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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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!
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
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.)
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?