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Going it alone in a foreign land

To friends, I framed my upcoming solo trip to Japan as an elaborate success: a woman unexpectedly dumped, taking off on her own to climb up hills and meditate. Inside, I was terrified. 

I never planned to travel around rural Japan alone. The youngest of three children, raised in a house filled by our own squawking, tempers and glee, I have never been good with my own company. My greatest fear is loneliness, mostly because when it strikes, I am bad at making it go away. I get restless, then melancholic.

I didn’t think I would be going by myself when I booked the flights. They were a last grasp at unity in a long-term relationship that, until then, I hadn’t realised was deteriorating; six weeks after catching a British Airways bargain it was all over.

It turned out that the flights were cheap (if not quite cheap enough to write off entirely) because they were non-refundable – along with the mid-century furniture we’d bought off the internet, and the rest of the time and money I’d invested into a future that wasn’t to be.

Eventually I acknowledged I would be spending two weeks alone. I began tracking down obscure guest houses in mountain-side villages and Google-translating reservation requests. I devoted myself to practical questions: which national parks were open off-season? What kind of funicular ran on Thursdays? I wrote an exhaustive itinerary, as if I was taking myself on a one-woman package holiday. At certain junctures, it included steps such as “eat snacks!” and “check in, chill out, fill journal with observations of the day”. I printed three copies. Then, 48 hours before the flight, a heavy and undeniable gloom began to set in.

I wasn’t able to explain how scared I was – it was only a fortnight, after all. To friends, I’d framed the entire holiday as an elaborate success: here I was, a woman unexpectedly dumped, taking off on her own to climb up hills and meditate. My own shameless version of Eat, Pray, Love; an attempt to gain some peace in the midst of a tumultuous and bruising year. And yet, all I really wanted to do was fly off with my ex, or a friend, or, frankly, a friendly stranger.

As I checked in at Heathrow, the whole thing felt like a laughable and expensive punishment. I boarded the plane, settling in next to the seat where my old boyfriend would have been, had he boarded the flight. I reread my itinerary every 30 minutes of the 13-hour flight. And as the plane descended through the clouds, I saw Japan. It was the end of winter. The trees were still bare, strange ghosts of a buff pinkish grey surrounding tiled roofs.

I arrived at a former kimono warehouse in a concrete-covered coastal city called Kanazawa. Travel journalists gushingly describe it as a “new discovery”, and it still has the air of a place that has suffered a sudden injection of tourists, but doesn’t know what to do with them. I rented a heavy orange bicycle with a barely functioning lock and cycled along the river, passing sleeping cats, pot plants and empty plastic bags. I climbed the fire escapes of modernist, gleaming blocks of flats to get a better view of the sunset, purely because I could. I found myself a plate of boiled tripe and lotus root, and ate it while watching an enthusiastic cheese advert on a TV above the bar; the actress devouring gooey fondue the colour of custard.

The loneliness took hold a few days later, once the novelty of cycling around had faded. I spent a day travelling to Mount Koya, a settlement of temples that can attract hordes of pilgrims in the summer, but in early March was snow-laden and deserted. Here, the possibility of stumbling into a charming local eatery after dusk wasn’t on offer, so I filled up on tonkatsu (breaded pork) and rice at 4pm before wandering the empty streets. The whole village sprawled out from one long main road, and I slowly paced it in an attempt to occupy the fearsome stretch of evening.

Pine trees pierced the orange sky. I felt like an extra on an abandoned film set. I panicked about how I would spend the time once the sky had darkened, and considered packing up and heading down the mountainside to Osaka, where I might find comfort in bright lights and fellow tourists.

I didn’t speak to anyone – in person, or online – for 24 hours. Instead, I sat with my thoughts in total silence. It was agonising. I felt stupid and fraudulent: I had failed at something so simple. The boredom was exhausting. I thought about going to bed, before realising it was 7.30pm. I wished the time away. The clock hands seemed only to slow more stubbornly.

The next afternoon, the skies changed abruptly and dramatically – it was either sunny or snowing. I lost time in Okunoin, the centuries-old cemetery Koya is famed for, home to more than 250,000 gravestones and the forest that, each year, takes them into its mossy undergrowth. The cemetery opens with bombastic corporate tombs dedicated to adored professionals – a towering missile represents a rocket company, a slab is engraved “Panasonic Corporation” in both English and Kanji – but offers more humble and poignant markers further into the woodland. Dozens of little statues wear red capes and knitted cardigans, placed by the parents of miscarried and stillborn children to mark their loss. I walked up some steps, through the trees, to find an open field full of billowing yellow grass, dreamlike and nonsensical. I walked back to the monastery carrying a hot bag of spaghetti bolognaise that the polite 7/11 cashier had microwaved for me. There was no epiphany. But that evening I felt more settled.

As the trip unfolded, I woke up early and took long, hot soaks in the onsen. I finally abandoned my cruel mistress, the itinerary, and gave up notions of writing. I sat with my thoughts and realised they weren’t so bad once I’d given them some space to unfurl. When I stopped seeing my time alone as something to fill and accomplish, I was able to stretch out in it. I understood, finally, how fortunate I was to have it.

I learned plenty from that solo adventure: the small glory of not being accountable for anybody else, of simply getting up and doing, of allowing one’s mind to hush and still. I have another one coming up. No internet, no electricity. Just three nights in a cabin by the sea. 

Alice Vincent’s “Rootbound: Rewilding a Life” is published by Canongate on 30 January

This article appears in the 24 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people