We always complain about having not enough time, and now for many of us, this COVID situation (not to diminish its tragedy) has gifted us an absolute ambiance of that time we’re always asking for.
With the modern obsessions with self-optimization and existential crises about feeling unproductive, we’re seeing sourdough loaves showcased across social media platforms, 10-minute yoga routines hitting peak streaming numbers, and bananas are being baked into bread like it’s going out of style.
I’m far from immune to the whole situation. Since the lockdown, I’ve discovered a passion for making my crackers, cookies, and muesli bars. I’m doing a yoga routine every morning, and my tiny Tokyo apartment balcony is now being invaded by a mini tomato, herb and cucumber garden.
But, what would happen if I took my near neurotics need for feeling ‘productive’ to a whole new level. What if I pack in a mega marathon mission of self-improvement? Well, the Tokyo Survival Challenge asked me to do just that.
The challenge’s premise was simple but loosely defined: In 24 hours, I need to try and ‘master’ 24 new skills. Each hour for one hour starting on the hour (or thereabouts). No sleep. This was my skill kit:
The skills were a random selection of requests from my editors Hiro and Melinda (thank you both) as well as requests from friends on social media, and some just simple skills I’ve wanted to learn but never made the time.
While the term ‘master’ became a little ambiguous, I decided ‘complete’ or at least ‘try’ would suffice. So from 9 am on a Saturday, until 9 am Sunday, I was on a skills rampage.
This is an hour-by-hour, skill-by-skill rundown of my spiral into self-contained insanity. Oh, and I decided to live-stream it all on Facebook and Instagram because in 2020 if you don’t publically broadcast your self-improvement achievements, were they even achieved?
9:00 – Dalgona coffee
Along with banana bread and sourdough from scratch, one of the biggest viral stars of at least the early days of COVID-19 was dalgona coffee. A frothy mix of milk, sugar, and instant coffee, the drink was born in cafes in Korea, but with the rise of Tik Tok, thousands have been uploading mini-DIY tutorials, and it looks pretty easy promoting many to give it a go at home.
So I joined in. It’s just sugar, instant coffee, and warm water, but the trick is all in the technique, you’ve got to whisk these three ingredients like a madman to acquire the frothy mousse-like texture of the coffee mix.
It literally took close to an hour to get the consistency close to what I’ve seen online, and it hurt! My biceps and forearm were practically jelly; by the time I’d poured the frothy mess into the cup, I didn’t even know if I had the strength to lift it to my mouth.
I managed, and you know what? I regret it; it tastes like getting a mouthful of burnt, ultra sweet instant coffee – which I guess that’s what it is – mixed with the milk, it’s drinkable, but only just. Do people really drink this, or is it just for the gram?
Dalgona coffee: Did it once. Won’t do again.
10:00 – Master the Kendama
Some people dedicate their lives to nailing kendama tricks, and I knew that becoming a master was not within the realm of possibility within an hour. So I decided that if I can get all the catches – big cup, little cup, bottom cup, and spike – done in a row, that’s mission completed.
While the kendama is challenging at times, there’s something oddly addictive about it. Almost like trying to win big at the slot machines, all those near misses and close calls just make you want to again and again until you get the ball in that cup and take in the dopamine hit.
I – and my challenge partner Yuri (above) – managed after just under an hour to complete the challenge, which honestly felt great. In fact, I was having so much fun I barely noticed how much I was squatting, and as a result, my thighs burned for days after.
Kendama: Maybe not the coolest, but a lot of fun and good exercise. Will do it again!
11:00 – Make a bag with newspaper
A friend of mine from social media @HelloSandwich is a bit of a master crafter. When I put out the call, she suggested I try making a bag using paper, and on her blog, she had instructions on how to do it.
I’m always looking for new ways to reduce my plastic consumption, so being able to craft a little newspaper bag that could be used for all sorts of things – from gifts to emptying my coffee grinds into – sounded like a handy little skill to learn.
