25 Tips for Your First Solo Trip to Japan
A collection of tips and pointers for anyone travelling to Japan alone for the first time. These suggestions are based on my personal experiences during ten solo trips to Japan.
Note: I’m excluding things such as bringing a good book, getting WIFI, being mindful about cash, etc. Basically, obvious things applicable to any solo trip.
1. Have Your Departure Tickets on Hand During Immigration Checks
This is a requirement for many countries. You should always have proof of intended departure with you when passing through immigration. To be absolutely safe, you should also have the address of your (first) hotel, and proof of transportation mode should your departure city be different from your arrival city. Of course, Japan isn’t going to imprison you should you not have these on hand, but the immigration officer might request a “special” interview in a separate room. That’s really an upsetting way to start your Japanese solo trip, yes?
2. Bring Enough Cash—No, 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 worst by many ATMs not accepting foreign bank cards. To save yourself the panic and hassle of desperately hunting for an ATM that does welcome your card, forecast your expenditure then bring an amount with a sensible buffer above your prediction.
ATMs That Accept Foreign Cards
Look for ATMs of foreign banks. Such as those for Citibank and Standard Chartererd.
3. About Japanese Taboos
I could easily write a “top 100 Japanese taboos to know for your solo trip” article if I need to. But seriously, there’s only that few to be mindful about:
- Take off your shoes when you are expected to (For more information, refer to Tip 6 below)
- Don’t talk on your cellphone when on public transportation. If you can’t avoid taking the call, whisper and terminate the call quickly.
- Never stick chopsticks vertically into food. Across the whole of 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.
- As like the case with many other countries, please do not criticise the Japanese royal family.
Over the years, I’ve read about taboos such as not blowing your nose in public, not eating while walking, etc. Here’s the confounding thing. I’ve actually seen a lot of Japanese, young and old, doing these. My conclusion, therefore, is to generally avoid loud and distasteful behaviour in public. Japan prizes itself as an orderly nation. Whatever the Japanese themselves might be doing, you should avoid drawing unnecessary attention to yourself. This is especially so when you’re alone.
4. If Station Luggage Lockers Run Out . . .
Lockers are plentiful at major bus and train stations, and a must 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, such as those in Shinjuku, do offer luggage storage services. Alternatively, you could try your luck at the attraction you’re heading to. Temples and shrines wouldn’t be willing, but ticketing offices of theme parks and museums might be willing to hold your luggage for a short while. Best not to depend on these, though. The best is still to travel light.
5. Many Younger Japanese Understand English—Sort Of
English (Eigo) is taught in many public and private schools in Japan. However, a variety of reasons prevents most Japanese from fully mastering it. One reason is obviously the lack of daily opportunities to practice.
Should you ever need to speak to a Japanese person in English, remember to do so slowly and clearly. When listening to replies, be mindful too that many Japanese are influenced by how their mother tongue transliterates and condenses English words. The Japanese language is extremely vowel heavy and so words like “ticket” becomes “chiketo.” Other words 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.
- For (1), almost all places would offer indoor slippers for you to change into. Do so and leave your outdoor shoes at the entrance pointing outwards.
- Regarding (2), do NOT wear these indoor slippers into the restroom. There are toilet slippers for you to change into. Obviously, you should change back into indoor slippers after you’re done with the restroom.
Playing with slippers is one of the most distasteful taboos in Japan. So I’ve been told, samurais have demanded death duels after being slapped by someone else’s slipper.
7. Smaller and Traditional Accommodations Might Impose Curfews
This tends to be the case for smaller, family-run enterprises, with lock-up time typically between 2200 hours and midnight. At some establishments, however, the owner might be willing to loan you a special key permitting entry after curfew is imposed, if you were to ask nicely. Don’t bet on this, though. Check thoroughly before booking, should you intend to stay out late during your solo trip.
8. About Those Awesome Japan Rail Passes
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. For example, using the 7 Day JR Pass only make sense if you intent to take at least two long distance Shinkansen bullet train rides. Otherwise, you are likely to end up paying more for the pass compared to buying individual tickets.
In addition, take note of the following when using JR passes:
- Reservations are not mandatory for many services, although 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 supplement 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. Yet another reason to travel light and compactly. (See above, Tip 4)
- JR passes allow you free travel on some city lines, such as the Yamanote Line in Tokyo and the Loop Line in Osaka. This provides savings, but note that these lines are among the most heavily used services in the world.
9. About Japanese Taboos—Again
Few Japanese 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 major taboos such as not wearing shoes indoor, you wouldn’t be faulted for not behaving “Japanese.” Most of the time, a simple arigato is already deeply appreciated.
10. Japan Is Safe, Not Crimeless
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world, thus a prime location for solo traveling. That said, it is sheer stupidity to assume there is no crime in the country.
During any solo trip to Japan, the foremost “threat” would be club scams. These involve persistent street promoters inviting you to a certain host or hostess club. Once there, you are positively spoilt rotten by the attention rained onto you. Before you know it, you’ve chalked up a few hundred thousand yen ordering alcohol and snacks. Suddenly, the friendly promoters are no longer so friendly. Gosh, now you see how muscular and sinister they actually are.
Such promoters mostly operate in nightlife areas such as 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 wouldn’t do so for long. The key is to just walk away.
Additional Advice for Ladies
Ladies, you might wish to avoid public transportation during peak hours. Sexual harassment i.e. gropers is a known problem on crowded Japanese trains. FYI, some cities offer ladies-only carriages during peak hours.
11. Tattoos Are an Issue, Still
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 underworld.
However, in recent years, I’ve actually seen tourists with tattoos inside some hot springs and spas. (Not elaborate tattoos, though. Mostly small features or tribal arm bands) To be safe and to avoid disappointment, you ought to be upfront and check with the staff should you have something on you. While no one would scream murder and drag you out, to be evicted because of tattoos is really unpleasant. It’s an experience you need not have on your solo trip.
12. Smoking in Public Is Increasingly 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 who needs a 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 about it. How Japan has vending machines that sell everything and anything, including used panties. Here’s the truth. Over 90 percent of vending machines you’d see during your trip would be selling nothing but canned drinks. The rest would sell snacks, small souvenirs, magazines, etc.
On the other hand, Japanese convenience shops have to be seen to be believed. Aside from retailing an astonishing variety of goods, they also sell bentos, hot snacks, tickets, passes, and provide services like faxing and courier delivery. In fact, it’s quite possible to have a feast with food purchased from a konbini. Note, don’t be put off by the bentos being 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, you’re alone. Lesser bags mean you have lesser things to worry about when on the move. Lesser worries, in turn, translate to more enjoyment.
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?
© 2017 Kuan Leong Yong