method and madness

Someone made the mistake of actually asking me how the hell I wrote all of these travelogues while actually getting to do anything in Japan. For your sins, I will now proceed to tell you. At length.

First, the technical details. The thing that made this trip (and the Zürich trip) so much different (and verbose) than all of my previous trips? Very simple: I brought my laptop. Zürich was a work trip, so of course I had to bring it. Japan was for pleasure, but unlike China, Thailand or Vietnam, there’s no reason whatsoever not to bring your laptop computer with you: just leave it in your hotel room. It will still be there when you get back. It will still be there if you forget to lock the door. It will still be there if you leave the door standing wide open. It will still be there (and this we personally verified) if there isn’t a single door with a lock between it and the street and most of the walls are made of paper.

This level of safety made it possible to not only bring my laptop, but to bring two cameras: one an SLR, and one the same trusty pocket Canon that I took on my last few trips. Don’t want to lug the big camera around at night but still want to be able to take photos when necessary? Drop the little camera in the pocket and leave the SLR in the room.

…and bringing the laptop along pretty much revolutionized my travel writing. Every other trip has been a painful struggle to get enough time at an internet cafe somewhere to write up the last 2-3 days worth of stories, and uploading photos was a nonstarter. With the laptop, I could come back to the room every night, download every photo I’d took that day, pick 10 or 20 to upload to flickr, then tag and title them. In general, I’d upload and tag the day’s worth of pictures, and then write up the previous day’s travels using the pictures I’d uploaded the night before as my notes and reminders.

This also made carrying around additional memory cards for the cameras unnecessary: even at my most prolific, I never came close to filling up either camera’s card in a single day, and every morning I started out with an empty card.

This did mean sacrificing many nights after 8pm to pounding away at the laptop, but this ended up working out pretty well: not speaking Japanese and being 8-to-16 hours jetlagged meant that we weren’t going to be making any serious inroads into Tokyo’s nightlife in any case, and in the smaller cities there just wasn’t that much to do after dark unless we wanted to go sing karaoke. So it was easy to get a lot of writing done. I did miss a couple of nights due to plans or just being too tired, but I was always able to use the inter-city travel time to catch up.

Oh, the other thing about traveling in Japan that really helped this process: wifi everywhere. The only room swe stayed where I couldn’t find an open (usually the hotel’s, but not always) wifi network was the original backpacker hotel in Tokyo and the Cerulean Tower. (The Sakura offered in-room internet but our jack was broken — no matter, they had wifi in the cafe downstairs. The Cerulean had no wifi, but had an ethernet jack in the room.) Everywhere else — even the Zen monastery, the mountainside ryokan and the dodgy B&B — had wifi in the rooms, usually a solid 5 bars of reception.

This was all so incredibly helpful that I’m going to have a hard time not bringing a laptop on my next trip. But since that will probably mean carrying it with me during the day, I think I’m going to need a lighter laptop. A much lighter laptop.

With regard to the actual mechanics of doing all the writing, I had a simple trick up my sleeve: write poorly.

Writing is a never-ending war against cliche and repetition, and most writers that we think of as “good” are people who’ve managed a standoff. The “great” ones tend to win a few skirmishes and bury the evidence of their defeats. Everyone else goes down like Custer at Little Bighorn. And like in most creative endeavors, you can have speed or quality, but not both. The nice thing about travel writing from this perspective is that, putting it charitably, expectations are low: in a few months, I’m going to look back of all of this and want to commit suicide when I notice all of the hackneyed phrases, over-used adjectives and stilted descriptions, but the travel section of the New York Times frankly isn’t much better, so I can coast a bit. Actually rather a lot.

Okay, that’s maybe a bit overdramatic, but the point is: one thing I learned from my never-really-completed Vietnam travelogue was that writing well is good, but writing now is better. If someone wants to offer me money to publish this junk, then I can go back and tighten it all up.

So yeah, I managed to write somewhere in the range of 50,000 words, mostly by balancing a laptop on my knees in a series of hilariously small Japanese hotel rooms. Maybe I should think about writing a novel or something: apparently it can be done when you’re not even noticing it.

In addition to all of the verbiage, between both cameras I managed to take… exactly 2,222 photos. (For real.) This was my first trip carrying a DSLR, and for the most part I loved it. The only real problem is that… I’m not used to holding a SLR, which involves looking through the viewfinder while gripping the camera with one hand and adjusting the zoom if necessary with the other. I’m used to holding a pocket camera in front of my face with one hand and looking at the nice live image on the screen. As a result, some horribly large percentage of my photos (I’d guess at least 40 if not 50-60% — the ones I uploaded were selected carefully not to show this) are cockeyed about 10 degrees counterclockwise. I’m going to be spending days in iPhoto correcting this: if anyone has any advice about how to avoid doing this other than “practice practice practice” I’d love to hear it.

Two last notes on the technology: I was spoiled by my equipment on this trip, but I got to thinking: you can now buy 16gb memory cards for cameras for under $60. That’s a lot of space: I never came close to filling it up during the day. Why on earth doesn’t every camera in the world have a small microphone and the ability to record voice notes as I’m taking the photos? This would make it much easier to identify where photos were taken, which can get to be an issue when you’ve seen a dozen similar-looking Buddhist temples in a week.

…or even better, why not stick a GPS receiver into the camera itself, and tag every single photo with latitude and longitude coordinates? This is apparently starting to become available on some high-end pro cameras, but isn’t really available on consumer kit yet. This strikes me as ass-backards: pros already know where they’re shooting, or have workflow to let them figure it out already hammered out. It’s your average lost tourist who desperately needs this feature.

Okay, that’s it. I’m done now, for real. I’m also back in San Francisco and have to go to work tomorrow morning. God knows when I’ll actually wake up. Sleep well, kids.

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Provided your arms are of mostly equal length, an easy way to get the horizon fairly level is to hold the body of the SLR in both hands and brace your elbows against your ribs. This does mean you have to move your grip once you've found the right focus/zoom, and if it's a truly macro shot that little movement might make you lose your focus point -- but overall, having a solid stance works pretty well.