In Conversation with Cindy Bissig, a Digital Nomad

All of the photos contained in this article are Cindy’s own photos.

Cindy Bissig is a multi-faceted content creator. She writes and makes videos about travel, food, art and sake. She is a brilliant photographer and artist in her own right. I met Cindy through the Taste with the Toji online sake group. We became friends on Facebook and Instagram and I have been living vicariously through her travels. When she recently shared a montage of photos of her one year of life on the road, I was so inspired, I wanted to hear and share how she had managed this enviable adventure.

The conversation was enlightening and surprising in parts. It was interesting to hear the reality of this kind of travel. I am still envious, and now also somewhat in awe of the self-discipline and courage that is required. Cindy downplayed the bravery aspect, however, her actions and her philosophy disclose an adventurous soul.

The first question I asked Cindy was what sparked her interest in Japan and how did she come to live there?

Cindy: When I was really young, maybe six or seven years old, we had a delegation of Japanese teachers come to Switzerland. (I grew up in Switzerland and then started travelling in my 20s before settling in Ireland for 15 years).

They were looking at our school system, but in an exchange they were teaching us small Japanese things. They taught us how to eat with chopsticks and do simple origami cranes and boxes. As you can imagine this leaves a huge impression on a young child. Then all through my life there were other points…in Switzerland we have French TV, who were the first to show anime in Europe. The ninja movies became extremely popular and over the years Japan just kept popping up. It reinforced this interest in the culture more than anything else. Being creative I was always drawn to the visual aspect of Japan, but even more so, the culture, the new and the old, simultaneously existing together.

Cindy went on to explain she wanted to travel to Japan as a teenager, but it was unaffordable and she couldn’t afford it with part-time jobs. There were no hostels or AirBnB in those days. She was always very clear about wanting to spend an extended period in Japan, not just a holiday.

Cindy has been in Japan for almost 4 years. Previous to this past year of travelling, she was based in Tokyo. I asked if she had been doing the content creation in that time.

Cindy: It’s quite interesting. Although I started creating Japan related content, it was always part of my business. So much has changed in the last year.

Looking back, I never thought I’d do some of the things that I do now. For example, if you said that I would be doing videos and work as a photographer a couple of years ago I would have said, no, it’s insane. But life happens and plans change. I’m quite happy about it actually. So, despite everything that is going on, I do have a lot of positives to take from the pandemic.

Before all of this, I was studying Japanese for a year and a half. My plan coming to Japan was always connected with building a business. So I was always going to start a business in Japan. I was timing it with the Olympics and literally just incorporated my business in December of 2019.

You see where this is going, right?

I flew home. I was a month in Europe, over Christmas. Then I came back in January and I just started my business activities and it was going quite well…two or three months later and it all stopped. As all my activities are connected to tourism in one way or another, including showcasing local events and sake, and it was like, wow.

I guess I did what most people did- wait? I had no idea what I was going to do with myself, with an incredibly stressful 6 months behind me I could not accept that this was it. So the only way was to scramble it back together. You find other ways. Luckily my business was always consisting of different parts, including content creation…the tourism side, which I thought was very well timed with the Tokyo Olympics and other events, was going to be the workhorse (of the business). This was where it would be most profitable, especially at the start. I was very aware the content part would take more time, three or four years even… to get itself established, be monetisable. So, yes, COVID came in March and I just had to make the content work. All the other stuff just disappeared.

I asked Cindy if that had been scary?

Cindy: It was just really frustrating because I had been working really hard for six months to get this all sorted. Looking back they were probably the most stressful six months of my life? Then, just when I started to see the light, to suddenly be in a situation of having to stop and having no control over anything was heartbreaking.

I was never, under any circumstances going to leave Japan. That wasn’t really an option for me. There was just finding other ways. One thing I generally do well, or I have been doing well in the past, is adapting. I guess, it’s partly because I have been moving to different countries.

I have had a lot of different jobs. Travelling and making a living as you do forces one to be more creative and less picky.

I’ve been going from one country to another and I needed to make money. So you become a lot more practical. If an opportunity arises you ask yourself, “can I do this?” And then you have to just go for it and learn on the job. To be honest, I’m quite happy in situations where things just appear, I do like a challenge, too. So, I feel it wasn’t as bad for me as it was for many others living more settled lifestyles, who had long term careers and, of course, people with families to look after. It was always going to be hard, but luckily I had my initial investment into my business. That is a prerequisite by the Japanese government to obtain the visa that I’m on. Basically, you have to have a certain amount of money to finance your business and as I just incorporated my company, most of it was still in the bank. I also always felt that there was going to be a way to work. I never really thought this is the end. I always felt I have skillsets that I can use. Whether that was something that I wanted to do at this point would have been an entirely different question, but I knew I had to be open-minded. I always had a bigger vision of things.

