Zainab loves to travel, and for as long as I can remember, she’s moved around the globe; living in London, the U.S, Nigeria, and most recently – Thailand. She’s no stranger to stepping out on her own and traveling solo, and I have always loved hearing about her travels. Today on Friendly Footprints, Zainab talks to me about a “magical” trip to Tokyo, Japan.

How did you decide on Japan as a destination?

The best decisions often come by chance. At the time, I was looking to kill two birds with one stone, so I optimistically added a second stop -Tokyo- as I planned my annual migration to Chiang Mai back in 2019. In what can only be attributed to the unpredictability of air fares, and luck being on my side that day, I found my golden ticket – a roundtrip route with two stops – in both Chiang Mai and Tokyo, and cheaper than the single destination alternative. Too good to be true, there was no way I was going to pass up that opportunity.

Part of the adventure of traveling is the uncertainty of what you’ll see, the things you’ll do, and who you’ll meet.

Zainab

I’ve always been interested in visiting Japan, particularly the Onsens, or hot springs. Like Iceland, Japan is very volcanically active, with thousands of Onsens scattered among its many islands, often with accompanying bathhouses. As someone who frequents bathhouses in the States, I was excited by the opportunity to explore them in Japan. 

Part of the adventure of traveling is the uncertainty of what you’ll see, the things you’ll do, and who you’ll meet. Following a little too much fun in Tokyo, I only ended up visiting one, but that leaves many to explore for next time.

Describe your experience to me in one word or phrase: Magical

Did you travel alone or with people? Solo, I like it best this way. As you’re not tied to someone else’s plans, this means you can do whatever you please. To diversify my experience, and keep from getting lonely, I always stay at local hostels, where it can be tough not to make acquaintances.

The morning after my arrival, Typhoon Hagibis raged down on Tokyo. All of a sudden, I was cooped up in a hostel with dozens of other solo travelers. With nowhere else to go, we arranged ourselves in the common room, sharing stories and watching movies until Hagibis had subsided. While frustrating at the time, looking back, it’s an extraordinary pleasure to have befriended a multitude of strangers, especially when you’re in the company of people from such diverse cultures and backgrounds.

What were some things you expected from Tokyo, and what things surprised you?

Even knowing this beforehand, I was totally awestruck by the level of cleanliness in Tokyo. While outside, I caught myself wondering whether I should take my shoes off. It’s just that clean. Even as an outsider, I could feel the pride that the Japanese take in their city.

The Tokyo Metro is virtually spotless. Undoubtedly a quality held in high regard; you could see the cleaners were proud of their work, sweeping with a near painstaking precision. The city seemed to reverberate with mutual understanding and shared cultural values. It’s a world away from any city I had ever lived before.

The toilets were certainly a shock. Nearly every one, private or public, was equipped with a bidet. And not just any bidet. These were über high-tech Toto bidets. I fell in love so fast and so hard that I rushed to purchase one when I returned to the States. 

What did you do first in Tokyo? 

Upon arriving, I got an internet travel router or “pocket-wifi” right away, and then took a bus to my hostel. After sleeping for a few hours and regaining my footing, I walked down the street to a local eatery and ordered some chili fried prawns with local beer. 

How did you go about planning your trip?

For the first time, I hired a fantastic travel planner named Jowee on Upwork to help me take full advantage of my time in Tokyo.  Not only did Jowee design a personalized and detailed itinerary, she also provided me with transportation instructions. I definitely needed them, as Tokyo is much larger than New York City and has a very dense and highly advanced transportation network. This was an enormous help to me, since I only had a week to explore and I didn’t want to spend my days worrying about how to get around the city.

Throughout my trip, I kept my itinerary with me as a loose guide, with plenty of room for adjustments and impromptu adventure-seeking. 

What aspects of Japanese culture did you experience and were there any similarities or differences to your own cultures?

Japan’s homogeneous culture is vastly different from that of the US. I found the Japanese to be extremely friendly, respectful and unified in the strong sense of respect and love for their country. 

From what I saw, they took immense pride in their work, and are far more welcoming to strangers. Whether it was a cashier at a small family eatery, a server at a yakiniku restaurant, or a bartender at the magical Golden Gai, people in Japan were consistently warm and hospitable.

What were your favorite things to eat, see and do?

Once I knew I was coming to Tokyo, I had to try Tsuta, the first ramen restaurant to ever win a Michelin star.

Where to start? For one, I fell madly in love with grilled meat from the yakiniku restaurants in Shinjuku. Even foods that I enjoy back in the US, like sushi and soba noodles, were appreciably better.

Once I knew I was coming to Tokyo, I had to try Tsuta, the first ramen restaurant to ever win a Michelin star. As soon as I tasted their soba noodles, I practically shivered with pleasure; melting in your mouth and saturated with flavor, the noodles were accompanied by a rich and full-bodied broth. If you’re ever in Tokyo, this restaurant is certainly worth the visit. 

Besides the food, the most interesting places I visited were the Meiji Jingu Shrine, The Golden Gai, Takeshita Street, Oedo-Onsen Monogatari, Taito Asakusa Temple, Tokyo Skytrain Town and Yokohama Chinatown. The above list contains a mix of cultural activities, religious heritage, and nightlife. 

Tell me about a memorable moment from your trip: A small area in Kabukicho, Shinjuku, the Golden Gai is renowned for its architecture and bustling nightlife. Formed of a network of six narrow alleys, the district is connected by increasingly narrow passageways, brimming with brightly colored shops and bars.

Lanterns and vivid signs illuminate small eateries tucked into nooks on either side of the alley. I walked about until I came upon a quirky bar that could only hold about a dozen patrons. Little did I know, I would be spending the rest of the evening singing karaoke alongside a group of young Irishman, drinking beer and laughing to our hearts’ content.

Another moment that comes to mind is visiting the only Nigerian restaurant in Shinjuku. After much research, I found the African Restaurant & Bar Esogie. After a week in Japan, I was in need of a hearty bowl of egusi soup and fufu – they didn’t disappoint. 

Above all else, was the Oedo-Onsen Monogatari. The hot springs were exquisite. Perfectly constructed Japanese gardens lead the way to tranquil indoor and outdoor pools. I began by soaking my feet in the cold pond and then headed over for a dip in the hot pool, outdoors and enveloped in steam. Stunning and relaxing, this moment was my absolute favorite. 

If you could rewind and relive your travels, what would you do differently?

Gosh, I would have stayed for longer. Even with the help of a travel planner, one week limited my travel radius to Shinjuku and the surrounding area. Next time, I hope to stay for at least three weeks, which will enable me to travel further afield, hopefully making it to neighboring cities or towns. Fuji, in particular, really excites me. 

And finally, when it’s safe to travel more freely, where are you looking forward to visiting next? I await the day. My next visit will be to Southeast Asia, where I hope to travel around the Banana Pancake Circuit. This travel route will take me through Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and lastly, my home away from home, Thailand. 

***

Memories to last a lifetime. Sometimes the best decisions (and moments) do happen when you least expect them to; like hunkering down with strangers during a Typhoon, and enjoying the company of people you might otherwise not have spoken to. I’m much more reserved than Zainab, but I will admit that making friends in a country you’re unfamiliar with can be, and has been a rewarding experience.

Thank you Z, for sharing your thrilling experience with me and all of my readers, I can’t wait to see where you go next. If you’d like to keep up with Zainab, she shares travel photos here, and is an incredible writer for hersoulheals.

If you travel solo, what’s your favorite thing about it? And if you don’t, would you like to? Why or Why not? Let’s talk in the comments section.

As always,

thank you for reading.

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Same Footprints, Different Sands

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