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.
1. Have Your Departure Dates Available 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.
2. Bring Extra Cash
While many establishments now accept international credit cards, Japan is still, by and large, a very 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 know for your solo trip, 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 cellphone 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. Whatever 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. If the Train Station Runs Out of Luggage Lockers...
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 also have limited large-size lockers capable of storing 30-inch suitcases.
Should you run into a locker crisis, your best solution would be to head to a large departmental store. Some of these stores, such as those in Shinjuku, offer luggage storage services. Alternatively, you could try your luck at the attraction you’re heading to. Temples and shrines wouldn’t be willing to store your luggage, but ticketing offices of theme parks and museums might be willing to hold your luggage for a short while. It's best not to depend on these options and 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 prevents 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.
6. More About Shoes
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, ever, 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. Smaller 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 this, 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 aren’t reservations-only will always have “free-seating” carriages. This is known as 自由席 (jiyuseki) in Japanese.
- Take note that some trips require supplemental fees. This is due to part of the journey utilizing non-JR owned tracks.
- Other than airport services, Japanese trains have truly limited storage space for large suitcases. This is yet another 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. About Japanese Taboos—Again
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 such as not wearing shoes indoors, you won't be judged harshly for not behaving like everyone else.
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 would suggest you avoid these promoters and their offers. Simply wave your hand and walk away when approached. 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 hours.
11. Tattoos Are Still an Issue
Practically all 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 something on you. While no one would scream bloody murder and drag you out, getting evicted 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. If you’re the sort of person who needs to light-up every other hour, it’s a good idea to search online for these designated smoking spots before heading to Japan.
13. Vending Machines and Konbini
You might have read a lot of surprising conjecture about Japanese vending machines. Many people think taht Japan has vending machines that sell everything and anything, including used panties. Here’s the truth, 90 percent of vending machines you’d 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
Should 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 locker crisis mentioned above.
Regardless of whether your bags are cumbersome or not, it might still a great idea to use takuhaibin during a solo trip. Remember, if you’re alone fewer bags 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 seasonal colours, it’s still a good idea to refer to these for they give a clear indication when travel peak periods would be. It is not unusual for hotels in cities like Kyoto to be fully booked during peak Sakura season.
In addition, it’s imperative to avoid the Golden Week and the Obon festival. These are the days when Japanese domestic travel is at its most intense. Finally, it’s generally a good idea to avoid the final days of school breaks. Places like theme parks would be absolutely swarmed.
16. Tax Exemption for Your Purchases
Many Japanese retail chains offer consumption tax exemption for foreign visitors. One example is the highly popular Don Quijote chain.
However, do note you need to fulfil certain conditions in order to enjoy this exemption. Your purchases must hit a certain amount before taxation in order to qualify. Obviously, you need to have your passport with you too. Generally, the minimum spending amount is five thousand yen. To be certain, check the websites of stores you intend to visit.
I personally find Don Quijote the best place to buy gifts for friends, for you can get everything within one visit. They truly have a bewildering selection of things.
17. Major Train Stations Are Splendid Paradises 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 even beats anywhere else in the city.
This makes them fasntastic for shopping and feasting at. What I’m saying here is also, there’s no need to fret if the shops at the shrines or museums are closed, or you didn’t buy what you should have. Have a look at the train station before your next ride. You might not find the same item. Chances are, you might find something better.
18. 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 has a number on it. Consider the slip your ticket.
- At the front of the bus, diagonally above the driver, is a large electronic board with ever-changing numbers. Before alighting, refer to the electronic board. The fare to pay is the amount displayed under the number printed on your ticket.
- You deposit the fee and the ticket into the collection box next to the driver before alighting. Many Japanese 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. When Visiting Shinto Shrines
There are different worship rituals in Shinto. Generally, the following would suffice for any foreign visitor.
- There will always be a trough with running water for you to “cleanse” yourself.
- 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 would fault you for not doing so.
As for Temples
Buddhist temples have less structured worship systems, 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. 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, steps are also steep and exhibits are usually of little interest to foreigners. The city view from the top of the keep, however, 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 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 scrimp. Get a fast pass if one’s available. A fast pass wouldn’t save you the need to queue, but it would at least reduce your waiting time. To really, really, cut down on waiting time, consider visiting during “starlight” hours i.e. in the evening. Tour groups and most families would be gone, freeing up the rides and shows. You would have to do some preplanning, though, when using such evening passes. Usually, you would have no more than five hours.
23. If Caught in a Sudden Downpour ...
Don’t sulk. Head for the nearest konbini. Practically all sell cheap umbrellas for a few hundred yen.
When Caught in an Earthquake
There would be public announcements, which unfortunately would likely not contain English. The best thing to do is to follow where the locals are fleeing to.
24. If You’re Low on Your Dinner Budget . . .
There’s no need to starve yourself. Simply head to cooked food sections of large departmental stores like Seibu and Isetan. Near to closing hour, many stalls heavily discount food items that cannot be kept overnight. These items are by no means sub-standard too, if you’re concerned. Actually, navigating those labyrinths of gourmet delights could be one of the most memorable adventures of your solo trip.
25. About Tipping
Tipping is not a practice in Japan. According to some travel writers, it’s might even be considered as 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 arigato is universally appreciated.
Bonus Tip: About WWII
About the war. That war. Some of my friends were surprised during their visit to Japan by how much common Japanese people know about the war. I can’t say this was what I experienced during my visits. Most of what I encountered were no more than attractions and exhibitions openly referencing WWII.
At the same time, there remain several highly influential far-right organisations in Japan. Supposedly, some of these even have direct connections to politicians in office. Regarding the attractions I mentioned above, I should highlight that most tend to paint Japan in a sympathetic light. They don’t attempt to justify the war, but they do emphasise the Japanese also suffered deeply during and after those years.
Here’s my personal take. I think the subject is way too contentious for a holiday or a business trip, or even a study trip. Besides, it is the iron truth that wars are always started by a few men in power, with victims found on both sides of any aggression. To put it in another way, neither talk nor debate about WWII during any Japanese trip, solo or not. It’s an endless argument. For tourists, you’re there to enjoy Japan’s modern hospitality. Why sour the mood by bringing up historical conflict?
Questions & Answers
- Helpful 4
- Helpful 2
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 5
© 2017 Kuan Leong Yong