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If you’re a solo globetrotter, chances are that Japan is near the top of your bucket list. And so it should be. The Japanese nation is so reverently traditional and yet futuristic, carefully cultured yet so full of wild natural phenomena, that it seems to exist in an alternate universe.
As you plan your first solo trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, check out these Japan travel tips we’ve collected from experienced tourists. They will help you plunge confidently into Japanese culture as soon as you set foot in Tokyo.
It’s time to get your adventure of a lifetime off the ground.
How to Plan a Solo Trip to Japan
You cannot overplan a trip to Japan. It’s not a country you should just show up in without a well-researched itinerary. In Japan, relying on Google maps and the local residents to guide you would be inefficient if not disastrous. This is especially true if you’re traveling by yourself.
The flow of life in Tokyo is very different from Western cities, and the language barrier is real. A 2020 estimate suggests that only 30% of Japanese speak English at all, and less than 10% speak it confidently.
You will see less English on signs in Japan than you see in other Asian countries. When you do see Roman script, you may discover it’s just there to look trendy, not to be helpful to foreigners.
So before a Boeing 777 drops you, alone, into the most populous city in the world, you should have a clear plan for where to go once you get there.
Which Airport in Japan Should You Fly Into?
First step: your plane ticket. Tokyo has two major airports. Most international flights arrive and depart from Narita International Airport (NRT), while Haneda Airport (HND) handles domestic flights.
At least, that’s the way it used to be, but now several major US airports – including JFK (New York), ORD (Chicago), and LAX (Los Angeles) – offer direct flights to Haneda.
Narita is the larger airport of the two. It’s worth going through Narita just to see how efficiently it runs and how much culture can be packed into an airport terminal. But Narita is also busier than Haneda, has longer lines, and is a heck of a long bus ride away from the center of Tokyo.
If you’re looking to get the first part of your trip over as quickly as possible, look for flights to Haneda Airport.
Which Airline is the Best to Fly to Japan?
United, Delta, and most major airlines offer direct flights to Tokyo.
Flying on Japan Airlines (JAL) usually costs more than other companies — but it’s often worth it. If you fly JAL, their unparalleled customer service will make it feel like you’re teleported to Japan as soon as you board the plane.
Hyperdia.com is Your Shinyuu (Best Friend)
Japan probably has the world’s most efficient public transportation system. There’s no reason to rent a car if you’re traveling Japan by yourself – you can get anywhere you’d like by train or bus. But the myriad of public transportation routes are tough to navigate if you can’t read kanji.
Thank goodness there’s Hyperdia.com. On this website run by Hitachi Systems, you can plan your entire itinerary down to the street address. You can map out complete bus, train, subway, and Shinkansen (bullet train) connections before you leave home. This will also help you estimate how much money you’ll spend on transportation.
You Need to Order a Rail Pass Before You Leave Home
Don’t miss the train! If you want to use a Japan Railways Pass card that you can swipe as you ride, you’ll have to order a voucher at least two weeks before your departure. The JR Line will ship the voucher to your home, then you must bring it to Tokyo and exchange it for a pass.
If you don’t order your voucher in time, you can always buy tickets at the counter or kiosk in the station. But it’s not as convenient, and may add up to spending more on travel fare.
Lodging in Japan
In the US, there’s not much difference between one hotel and the next beyond the texture of their scrambled eggs. But Japan offers tourists wildly different kinds of places to stay, at wide ranging prices. The main types of accommodations in Japan include:
- Ryokan – A traditional inn. At a ryokan, you’ll be invited to don a yukata and dine on traditional cuisine before relaxing in an onsen hot springs spa and sleeping on tatami.
- Business hotel – Business hotels have small but modern rooms, and the front desk staff will usually speak English. Make sure to ask for non-smoking if that’s your preference.
- Capsule Hotels – If you’re traveling solo on a budget, you might rely on capsule hotels. These lodgings are usually found near train stations and give you an enclosed mattress– and not much else – for around ¥3500 ($25 USD) per night.
