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Next morning, I was trying to connect street signs to my map when a man stopped and asked in excellent English if he could help. "I'm trying to find Murin-an Gardens," I said. He said, "Murin-an—I've never been there. May I accompany you?" I felt awkward as we strolled along. Was he just being polite? Was he picking me up?

Turned out he wanted to practice his English and hear about America. When we left Murin-an, he said, "I admire the way you're traveling by yourself. Very interesting woman."

Energized, I divided the rest of my time in Kyoto between visiting gardens and getting lost (not without its own rewards). People were amazingly kind. As I stood baffled in front of train schedules I couldn't read, someone would always turn me in the right direction and show me how much change to put in the turnstile. Once, while a cop on a bicycle was giving me directions, it started to pour. Five minutes later, he caught up with me and handed me a plastic raincoat. So much for the cold Japanese.

Tokyo was a bigger challenge: It makes the New York subways at rush hour seem empty. Crowds push past you, smoking furiously, talking rapidly in—my God—Japanese. Ikebukero, the subway station nearest the hotel I was heading for, was so huge that it took me a full hour just to find my way out of it. After I got to my room, I carefully planned the last two days of my trip. The idea was: Stay close by. Get lost small.

Anonymity gave me freedom. When a headwaiter whom I'd asked for a table looked askance at my clothes, I realized that the New York principle of "black will take you anywhere" doesn't apply to a T-shirt and Reeboks. "This is a French restaurant, Madame," he said in English, implying that someone like me would be looking for something cheaper. "Bien sûr," I replied haughtily. I'd traveled from America to Tokyo—I could afford their damn lunch. Why didn't he assume I was rich and eccentric? I ordered a fine meal with excellent wine and began to feel rich and eccentric. I was seated by a window wall, through which I could see a waterfall and golden carp swimming. With my new attitude, I decided I would take a few photographs (maybe they'd think I was a photojournalist), and after a while, one of the waiters asked if I'd like him to take my picture. How about that? Total triumph.

Heading home, I realized that something had changed dramatically for me. I felt calmer and more confident. When I'm confronted with mundane terrors now, a little voice inside whispers: "What do you mean you're afraid? You spent a week alone in Japan." Who knows where I might go next?

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