Traveling to Japan alone (especially as a woman) can sound intimidating at first but it is actually a lot easier than you would think.
It’s super safe
For the most part, the Japanese are very polite and proper. You don’t have to worry about pickpockets as much as you do in Europe. The crime rate is also under 1%, so chances are that you are probably living in a city that is much more dangerous than Japan.
It’s super clean
Do not litter but do not expect to find trash cans everywhere either. I do not know where the trash goes, but keep a plastic bag for your trash with you at all times because you never know when you’ll actually find a trash can. You will usually have to wait until you find a bathroom. Oh yeah, and there usually aren’t paper towels or air dryers either so keep a small washcloth or hand sanitizer with you.
Speaking of clean, the locals do not like germs, so many of them may be wearing masks around their nose and mouth. This does not mean they do not want to talk to you if they are a worker but it is an extra precaution since it is frowned upon to take off from work. Always make sure you are polite and courteous if you need to sneeze or cough.
The train system is easy and efficient
The trains are always punctual and there is usually a train coming within the next 10-15 minutes. The train stations also have signs in English and the workers can usually point you to the right destination.
If you want to travel around Tokyo, get the Pasmo Card and put about $20 on it. You can get this pass at any train station. For travel outside Tokyo, get the Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). This will allow you to take the bullet train (Shinkansen line) to cities all over Japan. You need to make sure you buy it before you get to Japan. You either won’t be able to do this once you are there or it will be a big pain.
Don’t use cabs or even Uber, as it is much more expensive in Japan.
*I was able to use Google Maps by renting a Pocket Wifi. It cost me less than $100 to use for the whole time I was there (10 days). I was able to see where I was going and it even allows you to figure out what train to take.
Be adventurous with the food, but know what you are eating
Google Translate is very helpful for this. You can take a picture of the text and it will tell you what is on the menu. Sometimes there are things on the menu that you would not normally eat at home (horse meat) and would care not to. Either way, it’s good to know.
As far as recommendations go, my personal favorite was walking through the Nishiki Market and sampling all of the fresh food they have to offer. Be sure to get the Okonomiyaki and try some sushi. Supposedly, the Tsukiji Market is the best place for sushi.
Where to stay
The hostels in Japan are immaculate and will cost you about $30 per night. They also have strict rules, security and a safe in each room. Air BnB is also a great option.
Cherry Blossom Season (Sakura)
Sakura means that Spring is here! Don’t expect to see these beautiful views unless you go during a very specific time of year. Prime time is late March-April but see specific guides for each area.
Key places to see
Harajuku District: Filled with creative and fun outfits and people. A haven for anything Kawaii (cute) including Hello Kitty, Pokemon, and anything cartoon or anime-related. Check out the colorful food like crepes and be sure to visit one of the cat, rabbit, owl, or even snake cafes! The cat cafes are adorable and allow you to relax and play with cats while enjoying some coffee.
This was definitely one of the coolest experiences. If you love Disney, this will surely be a treat because it’s everything you think you knew about Disney in Japanese! Be sure to go to DisneySea because DisneyLand has rides that are very similar to the ones in the US. They have live shows, new and exciting rides, and exotic food. Be prepared to get lost and go through a few workers to find someone who speaks English.
Don’t miss the Big Band Beat like I did. You have to go to the “lottery” to win tickets and if you don’t, you have to wait in line. Be sure to line up early because the line will probably be full by fifteen minutes before the next showing.
Watch the late night show because it is just phenomenal. Seriously. My mouth fell wide open and I’m 23.
Take a ride on Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Ride the Indiana Jones one too if it’s open.
Ah, yes. The food. Frozen beer, flavored popcorn, and character mochi. Just check out this awesome blog for details.
A ticket to DisneySea will cost you about $70 which is a deal when you compare it to the $100+ tickets in the US parks. I suggest you make a day of it instead of wasting your money at one of the swanky hotels.
Kyoto is undoubtably one of the most beautiful spots in Japan. Spots to see are Nijo-jo Castle, Shimogamo-jinja Shrine, The Golden Pavillon, and Ryoan-ji Temple. I missed the Monkey Park but that is on my list for next time.
