the project. There’s no level of individual brilliance that’s worth it, and that can’t be made up multiple times over by the increase in morale and cohesion and communication that come with getting them out. So for both “efficiency”, and morale, you cannot keep these kinds of people on the team. You have to cut them. You can’t let their rot fester on the team for months while you bend over backwards to give them opportunities to change because you are not the only one paying the cost. Everyone on the team is paying the cost for your indecision and inaction.
Your job isn’t to change people. Your job is to maximize your team’s efficacy, and that comes with getting rid of the assholes that make teamwork impossible.
I’ve always said that one of my core tenets was “no assholes,” but your core tenets are only what you do, not what you say. And in that respect, I failed at a very important part of my last job. It’s not a mistake that I’ll make again.
Years ago, I was in the midst of some personal difficulties. A friend of mine heard about it, and drove over to my house. Texted me that he was outside, and was available to talk. I said “no,” I wasn’t in a good place to talk. They said something to the effect of, “Well, I’m just gonna sit here ’til you come out.” I went out a few minutes later, we drove to a nearby beach, and talked for a few hours. It was the turning point in that series of events, and one of the most memorable moments of my life.
It was that moment that taught me what it meant to be a great friend. Ever since then, I’ve tried to live up to that example for the rest of my friends. And while it’s never entirely clear whether you’re doing things right, I’ve never, ever, ever, regretted showing up.
Yeah, it’s effort. Yeah, it’d be way easier to let them sort it out, and let’s be honest, they’ll probably be fine in the end.
But what are friends for? Are they for shooting the shit casually when you’re bored? Are they so that you’re not alone when you go to things like sporting events? Meh. You can do that kind of stuff with anyone.
Friends – the close ones – are the support system that keeps you alive when you’re overwhelmed. When you’re on the receiving end of that support, it’s because you need it, and you need folks who’ve known you forever to help guide you through trauma. When you have the chance to be on the giving end of that support, jump in with both feet, and seize the opportunity to do one of the greatest things you can do for someone you care about.
Note: I’m reposting some things I wrote a while back on LinkedIn here, in part to slowly “port” the content back to my own blog, but in part because some of this stuff is worth resurfacing. This was from Dec. 2014. It still feels relevant, and probably always will.
Someone on your team comes to you and says there’s a problem. The last release broke the purchase flow of your product, and it’s costing you $10,000 an hour and lost customers. What’s your first reaction?
A lot of times, regardless of intent, the first reaction is one of bewilderment, anger, or frustration. Over the course of my career, I’ve heard managers shouting at people more often than not, almost every time, it’s the wrong response.
Which may sound obvious, since we’re sitting here looking at a post, and not desperately trying to get a $10K/hr problem fixed. But in the heat of the moment, most people revert to the full-scale freakout, and it’s in those moments where reacting differently can have a dramatically better effect.
Here’s the thing – a lot of places say, “Move fast & break stuff,” but they don’t really mean it. They don’t want you to break important things. They don’t want you to break things that will make them look bad. If you really mean for people to move fast, and you accept that the consequences of moving fast means that sometimes things get broken, then you need to accept that this will often cost actual money, and that breaking things is often not a failure of the team.
What you want as a leader is that in times of crisis, people should want to bring things up as quickly as possible. You want them to tell the truth immediately and work to fix the problem without worrying about blame or consequence. In that moment, you want no barriers to fixing the problem.
If you’ve reacted badly in the past and yelled at someone when something’s gone wrong, that’s not going to happen. First, instead of “moving fast”, those people are now in “risk mitigation” mode, which means they’re worried less about finding success and more about avoiding failure. These are dramatically different mindsets, and risk mitigation prevents people from making bold choices.
The correct response in a time of crisis is:
Help people get back to an acceptable situation as quickly as possible
Follow up by understanding what went wrong, and if there is a good way of preventing the same or similar mistakes in the future.
I understand how simple and obvious that sounds.
If more people actually responded that way, I wouldn’t be writing this. But primal reactions are hard to suppress, and even if most people want to react to things this way, often they start with a “WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED!?!?!” Some people think this is their “right” or that a bit of fear makes for a good motivator. But the reality of it is that if you have hired good people, there is nothing you can say or do that will make them feel worse than they already do. You don’t need to point out their failing, they already know something terrible has happened.
They’re coming to you because they need your help to recover. If you yell at them, or threaten them, or otherwise react badly, consider how they’ll respond the next time something bad happens.