The plan was to be in Japan. That was the plan five years ago. That was the plan two years ago. So when the pandemic hit there was never a moment where I did not want to be here. The question was, how am I going to make it happen? 

At this point in the conversation I told Cindy I thought she was amazing. She replied that she didn’t think she was that amazing, that she was just desperate. Being adaptable is such a great quality for travelling, and, it turns out, in dealing with global pandemics.

My next question to Cindy was about all her content being in English.

Cindy: I’m native Swiss, speaking Swiss German, that’s my language I grew up with. Since I was 20, I entirely switched to English.

The only person that I talk to in German is my mum. To be honest, I feel most comfortable in English. Also, I feel it has the highest reach and especially for the demographic I create content for. They’re normally English speakers, and if they’re not, they have a good enough understanding of the English language, especially if they’re from Europe. It’s all about leveraging your efforts. “How can I make the most out of what I produce?” English is definitely the key. 

Next, I asked Cindy what had made her decide to travel around Japan during a pandemic? Had she encountered any difficulties related to travel because of COVID?

Cindy: In Japan, everything has been very light handed in terms of restriction. Personally, I’m a lot more strict with my own rules than the government is. In Japan, we have a concept or recommendations called the three Cs. It stands for avoiding closed spaces, crowded places and close contact. So although everything has been more or less open at all times, I always wear a mask and have refrained from going to establishments that are not well ventilated. Basically meaning I am fine with terraces, but would not feel comfortable in a small izakaya, or crowded spaces.

I know this means I am missing out a little bit, I’m not getting the entire Japan experience and I am not meeting as many people as I would otherwise. But the alternative would be not doing it, and to be honest, I don’t think I could accept that for myself.

Other than my personal guidelines, the logistics have actually been quite easy. There was even a time when the Japanese government incentivised travel. So we got 70% off hotels, plus vouchers to spend as part of a cash back program. That was at the beginning of my trip, which I do feel played a part in why this seemed like such a good idea at the time.

But I think aside from that there really were a few factors playing into it. I was just at the point where I couldn’t do my business and I was stuck in my house from March until August, for four months. I think a lot of people in Tokyo were isolating themselves…which, by the way, wasn’t forced upon us by the government. It was really us making that decision, with the situation being so unclear and the communication from the Japanese government being, well, very Japanese. Many of us were looking at the foreign media in other countries and they were going crazy. The news from Italy, with so many people dying, and then you see what the Japanese government was saying. I think there was distrust of what’s really going on, so a lot of the foreign community in Japan just decided to keep sitting tight.

So, I found myself living in this self-made foreign bubble. The extent of my lifestyle in those days in Tokyo was being in my house, which was semi Japanese, then I go to the grocery store and buy groceries, which were mostly Japanese, but I cook a mix of Western and Japanese food.

I would watch English TV, talk to my friends and family, mainly in English. Then I would go on a daily walk around my neighbourhood and on a few occasions and literally thought, “that’s why I came here”. It reminded me of how much I loved Japanese culture, aesthetics and how trapped I felt. It made me realise that I’ve been fighting so hard to be here and to have this visa and to stay in Japan, but I was living in this bubble that was not Japan. It felt ridiculous to spend money in Japan and not feel like I’m here. I really felt, I am wasting my time, energy and money on living this foreign lifestyle here. If I was going to do that, I could just as well go home and eat cup ramen noodles and watch anime. And probably have the same connection to Japan.

Cindy then explained around this time Kyoto launched the “Empty Tourism” campaign. This was conceived by shop owners in Kyoto who wanted to lure domestic travellers, with a promise of usually crowded sites being virtually empty.

Cindy: It resonated with me because I have many friends who lived in Japan for 20 years and their stories of how Japan was back then always made me a little jealous of their experience and regretful (for not coming earlier). Now suddenly all these places were empty of tourists. It felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity to document it. This had a big impact on me.

So, when I decided to go for it, the initial plan was certainly a bit different at the beginning. It was supposed to be two months here, three months there. Slowly moving around, which then turned a bit crazy because of the Go To Travel campaign. (This was the discount hotels and voucher system).

