I stood frozen at the ticket machine, commuters rushing past me, staring at the two tickets that came out of the machine. I had just arrived by ferry from Korea and was trying to get to Hiroshima, a little over an hour away on the bullet train. The characters on the tickets made no sense to me, and neither did the signs in the station. And why did I have two tickets when I only bought one? I stood there wondering how I could be such an experienced world traveler, and within minutes of arriving in my 40th country I was rendered completely helpless.
After searching for an open Japan Rail office but only finding a shopping mall, I decided to go through the turn-style with the hope of receiving help on the other side. I finally found a railroad worker who stamped one of my tickets and just said “twelve” repeatedly. I rushed to platform twelve and, with the help of a friendly non-English-speaking Japanese couple, confirmed that the train was going to Hiroshima. Finding my seat was another adventure, but I made it to Hiroshima that night.
During the past three months of travels, I had many moments when I was surprised by my own ineptitude. There were the many times I got lost on Seoul’s metro, despite the colorful maps in each station. And there was the time I leisurely enjoyed my coffee and fancy pastry at the Shinjuku Station in Tokyo before catching a train to Nagano, only to realize that I was at the wrong station for my reserved ticket. I did find a local train to the right station and rushed to the correct platform just in time to see my train pulling away (Japanese trains always run on time!)
There were rooms that I booked that I later regretted choosing (I now draw the line at capsule hotels), and poor planning that led to being stuck in places where there wasn’t much to see or do. My one night in Hong Kong turned into spending most of my time waiting in lines in hot, humid weather.
I was never robbed or even felt unsafe during any of my travels through Mexico, Korea, Japan, or Hong Kong, but I did manage to lose umbrellas, my favorite hat, and a pair of glasses. I just cannot keep track of accessories! In Mexico, I learned the hard way to always have my passport on me.
And despite writing about the benefits of solo travel, there were periods of feeling alone and wishing for a travel companion, especially during my whirlwind tour of Japan. I didn’t learn more than “hello” and “thank you” in Japanese, which added to the feeling of isolation.
Although there were some lows during my travels, there were many highs, several of which I’ve written about in previous posts. Most involve interactions with other people, some of them very fleeting, and others that have led to new friendships.
In a mostly hot, humid, and frustrating time in overcrowded Hong Kong, I found a welcoming oasis of healthy and delicious food. The Pakistani family that ran their newly opened restaurant warmly welcomed me and insisted I try everything. I did, and left with a full belly, a warm heart, and a changed attitude.
So, what have I learned from the past few months of travel? If I had to sum it up, here are the top things I want to remember for my next trip.
- Don’t be complacent. Double check travel times, documents, routes, etc. But still expect to make mistakes now and then.
- Hot, humid weather plus large crowds = frustration. Avoid if possible. Head to the hills, the jungle, anywhere where there are fewer tourists.
- Sometimes an attitude adjustment is necessary. Meeting local people who have a positive outlook on life, despite living in challenging circumstances, can really help put things into perspective.
- A missed flight or a long wait for a delayed bus, or even an unexpected minor car accident, are just opportunities to slow down and learn more about the lives of locals or fellow travelers. When stuck in a packed elevator for twenty minutes in Seoul, our group started singing.
- Learn as much of the language as possible and use it every chance you get, without fear of embarrassment. Smiles are guaranteed.
- My 28-liter backpack for six weeks in Mexico was a bit small. The 40-liter backpack I brought to Asia became overstuffed and a burden at times. My conclusion is that there is no perfect backpack because you’ll fill whatever size you bring, but the less you bring the better!
- Be smart but don’t stress about safety. Honestly, I don’t carry any special items to hide my valuables. My wallet stays in my back pocket because that’s what I’m used to. There are no locks on my backpack because I carry it on or take the valuables out before checking it if I need to. If strangers talk to me, I am happy to engage with them and learn about their lives, and I’ve never regretted it.
If you’ve made it this far, here are “a few” photos from other places I visited in Japan. As always, thanks for following along!