Creative, collaborative, risk-taking environments are built on trust. Trust is a brittle thing. Once it’s broken, it’s incredibly difficult if not impossible to recover. If you want the benefits of a highly iterative, fast-moving team, you need to pay the cost of learning to react to crisis situations well. You need to make sure that you are the first person that people want to talk to in case of a critical emergency. Not because you need to be the lynchpin of the response (usually, you won’t be anyway, because it’s the team that screwed it up that will fix the problem), but because as a leader, you need to know what is happening and you will set the tone for how the team responds.
For that to happen, in times of crisis and chaos, before flying off the handle, you need to remember that the best way of getting the result you want is simple: be nice.
* Addendum from 2023: “Help people get back to an acceptable situation as quickly as possible” is definitely an important step. But a lot of the work involved in this step has to be done before anything goes wrong. You need to build the infrastructure that lets you roll back code easily and reliably. If you don’t have this infrastructure, every mistake will be a disaster. So since you know for certain that things will eventually go wrong, you have to build this out as early as you can. If you think you can build this out after the 1st crisis happens, the 1st crisis may be the only crisis your company ever has before it dies.
One thing that’s come up in discussions with a handful of folks recently has been about presentations & talks with folks in various awkward/difficult situations. And I’m not going to pretend that I’m any good at any of this, so I hope this doesn’t come off like, “I’m awesome at this s**t, learn from me:” – more, “I’ve had some experience with this s**t, and I’ve at least shaved the most awful edges off, here’s how:”
I know, right? Seems crazy. But over the last 3.5 years, I’ve now given probably hundreds of presentations – many are just little weekly updates, some were talks about the company’s philosophy, some were attempts at motivation – they’ve run the gamut. And I think consistently, everyone underestimates how much preparation goes into these things.
For the most part, preparing for a significant (and new) 30 minute talk in front of a team takes me about 8 hours. I’ll make a Keynote presentation as a way of “thinking it out”. Usually this comes with at least a little bit of structure – how to reinforce a point I want to drive home. What kind of visual “language” will help reinforce it, and be memorable. The slides start off all text, and over the course of development, I’ll try to replace as much text with images as possible – in part because text sucks for presentations, in part because the presence of text encourages you to just read your slides, and in part because the images just look better & are stickier.
But the whole time, every iteration (of which there are usually dozens), I’ll “walk through” the presentation, and try to think about what I’d say. I don’t generate a “script” – I think part of trying to be engaging is reacting to things, and being spontaneous. But it’s spontaneity within a structure which is provided by the slides, so you don’t forget the things you’re trying to get across.
So (hopefully) the end result feels “off the cuff”, because a lot of the actual content is improvised on the spot. But the main points are not. The overall flow is not. This goes for presentations to large groups, and it also applies just as much to difficult conversations with individuals, though those don’t usually involve a Keynote presentation.
One thing to note – I think the bulk of the “work” building presentations is figuring out the correct order for content. Getting the ideas in the right order can have a huge impact on how it’s all ingested by the viewer, and having a flow to your presentation that makes sense takes a lot of iteration and practice.
If you’re going to have a difficult conversation with someone in a work environment, HAVE NOTES. Practice. If you need to, practice WITH SOMEONE ELSE (if they’re in the position where you can talk to them about the issue you’re having with whoever). These conversations are always insanely difficult, and it’s very difficult to get your points across in a clear, coherent, and memorable way if you do it all off the cuff. The other person’s reaction and emotions will pull you WAY off your “plan” – but having a plan means you have something to come back to. Practicing with someone else means you can anticipate some of the things that won’t go to plan and have another plan.
Anyway – the point of this is that for me, the way I got through these things – presentations, difficult conversations, etc. – is practice. Is planning. Is preparation. Is iteration. A 30 minute presentation may feel like it doesn’t require much forethought, but if you’re talking to a team of fifty people, consider what that costs to the company in time and money, and then invest the time preparing accordingly to make it worth their while.
One of the surprising things of the last few months is that I’ve had reason to think about what a new job for me would look like. And there’s a lot.
I mean, I’m privileged as fuck to be able to even consider some of these questions. But I do get to consider them, and so instead of blindly doing the “default”, I’ve gotta think about what the best, most sustainable, most fulfilling version of work looks like for me.
Full time? I don’t know. I think probably if I was working 9-2:45, that’s about the right amount. Which means about 30 hours a week. Work when the kids are in school, and when they’re home, they’re priority #1.
Remote? Sort of. This is probably the biggest open question, because there’s two things I know for sure:
I never want to work full-time in an office or commute ever again. Period.
