25 Tips for Your First Solo Trip to Japan
The 25 tips and suggestions in this article are perfect for anyone who is planning their first solo trip to Japan. All of them are based on my personal experiences; I've traveled alone in Japan over 10 times since 1998. I've learned a lot from each trip, and never once did I regret exploring this wonderful country all by myself.
Note: I’m excluding easily researchable topics such as how to get cheap WiFi, where to find cheap accommodation, etc. In other words, topics that are applicable to any solo-travel situation will not be part of this article.
Japan Solo Travel Guide: 25 Tips
- Carry details of your lodging accommodations and departure dates.
- Always carry cash.
- Be well-informed about Japanese cultural taboos.
- Utilizing temporary luggage storage facilities.
- Learn some basic words and terms.
- Learn Japanese shoe removal etiquette.
- Be prepared for hotel curfews.
- Don't buy a JR pass unless you really need one.
- Prepare to experience culture shock.
- Avoid common scams and threats in Japan.
- Learn about Japanese tattoo taboos.
- Smoke in designated places.
- Patronize konbini and vending machines often.
- Use luggage transportation services.
- Check seasonal forecasts.
- Make tax-exempt purchases.
- Be punctual when using Japanese public transportation.
- Learn how to ride Japanese buses.
- Use proper etiquette when visiting Shinto shrines.
- Be ready for a strenuous climb when visiting Japanese castles.
- Respect Japanese-only establishments.
- Strategically visit theme parks.
- Know how to handle surprise rain storms.
- Buy affordable meals.
- Learn about Japanese tipping practices—or lack thereof.
1. Have Proof of Departure and Accommodation Details With You Before Immigration Checks
When entering Japan, you will need to declare your intended period of stay on the disembarkation card. You will also need to write down one address in Japan as well as a telephone number.
In additional, the immigration officer might also ask you to display proof of intended departure. For example, a return air ticket. The short of it, have all these information with you before boarding your flight. Of course, Japan isn’t going to imprison you if you can’t provide the information but the immigration officer might request a “special” interview in a separate room to ensure nothing suspicious is going on. That can be a really upsetting way to start your Japanese solo trip. That can easily eat up an entire hour too.
2. Always Carry Sufficient Cash
While many establishments now accept international credit cards, Japan is still a predominantly cash-based society. This is made worse by the fact that many Japanese ATMs still do not accept foreign bank cards. To save yourself the panic and hassle of desperately hunting for an ATM that does welcome your cards, always carry sufficient cash with you when traveling in Japan. Needless to say, you should also include a buffer for unexpected situations.
3. Take Note of Important Japanese Taboos
I could easily write an article about the top 100 Japanese taboos to be aware of, but there’s really only a few taboos that foreigners need to be mindful about:
- Always remove your shoes when you are expected to do so. Such as when entering homes, traditional ryokans, certain spas and onsens, etc. (You’d know you need to do so when you see shoe racks, lockers, and so on)
- Don’t talk on your cell phone when using public transportation. If you can’t avoid taking the call, whisper and terminate the call quickly.
- Never stick chopsticks vertically into food. Throughout East Asia, this represents an offering to the dead.
- Do not gesture at people with just one finger.
- Please queue when you see others doing so.
You are expected to wear a cold mask when having a cold or a cough.
- Please do not discuss or criticize the Japanese royal family.
Over the years, I’ve read about other Japanese taboos such as blowing your nose in public, eating while walking, etc. The confounding thing is that I’ve actually seen a lot of Japanese people doing these things during my trips. My conclusion, therefore, is not to be overly worried about specific taboos. Instead, follow the golden rules of Japanese public conduct i.e. avoid distasteful behavior that annoys others and respect Japanese social practices. The country prides itself on being orderly and socially conscious. No matter what the Japanese themselves might be doing, you should avoid drawing unnecessary attention to yourself. This is especially important to keep in mind when you’re traveling alone and without friends to intervene.
4. Using Coin Lockers for Temporary Storage
Coin lockers are plentiful at major Japanese bus and train stations. However, there’s always the risk of lockers running out. Many stations also have limited large-size lockers that are capable of storing 30-inch suitcases.
