One of the greatest things about being sober is that my whole world expanded. And I mean that literally — I recently took a trip to Japan, which is something I had wanted to do for decades but it just never seemed possible, especially during my drinking days. Now, after nearly 7 years of sobriety, I went on a honeymoon to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka with my husband Dan. It was an amazing trip not just because Japan is amazing but also because I would have never been able to go on this kind of trip (or be in a committed relationship) had it not been for sobriety.
When I talked about my plans for the trip, I received some comments like, “Japan has such a big drinking culture,” so naturally my fear was that the predominance of booze and the language barrier would be such a problem that I would be served alcohol constantly or somehow drink a sip of alcohol unknowingly. Thankfully, this was actually never an issue. Japan’s “drinking culture” is nowhere near as aggressive and in-your-face as American drinking culture. Granted, I wasn’t hitting up the ‘Golden Gai’ in Shinjuku or any of the famous drinking hotspots, but the general attitude towards alcohol seemed to be take it or leave it.
So, if you’ve got a vacation coming up, or you’re just thinking about traveling, here is my advice for taking an epic sober trip abroad.
1. Plan ahead.
I believe that planning ahead is necessary to have a sane, sober life that isn’t constantly going off the rails. I’m not asking you to make a detailed spreadsheet itinerary for your trip like I did… but you should have some sort of plan in place before you go. The best place to start is by making a list of the things you absolutely want to see, eat, experience, etc. Once you finish this list, you can start grouping out things by area, time of day, and proximity to your hotel. This will help you organize your days.
For example, I got advance tickets to a live-action Sailor Moon dinner theater show and planned a day around that. Using my itinerary, I entered all the locations I wanted to hit that day, as well as the train stations I’d need into Google Maps and Navitime, which is an app specifically for Japanese trains and buses. Many of these kinds of local travel apps are free since they’re paid for by the tourism board.
My biggest challenge was being so excited to be in another country that I had to stop and remind myself that I needed to factor in time to relax because I kept forgetting to do that.
My biggest challenge was being so excited to be in another country that I had to stop and remind myself that I needed to factor in time to relax because I kept forgetting to do that. So, if you are making an itinerary, make sure you build in downtime to just sit and rest your feet. I got a massage while I was in Osaka, and it was badly needed after several days of constant walking. I also took full advantage of the deep bathtubs at our hotel and AirBnBs and had a lot of fun trying out different bath salts from the local drug store. All of the places we stayed had tea sets so we could brew our own hot drinks, and every morning I took a few minutes to chill out with a cup of green tea before jumping into the whirlwind of the day’s activities.
2. Stick to what works at home.
Routines help us stay sober, so make sure to build in time for the things that aid your recovery. It might be as simple as leaving having a buffer of time to meditate and take it easy when you first wake up. You can build in breaks to stretch or exercise (if you aren’t already hiking and running around) and make sure you’re eating at regular intervals the same way you do at home. It’s fun to get sidetracked and get lost exploring but drinking nothing but caffeinated beverages all day on an empty stomach inevitably leads to a crash.
What works for me is staying out of places that make me feel the way I did when I was drinking. I don’t spend a lot of time in bars in New York, therefore I don’t spend time in bars when I travel. Frankly, I’ve found more interesting shit to do, and if you ask any sober person who’s traveled abroad, there is plenty of fun to be had without setting foot in a bar.
3. Make an in-flight toolkit.
Airplanes can be especially triggering since they 1.) are stressful as hell and 2.) are essentially giant bars that fly through the sky. If you previously relied on drinks to get you through the airport and/or flight, I would recommend making an airplane tool kit. If you are already familiar with a portable sobriety toolkit, this is the same idea.
Our flight to Japan was about 20 hours total (!) so I made sure I had everything I needed to survive a flight like that: Pillow, compression socks, plenty of food, and an iPad full of books, movies, and comforting TV shows. I won’t lie, planes stress me out a lot and I get horribly scared during minor turbulence, so having classic Mighty Boosh episodes at the ready meant that I could rely on Vince and Howard’s banter to help keep me chilled out during the flight.
Elizabeth Kirkland, Instructional Designer here at Tempest*, shares some of her tips for building a kickass airplane serenity kit. “If you can sleep on planes, bring the stuff that will make you comfortable. I spent time researching the best neck pillow I could find, and I brought a really good eye mask to block out the ambient brightness. Since airplanes dehydrate you, I made sure I had plenty of water, so I got a really cute water bottle that I was excited about using.”
“If you can sleep on planes, bring the stuff that will make you comfortable. I spent time researching the best neck pillow I could find, and I brought a really good eye mask to block out the ambient brightness.”
And Tempest* Teaching Assistant Erin Jean Warde has a neat trick she’d employ in the early days of flying sober. “One of my go-to’s was that before takeoff on a plane I would put on my headphones and turn on a meditation. This would help me calm down, and it meant I would miss the first call for drinks, so I was not tempted to get a glass of wine. Later, I would just grab someone and say, ‘Hi, can I have a cup of coffee?’”