The thing I miss about work is the people, and the kinds of interactions and idea-acceleration and spontaneous nonsense that comes from being in the same place at the same time.
So while I really worry that it’s trivial to end up with the “worst of both worlds”, I think something like working co-located a few times a month for those in the area, and ensuring that about once a quarter we’re in the same place at the same time makes some amount of sense. And it’s probably an evolving thing. Early on, at the very beginning, more face time, but as we coalesce on the details of what we’re building and how, more independence. But even when we’re in the same place at the same time, temporal flexibility is required, and the ability to go deal with family stuff is #1. How to manage that? I still don’t really know.
There’s also questions of how much I’d be “in charge”. I expect that if we were to do a thing, I’d mostly be focused on high-level stuff. Team structure/culture, game direction, focus, process. But the details of what we’d be building would not generally be my focus most of the time. I think that makes a “not full-time” schedule more compatible with my actual job.
Will something actually happen? I have no idea. I think the opportunity to think about this, and potentially make something really cool with people again is alluring. But yeah – the world’s changed since the last time I had a job. Much of what I know about work is different, and learning to adapt to all the new bits and pieces, and wielding the old experience that still works… it’ll be an interesting challenge to navigate.
Most of the studio leads I’ve seen fail over the years failed because they couldn’t adapt. It’s not that they weren’t smart. It’s not that they lacked experience. It’s that the world changed, and they couldn’t see that the things that brought them success before wouldn’t bring them success again. For me, as a team lead (and also in my personal life as a parent) – missing this transition is one of my biggest fears.
One of the goals for this “school year” (yeah, the kids go back to school tomorrow!) is to start writing more on my blog, rather than on LinkedIn or anywhere else that’s owned by some giant corporation. Between Twitter’s catastrophic self-inflicted implosion or Facebook’s constant privacy and ethics woes, it’s clear that even though these platforms help focus an audience and provide nice means of feedback, I want the things I make to live on a platform that I own, and not have it attract eyeballs or create value for someone else.
That’s a big theme of the last few years. Over and over again, I’ve busted my ass to make other people rich, and I’ve managed to make them very, very rich. Far richer than I’ve made myself, by many orders of magnitude. I’m really fucking good at it, and I’m not going to do it for other people from here on out, even if the consequence of that is not doing it at all.
But in any case, the point is that I’ll be writing more here, or on some more focused public-facing locale that discusses specific topics. Probably resumes, game design, and leadership. I don’t know if all three would be in the same place, but who knows.
One thing that’s been bugging me for a long time, though, is how many “old school” gamers I know who have embraced the modern business of mobile games. Pay-to-win, the never ending crush of timers and FOMO, blah blah blah. In some ways, it is what it is, and you can accept it and internalize it, or you can be someone shouting at a tidal wave. I get it. But the thing for me is that while I do think that mobile games are here to stay, I don’t have to like it, and I don’t have to spend my time making them.
In 2009, we pioneered a lot of F2P stuff with Self Aware Games. Am I proud of that? Kinda? I mean, we had to survive, and to survive, we had to try a lot of things we’d never done before. We weren’t the first to offer chips in a casino game for real money, but we pushed the boundaries in a lot of ways – some interesting, some effective, some that likely established some precedents that made the world a worse place.
For me, F2P was interesting, because it enabled live games-as-a-service, where you’re making $, which allows you to keep spending on keeping that game interesting. And creating that feedback loop, where we build stuff, we observe the players, see what’s working, and respond was always really interesting and satisfying. And for a while circa 2009-2016, which was when I stopped working on mobile games, the fact of the matter was that premium priced games were literally impossible to base a business on. Piracy rates were astronomical, and the price people expected to pay for thousands of hours of work was $1 and not a penny more.
So F2P grew out of the circumstance. And the live-ops side of things is super interesting. Still is. I think it’s one of the places where there’s still a lot of fertile ground, but so much of gaming is driven by F2P and VC backing that the push for growth-uber-alles-all-the-time leads you down some weird roads, and makes a lot of games inevitably feel more like pain that fun.
For me, there has to be a future in games as a business. Where you acquire users, and those users are “profitable” from day one. And you grow at a sustainable rate, because you’re growing only when your player base supports (or demands!) growth. Not because your VC needs you to be a $1B company in 24 months or bust. Not because the founders all wanna be part of startupland and the pseudo-“celebrity” that goes along with it. Not because you’re so steeped in the F2P pressure-oriented psychologically manipulative FOMO sea that you can’t see any other way.
