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My Tokyo Travel Experience

I was thrilled to make Japan the 30th country I visited before turning 30.

I believe goals are more than a hashtag, and for years, I had a personal goal of traveling to 30 countries by my 30th birthday—October 26, 2016. I had reached 29 countries by the end of summer, just months before the big three-oh, when I found an incredible flight deal to Tokyo. Long on my bucket list, Japan nevertheless seemed elusive. Though I’m an experienced traveler, it’s a brutal, jetlag-inducing 12-hour flight away, with a reputation for high prices. Always beyond my reach because of these boring, practical concerns, the country took on a fantastical quality in my imagination. Even mere days before leaving, the reality of the trip was still not quite sinking in.

photo by Mary Alice Daniel

In this state of disbelief, I forced myself to approach my six-day adventure by being mindful of my expectations. Before leaving, I made a list of fears I had: feeling out of place due to culture shock or outright racism, inadvertently committing a faux pas, having my space violated by overly curious strangers. These anxieties didn’t emerge from uninformed paranoia; they were stoked by listening to Black friends who’d traveled to Tokyo and shared accounts of distressing interactions.

photo by Mary Alice Daniel

Thankfully, my own experience defied my apprehensions and expectations in so many ways. As Japanese hospitality melted away my concerns about awkward interactions, I was able to focus on enjoying a bright new city—and on engaging it in unexpected ways. Because my traveling companion and I were there over Halloween weekend, the city was even more whimsical and off-kilter than it usually is. We were surprised to find Halloween parades taking over entire streets, as foreigners and locals alike reveled in extravagant costumes. We went off the beaten path and signed up for a Haunted Tokyo Walking Tour, a cheesy three-hour expedition to uncover the spirits lurking around the city. At the last stop, a shallow garden pool in a playground, our tour guide described a mythical beast who dragged passersby into its underwater lair—and, in graphic detail, revealed the X-rated anatomical preferences of its diet.

The sheer scale of Tokyo—with its endless avenues of exploration—meant I constantly grappled with dueling, conflicting emotions. “It’s vacation; I’m going to relax” versus “I have to run myself ragged seeing everything there is to possibly see.” I was with my best friend—an art major and avid gamer, who was most interested in manga, anime, and all-night arcades. My priority was getting to experience the street life—to absorb the energy of bustling markets and shrines during daylight, then barhop all night.

photo by Mary Alice Daniel

We found a happy medium by sampling a variety of attractions: museums and art galleries, teahouses and temples, parks and karaoke. A neighborhood we returned to again and again was Shibuya—home to the famous Shibuya Crossing, a pedestrian intersection that shepherds a staggering mass of humanity and might be the busiest in the world. Here, we visited a theme restaurant called Alcatraz ER. Before entering, I’d known it was a bar with an insane asylum concept where guests sit in cells and bang on metal bars for service. What I hadn’t known was that it is also a haunted house of sorts. Soon after we ordered what I can only describe as NC-17-rated beverages, the lights were cut off and hands grabbed at us in the dark. The sickly sweet and overpriced cocktails served with garnishes such as condoms or plastic severed fingers weren’t the major draw here—rather, it was the bar’s attention to gory details that made the atmosphere truly disturbing. It was a startling experience curated to unnerve and delight tourists.

photo by Mary Alice Daniel

Everyday experiences were just as memorable, such as the simple challenge of learning to navigate public transportation. Tokyo’s subway stations are also the busiest in the world (note how “busiest in the world” is a theme there)—such behemoths that we needed Google Maps to simply find the correct exit. My carefully crafted itinerary was replaced with hours of being lost in various parts of the city. We soon grew comfortable wandering around lost and developed a taste for exploring the city on foot. We stumbled upon a cat café and spent an afternoon cuddling kittens on overstuffed cushions. At a street fair, we bought stationery from a young graphic artist. Instead of eating at restaurants with reviews I’d carefully scoured beforehand, we simply ate at outdoor izakayas—informal taverns packed with locals.

The sheer scale of Tokyo—with its endless avenues of exploration—meant I constantly grappled with dueling, conflicting emotions.

Tokyo is a study in contrasts. Like and unlike coexist to create a vibe that is unexpected, but it all somehow works. Its architecture is a blend of the hyper-modern and the traditional—an amazing mix of the futuristic alongside the ancient. When we ventured to the neon playground of a district called Akihabara Electric Town, a gamer’s paradise that looks like Times Square on steroids, we were surprised by what we found when we ducked into a high-rise building to escape sensory overload. An elevator ride a few floors up transported us to a quaint restaurant with polished wood paneling, paper sliding doors, and tables low to the ground at which we tried whale and sea urchin. There were moments when I wasn’t sure if a person was wearing a Halloween costume or a fashionista’s bold new look. The street style was that daring and eclectic, an aesthetic echoing throughout the cityscape.

photo by Mary Alice Daniel

I was right to have set Tokyo apart in my imagination as someplace different—even surreal. It’s full of surprises, defiant of expectations, and a place you have to experience for yourself. It was the perfect city to spend an amazing 30th birthday night, in a swanky hotel bar overlooking the illuminated Tokyo Tower, a glittering monument inspired by the Eiffel Tower. The Sky Lounge Stellar Garden boasts a glamorous, dramatic view—one I’ll never forget. My best friend and I toasted our lychee martinis to the anniversary of my birth and to adding another stamp to my passport.

The goal of reaching 30 countries by 30 was symbolic but not arbitrary—it has encouraged me to travel more. The more you see, the more you want to see. You meet travelers who give recommendations and urge you on; you make friends you want to visit overseas; you become more confident in your ability to navigate the whole world. Once you’ve been bitten by the travel bug, it never feels like enough, ever. Wanderlust fuels an intense drive to explore and discover. Thirty is just the beginning, and I have no plans to slow down.

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