2016 Travel Stats & A Look At the Year Ahead

The smoldering carcass of 2016 is still visible in my rear view mirror but I've got both hands on the steering wheel and a foot jammed down hard on the gas pedal.  

We're headed full speed into 2017, no regrets.  

That being said, I feel like a quick look back at the ash heap behind us isn't entirely unwarranted.  Sure, I'm glad it's over, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the ride!  So here's a quick run down on some of my travel stats for 2016:


Continents Visited:  4 (North America, Europe, Asia, Africa)

New Countries Visited:  6 (France, Morocco, Malta, Italy, Ukraine, Georgia)

Total Countries Visited:  11 (repeats:  USA, United Kingdom, Germany, Finland, Hungary)

New US States Visited:  3 (Kentucky, Mississippi, New Hampshire)

Total States Visited:  13  (repeats:  California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, Louisiana, Florida, Texas)

Miles Flown:  60,617

Circumnavigations of the Globe:  2.43

Longest Flight of the Year:  Chicago - Helsinki at 4,429 miles

Shortest Flight of the Year:  Casablanca - Marrakech at 122 miles

Top Five Airport (outside of Chicago):  Berlin (5), Casablanca (4), Helsinki (4), Paris (4), and Kiev (4)

Top Five Airlines:  Southwest Airlines (7), American (6), United (6), and a tie for third between AirBerlin, Ukraine International, and Royal Air Maroc (4)

New Airlines Flown:  4 (Ukraine International, Brussels Airlines, Air Malta, Royal Air Maroc)


Looking back on all that information, I see some bright spots and some stuff that makes me think.  

I'm pretty happy with the number of new countries I visited this year - six is a pretty solid number for someone that works full time.  I'm reasonably happy with hitting three new US states, though I was hoping to have gotten a few more under my belt to be honest.  The plan in New Hampshire was to spend time traveling through Vermont, Maine, and Massachusetts as well, though a bout of illness kept me confined to my original state sadly.  

I'm surprised that Southwest came in as my top airline for the year.  This was pretty much my first full year without any sort of airline loyalty in the mix whatsoever, so American's fall from the top spot was expected.  Still, I hadn't even flown on Southwest prior to 2015 and a year and a half later it's topping my list.  Pretty impressive climb, though I'll admit Southwest has consistently delivered a solid trip for me.  So in the end, not really too shocking.  Southwest isn't on the agenda at all for next year at the moment though, so it's reign appears to be short lived.

The amount of flying I did this year is also significantly smaller than I usually do.  I've broken 100K miles flown every year since I started traveling, and in most years came closer to 200K.  To come in around 60K is reflective of my more fine-tuned approach to traveling this year (leaner, more efficient) as well as my choosen travel destinations.  I didn't cross the Pacific even once, which is a first for me in ten years of travel!  Having all of my trips localized in Europe or areas immediately accessible from Europe (Georgia, Morocco) really kept the distance down this year.  As I'll go over a little further down, the travel I have booked from now until early July actually takes me above this year's total miles flown!

While I might not have gone as far as I usually do, the miles were still packed with fun, food, and friends.

What's Happening in 2017

2017 promises to be quite an interesting year for me.  There's a lot of exciting travel coming up as well as a lot of big changes for a portion of the year.

In January I'll be heading to the historic, tropical island of Zanzibar off the coast of eastern Africa via the tiny Middle Eastern nation of Qatar. In February I'll stop off for a long layover in Washington, D.C. (where I hope to secure tickets to the newly opened National Museum of African American History & Culture) before continuing onward to Senegal, Egypt, and Portugal.  A few months back at home will end when I head off to Armenia and the United Arab Emirates via Paris in May.  Finally, I'll round out the first half of 2017 with a  jaunt back through Europe to Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Austria in the first week of July.  

That's 62K miles of travel to 10 new countries (only the UAE is a repeat, and it's only being repeated due to the cost of flights out of Armenia) by mid-July.  Quite an increased pace over my travel in 2016!

And why is that?  Welp.  I'm going to be taking a mini-travel hiatus for the remainder of the year.  That's right, no travel from mid-July till the end of December. Let me give you a minute to pick yourself up off of the floor.....

Yes, apparently it's happening.  Definitely with a lot of reluctance on my part, but I agreed to it in the end.  You're probably asking yourself "why?"  Well, my fiance recently started a new job which allowed us to re-evaluate some of our finances.  After a bit of discussion he noted that if we budgeted correctly and both made some sacrifices, we could go completely debt-free by the end of the year.  The sacrifice I would have to make?  Cut my travel budget in half.

If you know me at all, that's a bit like asking me to cut off one leg and one arm.  Yeah, I'll live, but life definitely won't be the same!  Still, I realize that I can sometimes get a bit tunnel visioned when it comes to travel and I forget there are other things in life that need my attention.  My focus on getting healthy the last few months of this year (LINK) has really helped me to center my life and bring a little balance to things.  Trading six months at home without travel, as painful as it will be, is worth getting rid of every debt we have and in the long run is a good travel decision because it will free up additional funds for airfare or hotels that would have otherwise gone toward student loans or credit cards.  

I'll grumble, but I can humble.

So there you have it - 2016 & 2017 in a nut shell.  Here's to more good food, good flights, and good friends in the year ahead!  

Do you have travel plans for the upcoming year?  Let me know where you're headed!

The Year in Photos - 2016

Let's be dead honest for a minute folks - 2016 was a freaking rough year for most of the world.  Whether it was the Syrian refugee crisis, the siege of Aleppo, the slew of celebrity deaths, the UK's Brexit vote, the insane US election cycle, or the poisoning of Flint's water supply, it's been difficult to limp into the last week of December without feeling like the whole world is nothing more than a series of raging dumpster fires.

But it wasn't all bad news this year!

The Chicago Cubs won the World Series for the first time since 1908, I got engaged after 8 years of dating the man I love, and despite the complete shit show of hatred and vitriol being spewed across the globe I was uplifted by the many voices raised in solidarity for human dignity, rights, and life.  

There's always light if you're looking, people.  

It was also a great year of travel for me.  I spent a lot of time exploring Europe the past twelve months, from the desolate landscapes of Scotland's Isle of Skye to the mishmash of architecture that constitutes the city of Tbilisi in the Caucasus.  Georgia's inclusion in Europe is debatable but everyone I spoke to there considered themselves European and I'm a big fan of letting people choose their own fate!  Europe is probably one of the most widely explored areas of the globe for those interested in travel, though till this year I had focused much more heavily on Asia.  Other than a week spent in Marrakech my entire international travel schedule for the year was in the European sphere.  That's quite a change from my normal adventures!

With 2016 coming to a very welcomed close, I think one of the best ways for me to look back on the explorations and adventures I experienced over the year is to pick out a few of my favorite photos that were snapped on the road and share them with you.  Many of these photos have been featured on my Instagram account (LINK), though a handful haven't ever been shared.  Whether unseen or previously posted, each one encapsulates a feeling, a scene, or a memories that I found important over the course of the year.