If you run into a locker crisis, and there is no left-luggage service nearby, your best solution is to head to a large department store. Some of these stores, such as those in Shinjuku, offer luggage storage services. Alternatively, you could try your luck at whichever attraction you’re heading to. Temples and shrine staff members typically aren't willing to store luggage, but ticketing offices of theme parks and museums might be willing to hold your luggage for a short while. Note that it's best not to depend on these options, though. You should always aim to travel light in Japan.
5. Learn Some Japanese Words and Terms Beforehand
English (Eigo) is taught in many public and private schools in Japan. However, a variety of reasons prevent many Japanese people from fully mastering the language. One reason is obviously the lack of daily opportunities to practice.
If you need to speak to a Japanese person in English, remember to do so slowly and clearly. When listening to replies, be mindful of the fact too that many Japanese people are influenced by how their mother tongue transliterates and condenses English words. The Japanese language has a different pronunciation system from English, so a word like “ticket” become “chiketo.” Other terms like "department stores" and "toilet" become “departo” and “to-yee-re” respectively. In short, patience and understanding are necessary for such conversations to work. You can make it easier for yourself by learning some basic Japanese words and travel phrases beforehand.
Confusion When Using Japanese Public Transportation Systems
Japanese public transportation systems are confusing not only because English is not universally used, a lot of times, services with similar-sounding names are clustered together. For example, the Hankyu Kyoto Line has express, rapid express, and limited express services, all departing from the same platform. To save yourself a world of inconvenience, learn the differences between these services beforehand. Know how to identify them by their Japanese names too.
6. More About Japanese Shoe Removal Etiquette
Without going into all the social and religious reasons why, it’s important to know what to do with shoes during your solo trip to Japan. In short:
- Never wear outdoor shoes into a Japanese household or traditional ryokan.
- Almost all places that require shoe removal offer indoor slippers for you to change into. Do so and leave your outdoor shoes at the entrance pointing outwards.
- Do not wear indoor slippers into the restroom. There will be special toilet slippers for you to change into. Obviously, you should change back into indoor slippers after you’re done using the restroom.
- Playing with slippers is one of the most detested taboos in Japan. So it’s said, samurais have engaged in death duels after being slapped with slippers. Never, ever mess around with them.
7. Be Aware That Small and Traditional Hotels Might Impose Curfews
This tends to be the case for smaller, family-run enterprises, with lock-up time typically between 2200 hours and midnight. Some establishments, however, might be willing to loan you a special key for entry after curfew. Don’t bet on that, though. Check your hotel's curfew policy before booking accommodations.
8. Know That a Japan Railways Pass Is Only Cost Effective When Visiting Multiple Cities
The passes sold by the Japan Railways (JR) group are among the best deals in the global travel industry. Particularly attractive too for solo traveling in Japan because they perfectly complement itinerary flexibility. That said, JR passes only provide savings if you take enough long-distance rides on premium trains. To give an example, the 7 Day JR Pass only makes financial sense if you intend to take at least two long distance bullet train (Shinkansen) rides. Otherwise, you end up paying more for the pass than you would for individual rail tickets.
In addition, take note of the following too when using JR passes:
- Reservations are not mandatory for many services, although they're recommended. In any case, reservations are free with JR passes. Simply head to the Midori no Madoguchi (みどりの窓口) ticketing office to get one.
- Services that don't require reservations will always have “free-seating” carriages. This are known as "自由席 (jiyuseki)" in Japanese.
Take note that some train services require supplemental fees. This happens when part of the journey utilizes tracks that are not owned by JR.
Other than airport services, Japanese trains have limited storage space for large suitcases. This is another reason to travel light in Japan.
JR passes permit free travel on some inner city service such as the Yamanote Line in Tokyo and the Loop Line in Osaka. However, these services are among the most heavily used services in the world. They will almost always be crowded.
9. When in Rome—or Japan—Do as the Locals Do?
In truth, few Japanese expect foreigners, especially tourists, to completely talk and behave like them. Some might even find it weird, if not downright condescending. As long as you observe and respect major taboos, you won't be harshly judged for not behaving like locals. Keep in mind too that Japan has a distinct culture and it is frequently easy to get overwhelmed by culture shock when in a different country. You might want to familiarize yourself with common aspects of Japanese culture before your trip to decrease the severity of culture shock-related discomfort.
Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.
10. Is Japan Safe for Solo Travelers?
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, which makes it a great destination for solo travelers. However, it is very stupid, incredibly stupid, to assume there is no crime in the country. Safety practices such as avoiding dark alleys, being mindful of pickpockets in crowded places, avoiding drunk people, etc., apply everywhere.
Additionally, for any sort of visitor, the most likely “threat” would be that of the Japanese nightclub scam. These scams are perpetrated by street touts who invite you to visit a certain host or hostess club. Once inside, you would be spoiled rotten and showered with attention, and before you know it, you would have chalked up a few hundred thousand yen ordering drinks and snacks. Once that happens, the friendly touts turn hostile. They will continue to be hostile, even threatening, till you pay the cutthroat bill.
Such touts mostly operate in nightlife areas such as Tokyo’s Kabukicho. Unless you know the Japanese nightlife scene inside out, I recommend you avoid these scammers like the plague. Simply walk away when you're approached. Or say, kyomi nai. Be assured that even if they persist, they won't do so for long. The key is to just walk away.
Additional Safety Advice for Ladies
Ladies, you might want to avoid public transportation during peak hours. Sexual harassment and gropers are well-known issues on crowded Japanese trains. As formal response, some cities offer ladies-only carriages during peak travel hours. Look for signs highlighting such carriages on the platform floor.
11. Tattoos Are Still an Issue at Hot Springs and Spas
Practically all Japanese hot springs and public pools forbid usage by anyone with tattoos. This is due to tattoos being traditionally associated with the Japanese criminal underworld.
However, in recent years, I’ve actually seen tourists with tattoos inside several hot springs and spas. (Those who are admitted usually don't have elaborate tattoos. Small and subtle tattoos may be more acceptable than large, intricate pieces too.) To be safe and to avoid disappointment, you ought to be upfront and check with the staff if you have a tattoo. While no one is going to scream bloody murder and drag you out, getting ejected because of tattoos is a really unpleasant and embarrassing experience.
12. Smoking in Public Is Increasingly a Challenge in Japan
Smokers, take note. Many Japanese cities have taken aggressive steps to curtail smoking in public locations. In some parts of Tokyo, you could even be fined if caught smoking outside designated smoking points. It’s thus a good idea to search online for these designated smoking spots before heading to Japan. This is especially so if you’re the sort of smoker who needs to light-up every other hour.
13. On Japanese Vending Machines and Konbini Shops
You might have read a lot of surprising conjectures about Japanese vending machines. Many people have also been led to believe that Japan has vending machines that sell everything and anything, including used schoolgirl panties. The truth is, 90 percent of the vending machines you’ll see during your solo trip to Japan will only sell canned drinks. The rest sell snacks, small souvenirs, magazines, etc.
On the other hand, Japanese convenience shops (konbini) have to be seen to be believed. Apart from retailing an astonishing variety of goods, they also sell meal boxes, hot snacks, tickets, passes, on top of providing services like faxing and courier delivery. In fact, it’s quite possible to have a feast simply with food purchased from a konbini. Note that such purchases do not have to be eaten cold too, the cashiers can warm them up for you. If they do not offer to, simply point at the microwave ovens behind them.
14. Consider Using Takuhaibin Delivery Services for Your Luggage
If you really need to travel with big bags, consider using takuhaibin i.e. delivery services. For a small fee, you can have your luggage collected from you or deposited at a konbini, and delivered to your subsequent destination the next day. Naturally, this is also a solution for the aforementioned locker crisis. It also beats traveling with large suitcases on Japanese long distance trains, which tend not to have storage space for large bags.
The Burden of ... Suitcases
Regardless of whether your bags are cumbersome, or not, it might still be a great idea to use takuhaibin when traveling alone in Japan. Remember, when you’re alone, having fewer bags mean having lesser things to worry about when on the move.
