Do you really want to struggle through a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and keep forgetting the exchange rate by yourself?
I did it last month in Japan. Arguably (or maybe even factually) the safest country in the world where both deer and human beings bow in excess. I thought I would not enjoy myself. I thought I would feel lonely, inept, incompetent and crave companionship. I certainly did when I first landed and couldn’t find the place to pick up my pre-ordered SIM card at the airport. I was in a non-English speaking country sans mobile data. I felt both trapped and let loose in a scary wild.
But I found the SIM card place and, after asking three people, got on the right train. I even navigated my way to the capsule hotel with its metal vaults and eerily clean shared bathrooms (how do Japanese hostels keep their bathrooms and living spaces so clean? Have they expanded the self-cleaning toilet to the self-cleaning hostel?). Cocooned in my personal metal coffin, I finally felt very… alone.
So, I haven’t quite gotten to the part where I talk about the positives of traveling alone because for the first 24 hours of being in Japan I was completely enveloped in my own self-pity and loneliness. I was too busy emulating a Lost in Translation kind of desperation to appreciate my holiday. But 24 hours later, I came to my senses.
Here are my conclusions after 10 days of solo travel.
When you travel alone you can do whatever you want. You’re not being selfish when you decide after five minutes that you’ve had enough of this temple. You’re making an executive decision.
“There’s so many beautiful shrines and temples in Japan,” said at least three people to me before I went there.
“Great! Fantastic!” I said. Except I already knew one thing about myself; I really don’t enjoy visiting religious monuments or buildings.
I’d take a boring museum about agricultural history (does anyone outside of the over 65-year-old male demographic enjoy these?) over a church or temple any day. Nonetheless, I felt obligated to visit a few temples during my time in Japan. It was during my visit to the second temple that I realized I really didn’t need to be there. Like the American girl whose conversation I eavesdropped on while lining up for Anne Frank’s house, I could just tell people I went to the temples! So many temples. So much cultural and historical significance. Bloody love temples!
Do not bloody love temples. Bloody abhor temples. I mean, not the temples themselves. I’m sure they have a lot of meaning to many people. Just not to me.
I left the second temple after 10 minutes of wandering around aimlessly and instead went to wander aimlessly around a graveyard I found behind the temple. I thought someone was playing eerie water sounds in the graveyard until I realized it was water (or sewerage) running through a drain. It was a special moment for me. One I probably wouldn’t have had had I not been traveling alone.
Similar to being able to do whatever you want is being able to eat whatever you want when traveling alone. Food-related activities are one my favorite activities while on holiday. I love to visit a local food market, admire their apples and smell their raw fish section. It’s invigorating. My personal tactic when eating abroad is to pick whatever place is on the way, looks enticing and seems somewhat popular with locals. I prefer not to Yelp or Foursquare or spend too long debating where to eat. Time spent debating is better spent masticating.
Food deliberation was cut to a minimum during my trip to Japan. The food selection process was simplified to the following: I feel hungry, I walk 100m, I peer through the window of a restaurant like a stalker, it is empty, I walk another 100m, I see sushi, I see Japanese businessmen enjoying sushi, I go into the restaurant, I eat sushi. The selection process could take as little as five minutes to complete and I could go from hungry to eating food in six minutes. It was brilliant.
This is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people prefer coffee, you see. But this is how I like to stuff food into my face on holiday. It’s freeing.
I don’t want to say that traveling with other people is time-consuming. But time can certainly be consumed when traveling with other people. I’ve traveled with people who take at least an hour to get ready in the morning. Is it just me or is this quite a while to get ready, especially when you will only be seeing people who never see you again? I prioritize super efficiency when traveling. More time for wandering through graveyards and chomping into raw fish. When traveling alone in Japan, I could leap out of bed (or gingerly climb down my bunk bed ladder) and get ready in a very short amount of time. A symbolic swipe of brush through hair, a speedy brushing of teeth or, if I was feeling particularly efficient, I would just eat a glob of toothpaste.
But the best part of traveling alone is not the luxurious amounts of autonomy you have over what you do, where you go and what you eat. It’s that you never get into fights with who you’re traveling with.
Who doesn’t fight with their traveling companions? Maybe Gandhi but he’s dead now so I guess we’ll never find out.
Fighting with traveling companions is so commonplace that it might as well be included in your itinerary. I’m sure many friendships and relationships have been torn apart by missed trains, misread tickets, subpar navigational skills and the odd bout of food poisoning. But when you travel alone, there is no one to blame but yourself. Perfect. Now you’re forced to take on a bit more responsibility and travel with a bit more intention. I know I did.
Thankfully, I made it back to Australia physically and emotionally intact.
“I’m a bit nervous,” I had admitted to my dad somewhat hysterically when he dropped me off at the airport. But by the time of my return, I was imbued with a falsely inflated sense of confidence. I had traveled to Japan alone. I was near invincible.
Underneath this bravado, I think I realized that traveling to Japan alone is like letting your kid walk to school alone for the first time when the school is 200m down the road. But it’s a start. And more than the fact that I can navigate my way through a foreign country with relative ease is the realization that I can be comfortable by myself for an extended period of time. All I need is copious amounts of sushi, random back alleys to explore… and myself.