The Unbrave Girl’s Guide to Traveling Solo in Japan

September 26, 2009

Solo Japan

In the past two and a half years of my living in Japan as an English teacher, I’ve taken countless solo trips to other Asian countries. I’ve temple-hopped through Thailand, jungle trekked in Nepal, spa-ed and binged on Bintang beer in Bali, shopped until I dropped in Hong Kong and eaten until I popped in Seoul.

All of this I did by myself.

But I’d never once traveled solo in Japan until last weekend.

I usually take trips abroad by myself because I don’t really have anyone to go with.

Either my friends don’t have the same vacation time as me. Or they like to use their money to do frivolous things like save or make mortgage payments or donate to their retirement funds rather than use it on something important like, say, a poolside hotel room in Bali.

Or my friends claim to have things like spouses or kids or pets or houseplants that don’t allow them to leave the country for one month and gallivant around Nepal on an ox cart.

The Unbrave Girl's Guide to Traveling Solo in Japan / Unbrave Girl

Just your neighborhood friendly Nepalese ox-cart

But I don’t really mind as I am one of those people who actually enjoys traveling by myself. It allows me the freedom to do whatever I want to do.

Or, more likely, it allows me the freedom to do absolutely nothing and nobody has to know that I spent the entire day in my hotel bathrobe eating room service cheeseburgers and watching pay-per-view movies.

Usually when people find out that I’m traveling by myself I get the same reaction: “Wow! You must be brave to travel alone!”

In fact, I’m not brave.

I’m just lazy.

I’m also hungry. One of the other joys of traveling solo is that no one has to know that you ate six meals in one day. And five desserts.

The Unbrave Girl's Guide to Traveling Solo in Japan / Unbrave Girl

Black sesame soft-serve ice cream. Yes, it’s possible this is my second dessert of the day. And it’s only noon. WHAT?

Probably the main reason why I haven’t bothered to travel around Japan by myself is because up until now I haven’t really had to. In Japan, I have been blessed to have friends who like to plan trips out of town and like to regularly invite me along. Unfortunately most of those friends have left Japan for other jobs in other locales, forcing me to either take trips on my own or find new friends — preferably friends with nothing pesky like budgets or kids or houseplants tying them down.

But vacation does not wait for you to find new travel buddies.

Sometimes vacation just happens.

In my case, it just happened this past weekend when I was unexpectedly granted a five-day holiday weekend.

So I decided to take my first big girl all-by-myself trip in Japan to Sapporo.

And I’m happy to report that my trip was quite the success!

In fact, if success is measured in amount of food-on-a-stick consumed (as it truly should be), I’m pretty sure I’d be winning an award for my entire trip experience.

The Unbrave Girl's Guide to Traveling Solo in Japan / Unbrave Girl

Yes, I ate those. No, I don’t know what they were.

Given this success, I now think I’m qualified to hand out a few tips to my fellow solo lady travelers out there looking to travel in Japan all by themselves.

So here goes:

Tip 1: Keep Busy

The Unbrave Girl's Guide to Traveling Solo in Japan / Unbrave Girl

One of the top reasons people have told me they don’t like to travel by themselves is because they’re worried they might get bored. Luckily, Sapporo had lots of good tourist options to keep me busy during the day.

I spent two days exploring the city, including some parks and a botanic garden, a shrine, some local landmarks and, of course, the Sapporo Beer Museum (the only beer museum in Japan!) and Beer Garden (decidedly NOT the only beer garden in Japan).

The Unbrave Girl's Guide to Traveling Solo in Japan / Unbrave Girl

Sapporo Beer Museum

The other two days I spent taking day trips out of town. One day I went for a little hiking and onsening in Jozankei, a hot springs town in the mountains.

The Unbrave Girl's Guide to Traveling Solo in Japan / Unbrave Girl

Jozenkai

Another day I went to Otaru, “The Venice of Japan,” known so for its canal and hand-blown glass crafts. Unfortunately, not for its Italian hotties and gelato.

