Japan for the Solo Traveler
February 17, 2012 11:06 AM   Subscribe

Traveling to Japan on my own for 2.5 weeks. Help me avoid the part where I start talking to myself.

I have a fair amount of free time before starting a new job, and decided to take advantage of it by making a trip to Japan. Given that most everyone I know stateside has to work, this’ll be a solo trip. I’m cool with wandering around on my own (and have done it before), but I also wouldn’t mind ending up in places or situations where it would be easy to meet people. Could be a great hostel in Kyoto, a particularly social izakaya in Tokyo, or an organized hike into the wilderness. Similarly, it would be great to hear ideas for things that would be easy and enjoyable to do on my own.

A bit more information:
- I’m flying into and departing from Tokyo and will be in country for 17 days, starting in early March.
- I’d likely buy a railpass and would be really interested to hear of any cities I should include in my circuit (beyond Tokyo and Kyoto). Also, any suggestions on how much time to spend where?
- I’m particularly into food, and it’ll be a big focus of the trip. I’d be pretty curious about any ideas you guys might have for food-related activities, classes, tours, destinations, etc...
- Temples, ruins, natural and cultural sights are all good.
- If I was to do an organized tour, I probably wouldn’t want it to be more than a day trip. I’d like to leave things fairly flexible and mostly independent if possible.

I’ll leave off there, but can hop in with more information as needed. Much appreciated!
posted by noted industrialist to Travel & Transportation around Japan (18 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I travelled to japan for three weeks on my own as a teenager few years back using the railpass. It was a rewarding experience and I never felt lost or lonely.

It is probably the safest country in the world for a travler - here is an example: at one point my wallet dropped out of my backpack on the road, when I realised I had lost it, the restaurant I was staying in refused to let me pay for my meal in cash and within an hour a wandering monk (seriously!) had turned my wallet in at a local police station.

So don't worry about talking to yourself, you will be in a country where everyone loves tourists and is very willing to give you recommendations for and bend over backwards to accomidate your stupidity, as long as you can be humorous and humble with your body language you will do ok. In kyoto, alot of the temples and gardens require prebooking to visit, book several, but also visit some on your own, the places that meant most to me in Kyoto were small temples that I picked out of a guidebook - there is nothing like visiting a temple that has been on the same spot for 800 years and somehow still manages to be a sea of tranquility, nestled in between the pachinco parlours and 7/11s of the suburbs.

I only used the internet to find restaurants, with a little googling I found a lot of people who were happy to tourists but were mostly geared up for locals - that is what I reccomend you do also! - but if you are serious about visiting the very best (i.e michelin starred level) that might be disappointing to you. From what I understand, most of the best restaurants in japan need an introduction before you will be allowed to visit.

Agh, looking back on this I seem very silly. I want to go back to japan!
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 11:27 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Random thoughts:

-2.5 weeks is a fairly long trip, you can easily hit 5 or 6 different cities.
-You have to buy the JR rail pass stateside, you can't wait until you get there (at least, you couldn't when I did it). Definitely buy it, it's incredibly cheap compared to actually buying Shinkansen tickets.
-People everywhere are generally pretty cool, but the farther afield you get, the less people will be used to foreign tourists (and more likely to go out of their way to talk to you).
-Go to Hiroshima! Visit Miyajima island, check out the shrine and pet the deer. Eat some okonomiyaki. Then go to the peace museum -- it's a MUST visit but you'll never want to go back.
-There are tons of castles, many of which are reconstructions (due to bombing in WWII, in part). Many are basically museums on the inside, and I preferred the ones that were original and not museum-ified. I particularly remember Nijo castle and the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. Oh, and Sanjusangen-do, a Buddhist temple with thousands of statues of soldiers inside.
-Japan is expensive. You're likely going to spend several thousand dollars while you're there.
posted by axiom at 11:30 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

there's the shin-yokohama ramen museum, and the sapporo beer garden. also, the ikebukuro gyoza stadium and ice cream city. if you're into those sorts of things.
posted by koroshiya at 11:32 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

A limited amount of time (for work) in Tokyo, but here's a tip to your question:

- I’m particularly into food, and it’ll be a big focus of the trip. I’d be pretty curious about any ideas you guys might have for food-related activities, classes, tours, destinations, etc...

Go into any little place that serves omelets. Ask for one. Ask for a bunch, because I never found a place that made really bad ones, and most of them are amazing.

There are a bunch of places in the ritzier shopping areas where you can order your food at a big vending machine-like thing, then you get a token and sit and wait for your food. Mostly, the ones I went to for this were places that served raw fish in a bowl with a big kettle of boiling water. I don't know what it was called, and I don't like fish at all very much, and I kept going back to these places, because OMG THE NOMS.

I also wouldn’t mind ending up in places or situations where it would be easy to meet people.

