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Solo travel: 7 lessons from a trip to Tokyo

Travelling alone can mean more confusion and stress, but also more opportunities to have incredible experiences and meet new people

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By The Washington Post | October 3, 2019 | Travel Leisure

Natalie B. Compton, The Washington Post

It was barely five in the morning when I realized I made the first mistake of my trip to Japan. I'd left the laptop (that I needed to work remotely) behind at home, and only discovered the nightmare when I was more than halfway to the airport. Travel upsets two and three came later - some my fault, others out of my control. The only thing that comforted me was the fact that I was travelling alone.

If I were travelling with others, things would have been exponentially more complicated. But forgetting important things? My problem alone. Flight delays? My stress alone. Holding up the line at immigration because I didn't write down my Airbnb address correctly? My shame alone.

The discomfort is part of the allure. Despite those early-morning hiccups, I eventually made it to Japan. My fifth trip to the country. I love to travel by myself anywhere, but I think Japan in particular is one of the best places on the planet for solo travellers because, in many ways, the country is optimized for solo success.

You can nestle into a solitary routine without judgment. In the morning, you're not some person sitting by yourself at breakfast. You're one of eight sitting by themselves at breakfast. In the evening, you're just another solo bather at the public hot spring. You can eat alone, drink alone, see a baseball game alone. Doing things on your own here is standard.

That doesn't mean traveling alone in Japan is always easy. Like anything, travelling by yourself comes with its own highs and lows. But there are lessons that can help you navigate the challenges.

-Fight the urge to get on your phone when you're feeling shy.

The smartphone is the perfect travel companion. It's there when you're lost, providing a map to guide you home. It's there when you're lonely, connecting you with friends and family at home with a few taps. It's there when you're bored, offering you infinite ways to pass the time.

But if I give into the siren song of my iPhone, I won't talk to anyone new. They're not going to want to talk to me, either. From my experience, strangers in Tokyo will generally respect your privacy and leave you alone unless they get the sense you'd like to chat - unlike my experiences in American dive bars or Scottish pubs, where the default is for locals to strike up conversation.

After two snack dinners during my first full night in Tokyo, I walked back to my home-base neighborhood with a nightcap in mind. I ambled around until I spotted a bar entrance that looked like a theme-park version of a dungeon. Bernard Herrmann's "Twisted Nerve" played eerily as I ascended the nearly pitch-black staircase up to the second-floor bar. Walking into the smoky unknown felt like being in an old Western movie - that cliche scene where the new guy walks through the saloon doors and the piano stops. I eased myself onto a teetering stool at the bar.

My first inclination wasn't to talk to the other customers. What was stronger was the urge to get out my phone and hide inside its glowing warmth. Doing so would have cut me off from the people curiously glancing at me, seemingly the only American in this pseudo-dungeon. So I stared - straightforward, sometimes at the bottles on the back bar, sometimes at the decor. I had a mini smile plastered on my face to tell the others, "Hey! I'm friendly!"

My approach worked. I placed a drink order in English but peppered in what Japanese I know, alerting the bar that I couldn't speak the local language but was sociable and would try. The bartender then asked me where I'm from, and with my answer, another bar patron asked me what I was doing in Japan. A drink later, he was telling me about a woman from Okinawa he had a crush on, asking me for dating advice.

Afternoon light falls on festivalgoers at Awa Odori. Image: Irwin Wong

-Accept that no matter how hard you try to fit in, you're going to stand out.

Sometimes I'll have the confidence to walk right into a place, like a dungeon bar, without too much thought. Other times, I'll circle the block a thousand times, then worry that someone might have noticed that I've been circling the block. I've walked into establishments, panicked at how small or crowded or confusing they were, and turned around to leave as quickly as I came. I have done this, feeling like a loser, on about a thousand occasions.

In case it wasn't already clear, I have a tendency to overthink things when I'm traveling alone. Normal activities like choosing a restaurant become paralyzing obstacles. Suddenly I feel more like a burden than a customer. Is the staff going think I'm a hassle because I can't speak or read Japanese? But between me and the server or chef, I'm probably the only one panicking. I try to remember this when I finally wince my way into a restaurant to eat.

Street snacks at a festival in Koenji: bacon-wrapped lettuce and fried chicken. Image: Natalie Compton

Sure, you may be treated differently as a tourist. There are places in Tokyo that cater only to regulars or are only open to paying members. A business would rather nurture its relationship with local regulars, making sure a spot is waiting for that dependable customer, than take a risk on a foreigner who may never come back again. Don't take it personally if they turn you away. There are more restaurants and bars in Tokyo than you could ever get to in a lifetime of eating and drinking to get upset over one.

Knowing that doesn't always stop the self-consciousness from making me anxious while traveling. When that doubt strikes, try to acknowledge the feeling and move forward. Once you rip off the Band-Aid, and just respectfully and politely do the thing you're worried about, everything will be fine.

-Frequent self-service restaurants.

If anxiety is really getting the best of you, seek out environments that are especially catered toward isolated experiences. In Tokyo, that meant visiting self-service restaurants.

Things generally feel more efficient in Japan, and that includes dining. You'll find restaurants with automation systems or vending-machine ordering all over town, eliminating the need for full service.

They also eliminate a lot of the difficulty of eating at a restaurant as a foreigner. Simply walk up to the vending machine, place your order, pay with cash (or a Tokyo public transportation card like Pasmo if you have one) and hand your receipt to available restaurant staff. They'll bring you your food when it's ready. No confusion over the check. If you have questions about what to order, choose the top left item on the vending machine. Restaurants will usually put their best-known dish in that location.

Natalie Compton browses a festival debating what to eat. Image: Irwin Wong

-Talk to everyone and go with the flow.