The Unbrave Girl's Guide to Traveling Solo in Japan / Unbrave Girl

Otaru

While it’s easy to pack the days full of fun, there is always the question of what to do at night. I’m not really one of those people who feels comfortable going to bars and clubs by myself.

So I decided to keep myself busy by enjoying a game I called “Make the Hotel Staff Hate Me” which was combined with the even more fun game of “Repack My Bags Every Morning.”

This game began on my first day after checking into my hotel when I discovered I had been placed in a smoking room. Upon finding myself in the offending room, I promptly marched myself down to the lobby and had a rather shameless temper tantrum at the front desk. (Something I would have been way too embarrassed to do had I been traveling with someone. Yet another perk of traveling alone is that you can be as ridiculously annoying as you want to be and you only have to worry about strangers hating you!)

After my fit, the staff finally agreed to change my room. But because there wasn’t a non-smoking room available for all four nights of my visit, I would have to move out of my room every morning and move into a new room every single night. As you can imagine, this was both fun for me and the entire hotel staff!

Tip #2: Look Busy

The Unbrave Girl's Guide to Traveling Solo in Japan / Unbrave Girl

While it’s important to keep yourself busy so as to avoid feeling bored, it’s even more important to appear busy so as to avoid looking pathetic.

This is particularly important while dining.

It may be quite easy to tromp through a Beer Museum looking purposeful and perfectly confident, but it’s not quite so easy to keep up that appearance of purpose and confidence while hanging out at your table for one while everyone else is cozy and conversational at their tables for twos, threes and fours.

I recommend you bring along some reading material to keep you busy. Books are too bulky to fit in a handbag, but tourist brochures are light, easy to carry, and incredibly informative.

For example, the brochure for Sapporo’s Beer Museum informed me that the purpose of the museum was to inform visitors of “the way beer has enriched people’s lives and the dream which beer creates for tomorrow.” So true that is! I can’t even tell you how many dreams beer has created for my tomorrow!

The Unbrave Girl's Guide to Traveling Solo in Japan

Beer! Enriching my life and creating dreams for my tomorrow!

Another brochure that I picked up at the Hokkaido tourist office, entitled “The Guide to Enjoying Your Trip to Sapporo, the Capital of Hokkaido, Even More Immensely,” was full of helpful Japanese phrases like “Where are the bath agents?”, “I want you to mind my valuables” and “This is comfortably hot water.” How I’ve lived the last few years in Japan without these phrases is beyond me!

Tip #3: Make New Friends

The Unbrave Girl's Guide to Traveling Solo in Japan / Unbrave Girl

Another benefit of traveling solo is that you do tend to look pretty pathetic. (Really, there are only so many times that you can read that Beer Museum flyer before you start to space out, stare at the restaurant’s ceiling and look like a total sad sack).

But looking pathetic also means you look “non-threatening” which often makes people feel more comfortable to talk with you, especially in Japan where “I’m shy” is a national motto.

It doesn’t matter if your entire comprehension of the Japanese language has been gleaned from the tourist brochure. (Oddly, “Where are the bath agents?” is not always appropriate dinner time conversation.) Just keep on working your loser look and you’ll have new friends in no time!

If you’re anything like me (and God bless you if you are!), most of these new friends will be old men who will offer you free potatoes and then magically disappear as soon as their wife shows up on sight. (Yes, this actually happened. Don’t ask.)

The Unbrave Girl's Guide to Traveling Solo in Japan / Unbrave Girl

Actual potatoes that were offered to me by some old dude. Because apparently that’s how old dudes make friends in Japan. You have to admit, it’s a pretty smooth move. Who doesn’t like potatoes?

My last night in Sapporo I finally managed to meet some friends my own age. I was sitting in a Korean restaurant, waiting for my jijim to arrive and trying desperately to not look too pathetic, when the three people next to me at the counter started throwing glances my way. These were glances full of pity one would usually reserve for orphans or three-legged ponies. I threw a couple pathetic glances their way and before I knew it I had been invited over to drink and finish dinner with them.

The trio, two sisters and a boyfriend of one of the sisters, asked me on why I was in Sapporo. The group continued to quiz me on how I could ever travel alone and how I could ever come into a strange restaurant by myself.