There are some areas where tourists (and working foreigners) are definitely not welcome right away, but drinking is a big thing in Japan (from my experience) and if you go to a bar where a lot of working people are blowing off steam, they will talk to you. They will talk to you a lot, and drink a lot, and may fall asleep in your lap.
posted by xingcat at 11:33 AM on February 17, 2012

I have travelled alone a lot.
I find it really helps to keep a journal. It is someone to talk to, a place to center yourself, and give you something to do when you are somewhere amazing and have no one to share it with.
posted by Flood at 12:22 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Food? Meet Tabelog + Google Translate. Its like Yelp if yelp screened for people who knew what they were talking about. Food in Japan is awesome, but def a bit harder for a foreigner to get a handle on. You literally can't go wrong with Tabelog.
posted by JPD at 1:07 PM on February 17, 2012

I was once on a local train going to Nikko. I was the only gaijin on the train. A group of teenage girls got on and kept looking at me and giggling and then looking and laughing. I probably was the first white guy they ever saw in person.

Finally, the group pushed one girl over to me. They wanted to practice their English which was pretty rudimentary. I think you'll find that people want to engage you. Also, if you can speak a few sentences like "Eigo, wakarimaska?" (Do you speak English?): that's always an ice breaker and if that doesn't work then you say "Nihon, wakarimasu." (I don't speak Japanese.)

Have fun. I'd love to go back myself. It's been decades.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 1:18 PM on February 17, 2012

While every elementary school, junior high school and high school may employ non-Japanese instructors, some of whom may be "white" (and many of us non-Japanese folk live in rural areas), the further from Tokyo you get, the easier it will become to interact with folks. But Japanese people are, for the most part, very charming and friendly.

If you're interested in temples, and want to get off the beaten track, why not try visiting Koya-san, a Buddhist monastery complex about an hour outside of Osaka. If you're really interested in temples and that sort of thing, the National Museum in Nara is pretty goddamn awesome. Nara is also close to Osaka, as well as Kyoto.

If you want to eat good food, take the Joetsu Shinkansen bullet train to Niigata to the Japan Sea. The Japan Sea has the best food.

Traveling to Nagasaki would also be cool, because Nagasaki has an excellent food culture.

We try to spend 2 or 3 months a year in Japan, about 2 hours north of Kyoto. This fall, we're planning a stay in Japan, and while my kids will be in school and I will be working, we're going to take a week off to travel by train around Shikoku and Kyushu.

Ideally, the trip will be: Kyoto to Kompira (Shikoku); Kompira to Kochi; Kochi to Uwajima; Uwajima ferry to Beppu (Kyushu); Beppu to Nagasaki; Nagasaki to Fukuoka; Fukuoka to Kyoto and end of trip.

So that's one week and one possible root for you.

If you're into the outdoors, March is not really ideal, as it's still pretty chilly and rainy, and even snowy (make sure you pack warmly, with extra sweaters, especially at night).

There are some great dayhikes around Kyoto. One that I've done several times is take the Keihan train to Sakamoto, and then walk up to Enryakuji on Hiei-zan. Enryakuji is an old Tendai Temple complex (it's more than 1000 years old), but the walk up from Sakamoto is pretty cool. It goes through groves of giant trees, and is a really interesting experience.

Of course, I have recommend visiting Kanazawa, in Ishikawa (it's much nicer than Niigata up the coast). Kanazawa is one of those few Japanese cities with actual zoning. And the food is awesome.

Memail me if you want more ideas.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:39 PM on February 17, 2012

Kuidaore (eat till you drop) in Dotonbori @ Osaka. Find the best places for the stereotypical Kansai foods: takoyaki/okonomiyaki/kushi-katsu/anything else.

Look up noodle-making courses (probably available anywhere) if that interests you at all. If you're more of a instant noodle kind of guy, check out Nissin's factory in Ikeda, Osaka where they do tours: http://www.nissin-noodles.com/english.htm

Don't know where all the places are or the websites to go to, but try and stay in some of the hot springs lodges once -- a lot of those places serve their own awesome dinners, with plenty of local foods and the like.

Also, how about checking out Couchsurfing (or a similar site) for foodies that are in areas where you'll be? Most places will be more than willing to accomodate solo diners, but certain specialty places (esp. non-automatic sushi bars) may not serve you their best if the owner doesn't know you or you come off as just another foreigner that has no idea what he's eating.

One more thing, if you make it in near Fukuoka as per Kokuryu's guide: there's a town called Usuki in Oita prefecture that serves blowfish liver. This is supposedly the only town in Japan that serves this part of the fish, as it's actually illegal to serve (nationwide) due to the strong toxicity of poison in the liver. You may need some sort of introduction to get served (I went with my dad, who has a friend that lived in the area. Goood stuff).
posted by Muu at 2:40 PM on February 17, 2012

This is fantastic! I may send out a few MeMails once I digest things a little more...

