Dreaming of throwing in the towel on daily routines and going the digital nomad way instead? In 2016, James Wong was living in London and working full-time in the entertainment publicity industry when he decided to do just that. He moved to Tokyo and ventured into the unknown: freelance travel journalism. “It’s not the kind of profession to rest on comfortably, but instead it rather uncomfortably keeps you awake with uncertainty,” he says. Currently based in Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture, Wong tells TW about his journey to become a travel writer in Asia and the highs and lows that come along with it, and offers tips for wannabe nomads.
How It All Began
“As an eight-year-old, I ran my own magazine. Well, kind of. It was just a few pages written on a typewriter, photocopied four times and distributed to my parents, my sister and my pet rabbit. I always knew I was destined to write, but many years later the only writing I was doing was single-sentence Instagram captions for a British TV channel. In 2016, I decided to pack my life up in two suitcases and relocate to Tokyo where I managed to forge a career in journalism while teaching English at an Eikaiwa to keep my visa and rent a bento box-sized flat in Shin-Nakano. I started covering city events for blogs and websites and landed an internship with a local magazine. In time, an opportunity to freelance for an airline came along, and this pushed me to go completely solo, to step out of my safety net of a stable job and regular income, and work for myself, writing on a full-time basis. Before I knew it, I was flying out to all corners of Asia; meeting editors, writing travel guides, testing experiences, and rapidly building a portfolio that my eight-year-old self would never have imagined possible.”
The Highs of Being a Travel Writer
“I’m lucky enough to specialize in travel features, so I will often need to experience the very best of a city in order to compile an accurate and exciting guide. Many of my assignments from international publications involve documenting Tokyo, since I am their go-to man for the region. In the last year in this city alone, I have reviewed the best all-you-can-drink bars, had a samurai makeover, interviewed Japanese artists, performers and musicians, and traveled the country on the JR Pass for the Japan Experience (which I strongly recommend doing). The highs of the job are incredibly high; the sort that could never be experienced confined within an office cubicle.”
The Lows of Freelancing
“With freelancing you just never know when your next job will be coming in. One month may be insanely busy and the next I’ll be wandering around Nakano Broadway with nothing to do except watch people play arcade games. I have to budget carefully in order to keep up with bill payments (which, in Japan, leave no room for delay or negotiation). Also, constantly pitching for work means enduring plenty of rejection. Travelling Asia and exploring Tokyo is great fun, but seeing it with a loved one is a million times better. I’d much rather stay at an Airbnb in Nagoya with my partner than in a luxury resort in Boracay alone. I’d rather brunch in Daikanyama with my best pal than be swapping business cards over cocktails with Korean PRs I don’t know. And honestly, in the middle of winter, I really would rather be in bed at home instead of running to the airport for a flight to Shanghai.”
A Typical Month is Like…
“This week I’m checking out a bar in Ginza to add to a guide, and staying in a Hello Kitty-themed hotel room for a review. Next week I’ll be in London, where I already have several assignments. One of them is to review Aqua Kyoto, the best Japanese restaurant in the city. I’ll research, pop in for brunch, chat to a chef and submit my review that same evening. I’ll concurrently be working on guides for the likes of Nammos Village in Mykonos and Flims in Switzerland. I’ll also be working out while following a nutritionally complete diet of Huel. In between all of that, I’ll be pitching for new work, invoicing and generally keeping my business ticking along.”
Tips on How to Make It Work
“As a digital nomad, there are four things I am never ever without: my laptop, phone, Nomad power adaptors (hellonomad.com) and Pacsafe (pacsafe.com) anti-theft backpack. When traveling, I try to keep a regular routine where possible, usually working from a couple of coffee shops or a Naked Hub (nakedhub.com) remote office during the day, which allows for exploration come evening. I’m always switched on, though – free time is spent jotting down store names or chasing locals for recommendations, just in case additional articles on the city get assigned later on. If I’m in Tokyo I’ll work from home or crash at a friend’s office so that I don’t get distracted and end up binge-watching Netflix.”
Could I Do This Forever?
“While some people say there is nothing better than traveling, I think there is, and that is companionship. Right now, I’m enjoying the ride, but rides have the purpose of reaching destinations. An obvious destination is a family and a home in a cute neighborhood with a garden large enough for having a barbecue while the kids make comic books in the sun. Being a digital nomad is something I’ll look back on with a proud and genuine smile if I were ever to find myself in that garden – which I’m pretty sure will also be full of adventures and stories of its own someday.”
James Wong is a Tokyo Weekender contributor and travel journalist for publications across the UAE and Asia. For more of his work visit www.boxojames.com