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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