I don’t know what that is (yet), but there’s something there. Maybe it’s Apple Arcade. Maybe it’s a chance to reset the business side of things as Vision Pro’s marketplace gets established. I don’t know. But I know that the F2P grind isn’t for me. Not as a player, not as a developer.
I was reading One Piece the other night, and was on Book 89, and it said for the next book, “Coming in 2019”, and I thought, “That doesn’t seem so long ago, but it’s been four years.” And there’s something in my brain where my kids are still 6 and 9, not 10 & 13. We still don’t frequently go to restaurants. We see fewer people. Life is different, and I don’t know that it’ll go back to what I’d considered “previous normal” any time soon, if ever.
And obviously, a lot of people have decided their time worrying about COVID is over. But it’s not. My friend just got it. My mom got it recently. We had to go to great lengths to make sure my dad didn’t get it.
Despite all the precautions, Ei-Nyung, K and I all got it anyway. J didn’t, which is great. But we’d had all the available vaccinations, and our experiences with it were relatively mild. I don’t see it as, “We took these precautions and this happened anyway, what a waste,” – instead, it’s “We took all these precautions, which let us get it late, which meant we got vaccinated and because of that, our symptoms were mild.
Some of my friends weren’t so lucky, got it early, and are still struggling with severe long-COVID symptoms. I have no idea what the long-term health impacts are, and some of K’s classmates have had it more than three times (and because of that, perhaps, are unwilling to take any precautions, I guess).
The reason we took so many precautions was that we didn’t know what the impact would be. Or rather, we could see what the impact would be, and we hoped that delaying or avoiding getting infected as long as possible would pay off long-term. We managed to (to date) avoid exposing my dad, for instance – that was worth it. All the shit – the masks, the distance from friends, the change in our behavior – it’s for us, sure, but for me (and I assume Ei-Nyung), it was for J & K more than anything else.
And it’s weird – their lives from 6 & 9 to 10 & 13 have been really different than my life at that age. They didn’t get to spend a ton of time with friends from school, since we couldn’t pod up with anyone. I think their long-term social relationships will be fine – they both have friends they like – but it feels like … I dunno. It’s just different.
I don’t regret the choices we made. I’d make them basically all the same if we had to do it all over again.
But the time? The impact – it’s weird. there’s definitely a strange gap in our history. I hope the kids will look back at that time and understand that we were doing our best to keep them safe, and happy, and healthy. More, I think we actually did that. The impact wasn’t nothing. I believe it was worth it.
For the shinkansen ride from Kyoto to Tokyo, I asked if we could sit on the left so we could see Mt. Fuji. The ticketing folks were super accommodating. The clouds were not.
After we arrived, we dropped the bags at the hotel, and then booked it to Odaiba. The kids met their second cousins today, and we hung out with my cousin & his awesome family for dinner. We ate some delightful food at a place that had a picture of Keanu Reeves outside. Ei-Nyung encouraged me to sneak the bill, and I managed to get the drop on my cousin, which was a hilarious moment.
Got to see the big Gundam at exactly the right time. Our friend had gone to see it during the day & was like “WTF THIS SUCKS”, but at night, with lights, synced to the scenes in the anime from which the statue was pulled, it was pretty spectacular.
We decided to have a “new Tokyo” day today. Got Ghibli and Teamlab Planets tomorrow, then an “old Tokyo” day before we go. We ended up going to Akihabara, since I have a lot of fond memories of it from my youth, and boy – it is not for me anymore.
Used to be a place where you could get a lot of interesting electronics that were leagues beyond anything you could get in the states. But now that your iPhone does every conceivable thing, that kind of tech isn’t super relevant. So Akihabara is a lot of hobby shops with statues of anime characters, model robots, and … not a ton else?
We ended up going to one of those five-story toy stores, and they had a ton of One Piece statues (though we don’t have any need to have a character statue), and on the upper floor, they had a ton of robots and models – a bunch of stuff I’d never seen before, but was waaaaaaaaay too expensive. Picked up a Skids Transformer, solely because it was the very first Transformer I ever got way back when.
Also went to Super Potato, which is a huge retro game store. But because of the language barrier and various region locking, there’s nothing there that was super appealing, even though it was neat to see. It’s not like I’m gonna go buy a Famicom. There was also some odd livestream of some sort of girl group, and it elicited from what appeared to be a crowd of guys the kind of reaction that a BTS performance would elicit from a bunch of girls. At least, that’s how it seemed.
