1) Being a tourist on your own can be lonely. I have no problem traveling for research or meetings or conferences. I'm pretty good at getting myself around; sure there are some false starts in the exact wrong direction, but I'm comfortable flying alone or jumping on a new subway or navigating a new city. Having something specific to do makes me feel like I belong in a place. But wandering around like a tourist is so much easier and so much more fun when you have someone else to do it with.
2) A good meal can fix anything (see #1). Really, it's the simple things in life that make such a difference. A good meal, clean clothes, a nice place to sleep, kind people...just turns your whole day around. That and a good itunes playlist. And wifi. But really, failing all else, good food is tops.
3) Always listen to One Bag Man. A number of years ago I discovered What to Pack and it's served me well. Basically, the guy who made the list believes that you never need more than one bag for a journey of any length, and "a checked bag is a lost bag." This time, I left a few key items at home, deciding that I wouldn't need duct tape, calamine lotion, or antibacterial gel in Japan. Wrong. Nonetheless, I have been happy with my bag choice for these two weeks (see #5).
4) Make a little effort. Or: the little things really do count. This one was learned on my first trip abroad with my mom - Ireland at age 10: make an effort to fit in and people will treat you differently. It's not just language (my Japanese is still not great, but is getting better, and I can tell that people really appreciate that I'm trying), but it's subtle things about how you dress and act. Of course, no one is ever going to mistake me for Japanese, but I've seen what a difference behavior can make. I'm amazed watching tourists who have not bothered to learn how to say excuse me or thank you, or to notice that they should bow and smile to Japanese people they meet or pass by. I had an interesting experience the other day on the train to Koya-san, a trip which is not an entirely straightforward affair, and in fact I made my own small train mix-up that was easily fixed. When I got on the right train, I sat down across from an Italian man who was very loudly, in English, trying to ask a young Japanese man about getting to Koya-san (the trip involves a cable car ride at the end of the line, and the Italian man was confused about the disparity in the name of stops). I cleared up the confusion for the Italian guy, and gave a nod to the young Japanese man who nodded back with a look of thanks. This interaction led the elderly Japanese man next to me to chat with me in Japanese, and later to tell me that I needed to move forward to another car as the train was going to split and our car would not go to the end of the line. I think that if I hadn't had the earlier interaction with the two Japanese men, no one would have told me to move up. Lesson: if you make an effort, people will notice and return the favor.
5) Backpacks rock. On my second trip abroad - to the UK with my mom for two weeks at age 15 - I learned a very important lesson while carrying our suitcases up and down stairs to train platforms: never travel with a suitcase. I've been a pretty committed backpacker since. For these two weeks, I'm traveling with a Jansport laptop backpack plus a smallish shoulder bag. I just can't believe the huge suitcases I see all the European tourists lugging around (the foreign tourists are mostly French, Italian, and German). I mean, how much do you really need to take with you? Of course, they are dressed better than me, and probably have more than one pair of shoes with them (see #6). But I'd rather have a smaller, more maneuverable bag than have more outfits. I did also bring with me to Japan a carry-on sized roller bag that friends loaned me. It was the perfect size and I was so pleased with my packing job. Then the handle to pull it broke in the Tokyo airport. If I'd only had duct tape (see #3)!
6) Keens rock. I decided at the last minute to leave my other two pair of shoes in Tokyo, so I've been all Keens sandals all the time for the last two weeks. You can hike in them. You can get them wet. You can get them muddy. You can run for the train and not fall in them. You can get them on and off fairly easily for all those in and out of building times. They are sandals, and yet they protect your toes, and give you the support of tennis shoes. They can do all this and more, and the soles don't even look worn. Only down side (and this is a fairly big one): they make your feel smell really bad. This despite their "antimicrobial technology" that is supposed to fight odor. No other shoes make my feet smell like this, so it's not me, it's them. But I am willing to overlook this deficiency (in this weather everything smells anyway) because otherwise they are the perfect travel shoes.
7) Clem Snide covering a classic life on the road song rocks. Readers of my blog know how much I love Eef Barzelay and his band Clem Snide. This just makes me love him even more. And by the way, I've always shamelessly loved Journey, it's not just a Glee bandwagon thing.
Clem Snide covers Journey