Some Practical Advice
On each trip as a solo traveler I learn more about myself—what I want and what I need. Japan presented special problems—most of which I had not anticipated, but it was immensely rewarding in spite of the challenges.
Japan was hard—language, food, weather, jet lag, crowds. I wouldn’t dream of tackling it on my own, and in hindsight I might have preferred seeing its major points of interest on day trips from a cruise ship. I had no idea how intensely I would dislike Japanese food. I have survived longer stays in China, India, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia without major dietary issues; and I have successfully navigated Japanese menus in the U.S. from time to time. But I don’t do raw, and sashimi twice a day was more than I could bear. I should have taken peanut butter crackers or other high-protein snacks to keep in my purse during all-day excursions.
And that’s where the language barrier was greatest. Little English is spoken in Japan, and very few signs and menus have any text in the Roman alphabet. As I told my grandson, a vegetarian, I cannot imagine his trying to ask if the tempura was fried in lard or vegetable oil and if the boiled vegetables were cooked in water or broth. Often, I had no clue what I was eating because much that was served—even vegetables—was unrecognizable. Salads, breads, Western-style desserts were almost nonexistent, though ice-cream cones were sold at almost every corner.
Fortunately, the tour company had booked us in luxury American-brand hotels, something I usually don’t want on foreign trips. In Tokyo we were on the club floor of the Ritz-Carlton, with a lounge that served breakfast, light lunch, tea, heavy hors d’oeuvres and late-evening desserts. Too hot and tired in the evenings to clean up and go out to dinner, most of the group elected to graze on whatever the lounge was serving. Hotel restaurants included some Western menu items, and I relied on room service far more than usual.
When I signed up for the trip a year ago, I did not check September weather patterns in Japan. I think of Japan as a temperate country, but Tokyo is about the same latitude as Oklahoma City and summer is typhoon season. Like the rest of the planet, Japan had record-breaking heat this summer. We were expecting the low 80s; instead it was about 10 degrees hotter, with humidity approaching 100 percent due to constant storms in the North Pacific. No one brought appropriate clothes. Some of the women had sleeveless dresses; otherwise, t-shirts and pearls seemed to be the style of choice. The Japanese women had it right, with their loose flowing silks.
Japan is 14 hours ahead of Texas. When it was 6 a.m. here, it was 8 p.m. there. In our 14-hour daytime flight over, we “lost” a day. I finally slept until 6 a.m. five days later; most on the trip took longer to recover from jet lag. I never felt up-to-speed; the combination of time change, heat and diet were too much.
I also was the oldest person in the group. The reality is that the boomers started traveling big-time when they hit their 60s, and they dominate most travel groups, just as they have been the pig in the python at every stage since I was a young child. In other words, the pace of group tours is based on the desires, interests and fitness of active 60-somethings. Those of us who are older need to keep up or else.
For the most part, I could keep up, but I’m a flatlander. Climbs—whether hills or stairs—are a challenge, especially with bad knees. While modern Tokyo presented few problems, the ancient shrines, temples and castles we toured from our Kyoto base were difficult. Though I did not make it to the top of every monument, my familiarity with hot, humid conditions at home and my two months of walking on Nantucket prepared me somewhat for the climate and terrain.
Nothing prepared us for the population density—10 million people in Tokyo, 30 million in its metropolitan area. Kyoto seemed like a small town in comparison, with about 1.4 million. All the tourist sites were mobbed, as were the trains and airports. Fortunately, the Japanese are a quiet, orderly, polite, clean people—no pushing, shoving, honking, litter or graffiti. We never had to worry about sanitation or hygiene. We safely drank the water and ate raw vegetables and fruit. We didn’t worry about mosquitos and tropical diseases.
What did I do right?
I joined a group from the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, led by the Asian art curator who has been to Japan many times. The trip was organized by ISDI and its representative had lived in Japan for several years. They were key to making the trip special. Travel with nonprofit affinity groups meets my needs best. We share common interests, and the trips are focused. I find participants friendly and welcoming of strangers, and institutional staff are committed to friend-making rather than profit-making.
What would I do differently?
- Go to Kyoto first. It is much more traditional, and its smaller size makes it easier to adjust to the language, food and weather. Its shrines and temples were far better than those I saw in Tokyo.
- End in Tokyo to see modern Japan, enjoy the shopping on Ginza, spend a day at the National Museum and eat at Western restaurants if you’re tired of Japanese food.
- Go in the fall or spring. The lowest rainfall is November through March, and even in January the average high is about 50 degrees. The cherry blossoms bloom for a week in April, the most crowded time of the year, when hotel rooms are expensive and hard to find. Instead, I’d probably opt for November when the hills surrounding Kyoto are said to be red with the leaves of the maple trees, in late winter when the camellias are in bloom or immediately after the cherry blossoms, when the azaleas bloom.
Last year I wrote a series of blogs about safe solo travel, and in the first blog I raised the question, Find a Friend or Go Alone?, where I discussed the value of travel with nonprofit groups. Click on the photo of suitcases for links to all 14 tips.
Originally I blogged every day, but that proved unrealistic and I have slowly reduced the schedule to Thursday blogs that focus on grief and widowhood. Travel is a huge part of my new single lifestyle, and I have spent far more time on the road and in the air this year than I have spent at home. But I don’t want travel blogs to take over. As I writer, I need to stay focused on the main thing. Therefore, I’m going to reserve Thursdays for blogs more specifically geared to widows and post travel blogs on Tuesday (think #TravelTuesday) whenever I have a trip or a place to write about.
Next Tuesday: “Searching for Your Happy Place?”—how to go about vacation home rentals, based on my experience on Nantucket.
For all my photos of Japan, visit my Facebook page here.