Holidaying in Tokyo when you’re sensory sensitive

Posted: 31 May, 2019

By: Karlien Terblanche

Section: General, Relationships, Wellness


A week ago my husband and I came back from our holiday in Japan. My mind is still swirling with crazy, busy, colourful, noisy, fantastical images. Tokyo is another world filled with lights, sounds and constant sensory input.


In the wonderful world of Sensory Intelligence®, we use the analogy of a tree to depict how people respond to sensory stimuli:

  • Sensory avoiders are roots,
  • Sensory neutrals are trunks, and
  • Sensory seekers are leaves.

As you would have guessed from the title, I am a root.  My husband is a trunk. Want to read more about it? Click here. The Japan holiday was his idea, but I am always up for a new adventure so I was very excited to go with. My “rootedness” was not taken fully into account in the planning, but I soon realised I would need some sensory strategies to make the most of this holiday.


Let me paint you a picture: Our luggage didn’t quite make it on time and we had to survive without our belongings for the first 3 days. Thus, on the very first day, straight from the airport, post-32-hours in transit, we headed straight for a clothing store to stock up on essentials. We boarded a train at the airport and climbed out in utter sensory overload/chaos. It was 10am in the morning and the streets were packed – people everywhere, all seeming to know where they are going, moving in every direction. It was raining and we had to run to find an umbrella as our first purchase. We entered the first clothing store we could decipher from the logo (no English!)


The floor we entered was the ladies’ section and I told my husband we will find each other later, as we both went hunting for clothes. What we didn’t realise was that this store had 7 storeys!  It sold everything from aircons to massage chairs, to alcohol, to facial products… It wasn’t long before I found myself in an absolute state of overload – as I went up and down the escalator trying to find my husband, a loud, child-like voice was screaming intelligible advertisements over the speakers, there were people everywhere, lights and posters trying to catch my attention, and the hand-luggage backpack on my back was weighing heavily on me. Luckily my husband and I spotted each other passing on the escalators as he was going down and I was going up! We reconnected on the next floor, and there and then I decided I needed a strategy if I were to survive this holiday.


  • Holiday survival strategy nr 1: Take snacks.
    I decided to make sure we took snacks wherever we went. Because we walked a lot (maybe a little more than necessary, trying to figure out the city) we couldn’t really plan our meals as much as I’d have liked. So I made sure we took snacks or stopped to buy a snack every few hours. Eating provides self-regulation through chewing, using the proprioceptive sense. I loved the smells and tastes of the new food and snacking also regulated my blood sugar and gave us an excuse to rest.
  • Holiday strategy nr 2: Wear comfortable clothes!
    This seems very self-explanatory, but I needed to remind myself of this constantly. As a root, my clothes bother me quicker than a trunk or a leaf. In the mornings I might consider wearing something less comfortable but would remind myself that I’m going to wear this for the entire day- moving a lot. So even if it meant that I wore my sneakers and comfy jeans every day, I did this. I had my hair up on most days, as my hair down bothers me quickly. There was enough sensory input in a day, and I didn’t want my clothes to add to that and tip me over the edge. Beautiful outfits and high heels could wait for home again!
  • Holiday strategy nr 3: Take a break.
    This is a strategy we often talk about at Sensory Intelligence® Consulting, but not everyone is aware that we can mould this strategy into anything that suits the moment. When you’re spending an entire day out and about and experiencing new things, you can’t always quickly go home to curl up on your favourite couch for some peace and quiet. I made sure to listen to my own cues of becoming overwhelmed (irritability, inability to focus, etc.) and would immediately make a plan to take a break. I’d speak to my husband and tell him we need to rest before tackling the next shrine or museum. Sometimes we would rest in a park or a coffee shop, other times simply sit down on a step somewhere and catch our breaths for a bit. Our breaks looked different from day to day, but I made sure to be intentional about taking them.


You might think that there are certain places you won’t enjoy when you are more prone to avoid too much stimuli (being a root), but this holiday proved differently. I absolutely loved Tokyo and the rest of Japan and will definitely go back. It is just important to think about your body and sensory thresholds and use self-regulation strategies. Then the world is your oyster!


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