So.  Without further ado.....!

Rome - Italy

Fresh off the 16 hour journey it took me to get from Chicago to Rome, I was a bleary-eyed mess of a traveler when I finally set my bag down on the floor of my hotel.  While I was eager to get out and explore, I made the practical choice to get a little bit of a nap first.  When I awoke my ears were filled with the sound of motorcycles zooming across pavement stones and drunken pedestrians meandering down the narrow alleyways outside my room.  Eager to see a bit of Rome, I grabbed my phone and a coat and headed out into the night.  The very first thing that caught my eye was the marble monster above - gleaming elegantly against the stark black Italian night.  This is the Altare del Patria (Altar of the Fatherland), also known as Il Vittoriano, a temple of patriotism that simultaneously serves as a museum to Italy's reunification, a monument to unknown soldiers, and a makeshift vista from which to view the Roman skyline. 

It's quite the welcome wagon for your first 15 minutes in Rome.

While making my way from the foot of the famous Spanish steps to the Piazza Navona I crossed in front of the Biblioteca Angelica, a library housing a large collection of historical documents from the period of the Reformation.  While the history within its walls is priceless, it was the simple wooden doors, crumbling wall, gently curved archway, and the bright blue moped parked in front that caught my eye.

It was all just so damn Italian.

Imagine my surprise as I walked through the Roman Forum when my ears picked up what sounded like the beginnings of a dance party from the mountains of South America.  With police blocking off vehicular traffic on both sides of a stretch of road, women in pollera skirts and bowler hats twirled with glee.  Was I in Rome or La Paz?  Apparently I had stumbled upon a small celebration of Bolivian expats living in Rome.

It was really a bit of a surreal experience.  There I was walking on the ancient stone ruins of a marketplace in a city that ruled over much of the known world while women with roots in a land completely unknown to the men who laid those stones below our feet.  The scene really spoke to the insanity of the modern world we live in.  Is it weird that I almost felt like the statue of Caesar was smiling as he watched the kaleidoscope of colors swirl before him?

Vatican City

Vatican City is the smallest country in the world, coming in with a total area smaller than one square kilometer.  Smack dab in the middle of Rome, most visitors to the Papal state enter on foot without any passport or visa necessary but can only visit the very limited amount of publicly-accessible space.  This of course includes Vatican City's most popular sights - St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museums.  A visit to any other portion of the Holy See requires more formal border crossing facilities.  

I was reminded of this when wandering through a museum and walked past a massive iron gate that opened onto a cobblestone driveway.  Through the door was a Vatican police officer with his iPhone in hand, slowly scrolling through his social media while the tip of St. Peter's poked through the treeline.  While he wasn't watching me, I was fully aware that stepping through those gates was a big no-no as the other side of those gates was a part of that forbidden non-public Vatican land.

Still, what a beautiful day in the world's smallest nation.  Even if I couldn't enjoy it outside.

Unlike many smaller churches, St. Peter's Basilica doesn't stay upon all hours of the day.  I had already spent over an hour wandering the interior of the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, so when the guards started making their rounds and ushering people out the front door I dutifully followed instructions.  I followed the marked barriers funneling the stragglers into St. Peter's Square, dragging my feet slightly to allow those around me to lap past.  

With no one else around, I turned back to take in the sight one last time.  Row after row of empty seats sat patiently awaiting the arrival of those seeking the Pope's wisdom during his weekly blessing.  Twin monitors bookended the elegant columns and sleek exterior of the Basilica while scrolling through uplifting, Catholic-inspired affirmations.  I knew the history of the building and the religion led from within it.  It had brought many beautiful things to humanity, but also cut deeply into the psyche of mankind.  Like most things in life, this building represented what was good in life, but also was the root of much of what was bad as well.

In the soft glow of the death of the day, it all seemed so harmlessly though.

Marrakesh - Morocco

There's a few things that Marrakech seems to have in spades - mint tea, maze-like alleyways, and beautiful doors.  I was a bit lost despite having left the twisty-turny confusion that constitutes the city's old medina on my way to the Saadian Tombs.  As I walked up a street with a flurry of cars and bicycles playing the Moroccan version of chicken next to me, I turned to my left and caught the scene above.  I loved the expansiveness and playful curve of the door, but it was made all the better when juxtaposed with the two diminutive women in modest Muslim dress sitting on a bench and chitchatting the day away.  

It feels like no matter where you turn in Marrakech, someone is trying to sell you something.  As you wander through the city you pass an endless stream of carpet shops, trinket emporiums, kebab houses, and spice vendors, all staffed with people who's sole purpose is to get your body inside and your hands to open your wallet.  While the calls to buy something can get aggressive and annoying, it does bring a certain charm to your visit.  One of my favorite types of shops were the numerous carts parked along the main square in town selling juice.  They were eye-poppingly colorful - seemingly endless rows of round fruit in a soothing pattern of citrus hues.  Lemons, limes, grapefruits, oranges.  The sight was only rivaled by the heavenly scent of fresh squeezed juice wafting from each vendor.  In a city filled with shouting touts, car honks, and clanging pots, the juice carts were an oasis of beauty and calm.

If you know me at all, it's no secret that I didn't exactly love Marrakech.  I had a series of unfortunate encounters the culminated in what may or may not have been anti-gay harassment (LINK).  Despite my unease, I still made my way out into the kasbah at night to explore and grab a bite to eat.  As someone I used to work with used to say - "One monkey don't stop the show!" 

The medina's main square, Djemaa El-Fna, transforms from a sleepy crossroad during the day into a seething, heaving pair of lungs for a lively city at night.  Crammed with fortune tellers, snake charmers, drum circles, and restaurants, it actually provided what felt like a safe space for me.  The narrow streets throughout the medina can be a bit claustrophobic but the open space of the square, even with all the people, let me relax and feel uncramped.  I can still hear the sounds of the square mixed with the heady scent of roasting meat wafting about the smoke filled walkways to this day.

Soccer is a unifying sport across most of the globe outside of my home here in the US, where apparently we still haven't figured out the allure of the game.  Morocco seems to be no exception though!  The local soccer team, Kawkab Athletic Club, has fans that are so rabidly supportive that they have earned a name for themselves - the Crazy Boys.  As you wander the streets of Marrakech, if you keep your eyes peeled, you're sure to find a graffiti-style mural on a ramshackle wall touting the fervor of the soccer team's fans with their trademark logo of a boy tying a bandana around his head. They're all over the place if you look carefully. 

In a city that can often seem tilted toward aggression and disjointedness, it was nice to have a constant reminder of something that brought people together in happiness.

