Before my two-week trip to Japan last September, I scoured the Internet for information about traveling alone in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Since I pretty much knew a total of three words in Japanese (sushi and ramen being two of them), and since I had never been to Far East Asia before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Traveling alone in Western Europe is one thing. But traveling alone in Japan?
Would I need one of those pictures books to help me communicate? Would I be able to master the public transit system on my own? Would I be able to find decent hostels? And more importantly, would I be able to meet other solo travelers in said hostels? Those were just a few of the questions going through my mind.
Given its reputation as an expensive travel destination and its geographic location at the far eastern end of Asia, Japan isn’t exactly known for being a backpacking Mecca (unlike other Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia). Which is a pity, really, because I found Japan to be one of the more rewarding solo trips I’ve taken. Of course, that’s not to say it wasn’t without its challenges. But overall, I’m glad I visited Japan, and I’d definitely go back!
So what’s it like exactly to be a solo traveler in Japan? Here are a few of the things that stuck out to me the most:
1. Communication is difficult, but people are courteous and patient.
I’m not going to lie: not a lot of people speak English in Japan – at least fluently. Sure, in hostels and at major tourist destinations, communication doesn’t pose a problem. But don’t expect your average person on the street or in the metro to understand you.
Despite the language barrier, people are polite and willing to help. A little bit of gesturing along with a smile and a slight head bow can go a long way. In fact, the customer service I received in restaurants in Japan was some of the best I’ve ever had – even though I hardly knew what I was ordering and probably looked like a fool as I tried to eat rice with chopsticks!
2. The hostels are some of the cleanest and most comfortable I’ve ever seen.
If the word “hostel” conjures up images of rickety bunkbeds and dirty communal bathrooms, then you definitely haven’t seen a hostel in Japan. I’m serious. The hostels I stayed at in Tokyo and Osaka were hands-down the best I’ve ever been to. Not only did I nearly always have my own bed compartment with built-in lights, storage facilities, and a curtain for privacy, but I was also impressed by how clean everything was.
I spent an average of 3,000-4,000 JPY a night on hostels (roughly $25-35). While this certainly doesn’t compare to hostel accommodation in other parts of the world, it is on par with your average hostel in Western Europe.
3. On the flip side, it isn’t as easy to meet other solo travelers.
Perhaps it was just the time of year I visited (mid-September), but I found it more difficult to meet other solo travelers in Japan than in places like Western Europe. A lot of people staying at hostels were either in groups or traveling for business. But I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised at the lack of backpackers. After all, as I mentioned above, Japan isn’t really known for being a big solo travel destination.
4. Transportation is somewhat tricky, but safe and reliable.
So I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at navigating my way around public transit systems. But the Tokyo metro? Oh boy, now that was a labyrinth! I suppose the only advice I can give to a fellow solo traveler is just to take a deep breath and prepare to get lost, because it will happen. Instead of getting frustrated, though, try to view it as an adventure. And remember: people are willing to lend a helping hand – you just have to ask for it (and maybe bust out some charade moves to ease the communication barrier beforehand).
On a more positive note: public transit in Japan is incredibly punctual and reliable. So at least that’s one less thing to worry about!
5. Do yourself a favor and get a Japan Rail Pass.
Normally, rail passes aren’t the sort of thing I look into. Yes, I realize they’re probably a good way to save money. But most of the time, I figure they aren’t worth the effort if I’m just visiting a few cities.
If you want to do any rail travel at all in Japan, though, then you need to get yourself a Japan Rail Pass. NOW. Why, you ask? Because just a one-way ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto on the bullet train costs around $100. Yes, you read that right. One-hundred dollars.
I got a Japan Rail Pass that granted me unlimited train travel thought the country for seven days for a total of $250. So yeah, it pretty much paid for itself after 1.5 trips. Just make sure you buy the pass before entering the country (it can only be shipped to an address outside Japan).
6. I felt extremely safe, no matter where I was.
I don’t know about you, but I can sometimes be a bit of an excessive worrier. I mean, I did write an entire post about travel anxiety. But when it came to my personal safety in Japan, I never once feared getting robbed or mugged. In fact, I felt safer walking the streets of Japan than I have in some Western European countries. Which I guess makes sense when you consider that Japan has the world’s third-lowest homicide rate (0.3 per 100,000 inhabitants).
Natural disasters, on the other hand, are frankly a bit more common. I witnessed two small earthquakes in Tokyo and a minor typhoon in Nara over the span of two weeks. But stringent regulations mean that Japanese infrastructure is built to withstand A LOT. In fact, the country is known to have some of the strictest building codes in the world and one of the best disaster relief systems.
7. Eating alone is not a problem.
In a country as work-obsessed as Japan, eating alone is nothing out of the ordinary. I mean, we’re talking about the place that invented sushi conveyer belts and ramen bars!
On my very first night in Tokyo, I walked into a noodle joint in the anime-district of Akihabara, only to find everyone in the entire restaurant sitting alone while slurping their noodles. In fact, I hardly even needed to worry about getting stared at because I was alone, which brings me to my next point.
8. You won’t feel hassled or stared at.
When I lived in Cairo for one summer, I always used to dread leaving my apartment every morning. No sooner had I walked out the door, then street vendors and children would run up to me and either try to sell me knock-off souvenirs or beg for money. No matter where I went in Cairo, I was ALWAYS stared at. In the metro? Stares. At the supermarket? Stares. At the café down the street? Stares. So much for blending in…
Now, in Japan I was also visibly a foreigner. At 6’2″ with dark blonde hair and blue eyes, there was no way I was ever going to pass for a local. Having said that, though, I never once felt like I received unwanted attention. I wasn’t hassled walking past shops, nor was I stared at constantly in public. People seemed to look at me, register the fact that I was a Westerner, and then go about their daily business. And that was that!
(Side note: I’m sure that my experience was largely influenced by the fact that I stuck to the main tourist attractions and big cities. I can imagine that traveling a bit more off the beaten path in Japan would be somewhat different.)
So there you have it: my take on what it’s like to travel alone in Japan.
Overall, I feel like Japan is a perfect solo travel destination – despite the fact that it’s not a major backpacking hub. It’s great for those wanting something foreign, exotic, and admittedly a bit bizarre, but who also don’t want to give up Western amenities or compromise on things like standard of living.
Just make sure to bring an open mind (and a big appetite!) with you, because no matter what, you’re bound to encounter an array of different but interesting norms, customs, and traditions while in Japan!