- AirBnB – There’s a surprisingly large number of Japanese AirBnB listings, many available at reasonable rates.
- Themed Hotels of Social Media Fame – Would you rather sleep with Hello Kitty or Godzilla breathing down your neck? Or maybe you’d rather stay at the Book And Bed? Themed hotels in Japan have grown more popular with tourists thanks to influencers showcasing them on social media.
What Should you Pack for a Solo Trip to Japan?
Clothing & Accessories
The Japanese have unparalleled fashion sense. Women typically wear high necklines, long pants, and modest hems. You’ll see exceptions to this, of course, especially in the younger generations. But whether they’re wearing kimonos or miniskirts, every detail of a typical Japanese woman’s outfit will be painstakingly styled.
If you’re a tourist, it’s up to you whether you want to dress like the crowd or stand out as an obvious westerner with your t-shirt and shorts. If you’re going to Japan on business, however, you’ll want to stick to a dress code.
Either way, use packing cubes and pack layers, since the weather can change quickly. Invest in a top-notch pair of comfortable shoes. You’ll not only be racking up your step count while in Japan, but you’ll be expected to take your shoes off when you enter a home, restaurant, or some museums.
Japanese electric sockets have 2 flat-prong plugs, usually without a grounding prong. So you may or may not need an adapter, depending on what style of plug the electronics you bring have.
The Japanese grid runs on 100V instead of 120V like the US, but most US appliances will work in Japan and vice versa.
You’ll have to buy a SIM card or a pocket wifi router if you want cellphone data on the go.
Bring a camera on your trip, and whatever lenses you can carry. Japan has no shortage of showstopping photo ops. But since you’ll be taking public transportation, you should travel as light as you can!
If you find yourself bringing more luggage than you have arms to carry, you can use a Takuhaibin service to mail your bag to the next hotel.
Do you need a Visa to Go to Japan?
Japan offers visa-free travel for US citizens. If you’re a US tourist visiting Japan for less than 3 months, you don’t need to apply for a visa before you go.
You will, however, need a US passport. You’ll also need to fill out a “disembarkation card” with a “temporary address” local to Japan where they can contact you during your stay. This can be a friend’s house or a hotel address. Make sure to have this prepared before you travel, since they’ll ask you for it on the plane.
Japan is traditionally a cash-based society. More and and more retailers are accepting foreign credit cards now, but you should bring plenty of cash, just in case. There’s no need to exchange your USD or CAN for Japanese yen before you leave home. Banks, business hotels, and post offices in Japan can handle the exchange for you.
When you’re vacationing alone, travel insurance can be a literal lifesaver. Hopefully you won’t lose your wallet or have a medical need, but travel insurance will give you peace of mind should an issue arise.
Top Destinations to See When Traveling Japan Alone
You could fill a book with the “best places to visit in Japan.” But if you’re exploring Nippon by yourself, here’s a handful of destinations that you won’t want to miss:
- Peace Park, Hiroshima – Sobering WWII Memorial
- Sensō-ji – Ancient Bhuddist Temple in Asakusa
- Okazaki Castle – Built in 1542 during the Japanese Civil War
- 25 UNESCO World Heritage sites
Breathtaking Natural Wonders
- Hokkaido – The northernmost prefecture in Japan is a stronghold of natural wonders ranging from geothermal springs to world-renowned ski mountains.
- Arashiyama Bamboo Grove – This famous forest of bamboo is located in Kyoto.
- Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park – The home of Mt Fuji, plan to visit this park in sakura (cherry blossom) season to experience its full beauty.
Best Places to Shop in Japan
Japan is filled with incredible places to shop. There’s much less generic commercialism in Japan than in the US. The Japanese people put pride into producing each item for sale.
- Ginza – The famous upscale shopping district in Tokyo, Ginza is worth a visit, even if it’s just to window-shop.