But yeah – too loud, too crowded, not the kinds of things I’m looking for. I think maybe if I was super deep into cameras or something, there’d be something here that I’d find interesting still, but it isn’t the revelation of my youth. Alas!
Also saw a crazy-ass Warhammer “cafe” – which had a ton of really gorgeously done up terrain for people to actually play on, and a lot of the best-painted armies I’ve ever seen.
the picture of the dude in the sunglasses and the mask is from a Japanese show called Run for the Money, which is on Netflix. It’s awesome.
We also tried to stop at a “Petit Kirby Cafe”, where they had awesome looking Kirby-themed confections. Alas, without a reservation, they wouldn’t even let you purchase any food. JUST FOR TAKEOUT. It’s crazy. They were processing people SO slowly, I was just baffled. They could easily have done this without reservations & increased their throughput 5-10x.
The stuff looked awesome, but they don’t “release” stuff until after 3 without reservations, and I wasn’t gonna sit around and wait for an hour in the hopes there’d be anything left.
We also ate lunch at the “Ramen Street” in the Tokyo train station. First bowl of ramen on the trip, and it took us almost a week in Japan to get to it. It was interesting to see the variety of ramen that they’d jammed together. The one we chose had a mix of bowls with normal noodles, and some with buckwheat-y noodles. Not soba, but sort of a hybrid soba/ramen noodle. Pretty darned good. Tomorrow after Teamlab, we’re gonna try to hit up the Ramen area of Aqua City, which also sounds like a collection of interesting spots all jammed together into one place.
Dinner at the Ninja restaurant. Cheesy but fun. Kids seemed to enjoy it a lot, and the food was surprisingly high quality given what it could have been.
And if you’re a food dork, note the quote on the wall and it’s author.
That part was very surprising!
The next day was basically “art day”. Ghibli Museum and Teamlab Planets. Ghibli was amazing. Loved it. Watched the Kitten Bus movie. What a neat concept for an animation museum. It’s basically laid out like an artist’s workspace, with lots of work-in-progress and reference material around. For a hand-drawn studio like Ghibli, it was super immersive, and showed off what kind of craft goes into these things.
The museum was spectacular – it felt like you were in one of their movies. Not necessarily anything specific (though I wouldn’t be expert enough to say for certain), but it just felt like Ghibli through and through.
Teamlab Planets. Amazing. More on this later.
After TeamLab, we went back to Odaiba for ramen. I had a tsukemen, which was good, but maybe a bit too fish-forward in the broth for me. Ei-Nyung had a ramen that was at least as much green onion as it was noodles.
We’d hoped to stop by Joypolis (a huge ass Sega arcade that I thought had closed down ages ago), but unfortunately… they closed at 7, and we got there at 8.
Last full day in Japan, we wanted to go see something more traditional.
This morning, we went to Senso-ji, which was nice – even though it was lightly drizzling, the place was packed. Funny how the little merch shops still sell the same kinds of vacu-formed plastic masks they have for the last 45 years at least.
We also had a very instagrammable ube dessert thing, where they had a thin layer of roasted sweet potato, ice cream, and then they pressed a steamed purple sweet potato through a ricer to make these thin potato noodles that went all over the top. It was really good.
Ei-Nyung went to go visit with a friend, and so the kids & I went to Shibuya to find a melon cream soda float. This was disappointing, even though it looked good. The actual soft serve was really good, but the melon soda was weaksauce.
But yeah – between Senso-ji and Shibuya and three weeks of fairly aggressive walking including nearly a week trying to walk around with a left foot that has been declining from blinding agony to merely painful, I’ll be glad to get home and put my feet up for a bit.
Tonight, we meet up with @hapacheese and our old housemate & mutual friend Brandon (who we last saw in London a few years ago). Tomorrow we pack up and head home. It’ll be a long day of traveling, but it’ll be nice to get home.
I have to say also, of the many awesome things that we’ve seen, TeamLab is definitely going to leave a lasting impression. The exhibits were surprising, full-body kinds of experiences, often strikingly beautiful in ways I haven’t experienced, and it’s something I’d very much like to see more of, which is not something I say about a lot of traditional art. If you’re in Tokyo, you could go.
One thing that I hadn’t expected at ALL even having seen some stuff when figuring out if we should go to it was that you go through the exhibits barefoot, because there are some where you’re walking in water. In one, knee-high. In one, you’re walking up a slope with water rushing down. When you get to the top, there’s an illuminated column of water falling from the ceiling.
In another, the water is opaque, and there are projections on it from abstract lights, to later images of koi.
