Travelling the world with your friends is such a common aspiration amongst us young people, but just how does it compare to going solo? I decided to see for myself by taking a trip to Japan alone, and with Japan’s amazing food, art and culture, I got a lot more than I bargained for…
1. Organising my day is so much easier travelling solo
I began researching and making itineraries for my trip to Japan around May 2017, which was a month before my scheduled land in Narita Airport. This was the first time I’d planned a holiday, as my parents generally took charge of what we’d see and do in every place we travelled to. Planning is something I enjoy so, of course, I had multiple itineraries for quite a few places in Japan. Part of my preparation involved checking out the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s travel advice on Japan, which taught me everything I needed to know about Japan’s laws and customs, security and health care. In the end I chose to stick with having Tokyo as my base with day trips to Yokohama and Mount Fuji.
I realised when making these plans that I’d become much more decisive than usual, which felt very liberating. It was extremely easy to scroll through Trip Advisor’s Top 50 things to do in Tokyo and think, "I should definitely do that" or "That’s not my cup of tea". Whether someone else would want to do it was out of the question because on my solo trip to Tokyo it didn’t matter. If I wanted to travel an hour to a temple, then go to an art gallery and spend a couple hours there, nobody could argue with that.
Choosing where to eat was also much easier. After reading lots of reviews for different restaurants I would make a choice fairly quickly, which just doesn’t happen when I am with other people. Being by myself in Tokyo meant I could go to a Tempura restaurant without feeling guilty in the off chance someone I’m travelling with doesn’t like deep fried prawns and vegetables.
2. The food in Japan is enough to make me want to live there
Amazingly, I got verbally welcomed into every restaurant I entered and thanked when I left by every member of staff too. If my food wasn’t up to scratch (which I highly doubt could happen in Japan) at least I wouldn’t be able to complain about the customer service.
The food was extraordinarily delicious. I knew I liked Japanese food before my trip but ever since my first night eating cheaper, ‘average’ sushi at the Tsukiji fish market next to my hotel, I fell head over heels. The freshness of the fish laid carefully onto the perfectly formed rice tasted different to any sushi I’d had before, and I’d had a lot of sushi. Twice more during my time in Tokyo I went back to this local restaurant for dinner.
During these times I ventured out to dinner at night, although according to the British FCO crime levels are low in Japan, I ensured not to wander Tokyo’s entertainment districts as there have been reports of foreign nationals being targeted for drink-spiking, robbery and sexual assault.
Taking care in preparing food appeared commonplace in Japan, which is great as a customer because the bites you eat hold much more value. You know you’re not eating something someone threw together half-heartedly whilst wishing they were actually back home watching TV. On my last night in Tokyo I went to an upmarket teppanyaki restaurant and experienced the care Japanese chefs take when preparing food right before my eyes. Teppanyaki is entertainment at its finest, as you’re able to watch the chef cook your food right in front of you. The skill the chef displayed when swishing and chopping anything from enoki, to marbled beef, had me entranced.
Before my flight back to Shanghai the next day, I experienced just what it takes to make good Japanese food with a sushi-making class. After battling sticky rice into a ball and encouraging an omelette to form a cuboid whilst cooking it, I have come to appreciate Japanese chefs a lot more.
3. Exploring alone is a different kind of fun
To really immerse yourself in a city’s lifestyle and culture, it takes a good deal of confidence and willingness to branch out of your comfort zone. This immersion is sometimes harder to engage with when travelling alongside friends or family, because their familiar presence is easy to cling on to and be distracted by, which prevents you from exploring a new place for what it truly is. Wandering Tokyo by myself without conversing with another person all the time made me realise how much more intimately I was engaging with my surroundings. I took the time to observe architecture, statues, people and even information boards at museums a lot closer, allowing me to connect on a deeper level with Japanese culture.
On the other hand, whilst organising my day was easier and I developed a heightened introspective attitude, at times a little loneliness crept in. There was no one that I felt comfortable enough with to discuss certain aspects of Tokyo on the go and no one to say ‘remember when…’ when I returned home. Part of travelling with other people is having a different perspective on what is in front of you. Exploring the fascinating streets of Shibuya for example would have been very different with a friend because they may notice something I hadn’t seen or hold an alternative opinion to my own. It seems obvious that travelling solo or with others could differ, but I didn’t grasp the impact of being alone until I stood looking at Mount Fuji thinking, "I wish my friend was standing with me right now".
As a woman travelling by herself, it is important to be aware of harmful situations that could arise and can be prevented before your solo travel begins. I’d highly recommend reading the FCO’s advice for women travelling abroad to ensure you feel prepared and safe.