Josie Portillo for Reader's DigestI am not a morning person. I am a lover of evenings and midnights, firmly oriented to the post meridiem. (It took me some time to realize there was a 6 “a.m.”) On the road, however, I make a point of waking early. Just as safari guides have you up at dawn to catch the day’s prime activity, the world rewards those who rise before the sun.
Jet lag often makes this imperative, as do crazy-early flight arrivals. I remember landing at Heathrow with my parents on a Sunday morning at age 13, only to learn our B and B wouldn’t take us till noon; we wandered London’s vacant streets for hours, searching in vain for an open restaurant.
But there are good reasons to hit the town before sunrise. Mornings are when a place is most specifically itself—before it’s properly dressed or put together, unaware that anyone’s watching when it steps out for the paper in a bathrobe. Like waking in a stranger’s bed, there’s a disarming intimacy to seeing a place in the pale light of dawn.
Things are different just an hour or two later. Under the day’s full glare, a foreign place can appear too foreign, too harsh, too much. But in morning’s gauzy half-light, hard edges soften, and the most overwhelming metropolis achieves a certain gentleness, before the heat and the clamor roll in.
Some of my favorite travel memories are from 4 or 5 a.m.’s around the world, badly immortalized in hundreds of grainy, inchoate photographs. (It’s almost impossible to capture that particular primordial light with a camera; in this case, you really do need to be there.)
I remember, for instance, a predawn walk on the beach in Trancoso, Brazil: earth and sky and surf drained of color, hermit crabs scarcely bothering to move at my approach. The previous night’s phosphorescence sparkled faintly on the sand. The world felt like a carnival ride that had yet to be turned on. And I remember returning from a late night out in Paris, crossing the Pont Neuf as the sky went purple to pink. Off the Rue de Seine, I passed the open door of a still-closed boulangerie, out of which came an intoxicating smell of butter and yeast. Someone had left a rack of warm baguettes in the doorway to cool in the crisp morning air. There was no one else in sight. I stood there for a few seconds before realizing what had to be done. It was the best baguette I’d ever tasted.
But mostly I remember mornings in Asia, where dawn’s transformational power feels most profound. It helps that the time zones are a half-day off from home, such that nocturnals like me are wide-awake at daybreak—right in sync with the city itself. In Asia, morning life feels like nightlife. It’s not just street sweepers and saffron-robed monks; there’s a whole parallel morning economy at work.
Follow my lead, roust yourself from your Tokyo hotel bed at 4 a.m., and you’ll see what frenzied activity goes down before the sun is up. Your taxi will glide down empty expressways as if you’re in rural Nebraska, not a city of 13 million. On the sidewalks of Ginza, stray revelers are staggering home from their revelries. One girl is dressed as Snow White. You’ll start to wonder if you’re actually awake.
Finally, you’ll pull up at the Tsukiji fish market, amid a madcap ballet of forklifts. They careen at you full tilt, then swerve at the last possible moment. Everyone is wide-awake, smoking, and wearing rubber boots—except you. You are wearing an ill-advised pair of loafers, which in a few hours will be summarily tossed in your hotel trash bin, the reek of fish guts so pervasive that no amount of free shoe shining could possibly remove it.
You make your way inside to the famous tuna auction. From a corner, you watch the action unfold, and in your transpacific delirium, you’re convinced you understand what’s going on. Men with poles are poking a lifeless 500-pound tuna while smoking and shouting at one another. This could get ugly quick. You escape out a side door. Moments later you’re at Sushi Dai, and at 6:15 a.m. on a Tuesday, you’re sipping ice-cold Sapporo and gorging on shrimp as if it were Friday night.
Back at your hotel, the newspaper’s not even on the doorknob yet.