During my solo trip to Japan I stumbled on a Human’s of New York post about another young man doing his own first solo trip. He said he felt isolated and saw all the sights you were supposed to see but felt empty. Still, through the trip he had learned who he was. After reading that I wondered if I was doing something wrong. I was having a perfectly enjoyable time and didn’t know if I was learning anything.
Solo travel was not an epiphany for me. It was a unique experience and one that people probably have varying degrees of tolerance for. I already think I have the habits of a social hermit. I organize outing and game nights with friends, but also enjoy quiet evenings alone and will explore museums or festival by myself if I don’t have anyone to go with.
I was hoping that the solo trip would prod me out of my introvert ways, but it didn’t. I was perfectly chatty with people on the couple of day tours I took, but I never started a conversation with any strangers, save to ask for directions in broken Japanese.
I did feel more deliberate in my reactions though. When I toured a temple or wandered a museum, there was no one there to converse with, or give cues to help me assign meaning or emotion. I had to assign my own.
That’s not to say that we don’t already do this on some level or that other people pollute our untainted feelings, but they do influence them. A bad movie is made enjoyable when you have a friend to joke about it, just as a tasty meal is made painful when you’re sharing it with your ex. Going alone I had to search more for meanings, find my own amusement in what was happening around me.
It wasn’t always easy. The trip ebbed and flowed and there were times, especially in the crowded deluge of people that is Tokyo, that I did feel isolated or out of place. The awkwardness of a faux pas, can sting more when you’re by yourself. It reminds you of just how far away from home you really are. You can let that paralyze you or you can seek the humor in it, laugh at your own absurdity. That’s true for the whole trip, you have to find your joy. Sometimes it pops out at you like playing an arcade game in Akihabara, other times that’s harder, like when you have to lug a heavy suitcase through the rain in Kyoto after mistakenly going to the wrong hotel and being too stubborn to take a taxi to the right one.
Even if you like yourself it can be exhausting to spend so much time alone. We’re social creatures. One of the joys of seeing new sights was thinking about how I wanted to share them with my friends and family. Meals in particular were flat without others there to enjoy them with. I ate my food and then sat there, feeling full, but unsatisfied. Rather than formal meals by the end I opted more for street food or quick ramen dishes, a burst of flavor that didn’t require the formality of sitting down at a restaurant.
There where things that were easier though. I took everything at my own pace, made my own itinerary and bedtime. I never had to wait for someone else or visit something I didn’t want to see. I became almost too frantic in my exploration averaging ten miles a day of walking in Tokyo. I had to learn to take it easy and relax in a park every now and then. I had to listen myself and be honest.
I solo traveled to Japan because I wanted to visit it and was tired of waiting. I didn’t go to find myself or to recover from trauma. I can’t say if solo travel will help with that. I don’t think if you seek an epiphany you’ll necessarily find one, but you’re probably more likely to feel one if you’re looking for it.
Likewise loneliness feels the same across the ocean as it does at home. Travel opens up new experiences, lets you see new ways of living and introduces new challenges, but we already live in a society that promotes the individual. We tell ourselves that we need to break away from the world to discover who we are. I don’t think that’s true. If we are multitudes then there’s no true self. We are combination, the you you are with your friends and family is as valid a you as the one that wanders alone. If solo travel taught me anything, it’s that I’m happy with both versions of me.