Can I Travel Alone in Japan?

As a solo tourist in Japan

From the moment I came across the Japanese language, I was hooked on Japan.

Anime and jDrama, manga, the game of go, cherry blossoms, the tea ceremony, Japanese brush calligraphy, shakuhachi and taiko music (and jPop), and even the complex history of this country provide me with endless opportunities to learn and enjoy more about the Japanese culture from afar.

However, visiting Japan gave me a much more insight than I could have had from reading books, watching movies and even attending Japanese language classes.

Travelling in Japan, as a solo tourist, allowed me to choose exactly what I wanted to see, gave me the opportunity to spend time talking to locals, and do a much wider variety of activities than is normally available on packaged tours.

These are some of my highlights and tips!

Hirosaki Castle, northern Japan.
Hirosaki Castle, northern Japan. | Source

From the middle to the top

Tokyo to Wakkanai

On my first trip, June 2008, I knew I wanted to go north. The only time I could get a month away from work, was in the Japanese summer, which is hot, humid and rainy – weather I dislike with a passion!

The more northern areas of Japan are much cooler and more comfortable during this time, although you can still come across hot days!

I wanted to fill my trip with a combination of big sights – temples, castles, etc., and more natural locations – lakes, waterfalls, and good hiking destinations.

It was a first for me in a number of ways – my first trip to Japan, my first solo trip, and the first holiday that I had ever planned myself. Of course, this means I packed it a little too full, and covered an overly-ambitious distance, and had to change a few plans when my trip was interrupted by a big earthquake.

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Tanabata festival in Sendai - a great time to visit!Masamune's tomb in Sendai.Oya park in Aizuwakamatsu. The old Noh theatre stage in the world heritage Chusonji temple complex in Hiraizumi.Hakodate at night from the top of the mountain - a stunning view!A shrine at the top of the mountain in the middle of Fukushima city. Trains north always stop in Fukushima.Wakkanai in the middle of summer - cold and windy. With fantastic and cheap teppanyaki!Rishiri volcanic island, not worth visiting when there are low-hanging clouds!
Tanabata festival in Sendai - a great time to visit!
Tanabata festival in Sendai - a great time to visit! | Source
Masamune's tomb in Sendai.
Masamune's tomb in Sendai. | Source
Oya park in Aizuwakamatsu.
Oya park in Aizuwakamatsu. | Source
The old Noh theatre stage in the world heritage Chusonji temple complex in Hiraizumi.
The old Noh theatre stage in the world heritage Chusonji temple complex in Hiraizumi. | Source
Hakodate at night from the top of the mountain - a stunning view!
Hakodate at night from the top of the mountain - a stunning view! | Source
A shrine at the top of the mountain in the middle of Fukushima city. Trains north always stop in Fukushima.
A shrine at the top of the mountain in the middle of Fukushima city. Trains north always stop in Fukushima. | Source
Wakkanai in the middle of summer - cold and windy. With fantastic and cheap teppanyaki!
Wakkanai in the middle of summer - cold and windy. With fantastic and cheap teppanyaki! | Source
Rishiri volcanic island, not worth visiting when there are low-hanging clouds!
Rishiri volcanic island, not worth visiting when there are low-hanging clouds! | Source

Tourist activities

What would you most like to do?

  • See the cherry blossoms or autumn colors
  • Climb Mount Fuji
  • Visit temples and shrines
  • Eat lots of delicious Japanese food
  • Visit museums and galleries
  • Shop and party in the big cities
  • Do some cultural classes like tea ceremony or ikebana
  • Visit samurai houses and castles
  • Something else - let me know in the comments below!
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Highlights from my first trip

  • Sendai – the home of the famous lord Date Masamune, established in 1600, Sendai is now better known for the videos of planes and cars being washed away by the 2011 tsunami.

    A large university city, it boasts many museums, galleries, temples and shrines, Date Masamune’s mausoleum, and the imposing castle grounds with a stunning view of the city and the bay.
  • Hiraizumi – with the heritage Chusonji temple complex being the oldest in Japan, Hiraizumi also boasts a shrine on the nearby Mount Kanzan that is over 1000 years old! It’s home to the colorful iris festival, typically held in July/August (weather dependent).
  • Wakkanai – the northernmost town in Japan, cold and windy, even in the middle of summer! I primarily wanted to hike around the Rebun and Rishiri volcanic islands, but the weather was dreadful – I could only see a few stories up before cloud covered the view. Don't go on the boat tour in rainy, foggy weather!

