Jimmy Lau is co-founder and creative director of accessories brand Stuart & Lau; his partner in that business is Matthew Stuart.
In his 20s, Lau's first career was as a consultant, mostly working in China to help foreign retailers enter that market. Lau then opted to start his own fashion company as a self-taught designer of bags and briefcases. (He credits hours spent at his mother's side while she used her sewing machine as his real-world schooling.) His reasoning was simple: Neither he nor Stuart, both traveling constantly in their previous careers, could find a briefcase that was equal parts tough and stylish enough to tote everywhere. So they started making them.
Lau lives in Tokyo and has been a United Airlines loyalist for a decade or so, having logged at least 75,000 miles in the air—and plenty more on the ground, as he's fond of taking the train whenever he can.
Here are Lau’s travel hacks.
Travelers should pack two wallets. Here's why.
Bring a decoy wallet if you're going to a place where pickpockets are known to be more active. I've taken a cheap Velcro one, put a few dollars in there, and it replaces my regular wallet. If it gets stolen, there's no loss, right? You're not crying over losing your valuables. In more dense areas, I just carry a card case with one credit card and enough cash for a day to get around. If I'm just flying into a country, I will have a money belt on me, one that goes around the waist because it's easier to access.
Carrying coffee-making equipment is a ritual and an opportunity.
I enjoy the whole process and ritual because it's continuity when I find myself abroad. I always keep that routine for my first day after arriving. My coffee kit is usually a Krups coffee grinder. It’s super packable, no-frills, with one setting. And then I have a pour-over drip coffee filter, a red plastic cone. I don't have any preference for coffee as long as it's fresh. I usually take any kind of gourmet coffee from a shop in New York. But one of the souvenirs I bring back is coffee: When I return [from somewhere], I always back the local beans from there.
Forget Shibuya and Shinjuku.
Longtime Tokyoite Lau has some insider alternatives.
If you're into vintage shopping, Koenji is the central hub for that. There are secondhand shops dotted throughout the entire town; that's where the locals go to shop. Try Safari and Treasure Style Factory. There's good coffee culture in Shimokitazawa. Every time I go, I have an espresso at Bear Pond—they're fantastic and well known. But I also like Bookends Coffee Service.
Go past Beijing and Shanghai: The most compelling corner of China might surprise you.
Go to Yunnan in southwest China, which borders other South Asian countries, like Laos and Vietnam. You have a huge temperature difference when you're down there between the rain forests, with a more equatorial climate, and the snowcapped mountains when you start traveling further north. A lot of China's indigenous minorities are also located around there, and they keep a lot of their customs and traditions. When you're in the major cities in China, and surrounded by Han [people], it all feels the same; but when you step out into southwest China and see these minorities, you get a sense of how vast China is, and how the cultures are so different from what you're familiar with via the Han Chinese. Everyone is extremely welcoming, and traveling from town to town by foot, hiking the same trails the villagers use, is still very much the way to get around. There's a long history of the villagers opening up their homes for hikers to stay each night in the village as they travel through, allowing you a glimpse into a completely different way of life. Go in the winter or fall, though, because then the southern parts are not as hot.
Lau's a coffee obsessive, and he uses that passion as an entry point to anywhere he visits.
Coffee culture is so different around the world, and it gives you a window into local lives. It's a great way to get just a nice view into [everyday] life. Take Vietnam. In New York, Vietnamese coffee is just like condensed milk: strong, sweet. But when I was in Vietnam, I experienced their local specialty, where they make it with an egg yolk. It comes out frothy and creamy. And Vietnam has great instant coffee, too.
Traveling solo, this is the meal where you can make friends most easily.
I definitely think having conversations over breakfast is something that comes probably more naturally. At night, when people are probably in their own parties, it's a little more intrusive [to talk], I guess. But breakfast is such a local custom that it's easy to just point to that, ask the stranger next to you, "Oh, what are you eating? What are you having? That looks interesting." That's how I've got a bunch of great local travel tips.
There's nowhere better to ski than Japan.
I love skiing in Japan. The snow is super fresh and deep. And the ski resorts are immaculately run. In the middle of the slopes they have these stations where you can stop and grab a snack or a meal; they set up little vendors inside these food depots. And then there are hot baths, onsens, at the resorts, so you can avail yourself of that after a long ski. And they're staffed [mostly] by Australians for some reason, so language is not a problem. Everything is just super-efficient, very peaceful, and the mountain slopes are never that crowded. There's really no factor that makes it a bad experience. Niseko on Hokkaido Island is one of my favorite places to ski, too. Stay at Hotel Niseko Alpen, which is just at the foot of the hills, and have some curry at Tsubara Tsubara or noodles at Rakuchi Soba.
Lau has traveled to 20 of China's 23 provinces, almost entirely by train . He wholeheartedly recommends it over flying.
The train is the only way you can travel and still get to admire the scenery at the same time; long-distance buses usually run overnight, so you don't get a view at all. I always opted for second class in China, where you're in the train cabin with everyone: three tiers of bunks. I enjoyed that because you're mingling with the locals. It's almost like a rite of passage if you've been a long-time traveler or resident in China. Talking about that and experiencing it is something that I think every expat has done before. The route I appreciated most was from Xiamen to Yunnan, which was about 35 hours. You basically see the scenery changing from flat farmland to this super elevation, thousands of kilometers above sea level.