I am told sometimes that I am brave for traveling, and then I am told, separately, that I am brave for sometimes traveling alone. I tend to be surprised at both of these statements, because this world is a pretty safe one and because, all told, I haven’t done much solo traveling.* I’m trying to change that balance, and I did a little of it on my most recent trip.
I spent most of my time in Japan with my best friend, but I rolled solo for the first couple of days. This, of course, meant arriving by myself with no one to meet me, something I haven’t done since I went to Iceland last year. Iceland is a well-oiled tourism machine; I was relying on Japan to be easy to navigate just because of the sheer density of things. A country can’t have so many people leading such productive lives if, say, getting from the airport to its most major city is a pain in the ass.
However, one of my now-cherished travel traditions is the Hallucinatory First Day. I have experienced this in Rejyjavik, Honolulu, Paris, and London, and I will write about it more fully at some point. For now, here’s the brief version: the Hallucinatory First Day is what happens when you arrive somewhere seven or more time zones away from what your biology is familiar with. Sleep-deprived from a long, likely uncomfortable flight, you arrive somewhere new and get to navigate an entirely different way of living while also being about 20 IQ points short of what you’re accustomed to.
The HFD has become one of my favorite parts of traveling. However, because I have seldom experienced it while traveling west, I wasn’t sure of what to expect.
I flew business class on the way there (something I’ll also go into greater detail about later), but I slept weirdly and warmly, and so I arrived tired and sweaty. On the way through the terminal, searching for my train into the city, I was approached by two women – one an interviewer, one a translator – and a person with a camera, where they interviewed me about my fashion.** Was I here on leisure? Yes. Was I, a fashion-forward person***, planning on going to Harajuku? Yes, it was a particular goal while I was here. What was my impression of Japanese fashion? Very avant-garde, very interesting, so often so big, bright, and daring. What did I know about Japan or its history?
While, in ordinary times, I have a decent-enough grasp of Japanese history, I have no idea of what I said at that point. Something about it being long and very interesting and quite distinctive from the rest of the world and did I mention a 10-hour flight had eaten my brain and I am not doing this justice, hahaha, oh god. Yes?
They released me after that. I was so out of it I forgot to ask what they were going to use the interview for. So, in a month or two, I will probably be featured in my own version of number four on this list, which will be called “The Inarticulate, Confused Gaijin.”
Free again, I followed the signs downstairs to the train, seeking something called the Skyliner. (Another train name highlight: the Romancecar, which took us from Tokyo toward Hakone.) And there, I said something that I only said one more time after that moment: “Eigo ga hanasemasu ka?” Of course the clerk spoke English. Her job is to deal with confused tourists. She sold me my ticket; I headed out.
It’s a strange thing, or it is to me, to arrive somewhere so far away with no one waiting for you. Beyond the feeling, generally not warranted, of fearing what could happen if you went unaccounted for for even a few minutes, there’s something poignant about not being expected or even necessarily wanted. It’s also the feeling of having no obligations, and that is the part to focus on.
The train zipped into Tokyo, and in just the first few minutes, I realized a good amount of what’s beautiful about Miyazaki’s work isn’t his imagination (although that is certainly it too). Part of it, for non-Japanese audiences, is his faithful and well-selected elements of Japanese life. The traditional houses, the three-quarter-sized trucks and vehicles – they’re just there. It’s a compact place. That’s just what it looks like.
I pressed my forehead gently to the train window and watched beautiful, unfamiliar territory go by, punctuated dramatically here and there by sakura.
I held this time carefully because, like the flight, I recognized that it was probably my last oasis of predictability for some time. At the end of the ride, I had to navigate buying a multi-line subway card (something seemingly only 15 percent of fare machines offer, and good luck picking which one) and the subway, and the skipping, blinking way of Google Maps in Japan, and, finally, my hostel. I have a review on there; in short, it says, “It’s not perfect, but it’s $25 a night in Tokyo, so whatever.”
My flight landed at three; I got to the hostel at about 5:30. At 5:45, I found myself hiding behind a curtain in my bed in a six-bunk hostel room.
I guess I’ve not talked about this before, but here’s a thing about me: when I travel alone, that first day – that first step outside – is incredibly difficult. My usually latent agoraphobic, meek tendencies come rushing to the forefront, leaving me in my hotel or bunk or AirBnB or whatever, hating myself and convinced that I am about to waste a ton of money and time and opportunity, and I am just a terrible weak person, and people are walking outside there like it’s no big thing, but I’m hiding inside, and I will clearly hide inside FOREVER until it’s time to slink in shame back to the airport.
