This is it – the last stop before I hit the US, one last hurrah – and I chose to do it completely on my own…solo…what I want to do, when I want to do it. No tour company, no friends, no sister, no travel book….just me, with a camera, an internet connection and an immense amount of patience. It had been a while since I had been completely solo, so it was quite a transition for me to make again. Not only was it a transition to be solo, but it was a transition to be back exploring some place new again since I had spent the last 20 days in Singapore, now considered my 2nd home.
Transitions are never easy, and I had to be reminded once again that the first day is always the hardest in a new country – and it gets better and better after that. Everything is so new the first day, transportation, food, safety, location, cultural differences – it’s really exhausting and can be frustrating. The key is to not let it get you down. It’s so easy for people to get frustrated at the newness, and the unkown, but you just have to stick it out past day 1 and it will get better, easier, and more familiar. I personally think that’s why many people (ahem…Americans) are actually afraid to travel…but I can save that topic for a different post! You need to embrace the differences, yet even for a seasoned traveler like myself, I still have to be reminded that day 1 is always a struggle.
Tokyo provided some additional challenges for me – mainly the language barrier. Sure, everyone told me that it would be difficult – but I went in with my normal attitude that all it takes is a smile and you will eventually find someone that will speak English…not so in Tokyo. There is really just the bare minimum in English…which basically means that some of the subway maps have English on them. I was really stunned at how little English there was around Tokyo, and even fewer people actually speak it. The part I found amusing is that everyone would speak Japanese to me as if I understood. Granted, I didn’t expect them to speak English, but I found it funny how they would speak whole paragraphs in Japanese looking right at me, expecting me to respond – and clearly I wasn’t Japanese. Maybe I should take it as a compliment that they thought I might understand! At the restaurants and shops that I went into – the people would all great me in Japanese and rattle off a number of sentences, and I would just look at them and smile without understanding a single word. They would continue to with sentences in Japanese, and I would nod and smile, not having one idea of what they were saying. The good thing is that you would be surprised how much you actually do understand based on the situation…I might not of understood what they said – but I know they were greeting me, or asking me if everything was alright, or to come back again, or to have a good day – I always answered with a smile and a nod – my one universal language.
Photo: Sawanoya Ryokan Room
I arrived under the cover of darkness – my least favorite time to arrive in a new country, but I made it to my hotel fine after a long train ride from the airport, and a taxi. I found this great ryokan, a traditional Japanese Inn, where you can experience living in the Japanese culture. In a ryokan you can experience the elements of Japanese culture and customs; living in a room with a straw mat flooring, changing into a typical yukata robe after taking a hot spring bath and sleeping on a futon put down directly on the floor. Sure, this all sounds pretty luxurious…but, you have to remember – I did a ryokan budget style, but it was well worth it! I stayed at the Sawanoya Ryokan, and it was hands down one of my top 5 hotels/hostels I’ve stayed in the world…for only $40 a night in Tokyo…not too shabby. I had my own little room with a sink and a shared bathroom. There were two traditional Japanese baths located on the main floor that were a delight to use. . In this ryokan they assumed you knew nothing about Japanese culture, so they provided you lessons. They provided ‘directions’ on how to take a traditional Japanese bath which includes sitting on a little stool and washing off, then getting into a hot tub of water to soak…pure bliss There was also a very detailed diagram of how to prepare and drink Japanese tea in your room. The owner took me around the Inn and told me where I was to wear the provided slippers, or no shoes at all. I could have used some more lessons on how to use the toilet though…there were more button and gadgets on that toilet than I’d ever seen…all in Japanese of course! However, it didn’t take me understanding Japanese to learn that the toilet seat was heated…talk about ecstasy!
Photo: Old Tokyo neighborhood
The owner also provided maps and information about the subway, the neighborhood, and generally was a wealth of information – I felt confident about my ability to conquer Tokyo when I talked to him …then when I stepped out the door and down the block, out of the comfort of English, that confidence quickly went to hell! Everywhere you look – the signs are in Japanese, I had no idea if it was a subway entrance, a restaurant, or a gentleman’s club! In addition to the map he provided me, I had two other maps that provided various amounts of detail on the neighborhoods and the subways and trains. You would think that this would be enough…but I was still constantly lost. One map didn’t have enough detail, but it had point of interest on it. One had detail, but no points of interest. One had subway exits, and but no street information. After standing staring at the signs in the subway with my 3 maps trying to figure out how much money I had to put into the Japanese machine…I was about ready to call ‘uncle’!