    Tip: The best teppanyaki meals I have ever eaten, was at the Hamanasu restaurant in Wakkanai’s ANA hotel.
  • Hirosaki – The castle grounds in Hirosaki are famous for being covered in cherry blossoms in spring. For those who love plants and flowers, the nearby botanical gardens are not to be missed. The temple precinct is fascinating and you can also find a couple of old samurai houses dotted here and there.

    Note:
    If you plan to hike around the nearby Mount Iwate, be mindful of the weather – it can get covered in clouds very quickly, with the small mountain paths becoming dangerous!
  • Hakodate – The highlight of this town is the sunset view over the town and the hour-glass shaped bays. Although it does get packed with people! If you love crab and seafood – make sure you eat down on the bay at any of the local restaurants – so delicious and fresh!

The view towards Lake Chuzenji from the Akechidaira plateau in winter. This would be stunning in fall!
The view towards Lake Chuzenji from the Akechidaira plateau in winter. This would be stunning in fall! | Source
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Nikko temple grounds, a huge UNESCO world heritage complex.The waterfalls around Nikko are incredible!Tamozawa Imperial villa - the summer residence of the previous emperor of Japan.Lake Yunoko and Mount Nantai - there are a great collection of onsens here, and it's a good base for hiking in summer and skiing in winter.
Nikko temple grounds, a huge UNESCO world heritage complex.
Nikko temple grounds, a huge UNESCO world heritage complex. | Source
The waterfalls around Nikko are incredible!
The waterfalls around Nikko are incredible! | Source
Tamozawa Imperial villa - the summer residence of the previous emperor of Japan.
Tamozawa Imperial villa - the summer residence of the previous emperor of Japan. | Source
Lake Yunoko and Mount Nantai - there are a great collection of onsens here, and it's a good base for hiking in summer and skiing in winter.
Lake Yunoko and Mount Nantai - there are a great collection of onsens here, and it's a good base for hiking in summer and skiing in winter. | Source

Nikko

Nikko is one of the larger tourist destinations, and packed with school and elderly ‘local’ tourists in summer. It boasts incredible UNESCO listed temples surrounded by lush evergreen and deciduous trees (amazing in autumn), the fascinating and beautiful Tamozawa imperial villa.

Nikko is surrounded by stunning hillsides, lakes and large natural parks with fantastic hiking opportunities (also packed with ‘local’ tourists in summer!) The waterfalls of Nikko are stunning in any season.

With my terribly limited and broken Japanese, interspersed with lots of confusion, I made good friends with a local tour guide, taking elderly Tokyo residents on a hike through the Senjogahara marshlands.

One particular highlight was when we saw a class full of young boys panic over a tiny and harmless snake. It was, however, a poisonous shade of bright green!

Accommodation in Nikko

The Hotel Shikisai, just above the shore of the nearby Chuzenji lake, boasts a fabulous sulfur onsen (hot spring), deserted later at night, and has the most spectacular dinner and breakfast I have ever eaten (of course, it’s a bit on the pricy side).

To balance my extravagance, I stayed at the wonderfully priced ryokan, the Annex Turtle Hotori-an, which also has it’s own private hot spring bath. I’ve returned here multiple times – it’s the best place to stay!

Nikko is my favourite destination in Japan, and I haven’t missed a chance to return, every time I’ve travelled to Japan.


Learn some Japanese with these apps or bring a phrase book when traveling alone.
Learn some Japanese with these apps or bring a phrase book when traveling alone. | Source

When traveling alone in Japan

  • Have a cell phone - on roaming, or rented from the airport. Give your number to family and friends.
  • Have a phrase book, or some knowledge of Japanese. If transport is cancelled or delayed, you can call your hotel and rearrange your booking.
  • Have phone numbers of your accommodation, and street addresses written in Japanese - you can show this to a taxi or bus driver, or at the tourist information office to get directions.
  • Have any allergies written down in Japanese, you can show this to waiters when ordering meals.
  • Pack light, and bring clothes to layer for warmth. You'll be carrying your luggage up and down a lot of stairs.
  • If you arrive early, your room won't be available, but you can leave your luggage at your accommodation.
  • Look up the dates of festivals in the locations you want to visit and plan your trip around them.