While I did have some trouble following the instructions, which I will say were because of my propensity always to want to jump ahead, all in all, it went well! My bag was even strong enough to hold a full bottle of wine. Hurrah!
Paperbag: Yep cute, nailed it.
12:00 – Braid hair
I’ve never been the most feminine girl, and I’ve had the same haircut for what seems like a decade, so I never learned how to braid hair. Wanting to learn from the best, I asked Yuri, who is not only a professional hairdresser but also has incredible hair herself to teach me.
Again my inability to follow instructions somewhat thwarted this activity. However, Yuri was super patient, and by the end, I’d gotten into the rhythm of it and managed to weave out a little tragic braid, so the mission completed, but still definitely not mastered.
Braiding hair: Let’s just say I’ll never be a hairdresser.
13:00 – Learn how to Yodel
This was another request from a friend; I guess they just wanted to watch me embarrass myself, which I did successfully. The yodeling wasn’t so successful, though. I can’t sing at all; I don’t know how I thought I was going to be able to do this!
From the youtube videos, I learned you have to ‘break your voice’ to hit the yodel notes. I felt like I managed to tear something in my throat, but no luck with the yodel itself to be fair. Lately I’ve been hearing the neighbours cats going at it all night, howling and yowling, I’m starting to think it’s some long running payback for this aural nightmare of an hour.
14:00 – Tik Tok dance
Everyone’s current favorite self-isolation -distractions/ self broadcasting app Tik Tok is practically built on these dances. So many people upload videos of their meticulously choreographed moves, the platform has given birth to its own dance genre.
Multiple people requested I try this, so my friend Rachel is an incredible dancer, and it takes her about an hour to lock down a new Tik Tok dance. We tried ‘Renegade’ (look it up on Tik Tok), and it was incredibly difficult. Once you feel you have the moves memorized, it’s nothing compared to trying to do it with the music, which is ridiculously fast.
Tik Tok dance: I was terrible, but good for a laugh.
15:00 – DIY facemask
With a shortage of facemasks going around, people are staying to DIY, and there are some incredibly easy and practical tutorials out there. I followed one handkerchief company Kawabe posted on their Instagram. It was simple, straightforward, and it worked! Nice. I can say this is a skill I mastered.
Facemask: Easy and practical! I’ll just use a thinner handkerchief next time.
16:00 – Poach the perfect egg
I’ve heard legends about home cooks who can nail the perfect poached egg, but I’ve never been able to do it. I’m Australian, and nobody appreciates a good breakfast quite like us Aussies. I’ve probably spent a ridiculous amount of money on excellent poached eggs from bougie brunch shops, and now that I can’t leave the house, it’s time I do it myself.
I tried several methods, from adding vinegar to creating a whirlpool, and in the end, had about three egg casualties. My final result came from slowly submerging the egg into the boiling water using a ladle.
Poached egg: If cafe grade poached eggs is a 10, mine was a three max, but it was definitely an egg and definitely poached, so I passed.
17:00 – Origami
I have in a past life (when I was an English teacher hiding in the back office) taught myself to make a crane from memory, so we went for something a little more detailed, a teeny tiny t-rex. Hiro was so patient, and we did it! With a bit of imagination, you could tell it was a t-rex.
Origami: My lines were pretty wonky, but I’m working on it.
18:00 – Open a beer bottle with a lighter
This is a life skill I’ve wanted to master for a long time now. Being the person who can artfully crack open a nice cold beer on a hot summer’s day is a superpower, well, at least in my eyes.
My friend Alana and I spoke about being able to do this a while ago when we were both thirsty and unable to do it. After moving back to Australia, she managed to learn the masterful art of cracking a cold one, living in the land of Asahi cans I never had the opportunity to learn. I got her to call me in and walk me through the process. Through sheer force and desperation, I managed to crack it, but it was not thanks to any skill.
Bottle opener: I’ll keep trying, if only as an excuse to drink more beer.