It was very much about “can I do this safely?” So I decided to start this adventure by moving to the most Japanese place I could imagine, which was Kyoto, and maybe I would just stay there for a while. Kyoto was perfect in many ways as it has plenty of outdoor attractions, the river, temples and parks. The Kyoto lifestyle is a lot more open air. I knew I would be happy to just walk around and explore. There would be plenty to keep me busy. Compared to Tokyo, where much of its charm comes from crowded places, the hustle and bustle, the tiny restaurants and bars. It was hard to enjoy Tokyo with all of that being off limits.

On top of that, I think another thing that traveling gave me was, or is, a sense of normality. Although it sounds quite the opposite. But, because I used to travel by myself quite a bit, this felt very normal to me. Even though I was not meeting people, as long as I was able to move, it felt quite normal. Looking back, I think being stationary in one place and being restricted, that was a big issue for me? So although, and I mentioned it before, there are places and setting I avoid, I much rather do this (move around) the “light version” than being stuck in one place.

I asked Cindy how many places she has visited over the year?

Cindy: I’ve lost count. When I looked back on it, on my one year nomad anniversary, I said 30ish, but I realise it’s probably more like 40. It’s been an incredibly interesting year. Not all of the places I visited were new, some of them I have been to before, but a lot of them I’ve never been to. And now I am looking forward to going back! I guess because of how things are, parts of it also felt a little bit like a scouting trip, at times.

There would be incidents where stuff would be closed or there would only be limited accessibility. A lot of Japan also decided this was a prime time window for restoration, so there were quite a few construction sites and renovations going on. But anyway, it was always worth it one way or another. So I don’t regret doing it. But I’m looking forward to going back to do a little bit more. 

One thing is for sure, I feel like I’m certainly getting more well-rounded on my Japanese knowledge. Moving around is obviously a lifestyle choice and a personal dream, but it also always had a purpose. I wanted to document the places and share the information about them through various content, writing, photography, video…and I must say I have not been that great about it and have about 6 months worth of travel to catch up with. So, that will be my goal and winter project this year. Mentally go back to the places and then put them in writing or some sort of shareable form, as it was the reason why I started my business and is also what I will be doing more of again once some sort of normality comes back. Because I have often been quite frustrated with what’s available in terms of knowledge and content, especially in foreign languages. So I wanted to share with people the things I found.  

At this point in the conversation I mentioned I had been frustrated learning about a place, after I had been there.

Cindy: To be honest, many people have similar experiences. For the ones that are in Japan, or intend to come back, its easier. You can revisit and still get to see it/experience it, but I don’t think everybody has that luxury of visiting places several times.

I think everyone who comes to Japan is going to have a great time, nevertheless. Personally I think it’s impossible not to. But if you could offer visitors just that little bit more, a tiny bit of information can really make a huge difference. But, it’s incredibly hard to find some of the information, even in Japanese. I often tend to find out what’s happening the day it has finished or I see something interesting is on in a few days, just my travel plans are already set and I cannot change them to make it fit in. So, I wanted to make more of these local things and events accessible to, hopefully, make things easier for others.

We then spoke about some of the festivals in Japan, many cancelled because of COVID.

Cindy: See festivals, that’s kind of my thing. That was a big part of my business. Introducing Japanese culture through local events and festivals was what I was doing at the beginning.

I was bringing people to all kinds of local events, as they can be quite intimidating for many. Everything is in Japanese and there is so much going on. There are all these things that you’ve never seen before. You have no idea what’s going on because, unless it’s Gion Matsuri and you can read up upon it, there is very little information.

It is overwhelming, I think. Total sensory overload, but it’s so tempting. So part of what I was doing was bringing people to local festivals and kind of holding their hands, guiding them through it. I would explain to them a bit about what is happening, share the local food and there would generally be sake involved, because I do love sake. In fact Japanese sake is another big part of my business. I always felt that coming together over a drink (or a meal) is such an integral part of how we connect as humans. Sake is so interesting for a variety of reasons.

But, back to the local festivals and events, for me they are one of the things I’m terribly sad about not happening. I only saw one festival this year, which everybody was surprised happened, which was in Kyoto, in January. But I do hope they’re slowly going to start coming back.

Next I asked Cindy if she thought what she had done this past year would change they way she is going to work in the future?

Cindy: Everything I do now is completely different to what I did four years ago. The topics are the same. It’s just where I am. It’s all moved online now and I’m looking forward to being back and meeting people.

