The Art of Dog Touristing


I have never been much of a conventional traveller. Sure, I’ve done the family vacations in Michigan and South Carolina, the school trips to Chicago and New York City; but even then, whenever I could, I’d break away from the group to explore on my own. I like to set my own pace, to wander without purpose, to become purposely lost. I long overcame the fear of eating alone in a restaurant, of sleeping alone in a hostel, of walking down the streets of Manhattan, Akihabara, Waikiki, alone.

Sometimes it’s lonely. I have never been much good at talking to strangers. And so many trips have gone by without a single photo of me, not a glimpse in Central Park, just a shadow at Tokyo Tower, because I haven’t anybody to take them. Without any proof my memories start to fade; were these really my trips or just snippets from Travel World News? Remember the time– The words fall futilely; there was no one else there to remember.

Last weekend I flew to Oklahoma to visit someone I’d never met, which I sometimes forget is an unconventional way to travel. I’ve been cultivating online friendships since I was eleven; it’s not much different than making friends at school. Sometimes the relationship is deep, sometimes superficial; sometimes you drift apart; sometimes people lie about who they are; sometimes people get hurt.  This friend was pretty much what I expected after five years of virtual friendship (albeit a bit taller).  In any case, she never murdered me in my sleep, but invited me to make myself at home.

“Eat anything you want,” she said.  “Play video games, walk the dog.”  She apologized as she headed off to work, leaving me alone in the house.  Just me and the dog, a terrier mix that had pounced upon me as soon as I’d entered the yard.  We curled up on the couch together, watching 90s sitcoms and Disney animated movies.  It was a bit like what I do at home, only with better snacks and a nicer tv.   The day was half gone before I finally pushed myself off the couch.  Leashing up the dog, we set out together.

I’d never really thought much about Oklahoma (except for that stupid song that always gets lodged in my brain).   My trip was planned rather last minute, opportunity colliding with that continual promise of We really should get together sometime.  My friend had given me a quick briefing before heading off to work; food is here, there’s a park up there, stay away from the tracks at night.  Now, with my friend gone until late, I was left to my own devices.  Just me and the dog.  I let the dog lead.

There is something magical that happens when you are with a dog.  You stop being an awkward lone tourist, out of place; you stop being invisible, or even trying to be invisible.  No matter where you go, broad streets or back alleys, a person with a dog always has a purpose.  Just out for a walk.  And people in turn, perfect strangers, have a reason, now, to approach.  That’s a beautiful dog.  May I pet your dog?  I smile and don’t bother to correct them.  For now, the dog and I are a team.

It’s a different way of doing things, dog touristing.  You become a bit of a local, casual strolling, and yet you still see so much more than the walked-this-street-a-million-times resident, quick-walking to their destination with nary a side glance.  Yes, it’s harder to pop indoors, to shop and explore inside places.  Everything has its tradeoffs.  But the weather was beautiful, sunny and warmer than I’d seen from Ohio’s meager springtime.  A perfect day for a walk.

As evening approached, I scouted out a restaurant with outdoor seating.  A family at a nearby table promised to watch the dog while I ducked inside for food.  The dog settled down patiently beside my chair, never begging, occasionally sniffing at passerbys.  She gulped water from a paper cup as I dined on buffalo tacos (not bad, like ground beef with a bit of spice).   The shadows stretched as the sun fell.  I cleared the table and we headed home.

Back on my friend’s couch, watching Netflix on the big tv, the dog and I, worn out from our day, waited for my friend to return.  I flipped through pictures on my phone, sorting out the best to post online.  Myself and the dog, posing on campus.  Walking along the railroad tracks.  Remember the time— She doesn’t reply.  These memories too will atrophy, but for now I know we were there.

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I can hear the rumble of the freight trains from two blocks away, sending ripples through the water of my startled goldfish.  One block to the east, the fire engines scream a steady song as they pass to and from the station.  “This is a quiet place,” my landlord told me when I moved in.  The dogs bark nightly, and their owners yell at them.  Children scream daily, and their parents scream at them.

I find the sounds of civilization comforting.  I’ve always said, I prefer noisy neighbors over quiet ones, because it means I can be noisy in return.  That didn’t stop me from seething over drunken college students in the dormitory halls at 3am, but it allows me to be less insecure about playing the piano at 9pm (or violin at any time).

I feel so urban popping into the corner market on my walk home from work, cold cuts wrapped in butcher paper for my evening meal.  The owner greets me cheerfully and bids me come again.  There’s a strange small town feel to this urban life.  The people at the pizza shop welcome me by name.  I ride the bus alongside familiar faces, known not by name but by trait: Aloha Bag Lady; Badass Long Coat; Girl Who Talks Too Loud at 7am.  There are the people who ride only on rainy days, and the people who always seem to be everywhere.

Walking the street, I’ll think I see a familiar face, and I have to stop and think; where did I know them from?  Hawaii?  Japan? Or here, Ohio?  My memories lack geolocation.  And then the person passes, a stranger, and I’m left disappointed and wondering where all my friends disappeared to in the years I was away from the city.  Still, I keep searching for that familiar face.  Anyone.

