On the Road editor Cathérine Mester reflects on her time in Japan and tries to explain why solo travel might not be for you.
When people ask me what I did last summer, and I tell them I spent five weeks in Japan the immediate reaction usually is ‘Cool! How was that?’ and then I am forced to answer ‘Awesome’ which is true, but also isn’t. Here is why.
Japan is a stunningly beautiful country, that is not up for dispute. Japan is also shockingly ugly, a fact easy to overlook when there are exquisite temples everywhere you go. But the landscape of the cities is a callous scattering of concrete streaked with exposed power lines. The cars of the subways are crammed, every sight is swarming with tourists, and the ubiquitous convenience stores play an instrumental version of “Daydream Believer” on a loop. It was August, the warmest month of the year and the temperature alternated between sweltering heat and arctic chill from the AC. Above all, I was alone. For a month. In Japan, a country on the other side of the world that I knew little about, where I could only make myself understood with broken phrases, hapless gestures and awkward smiles. The streets of Shibuya present a sensory overload like none I have ever experienced. From every wall strange voices competed for my attention, the lights from the billboards reflected on the pavements, a thousand bodies brushed mine.
Why would anyone journey to a foreign land, all on their own and of their own free will? I can only answer for myself and it makes me shudder to even think about it. Not to eat sushi, not to kneel at the feet of the great Buddha in Nara, not to see the neon lights of Shibuya, not to scale Mount Fuji, nor to visit the sacred temples on Mount Koya: To learn something about myself.
During the first couple of days in a place you have never been before everything is new and exciting. Even if you are on your own the lack of company is unfelt since you are in a constant discourse with the brave new world around you. However, as the days and weeks go by you adjust to your environment, and – if you are so inclined – retreat into your own mind. Suddenly the sights and scenes, the colours and sounds seem squandered on you. You could just as well be elsewhere. You did not just bring your anticipations but also your old self, your unresolved problems and patterns of thought which you were unable to discard at airport security like a half-filled bottle of water.
Somehow this possibility did not enter your head when you booked your flight during your lunch break at work when you sketched out your route, researched train times and flipped through the pages of the Lonely Planet at night before bed. July 30th until September 3rd, so it says on the calendar, is a time for reflection leading slowly but surely to a moment of illumination.
Japan, the land of the rising sun. It is beautiful, magical, strange. I say go! If you like, go by yourself. But know this, it may well be that the thing you are looking for, is somewhere no distance conquered can ever take you. I went to Japan in search of something I did not have at home, and that was time. Time to roam the city with nowhere to go, time to sit on a train and simply look out the window, and most of all, time to think. Well, I got it, lots of it. And as so often in life, when you finally get what you wish for it turns out that you were asking for the wrong thing all along. Now that hindsight has washed over my memories and polished them to reveal only their shiny surfaces, I could very well say: ‘Japan was great’. But that would not be the whole truth and now I know why. As any literature student knows a person’s character is revealed through reactions to situations. Maybe things would have been different, had I faced more adversity than a hostel room full of Japanese backpackers competing for the world championship in snoring. Alas, introspection was my foe and I was defeated in a one-sided duel.
So, before you travel on your own ask yourself one question: Why am I doing this? If the answer is ‘to get to know myself better’, I advise you to consider this a cautionary tale and to go ahead anyway. Who knows, maybe you will relish the experience, even find enlightenment. But don’t be disappointed if all you end up with is an annoying song stuck in your head, the most delightful food you ever tasted, and an unsolicited insight into the more saturnine realms of your self.