19:00 – Headstand
While this was suggested to me, in my heart of hearts, I’ve never felt the drive to learn this one. I just don’t think I’d be that impressed if I saw someone do it at a party or something. It seems kind of showy and attainable in my humble opinion.
I watched a yoga video and tried to follow along. Ok, it was harder than I thought. Also, I learned I have a neck made of jelly. After my neck practically collapsed under me the third time, I gave up.
Headstand: Almost broke my neck. Never again.
20:00 – Open a wine bottle with a shoe
Like the beer bottle opening trick, there’s something to me at least so admirable about those who can just pop a corked wine bottle right open with nothing more than a shoe and an artful swing against a sturdy wall.
I’d heard horror stories about people splitting their hand open on cracked glass trying to master this skill, so I bought a pair of gloves and video-called in some back-up. My friend Gravy, who lives in Spain, is an avid wine drinker and a man of many talents, including this particular trick.
After about three bangs against my apartment wall – don’t worry, from the outside – I learned this is a trick best reserved for the rowdy European parties, not quieter Japanese apartments, I didn’t want to annoy the neighbors, so we adapted. Gravy taught me how to push a cork down into the bottle, which, with a careful pour, creates very little mess and leaves you with a glass full of wine. That’s a win.
Wine bottle: I won’t do the shoe trick again, but the cork push down method is definitely in my party repertoire.
21:00 – Learn how to play mahjong
When I used to work for a company that had an office in a Japanese department store, I used to walk by a room that was always humming with the click-clack of mahjong bricks being flicked and swamped by endless rows of tables populated by grandpas in a collective state of meditative focus.
I don’t ever play any games in general apart from the odd UNO match, so I wanted to learn. I called my friend Nicola who ran me through the process on a terrible downloaded app version of the game. While I was not prepared, she was super patient, and by the end of the hour, I had the general rules down.
Mahjong: Yeah, it was surprisingly a lot of fun! I want to join the grandpa mahjong squad now.
22:00 – Learn a bass progression
I really just wanted an excuse to call another one of my friends and rope them into this silly 24 scheme. So I called on my friend Marty, who’s a bit of a low-key celebrity in Japan now, he’s a double bass playing rocketship traveling chef on a children’s program on NHK. He’s also an incredibly talented jazz musician.
Using chopsticks as our percussion instruments, Marty taught me how to rock the ‘clave’ a three four-beat usually used in jazz and Cuban music. I don’t think you can master any musical skills in an hour, but if anyone ever needs a back-up chopsticks player, get in touch!
Bass progression: I’m no musician but can play the odd clave on the chopsticks now.
23:00 – Starbucks butterscotch coffee jelly latte
Now that Starbucks stores across Japan are officially shut, I’m going to have to find alternative ways to get my sugary caffeine hit. This challenge was another suggestion from TSC’s very own Hiro – so that you for the suggestion. I couldn’t find a recipe for the product online and, to be honest, had never even tasted the butterscotch latte before. I made do with what I could find at home: butter, sugar coffee jelly, milk, spray cream, and old coffee from the pot.
I didn’t think it was that bad! But I also had been getting into the bottle of red wine I opened earlier and drank the beer, so my taste was compromised.
Latte: Yeah, ok, I drank it all, but I don’t know if I’d serve it to a friend.
0:00 – Owl whistle sound
At school, it seemed like everyone knew a kid who could do this whistle. You know the one that sounds kind of like if a cartoon owl and a steam train had a love child. I’ve dabbled in giving this a go but never really gave it my attention or focus, so I decided it’s now or never.
The tutorials online were particularly useless, so I tried to go by feel, desperately adjusting my mouth over the little gap in thumbs to get the angle just so. I failed for about 55 minutes by which I was super light-headed and getting slightly delirious, but I persisted, and in the last minutes, I had it!