I don’t remember if there was a third water section, but maybe. There were also numerous exhibits with lots of mirrors that made the spaces seem much larger than they were – in the room with all the LED strands hanging from the ceiling, it was genuinely disorienting, as everything seemed to go on forever in every direction.
One of the reasons I think that this would have been very difficult to do in the US is sad – it’s delicate, and the space requires a certain amount of cooperation to enjoy. You can’t grab the flowers in the garden exhibit – it’s a bunch of hanging orchids. One (foreign) kid was grabbing the ends of the strands, but that was it – everyone else was respectful. There was one kid going places in the LED room he shouldn’t have, but everyone else? Totally respectful. It’s frustrating, because it’s like, “Dammit, this is why we can’t have nice things.” There’s a lot of Japanese culture I dislike – it’s too rigid, too hierarchical – I’d never want to work here, for instance. But there’s also something about being able to hold “society” or “team” in high regard which is in direct opposition to America’s “individual uber alles fuck everyone else” mentality. The kids clean the schools together. People coordinate their movements in rush hour mostly fairly elegantly because they have to – there’s too many people for an individual melee to work.
So Teamlab to me, yeah – we saw it in Tokyo, and I wish I could see something like this closer to home, but I also couldn’t imagine it. The concessions they’d have to make for the exhibits to be durable enough or for them to not be totally dominated by Instagram buffoons who think the space belongs to them would make it worse in every way.
One funny thing in the Teamlab exhibit was that some sort of organization that employs exclusively Indians was apparently having some sort of corporate retreat there. It was just weird seeing a horde of yellow-shirted Indians all moving around in a big group, but they seemed to be having a grand time.
Packed up and about to head out. Got two hours between when we check out & the train to Narita, so we’ll poke around the Tokyo station area for a bit. Shinkansen to Narita, then to San Jose airport via ZipAir, then a friend picks us up for the drive home. Will amount to a very long day with one minor point of stress which is “checking in to ZipAir”.
Looking forward to being home, but not homesick. Amazing to me that we managed a three week trip with a lot of moving around without anyone losing their minds. 😀 Portends well for the future!
Last minute swing by the Kirby Cafe Petit, and I was able to ask her nicely enough in Japanese that she let us buy stuff without a reservation.
Bah. Flew out of Tokyo at 4pm. Didn’t sleep more than 15 min. Got in at 10am. Was groggy all day. Made it to bedtime, at which my body decided it was time to wake up. Thanks, body.
Man. I know I’ve said much of this before, but this was a hell of a trip. Before we left, we were trying to think about what “success” looked like. Was there something we wanted to get out of the trip that we’d be disappointed if we didn’t do it? There were some small things we weren’t able to do – for me, a lot of that revolved around my foot injury and not being able to see some more traditional “old Japan” stuff. I definitely want, while the kids are still young, for them to walk in a Japanese castle interior that looks like a Japanese castle interior. I have absolutely no idea why that means something to me, except that it felt like such a transportative moment when I was a kid that I feel like it’s important to me that they have that experience.
But otherwise? We had such a great experience. I feel like we got to “see Korea” and “see Japan” both as they are today, and dive into their history and culture in a way that will illuminate the kids’ life forever. We got over the uncertainty and stress of traveling to both of these countries – both heightened by each of our history and expectations. I was terrified of meeting up with family and just sitting there in silence with the language barrier. Technology made that easier. But if that technology wasn’t there at all, it’d still have been worth it. I’ll have to track down my two female cousins who I spent time with when I was young – it’ll be a bit harder, since my mom doesn’t talk to their dad basically at all any more, but I can probably figure it out.
We ate a ton of food. So much good food. We had a lot of country-specific food in the place you’re supposed to have it. The kids will have a weird love of convenience stores and vending machines that unfortunately does not carry over at all to convenience stores or vending machines in the US.
Next time, I want to go a bit more out in the sticks. If there’s a reasonable way to stay in more countryside locations in both countries, that’ll be great. Every urban location will be right on top of a train station, though, because the difference between 5 min. to a train and 15 min. is eternity.
My favorite moments:
The mango I ate in Jeju. Holy fucking shit. Life changed in a mouthful. I’ve never had anything that good. I think that’s correct. Despite all the fancy-schmany restaurants we’ve been to, I think one bite of mango blew it all away. Wild.
How absurdly uncomfortable the Hanok in Seoul was. I mean, I hated it in the moment but it’s SO … memorable? Why would anyone do that to themselves?