Inverness, Isle of Skye, & Edinburgh - Scotland

This photo from the Isle of Skye is a bit of a poignant reminder for me.  This was taken on the pathway leading up to one of the island's most famous sights - the Old Man of Storr.  A craggy rock formation at the top of hilly terrain, my fiance (then boyfriend) and I were making our way up along with a handful of other visitors when I reached this point.  I couldn't make it any further.  My body, and more importantly my lungs, were at their breaking point.  The climb wasn't particularly steep or difficult, I was just in terrible physical shape.  Sadly, my closest view of the Old Man of Storr was still a pretty distant one.  The view is beautiful, but the memories are difficult because prior to this I had never chosen to skip a sight simply because my body could not handle the demands.  

While I found the Isle of Skye breathtakingly beautiful, I was also struck by how lonely some parts of the island seemed.  The undulating hills and winding roads through the Scottish Highlands create a stunning landscape but I couldn't help but notice that the towns were tiny and the majority of the island seemed to be dotted with solitary homesteads few and far between.  While driving through one of these quiet corners of the island, we passed a single dilapidated phone booth on the side of the road.  I tapped my boyfriend on the arm and told him to circle back around.  We stopped on the side of the road and hopped out to snap a few pictures.  A little keepsake of the lonely beauty of the Scottish Highlands.

I was surprised by Edinburgh.  I knew that the city was filled with old world charm but I didn't realize I'd end up feeling like I was walking through a Harry Potter movie our entire trip.  From the tightly packed rows of shops to the historic castle perched on top of a hill in the center of the city, the area just oozed with history.  I still remember wandering through St. Giles Cathedral and sitting down in an empty row of seats to watch the sun stream through the windows.  Like some sort of magic spell, the beams of light seemed to dance in the aisle.

It was late May when we were jaunting through Scotland, and while summer was just around the corner it was still a bit chilly in Edinburgh.  Despite the lack of warmth I was struck by how residents of the city still spent so much time outside in their public spaces lounging and living life.  Whether it was sunset in the Meadows public park or midday at the Price Street Gardens, the residents of Edinburgh seem to revel in their beautiful outdoor spaces.  Looking at the photos above, can you blame them?

Paris - France

Paris is a city of lights and home of elegance, and there was no more beautiful combination of those two things than inside the Sainte-Chapelle.  A vaulted ceiling with seemingly endless columns of stained glass glimmering in the soft light of the sun.  Vibrant hues of red, blue, and pink fill your eyes as you gaze upward in pure awe.  Welcome to Paris, friend!

Sadly it rained a good portion of our time in Paris.  It's still a stunningly beautiful city but it looks a little different when everything is wet.  Don't we all?  

Spring flowers were still blooming all about and the showers continued to fall as we ducked in and out of cafes and museums during our several day visit to the City of Lights.  As we waited for the signal at a crosswalk, I turned around to gaze back at the Paris Metro exit we had just left.  The retro sign screamed Parisian cool and the pretty pink flowers in the trees above it evoked the season.  Then I saw the woman with the bright red trench coat walking toward the stairs and I put my camera up.  It really encapsulated my time in Paris well.

Paris is a city of love, and countless people visit in the hopes that they will either fall in love, find love, or firm up their existing love.  Because the immigration line at the airport took us almost two hours to clear (you can read more about my love for French efficiency here:  LINK), we ended up missing our appointment to pick up the keys to our rental apartment and that threw our whole day off.  By the time we had sorted everything out it was a little before midnight and the rain was starting to fall.  It was our first night there and I wanted to see at least one beautiful thing before we called it a day, so we grabbed our umbrellas and walked a few blocks over to the famous Notre Dame Cathedral.  Just as we arrived, a middle-aged couple walking past the building stopped for a moment and proceeded to have an adorably delicate, tender kiss.  

The city of love indeed!

There really isn't much backstory to this photo - I'm just a huge fan of graffiti street art.  While walking through Le Marais neighborhood, we saw people coming in and out of a non-descript alleyway next to some high end fashion outlets.  We ducked into the alleyway and discovered the entrance to a museum of some sort that is currently slipping my mind.  We didn't go into the museum, but we did spend about 10 minutes enjoying the slew of graffiti murals in the alley.  The section above was my favorite.

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Spring flowers.  Cloudy skies.  Rain.  The Eiffel Tower.  The only thing missing from this photo that summarizes our trip to Paris is a delicious meal.  

Aviation

Taking a little break from destination photography for a few minutes to take a look at a few of the aviation-related shots I snapped this year that made me smile.  This was taken as I climbed the stairs from the tarmac at Tbilisi International Airport to board my Ukraine International Airlines flight to Kiev.  It was somewhere around 6 AM in the morning and the sun was just starting to peak above the horizon.  

My first flight with Royal Air Maroc from Rome to Casablanca.  The sun was setting off in the distance and as we started our descent the snowcapped outline of the Atlas Mountains came into view. 

A little later that night I had arrived in in Marrakech after connecting in Casablanca.  My flight was the last one into the airport that evening and the staff wasn't exactly interested in waiting for us to make our way out of the terminal before shutting down for the night.  They were shutting off lights and locking up the facility as we stood there waiting for our bags.  It seemed a bit odd to me but at the same time I didn't mind at all - the geometric diamond facade of the terminal really looked its most beautiful in the dark.

This is perhaps my favorite picture of the year.  I had flown to Manchester, New Hampshire for a long weekend exploring a new state but I ended up getting sick and barely left my hotel room.  i was disappointed that I didn't really get to see much of anything worthwhile and I was willing to write the whole trip off as a lost cause.  I boarded my flight with Southwest Airlines back to Chicago and zoned out.  As we started to descend into Chicago I did my usual - watch the world pass by.  I don't fly in and out of Midway airport often but every time I have we've never passed over the city upon approach.  Well, this time we did.

And *hand clap* it *hand clap* was *hand clap* glorious.  Trip officially not wasted.

A quick trip to Los Angeles to visit with some friends for a weekend of food and fun.  Since I needed to be in California I figured it would be a great opportunity to fly with Virgin America one last time before their likely disappearance due to the merger with Alaska Airlines.  After take off from Chicago I plugged my headphones into my ears and spent most of the flight drifting in and out of sleep while listening to some of my favorite podcasts.  After a few hours I decided to crack open the window and take a gander outside.  Good thing I did - we were soaring over the Grand Canyon.  It wasn't the first time I had seen this wonder from the air, but the blue tint of Virgin America's windows and the star-spangled tip on their wings really helped bring a sense of national pride to the photo.  America the Beautiful.

US Domestic Travel

The very first trip I took this year was a short five day visit to New Orleans for work.  Business trips for me are rarely very entertaining as I'm often driving into some forgotten corner of the American Midwest with little to do and only Golden Corrals to dine within.  Due to a unique project I'm working on though, suddenly Bourbon Street was in play.  

My hotel was booked in the French Quarter but my work station was out in East New Orleans.  Every day I would drive past the above mural painted on the side of what looked like an old abandoned building.  On my last day in Louisiana I pulled off the highway on my way back to the hotel and did my best to navigate over to the piece of art.  Indeed, it was located on the side of an abandoned movie theater with broken glass and overgrown grass all over.  I parked my car along the side of the road and carefully walked out to the middle of the grass and snapped the picture above.  

