THIS IS THE SECOND PART (OF SEVEN) OF MY TOKYO 2016 BLOG SERIES
For as long as I can remember, I have always been that person who is completely fine about doing things all by myself. Eat out in a restaurant alone? Done that. Go to the mall and just chill alone? Been there. It’s in my nature, I guess, being an introvert. However, traveling alone was something I’ve never done before. I was desperate to do it, but understandably, I had my doubts, too.
Originally, I thought about bringing someone along for this trip. After all, even if I’m completely fine being by myself in my daily life, what was I to do in a place where I practically don’t know anyone? As much as I believed in the place I was coming to, shouldn’t I still have a company as a safety net, in case anything happens?
There were a couple of reasons why I finally casted away all of my doubts about solo-traveling. First, obviously, was the actual goal of the trip. As I’ve already mentioned in the previous part, this was to be a completely self-indulgent, self-satisfying, fangirling trip. The number one reason of my going was because I wanted to see a live performance of a Sailor Moon musical. To add to that, I wanted to do and visit Arashi-related things and places. As far as I know, none of my closest people who I could’ve taken with me would even have the slightest interest in any of these things. I thought, bringing someone along that didn’t share the same goal would not be fair to them.
Second, it’s about time that I have my very own adventure. I don’t travel often; most of the time, I don’t feel like dealing with the exhaustion that may be caused. But recently, there has been a kind of need or realization that I do need to take time, every once in a while, to experience something new; something different. My life is comfortable, but recently, it hasn’t gone the way I expected it to be. This solo Tokyo trip was somehow a kind of way for me to take control of myself. Even only for a moment, I needed to learn how to survive on my own.
Upon experiencing it first-hand, I really recommend solo-traveling for those of you who may need to take time for yourself, to reflect on the decisions you’ve made, and to explore yourself as much as the place you’re heading to. I find, being completely alone in a place where I pretty much don’t know anyone, gave me the best opportunity to evaluate myself. To me, the lack of company to talk to actually forced me to “talk” to myself. In this process, I learned to listen to myself. I learned to take my time and really consider my guts, feelings, instinct, and intuition, in deciding upon something. I learned to make better judgment that I could depend on in certain situations.
The example for this is as simple as those moments when I had to figure out which way to turn, after exiting a station, to get to some place. While information on directions is easily accessible (not just because Japan is very organized in this thing, but also now there’s always technology that can help), it still took a second to figure out if I had to turn right or left. I imagine, being with someone else would end up in me depending on the other person, or that person depending on me. Not that anything is wrong with this scenario. But when you have to only depend on yourself, it makes the simple activity more meaningful. I mean, in a lot of instances, I had to stop, breathe, and take my time to study the map or consider asking the strangers around me. When was the last time you really stop and think about where to go? Most of the time, in our daily lives, we go on auto-mode and just go about with our lives without thinking about our directions. Traveling alone in a place you barely know requires you to consider these small matters. No matter how much preparation you made, it is still important to take your time and really think about where you’re going. Pausing to think sounds like a waste of time, but it’s actually the best method to save time (unless, of course, your initial intention is to get lost―that’s totally a different story).
It sounds really trivial, but when I experienced it, it became so much more than just figuring out directions to get into a place. Through all those steps I took alone on the streets of Tokyo―steps that were made based on my own judgment after some consideration, I thought about the figurative steps I have to take on the figurative streets that are my life. I realized how little thinking and consideration that I had done so far in life. No wonder I’ve been feeling somewhat clueless about where to go!
But then, I felt a bit relieved. Through my experience in Tokyo―the fact that I made it out alright in the end, with limited knowledge combined with some proper thinking time when needed, I realized that “traveling solo through life” is not that complicated. I mean, it is fine to feel clueless. It is human. The key, apparently, is to take time to listen to yourself, study the field, consider your options, and finally, actually make a firm decision about what to do. Sometimes, that decision could be the wrong one. But if you had been firm about it, you would know exactly where you went wrong, and thus, you’d be able to fix it immediately. I learned, it’s better to make a mistake, then realizing it and fixing it right away, than being afraid to make any, and end up not making any progress at all. I guess, what I meant is, it’s important to take time to think, but it’s also important to actually do something. Think, but don’t overthink.