“Aren’t you scared? Aren’t you lonely?” one of the sisters asked me.

“You must be brave,” the other sister chimed in.

“No, not brave,” I said, “Just hungry.”

 

Do you travel alone? What tips do you have for fellow solo travelers?

16

I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On August 29, 2011 at 9:28 am Julius Top said:

    Hi there may I use some of the content here in this site if I reference you with a link back to your site?

    • On August 29, 2011 at 10:30 am Sally said:

      All the material on my site is copyrighted; you do not have my permission to use any content from my site. You are welcome to mention the post and use a link to my article, but that is all. I appreciate your cooperation on this.

  2. On October 25, 2012 at 1:52 am Feenon said:

    Beautifully written report. Actually made me laugh early in the morning. I will be visiting Japan next month alone and I am 21 years of age. It hasnt hit the fact that I will be travelling solo yet, probably have a panic attack on the night before. Wish me luck!! XD

  3. On May 12, 2013 at 1:17 pm marlen said:

    Hi!!
    I stumbled on this post when I was googling (is that a verb now?) on Sapporo. Thanks for sharing your story.
    Will be making a solo trip there too in June.
    Wish me more free potatoes. Or beer. 😀

    Cheers.

  4. On July 21, 2013 at 6:39 pm Vally said:

    Hello! I’m planning my solo trip to Japan early. Although I heard Japan is a very safe country, I searched a bit about their police system and what to do when arrested(yes,paranoid me).I quickly learned that it’s not that good to be arrested(as it is everywhere)especially if you are a foreigner. My question is: are the officers that paranoid to arrest you if someone attacks you on the street or tries to steal your money and you fight back?
    Thanks.

    • On July 27, 2013 at 6:29 am Sally said:

      First of all, I really doubt you will have any problems with people trying to attack you or steal your money in Japan. Not that it doesn’t happen and that you shouldn’t take precautions — but it is very rare. Plus, most crimes in Japan are the non-confrontational kind. I actually went on a date once with a cop from a “very bad” part of Osaka. He told me the number one crime in his area was bicycle theft. Followed quickly by umbrella theft. So, yeah, the thieves are mostly stealing stuff from people who don’t know they’re being stolen from.
      Secondly, I would never, ever, EVER fight back with anyone trying to steal my money — especially if they have a weapon or are with a group of other people. Not only is this dangerous, but, yes, chances are, if the police do get involved, the foreigner is often suspected of wrong-doing.
      But, again, I highly doubt you’re going to have to worry about this that much in Japan. I’d say take the usual precautions (don’t walk around in shady neighborhoods at night, make sure someone always knows where you’re going to be, etc.) and have a good time!

  5. On February 26, 2014 at 7:26 am Kayleigh said:

    Hi Sally

    I’m hoping this blog is still ongoing as I literally just searched solo travel and found this.

    I have never travelled alone and I’m going to be visitng Korea for the first time this April/May (seeing family) and on the way home I’m flying to Tokyo for 3 days. I’m going to book in a day trip to Mount Fuji but was hoping you’d be able to recommend the best area in Tokyo to stay/get to from/to the airport (Narita) and friendly hostels? I know it’s a big ask and I’m researching but could always do with some tips/advice? Thanks a bunch!!

    • On March 1, 2014 at 9:01 am Sally said:

      Hi Kayleigh,
      Yep, I’m still here — although not still in Japan. I don’t know tons about Tokyo, as most of my time in Japan was spent in the Osaka/Kobe/Kyoto area. But last time I was in Japan, I spent a little time in Tokyo as I was attending a friend’s wedding. I stayed at Sakura Hostel in Asakusa. I’d recommend staying there — prices were reasonable (for Japan!) and people seemed friendly. I also recommend checking out some of the famous shrines in the city — Meiji and Sensoji are two really famous ones. And a walk around Harajuku is always a good time — lots of fun people-watching and fashion-gawking.
      Have a great trip! I’m sure you’ll love it!

