When I first started traveling, I used to research everywhere I wanted to go beforehand, and would rely on google maps to get around new places, that’s all pretty normal nowadays. But a few months ago, while sitting on a train, I was inspired by a podcast that talked about how travel in just the past 5 to 10 years has changed drastically from what it used to be. The aspect of exploring has been eroded by services like TripAdvisor and Google being able to tell us exactly how to get to places, what to do there, and what to expect. Travel has become a huge industry driven by corporations and advertising, and our trips have become more about doing what other people have done before, versus discovering something new for ourselves.
I internalized this halfway through my trip and decided to try traveling without Google, without looking up things to do before I go somewhere new, and stop following my phone around in new places. I wanted to rediscover travel the old fashion way to see how it felt. Here’s how it went and what I learned:
The first place I went, where I truly explored without looking up anything other than a place to stay beforehand, was Sendai, Japan, and it happened on accident. It was the day before New Years Eve and I was staying in Tokyo, I was trying to extend a hostel booking for a few more days so I could spend New Years in Tokyo before moving on (I only book my hostels a 2-3 days at a time to stay flexible), but unfortunately that hostel and seemingly every accommodation in the city under $150/night was booked. So I was forced to look outside the city and off the popular routes. I decided to get way out of the Tokyo area and go up to Sendai. I knew absolutely nothing about the city except that it was a bigger city because it showed up as a big dot on Google Maps. It was already getting late in the day and I was too tired to do my whole research ritual. I just made sure that the city had a few hostels and they all had availability before I headed to Tokyo Station and hopped on the next train headed north.
I arrived and found a hostel a short walk away from the Sendai Train Station and checked in. I started up a conversation with the receptionist about what to do in the area, we ended up joking about how there’s honestly not much to do here especially during the holidays, but they told me some of their friends were getting together for a traditional style Japanese New Years the next night and I was welcome to join. I told them I’d be happy to join!
I spent the next two days there wandering the city just to see what I could discover.
I loved my time in Sendai and it’s one of my favorites out of the whole trip, despite (or maybe because of) not knowing anything about the city beforehand and it being a ‘city with not much to do’.
The next time I tried this kind of totally unplanned travel was when I was checking out of a town near Mt. Fuji, Japan. I originally had planned to go to Osaka or Kyoto after visited Fuji, but decided the day I was checking out to take a random detour into the mountains and go to a town called Takayama, my only reasoning was based off a binder I saw at my hostel. It had a page on how to get to Takayama from Fuji and the train route looked cool because it cut through the middle of Japan, went along the west coast of the island and then cut into the mountains.
I didn’t find anything that great, but that’s the reality of exploring, sometimes you find awesome stuff, sometimes you don’t. It’s like anything that’s real, there’s ups and downs. But despite finding nothing spectacular, it was still somehow very memorable, especially sitting in a Japanese house, on a tatami mat, enjoying udon to the sounds of Dylan Schneider singing about rain on the roof of his Ford F-450, in literally the middle of Japan.
I came as close as I’ve ever gotten to exploring a city totally without the internet/my phone while I was in Shanghai, China. (aside from the 2 weeks I spent without internet hiking in the Himalayas but that’s a bit different). Due to the internet restrictions of China I can’t use google maps, and it was such a headache to use a VPN over my already spotty internet that I gave up trying to use my phone when I was out and about, and just solely relied on asking people on the street for directions, street signs and maps in the metro.
In Shanghai I didn’t spend nearly as much time exploring compared to other places I traveled to, I was there with the intention of slowing down and resting after 6 months of traveling. When I did explore, 80% of the time I was looking for places to eat. However every time I did go out I had a ton of fun finding my way around and wandering aimlessly. Sometimes I’d just follow a cute dog, or using some unconscious intuition which essentially amounted to looking around at each intersection and picking a random direction because it felt right.
I also found myself looking up at where the sun was (when it wasn’t cloudy/raining) to figure out East/West and used tall distant skyscrapers as landmarks. Within a week I felt like I had developed a usable internal compass within the city.
- Awesome little gym that’s always super clean and empty, tucked away in the middle of an unassuming mall. Ironically I was looking for a hot pot place when I instead found this gym. I ended up getting a membership and going regularly during the month I was in Shanghai.
- A beautiful big park full of greenery and flowers in the middle of a downtown area that’s completely surrounded by skyscrapers and giant malls.
- In a city that’s trying to ‘upgrade’ all of it’s street food stalls into gentrified food shops where the average prices are about the same as the U.S. and every stall serves the same polished up food, I stumbled upon some mom and pops places in my neighborhood selling real street foods for street food prices. I could eat an amazingly tasty and full meal for ~$2-3, plus there was something so real about buying from a lovely old couple selling food out of their window, and them remembering you when you inevitably go back every single day.
None of these were mindblowingly scenic or anything but I loved these finds more than The Bund and some of the other touted destinations in the city.
Another side affect of all this was that I put my phone away and did not use it at all during the day. Because of this I became extremely present and productive while in Shanghai. At first I was bored and weirdly anxious without the internet, but I ended up passing time by thinking about stuff and building stuff. I ended up making a few websites (although that was an interesting challenge, coding without google/stack overflow) for ideas/small businesses I want to start, writing blog posts and personal journal entries, digesting this big trip that I’m wrapping up, and making a bunch of plans for what I wanted to do once I get back to the U.S. I also found myself noticeably more present and happy.
- In order to really explore, you need to have time, which I understand a lot of travelers nowadays don’t have because they are taking at most a week or so off work to travel.
- Out phones rob us of a lot of basic human interactions like asking for suggestions and asking for directions. Which really sucks, but can be easily avoided by just making a conscious choice to ask a real person instead of google. It makes travel (and anything else really) so much more fun and opens up so many opportunities for new friends and connections.
- Going to a place with expectations already set is the best way to ruin it for yourself.
- Even ‘average’ places can become memorable if you’re the one discovering it.
- If you’re really exploring, you’ll inevitably find stuff that isn’t that fun and you feel like you wasted your time. But that’s part of the experience of discovery.
- Stumbling on an undiscovered ‘above average’ place is infinitely more rewarding and memorable than going to a ‘amazing’ place that a million people have already been to and taken photos of.
- Just because a place is popular doesn’t mean it’s great.
- Just because something is more efficient, doesn’t mean it’s better.
- It’s refreshing how differently your brain works when relying on the internet/your phone isn’t an option.
As I write this, my time in Shanghai and my trip as a whole is nearly up, and I’ll be flying back home to California tomorrow. However even though I won’t be traveling, the things I’ve learned are just as valuable back home. I can’t wait to apply what I’ve learned from this whole trip to my life in California.