My last-minute trip to Japan, and my love of personality tests

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I'm trying to write more stories about people and experiences related to my trips rather than logistics/itineraries. My first "story" was about hitchhiking in Iceland, and then I wrote one about Cape Town & my New Year's resolutions. Scroll to the bottom of this post if you want to see what sites/resources I used to plan this Japan trip (which was way back in October 2017)!

My 30 second brief for Japan is: Get a JR (bullet train) Pass, and buy it couple weeks before you go. 10 days is enough time to see the major sights, but leaves you planning your 2nd trip on the flight home. English isn't everywhere, but it's still easy navigate solo without any Japanese. IDK about cherry blossoms but fall foliage is a pretty sweet backdrop! More knowledge of Buddhism would have made visits to the many temples even more meaningful. I liked Kyoto better than Tokyo - similar to how I like SF better than NYC. 7/11 in Japan has pretty damn good food - way more than your average snacks. Finally, staying in hostels and drinking sake are great ways to make friends (duh), and GO SEE THE SNOW MONKEYS!

I wrote a story on: Why I love personality tests and snow monkeys

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WHY I LOVE PERSONALITY TESTS AND JAPAN'S SNOW MONKEYS

Anyone whose had more than four conversations with me can probably tell you that I love personality tests. Personality tests (and interpersonal dynamics more broadly) rank very high on the “Topics for an Animated Conversation with Ashley” list, rivaled only by the boutique fitness industry and Harry Potter life truths.

To be clear, when I say personality tests, I don’t mean those questions in some 2001 issue of Seventeen magazine that told me my bra personality, or the absurd Buzzfeed quizzes like Which Food Network Chef Is Your Spirit Animal? (I didn’t even make that up.)

I mean personality tests that take longer than 30 seconds to complete, maybe have a published book or website to explain their framework, and are probably trademarked — like Strengthsfinder, Enneagram, or the ever-controversial Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

I pride myself as someone so well-versed in Myers-Briggs, thanks to my 2+ years in consulting, that I can accurately guess the four identifying letters of anyone beyond an acquaintance. And yes, I almost swiped right to the person whose online dating profile ended with “My Myers-Briggs personality type is IDGAF” — but then I realized the sentiment was probably serious and not just a punny joke.

I know, I know. Personality tests aren’t perfect. People often get different results if they take the same test again. Tests are self-reported so results reflect who we want to be, not who we are. Results can be so broadly written that any description is believable. People can’t be described by a single label. “Types” give people excuses to not change behavior or seek personal growth. 

You’re right! Personality tests have a lot of obvious and true shortcomings. 

But hear me out. The language that personality tests can create — and using this shared terminology in conversations with others — is what I value. Personality tests give us a mutually understood language and a reason to talk about what motivates us as people, what makes us happy, how we interact with others, how we approach all of life’s challenge and ambiguity.

And when we don’t agree with a personality test’s description of ourselves, its shared language then becomes helpful to explain exactly why. Even just taking the quiz provides some value in making us reflect on ourselves (“How do these results align or differ with how I perceive myself?”) and how we interact with the world around us (“What were the other possible results that someone might get, and how does that consideration change how I interact with others?”).

I longed for that foundation when I started my new job, where sharing our four Myers-Briggs letters was not the norm. It’s harder to talk openly about working relationships and team dynamics without the terminology, and, more importantly, without the cultural expectation that a discussion should be had. So I learned that my team would all take the DISC personality test together, I almost spit out my startup-subsidized-on-tap kombucha out of geeky excitement.

The DISC personality test tells you which of the four letters (or personality “styles”) you tend strongly towards. My free unofficial DISC quiz results showed strong inclinations (~40%) towards the Dominance style, weak Influence tendencies (~10%), and equally moderate scores (~25% each) for Conscientiousness and Steadiness.

I know it’s hard to avoid confirmation bias, but reading my DISC results felt like reading familiar descriptions of myself: how I felt on the first day of my new job, how I carried myself at a recent party, how I chose my personal goals for 2018 — even how I approached my trip to Japan.

