*My friend, Neha Singh, generously agreed to share her experience traveling solo for the first time! Given the current situation around the world, I know you can’t jump on the bandwagon and plan your solo trip right now… but hopefully, this provides some ray of hope for trips you might want to plan when we can travel again. If nothing else, I think it definitely offers insight into how to cope with being alone during this time – for all those of you (like me) who do live alone! Over to Neha for her reflections on solo travel in Japan…*
Many of my close friends adore solo travel. They rave about the independence, freedom, and excitement such trips have to offer. I loved listening to their stories, and understood all the potential benefits of solo travel; still, I remained staunchly certain that solo travel was never going to be for me. Solitude sounded like punishment, the equivalent of when my parents put me in time-out in the bathroom by myself for misbehaving: a little scary, but mostly just sad. Surely traveling with a human I knew–ANY human–was preferable to traveling alone?
Given my outlook on solo travel, I was more than a little panicked when, due to some last-minute changes, I found myself traveling solo to Japan! However, as with most experiences we dread, my solo trip to Japan couldn’t have been more fateful, and ranks among the best experiences of my life. And while solo travel has its merits, I attribute the success of the trip largely to Japan itself. I firmly believe that choice of location is the linchpin of any solo trip, because it dictates your activities and sense of safety. If you are on the fence about planning a trip for one, especially as a woman, know that very few countries can usurp Japan’s position as your location of choice. Here’s why Japan is the perfect solo travel destination:
ACTIVITIES / WHAT TO DO
1. You can eat large bowls of ramen alone, with no judgment or loneliness
Japan triumphs as the world’s best country to dine solo! After clocking in three years of constant work travel, I’m an experienced solo diner, but still feel awkward facing the seating host and asking for a “table for one”. Refreshingly, eating alone is normal in Japan, and you need never worry about the hostess judging you for not having a friend with whom to eat. Ichiran, a ramen chain, exemplifies the way certain Japanese restaurants optimize their dining experiences for the solo diner. Each booth at Ichiran only seats one, and partitions separate each diner to prevent conversation during the meal. You walk in, pre-order, and pre-pay, after which the host guides you to a solo booth. This is far less depressing than it sounds — delicious ramen makes for excellent company.
In case solo travel takes you elsewhere across the globe, or you’re one of many global Map and Magnets readers, you’ll be pleased to hear you needn’t get to Tokyo to try this! In addition to innumerable locations in Japan, Ichiran has expanded its reach to Hong Kong and New York. For additional food recommendations and proof that Japanese food can be both excellent and cost-effective, feel free to check out my post on affordable Japanese eats.
2. You can enjoy the one hipster neighborhood to rule them all
When traveling with company, it’s easy to fill the day without a planned itinerary. While traveling solo, however, it’s ideal to schedule at least one or two activities each day. Having to report to a specific location at a specific time adds structure to each day and ensures you converse with another human at least daily. In Japan, and especially in Tokyo, there is an abundance of affordable Airbnb Experiences from which to choose.
In Tokyo, I enjoyed a local tour of Shimokitazawa, allegedly the most hipster neighborhood in the world. A true hipster herself, my host Marina spent several years in Texas hosting television shows before moving back to Shimokitazawa to open a bar and restaurant with her husband. Marina led us through several restaurants and coffee shops. Since she was a neighborhood local and fellow shop owner, her presence gave us unique access to the owners. For example, we were granted special permission to take photographs in the legendary hipster coffee shop, Bear Pond Espresso (photography is normally strictly forbidden inside the coffee shop). We even got to try natto, a common Japanese breakfast food, from a vending machine! Natto is made from fermented soybeans, and tastes vaguely cheesy. It is an acquired taste, one that I fear I will never acquire, but I’m grateful to have tried it under Marina’s guidance.
Co-incidentally, only one other person signed up for the same tour spot as me – and he too was a San Francisco resident! We bonded during the course of our semi-private tour and remain friends months later.
I also attended an English-language comedy show about life in Japan that delivered belly-deep laughs and genuine cultural education in equal measure. As comedy is by nature irreverent, it’s a great vehicle through which to learn about a new culture. Meshida, the comedian, addressed all the sensitive subjects I would never have dared ask about: xenophobia, immigration, stereotypes, humor, and cultural differences between Japan and the West. About ten of us had bought tickets to the show and had drinks together before and after the set.
3. You will be forced to chill out while traveling solo in Japan
In Kyoto and Hakone especially, I had ample time for solo reflection and relaxation. Kyoto is blessed with an over-abundance of natural and man-made beauty. It bursts at the seams with picturesque gardens, each of which looks so effortlessly perfect that you know they’ve been impeccably manicured. You can easily spend an entire day sitting in a Japanese park reading by the coi pond, only bothering to rouse yourself when your craving for a matcha latte becomes too powerful to resist.
Readers can also relax while enjoying Manga, a Japanese style of comic that dates back to the 19th century and has gained massive popularity abroad in recent years. Kyoto’s famous Manga Museum hosts an extensive international language manga collection, and has a dedicated outdoor reading park. Visitors can fill their arms with manga books, drag a free beanbag under a cherry blossom tree, and immerse themselves in a truly Japanese pastime.