A friend of mine once mentioned that trying to meet strangers on a solo trip felt like cheating. Aren't you supposed to be alone? As an extrovert, I disagreed. Traveling alone enables you to do whatever you'd like, whenever you'd like. It's indulgent, but it doesn't have to be isolated. I feed off of people and conversation.

So when a friend put me in touch with his friend who lived in Tokyo, I was filled with joy. A human being! To talk to! On my way back to my Airbnb one night, I got a message from him inviting me to hang out. My joy was coupled with hesitation. Sometimes these types of meetings go perfectly; you connect easily and see why you have your mutual friend in the first place. But it can also feel like an awkward first date.

With that risk in mind, I went to meet the stranger. My goal when traveling alone is to be a human piece of driftwood, going with the flow to see what happens. I try to say yes to everything.

At the bar, the friend of my friend introduced me to more people in his group. We all got along fast. A drink later, we moved on to a new place a few blocks away.

A woman in the group asked me if I'd been afraid traveling alone in Japan. In terms of safety, I hadn't at all. Tokyo is regularly ranked the safest city in the world. But of course, safety isn't always guaranteed, particularly as a woman. You have to be aware of your surroundings wherever you go and make a judgment call on whether the rewards outweigh the risks. Pay attention to travel advisories, make sure to check in with friends or family members during your trip, and trust your gut instinct. If a situation doesn't feel right, don't feel the pressure to stay.

The family area of Awa Odori with toys for sale, and a performance for kids going on nearby in Tokyo. Image: Irwin Wong

-Embrace language barriers. 

Traveling alone gets exponentially more challenging - and more interesting - when you don't speak the local language. You can't ask for directions casually. You can't read signs in shop windows. You can't understand what your taxi driver is trying to tell you. Language barriers can be part of the fun, or they can be deeply frustrating.

With enough hand gestures, you may be able to get your point across. Because it's 2019, technology also helps. In real-time, there's Google Translate and pocket translation devices, which aren't perfect but can be an aid. With a couple attempts at adjusting your phrasing, you can sometimes find success using such technology.

If you aren't conversationally fluent during your solo adventure, you could run into hurdles. But I've found that in most places, you get what you give. Initiating conversation using a few basic words or phrases shows others that you're making an effort, and it could even encourage people to try out their English with you. Before embarking on a trip, spend time beforehand practicing and absorbing as much of the local language as possible. Download a few language-specific apps to have on-hand, too.

I could have used more Japanese practice before my dinner at a high-end restaurant called Sushi Sugaya. It became clear pretty quickly after I sat down at the seven-seat restaurant that there would be no English spoken at the meal, which is to be expected when you're eating Japanese food in a Japanese restaurant in a Japanese city.

As each course was placed on the gorgeous Kiso hinoki cypress counter, the head chef, Takayuki Sugaya, explained in impenetrable Japanese what lay before us. My fellow diners were clearly impressed, nodding thoughtfully throughout the briefing. Meanwhile, guilt coursed through my veins with every new dish, fearing the chef might think his food was wasted on a foreigner who didn't understand.

In that setting, Google Translate wouldn't have worked. I would have killed the church-like mood of the experience and slowed down the service. It came in handy during more routine interactions, like when trying to buy things or asking specific questions.

When your translation apps fail you, stay patient and be flexible. Point to something on a menu and see what happens. Thank the person and try getting what you need somewhere else, or try to make your request more simple. Do your best to make your efforts work, but don't beat yourself up if they don't.

Natalie Compton navigates the trains. Google Maps was central to finding her way around them. That being said, good signage is all around the train stations to help tourists. Image: Irwin Wong

-Take public transportation. 

Although Google Translate can be spotty, Google Maps is a godsend in Tokyo, particularly when it comes to navigating public transportation. Because taxis are expensive in Tokyo and the city is huge, you'll probably find yourself on the train a lot. Google Maps will tell you exactly when the train is coming, what platform you need to be on, what car is best for transferring at your connecting stop and how full the train is likely to be (so you can avoid claustrophobia-inducing rush-hour train travel).

Even without Google's help, you can figure out the trains of Tokyo thanks to the ample signage at metro stations and attendants who might not speak English but are willing to help you, regardless. But using the app makes me feel a little more independent and a little less helpless. It's an opportunity to learn more about the day-to-day life and habits of people there.

An afternoon at the restaurants under the railways of Kōenji, Tokyo. Image: Irwin Wong

-Do as the Romans do, even if you might fail trying. 

Many of us are compelled to try to see a place like a local. We don't want to be the obvious tourist, sticking out with a paper map like a sore thumb. We want to find the hole in the wall. We want to fit in.

I am not able to do this in Tokyo. I'm clearly a foreigner there, and there are parts of Japanese culture that I'll never be able to replicate, although I try to fail to do so. Like when I tried to slurp ramen like the people around me, and immediately sent soup flying everywhere, scalding my face and legs with pork broth. I knew I was doing it wrong, I just wasn't sure how. With my next big slurp, I inhaled broth down the wrong pipe and started chocking on soup, which is even further from the way locals do it.

These lapses in blending in remind me that I will always be an outsider when I travel. You cannot shove a square peg into a round hole. What you can do is try your best not to be an offensive outsider, and emulate respectful behavior. You don't have to capture the subtle je ne sais quoi of a Parisian's chic wardrobe; just don't shove your way through the Louvre.

Travelling alone can mean more confusion and more stress, but also more opportunities to have incredible experiences and meet new people. You get a chance to learn things about yourself, to face fears, to have adventures to write home about or keep as your own travel secret. Do you want to sleep in until noon? Perfect. Do you want to walk 15 miles around a city? Great. There is no compromising to be done in a party of one. No keeping up or falling behind. You're the master of your domain.

Feature Image: Natalie Compton

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