On my second last day in Japan, I missed my bus from Osaka to Tokyo that was meant to drop me off in the morning at Shinjuku. This would give me enough time to do some last minute shopping for my family and friends, retrieve my watch that I left behind at my last AirBNB host and get pancakes with Natsuki (who is now in the running to be Miss World Japan). In a panic, I searched HYPERDIA for another solution. Luckily there was a sleeper train called the Sunrise Seto connecting Osaka to Tokyo.
When I arrived at the station, I was dismayed to find out that I couldn’t purchase a ticket for this train because the ticket office had closed. After a lot of begging and communicating via emojis (the international language) to tell him I had to catch this train or else I would miss my flight, he decided to contact head office to see if he could sell me the ticket instead. Luck swung my way and I was soon on board.
The sleeper train is not the most spacious of trains – you could essentially be cuddling up next to another person getting that feet-tickling-feet experience. But the best part is that you get to lie down. There aren’t really seats on this train. Just a place to make your bed and sleep, which I was grateful for as it had been a long night.
Before I figured out the best position to curl up into a ball and pretend that I hadn’t just blown $120 to get on this train, I spent most of my time looking outside the window next to where I slept. It was magical being able to lie down on this bed that was nothing more than a floor and blankets and watch the cities, towns and lights roll by. I’d occasionally catch a glimpse of a lone wanderer walking in the darkness. They would stare at the train as it sped by, their eyes darting back and forth studying the locomotion.
I would see myself in these people – the loneliness of travelling solo. It seems like my time in Japan was but an exercise in loneliness. However, although I was alone I never really felt it. Maybe in moments where I sat alone amongst couples making out underneath the summer stars, but I always felt connected to others. The realisation that everybody had something to share about themselves or about something was my main motivation – even though my Japanese is pretty terrible. Even without conversation, the energy between people is inevitable, which is what I decided to focus my camera on. Even the inner “wow” that you constantly feel is enough to edge away the isolation. Or perhaps Japan is just one of the best places to be alone in with its endless sources of entertainment.
I recently had a person message me on my Facebook page asking me about what he should expect on his first solo trip to New York and how it could change his life. He has never travelled before except with company. I first ensured him that because there will be no language barrier, he won’t have to fear so much. Just don’t let the noise of the city get to you, overwhelm you, and begin to take the city in just one building at a time. Don’t stop to study too much, but let your eyes wander and see what naturally perks your curiosity. But his questions made me reflect upon what it means to have a “life-changing journey”.
In Japan, my change was having the opportunity to deconstruct the idea of myself that I held in Sydney and start picking up pieces of things, culture, and inspiration that I would have never found back at home. Yes, this metaphor can also be applied to shopping (I bought a lot of clothes). Japan gave me more confidence over my decisions, something you really need to have when you travel alone. It brought back my love for music, especially hip-hop and rap, after I had the opportunity to perform at a jazz bar. My thought processes have definitely changed just from being in a place where there is so much choice and everything is so accessible – except gaijin unfriendly bars. When I first came to Tokyo I didn’t enjoy that much, but immersion is like art. You look at something for long enough in a gallery and it becomes beautiful or ugly or vice-versa.
However, I think the key for me was to never think of the journey as life-changing. I am a huge believer of coming into things without a preconception of how it will go. Of course, it’s natural for some things like a first date or a first trip, but I would rather save myself the disappointment and let myself become fully immersed in the culture, the people and, most importantly, the food. Then when I was finally alone on the plane home, back in my bedroom, I can look at myself and see what has changed.
The train has stopped. A lone stranger sitting in a station waiting room looks at me. The tungsten lights emit a white haze over him. I later realise he’s smoking. He puts out his cigarette, but doesn’t get on the train. He just holds his gaze, trapped in a moment that doesn’t feel the night or day. The train rolls away again and the connection breaks, the loneliness settles in again. I think of him. Perhaps he wasn’t truly alone, just on a midnight stroll to smoke away his thoughts before he returned home to the warmth of family.