I left the rural, the place where nobody ever leaves, for a place where no one would ever stay.  In the night, I hear the trains rumble toward anywhere, and I want to go with them.

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I once had a love affair with socks. Striped socks, colored socks, socks with patterns and puppies and poofs. I requested socks for Christmas and birthdays, assuring my family that yes, I really did want socks, but more often than not I was disappointed and received books and electronics instead. One year I finally received an entire box of them, and I jumped up and down squealing “Socks, socks, I got socks!” thoroughly exciting my mother’s dog Soxx in the process.

When I moved to Hawaii I found myself wearing sandals almost exclusively.  I’m not a fancy shoe person despite my love of decorative socks, and sandals were the shoes that made the most sense.  In the tropical weather you didn’t need sneakers or boots to keep your toes warm, but then there is also the fact that in Hawaii it is very common to be asked to leave your shoes at the door.  (“Shoes,” my uncle would say when I’d come to visit, “Shoes!  Shoes!” until I realized he meant I should take them off.)  The cultural aspect traces to the Asian custom of removing your shoes at the threshold, but it’s really rather practical– after you’ve been tromping through the dirt and mud, who wants to be tracking that through the house?

So in Hawaii I stopped wearing real shoes, and thus, I stopped wearing socks.  I still kept them in my drawer, the ones with the poofs, and the stripes, and the holiday prints.  Sometimes if it got chilly (those 60 degree winters) I might wear a pair of socks to bed.   And whenever I traveled to somewhere cold I would gather up my socks along with my lone pair of sneakers — though I’d inevitably grow weary of shoes (my feet are claustrophobic, I’d claim).   And I’d tromp through the snow in my sandals, only to receive odd looks from locals and scolding from my elders.

I’ve been gone from Hawaii about five months now, long enough that I no longer find splashings of sand among my belongings.  The seasons are turning, the wind turning harsh, the skies growing stormy.   In Hawaii I tromped obliviously through the puddles in my sandals, but here the water is frigid and painful.  And every time I go out in the rain I say to myself, I really ought to get myself some nice boots, some galoshes.  And every store I visit, I say, these boots are too expensive, these galoshes aren’t my style.  So I continue about in my sandals, toes shivering in 40 degree weather, stubborn and sockless.

We find the strangest habits hard to break.  But winter is coming and I am a mainlander.

I am a mainlander.

I am not fancy free on the beach, my toes in the sand.  There is no surfing in October, no New Years picnics on the shore.  It is cold here, and it is getting colder, and it is time to put on real shoes.

Maybe for Christmas.

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Free Bird

My parents met in a band.   Mom was working lights at the time and my dad played rhythm and lead guitar.  He had long wavy hair; Mom said he looked like Robert Plant.  She calls him a brilliant guitarist, a perfectionist dedicated to getting every single note right.  Mom remembers him sitting cross-legged in front of the stereo, rewinding and fast forwarding for hours until he could get a certain measure right.  My dad doesn’t talk much about those days.  I hear it mostly from Mom.

I remember his band mates.  I’d go along to practice sometimes.  Dad had a group photo sitting on the living room side table and I’d point to each member in turn while announcing the nicknames I’d given them. “Funny, Cutey, Baldy and Daddy!”  I had a crush on Cutey with his long curly hair, then one day he cut it off and I was dumbfounded.  I must have been eight or nine.

Dad had three guitars: the Fender Stratocaster that he proudly played on stage; his main acoustic that he’d play at home; and another acoustic that I was allowed to play (I suppose he didn’t care if I broke it).  In my teens I started learning semi-seriously, and Dad would give me little lessons; he’d play a riff and I’d try to repeat it, dueling banjoes style.  I never amounted to much on guitar but the lessons were always worth it.  Long after he left his band, Dad would still bring out the acoustic in the evenings, sitting cross-legged on the couch to strum a few songs.  He liked to play the classics but he rarely ever sang.  (It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I realized The Rain Song had lyrics.)

A few years ago, maybe five, Dad stopped playing guitar.  It was a gradual process, and it probably started long before I’d even begun to notice the dust covering the fret boards. He’d been struggling with a skin condition for a while that had left his fingertips cracked and painful; he could barely do everyday activities, much less press the strings.  It was eventually realized that he has a severe cobalt allergy that he continues to struggle with on a daily basis.  The little things that you wouldn’t think of — not putting your arms on the restaurant table because you don’t know what cleaning supplies they’ve used; that your daughter’s laundry detergent might make you break out if she hugs you — these are the things he deals with every day.  I can’t imagine.

Dad doesn’t play acoustic in the evenings anymore.  The guitars stay stored away in their cases, out of sight and mind.  Last year he sold his Stratocaster.

Riding in the car the other night, Free Bird came on over the radio.   “Your dad used to play this,” Mom said, smiling fondly.  “He was amazing.”

I cried.

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The Ohio night falls around 9pm in the summertime, and with the darkness comes the fireflies, hoards of them, glowing like stars in the blackness.  So many stars.  In Hawaii there are no fireflies, no dots of light in the trees after the steady sunset.  I’d forgotten how thick the field of fireflies could be back home.