15. Check Seasonal Forecasts When Planning Your Itinerary
For any trip to Japan, the two most important forecasts are the Sakura Forecast and the Autumn Leaves Forecast. Even if you aren’t into viewing Japan's seasonal colors, it’s still a good idea to refer to these forecasts because they clearly show peak travel periods and trends. It is not unusual for hotels in cities like Kyoto to be fully booked during peak Sakura season. Rates would often be higher too.
In addition, it's best to avoid traveling during Golden Week and the Obon festival. These are the days when Japanese domestic travel is at its most intense. Lastly, it’s generally a good idea to avoid major attractions during the final days of school breaks. On such days, queues at locations popular with young people could be frighteningly long.
* Golden Week is a series of consecutive Japanese public holidays during late April and Early May. Obon is always in the middle of August.
16. Tax Exemption for Your Purchases
Many Japanese retail chains offer tax exemption for foreign visitors. One example is the highly popular Don Quijote chain.
However, in order to qualify for such exemptions, you must fulfill various conditions. Your purchases must add up to a certain amount before taxation in order to qualify. You will also need to have your passport on hand. Typically, the minimum spending amount is five thousand yen. To be certain, check the websites of the stores you intend to visit before going.
I personally consider Don Quijote the best place to buy gifts for friends and family because you can get everything you need in one visit. Don Quijote truly has a bewildering selection of merchandise.
17. Don’t Ever, Ever Be Late
The full sentence is, don’t ever, ever be late when using Japanese public transportation. Japanese train operators aren’t exaggerating when they say you can set your watch using Japanese train departures. I would say the same goes for most bus services too. Turn up half a minute late, and you’d be extremely lucky to even see the rear of your train or bus scooting away.
In fact, don’t even turn up on the dot. Or a minute before. When taking trains, arrive at the station way before departure time. Know that this would seldom be a waste of your precious travel time for most Japanese train stations are full of shops and eateries, or surrounded by them. In other words, these transportation hubs are great places to pick up last-minute souvenirs. In some cases, the selection available is even better than that at tourist attractions. Buy them, stuff them into your bags, and you’re off to your next destination.
18. All About Japanese Buses
Many Japanese buses use a ticketing system that’s utterly baffling to the uninitiated, beginning with how passengers board from the middle. For these, the correct ticketing procedure is:
- Board from the middle. Collect a small slip of paper with a number from the dispenser next to the entrance. This slip is your ticket.
- There is a large electronic board with ever-changing numbers at the front of the bus, diagonally above the driver. Before alighting, refer to the electronic board. The fare to pay is the amount displayed under the number printed on your ticket.
Before alighting, deposit the fee and the ticket into the collection box next to the driver. Many Japanese people would also thank the driver.
- If you’re short on change, you could break your bills using the same collection machine beside the driver.
19. Practice Appropriate Behavior When Visiting Shinto Shrines
There are specific worship rituals in the Shinto religion. Generally, engaging in the following actions will suffice for any foreign visitor.
There will always be a trough with running water for you to “cleanse” yourself. Use the trough respectfully.
- At the trough, use the provided ladles to collect some water. Wash your left hand, then your right. Finally, pour some water into one hand and use that to rinse your mouth.
- Under no circumstance should you spit into the trough or wash your hands above it.
- At the offering hall, deposit a coin into the offertory box. Bow twice, clap your hands, bow again, and pray/pay your respects.
Needless to say, to observe the ritual is an act of respect. No one will fault you for not doing so.
As for Japanese Buddhist Temples
Buddhist temples have less structured worship procedures. To offer respect, you simply buy and burn incense.
20. Wear Comfortable Clothing and Shoes When Visiting Japanese Castles
As beautiful as they are, Japanese castles were originally fortresses. As a result, it’s usually quite an uphill trek via meandering passages before you reach the keep (i.e. the most distinctive, photogenic part of them). Once within the keep, the steps will be even steeper, with exhibits usually of little interest to foreigners. In short, be ready for quite a workout when visiting a Japanese castle. The panoramic view at the top of the keep might not be worth the strenuous climb too.
21. Don’t Be Offended If an Establishment Rejects You
Don’t be offended if you encounter an izakaya or pub that rejects foreigners when traveling alone in Japan. Most of these establishments do so because they feel they lack the cultural and language skills to handle foreign customers. Naturally, some are also concerned that their usual clientele might mind the foreign presence. Whatever the reason, just forget about it and move on.
