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!
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.
What would you most like to do?
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!
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.
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?
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!