From what I experienced, I also find that traveling solo gives you a much more intimate feelings with the place you’re going to. While I was in Tokyo, I knew nobody. In a way, I was unattached. Yet at the same time, the moment I arrived there, I felt an instant attachment to the city. By “the city”, I mean, every single thing and being that exists there―the buildings, the people, the sky, the trees, the sun, the trains, the streetlights, the billboards, everything. Being alone there gave me the chance to really soak in as many details as possible about Tokyo. I distinctly remember the sun that guided me every morning on my way to the station entrance, or the afternoon sky I looked up to while I was sitting quietly in Ebisu Garden Place. I remember how visually-stimulating, loud, and busy Shibuya is, even during the daytime. I remember how alive the commercial area of Ikebukuro near my ryokan is at night. In the end, there isn’t really such a thing as being alone, because eventually I realized I’m a part of something bigger. I’m a part―even if it’s a small and temporary part―of Tokyo.
Perhaps it is just me being overly-sentimental, but that’s how I felt. It would have been fun to experience everything I experienced with someone who also gets it, but it was important and vital, at least to me, to go through all of those things on my own. Like I said earlier, to me, this was a matter of taking control of myself. Thankfully, I think I learned to do it in a short amount of time when I was there.
Having said all of that, solo-traveling does require a massive amount of preparation. Because this was my first time traveling alone, I was pretty much over-prepared. And let me tell you, in this matter, it’s better to over-prepare. As per some conversations with some friends on Twitter, now I will try to share some tips from my experience of solo-traveling for fangirling purposes. Some of the points I make may be specific to Tokyo, but hopefully, anyone reading this could get some insights about planning their own trip to anywhere in the world. Here we go!
SET A GOAL
I think I’ve mentioned this a lot, but I’m going to stress it one more time. For me, having a goal is extremely important. I know, sometimes we travel just to get away from our boring lives and we don’t really want to be goal-oriented―we want to get away from having to reach a target. But trust me, having at least some kind of purpose helps us survive the overall process, from planning to the actual trip. The goal we set becomes the driving force that is especially important in the preparation phase before we actually get to the place we’re heading to. This goal can be anything, as practical as “I want to see Sera Myu live”, or as abstract as “I want to take time for myself”. Whatever it is, hold on to it as inspiration that pushes you to make your dream solo trip happen.
RESEARCH AHEAD OF TIME
It goes without saying that we should get ourselves familiar with the place we’re coming to. Maybe we have loved the place for as long as we can remember, but even if we’ve been there at least once, it’s always a good idea to refresh our memory. I went to Japan three years earlier, and while nothing changed drastically, I made sure to find references about the current situation, especially because this time I was to stay in one place that I didn’t get to explore much on my first time. I tried remembering the places I saw three years ago as a starting point to plan this year’s trip.
If you have set a specific goal, research also about the matters relating to that goal. Find out as much as you can about all the things you want to do and you need to do in order to reach that goal. If you’re seeing a concert, have you found out about how to acquire tickets? If you’re going to a specific place, have you looked up on how to get there? What kind of area would you like to stay in? Is it easy to access in regards to your other activities? It’s vital to know our options and to realize whether or not we have the ability to choose certain things.
I found it very helpful to set a list of things I wanted to do and experience, before making an actual detailed plan. For example, because this was a fangirling trip, I listed some Sailor Moon and Arashi-related activities that I might want to do. From that list, I figured out which areas I should explore and the distances between them. I also listed things like preference on direct flight, wish to stay in a ryokan, and stuffs that I wish to purchase. I spent weeks on these details, researching extensively on which direct flight was the most affordable, which areas I wanted to focus my energy on, how to access the Metro and JR line, and so on. All of these were basically done through online research, by comparing data and materials available on related websites, blogs, and whatnot. Take time to really read what’s available out there to get a little bit of feel about the place you’re coming to. Listing the things you want also will help in figuring out how much you’re going to and willing to spend on yourself for this trip. That’s certainly important.
TAKE ACTUAL ACTION
Research is fine and vital, but we need to act upon it. After knowing our options, it is time to actually make decisions. The first thing I did was book my ryokan. As I’ve mentioned, I stayed in Ikebukuro’s Kimi Ryokan. The reason was, it fit my needs, my budget, and the booking didn’t require advance payment. Honestly, I booked a room even before I truly decided to go, but it’s this kind of impulsive thing that made sure I did what I needed. Next, I booked my flight. I have decided to fly with JAL, because after comparing different airlines that offer direct flight, JAL was actually the most affordable. The normal ticket price was still quite expensive for me, but as if it was a sign from God, I scored a promo ticket for half the price (it is recommended to research the possibility of this kind of promo, but since I was just lucky, I can’t really offer any substantial tips and tricks. But the point is, it is possible to get lucky, especially when it’s low tourist season!).