I later learned it was painted by artist Brandan Odum with a $5000 grant from hip hop mogul Russell Simmons.  Based on Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam", it's designed to encourage anti-violence and was placed in this area of town due to its statistically high rates of violent crime.  A beautiful, modern take on a classic piece of art with a great purpose for the surrounding community.

This one happened during a trip to the Chicago Art Institute.  My brother and his girlfriend invited me to tag along with them and her family when they went to see a special exhibition of Van Gogh's "Bedrooms".  After taking in the various versions of that famous painting, everyone split off for a few hours to explore the massive complex on their own.  I made my way through the exhibition on Chinese and Japanese pottery before I exited into an atrium with a giant curved stairwell and took a seat on a bench.  While rested my feet I took in the architectural beauty of the sight before me.  I kept thinking that the light coming through the windows was really exquisite at that time of day.  Suddenly a man in a suit started to slowly ascend the steps.  Without much thinking I pulled out my phone and snapped this photo and prayed it turned out like I thought it would.  It did.

I love how the black and white contrast brings out the quiet serenity of the scene.

A quick visit to Denver for the Thanksgiving holiday with my family lead to my very first foray into Red Rocks.  It was November which meant no events were taking place, so we simply parked our car and walked around for awhile.  We found ourselves in front of the amphitheater as the sun's last beams eeked along the horizon, lighting up the city of Denver like a Christmas tree. 

Leaving work one day I was surprised to see a row of gigantic lamps shooting beams of lights against the Union League Club building.  I thought back to earlier in the day when an email was sent out about how there may be some disruption to building access do to filming for the upcoming season of FOX's "Empire".  It all made sense.

The American flag fluttered softly in the wind and to the west along Jackson Street the sun was setting and its rays were funneled into brilliant intensity by the skyscrapers' steel frames.  What a wonderful reminder that no matter where I go in the world, the place I call home is a beautiful place.

This year I was finally able to cross off a major travel goal from my bucket list - travel across the US on an Amtrak train.  The service on Amtrak was hit and miss on a variety of fronts, but the one things that stayed consistent was how beautiful the landscape was out the window.  I had booked a private sleeper suite on the California Zephyr service which travels from its first station just outside of San Francisco all the way through the western US to its terminus - my home city of Chicago.  The various landscapes changed over time outside my window from coast line to farm land to mountain peaks to arid desert.  I snapped a ton of beautiful photos but this one is probably my favorite - high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado with snow covering the landscape and the late day's sunbeams zigzagging off the tranquil sheen of ice.

Tbilisi - Georgia

While I have a difficult time pronouncing Tbilisi, most Americans likely don't even know where it is.  My trip to Georgia had many people scratching their heads and wondering why I was hopping planes halfway across the globe to visit a place many didn't even know existed.  I have to admit that prior to arriving I was having similar thoughts.  Had I made a mistake?  Once I had climbed up to the top of Narikala Fort on the mountainside overlooking the expanse of Tbilisi and finally took in the view from St. Nicholas Church, I knew I had made the right choice.

After climbing up a steep hill and exploring Tbilisi's Sameba Holy Trinity Cathedral, I sat myself down on one of the empty benches lining the park around the building to catch my breath.  I looked back at the modern majesty of the cathedral, many parts of which are still under construction.  A woman in a flowing dress with a headscarf wrapped around her hair came trotting down the staggered steps leading up to the church.  The gentle incline of the stairs and the geometric framing of the straight lines from the steps helped create a sense of movement in the picture that really made me smile.

Tbilisi is a city of heavy inclines and mountainous slopes.  I'm in much better shape now but at the time I found myself frequently taking breaks while exploring the sights of the city due to being out of breath and sadly, quite sweaty.  Imagine my relief when halfway up the hill to the peak of the Narikala Fortress I saw this man posted up on the ledge of some ruins reading a book while also taking a bit of a break.  He was much more fit than I was, though he was casually smoking a cigarette while reading his guidebook.  With the Sameba Cathedral and half of the city of Tbilisi spread out on the mountainside behind him, I raised my camera to snap a picture.  It didn't end up being very clear but I still love the casual vibes it gives off.

Kiev - Ukraine

Kiev was never very high on my list of potential travel destinations but when the opportunity to visit popped up I thought "why the hell not" and jumped at the opportunity.  And I'm so glad I did - it turned out to be one of the most interesting, beautiful, and vibrant destinations I've experienced in years.  One of the things I loved most about Kiev was that the city seemed to be filled with thousands of little old Ukrainian women in colorful scarves and flowing skirts slowly shuffling here and there.  No matter where in the city I found myself, the grumpy grumble of an octogenarian was never very far.  Take this woman for example.  She slowly trudged down the steep steps inside the Pechersk Lavra on her way to worship.  Despite the heavy incline she plodded down the hill, steadfast and resolute.  A nice metaphor for Ukraine in general.

The beauty of subway stations within the old Soviet sphere of influence are legendary in some circles.  So was it a bit odd that one of the things I was most looking forward to when I arrived in Kiev was making my way around the city on the various transit lines to see these glorious stations?  Maybe.  But I wasn't disappointed.  This photo is of Kiev's Olimpiiska metro station - named after the sports complex nearby that hosted events during the 1980 Moscow Olympic games.  I loved the dark stone work and the gentle arch of the ceiling.  The elegant chandeliers stood in stark contrast with the rather utilitarian, Soviet surroundings.  If you look carefully, a pair of Olympic rings can be seen on the wall at the very end of the platform.

Ukraine seems to conjure images of cloudy skies and dour landscapes in most people's minds, so I was quite pleased that for almost my entire stay the weather was bright and sunny.  The bright skies made exploring the city quite easy and pleasant, and the residents seemed to agree with me as they were out in force for the totality of my stay.  The photo above was taken inside the Pechersk Lavra compound.  Many other visitors stopped only in a few key areas but I decided to wander a bit further into the complex and poke my head around.  Eventually I reached a dead end and started to make my way back up the hill.  I wasn't the only one that had made a wrong turn though - a group of Ukrainian women were just ahead of me trudging back toward the crowds.  With the sun gleaming off the golden spires, it all felt very Ukrainian.

As I mentioned above, Ukraine was (and still technically is) in the midst of an armed conflict.  It was impossible to avoid that fact during my time in Kiev.  Patriotic banners, photographs of soldiers, and Ukrainian flags were plastered all over the city.  In addition to all that, armored vehicles were parked on street corners and park areas for the public to explore.  It was odd to see groups of young men posing for photos with giant tanks, or young women in miniskirts taking selfies with the requisite duck lips in front of fighter jets.  While a bit off-putting, it didn't upset me.  What did get me were all the children, like the little girl above.  Not more than ten with a crown of colorful flowers in her hair, she crawled and climbed with glee all over this instrument of death.  With all that's happened to children in Syria this year, it's hard to not to see the immense sadness in a photo like this.