22. Get a Theme Park Fast Pass If You Can Afford It
If you can afford it, get a fast pass. Having one wouldn't save you from having to queue, but it will at least reduce your waiting time. To really speed things up, consider visiting during “starlight” hours too i.e. in the evening. Tour groups and most families would have left by then, significantly freeing up rides and at shows. Note that if you visit a theme park during starlight hours, though, you will have to do some pre-planning beforehand to ensure that you can enjoy all the attractions you're keen on. You will typically have no more than four hours. Rides also tend to stop an hour or so before evening closing time.
23. If You're Caught in a Sudden Downpour...
There is no reason to sulk. Simply head to the nearest konbini. Practically all konbini sell cheap umbrellas for a few hundred yen.
Alternatively, check out this list of things to enjoy in Japan during bad weather days.
If an Earthquake Occurs During Your Solo Trip to Japan
There will be public safety announcements. Unfortunately, these will most likely not contain English too. The best thing to do is to follow the locals to designated safe spaces.
24. Find Low-Cost Dinner Options
There’s no need to starve yourself if you need to stick to a strict food budget. Simply head to the cooked food sections of large department stores like Seibu and Isetan. Near closing hour, many stalls heavily discount food items that cannot be kept overnight. These items are by no means sub-standard and navigating the department store labyrinths of gourmet delights could be one of the most memorable adventures of your solo trip to Japan. Naturally, konbini also offer many affordable and tasty dinner options.
25. Don't Tip in Japan
Tipping at restaurants is not a practice in Japan. According to some travel writers, it might even be considered offensive. Whatever it is, just know that Japanese hospitality and service staff do not expect you to give extra. On the other hand, a sincere "arigatou" is always appreciated.
Questions & Answers
As Americans who don't speak Japanese, can we travel in Tokyo and Kyoto without a guide?
You most certainly can. Tokyo and Kyoto are well-accustomed to tourists and most signs at attractions and facilities would, more or less, have English translations. Most Japanese will also go out of their way to direct you if you ask.
The only thing you probably need to do is to figure out your route and transportation in advance. Doing so largely eliminates any possible hiccups.Helpful 24
Can you recommend some cheap accommodation near substations in Kyoto, Tokyo, and Osaka, Japan?
It really depends on what you consider cheap and what is acceptable when it comes to accommodations. For me, I usually go for Japanese business hotel chains like Super, Toyoko, and Dormy, which are outstanding in service and often chock-full of amenities.
Most of these business hotels surround the train and major subway stations like moons to a planet, too.Helpful 17
How much do business hotels charge in Japan?
It varies quite significantly, depending on the chain and city. I would say it could range from 4000+ Yen to 15000+ Yen? Within the same hotel or chain, prices could also vary a lot. There are discounts for early 45 day/60 day advance bookings. Sometimes there are promotions too.
To give an example, I just booked three nights in Osaka. My charges are 4500/4500/8350 yen for the three nights.Helpful 13
Which part of Japan will you recommend for first-time solo trip females? Tokyo or Osaka?
This is a tough question and I can only answer it this way. Japan is uniformly safe for solo females, provided you take the usual precautions. Where to go thus depends on your preferences.
Tokyo and Osaka are equally metropolitan and well-geared for tourism, although Osaka has a more down-to-earth, vivacious feel.
In Tokyo, the main "threat," if I could put it that way, would be bar scams at areas like Kabukicho and Roppongi. But even these areas are pretty gentrified nowadays. Just ignore the pimps and avoid dark alleys.
In Osaka, the area to avoid, according to some, is the Kamagasaki area, which is a slum of sorts. But unless you are looking for dirt cheap accommodation, there is no reason at all to venture into the district.
Personally, I think the challenge for any solo traveler in Japan is that of language and culture. English is often used at popular tourist spots but the moment you venture away from those, it's all Japanese script. No issue of this, however, in Tokyo or Osaka. In fact, I believe you'd be stunned how far the Japanese would go, if you approach them for help.Helpful 7
© 2017 Kuan Leong Yong