- Akihabara, Tokyo – Home to the multi-storied electronics store, Yodobashi, Akihabara is literally buzzing with shops full of gadgets you’ve probably never imagined before.
- Rest Stops and Train Stations – “Really?” you ask. Shopping at a highway rest stop? Yes! You’ll discover that each Japanese train station and rest stop carries gifts and unique items – from yuzu hot sauce to hojicha tea – produced and perfected in that region of Japan.
- T-shirt Shops – if you’re a fan of Engrish, a visit to a Japanese t-shirt shop may be the highlight of your trip.
The Japanese Culture Experience
Shinjuku Station and Shibuya Crossing
These two sites in Tokyo are the world’s busiest train station and world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, respectively. If your purpose in traveling solo is to find your place in the world, you may find something strangely intriguing about losing yourself in a throng of 3,000 people crossing the street at once.
The “other side” of Japan, Osaka has a culture of anime, vibrant nights, and street food that’s very different from the businesslike atmosphere of Tokyo.
The ancient capital city of Japan, Kyoto –especially the historic Higashiyama-ku– is the perfect place to experience a traditional tea ceremony, rooftop onsen, or geisha show.
Everything kawaii comes to life at Nara Park, where tiny wild deer bow and greet strangers with quintessential Japanese politeness.
Is it Safe to Travel Alone in Japan?
Yes, Japan is one of the safest nations on earth for a solo traveler. The Japanese people are so polite and accepting and take such good care of their property that you may feel safer walking through Tokyo at night than you feel at home.
There are a few neighborhoods in Tokyo or Osaka to avoid, but as long as you follow the crowds, approach nightclubs with caution, and use common sense, you should be perfectly safe.
Tip: For women traveling alone, some trains on commuter routes have designated “women only” cars.
Quick Tips for Enjoying Your Visit to Japan
- Food! Train stations have bento meals that you can grab and go. They’re affordable, and they actually taste great. If you have a minute to sit down, you’ll find good ramen and tonkatsu shops in the train stations, too.
- Note where you see convenience stores (known as “kombini”) like Family Mart and 7-11. If you need anything from lunch to a pair of pantyhose, the kombini will have it.
- Read up on sushi etiquette before you go, especially if you’re going to a sushi counter where the chef prepares it in front of you.
- Don’t tip your bell boy or waiter. The Japanese don’t tip, and might see it as an insult. Instead, thank them with an “arigatou” and a slight nod of the head.
- When handed something, whether a gift, business card, or change, always accept the offering with both hands. Hold your glass up with both hands if someone offers to pour you a drink.
- Be careful when you sigh. Sighing, yawning, or letting your breath out audibly will be taken as a sign that you’re bored of the present company and will end a conversation abruptly.
- The Japanese aren’t big on handshakes and don’t usually go in for a hug. You’re free to offer your hand to shake as a foreigner, but don’t be surprised if your Japanese friend feels awkward about it. Traditionally, they prefer to bow to one another than to make physical contact.
- Take your trash with you. If you’re out walking and don’t see a trash can, don’t waste too much time looking for one. Trash cans are few and far between in Japan. Everyone is expected to pack their garbage at home and separate it for recycling.
- Try not to think of Katakana as English. Katakana words are usually western words or phrases that got transliterated into Japanese. Their pronunciation (and sometimes meaning) has changed so much that it ends up being very frustrating and confusing for native English speakers to figure out what they mean. (For example ハンバーガー is pronounced “hanbāgā” and means hamburger.) Your Japanese friend may think you know what these words mean, because to them they sound English, but it will be easier for you to learn katakana words if you see them as just another type of Japanese.
Solo Travel in Japan Isn’t Easy – But it’s Worth it
We hope these tips helped you set a course towards the incredible nation known as Japan. You might experience a literal earthquake while you’re there – or you might not. But one way or the other, a trip to Japan is sure to rock your world. You’ll never see your home country – or travel in general– the same way again.