I’m very reluctant to settle now. Now that I’ve started to move. I love Kyoto and I have found a lot of great friends here. It’s a lovely community and they’re really welcoming and part of me does want to stay, but, I really love moving around. I don’t think I’ll change, but we will see.

I then asked what Cindy would recommend for people that are traveling to Japan, essential experiences.

Cindy: I use to tell everybody coming to Japan to not over plan their trip. To always make sure you have at least one break day for eventualities or spontaneous stuff.

But these days (my advice) has changed a tiny bit. I would add on, to pick one thing and do that properly. If you love sake then make it a sake themed holiday or if you love fashion, build in some kimono experience or some fabric dying. Do whatever it is you are interested in a little more consciously and try to connect on a different level, not just browsing through everything.

If you’re into manga, then make sure you go to the anime and manga museum. Back in the day I booked a lesson with the manga artist and she showed me how to draw manga.

It’s always something that I have done personally, because I just love learning new things and I like to understand how things work…I also realise how important it is for Japan, its tourism and its local communities. Especially in smaller places. To bring a little bit of traffic that way.

There are so many benefits, your trip is going to be completely different. You’re going to meet people that have the same interests. You’re going to be able to communicate, even if you don’t speak Japanese. It always works out somehow. You will probably leave with some friends that you’ve made for life because of the interest that you’re pursuing in the time that you’re here.

Then in terms of regionality, I think the south of Japan is highly underestimated. There is so much cool stuff to do, but again, it is not as easy to navigate.

I went to Hiroshima for the first time, this year. It really gets you to think about a lot of things. Even if you’re not into history or if you don’t know it. You see a different side of the story told in a very uncomplicated way…I think they’re dealing with it in a very beautiful way. 

I also love Tottori. I think Tottori is something people should experience…It’s one of those places that makes you think, “wow, this is also Japan”. It really opens your eyes in terms of all that Japan is, because we often don’t realise the climate changes and the culture changes slightly along with it.

Sure and “last” but not least, I think everybody should try to go to Hokkaido at some point. Maybe even more in summer than in winter. I’m surprised I’m saying this because I love Hokkaido in winter, it’s one of my “must go” destinations, as it’s just so beautiful. There’s so much to do in summer, because the climate is milder, compared to the rest of Japan. You can experience the onsen, go hiking (and there is beautiful mountains). Or visit Otaru, the canal city, it’s amazing to go for a stroll and you hear the wind chimes. It’s really beautiful.

So yes, what I am trying to say is, Japan is really an interesting place to visit any time of the year. I think a lot of people are aiming for cherry blossoms or the changing leaves in autumn, however, you could probably have a very affordable trip somewhere in between and see some breathtaking, natural beauty and do a lot of activities.

I asked Cindy what food she would recommend eating in Japan? 

Cindy: I remember being in Japan the first time and it was really a bit scary, especially because of the language barrier. Because of that, I definitely didn’t eat and try as much as I could have.

Because of that, I feel a food tour is definitely money well spent. That could be any food related tour, it doesn’t have to be high-end, it just has to expose you to a variety of food that you can try without having to make a lot of effort. I did a few (back in the days, as part of some work projects) and in one of them we would go to the old Tsukiji Market. There was not just seafood or fish. There were other common items and it was great to try a little bit of everything.

When people are in Japan for the first time, getting on a tour like this at the beginning of their trip is really eye-opening because it’s a safe place to explore. They get to try a few things and they will get an idea of, “yes” or “no” and as a result, generally, be more adventurous and comfortable to try other items afterwards. And to actually answer your questions,The one food I think everybody should eat is yakitori. To be honest I am totally baffled why there are no yakitori places all over the world. 

Quick Questions:

  • Favourite Japanese Food: Yakitori (with tare) at this time
  • Favourite Sake: currently, Fukucho Seaside
  • Favourite konbini: marginally, 7/11
  • Favourite anime or manga: Sailor Moon
  • Favourite Japanese Movie: Doesn’t have one

Cindy also added about food that one thing everybody should be aware of before coming to Japan is Japanese condiments.

Cindy: There are so many sauces, including yuzu and ponzu? All the yuzu to be honest. Definitely try yuzu kosho (a yuzu and pepper paste), you put it on anything and it tastes absolutely delicious.

Speaking about Fukucho’s Seaside…Cindy: I just kinda fell in love with it. I bought it together with a few other bottles from other breweries and I just keep going back to it.

Links to Cindy’s sites for her adventures, expertise and photography. Also her YouTube channel and her sake page. Plus the excellent podcast she contributes to, Sake on Air.

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