Japan is very big on the appreciation of nature.  In the spring, as the sakura bloom, the parks are flooded with picnickers, settling down with blue tarps and bento boxes to participate in hanami, the flower viewing.  Autumn brings the momiji gari, the viewing of the changing leaves.  (Japan, it should be noted, is also very proud of their “four distinctive seasons”.)  In the summertime, they have the hotaru gari, the viewing of fireflies.

Running through June and most of July, my study abroad in Kobe put me in Japan right during hotaru gari season.  Many of my classmates, having grown up in Hawaii, were thrilled at their first chance to see fireflies.  They planned an excursion into Osaka, to a park known for having fireflies.  I declined the trip.  It was a weekday, I had studying to do, and I’d spent all my childhood chasing lightning bugs.

A few nights later, as my host family sat around the living room before heading to bed, my host father came to us with a suggestion.  It was one that I struggled to understand, because neither of us was fluent in the other’s language, and our communications involved a lot of hand gestures and dictionary referencing with a healthy dose of guessing.  As far as I could tell, he was asking if I’d like to go up the hill and see some worms.  It seemed like an odd thing to do at night, but I agreed, because I’d come to Japan to be adventurous, after all.   So we all threw coats on over our pajamas and headed up the hill towards the park.

My host family lived a few blocks from what could barely be called a river.  We followed the river up the mountain, my host brother bounding ahead with limitless energy as I flagged wheezily at the rear of our little parade.  I hadn’t wandered up this way before, and I’d rarely wandered the city at night.  It was slightly creepy and I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if we encountered the family of wild boars that I was always seeing in the river as I walked to and from school.

We arrived at our destination, a small playground and wooded area bordering the river.  My family immediately began scanning the grass near the water.  I followed suit, unsure of what exactly I was looking for.  My host father was shining a flashlight into the tall grass.  Every once in a while somebody would point, uncertain, and he’d direct the beam that way.  And then something flashed and I knew.  We were hunting fireflies.

Hotaru gari translates directly as “firefly hunting”.   In Japan, there aren’t many fireflies left anymore, and so people travel to the best viewing spots just to catch a glimpse.  We saw a few fireflies that night, and my family was very happy.  I was happy with them, yet it was a strange sort of feeling, when my own memories still play clearly in my head; of running through the yard at nightfall, sweeping fireflies into my hands, letting them glow between my fingers.

Standing on the porch in Ohio as the fireflies glowed like stars in the blackness, I sent a text to my host mother.

夜の時、多いホタルをいます。 At nighttime, there are many fireflies.

Just my way of saying I’m thinking of them.

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The Beauty of Leaving

You never see a place quite the way you do when just arriving and right before leaving.

17 days and counting.  I’ve been in Hawaii four years, give or take.  A few months in Japan.  A few months back in Ohio.  But I have called Hawaii home.  I have lived here, paid rent here, voted, been hospitalized, paid taxes, stood in line at the Hawaii State DMV.  I have made friends here; and lost friends here.  I have fallen in love with the island; and I have gotten sick of this place.   I have gotten sick of the cost of rent, the cost of food, the cost of travel, of shipping, the ever present sun, the vog, being so far away, the lack of air conditioning, the lack of public restrooms, the cockroaches.  When you first arrive, you don’t see these things.

When I first arrived, it was yellow, and warm, and the flowers smelled sweet, and everyone was welcoming.  I loved the sun and the sand and the sea and the constant summer; I loved the culture and the food and the color and the vibrance and these were all I could see.  After a while I stopped seeing these things.  I became used to them, took them for granted.  They would always be there.

There is a shift, where the things you saw become the things you miss and the things you miss become the things you always see.   I think this is part of life, or at least my life; because after a while, in Hawaii, I became aware of all the wonderful things back in Ohio that I had missed out on in all my years living there.

And here lies the ironic beauty of leaving (17 days and counting).   I’ve begun to see Hawaii again, the way I first saw it.  I’m beginning to see the yellow sun, to smile at the flowers, to appreciate the rainbows again.  I’m beginning to remember why I came here, why I stayed here, and why I’m going to miss this place.  I’m even starting to get nostalgic about the cockroaches, which could be a bit overdramatic, but there you are.

But it’s okay.  I’m in a great place right now.  Because I see the beauty of Hawaii, but I also see the beauty of Ohio.   And I’m excited.

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On Graduation

There’s this date that looms in my peripheral vision, steadily approaching, often menacing; graduation.  I try not to think of it it but at the same time it feels foolish to avoid.  I’ve been in college far too long, longer than I ought to have been; and yet as much as I yearn to break free of it all, at the same time I just need more time.   I want a do-over.   Those first few years were just practice rounds.  I’ve realized too late that this isn’t what I want to be…

When you’re in college, you can work a crappy job, and nobody judges you because you’re just working your way through college.

When you’re in college, you can live in a hole in the wall, and nobody judges you because you’re paying your way through college.

When you’re in college, you can be the biggest loser, but you still have potential.  Once you graduate, the potential seeps away from you, like half life draining, until you’re nothing but a loser in a dead end job and a crappy apartment.  And student loans to pay.

What’s my half life?  42 days and counting and I don’t know what I want to be.

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