If relaxing in a hot spring sounds better than reading outdoors, volcanically active Japan has many, many onsen (Japanese hot spring) for you to relax in. Hakone, a small town nestled in the foothills of Mt. Fuji, stakes its claim as a leading onsen town. Book a stay in a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, which usually has both onsen access and several other amenities to facilitate relaxation. The ryokan I stayed in provided robes, towels, and shower amenities, and also had many rooms filled with books, bean bags, and massage chairs to unwind in after one’s fingers had become shriveled up prunes from soaking in the hot springs for too long.
LOGISTICS / THINGS TO KNOW
4. You can post on Instagram as often as you like
Small pocket wifis for rental abound at every airport and at many major train stations. I found that NinjaWifi offered the best value for money, with high internet speeds and affordable rates. Thanks to pocket wifis, you can be online every moment of your stay in Japan. This was incredibly useful as a solo traveler, as I never had to worry about roaming charges and could liberally leverage maps and translation apps. Whether I was translating the ingredients on a bottle of sunscreen in a Japanese drugstore, looking up metro timings, or streaming Netflix in my hotel room, it was a relief not to have to worry about my credit card bill slapping me in the face at the end of the month. I paid $91 for 12 days of 4G-LTE during peak season, and you could easily split the cost of the device with one or two friends.
5. You’ll feel safe 100% of the time while solo in Japan
I have seen Taken one too many times, so it was a relief that Japan ranks among the world’s safest countries. Though I often found myself the only pedestrian on the road, especially in less crowded neighborhoods of Tokyo, I never felt unsafe. The pocket wifi added an extra layer of security. Since data usage was unlimited, I turned on Google’s location sharing services so my family knew where I was the entire time. If either you or your loved one(s) worry about personal safety, it’s hard to do better than Japan.
6. You can zoom between locations in style
Japan’s public transportation is dazzlingly varied and efficient. In fact, it may have spoiled me forever…when I returned home to the California Bay Area and took Caltrain (our ‘high-speed’ train), I felt like I was riding a train for cavemen. Despite the lack of English signage, transportation hubs are thoughtfully laid out, and helpful station workers usher you to the correct stops. Certain cities require that tourists stay in the ‘right’ parts of the city to easily access famous eateries and attractions. Luckily, Tokyo’s public transportation network grid is so extensive that it hardly matters where in the city you stay. I booked an inexpensive hotel in Ryogoku, which is neither a fancy nor a central part of Tokyo, without it detracting from my experience at all.
Inter-city transport is equally seamless. I took bullet trains to move among Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hakone. Japan Rail passes further simplify the tourist experience by offering unlimited access to Japan’s extensive rail network in exchange for a one-time fee. I bought mine on JRpass.com and paid $273 for a 7-day pass. With the hefty price tag, the JR pass only saves money if one travels further than a round-trip from Kyoto to Tokyo, and is not worth a trip focused on one city in particular. Only those entering the country on a tourist visa are eligible for the pass.
CLOSING THOUGHTS ON SOLO TRAVEL
Somewhat annoyingly, solo travel delivers on every dumb promise you’ve read about in countless Medium articles:
- Independence – Getting lost—and then found—on a metro with no English signs, realizing you’ve walked ten blocks away from your intended destination, and emerging unscathed regardless is surprisingly empowering. Each day you manage to have fun in a country where no one looks or sounds like you results in increased confidence…and maybe even a subtle sheen of triumph.
- Ownership – if your family vacations are like mine, they involve a crack-of-dawn wake up time, a hectic dash to see as many famous landmarks as possible, and an exhausted collapse into bed by 9pm. Vacations with significant others and friends can be equally hectic, and at times involve diplomatic management of competing interests. It was intensely liberating to create my own itinerary and wake up daily to a self-guided adventure. After all, a little healthy self-indulgence is part of why we take vacations!
- Perspective – even the most intentional among us rarely push ‘pause’ to evaluate one’s life trajectory, and when we travel with others it’s all the more difficult to do. As there is literally no one to talk to but yourself on a solo trip, introspection is inevitable! In my case, I confronted a deep-seated fear that returning to the rigors of consulting meant sacrificing my extracurriculars, and decided to take an extra month off before starting work to pursue a yoga teacher certification. Years after the fact, now a regular teacher at a yoga studio, I can see how the decision I made sitting alone in my Tokyo hotel room served to strengthen my sense of self outside of work and provided an outlet that continues to give me a sense of purpose and growth.
Two years ago, less than 24 hours before my flight to Tokyo was scheduled to depart, I hated the thought of traveling alone. Journeying through a non-English speaking country in “solitary confinement” was hardly my idea of a good time. But I also knew it might be years before the confluence of funds, schedules, and time off from work would allow me to visit again, and I resolved to continue the trip on my own, deciding that the only thing worse than going alone was not going at all. I’m so glad I did, and that I experienced the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo, the old-world charm of Kyoto, and the onsen of Hakone. I hope my experience empowers you to solo travel to Japan as well!