Unfortunately, I did not get to spend a lot of time here but I went to Osaka Castle which I really liked. I also missed the Osaka is famous for its nightlife and food as well.
I did not have enough time to go to Nara but there are a lot of cool temples and deer here.
If you are going to be staying in someone’s home (a friend, airBnB, an exchange family) it is polite to bring a small gift from your home country
To easily calculate Yen to Dollars without taking out a calculator or converter, take off the last 2 digits of the price.
For example, if something is 5300 yen, you know that it will cost you no more than $53. It will not be completely accurate, but it is pretty close (actual price is $51.15). By using this method, it makes it more likely that you will stick to your budget because you are actually calculating the higher price.
Eat where the locals eat
This is usually where you are going to find the best and most authentic cuisine. Check out one of the rotating sushi bars. They are very fresh and delicious. You only pay for what you pick up and eat and it gives you a chance to try many new things for a very small price.
Stay in a hostel
This is the best way to save money and meet new people. Most hostels have a curtain and a nice sized bed with lockers to keep your space private and secure. They also have strict rules about noise, safety, and cleanliness.
If you make the journey to Hakone to see Mt. Fuji, bring a bag and do not drink heavily before the ride
I do not get car sick easily but this was one rough ride. I could barely keep my lunch down and I was so glad I didn’t drink too much the night before. A bag would’ve made me feel a lot more relaxed.
Also, don’t expect to actually see Mt. Fuji
A lot of times, it can be covered by fog. Make sure you check the weather in Hakone beforehand to maximize your chances of seeing the majestic mountain up close. The cruise and skytram are the best ways to see it.
Organize your coins before you go up to pay at a store or on the bus
Don’t be that tourist who holds people up by not counting their change or having the correct amount beforehand. Put your coins in a place where you can easily access them and if possible, have specific areas for different coin amounts.
Don’t be late for your train
The train system is very efficient and when it says it’s leaving at 5:04, it leaves at that very moment. They usually have another train within 15 minutes if you are in a large metropolis but if not, it could be a longer wait.
Never use a driving service
The trains are usually faster than traveling by car and a lot less expensive. Take the bullet train to get from Narita Airport to Tokyo or risk a $200+ fare.
Do what the Japanese do
If they bow, bow back. This shows a sign of respect, even if you are not familiar with their culture or language.
Do not talk on the phone near shrines, temples, or on the train
This is seen as extremely disrespectful
Watch out for bikes!
They are everywhere and you can easily get hit if you are not paying attention
Skip the Robot Restaurant
It’s an extremely cheesy tourist trap. Especially if you are going alone and have no one to laugh at it with.
Don’t get off the toilet until the spray feature is turned off
Do I really have to explain this humiliating story?
Allow extra time to get to your flight if you are traveling from other cities
If you use Google Maps, it might be tracking the faster bullet train which is more expensive and mainly just for Japanese locals and business people. Give yourself more time than you think just in case.
Don’t ignore other tourists who speak the same language as you
This is a great opportunity for you to get to know other people and learn different things about Japan from their perspective. I’ve had the best conversations by speaking to strangers and it has enriched my travel experiences immensely. It also helps prevent you from getting too lonely in a place where you are the foreigner.
Don’t forget to take off your shoes before stepping into a temple, someone’s home, or onto a tatami mat
The Japanese are very strict about this rule because they believe that germs are carried in from your outside shoes. Some places will have slippers you can borrow inside but it might be more sanitary to buy your own and carry them in your bag with you. They also make for a very cute keepsake.
Don’t buy too many gifts
Chances are your suitcase is already full if you are traveling alone and you will probably only be able to easily roll around a carry-on. Don’t make life hard on yourself to the point where you can’t bring everything back or you have to spend a bunch of money shipping everything back home.
Never ever tip
It is considered extremely rude and implies that the workers do not get paid enough.
Before I actually did it, I never thought that I could get around Japan on my own. You learn a lot about yourself and meet very interesting people along the way. It also teaches you to have patience and become tolerant of others and yourself. It was a tough experience but I am glad I got to play the role of a foreigner. It definitely teaches you what being in a new country that doesn’t speak your language is like.