If you’ve never built an airplane toolkit before, spend a little time thinking about the things you like that would help keep you relaxed during the flight. If your flight is particularly long, it could be a good time to commit to a lengthy book or movie you haven’t had time for. Dan chose to watch the entire Lord of the Rings series on the flight back to New York, and I swear that every time I looked over at his screen I saw Elija Wood’s little face, crying. In fairness, I watched Killing Eve Season 2 on the way back, so each time he looked at my screen, somebody was getting killed by a Russian assassin.
4. Stay in touch.
When you’re in totally new territory, getting online is crucial to get directions, info, and translations. It’s also good to be able to easily get in touch with friends and family in case of an emergency, but also to share the really cool-looking fruit parfait you are about to eat.
Some phones have international WiFi and texting, so check to see what kind of plan you have. You can also rent a WiFi hotspot from a vendor at the airport when you land, and turn it in before you fly back home.
Do some research ahead of time to see what kind of sober communities exist where you’re traveling to.
If you’re traveling by yourself, make plans ahead of time with a friend you trust that you’ll be calling or emailing them regularly to check-in. The first time I traveled in early sobriety, I texted my AA sponsor every night to keep her posted on how I was doing. It makes a big difference to know that there’s somebody out there who knows you’re traveling so you can stay accountable.
You can also find other sober people wherever you visit. If you attend a 12-step program like AA, there are meetings happening in most major cities around the world and they can be easily found online. If that’s not your thing, do some research ahead of time to see what kind of sober communities exist where you’re traveling to. You can also ask around within your own social circle — someone may have a non-drinking friend or relative who may be nearby and totally down to grab coffee with you.
5. Be mindful of the language barrier.
Depending on where you go, the language barrier may or may not be a big deal. It’s one thing to see a sign written in French, it’s another when you’re dealing with a language that doesn’t use the same alphabet.
Because Japan is gearing up to host the 2020 Olympics, most of the information we needed like train schedules, street signs, and subway maps were readily available in English. However, we did use the Google Translate app quite a few times, especially the handy photo translation feature. If you are keen on speaking the language like a local then, by all means, bring along a phrasebook or dictionary. You can also take some free classes on Duolingo before you leave.
Something as simple as a translation saying “No alcohol, please” or “I am allergic to alcohol” can be hugely helpful.
You can always bring a note, too. Dan used to have PSC, so he underwent a liver transplant in 2017. Because of the anti-rejection medications he’s on, his immune system is compromised and he can’t eat raw meat or fish, and he definitely can’t drink alcohol, either. Aside from these dietary restrictions, he has a list of medications he has to take every day, and my fear was that something might happen and I’d be unable to communicate properly in order to get him help. Luckily, one of Dan’s coworkers is from Japan and he was kind enough to write us notes that explained Dan’s condition, the medications he took, and his dietary restrictions. We ended up not needing to use them but I’m so glad we had them.
If you’re going to a place where the language barrier may be a serious issue, bring along a note. Something as simple as a translation saying “No alcohol, please” or “I am allergic to alcohol” can be hugely helpful. If you don’t know anyone at home who speaks the language, you can ask around online, or write the note yourself using Google Translate.
6. When in doubt, don’t drink it.
My rule is that if someone sets a drink down in front of me and I can’t tell if it’s got alcohol in it or not, I don’t drink it. Despite my paranoia prior to leaving, this was never an issue in Japan. Every time we were served drinks, it was either water, tea, or coffee. I was also pleasantly surprised that Japan takes coffee very seriously and there were legitimately good coffee spots all over the place.
If you’re going to a place where it’s safe to drink the water, bring your own water bottle that you can fill up as you go so you always have a personal supply. If the local water isn’t potable, make sure you’ve always got a bottle of water with you.
Just know that you don’t have to drink things that are offered to you. If your place setting has a wine glass, you can politely decline a drink by turning the glass upside down. But if anybody gets pushy with you or tries to get you to drink something you don’t want to drink, don’t worry about being rude — your safety is more important than offending someone who is kind of being a dick anyway. Let’s say it again: your safety is more important.
7. Remember you already did the hard part.
The way I look at it is, the hardest part — the deciding to get sober part — is already behind you, and therefore you are free to enjoy your trip.
As Kirkland told me, “I took myself on a trip to Paris three years after getting sober. It was a big deal because it was the first time I’d traveled alone, and it was a way of reasserting my independence as an individual — that I didn’t need to be afraid of alcohol or have it limit my life any longer. The biggest barrier I faced was to stop drinking, and I had already done that.”
I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything as a sober person in Japan — the only way I was able to even go to Japan was because I’m sober. This trip was a celebration of my marriage to Dan, but it was also a reward for all of the hard work I’ve done in recovery. Sobriety is an ongoing process; there’s always new things to learn and stuff that will come up but it also means that you can go anywhere. So if you do the things you need to do to keep your recovery strong, and if you plan ahead, the only question really is: Where do you want to go?
*Editor’s note: Tempest is the parent company of The Temper.