Going solo in Tokyo

The capital city of Japan has lots to offer the visitor travelling alone

At 4.30am, in the half-light of dawn, workers on the web of old streets that form the Tsukiji fish market in central Tokyo were sorting crates and coolers, setting up tables of king crab and dried seaweed.

I roamed until I spotted a long line. I couldn't see where it led, although I was certain it was to Sushidai. It is widely known that at this tiny restaurant, a breakfast of some of the world's freshest sushi begins with a multi-hour wait near a carpark.

It was July, the first morning after a typhoon that made the city feel like the tropics. An hour in line and I was light-headed. Two people in front of me left. So did the man in front of them. By the second hour, more people had disappeared. The sun rose; the herd thinned.

Then came a voice. "How many?" said the smiling woman who appeared at my side with a pad and pen. "One," I said.

She scribbled something and walked away. The sun, emerging after days of intermittent rain, was merciless. People were hunched on the kerb, hanging their heads as if awaiting jail time.

At one point, a man appeared, stood a few people behind me and said: "From here, you have to wait three hours." The two young women in front of me derided those who had left the line.

They took turns hopping out of line to buy snacks and smoke cigarettes. Almost everyone around me who abandoned the line was alone. They didn't have a collaborator to buy water or tea or tamagoyaki, the sweet brick-shaped omelette, on a stick.

At about 8am, the woman with the pad reappeared like a mirage, darted over, tugged at my elbow and said softly: "Follow me." I did, like Alice after the rabbit, past the throngs pressed against the windows of the restaurant, beneath the noren curtains, through a sliding door and onto a stool at a counter where, moments later, a chef placed a writhing clam in front of me and said: "Still alive."

Many dream of visiting Tokyo, yet have trepidations about going alone. Perhaps you were told, as I was, that English is rarely spoken; or that the city can be dangerous for tourists; or that it is prohibitively expensive, especially getting into Tokyo from Narita International Airport. If so, what you've heard is wrong or outdated.

Tokyo is an ideal city for solo travel. Tables for two or more are not the default arrangement, thanks to standing sushi bars and long counters at restaurants specialising in tempura, ramen and soba.

It is not uncommon to sit opposite a sushi chef and talk to him or order a meal from a restaurant ticket machine and enjoy it on a stool alongside other solo diners.

At department store food halls, one can buy bento boxes, hot dumplings and savoury pancakes known as okonomiyaki and dig in at nearby tables. At any 7-Eleven store, onigiri, balls of rice filled with meat, fish or vegetables that fit in your palm, can be had for a few dollars for a tasty lunch on the run.

And no, you don't need to speak Japanese to get by. For instance, airport workers speak enough English to help visitors find the ticket office (agents there also speak English) for the Narita Express train - which was recently offering a deal for foreigners (4,000 yen, or S$46, for a round trip) and took about 50 minutes to reach the heart of Tokyo, a swifter and less costly ride than the Airport Limousine bus (4,500 yen for a round trip) that can take up to two hours. Station announcements on the Narita Express are in English. It is the same for stops along the Tokyo Metro subway.

"Konnichiwa. Senso-ji Temple. Domo arigato," ("Hello. Senso-ji Temple. Thanks a lot") I said one rainy morning, almost exhausting my Japanese while sliding into a cab. In Tokyo, I walked (looking down on occasion at decorative manhole covers emblazoned with flowers and fire engines) or rode the subway (buy a 1,000-yen day pass for the Metro and the Toei subway if you want to simplify things). However, on this particular outing, I decided to see what it was like to take a taxi in Tokyo, where drivers wear white gloves and passenger doors open automatically.

The entrance to Senso-ji Temple is not unlike the exit of a Disney World ride. Through Kaminarimon Gate, beneath the enormous red lantern, past the wooden statues of the Buddhist gods of thunder and wind, the processional road to the temple is lined with stalls selling key chains, plastic Kabuki masks and kimonos.

Tranquillity can prove elusive amid the clank of change and the packs of tourists, undeterred by passing downpours. The quiet side streets around the temple and the colour of silver mackerel after the rain beckoned.

So did a dark sign under a tree limb: "Enshrining Benzai-ten (the goddess of fortune)." How could one resist?

I was her only visitor. Known as the goddess of music, wealth and literature, Benzai-ten is on a small hill in the tidy Benten-Do Temple. Its black and gold doors were thrown open to the damp summer air. Inside, a candle flickered. A priest, his head shorn, knelt before her. I stood outside, looking in.

Shrines even more serene are hidden throughout the city. And I do mean hidden. One afternoon in Ginza, the ritzy shopping district, I passed a temporary billboard which noted that Shinto priests have been conducting religious rites at the nearby Toyoiwa Inari, home to the god of marriage, since 1928.

Finding a spouse is easier than finding his shrine. A red sanctuary where a pair of regal-looking fox statues stand sentry, the shrine is wedged between two tall buildings at the end of an alley that, at first blush, seems as if it could be home only to mice and trash cans.

Tokyo has an overwhelming number of highly produced diversions, many of which can be comfortably enjoyed alone - arcades, kabuki shows, amusement parks such as Tokyo Joypolis and Tokyo Dome City, and cafes where women dressed like maids will treat you like the millionaire that you aren't.

After dark, areas such as Shinjuku pulse with kaleidoscopic lights and carousers.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'Going solo in Tokyo'. Print Edition | Subscribe