It wasn’t good, but it was definitely the sound. I’m sure there’s a message in here somewhere about persistence paying off by this time, I was too tired/ dizzy from lack of oxygen/ tipsy to figure out what that message was.
Owl sound: I’ve tried it a few times since with a 40% success rate.
1:00 – Tear an apple in half with bare hands
When a friend suggested this, I thought it was just so ridiculous it had to be added. Plus, if you did meet someone and they pulled off a clean snap of an apple, you can’t deny that it would be impressive.
Without doing any research before this moment, I picked up a bag of apple from the market a day or two before. There were some tutorials online, but I later learned that the apples I bought were far too big and too crispy to attempt this feat. So I cut it in half.
After nearly bustling a blood vessel through sheer effort, I decided to let this one be.
Apple trick: Let’s say successfully failed.
2:00 – Alphabet backward
I don’t know when you’d be able to show this one off because it’s probably a lame skill to brag about, but who knows, somewhere someday it may be a novel little trick to pull out. While by now I was losing my mind, it wasn’t that hard to remember if you break the letters down into this pattern:
ABC backward: enod ysae pey – that’s ‘yep easy done’ backward.
3:00 – Water drop sound with cheek
Ok, same as the owl whistle, there’s always someone who can do this. I wanted to be that someone. But now I was exhausted, I just kept flicking because the tutorials no longer made sense to my brain. There’s really not much else to say.
Waterdrop: I think I failed, I don’t know? I don’t even really remember doing it.
4:00 – How to tie three essential knots
I’d lost my mind by now, just going through the motions. I tied the knots, but my brain was twisted too.
Tying the knot: (k)not my finest hour.
5:00 – The Paprika (パプリカ)
When I saw this on the suggested list, I didn’t know what the paprika (パプリカ) was, but once I heard the song, it ticked some memory nerve in my brain. I swear I’ve heard it before but don’t know where. Did I see schoolgirls practice the dance in Yoyogi Park?
Anyway, it felt more like a Rajio-Taiso morning exercise routine going through the motions as the sun was just on the cusp of peaking. I’m almost at the finish line, I still have a little more in me, and while I couldn’t remember the moves like at all, I felt determined.
Paprika (パプリカ): It’s cute, but I’m not going to take the moves to the club.
6:00 – Cook a muffin in a mug
By now, I was getting hungry, so I was looking forward to this little breakfast muffin treat. Egg, sugar, and some other ingredients I forget plus 2 minutes in the microwave and ‘tada’ there you have it a little muffin that smells like an onsen and has the consistency of a futon.
Muffin: Ok, I ate it, but probably wouldn’t make again.
7:00 – Spoon nose balancing
By now, the exhaustion had really and truly kicked in. I was so close. Initially, I was going to learn how to do the worm, but living in a second-floor apartment, I thought the banging at 7 am might piss off the neighbors. Plus, I needed something easy on my fragile body. I’d never done this spoon trick before, so decided to try it out, while not impressive, it was easy, and cool and soothing on the skin.
Spoon trick: Just what I needed.
8:00 – Bottlecap challenge
The final challenge: I wanted something grand, a climatic a big leap and a swift kick. So like all the action celebrities were doing a little while back, I decided to undertake the bottlecap challenge – with one swift kick, take the cap clean off the bottle. Surprisingly with no practice and a whole five minutes of research on the internet, this one was incredibly easy. Maybe I was doing something wrong? Anyway, no time for questions, time for bed!
Bottlecap: I don’t get the hype; if I can do it, anyone can.
Reflection: Did I hit the peak of self-optimization??
In the end, what did I learn from this exercise? I learned that while in times of isolation, sharing a few laughs with friends virtually is a great way to try and alleviate stress, I also learned live streaming is tough, (I don’t know how all those folk on Twitch do it).
But I guess the biggest lesson was that while we may be bombarded with messaging about seizing this moment, using it to grow and become better that there’s a lot of pressure to self-optimize, but don’t push yourself or you will burn out. Take care!