25 Tips for Your First Solo Trip to Japan
This article offers a collection of tips and pointers for anyone who is travelling to Japan alone for the first time. These suggestions are based on my personal experiences. I've taken ten solo trips to Japan, and I've learned a lot from each trip.
Note: I’m excluding easily researchable topics such as bringing a good book, getting WIFI, being mindful about cash, etc. Basically, obvious things that are applicable to any solo trip will not be part of this article.
25 Tips for Traveling Alone in Japan
- Carry a list of your lodging accommodations and departure dates.
- Always carry cash.
- Be well-informed about Japanese cultural taboos.
- Utilize 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.
- Shop at train stations.
- Learn how to ride Japanese buses.
- Use proper etiquette when visiting Shinto shrines.
- Make the most out of a trip to a Japanese castle.
- Respect Japanese-only establishments.
- Strategically visit theme parks.
- Learn how to handle surprise rain storms.
- Buy affordable meals.
- Learn about Japanese tipping practices—or lack thereof.
1. Report Your Departure Dates During Immigration Checks
Prior to entering Japan, you will be required to fill out a form that lists your arrival and departure dates, and the addresses of your lodging facilities for the duration of your trip. This is a requirement in many countries. You should always have proof of intended departure with you when you're passing through immigration. Of course, Japan isn’t going to imprison you if you don't have that information on hand, but the immigration officer might request a “special” interview with you in a separate room to ensure that there's nothing suspicious going on. That can be a really upsetting way to start your Japanese solo trip, so avoid the drama and come prepared to report that information.
2. Always Carry 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 ATMs do not accept foreign bank cards. To save yourself the panic and hassle of desperately hunting for an ATM that does welcome your card, determine how much money you'll need during your trip, and then bring a buffer amount to account for unexpected needs.
3. Japanese Taboos
I could easily write an article about the top 100 Japanese taboos to be aware of, but there’s only a few taboos that most travelers need to be mindful about:
- Take off your shoes when you are expected to do so. This applies in homes, certain spas, and in many other places.
- Don’t talk on your cell phone when you're on 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.
- Don’t gesture at people with just one finger.
- Please queue when you see others doing so.
- Please do not criticise the Japanese royal family.
Over the years, I’ve read about other taboos such as blowing your nose in public, not eating while walking, etc., but the confounding thing about those faux pas is that I’ve actually seen a lot of Japanese people doing these things. My conclusion, therefore, is to generally avoid loud and distasteful behaviour in public. Japan prides itself on being an orderly nation. 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 alone.
4. Use Lockers for Temporary Storage
Rentable lockers are usually plentiful at major bus and train stations, and they're a helpful option for almost anyone on a solo trip. However, there’s always the risk of lockers running out. Many stations have limited large-size lockers that are capable of storing 30-inch suitcases.
If you run into a locker crisis, your best solution would be 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. However, it's best not to depend on these options. Try to travel light.
5. Learn Some Japanese Words and Terms
English (Eigo) is taught in many public and private schools in Japan. However, a variety of reasons prevent most Japanese people from fully mastering it. One reason is obviously the lack of daily opportunities to practice.
If you ever 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 that many Japanese people are influenced by how their mother tongue transliterates and condenses English words. The Japanese language is phonetic, 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. Try learning some Japanese words to enhance your communication abilities.
6. More About 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 in 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 distasteful taboos in Japan, so don't play around with them.
7. Small or Traditional Hotels Might Impose Curfews
This tends to be the case for smaller, family-run enterprises, and lock-up time is typically between 2200 hours and midnight. However, at some establishments the owner might be willing to loan you a special key for entry after curfew is imposed if you ask nicely. Don’t bet on that though. Check your hotel's curfew policy thoroughly before you book accomadations.
8. Should I Buy a Japan Railways Pass?
The passes sold by the Japan Railways (JR) group are among the best deals in the worldwide travel industry. Despite that, they only provide savings if you take enough long-distance rides to justify purchasing a pass in the first place. For example, using the 7 Day JR Pass only makes sense if you intend to take at least two long distance bullet train rides. Otherwise, you are likely to end up paying more for the pass than you would pay for individual rail tickets.
In addition, take note of the following 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 is known as "自由席 (jiyuseki)" in Japanese.
- Take note that some trips will 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 yet another good reason to travel light.
- JR passes allow you travel for free on some city lines such as the Yamanote Line in Tokyo and the Loop Line in Osaka. Please note that these lines are among the most heavily used services in the world and they will mostly likely be crowded.
9. When in Rome—or Japan—Do as the Locals Do
Few Japanese people expect foreigners, especially tourists, to completely talk and behave like them. In fact, many might even find it weird, if not downright patronising. As long as you observe and respect major taboos, you won't be judged harshly for not behaving like everyone else. Keep in mind that Japan has a distinct culture and it is easy to get overwhelmed by culture shock when you're in a different country. Familiarize yourself with common aspects of Japanese culture before you get to Japan 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. Japan Is Safe, But Not Crimeless
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, which makes it a great location for solo traveling. That said, it would be very stupid to assume there is no crime in the country.
During any solo trip to Japan, the most likely “threat” would be the threat of a club scam. These scams are perpetrated by persistent street promoters who invite you to a certain host or hostess club. Once there, you will be spoiled rotten and showered with attention. Before you know it, you will have chalked up a few hundred thousand yen ordering alcohol and snacks. Once that happens, the friendly promoters will no longer act friendly. They'll be pushy and demanding until you pay your unreasonably high bill.