After that, the next process I had to go through was preparing my visa application (since I still carry ordinary passport). In my opinion, it’s better to do the visa business on our own, so we know exactly the process that we have to go through. When doing all of these, I set up a schedule that I could follow through, for example, book the flight 2-3 months prior, start the visa application a month before, and so on.
MAKE DETAILED ITINERARY
When all the necessary preparation is going, it is time to design the grand schedule for our trip, incorporating all of our wants, needs, and wishes. I find it helpful to break the schedule down into daily schedules, basically strategizing about the activities I plan to do. I try to do things in the same area in one day, and then moving on to another area for the next day. I also set out a prediction of the time I was going to spend on each activity, as well as how much money I may spend in a place.
Before the trip, this plan helped me a lot in projecting the amount of money I was to spend, so I knew where to draw the line for myself. During the actual trip, it also helped me save a lot of time. As it turned out, the activities I already planned took less time than I predicted, so I had many opportunities to do impulsive activities, like for example, going all the way to Ebisu on my first full day (more on this on next part!). The whole point of making this master schedule is just to know exactly our game plan the moment we arrive in our destination and not waste time at all, so we can really make the most out of our time there.
PREDICT YOUR SPENDINGS
While we are making that schedule, it is also recommended that we start counting how much we’re ready to spend, in terms of money. First, make sure that all of the necessities, like flights and hotels and meals, are covered. Then, we can start considering spending on happy personal things. When traveling solo, it is more possible to break the bank, because we basically have no one to stop us. So, design a financial strategy for ourselves! There’s of course always a chance to slip (like I did, actually), but the planning will give the boundary that we need.
What I did was figure out all of the things I needed and I wanted to purchase, put an amount on the sum of all of them, then compare the sum with the actual available budget that I had. I went into the tiniest detail, like counting every single Metro ticket that I may end up buying to get around. As for meals, I set out a no-more-than-1,000-yen rule for every meal that I needed, so that’s 3,000 yen per one full day. Basically, just like the schedule, it is best to be as detailed as possible when it comes to projecting your budget.
Upon coming home, I counted my spendings and compared them with the initial budget that I had set for myself (see the chart). I did go overboard on a couple of things (mostly the personal things), but in essence I spent a reasonable amount that I could actually afford.
COMFORT IS KEY
I know it can be a little expensive, but because we’re going to be alone, choosing the most comfortable option for flight and accommodation is actually key in letting ourselves to fully enjoy the trip. Choosing a direct flight and a private room in an inn in a lively neighborhood definitely saved me a lot of energy. If you can afford it, please make yourself as comfortable as possible.
From my experience specifically, the inn I stayed in, Kimi Ryokan, is very close to the train access (some 10-minute walk to the main Ikebukuro station, as well as 3-minute walk to the nearest entrance to the Metro station), as well as the area that has a lot of shops and places to eat, so it’s very convenient. It offers an affordable private room for one and the services are decent. The staff also speaks English, so in case I’m in emergency of not finding the right words in Japanese, I could still communicate with them. As for flying, if your trip is also heading to Japan, then I really recommend JAL. Their flight is so comfortable, they have the nicest flight attendants, the food is great, and you’re basically in for a really enjoyable time (Bonus point: if you’re an Arashi fan like me, they do endorse this airline, so it’s extra excuse to choose it!).
STUDY THE ROUTES
Before arriving in Tokyo, I studied extensively the Metro and JR routes from and to the places I was going to be in. I may have been there before, but the public transportation is something new to me, so I made sure I researched a lot about it. There are apps now that can help us do this. I especially found the Tokyo Metro app super helpful (and it’s available in English), because it gives me information about the line I have to take to get to somewhere, as well as the price of the ticket. From my experience, I ended using mostly the Metro service, because the trains come more frequently.
I thought going around the city by train would be intimidating, since my first time taking the JR Yamanote line train in 2013 was super intimidating. But it really wasn’t. Trains and train stations are no longer confusing; it is so very easy to navigate yourself. Some of my most memorable moments were moments I spent walking in and around the subway stations. I just felt like I was really a part of Tokyo there.
I think it is recommended to get a tourist ticket pass that you can use to get on most of the train services. I believe, there are some available based on the duration of your stay, either for Metro or JR. However, I refrained from taking a tourist pass like this, because I wanted the “buying-ticket” experience from the machine, but it seems like a really good deal to take that pass.
