It’s Saturday morning. You pick up the newspaper and open the travel section. As a travel writer, this weekend ritual can be research, but once in a while, there’s also regret. Regret that you did not pitch the story that is now in front of you, often written beautifully. Regret that you did not take an idea that has been floating around in the back of your mind and turn that into a pitch and turn that into a story.
That was my experience this morning, opening up the travel section of the New York Times and seeing Stephanie Rosenbloom’s thoughtful cover story, “Solo in Tokyo”. Last October, I spent a few solo days in Tokyo, immediately after a typhoon, just like Rosenbloom. I met up with friends of friends and interviewed a couple people, but mostly I wandered. I reveled in the quiet Rosenbloom mentions in her story. I waited in line early in the morning at the Tsukiji fish market for sushi. A lack of ability to communicate meant that I didn’t have to, and the variety of options for a solo diner — from sushi to soba to ramen — meant that dining solo was not only a possibility, but everywhere. You couldn’t avoid it.
I became a travel writer because I wanted to be inspired about seeing the world through words, and hopefully write some of those words myself. After reading and relishing Rosenbloom’s take on the solo in Tokyo experience, I wanted share some of my own experiences.
My first rich memory of Japan is of a bowl of udon noodles. At 4am. After the 13+ hour flight to Tokyo from JFK, and the journey from Narita Airport into the city, I arrived at my hotel in early evening. After a restless flight, my body was clueless on the time, my mind foggy. A typhoon was on its way and the rain was already pelting down, so I didn’t feel a twinge of guilt for hitting the sack before 7pm. I woke in the middle of the night, starving, and rang room service. Barely 20 minutes later there was a soft knock on my door. My understanding of the potential for room service was shattered during this moment. The simple bowl of noodles was delivered on a hand carved tray. The delicate bowl itself was a work of art. The thick noodles were perfectly chewy, still steaming hot, as if the kitchen was just a few doors away from my room (it was in fact, several floors away). I washed it down with tea from a squat pot. Pouring each small cup was in itself a pleasure. With a storm still rattling outside, I scribbled lists and marked maps, plotting my solo wander through Tokyo.
There are many rumors about travel in Japan that were repeatedly disproven during my trip. I was warned about language barriers, about the difficulty of the Tokyo metro system, about standing out as a young blonde woman. I had heard that food and drink in Tokyo were prohibitively expensive, that finding an exact address is next to impossible. None of this turned out to be true. In the most obscure, tiny ramen shop recommended by a friend, the only employee came out from behind the counter to help with the ticket machine (how you order ramen in many local shops) and explain the options in perfect English. The Tokyo metro system was easier to navigate than New York, with every single sign also in English, and helpful employees with basic English stationed throughout. As a young blonde woman traveling solo, I have never felt so blissfully invisible, wandering at my own pace without a single comment or cat call, something that can’t be said of my home city. While expensive food and drink absolutely do exist, so do remarkably cheap and filling bowls of ramen, smoky yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), and affordable mugs of frothy local beer. You can order a single piece of sushi from a machine and it will be delivered on a conveyer belt straight to your seat.
One afternoon I followed the advice of a friend and took the subway out to Kappabashi, a shopping street known for supplying restaurants (not ingredients, but plates, bowls, knives, tea pots, silverware, and much more). During the few hours I spent exploring shop after shop, I didn’t encounter another native English speaker. No one pressured me to buy. Shop owners could speak about the craftsmanship of special pieces and the durability of every day ones. I watched people haggle over insanely expensive knives, and watched as knives were sharpened.
When we travel solo, we make new friends. One rainy evening I stood outside Kichijoji, a train station outside central Tokyo, awaiting a friend-of-a-friend, an American from Chicago who now calls Tokyo home. After hugs and greetings, I followed my local guide across a narrow road and into a maze of alleys called Harmonica Yokocho, home to rows of tiny bars. One bar held just a handful of stools, others could squeeze in 10 or 12 people raising heavy mugs of beer. Many of these bars have an open face, making them an ideal spot to cozy up with a few friends and a table full of beer with the simple purpose of watching the rain fall.
When our glasses were empty, we marched on to our dinner reservation at Momokichi, known specifically for one thing: grilled chicken. We took off our shoes and sat at a sunken table, with groups of locals around us expertly tearing through the chicken with chopsticks. The amount of warm smiles I received throughout my trip to Tokyo was particularly memorable, as if restaurant employees and bartenders and shop owners genuinely cared whether or not I enjoyed myself. The Japanese obsession with perfection shows in the fact that restaurants commonly specialize in a dish and are experts in every nuance of their chosen focus. This devotion results in a certain pride in what is served, a pride that is present on the face of waiters who place a dish in front of you. The dish is the result of endless experimenting and time, the result of many failures, or many mediocre dishes that showed room for improvement. At Momokichi, that dish was a grilled chicken leg with the crispiest skin I’ve ever seen. In the center of the table, plates were full of triangles of sticky rice and a halved cabbage, for dipping in the chicken drippings. Simplicity had never tasted so layered and satisfying, the moist chicken and crunchy cabbage and cold beer all playing off one another. The wind and rain outside had picked up, meaning no one was in a rush to go anywhere. Tables began to interact, more rounds of drinks were ordered, the waiters began to chat to tables at length. In the best possible way, I felt very far from home.
Eventually it was time for the restaurant to close. The rain hadn’t let up at all, and the wind was whipping with such intensity to render an umbrella useless. For that first night out in Tokyo, it was all a part of the city’s charm. We dashed from awning to awning, trying to find patches of coverage during the walk back to the train station. Puddles played with neon lights and red lanterns glowed and reflected in the water. Waiting for my train, a stylish young couple saw me looking at a map. “Can we help you get where you’re going?” they asked with a smile.