• Alex Paynter

Toronto, Tokyo, Thailand: Lost in Fascination

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

One of my mantras is "Stillness in Motion".

When it comes to layovers, I think it applies wonderfully. For most travellers, it’s something that they dread. Having to wait around for up to 12 hours in a random airport in a country that you might have never even planned on visiting. Like most things in life though, it's just another opportunity to pivot and take advantage of the situation you're put in. When I travel, I try to use every aspect or curveball that comes my way to my benefit. That’s the beautiful thing about constant movement; it truly puts you into a flow state where your decisions just naturally occur.

Perhaps it’s in part a primal mechanism of being in an unfamiliar environment that activates this state, but regardless, it’s something that I feel a lot of us lack when we're locked into one environment. Being on the road changes who I am, I feel myself become more confident, more decisive and a hell of a lot more patient. So when a layover appears in the cards, I embrace is as another opportunity to explore our world. While I had a few hours to roam about Zurich at sunrise and drank expensive coffee on route to my trip in Nepal, my most memorable layover took place some 10,000 km East of Switzerland.

I am lucky enough to have landed a career which allows me combine my passion of filmmaking and storytelling with travelling. (See my “Working for The Best Company on Earth” blog post, coming soon.) A week or so before my trip to film another adventure in Thailand I got a call from Chase, founder of The Bucketlist Lifestyle and a great friend.

"The Bucketlist Boys" Myself, Chase and Jerome in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Circa 2018.

“Hey Paynter, so I’m looking at various flights and I’ve got a few options for you.”

“Sure man, shoot.”

“How would you like a 8 hour layover in Tokyo on your way to Bangkok.”


I didn’t even hesitate. Japan had been one of my top travel destinations ever since I was young, I’d always been fascinated with Asia and it seemed like a great jumping off point. Tokyo is a legendary city and even getting to experience it for a few hours would be a unique experience. So with the flights booked and my trusty Wandrd Prvke 31L bag on my back stuffed with camera gear and clothes, I headed for Pearson airport.

I’d never been on a 12-hour flight before, so I prepped myself. Water, headphones, bag of nuts and enough Joe Rogan podcasts to last until the next ice age. I was ready. Having secured a window seat, although I prefer aisle seats for long flights due to my long and lanky legs, I settled in for the long haul over the Pacific. My first time heading to Asia, I was bursting with energy. This is probably why when another passenger sat in the adjacent aisle seat, I felt very social.

We began to chat, firstly over the fact that we dodged a bullet having a vacant middle seat which gave us both some relief. Then we started to share some details about ourselves. She was a girl in her mid-20’s from Tokyo who had been in Canada visiting some friends but was now heading back to her homeland. She then asked me why I was heading to Japan. I told her my final destination was Bangkok, but I had a 8 hour layover in Tokyo with time to kill. She suggested that we meet up and tour around the city and she could show me some of her favourite spots.

I was super grateful, having a local guide would truly come in handy and it would be interesting experiencing the city through her perspective. I then began scrolling through the in-flight movie selections and found one of my classics, Lost In Translation. At this moment it felt more than justified to watch it again for the fifth time. My seat partner asked me what I was watching and as I mentioned the title she rolled her eyes. “You know Tokyo isn’t really like that, it’s a bit over the top in the film.” I shook my head at her comments, I wasn’t going to let her spoil my moment to be Bill Murray.

After exchanging numbers, she soon after fell asleep and knowing my curse of not being able to sleep on flights, I busted out my trusty MacBook Pro and began to organize footage from my previous trip to Peru. With Adobe Premiere and my noise-cancelling headphones, my first mega-flight was a breeze.

Having landed in Haneda Airport in the evening, I strolled past baggage claim and ventured out into the airport’s foyer. Now I know everybody talks about the complicated and overwhelming subway system, but I actually found it very intuitive and in no time made my way into the heart of Tokyo. Emerging onto the streets I’m not sure what I expected, perhaps a rush of light from some overhanging neon signs, or the inviting smells from a local izakaya, hell, maybe even a sighting of a Bill and Scarlett Doppelgänger roaming the city.

What I actually found, was peace. I’m not joking. I’d never seen a more organized and quiet mass of people carrying on with their lives. Coming from Toronto, which is a bustling mess at times, the tranquility and respect of the Japanese culture really washed over me for the first time. Although I probably stood out carrying a large bag and wearing a sweaty t-shirt among these corporate workers, nobody batted an eye towards me. I felt invisible, which is an incredibly refreshing and peaceful feeling.