Also, don’t forget to consider the transportation you’re going to use from and to the airport, especially if you travel with a considerable amount of luggage. You’ll never get the actual idea until you get there, but it’s always better to know what to expect. As for traveling from and to Narita Airport, the most popular choices are either the Narita Express train or the Airport Limousine Bus. It’s considerably more expensive than taking the normal trains, but it’s very convenient because you don’t have to transit anywhere. I took the bus to get to Tokyo when I arrived, and the train to go back to Narita for my departure to come home. The price is similar, and both provide much needed ease for a solo traveler. Both services have fixed schedule and routes that you can easily look up online according to your needs.
Since we’re going to depend solely on ourselves, we must make use of the technology we have in our hands. The maps, apps, and social media access are very important in surviving solo-traveling. A lot of the times, I was saved from confusion and loneliness because I made the wise decision to make sure that my phone was always connected to the Internet. Now, this sounds very basic, but sometimes we forget about this thing, especially when going abroad. Check with your local provider to get the best deal to keep use of all the services available on your phone―there must always be something that’s convenient for your need. Or, if you plan to stay for a bit longer, get a local number from your destination. If you have to pay extra, then pay extra. Put it in your budget, because believe me, it is worth it, not only for your day-to-day survival, but also for in any case of emergency.
Also, if we can, bring two kinds of portable devices, in case something happens with our main one. I had my phone acting up twice on the two times I went to Germany, for Lord knows what reason. So this time, I made sure I had my iPad as back-up if anything happens again to my phone.
ENGAGE WITH SOCIAL MEDIA
The other benefit of staying connected, other than being convenient, is also because we can update our online following about our whereabouts, post pretty pictures, and tweets out thoughts as they happen. I actually made a playlist for the whole trip and decided to post a picture to go with every song–it’s a really nice way to immortalize the whole experience.
I honestly did not feel so alone during my trip, because I pretty much had my online friends for every single step of the way. If your trip, like mine, is a fangirling trip, then by all means, reach out to your fandom. I believe they’re the nicest people and will relate a lot to what you experience. I was so lucky and blessed to have the nicest, small portion of the Arashi fandom on Twitter with me on my trip―they were so sweet and supportive. It made the trip extra fun, really.
Posting things about your trip as it happens on social media also will create a nice, authentic recording of of the trip that you can always look back on.
DO A DAILY REVIEW
Now this is just my preference on doing things, but I found doing a daily review of what I was up to was helpful in making me soak the whole experience. Being alone gave me a lot of chance to really think through my impression towards Tokyo, the activities that I did, the people that I interacted with, and so on. I felt pictures were inadequate to immortalize everything, because the gems really were the thoughts swimming in my head. So, immediately on my first day, I got a little notebook and started writing bits and pieces that I found interesting from my experience there―basically, like journaling. I ended up not really finishing it, because after all, I was busy doing things, but the process of writing even just a little bit of that helped me remember the bigger picture better.
In addition, I also did daily reviews about my spendings, to keep track on how much damage and sins I committed in terms of financial spending. It is wise to keep and ask for every receipt if you’re paying for anything, so you know for sure, the flow of your cash. I mean, you wouldn’t want to end up with only 3,000 yen in your wallet on your last day when you haven’t bought your 3,100 yen worth of train ticket to the airport, would you? I learned my lesson, and it is all part of learning to control oneself.
ADAPT AND ENJOY
There is always going to be a moment when what you have planned into the tiniest detail cannot actually be done the way you wanted it to be, for whatever reasons. Yes, we have made a really detailed plan, but never be afraid to adapt our schedule to fit the reality of the place we are coming to. Be flexible. Once you get to the place you’re going to, you’ll feel the actual flow of the place, and you’ll know whether or not you have to shuffle your master schedule. The whole point about making a really detailed schedule earlier was to give us more extra time to do impulsive fun things that weren’t exactly planned.
Just an illustration; because of the fact that the time I actually spent on the things I listed was less than what I originally allocated on the schedule, I managed to sneak in time to visit Ebisu Garden Place on my first day (not on the itinerary, but visited because I had extra time in the afternoon), Hikawa Shrine in Azabu-Juuban (also not on the itinerary, but after reshuffling some items on the list, I had the second day morning empty, so I figured, why not?), and I also did a really impulsive 9 p.m. showing of 「君の名は」 on my last night in Tokyo (totally not planned, but I did it after realizing there’s a cinema near my ryokan).
The point is, planning all of the details is very necessary, so that the trip flows nicely and we’re prepared to face any kind of opportunities, chances, problems, and whatnot. However, the whole point of going on the trip is for us to enjoy ourselves. Don’t stress about it. Take slow steps. Really look at the views, as if it’s your first time, as if you’ll never see it again. Cherish the solitude. Listen to yourself. Live for yourself.