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People with strong D scores typically value independence and personal freedom — a fitting description for someone who loves solo travel and had no qualms embarking on a solo trip to Japan. I loved exploring Kyoto and Tokyo at my own pace and navigating the Shinkansen train network alone. I loved being the brave solo female traveler at the sushi bar, squeezed between couples and families who took awe at my independence. I got in my hostel bunk at the end of each day with the reward of knowing that my own wits were all that I needed.

I was totally confident and excited to dictate my own agenda and operate as an individual each day. Being alone and being lonely are different, and I relish the former. You become aware of yourself and the world around you in a very different way than when you’re with friends.

Not to say I was alone the whole time: my friend’s friend, Nick, happened to also be traveling solo in Japan at the same time, making him the perfect part-time travel buddy. (Our first excursion together was to an owl cafe, which is probably exactly what you’re thinking, only more owls and less coffee.)

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If I had to guess, Nick’s leading DISC style is Influence. He perfectly fits the I description as someone “motivated by group activities” and “quick at establishing relationships.” Given my low-ranking I score, Nick was a great person to pull a socially passive person like me out of my comfort zone. He’s maybe the only reason I experienced the dazzling Tokyo nightlife. Our third night in Japan, he rallied me and our his newfound hostel friends to go to a Halloween party at a nightclub, where we arrived with neon wigs and made even more new friends.

Going to that party with everyone was one of the highlights of my trip, but not something I would have initiated (as my low I score would predict). Nick’s strong influence pulled me out of my shell in a really positive way — which brings me to the Conscientiousness personality style.

The fact that I actually value being pulled out of my shell is pretty indicative of one quality of the C style — seeking personal growth. I would like to learn how to be a bit less socially passive, even though it’s not my natural inclination! This drive for self-improvement is partly why I became a fitness instructor, and why one of my goals for 2018 is to tell a story in front of hundreds of strangers at the Moth.

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C styles also “tend to analyze all the options and often make decisions that promise predictable outcomes.” This pretty accurately summarizes how I planned my last-minute trip. Knowing I would be mostly alone and have only my flight to sketch out an itinerary, I gravitated towards Japan over other countries as a safe place with modern amenities, squarely on the beaten path with many accessible sights. Once in Japan, I spent each evening nose deep in my Lonely Planet guidebook, pulling together loose plans for following day and noting potential Plan Bs in case something fell through.

While I do like to make informed choices with minimal risk, it’s worth noting that I actually decided to go to Japan only two days before departing— a kind of spontaneity that probably precluded my DISC results from having a stronger C score. I’m comfortable with ambiguity and leaving things up to chance, as long as I do enough research to understand most of the possible outcomes.

For example, I decided to spend one day visiting Jigukodani Monkey Park — a high risk, high reward tourist trap to see Japan’s wild snow monkeys. The reward? Walking freely next to snow monkeys (duh)! The risk? A 3-hour trip from Tokyo (2-hour bullet train, 1-hour bus, and 30-minute walk) and absolutely no guarantee you’ll see any monkeys. These monkeys are technically wild. The park, structurally, is merely an empty onsen (hot spring pool) and small walking area, and workers scatter fruit and nuts to convince the monkeys to hang out in the park.

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Being a moderate C, I had already done enough research via the park’s Facebook account to know that the monkeys arrived at 9 AM on each of the six days prior, and the latest arrival time in the prior two weeks was around 1 PM. I also decided that in the small possibility that the monkeys wouldn’t arrive, it would be a worthwhile day because the journey would be scenic, and I could explore a new town instead.

At 2 PM, when I started the final 30-minute walk into the park, there was still no monkey arrival announcement on Facebook. But, in a stroke of luck, the monkeys came running down the hill just five minutes after paying my entry, grazing past my leg as they scampered to retrieve their snacks.

I spent the next 75 minutes watching monkeys eat, nap, and groom each other.