TeamLab Planets – I desperately wish I’d a.) have brought a better camera, and b.) know how to use a better camera, because there were things in there that the photos we have just don’t do justice, and I don’t know how to have taken a picture that’d have captured it.
Omi, my cousin’s young son, would grab Jin’s face. Jin would make an expression and a groan, and Omi would cackle and double over the way that really young kids do. Nayu, his daughter, grabbed Kuno’s hand while walking and wouldn’t let go. Kuno was visibly uncomfortable, but Nayu was beaming in a way that… I dunno. She was just so happy. Kuno’s never had the older brother experience, so maybe he got a moment of it then.
Sitting in Cafe Onion in Seoul at 7 in the morning, totally wrecked from travel, and eating a bunch of delicious pastries and wondering how we were going to make it ‘til 3pm. For some reason, the small bits of suffering during the trip seem to have stuck in my mind and ended up as positives. 😀
Just seeing all the people we know. Friends we haven’t seen in years, if not decades. Family I haven’t seen in 20+ years.
Seeing the kids get through it all together. I’m not trying to brag here or anything – but they made it through a 3 week trip in six places and had no problems at all. A moment of grumpiness here and there, but practically speaking, flawless victory. It makes it so much less stressful to plan for another trip like this.
Every goddamn time the kids were surprised or delighted by something. I feel like that’s the purpose of my life at this point in some weird way, and it was great.
Picked up a Gundam at the airport on the way out. This was super fun to build.
We arrived in Osaka, and rode a Hello Kitty-themed train from the airport to the hotel. We were staying at the APA, which is a fairly nice hotel with comically small rooms. Like, the room is the size of the bed and almost not any bigger than that. They claim it’s for “eco-friendly” living, which okay, sure – and it’s definitely efficient, but for weary travelers looking to relax a bit, it was … cramped. We’d grabbed food in a department store basement. Which was one of my goals for the trip, so mission accomplished.
Ended up on an awesome looking nightlife street on the walk back from visiting with my uncle and aunt, which was delightful. On the way there went to the One Piece store, Nintendo Osaka and the Pokémon Center, which were all in the same place. After dinner stopped off at Yodobashi Camera, which is like an REI, Best Buy, Fry’s Electronics at its height, and Toys R Us all injected with powerful steroids and smashed together. Sensory overload.
This morning we went to Osaka Castle, which was beautiful on the outside. The grounds were impressive. But the interior is now essentially a modern museum and looks nothing like a feudal castle, which is quite disappointing.
Ei-Nyung made a point re: the difference between the castles here vs. in Korea. These are all fortifications for war, where Korea’s are much less… defensible. Way more open, walls, sure, but not like Osaka Castle with a huge moat built on a stone mountain.
Universal Studios Osaka + Super Nintendo World. Mario Kart ride was awesome, Yoshi’s Adventure was a total waste. The overall atmosphere was bananas, and waaaaaaaaay too crowded.
Bye, Osaka. Your bed-sized rooms at APA were strange but alright. Shinkansen to Kyoto (a ridiculous extravagance for a 15 minute trip but they’re such badass trains and JR Pass = whatever). Stopped off at Dotonbori just for kicks (and Takoyaki), and now at a ryokan in Kyoto with a lot more space. Gonna walk over to Hanamikoji (there’s a board game named after the street) and then meet up with a bunch of Oakland friends for dinner at the place they’re staying.
In Osaka we got some souvenirs at the One Piece shop, and then went to a rando capsule toy shop and spent $15 on nonsense. I got a very tiny Tony Tony Chopper and the kids ended up with some B-tier character wanted poster One apiece keychains.
Can’t go to Japan and not have some conveyor-belt sushi. Kura in Japan is better than in the US, and cheaper.
All of this is super up my alley. It’s very Japan to me, and reminds me a ton of when I was a kid. Totally delightful. So glad the kids get to experience it. And meet family. But they’re not into stuff like Gundam or Transformers, and the age of comically compact Japanese electronics isn’t relevant anymore. But the historical stuff, the food streets, the sort of overwhelmingness of things…
On the way out of Osaka, we did a quick stop in Dotonbori for food & sightseeing.
