Lara dashed out of the U.S. (in disguise?) to celebrate her big birthday overseas (Photo: Thinkstock)
“You need to start thinking about planning your 40th,” said my friend Chuck as he gazed out upon his own gigantic 40th-birthday celebration. His featured an open bar, a seated lunch, a DJ, a dessert table, and about 150 of his closest friends.
I was about 34 at the time, so the only response he got was a dirty look. Maybe an eye roll. But as my 40th approached, I noticed a lingering feeling of mild panic. Not about actually turning 40 but about throwing a party. I’ll spend any party thrown in my honor worrying about whether everyone else is getting along and having fun. My neuroses suck the enjoyment out of the whole thing.
So I thought, “Why spend a bunch of money on other people throwing a party I won’t enjoy when I can spend the money on myself?”
Now, I could’ve bought myself some bauble or luxury item. But that would not have solved the problem of well-meaning friends who wanted to throw me a party because they love parties. To escape the party situation, I would have to get out of town. And one night, as I was listening to Gwen Stefani on my workout mix (from the couch), I thought, “I’ve always wanted to see a real live Harajuku girl.”
Expect the unexpected during a solo trip to Japan. (Photo: Universal Studios)
So I pulled up my frequent-flier account to see if I had enough miles to take me to Japan. I clearly hadn’t been anywhere in a while, because not only did I have enough to get to Tokyo, I had enough to get there first class! But I had to book immediately. I didn’t have time to wait for friends to see if they had enough money, or could get the time off of work, or even felt like going. So $48 later, I was the proud owner of first-class, round-trip tickets from Newark to Tokyo. And because I booked more than four months in advance, I got a 20 percent discount to stay at the Cerulean Tower in Shibuya (about $380/night).
Now, I couldn’t expect that lightning would strike twice for a potential traveling companion. And that kind of ticket normally goes for about $10,000. So I decided to go it alone.
Lara’s early planning enabled her to score a sweet (and discounted!) room at Tokyo’s Cerulean Tower (Photo: Teruhiro Kataoka/Flickr)
Here’s the thing: Castles are fine, forts bore the crap out of me, and museums make me tired. What I love more than anything else is a grocery store in a foreign country. I love a mall. I love a weird, kitschy store. I love people watching and wandering city streets. And Tokyo has everything that I love, in a very high concentration, plus a good subway system so I don’t threaten the locals with my bad driving. Even better, Tokyo has a lot of counter-style restaurants full of single diners. So you don’t have to feel like a weirdo eating alone.
So I boarded my first-class flight and headed to Tokyo.
Japan greeted the birthday girl with open arms… and this sign (Photo: Lara Naaman)
The first thing I encountered when I landed is something you can really only enjoy alone: a real live Japanese toilet. See these buttons on the side? They can spray your undercarriage using two different methods! And for those who get shy in public restrooms? Noise-canceling sound effects! Don’t even get me started on the “powerful deodorizer.”
High-tech relief in a Tokyo bathroom (Photo: Lara Naaman)
As soon as I could figure the subway out (which took about five minutes), I made a beeline for the grocery store. A travel companion might not be so jazzed about this crazy saltine-berry gelato for breakfast. Or this blowfish carpaccio for lunch. And I wasn’t too interested in sharing one of these delicious yet crazy lady-shaped doughnuts.
“Lady-shaped doughnuts” (Photo: Lara Naaman)
Sure, Japan has some mind-boggling art and history that you can see in the Tokyo National Museum. But I don’t need anyone to make me feel guilty about missing it to take selfies while wearing these amazing accessories at the Tokyu Hands’ “creative life store.”
40 looks good on Lara. But this hat…?(Photo: Lara Naaman)
And at the mall two blocks away, I finally saw real live Harajuku girls. They were everything I imagined and more.
(Photo: Lara Naaman)
Finally, on my actual birthday, I did something that very few people would want to join me for: a visit to an authentic Japanese cat café. You pay about $6 to hang out with dozens of cats for half an hour. It’s my birthday and I’ll be a crazy cat lady if I want to.
Turns out, cats in Japan can’t sing “Happy Birthday” either (Photo: Lara Naaman)
Aren’t you glad I didn’t invite you, now?
Look, traveling alone can seem scary to some, but if you share pictures on social media, people comment so much that it’s like traveling with all of your friends. Only you’ll be able to shut them off whenever you want to.
And if you’re not looking forward to aging another year, you can look forward to an amazing trip instead — one where you’ll get to do whatever you want. No matter what, you’ll win your birthday from now on.