Quite similar to the final photo from Paris, this one seems to sum up Kiev in a single capture - pastel church with golden domes, cobblestone streets, beautiful young women everywhere you turn, an an ancient Lada parked on the side of the road.

Chernobyl - Ukraine

My trip to Chernobyl was part of my stop in Kiev, though it was so unique I wanted to separate it out into its own section.  The above shot was from the interior of a sports and health complex that was abandoned during the meltdown crisis this corner of the globe is famous for.  I'm not sure why the baseboards around the basket have been pulled up and are collapsing while the rest of the floor is fine, but the starkness of the scene was haunting.  A very "life after humans" moment.

This one was shot inside an abandoned school house.  Of course the desk and books weren't left there when the residents were forced to evacuate their city, clearly someone moved it in an attempt to set up a photo.  Still, the funnel created by the hallway with the dirt covered floor and the emptiness represented by the desk and books creates quite the moody capture, even if it was posed by human hands years ago.  The curly, crumbling paper falling off the walls like a bad sunburn just adds to the overall effect.

Thousands of pages from books strewn about the hallways of the abandoned school form some of the saddest carpeting I've ever walked upon.

Back to the sports complex, where I marveled at the expanse of the empty swimming pool filled with the debris of a city lost to time and nature.  Graffiti stains the interior of the pool while the now glass-less windows give way to the growth of trees slowly creeping their branches into mankind's space.  They were like the fingers of Mother Nature slowly reaching back to reclaim what is rightfully her's

Berlin - Germany

This wasn't my first trip to Berlin, but it was the first one where I actually got to leave my hotel room and explore everything the city had to offer (my last visit I fell victim to food poisoning:  LINK).  I can tell you from experience now though - Berlin is beautiful in the fall.  Take the photo above for example.  Captured from the front portico of the Berliner Dom, the bright orange and yellow of autumn leaves pops with vibrancy while being framed by the massive columns of the cathedral's support structure.  The shadowy outline of a man gazing out upon the scene makes it almost seem like you've stumbled upon some intimate, contemplative scene from a movie.

I had a few hours to kill prior to my night train's departure from Berlin, so with no other items on my agenda I simply began wandering around the city on foot.  A few blocks from my hotel I passed through a pedestrian tunnel connecting two parts of a large park complex.  Inside that tunnel was an endless stream of graffiti art and a solitary man strumming a guitar while humming the words to a song I either didn't know or he was making up as he went along.  We smiled and nodded at one another.  There was just something about the scene that I felt like I wanted to remember, so I took a chance and raised my camera and gave the universally accepted "thumbs up" to seek his permission for a snapshot.  He gave his approval with a nod and an even wider smile.  I left him a pocketful of Euro coins as a thank you.  

I still think I got the better end of that deal.

This one was snapped inside the Berliner Dom.  A small child skittered around me, bumping into my leg in his hurry to get past.  He turned back to say sorry though his little feet never stopped moving - clearly he was on a mission!  He parked himself in the center of the church and lifted his camera to the ceiling, snapped a quick picture, and off his little feet carried him again.  In that short time frame, I managed to get my camera out and snap this image of him with his arms raised toward the sky.  His small frame helps give context to the massive height of the Dom's vaulted ceiling.

That glorious circular piece of architecture you see above you?  That's what the child was in such a hurry to snap a photo of from the previous narrative.  Now do you see why he didn't have time to move around me without shoving?  Completely excusable! ;)

A beautiful autumn day in Berlin and my friends and I were are making our way down the street toward the Brandenburg Gate.  As we approach the river we hear the unmistakable sound of children laughing and oddly enough, Peruvian pan flutes.  A few steps ahead of us was a magical scene - tons of small children leaping and jumping into the air as they tried to pop giant, rainbow-shimmering bubbles.  Off to the side, a small band of men playing pan flutes filled the air with musical notes that seemed to dance along side the bubbles.  The atmosphere was infectious and soon even the adults were joining in on the bubble popping fun, including a few in my merry band of friends.  

What a simple, beautiful way to start your day.  I highly recommend it.

Budapest - Hungary

This photo almost didn't come to life.  We were enjoying a few days in Budapest when a friend suggested we take a night time river cruise.  A quick poll of the group began and the consensus was that this was something we should do - so we booked our tickets for later that day and planned accordingly.  Once we arrived at the boat I was a bit more wary.  I wasn't feeling very well and when we boarded the air was thick with the smell of burning fuel.  My headache felt like it was moving to migraine pretty quickly.  I was a few seconds away from telling my friends I was going to get off the boat and wait for them on shore when I felt the engine rev and the boat started to pull away from the shore.  Looks like I was going whether I liked it or not.  Turns out I liked it, as we had views like this for an hour.

This is the same building as the illuminated masterpiece before, expect in sunlight.  It really is a beautiful building.  Our time in Budapest was continually cloudy and overcast, though for some reason I felt like that actually helped me enjoy the city a bit more.  Budapest is a bit of a moody city with a dark history.  The overcast weather seems to fit like a bespoke suit.

This is the interior of St. Matthias Church on Budapest's Castle Hill.  It's not very big, but with this type of interior does it need to be?  As I wandered around the church I couldn't help but feel like this was some sort of Candyland-inspired madness.  The warm pinks and blues reminded me of cotton candy.  The flourishes on the pulpit were like a swirled ice cream cone and the fine detail of the painting were like the the crisp lines of a chocolate bar.  I'm not sure if I'm loving the view or hungry at this point.

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The Shoes on the Danube is a memorial to the approximately 3500 Jews, LGBT, and Roma who were marched to the banks of the river, ordered to remove their shoes, and then shot in the back so their bodies fell into the river during World War II.  A poignant reminder of the horrors humanity can inflict upon itself and a call to action to never let this happen again that seems so appropriate this year.  Are we listening?  

Valletta - Malta

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Our first full day in Malta, my friends and I marched ourselves out of our tragically terrible AirBnB looking for a hearty breakfast to help fuel us on a long day of exploring and maybe, just maybe, cheer us up a bit after a difficult night of sleep.  Imagine our surprise as we walked up to the main square in the middle of Valletta to find a military band going full blast.  Dressed in sharp white uniforms and helmets, they marched to and fro inside the square while playing lively tunes to the delight of tourists and locals alike.  The sides of the square were crowded with gawkers but I noticed that the edge of the square in front of a government building didn't have anyone at all.  I slipped away from my friends and posted up in front of the building, which provided me the opportunity to snap the above pictures without any obstruction.

Valletta is pretty much summed up by this photo - crumbling beige walls, gated balconies, massive doors, and the ever present European moped.  The only thing missing is a steep incline.