That was until a group of tourists rolled by driving go-karts dressed as Nintendo characters, although it did provide some levity in contrast to my surroundings. I roamed amongst the workers until I got a call on my phone. It was the girl from the plane. (From here on now let’s just call her Scarlett in order to fulfill my fantasy) She asked where I was, I told her I wasn’t too sure then I heard her giggle then say, “Come on, let’s get you to Shibuya.”

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

One of the many neon signs that dot the streets of Tokyo

Jumping back underground after purchasing a warm green tea from Tokyo’s famous street vending machines, I squeezed onto a crowded subway car and made my way towards one of the hearts of Tokyo. Stepping out of the station and into Shibuya was a moment I’ll never forget, the energy in the air was palpable and my heart was racing. As locals and tourist alike whizzed past in a blur, Scarlett emerged from the crowds and walked towards me. “Welcome to Shibuya.” Holy shit, I thought to myself, I actually made it here and with t-minus 6 hours to my flight to Bangkok, there was still time to explore this beast of a city.

First off, I had to make the journey across the legendary Shibuya crossing, where hordes of people merge together. Some actually have a destination, others just do it for the thrill and the photo op. After getting some footage of the crossing and taking a time lapse from the Starbucks that overlooks the crossing, Scarlett suggested we go grab a drink. I wasn’t expecting her to stroll into a local convenience store, but soon after she emerged with two cans of beverage. One, a strong vodka pear concoction, the other a traditional Japanese beer.

Shibuya Views

After downing our drinks on the street, my eyes wandered over to the flashing neon lights of an arcade. My Lost in Translation (delusion) fantasy was pulling me in once again as I convinced Scarlett to humour me and join in on the fun. The arcade was bustling with cute local girls handing out game coupons, lanky teens trying to win neon plush toys at claw machines, tourists racing each other at a Mario Kart simulator and now yours truly with full Murray mode engaged. Scarlett was exchanging our Yen for tokens as I looked over all of the options.

My eyes locked into one game in particular, I was laughing to myself as I strolled over. Scarlett came back with a handful of shiny tokens and inquired about the cheeky grin on my face. I gestured toward the game, “Do you remember this one from the movie?” She analyzed it for a few seconds, then palmed her face. “It’s the exact same one from the scene where Bill and Scarlett are running through the arcade!” I couldn’t hold my excitement in, this whole layover was beginning to feel like a dream.

Scarlett just had to giggle at this zany Westerner she somehow ended up with and then took her place beside me as I fed the machine some tokens. The game in question was a drumming challenge where two players went head to head smashing these drums to a particular beat while cute animated fruits danced around the screen taunting you if you were off-beat. The two of us hammered away to fast-paced Asian pop songs and were laughing the whole time, as the fruits on-screen mocked us for our poor timing. After I decisively beat in her a shoot-out game where two players hold a fake pistol and take out targets on screen, she asked: where to next?

A couple shots from the VR Arcade and one of Shibuya's many alleyways

There was no doubt I was craving some of Japan’s famous grub, but I also wanted to utilize the time to see as much as possible. She suggested Tokyo tower, which would give a great overview of the prefecture. After Scarlett attempted to pick up my bag, stating: “How the hell do you carry this thing?” We made our way towards the hazy orange tower in the distance.

Tokyo tower from afar

Standing underneath the structure was a total trip. Analyzing the architecture of crossing beams and supports blew my mind, it’s truly an incredible piece of engineering. Taking the elevator up, a friendly local guide explained the history of the tower and graciously bowed his head as we stepped out onto the observation deck. The view was breath-taking, the sprawl of the city was endless as coloured lights peppered the landscape as far as the eye could see. It’s truly a mega-city and I was humbled and grateful to be in its presence. Scarlett and I took in the views together but a sharp alarm on my phone spoiled the moment. It was time to head back to the dreaded airport.

I bid the city farewell as I took the elevator back down to earth. Scarlett walked me back to a local subway stop as I expressed my gratitude for her and said if she’s ever in Toronto to call me, I owed her one. We hugged goodbye and she melted back into the Tokyo crowds. I sighed and shook myself back into travel mode, time to get to where I’m going.

One of the views of the sprawl from Tokyo Tower

The train ride to the airport and the flight were uneventful, (although I did have some amazing airport sushi at Haneda) and eventually I landed in Bangkok around 6:30 am local time. After meeting up with Jerome, my good friend and one of the trip’s guides, we made our way into the madness of Thailand as we caught up with each other.

By the time I crashed out that night, I had been awake and moving non-stop for almost 50 hours. One would think my body would’ve punished me, but to be honest I had never felt better. I drifted to sleep to visions of neon signs and Scarlett with a smile on my face and a promise to make it back to Tokyo, but this time, not Lost in Translation.

Candid Shot of Yours truly- Shibuya, Tokyo

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