What type of tourist are you?

Do you prefer traveling by yourself or with a guided tour?

  • Solo traveller
  • Guided tour
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My favourite guides for travelling in Japan

Lonely Planet books have been my companions on many trips, both to Japan and other places around the world.

As both a tourist, and someone who loved nature, I was really pleased when they brought out a book just covering the best hikes around Japan. This is the book I first go to when researching new places to visit.

For finding great spots to eat or stay, the original Lonely Planet Japan can't be beaten, except perhaps by local enthusiastic recommendations.

Lonely Planet Hiking in Japan (Travel Guide)
Lonely Planet Hiking in Japan (Travel Guide)

Packed with maps, descriptions and photos of gorgeous 0.5-5 day hikes in Japan, this is a fantastic travel guide, and one that I would not do without!

Each hike includes one or more detailed maps, information on how to reach the trail head, often with public transport. It also contains weather and terrain information, plus hints on what to wear, places to stay or eat and other nearby places to visit.

This is my first stop when choosing a location to visit!

 
Lonely Planet Japan (Lonely Planet Travel Guide)
Lonely Planet Japan (Lonely Planet Travel Guide)

Focused much more on the larger towns and tourist attractions, this guide is packed with information. Although the included maps are relatively low in detail, you can get supplements at the tourist information offices in the train stations when you arrive at a location.

Lonely Planet Japan does have good advice for accommodation, sights to see, places to eat and information about local festivals.

It does cover a handful of the lesser-visited tourist locations in Japan, which is important for me, as I don't like big cities!

 
The bay of Hakodate from the top of the mountain at sunset. Busy, but incredible!
The bay of Hakodate from the top of the mountain at sunset. Busy, but incredible! | Source
Click thumbnail to view full-size
The bamboo forest in Arashiyama, a suburb of Kyoto. Beautiful at any time of the year!Heian Shrine in the middle of Kyoto in winter. If you can, visit on Coming of Age day to see crowds in fabulous kimonos!Himeji Castle in winter - the tour was very cold. Unfortunately, it is covered for restoration for the next few years.Mount Fuji in winter, from the shinkansen. You can only climb the mountain in the summer months.The samurai houses and street in Kakunodate in winter - magical!
The bamboo forest in Arashiyama, a suburb of Kyoto. Beautiful at any time of the year!
The bamboo forest in Arashiyama, a suburb of Kyoto. Beautiful at any time of the year! | Source
Heian Shrine in the middle of Kyoto in winter. If you can, visit on Coming of Age day to see crowds in fabulous kimonos!
Heian Shrine in the middle of Kyoto in winter. If you can, visit on Coming of Age day to see crowds in fabulous kimonos! | Source
Himeji Castle in winter - the tour was very cold. Unfortunately, it is covered for restoration for the next few years.
Himeji Castle in winter - the tour was very cold. Unfortunately, it is covered for restoration for the next few years. | Source
Mount Fuji in winter, from the shinkansen. You can only climb the mountain in the summer months.
Mount Fuji in winter, from the shinkansen. You can only climb the mountain in the summer months. | Source
The samurai houses and street in Kakunodate in winter - magical!
The samurai houses and street in Kakunodate in winter - magical! | Source

From Fukuoka to Morioka in winter

At the time of planning this trip, I had a longer term plan of living and working in Japan. But I wasn’t sure I could survive winter! I hadn’t spend any time in snow or cold weather – Melbourne, Australia does not get that cold!

I also wanted to experience a little more of the culture, and work on my Japanese language skills, and meet my Japanese penpal of a few years.