Unfortunately the day we tried to visit the sea coast in Malta to rent a boat happened to be the one day where weather was just atrocious.  The seas were rough and the waves were crashing violently against the shore.  We decided to still make our way to a town where boats were rented in the hopes that the weather would calm down and we'd luck out.  We didn't.  I guess you can't win them all.  Instead of taking visitors out on boats, it looked like the locals were content to simply throw a hook and bait into the sea and see what turned up.  The Maltese version of making lemonade from lemons, I suppose!

If there's one thing Valletta has in spades it's scenic vistas.  With so may hills dotting the tiny little peninsula upon which the city rests, it's almost harder to find a place along the seashore where you aren't stopping for a minute to catch your breath and take in the amazing view.

I snapped this picture in the "silent city of Malta" - Mdina.  A tiny little enclave on top of a hill in the interior of the island, the city institutes required "quiet hours" during the evenings.  While awaiting the hour of our dinner reservation, my friends and I made our way through the streets doing our best to not make too much noise.  We crossed in front of the city's cathedral, illuminated against the night sky with heavy yellow lighting.  A little further up was a bright red phone booth with an interior light surrounded by palm trees.  It seemed out of place, completely gaudy and modern in a city so ancient and serene. 


So there you have it folks - my year in travel!  Despite all the stress and bad news that was dumped in our laps over the course of these twelve months, I feel there was still quite a bit to be thankful about.  And there's a lot to look forward to in 2017 as well.  My entire travel schedule (except for one trip) has been locked down already.  The new year will see me visiting Qatar, Tanzania, Senegal, Egypt, Portugal, Armenia, the United Arab Emirates, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Austria.  Trust that I'll be taking my camera and snapping a few photos that hopefully will help me tell the story of what an amazing, beautiful work we live in!  I hope your 2016 was amazing, and if it wasn't all that you hoped it would be, I wish for you a fruitful and joyful 2017.  Much love and happiness to you and yours!

The Shy Gay Guy's How To Guide For Japanese Onsen

A collective of almost 7000 islands sitting on the rim of the Pacific Ocean's notorious "Ring of Fire", Japan is blessed with a seemingly endless supply of bubbly, piping hot volcanic hot springs.  Onsen is a Japanese tradition that appeals to visitors but is often quickly overshadowed by a stampede of nervousness and fear.  I'm a pretty perky and outgoing guy myself but I can't say that I don't sympathize with those that opt to skip this integral and beautiful part of Japanese culture.  Going to a foreign country where you likely are unfamiliar with the etiquette and stripping completely naked before jumping into a community bath is probably one of the more terrifying things a traveler can face - I get it!  

Add on top of that the general uneasiness many LGBTQ travelers have about being themselves in an unfamiliar location and you have a recipe for tense touring.  As a gay man on the road, one of the first things I do before arriving in a new city or country is research local attitudes toward LGBTQ individuals and overall safety for our community.  Even when educated, life (and travel) has a way of throwing you curve balls though.  While Japan in general is a relatively safe destination for LGBTQ travelers, a unique situation like onsen changes the dynamic a bit.  It is an entirely fair question to ask if this is an activity that we as a community can enjoy.

Luckily for me, I just happened to be half-Japanese and lived in Japan until I was fourteen years old, so the mystery of onsen was revealed to me at a very early age.  The language is not foreign to me, I have a solid understanding of what to expect and, more importantly, what is expected of me as a visitor.  This gives me a leg up and reduces some of my nervousness as a gay man, though it certainly doesn't make it disappear.

Hopefully I can use my experience and cultural competency to give other LGBTQ travelers an idea of what to expect when considering a dip into this Japanese tradition.  

The magic that is Japanese onsen is an amazing thing to experience and that's why I want LGBTQ travelers to consider trying it when they wander through the Land of the Rising Sun.  It's a therapeutic siren song that calls to weary feet that have spend the morning climbed Mt. Fuji or the neck rubbed raw by the dangling camera strap.  Onsen is a quintessential experience for the visitor to Japan and it would be a shame for someone to miss out on the opportunity to peek into this ancient and revered part of Japanese culture.  With this in mind, and knowing full well the hurdles even I have to overcome every year I return to my homeland to enjoy a dip, I present the "Shy Gay Guy's How To Guide For Japanese Onsen"!

Let's start off with a few things specifically for LGBTQ travelers that are good to know prior to showing up at the onsen followed by a general step by step guide to the entire process.  My goal is to make sure you're fully informed and can make a decision about whether onsen is something you'd like to try! 

IT'S A BATHHOUSE BUT NOT A "BATHHOUSE"

Bathhouses are not a new concept to many in the LGBTQ community, particularly those in the G category.  Gay bathhouses are a common sight in most major Western cities, though the arrival of the internet and smartphone may be curbing younger generations interest or need for such facilities.  Please note that unlike their western gay counterparts, Japanese onsen are generally not a location where men go to meet one another for casual sexual encounters.  Yes, there's an option for soaking in a hot bath.  Yes, there's communal nudity.  But the similarities end there.  Going to an onsen with an expectation of sexual activity or even meeting other LGBTQ individuals will likely end at a minimum with your disappointment and at most with your involvement with the Japanese police force.  

If you're seeking a more sexually charged experience along with your onsen soak, you can find specific establishments (mostly located in Tokyo and Osaka) that can tickle your fancy.  

EMBRACE YOUR NUDITY

Many Japanese adhere to the concept of "hadaka no tsukiai", which loosely translates as "naked communion".  There's a societal belief that barriers are easier to break down and people are on their most equal footing in the nude. 

There really is no way around this - if you want to onsen, you're going to have to strip down to your tight and curlies.  As Japanese onsen are almost exclusively shared facilities (either by a community or as a privately owned site open to the public), wearing underwear or swimsuits into the water is strictly forbidden.  Those are the rules, and there's really no way around it.  Take a minute, breathe a little, and accept that some random strangers are going to see you in the buff.

My brother and sister preparing for a dip in the onsen.

My brother and sister preparing for a dip in the onsen.

This requirement may be of particular concern (and possibly a deal breaker unfortunately) for travelers that are transgender, intersex, or genderqueer.  When your body and outward presentation doesn't conform to what people who see the world in a strict "male/female" dichotomy expect, it can raise concerns about safety and judgement, which is far from the experience travelers would want to seek out.  While my personal opinion is that there is likely a miniscule chance of having a violent reaction from other patrons, there is a much greater chance that a traveler that is transgender, intersex, or genderqueer will have onsen staff or patrons react negatively to their presence in the onsen, whether it's expressed verbally or through body language.  

I wish I could tell you that the chance of being excluded or discriminated against is small - but I can't.  This is a real concern that LGBTQ travelers will need to weigh and make a decision about on their own.  

There is a potential work around to this issue though!