This has happened in Reykjavik. And Rennes. And Paris. And now, it has happened in Tokyo.
I deal with this by setting small, achievable goals, designed through my knowledge of myself to lure myself outside to a proper experience. In Reykjavik, I breathed deeply, wrote in my journal, and told myself I had to walk outside by noon. In Rennes, I confessed my freaking out to Tom, who had just left for a business trip, and he invited me outside for a quick meeting at the train station before he was due to leave; since I would already be outside, my assignment to myself on the way home was to go to the grocery store and find greens and French milk. In Paris, I was still weary from my recent panic in Rennes, and it was enough to tell myself there was cheese outside waiting for me to eat it.
And in Tokyo, hiding in my Orange Is the New Black new arrival-style women’s bunk bed, I told myself that I had to go outside and find dinner. If I found food and still wanted to come back inside, I was allowed to. That was enough for a satisfactory day.
My first meal in Tokyo came from FamilyMart (I’ll get to that soon). I used yen for the first time and bought cheese, sushi, and pastries. Aglow with the feeling of functioning even minimally in a new place, I walked around Akihabara for an hour, watching the Friday-evening crowds emerge from offices and subway exits, shaking off work and drifting into the weekend. Pink-clad, blurry with weariness, and clutching my convenience store bag of food, I wandered among them. In Akihabara, I was amazed at how elegantly such large crowds of people walked past and around each other. Akihabara is apparently special, because I did not witness this pedestrian ballet anywhere else.
First nights are for low expectations. First nights are for fumbling with new cameras, taking ordinary pictures for the sake of documenting how new everything is.
Those stairs! They are so distinct and interesting. Whoa!
Those signs! I sure wish I liked anime, because I would be in business here. (Turns out that cartoons on signs and ads are very commonplace here, and the level of cuteness does not change with what is being advertised or said.)
That – wait, am I in Rennes? Paris? Bruges? What’s going on here?
(I would end up asking myself that question far more than I ever thought possible.)
Wow! I sure wish it wasn’t a uniquely terrible idea for me to consume alcohol right now! Because this looks like some kind of beautiful oasis!
I bought my food. I wandered for an hour, relearning how to listen to my gut, how to hear what delighted me and what felt like the small string that I could follow to find something beautiful. And then I walked back through the drinks machine-laden alleys to my hostel, where I ate my sushi in the park across from it. And there, I saw one of the first things that I truly, deeply loved about Tokyo.
This park, small and unmarked on Google Maps, is fine-grit gravel and a few pieces of playground equipment arranged prosaically, but there is one astonishing sakura tree in the corner. That night, it was at 75 percent bloom. And beneath it were two separate large parties of revelers, expertly organized atop their blue tarps, shoes neatly lined up at the edges. Banquets were laid out on low wooden tables brought out from someone’s home. One table had a minikeg of Kirin on a small riser. And, still in their work clothes, locals laughed and toasted and kneeling in the closest they could get to nature in that moment, enjoying just that barest bit of proximity to one of their country’s loveliest and most fleeting bits of beauty, immortalized in verse and art and collective consciousness.
And I sat on a bench, watching them, enjoying that sushi more than perhaps anyone has ever enjoyed convenience store food, pleased with myself for having made a long journey and for having the inclination to do so at all.
Then the wind whipped up and yanked my empty food containers away from me, sending them dancing across that fine gravel like a deliberate taunt. The revelers didn’t seem to notice me sprinting across the park for my trash, one of the first indications that the way I look rendered me largely invisible (or at least uninteresting) to Tokyo residents.
But, as I’ve said, more on that later. I have a lot to say.
I gathered my trash, dumped it in the lobby garbage can, and headed back to my bunk.
It was 7:30. I would sleep solidly until 4 am, when I woke up and considered a trip to the Tsukiji Fish Market (until I realized I’d actually slept too late for that). Then I’d go back to sleep until six, and then 6:45, when I would give up and get out of bed. After a deeply satisfying shower in a surprisingly immaculate shower room, I left just before 8 am.
In a trip full of the unfamiliar, this switch was perhaps the weirdest one at all. But that? I will get to that too.
*Iceland, a day in Puerto Vallarta in 2009, two days in Paris last year.
**Fashion = a bright pink coat, matching hair, and a couple different loud patterns in an outfit chosen with comfort in a plane seat chief in my mind. This ensemble got me mistaken for a Nintendo employe at SeaTac; apparently it weathered the flight better than I thought.
***Hahahahaha. Oh man.