Promoters and facilities like this mostly operate in nightlife areas like Tokyo’s Kabukicho. Unless you know the Japanese nightlife scene inside out, I recommend that you avoid these promoters and their offers. Simply walk away when you're approached by aggressive promotors. Even if they persist, they won't continue to do so for long. The key is to just walk away.
Additional Advice for Ladies
Ladies, might want to avoid public transportation during peak hours. Sexual harassment and gropers are a well-known problem on crowded Japanese trains. FYI, some cities offer ladies-only carriages during peak travel hours to reduce the likelihood of assault and groping.
11. Tattoos Are Still an Issue
Most Japanese hot springs and public pools display notices forbidding usage by anyone with tattoos. This is due to tattoos being commonly associated with the Japanese criminal underworld.
However, in recent years, I’ve actually seen tourists with tattoos inside some hot springs and spas. (The people with tattoos who are admitted usually don't have elaborate tattoos. Small and subtle tattoos may be more acceptable than large, intricate pieces.) 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 would scream bloody murder and drag you out, getting ejected because of tattoos is a really unpleasant experience that can be easily avoided.
12. Smoking in Public Is Increasingly Becoming a Challenge
Many Japanese cities have taken aggressive steps to curtail smoking. In some parts of Tokyo, you could even be fined if caught smoking outside designated smoking points. It’s a good idea to search online for these designated smoking spots before heading to Japan—especially if you’re the sort of person who needs to light-up every other hour.
13. Using Vending Machines and Konbini
You might have read a lot of surprising conjecture about Japanese vending machines. Many people think that Japan has vending machines that sell everything and anything, including used panties. The truth is that 90 percent of the vending machines you’ll see during your trip 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. Aside from retailing an astonishing variety of goods, they also sell bentos, hot snacks, tickets, passes, and they provide services like faxing and courier delivery. In fact, it’s quite possible to have a feast with food purchased from a konbini. Don’t be put off if the bentos are cold. The cashier can warm them up for you. If they do not ask, simply point at the microwave ovens near 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, then delivered to your next destination the subsequent day. Naturally, this is also a solution for the aforementioned locker crisis.
Regardless of whether your bags are cumbersome or not, it might still be a great idea to use takuhaibin during a solo trip. Remember, if you’re alone, carrying fewer bags will mean that will you have less things to worry about when you're on the move.
15. Always Check the Seasonal Forecasts Beforehand
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 colours, 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, and these forecasts can help you avoid travel-related stress.
It's probably best to avoid traveling during Golden Week and the Obon festival. These are the days when Japanese domestic travel is at its most intense. It’s also a generally a good idea to avoid major attractions during the final days of school breaks. You should also avoid popular locations like theme parks during busy times of year.
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, you need to fulfil certain conditions in order to qualify for this exemption. Your purchases must reach a certain amount before taxation in order to qualify. You will obviously need to have your passport with you too. Generally, the minimum spending amount is five thousand yen. To be certain, check the websites of the stores you intend to visit.
I personally consider Don Quijote to be the best place to buy gifts for friends because you can get everything you want in one visit. Don Quijote truly has a bewildering selection of merchandise.
17. Major Train Stations Are Splendid Places for Shopping
Believe me when I say you could lose yourself in major Japanese train stations for a full day. Heck, maybe even two days. Stations like Tokyo, Shinjuku, Kyoto, Osaka, and Tennoji are absolute shrines of consumerism. In some cases, the variety of goods available in them beat the options anywhere else in those cities. Have a look around the train station before your next ride. You might find something great to buy!
18. All About Japanese Buses
Many Japanese buses use a ticketing system that’s utterly baffling to the uninitiated. I’m referring to the ones that board from the middle. For these, the correct procedure is:
- Board from the middle. Collect a small slip of paper from the dispenser next to the entrance. This piece of paper has a number on it. Consider the slip your ticket.
- There is a large electronic board with ever-changing numbers at the front of the bus, 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.
- You must deposit the fee and the ticket into the collection box next to the driver before alighting. 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, but no one would fault you for not doing so.
As for Temples
Buddhist temples have less structured worshipping practices if you're not participating in a ritual. To offer respect, you simply buy and burn incense.
20. 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 also be steep and the exhibits are usually of little interest to foreigners. However, the city view from the top of the keep might be worth all the effort to get there.
21. When Establishments Do Not Welcome Foreigners
Don’t be offended if you encounter an izakaya or pub that rejects foreigners. 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 their usual clientele might mind the foreign presence. Whatever the reason, just forget about it and move on.
22. When Visiting Famous Japanese Theme Parks
Don’t be cheap! Get a fast pass if one’s available. A fast pass won't keep you from waiting in line, but it will at least reduce your waiting time. To really cut down on waiting time, consider visiting during “starlight” hours i.e. in the evening. Tour groups and most families will be sparse at those times, which will free up space on rides and at shows. If you attend a theme park during starlight hours you may have to do some pre-planning to ensure that you can see all the attractions you're interested in. You will typically have no more than five hours to enjoy the theme park if you attend during starlight hours.
There are a bunch of great amusement parks in Japan, including:
- Tokyo Disneyland
- Disney Sea
- Universal Studios
- Fuji-Q Highland
- Legoland Japan
- Kamogawa Sea World
23. If You're Caught in a Sudden Downpour...
Don’t sulk. Head for the nearest konbini. Practically all konbini sell cheap umbrellas for a few hundred yen.
If an Earthquake Occurs During Your Trip
There will be public safety announcements that will most likely not contain English. 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 want 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. Konbini also offer 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
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 9
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 16
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 9
© 2017 Kuan Leong Yong