If the nudity requirement is genuinely a deal breaker for you, I would suggest looking into an onsen facility that allows guests to book use of a hot spring in private.  Some properties allow guests to book a specific time slot where they (solo or as a group with family/friends) will have exclusive, private use of an onsen.  Note that even when you have exclusive use of the spring you should NOT be wearing underwear of swimwear into the water.  The private booking is a way for you to remove the strangers from the equation, but the nudity is still mandatory.  For couples, the option to book private time in the onsen is a great way to enjoy the experience while being intimate with your lover.  Sitting close, holding hands, or embracing your partner can be uncomfortable when others are in the same hot spring.  It should go without saying that sexual activity is not something you should enjoy in the onsen - it's a shared facility, no one wants to soak in your sexual debris!  

As noted above - if you want to pursue an onsen experience, embrace the nudity!  At the same time make sure you remain safe and avoid a situation that could ruin an otherwise great trip.

THE TATTOO CONUNDRUM

Another huge question that is often raised by visitors looking to experience onsen is whether or not having a tattoo will prevent them from being allowed inside.  Traditionally in Japan tattoos and those who sport them are associated with organized crime.  In order to avoid problems from patrons or becoming a meeting place for those looking to engage in criminal activity, onsen have typically instituted all-out bans on anyone with a tattoo.  As time progresses and Japanese culture changes, tattoos are becoming more prevalent in Japanese society.  As with most things though, society moves faster than rules and regulations change so the ban on tattoos in onsen seems to have quite a bit of staying power for now.  

Like any other group of people, many LGBTQ travelers have tattoos.  Any trip to a pride parade or bar will reveal a plethora of tattoos - anything from a full tribal arm sleeve to something as innocuous as the small fleur de lis my fiance has on his shoulder blade.  Unfortunately the fact that someone is foreign is almost always not seen as a reason to overlook the ban on tattooed patrons.

My fiance's tattoo.  His is small enough that we can often hide it.

My fiance's tattoo.  His is small enough that we can often hide it.

Despite all of this, visitors should know that there are ways around this ban! 

As noted above, you can always look into booking time at an onsen that allows private time slots.  As long as your tattoo isn't visible when you're interacting with staff, no one will be checking in on you while you're undressing or enjoying the water.  If you have tattoos on your arms or legs, just wear long sleeves and pants.  If you have a visible tattoo in a location that you cannot easily hide, you may be out of luck.  

Additionally, some onsen will allow tattooed individuals to enter the onsen if they are able to cover their tattoos with a bandaid or sticker.  Some of these facilities even provide the stickers for patrons, but will often still deny entry to those that cannot cover their tattoos with a single sticker.  If your tattoo needs two or more stickers to cover up, it's likely a no-go.

As a last resort, you can seek out an onsen facility that openly accepts those with tattoos.  They are fewer in numbers than onsen that ban them, and Japan is not always the easiest country to find detailed information on the web.  I know that the Kashiwaya Ryokan in Shima Onsen openly advertises access to tattooed visitors to some of their facilities.  You can find their website here:  (LINK).

GO ZEN

One common misconception is that an onsen is a pool.  This is a massive mistake.  Other than the fact that they both have water the similarities end there.

Japan's hot springs are some of the most relaxing experiences on the planet.  The sub-boiling volcanic water washes over your muscles and seems to magically suction out your pain and stress.  Your bathing companions will quietly enjoy the pleasure of tiny waves of water washing over their shoulders while occasionally chit chatting about their day.  There is nothing brash or loud about the experience.  

LGBTQ travelers, just like any other type of person, do love to have a good time on the road.  Unwinding, destressing, and living life to the fullest is high on the "to-do" list.  While an onsen is designed to do all of those things, it achieves those goals through stillness and calm.  

If you're looking for a place to blast your music, drink beer, and have cannonball splash contests, you should buy a ticket to Tokyo's DisneySea water park or find a warm stretch of sand on one of Japan's many beaches instead.

Please - respect the tradition and respect the onsen's serene atmosphere.  You can always hit the clubs in the evening or have a beach bbq the next day!

HOW TO ONSEN

With those general notes for LGBTQ travelers covered, let's get down to the nitty gritty of how you actually go about enjoying the onsen!

Step 1:  Figure Out Where To Onsen

While hot spring bathing is available in thousands of locations around Japan, not all facilities are created equally nor are all options really offering the same type of experience.  

Many local communities and neighborhoods in larger cities have shared onsen facilities that are owned by the local government and generally very inexpensive.  They're also quite public, not particularly prepared for tourists, and you're less likely to find someone to help you should you have a question.  Great for budget travelers but not so much anyone else. 

If you're looking for a step up from this, there are facilities that are set up like day spas in many major cities where you can buy entrance for a few hours or an entire day and have unlimited access to various types of hot springs, wading pools, and other leisurely activities.  While these are much more accessible and likely able to handle tourist inquiries, they're not really in the spirit of traditional Japanese onsen.  It's more like a modern day spa with a Japanese Instagram filter.

Arriving at an onsen hotel in Hakone where my reservation was on a board outside.

Arriving at an onsen hotel in Hakone where my reservation was on a board outside.

My preferred way of enjoying a traditional hot spring experience is to book a stay at a Japanese guesthouse (casual options are categorized as minshuku while a fancier accommodation is labeled a ryokan) which has an on-site onsen.  This provides just the right mix of intimacy, tradition, and relaxation in my personal opinion.  Many of these guesthouses have facilities that are open to the public during the day but close down and are reserved for exclusively for guests after a certain time.  The traffic in the onsen is much lighter and many places even allow private booking such as those discussed above.  

There's plenty of options to consider, so find the one the works best for your needs, interests, and wallet!

Step 2:  Take Off Your Shoes

This is the second step to Japanese onsen but really it's the second step to Japan in general.  When it comes to many indoor spaces in Japan that are more private or intimate - shoes come off.  

Photo Credit - LINK

Photo Credit - LINK

Onsen facilities are no different.  While every facility is set up differently, it's generally pretty easy to denote when it's time to remove your shoes.  Those who have entered before you will have taken their shoes off, so you'll often find an area with shoes left on the floor or placed into cubbies.  Some facilities will have a sign out notifying when to remove shoes and others will leave out a slew of plastic slippers to use when your shoes are off.

Much like the nudity, this isn't a negotiable rule.  You want to onsen?  Shoes off.

Step 3:  Grab A Towel & Enter Your Gendered Area

At most facilities there's someone running the show - either staff taking payment at the front reception area or staff from the hotel/onsen making sure everything is running smoothly.  The staff will generally provide you with a large towel, a smaller towel, and occasionally a yukata (robe).  Take these with you into the changing area. 

If you've booked private time in an onsen, you can do mixed sex bathing with your partner, friends, or family members.  Otherwise the facilities are segregated by gender.  

Japanese kanji for MAN.

Japanese kanji for MAN.

Japanese kanji for WOMAN

Japanese kanji for WOMAN

Entrances to the gender segregated-areas are generally noted by curtains hanging over the doors or wooden signs.  The Japanese kanji for "man" and "woman" are above and at a minimum each door should display one of these kanji to clarify which area you should be entering.  Often the curtains/signs will also contain the English words for man and woman and even be color coded with hetero-normative color configurations - blue for men, red/pink for women.  

