One of the things people always ask me is, “Don’t you get lonely traveling alone?”
Well, I think there are times when I could see the potential to be lonely, but never quite feel it. However, I a) have a very high threshold for alone time, and b) traveling by myself doesn’t always mean being alone. Take, for instance, my pit-stop in Tokyo to meet up with my college friend Rachel and her sister Annabelle.
About a week before we met up, Rachel messaged me out of the blue on Facebook asking what I was up to. I told her I was in Japan — and learned she was headed there in a week! One of the joys of traveling by myself and without any plans is that when I learned a friend would be in Tokyo in just a week, it wasn’t too hard to adjust course in order to meet her there.
My second visit to Tokyo was just as exciting as my first. I love Tokyo because it’s such a mishmash of crazy things like the utterly incomprehensible Robot Restaurant, as well as peaceful and artfully arranged gardens.
And of course, what is a visit to Tokyo without eating all the food in sight?
After Tokyo, Rachel and Annabelle headed off for Hiroshima (where I’d just come from), and I headed east to Kanazawa.
And here’s the other reason why solo-travel doesn’t necessarily mean learning to be alone. In Kanazawa, I stayed at the Shaq Bighouse hostel, and after I got some work done, I started chatting with a volunteer (Tom) there as well as one of the new guests, Collum. Tom offered to guide Collum and me to a local place for Kanazawa curry. And then after that, Collum and I spent the day wandering around Kanzawa and chatting. We visited the D.T. Suzuki house, a man who was instrumental in popularizing zen. The house was very… zen. It included a large, shallow square-ish pool with a jet that would intermittently bubble and send gentle ripples of water spreading outwards.
Collum took such a good photo of it with his polaroid, I’m almost embarrassed to share mine.
Collum and I also found a temple that offered different kinds of free sake. We had no idea what was what, except that one of them was plum-flavored.
Spending the day with Collum, who spoke no Japanese, really gave me a better idea of how much I unconsciously relied on my knowledge of traditional Chinese characters to get around. His perspective on his time in Japan was also especially interesting, as it differed so greatly from mine. Collum wears baggy clothing, has longer hair, tattoos, etc. — in short, if you think of a fashionable, sharply dressed Japanese man, Collum is very much not that. In Japan, however, this results in a lot of judgement from people on the street. Collum also talked about how he feels like people didn’t smile as much in Japan.
I thought Collum’s experience was interesting for two reasons — one, I had never thought about what it would feel like to be a tourist in a country where the population at large would generally disapprove of your appearance. Two, it was interesting to meet someone traveling alone who does get lonely in a way that I don’t. From our conversation, I gathered Collum is definitely a more social person than I am, and more outwardly friendly, and he likes finding the same in other people — he’s the kind of person who smiles at strangers on the street and likes to see the same in return, while I see strangers smiling at me and get confused.
Later, that evening, Collum and a handful of other people from the hostel went out for drinks together — while I went out for a solo walk, followed my nose to a tiny food stall, and then returned to the hostel to do some quiet reading and writing.
The next morning, I went to a cafe recommended by Shaq Bighouse’s very useful book of Kanazawa recommendations, which was run by an American man from Seattle. I finally had a real cup of coffee there, and ended up getting into a conversation with the owner and two other American travels. Then — more alone time: I walked around Kanazawa by myself, visited its castle, and generally chilled out.
In the morning, I got up to take a train to Kakunodate, a tiny town which was to be my stopover point before heading to Tsurunoyu Onsen, a famous ryokan in Nyuto onsen village. Kakunodate’s main selling point, I believe, is its samurai houses and its proximity to Nyuto onsen village.
It was very, very small, and I’d misbooked my stay at Tsurunoyu, so I ended up having to spend two nights there instead of one. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise — I got to spend an entire day just chilling out as it poured rain outside. And in the evening, I got dinner at an izakaya (a Japanese bar) with a couple from the UK (one half of whom spoke a bit of Japanese, which was great). We had a nice long meal, which included an amazing miso pizza and a lot of discussion about the differences between Britain and America. Apparently, Brits have this thing called squash which is neither the vegetable nor the game. WHAT?
So in conclusion, traveling solo does require me to be comfortable on my own. At the same time, I don’t always have to be alone, especially if I stay in hostels where the opportunity to meet and engage with other travelers is higher.