Highlights from this trip include:

  • Fukuoka – A week-long ‘culture’ course, held over New Years by a Japanese language school, sounded ideal. In reality, I spoke English most of the time, and many of the planned activities were cancelled, due to an illness knocking out many of the school’s staff. It was still enjoyable, but I wished I could have spoken more Japanese and done more of the planned activities.
  • Kitakyushu and Shimonoseki – the best sushi comes directly from the ships, that is what these towns taught me! I spent a wonderful day with my friend and penpal, exploring the Kokura castle, the old European-style town of Mojiko (including the sister station to Melbourne’s own Flinder’s Street!), and eating the most delicious sushi I’ve ever had from the fish market in Shimonoseki.
  • Kyoto, Nara and Himeji – Using Kyoto as a hub, hiring an apartment for a week, meant I didn’t have to drag my heavy pack with me when visiting the castle at Himeji, and the temples in Nara. Coming of Age Day was fabulous in Kyoto – so many amazing kimonos! Plus there was so much to see – I must go back again!
  • Kakunodate – the original samurai town of Kakunodate is packed with history, old buildings, local crafts and surrounded by fantastic hiking trails. Autumn or spring are ideal times to visit, although winter also had its magic!

I discovered I liked the snow, and could survive happily in the cold, and after only one year of more intense studying, my Japanese had allowed me to communicate much more easily with the locals.

Coming of Age Day at the Heian Shrine in Kyoto - a fantastic festival to plan a trip around!
Coming of Age Day at the Heian Shrine in Kyoto - a fantastic festival to plan a trip around! | Source

Comments

Have to traveled alone through Japan?

What was your favourite location or event?

Or perhaps you are planning a solo trip and have some questions.

Let me know in the comments below!

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10 comments

Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

Glimmer Twin Fan 2 years ago

I've never been to Japan, but would love to go. I also love traveling solo although now that I am married, it's a very rare occasion. But before that I traveled extensively by myself. I'm definitely a solo traveler unless the trip is in a location better served by a tour. Nice hub and lovely pictures!


Hezekiah profile image

Hezekiah 2 years ago from Japan

I came to Japan from the UK in 2001. Love the country so I am still here, fluent in the language, married, child and own property here. Won't be going home anytime soon, but I do miss the UK sometimes.


Jacqueline4390 profile image

Jacqueline4390 2 years ago from Memphis

I think climbing Mt Fuji would be grand however at my age just seeing those wonder cherry blossoms would satisfy me. Great article.


annart profile image

annart 2 years ago from SW England

What a fascinating hub! I've never been to Japan and have only met the Japanese when I was teaching English to foreign students in London. They seem a charming race.

These places are so lovely, so different. I think you're brave to do it alone though.

You've given lots of information and lots of tips; any personal insight is always good when travelling. Finding out the pitfalls before you go makes it all so much better.

Well done! Ann


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 2 years ago

I prefer to travel with people, but if I had to do it alone your advice would prove useful. I would love to see the beauty of Japan some day. Thanks for the valuable tip on travel.


CelebrateUSA profile image

CelebrateUSA 2 years ago from Chicago, Illinois

Nifwlseirff,

I would never have thought about the allergies and writing those down. Excellent hub and great pieces advise. I am proud of you to venture out solo! Kudos!


ideadesigns profile image

ideadesigns 23 months ago from Central USA

You have great tips that apply going anywhere! I need to save for when I finally go out of country for the first time. I would visit Japan, Egypt or Israel... Japan is a culture so unique!


pstraubie48 profile image

pstraubie48 15 months ago from sunny Florida

O yes, to return there again is a great wish of mine. My grandson wishes to live there some day at least for a while.

Living there for four years was life changing. I learned so much about so much...you know? It truly was an experience I will always treasure and I hold the precious Japanese people tenderly in my heart.

So glad you shared your experience.


thumbi7 profile image

thumbi7 15 months ago from India

This is a fantastic hub. Travelling solo is out of question for me as my family may not permit

But I would love to visit Japan sometime.


CYong74 profile image

CYong74 8 months ago from Singapore

I think JP is one of the best and safest countries for solo travellers. It's like, a lot of their restaurants actually have tables and sections catering to single diners. Most of their hotels have rooms or plans for singles too. Definitely a place you wouldn't feel odd or inconvenient when travelling alone.

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    nifwlseirff profile image

    Kymberly Fergusson (nifwlseirff)676 Followers
    89 Articles

    Kymberly became interested in Japan and made several solo trips before moving there to teach English in 2010-2011.



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