Photo Credit - LINK

Photo Credit - LINK

Throwing back to the previous discussion on nudity and transgender, intersex, or genderqueer travelers - please note that Japanese onsen are not a location where they actively recognize the full spectrum of gender and gender identity.  Unless you are frequenting an onsen that has specific policies or advertising that denotes otherwise, the staff and patrons will expect you to use the facility that conforms with the gender identity that you physically most closely resemble.  

Ultimately what door you choose to walk through is up to you, but please be aware of how the locals may react to your choice and note that you may be asked to leave by staff if they believe you've entered the "wrong" side.

Step 4:  Get Naked

Ahhhhh.  Here's the part the gives me the most anxiety - getting butt ass naked in front of strangers.  If you're someone who is completely comfortable with their own body and have no qualms letting your naughty bits swing in the breeze - bravo!  Let me start a slow clap for you!

Sadly I'm not one of those people, and I know that many of my fellow travelers (LGBTQ or not) have similar reservations.  My advice to you is this - it's like getting into a pool.  The more slowly and tentatively you do it, the more painful the experience will end up being.  The best course of action is to take a deep breath and metaphorically diving right into the pool - drop trou, free the tatas, and just get it over with!

The changing area of an onsen on Lake Ashi.

The changing area of an onsen on Lake Ashi.

Depending on how fancy your facility is, you will either find baskets inside the changing area or perhaps you were given a key with a numbered tag on it to denote a specific locker for you to use.  You can toss all of your clothing into the basket or locker along with your large towel.  Keep your small towel with you.  

Note - if you brought a smart phone or camera, leave it here as well.  Onsen are strictly a no-photo facility unless you have permission from the property owners or are using the onsen under the private usage option discussed earlier.  Also, there really isn't going to be anywhere dry to keep your device and the atmosphere inside the onsen proper is quite humid, i.e. not ideal for electronics.

Step 5:  Scrub A Dub Dub

Once you're fully naked and done worrying about whether everyone can see your belly fat/neck roll/that ugly birthmark on your lower thigh, move through the doors to the next area.

As the onsen is a shared use facility, you'll be required to give yourself a very thorough cleaning prior to entering the water.  No one wants to share the water with someone who didn't take the time to wash the day's grit and grim away!

PHOTO CREDIT - LINK

PHOTO CREDIT - LINK

Don't expect individual shower stalls, though this is occasionally available.  Chances are you'll find a system very similar to what's shown above - several stools set up in front of handheld shower nozzles with mirrors and large shampoo, conditioner, and soap dispensers.  A bucket is often provided at each station.

You should start by using the shower nozzle to rinse off the stool and the bucket before using them.  Next, use all of the provided items to give yourself a very thorough cleaning.  I'm not talking a cursory run over the skin here people - get into the nooks and crannies and make sure you're serving sparkling clean realness.  If a bucket is not provided to fill with water, use the nozzle and soap to give yourself a proper washing.  Of course you should use the shampoo to clean your hair just as thoroughly.  If you have long hair, use a hair tie to collect your hair into a bun on the top of your head, well above the shoulder line.  Having your hair (even clean!) dip into the water is a no-no.

Step 6:  Place Towel On Head or Off To Side

One thing people always ask me the first time we onsen together is what to do with the small towel that you brought with you.  That's really up to you.  People do a variety of things with it, but the one thing that you should not do is let it fall into the water.  Some folks use it as a washcloth, others save it for use later on.  Some bathers will place their towel off to the side in a designated area that should be easy to identify since you'll see a grouping of small towels.  Others will fold it up and place it on top of their heads or tie it like a bandana.  Be creative, just don't dip it in the water.

Step 7:  Enjoy the Japanese Onsen, Don't Pass Out

It's time people.  The moment has arrived.  It's time to enter the onsen!

Whether the spring has stairs to facilitate entry into the water or you simply have to walk up to the edge and step in, your only task now is to get into the water and relax.

Japanese law actually categorizes onsen into four categories based on the temperature of the water.  A "cold spring" is anything below 22°C/77°F.  A "warm spring" is anything from there up to 33°C/91°F.  After that is a "hot spring" which runs to a threshold of 41°C/106°F.  Anything above that is categorized as an "extra hot spring".  If you're at a small onsen, there's likely only one spring to use with a consistent temperature.  Larger onsen facilities can have several types of baths that you can move around and experience.  They'll feature various temperatures as well as different mineral contents with associated "benefits".  

Just a reminder that the onsen is not a pool - swimming is impolite.  You should quietly sit and enjoy the ambiance.  You can chat quietly if you desire.  Do not dip your head into the water.  As indicated above, your hair and head should not enter the water at all.  This is a neck-down activity.

Onsen is similar to a sauna in that you should be very careful to monitor yourself to ensure you are not overheating.  If it's your first time experiencing an onsen it can be very easy to overdo things on the first go and end up getting lightheaded or even passing out.  I recommend staying in for no longer than 4 or 5 minute at a time if you're doing this for the first time, just to be safe.  You can exit the water and walk a bit, or remove yourself from the water and sit on the edge of the springs.  If you're in a larger onsen, move on to one of the cooler pools.  

You'll be sweating a bit so make sure you're well hydrated prior to entering the onsen and make sure you drink plenty of water after you've finished as well.

Step 8:  Dry Off & Cover Up

Once you've had your fill of soaking and relaxation, it's time to dry off and head out of the onsen.  If you've set your small towel off to the side, grab it.  If you kept it with you the whole time, snatch it off your head and use it to dry off prior to exiting the hot spring area.  It may be difficult but make sure you do the best you can to make sure you're not dripping copious amounts of hot water off of your body before you go back to your clothing.

Back at your locker/basket, use the larger towel to do a proper dry off.  Once done, put your clothes back on and throw the towels into the hamper where everyone else has left theirs.  If you're staying at a ryokan or minshuku, you may have been provided a yukata (robe) to use in the building or outdoors if their onsen facility is located slightly off property.  If that's the case, put on your robe (securing your obi around your waist tightly so you don't have a Janet Jackson-esque nip or dick slip) and head back to your room.  If the yukata is provided to you, you can expect that it's acceptable to wear it around the guesthouse to and from the onsen.  

So that's that, folks!

I hope you found this helpful.  As I mentioned before, the tradition of Japanese onsen is one that I grew up with as a child and one that I continue to enjoy as an adult every time I return to my homeland.  It's an amazingly intimate and relaxing way to immerse yourself in the culture of Japan, providing you an outlet at the end of a long day and also putting you in close proximity with locals.  Strike up a conversation, throw your towel on top of your head, and see where you end up.  

If you have questions about experiencing onsen as an LGBTQ traveler (or even if you're not!), please feel free to use the "Contact Me" button at the top of the page to send me a note.  I'm more than happy to talk about my experiences to help you feel more comfortable or make an informed decision.

Happy soaking!