Photo: Shibuya Crossing
My first day was….well…difficult. I decided to go to the big populated glitzy areas of Tokyo first – so I head off on subway to Shibuya, Harajuku, and Shinjuku. I took the subway cautiously – hoping that I was going the right way. Luckily I did find my stop, and was bolstered with confidence from my first successful subway ride. I came out of the subway to be greeted by swarms of people, amplified voices and glaring mirrored buildings. Tokyo is an assault to the eyes, kind of like India minus the poverty and sheer amazement of oddities. Instead, Tokyo is stimulus overload. Loud speakers beckoning you to come inside, lights, videos, a bombardment of images and color…it could easily give you a headache. I simply stood at Shibuya crossing (where about 5 streets meet), and watched the busiest street crossing in the world. Over 200 people cross with each light, a sight to see – and this was at 11AM, not even close to rush hour. For fun, I actually walked into one of the many pachinko gambling complexes and it was like nothing I had ever heard before. The decibel level of the noise of the machines made my ears bleed. It was smoky, and colorful lights were going off everywhere – People stared like zombies into the machines, it was actually rather depressing – but to each his/her own.
I walked from neighborhood to neighborhood with my 3 maps in hand and my camera around my neck. Unfortunately the street signs were generally not in English either, which led me to stop every other block and re-look at my maps in vain. I walked around Harajuku – the teeny bopper Japanese hangout. It was as if Miss Kitty, Little Bo Peep, and the Wicked Witch of the West had all come together and morphed into Tokyo fashion. Yet it was strangely reminiscent of San Francisco to me…people that simply wanted to stand out and make an impact. Supposedly on the weekends the neighborhood is filled with young Tokyo teenagers trying to stand out and outdo each other. Unfortunately I was there on a Tuesday – and they were all behaving themselves in school, so I was unable to get any photos of the ‘freak show’. I moved on to Shinjuki, as I had read about a recommended tempura restaurant in the neighborhood, so I decided to challenge myself by trying to find it. Little did I know that after 2 hours of looking for it – and probably within about 2 blocks of it – I finally gave up. I’d had it. I was probably walking right by it for all I knew. I even tried to stop someone and ask them where it was, but that was a lost cause too. I was tired, hungry, and fed up. I wondered how anyone could ever figure this city out! I finally stopped at a tempura place that had pictures I could point to for dinner – and it was fabulous – maybe it was meant to be. However, for all I knew – maybe I was eating at the place that I was looking for all along!
The sun went down at 4:30 which completely threw me for a loop since I had spent most of the last year in the tropics where the sun sets around 7:30PM. It felt like it was 8PM and it started to cool off. I had read that you could go to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building to see the view from the top floors for free…which fit into my budget – so I armed myself with my 3 maps and made my way towards the tall buildings in Shinjuku. The people had come out in swarms – it was how I remember Times Square at 6PM…crowded and crazy, but times 2. The amounts of people were massive and I was swimming upstream towards the office buildings as they were trying to make their way to the subway. I made it to the Government building, and the view was spectacular. That was really the first time that I was able to get a feeling for how big Tokyo really was.
My whole body hurt after walking around lost for the last 9 hours, so I decided it was time to head back to my part of town. No problem, there was a big subway station in Shinjuku. I entered the station and was immediately transported in my memory bank to Penn Station in NYC. However, this was far worse because I didn’t understand any of the signs! I found a little pillar that I could squeeze up against, take out my maps and try to figure out where in the hell to go. I made it to the ticket machines and that was the end of the line. I was once again lost. I looked at the maps in Japanese and had no idea where I was going. I could see where I needed to get to, and I could see how much it cost, but I couldn’t figure out how to buy the ticket because it included a transfer to another line and there were no options for that on the ticket machine that I could find or understand. When I clicked on the transfer button, everything on the screen turned to Japanese – so I wasn’t getting anywhere very fast. They apparently didn’t expect tourists to make transfers! I must have stood there and stared at the ticket terminal and my maps for about 5 minutes when I heard a voice….a voice that rose above the footsteps, and the background noise of Japanese. I heard English!!!!! A young British man asked me if I needed any help! Yes, yes – I do need help!!!! I love Brits!!! As we figured out how to get my transfer ticket (an unknown to him too), I learned that he was a seasoned veteran at the Tokyo subway… he had been in Tokyo for 3 days…practically a local by now! We were both going in the same direction so we rode the train together for a few stops until we had to part. It was so nice to speak to someone for the first time all day. Up until then I had just smiled, nodded, and pointed….that was it. Now I was sitting here having a conversation…bliss! He gave me some great pointers about how to read the maps in the subway and figure out which way to go, etc. It’s amazing what a difference a few days makes.
I got back to my ryokan that night, relieved to take off my shoes, put on my sandals and robe, take a Japanese bath, and make a pot of tea – Japanese style of course. I reveled in my accomplishments of the day – basically that I had found my way back to my ryokan. As I reflected on the whole day, there was certainly frustration, but there was also elation at surviving, which is why I like traveling solo. You have to enjoy the small victories when you travel. Tokyo is not easy, it requires patience, and understanding. Sometimes you have to realize that being lost isn’t necessarily a bad thing.