I lost track of time watching the different huddles of monkeys, just a foot or two from me, meticulously combing through their buddies’ fur with their little fingers. Other than eating, napping, and bathing, it seemed like these monkeys spent the majority of their time caring for the other monkeys in their little community!

My monkey obsession may be partly explained by that remaining DISC letter. Steadiness styles like giving support and “are motivated by opportunities to help and show sincere appreciation.” I’m not surprised I got a moderate score for S. Some of my most rewarding moments in the last few months included cooking my friend dinner when she was having a difficult week, and flying to NYC for a night to support my mom when she received a leadership award.

I couldn’t help think of my results for another quiz, The Love Languages, when I read the S description. The philosophy behind this test is that knowing which of the five “languages” your loved ones use (physical touch, words of affirmation, quality time, or acts of service) can help you better communicate and receive affection.

My love language is definitively acts of service, which parallels the S description and also explains my fascination with the monkeys’ literal nitpicking. What better way to show my appreciation to those I love than to help in a tangible way? Maybe that means picking my brother up from the airport, doing my roommate’s dishes after a long day, grabbing lunch for a work friend when she’s busy — or even, picking lice out of my monkey friend’s fur!

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The older I get, the more gratitude I have for the people in my life, and the more I prioritize being the best friend, sibling, coworker, and partner I can be. At the end of the day, our greatest happiness and fulfillment comes from close relationships, so investing in how to sustain those relationships feels very worthy of my time and energy.

I like to joke that the snow monkeys’ behavior confirms my hypothesis that acts of service are the most natural, truest love language. But really, as humans, we don’t all communicate appreciation or approach life in the same single way.

Creating a meaningful connection between human beings is a bit more complicated than grooming each other’s hair. And that’s where I think personality tests, although imperfect, become helpful. They act as a nudge and a starting point for us to figure out what personality and communication differences we’re trying to connect.

The Japanese snow monkeys (well, the females, at least) stay in the groups they were born in for life. I’m not sure anything can guarantee the same outcome for my own little community of primates, but I’m optimistic that personality tests might give me the thoughtfulness and self-awareness to help improve my odds!


PHOTOS: TEMPLEs, MT. FUJI, & EVERYDAY MOMENTS

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I was blessed with good weather that allowed me to see Mount Fuji from both Hakone, a small mountain town, and Tokyo. It's usually shrouded in fog, but I got lucky twice!

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 At Nara, a town just an hour's train ride from Kyoto, hundreds of "tame" deer walk around freely. The deer are considered sacred based on local legend that a deity named Takemikazuchi arrived in the old capital on a white deer to act as its protector. They definitely act as if they are well aware of their status as a tourist attraction and sacred symbol - not-so-timidly approaching people for snacks and literally stopping traffic!

At Nara, a town just an hour's train ride from Kyoto, hundreds of "tame" deer walk around freely. The deer are considered sacred based on local legend that a deity named Takemikazuchi arrived in the old capital on a white deer to act as its protector. They definitely act as if they are well aware of their status as a tourist attraction and sacred symbol - not-so-timidly approaching people for snacks and literally stopping traffic!

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 This artist was drawing on a small footbridge on the Philosopher's Path in Kyoto. He was sketching these incredibly detailed drawings with a fine pencil - I've never seen something so intricate. My photo of the print doesn't do the real thing justice!

This artist was drawing on a small footbridge on the Philosopher's Path in Kyoto. He was sketching these incredibly detailed drawings with a fine pencil - I've never seen something so intricate. My photo of the print doesn't do the real thing justice!

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RESOURCES I USED TO PLAN MY TRIP TO JAPAN:

  • Two Wandering Soles one-week itinerary, which I basically followed in reverse - it made my planning a lot easier to take someone else's overarching itinerary and tweak it each day based on what I felt like doing!
  • JR Pass website - buy a weeklong pass before you go!
  • The Lonely Planet guidebook, of course - on my Kindle :)
  • Friends' recommendations - ask me or Facebook friends for spots!