I remember my first time well. I was just 15. I was self-conscious and embarrassed and had no idea what I was doing. I was inexperienced and petrified that I’d make a fool of myself.
But despite all of that, in the summer before my junior year in high school and in the largest city in the world, I lost my solo travel virginity. And I lost it to, of all places, Japan.
Out of all the countries to relinquish my solo travel V card to, Japan was certainly an intimidating choice. Up until that point, I’d never left the country and had barely left my hometown in Hawaii. Suddenly I found myself in what seemed to be an alternate universe. Sure, the weather was the same (hot and humid) but that was about it. In Japan, people drove on the left instead of the right, bowed instead of hugged, ate dinner food for breakfast and occasionally walked in public in what looked like colorful bathrobes. Those were two of the most shocking and disorienting months of my life, but they were also two of the most defining.
Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. To my 15-year-old self, those two months in the suburbs of Tokyo were a nightmare. When I wasn’t lost on the subway, I was stuttering through humiliating conversations in broken Japanese with my host family or choking down octopus, seaweed and jellyfish at the dinner table—food I had previously thought only existed in The Little Mermaid. I spent many a lunch period at the Japanese high school I attended in a bathroom stall, afraid to face the students’ stares and endless questions of “Do you know Leonardo Di’Caprio?” or “Have you ever been shot?”
But at some point during that summer, I began to realize that though I’d never felt more misunderstood and alone in my life, I was surviving. I was making friends and I was slowly beginning to navigate the city on my own. For the first time in my life, I felt capable.
But just when I was starting to feel comfortable, my host mother dropped a bomb on me: We were going to a public bath house, where (just like the name suggested) we’d be bathing in public. We’d also be bathing in the nude.
Now, at that point in the summer, I was feeling fairly confident about my newfound identity as an adventurista. As far as I was concerned, I’d popped that solo travel cherry ages ago and had the skills to prove it. I could now carry on a conversation in Japanese about something other than the best route to the nearest toilet, I’d single-handedly solved the puzzle that is the Japanese currency system and just the night before, I’d eaten cow tongue…and I’d even liked it.
But bathing in my birthday suit in front of a room full of strangers? I’d never been naked in front of anyone. Back home in gym class, my classmates all changed in the bathroom stall or discreetly in front of their lockers; careful not expose even so much as a belly button. How could my host mother expect me to lather, wash and rinse myself clean while crouched in front of a water bucket like an oversized toadstool, in front of a room full of women I’d never met? I hadn’t even shaved my legs!
As I stood in the locker room in my bra and underwear, I briefly considered leaving the bathhouse and hitching a ride to the airport. I’d like to say that it was my desire to face my fears that prevented me from using my souvenir chopsticks to sword fight my way to a flight back to Hawaii, but in all honesty, I just didn’t want to disappoint my host mother. So instead, steeling myself as if I were a samurai soldier about to head into battle, I did what I imagined many a young female foreign exchange student had done before me: I stripped off my underwear, unclasped my bra and heart-pounding, I pushed through the doorway to join my host mother and a roomful of naked ladies in a giant tub of hot mineral water.
Later, I would grow up to live in Europe and would backpack alone through India, Nepal and Central America. After college, I would even return to Tokyo to teach English. But while those were all great solo travel experiences, there was nothing quite as special as my first.
As the late poet and expat TS Eliot once wrote: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." That summer, I’d “gone all the way: with Japan and in the process, had discovered a glimpse of the brave, confident woman I’d one day become.