Re-launching Hans Around Tokyo

Re-launching Hans Around Tokyo
This clean-up was long overdue.

Welcome back

Hi there! Thanks for checking out the blog. If you've visited before, you may notice that a few things have changed around here since you last stopped by. Along with the obvious visual overhaul, I'm also making a few changes to this websites focus and future direction. This post is an attempt to summarize those changes and my motivation behind them. If you care to learn more, just scroll further. If not, and you'd rather look at some photos of Japan, feel free to check out some older posts instead, like this one about a recent trip to Morioka.

Change in focus

This site got started around three-and-a-half years ago when I first moved to Japan (specifically, Tokyo - duh). Back then, I wanted a place to share brief updates of life in the big city with friends and family, and I was as little a fan of the big platforms --such as Instagram and Twitter-- as I am today. I just needed something easy and accessible that I could manage myself. So, I set up a WordPress site and slapped on a simple, picture-friendly theme. Content-wise, there was little regard for curation. The majority posts were essentially a handful of quick snaps from recent trips, a few words summarizing where we went, and that the weather was nice. Over time, the site devolved into somewhat of a personal Instagram knock-off. Read the words or don't, it doesn't really matter.

That content just doesn't fit anymore. It's not what I want to publish (this site has been dormant for most of 2022 because not even I was excited to post on here anymore) and, more importantly, I don't think it's what people would visit this site for. Heck, thanks to generative AI tools like Midjourney, if you want to see pretty pictures of Japanese scenery, you might as well /imagine them yourself.  You don't need me for that.

If I am to continue this blog, it has to be with a stronger emphasis on real™ experiences behind the pretty pictures. That is what makes them meaningful to me. That is what I intend to put out there. On one hand, that means putting more focus on writing. On the other hand, it means diversifying the content. If you scroll through the archives, you will find that the vast majority of old posts have a reading time of 1-2 minutes. "Short and sweet", you might call it. Or you could call it lazy. Going forward, I plan for most of the posts on here to get closer to the 5-10 minute mark. Don't get me wrong, there is still going to be photos and I'm pretty sure I'll write about photography a bunch, too. But it's supposed to be one part of the content you'll find here, not the only thing. These photos should be curated and embedded in a proper form, be it a short photo essay or something else, to make them worthwhile.

Of course, that comes with increased effort, but I hope the end result will be more interesting. In any case, a stronger focus on writing forces me to challenge myself, to think about the stories I want to tell and how I want to tell them. These blog posts should not just be a pretty diary, but should also be an informative, entertaining, or otherwise valuable read for you. Ideally, they can be something that you would enjoy looking back on, even in a few years from now. I hope that I'll manage to churn out one of those puppies per week but, y'know, life gets in the way and if there is no story, then there's no point in publishing something.

Changes under the hood

As mentioned earlier, the old site used to run on WordPress. And just like my intentions for this blog, so did the whole Wordpress thing go off the rails at some point. The system itself offers more than I would ever need from a content management system, but once you add the plugin ecosystem it becomes too much, distractingly so. Add to that the frustrations some of these plugins can introduce and you really lose any will to write in it. (At one point I found myself manually fixing image URLs after a plugin for auto-resizing/lazy-loading images had made a server migration go awry.)

Naturally, I was looking to simplify. I needed a system that I can setup and forget (and perhaps maintain with a few bash scripts in the back). Also, I'd much rather write in something like Markdown, retain and archive the raw content separately, and then publish through a relatively lightweight CMS. After weighing my options for a while, I decided to go with Ghost which, as it turns out, has matured quite a bit since I discovered it  several years back. What eventually convinced me about it, aside from the markdown support and simplified publishing experience overall, was the built-in support for memberships and newsletters. You heard it right, you can now sign up with your email address to become a member of Hans Around Tokyo and be notified about latest posts and other updates. More information on exactly what to expect to follow in a future post. What is certain, is that I won't bombard you with spam, and that you can cancel your subscription as easy as you signed up for it at any time.

Way down under the hood, I also transferred the entire site from DigitalOcean to AWS, because the package of EC2 hosting + SES email is hard to beat. If you ever tried setting up email delivery on the web, you know that it can be quite tedious and/or expensive. Integrating Ghost with AWS was really simple though, and the free email quota that you get out-of-the-box should be more than enough for a while. I'm still toying around with the idea to also use Amazon's CDN in order to optimize content delivery, but for now it just works.

Wrapping up

If you made it all the way down here, first off, thank you for taking the time. I appreciate you visiting the site and caring so much that you read through this meta article. Suffice to say that I'm excited about this project (again), and that I can't wait to start writing (properly). There are several stories lined up, so there shouldn't be a shortage of content any time soon. I'd be delighted if you join me!