  6. On April 15, 2014 at 1:21 pm Yemi said:

    Hi! Found your blog while Googling solo female travel in Japan and I’m so glad I did. I’m hoping to travel to Japan sometime this year alone; it will be my first time traveling alone & my first time visiting Japan so I’m scared to bits!

    Although I’m curious about Tokyo, it’s not my preferred destination as I live in NYC and want to be somewhere LESS chaotic and crammed with people. Apart from Sapporo, do you have any other suggestions for a good place for a first time female visitor to Japan to visit? I speak toddler-level Japanese (ok, maybe 1st/2nd grade level) and can read a teensy bit of kanji/hiragana/katakana, but for the most part I’m hopelessly monolingual. My primary travel interests are eating, sightseeing and more eating, if that helps. 🙂

    Off topic: I’m hugely inspired by the fact that you’ve done so much solo traveling despite the fact that you’re a self-described scaredy cat. I’ve read so many travel blogs written by people who were blessed with the bravery gene and I just can’t relate to them in that respect. It’s nice to read about someone’s travel adventures written from a perspective to which I can relate.

    • On April 20, 2014 at 10:14 am Sally said:

      Hi Yemi! I definitely recommend checking out Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and Kobe. They’re all pretty close together, so you can base yourself in one of those cities (Osaka or Kyoto are probably the most obvious picks) and take quick day trips to the others. I lived in Kobe for three years and loved it. There isn’t tons to do there (besides EAT! Hence my love for it). Nara and Kyoto are great for temples and other old timey Japanese stuff. Osaka is fun for quirky city stuff and isn’t nearly as overwhelming as Tokyo (in my opinion), plus the people are very down-to-earth and friendly there.
      If you have even more time and want to get a bit off the beaten path, I recommend checking out Koya-san, a famous Buddhist retreat on top of a mountain not too far from Osaka — you can even stay in a monastery there. I also loved Nikko, a little mountain town not too far from Tokyo. But probably my favoritest trip in Japan, was the time I walked the Nakasendo trail, an ancient trade route between these two old timey little towns — not too far from Nagoya. It’s kind of hard to get to especially if Japanese is not on your side, but totally worth it if you have the time and ambition. Here’s a post I wrote about it a super duper long time ago: http://www.unbravegirl.com/2009/11/two-places-at-once-in-japan/
      Have a fab trip!

  7. On May 21, 2014 at 10:23 am Amy Clark said:

    I’ve always been a massive fan of Japanese culture – the folk lore, the anime, the lifestyle – so naturally it’s my number one dream holiday destination. I really enjoyed reading about your solo experiences because the one thing holding me back (apart from money) is not having anyone to go with. It’s surprising that beer is so big in Japan – I always assumed Japanese people just drank Sake and that was it.

    • On May 21, 2014 at 9:53 pm Sally said:

      I wouldn’t worry at all about traveling alone in Japan. The people are friendly, it’s relatively safe and if people find out you’re a female traveling alone they will instantly try to help you out (or at least that was my experience… and not in a creepy way at all). The only inconvenience really is that it might cost a bit more to go on your own… but you can actually find a fair number of single hotel rooms and there are hostels in some of the bigger cities, so it might not be all that much more after all. I hope you get a chance to visit!

  8. On August 19, 2016 at 10:18 am Maria said:

    Hello,
    It’s not too hard to teach English to Japanese? I intend to live in an apartment in Tokyo with a working holiday visa and I think to teach english too…

    • On August 21, 2016 at 10:45 am Sally said:

      Hi Maria,
      It really depends on many things — the age of the students and their experience with English, your experience (if any) with teaching, the size/type of classes, etc. Overall, I’d say most Japanese people (even the very young) have some familiarity with English whether from school, movies, music, etc. In fact, from my experience, my Japanese students’ knowledge of English grammar and vocabulary was quite high — often higher than my own! The toughest part was getting them to speak because many Japanese people are quite shy about speaking English in front of their peers and in public. Of course, this is not true for everyone. I definitely had some students who liked to speak all the time — whether or not they were even supposed to be speaking! Good luck with your plan to teach!

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