So, got a bad case of plantar fasciitis starting yesterday evening. Getting up to walk to breakfast at the ryokan we’re at this morning was agony. Spent about half an hour jabbing the corner of a table into the bottom of my foot and stretching it out, and that made it walkable, sorta. Went to a massage place, and tried to ask them if they could do something specifically about my foot and calf, and they said, “sure, sure”. Ended up getting a nice general massage, but it did jack and squat for my foot, alas. Picked up some athletic tape to tape it up and it does feel a bit better with some support, but dammit. Not the best outcome. Haven’t wandered around Kyoto too much as a result.
esterday we met up with friends from CA who were in Kyoto at the same time. We walked over, had dinner, and walked back. Today, Ei-Nyung took the kids out while I was waiting to get foot stuff addressed. I picked up some treats that were basically cream-filled mochi-wrapped strawberries, with a bit of sweet white bean paste, which were nice – barring any comparisons, they were delicious. But I’d hoped they’d be a little more like a “yuki ichigo” (snow strawberry) I’d had in Hiroshima 23 years ago – which was a mochi-wrapped cream-filled strawberry with a small slice of maybe pound cake, which is to this day one of the best desserts I’ve ever had anywhere.
This was good, but it wasn’t that, so it was a little bit of a bummer. But Kyoto is weird. The shrines are impressive, but there’s a lot of super weird eighties architecture. And the area I was wandering around had like 10 nightclub/bars on every block and I’m like, I have no idea how most of these places could possibly sustain themselves – they’re like a bar on the fourth floor of a half-wide alleyway in a maze of alleyways.
Decided sort of ad-hoc to go to Nara today to check out the deer, despite the foot. Ended up on an absolutely baller train on the ride home. Last night the kids had the fanciest-schmanciest meals of their lives, and despite it being a lot of stuff they’ve either never had or actively dislike (like eggplant) they did an awesome job and ate it all. It was amazing. We met up with our friends Max & Hannah, and the dinner was at the ryokan they were staying at (which was sort of on the scale of that train we ended up on).
The kids ate it all. I was super impressed. There was a lot of stuff in there that was unfamiliar to them, or explicitly things they don’t normally like (eggplant, for instance), but they did a great job. They’re not picky eaters. Given their own desires they’ll tend toward fairly simple food, but if you put something in front of them, they’ll try just about anything. Despite the look on Kuno’s face. Note how fancily he’s drinking.
The deer are hilarious. You buy little packages of rice crackers that are for the deer (not the healthiest thing for them, I imagine, but better than the tourists feeding them random shit), and they walk up to you, and “bow” to try to encourage you to feed them. You give them crackers, and then they’re like, “SWEET YOU’VE GOT CRACKERS” and the bowing goes out the window. Fuck that, now they’ll pull on your shirt, or headbutt you in the rear. FEED ME. It’s awesome.
When it’s one or two, no problem. When it’s like, six, it starts to get a little intimidating.
I was thinking there HAVE to be tons of tourists who think they’re going to dress up and have a Disney Princess experience with these deer and be very surprised.
The train was a “limited express” from Kyoto to Nara. You had to pay a bit extra for the express vs. the standard train, but it cut about 1/3 of your travel time out, which for us was worth it (maybe 15 min each way?). But for your extra … $5.50 total for four people, the upgrade in trains was absolutely bonkers.
I was a bit bummed that the foot injury had killed some of the time we spent in Kyoto. Today turned that around. In addition to Nara, we also ended up going to a Kaiseki dinner with some CA friends (Eric & Christy, who some of you may know, as well as another couple we know that they’re traveling with). So two nights of nice dinners in a row with friends, a really hilariously memorable train ride, and being chased around by hungry deer. While we missed out on a LOT of what Kyoto has to offer, we were never gonna be able to see it all anyway, so whatever. We’ll hit up Fushimi Inari and the gold temple next time.
We did stay at a lovely ryokan in Kyoto. It’s surprising how much more comfortable this was that the haneok in Korea – a huge part of that was tatami is way softer than hardwood-over-concrete.
Tomorrow am, we pack up and head to Tokyo to visit my cousin in the evening.
We were talking about the most memorable bits of the trip for each of us over dinner, and for me, it was weird, because it wasn’t a thing. It was having the kids experience Korea and Japan, and specifically for me, that they got to experience some of the same things I experienced as a kid. Not literally, of course, but that culture shock of how different some things are, and what it’s like to be in a place like downtown Osaka or seeing the historical bits of Kyoto (and Seoul), which is super, super different than our experience back home – or anything they’ve actually experienced before.
It was such a formative part of my childhood experience. Even though my trips to Japan were a relatively small amount of actual time, I felt like the experience was a critical bit of my identity, and shaped how I perceived the world and my place in it. And knowing that the world was bigger than Oakland/Piedmont, or even California, and the difference in cultures – I believe that it helped me think differently. I hope the kids find some pieces of that in their mindset going forward.