Another quick question: what sort of lodging should I look into? Hostels seem like the default option, but I'd be curious to hear thoughts on lower-end Ryokans and Couchsurfing. For hostels/ryokans, should I book things a couple weeks in advance, or is it generally fine to figure it out as you go?
posted by noted industrialist at 5:08 PM on February 17, 2012

You're much more likely to be satisfied if you do a little research and reserve ahead. I guess you could try Japanese youth hostels, but they tend to have weird rules and curfews. I haven't stayed in low-budget, foreigner-oriented accommodations in over a decade and we usually use Japanese-language resources to find places to stay, but one site that might be helpful is Japanese Guest Houses. JNTO has some useful information, too.

Anyway, like I said, making reservations ahead of time is going to remove some stress.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:01 PM on February 17, 2012

Pick up a decent phrase book, and don't worry too much about blundering through the language. For the most part, Japanese people tend to be thrilled when a foreigner is able to say even a couple words, sometimes almost patronizingly so. A good number of shops and restaurants keep a calculator near the register, and they'll have no problem showing you the total of you can't understand them.

Definitely get the rail pass. You could easily see several cities. Most people want to see Tokyo, and well, it's a big city. It's not all that great, but then again, I do recall being blown away in my first few weeks here. You could also easily check out Kyoto and Osaka, and even make a trip out to Hiroshima (worth it), or even into Nagano or some of the other mountainous areas in Central Honshu.

As for running into people to hang out/ travel with, I'm not sure how easy that will be. A lot of foreigners living in Japan don't react to positively to other foreigners, for a laundry list of stupid reasons. If you're looking for people to travel with, I might suggest posting on sites like Lonely Planet or the like. Even so, Japan can be a pretty awesome place to wander around on your own. If you're lost, you can be almost certain that someone will try to help you out. As for getting around, I fully believe that given the size of the Tokyo subways, it's almost impossible to actually get lost in the city. If you just keep walking, you're going to see a train station sooner or later.

One more thing: nihongo wakarimasen is I don't understand Japanese.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:33 AM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Co-incidentally, I have just finished reading a book about a family who travelled around Japan for several months learning about the food. The author (Dad of the family) is a food and travel writer and he writes thematically about the food he researched while there. Having been to Japan and had a casual interest in the food I found it fascinating and I imagine it would be a great intro or fill in gaps if you already know a lot. It's called 'Sushi and Beyond: What the Japanese know about cooking' and it's by Michael Booth.
posted by kadia_a at 2:34 AM on February 18, 2012

For hotels, consider business hotels - there are some very reasonably priced ones in the larger cities. I like the Hotel Villa Fontaine, with hotels all over Tokyo and one in a great location in Osaka right on the Shinsabashi shopping street. Or if you're more adventurous (and male), there are capsule hotels all over the place - worth at least one night so you have a story to tell when you get home.

Do you speak or read Japanese? I found hardest part about travelling in Japan was ordering food - a lot of places don't have English menus or English speaking staff. Fortunately just about every restaurant has a display of plastic food outside, so if you see something you like, feel free to get the waitress to follow you outside and then point at what you want. Rotating sushi restaurants are also a stress-free way of getting a meal without having to order anything.

Not sure how up to date these are, but I used the Tokyo Restaurant Reference (list of places with English menus) and Gurinavi. Bento.com is in English and a good read.

Food locations - Piss Alley in Shinjuku for yakitori, Osaka for takoyaki (Tako Tako King is super-friendly), Nishiki Market in Kyoto (Yaoya no Nikai is a great lunch-only vegetarian restaurant with a set menu), Kappabashi-dori near Ueno (the famous kitchen supply street). If you see a street cart selling potatoes, buy one. And don't turn up your nose at "fast food" either - try a shrimp burger at Mos Burger, a float from First Kitchen, curry at CoCoIchi, a seafood and egg bento from Hokka Hokka Tei.
posted by Gortuk at 7:01 AM on February 18, 2012

I travel alone around Japan whenever I can, for a week or two, every few years. So now I've been nine times, and up until the 8th I haden't studied the language formally, only knew what I'd picked up in the sushi bar (except I'd been learning kanji for many years, an advantage most first-time travelers lack). Sure you'll have some troubles but overall you'll be fine. It'll be much easier for you now, because many announcements in the trains and subways are first in Japanese, then in English.

I never found a place that made really bad ones, and most of them are amazing.

This is how I feel about almost anything in Japan. Except natto.
posted by Rash at 9:58 PM on February 18, 2012

If you're looking to meet English speaking people, each city invariably has its own ex-pat bars and pubs. In Tokyo there are an awful lot in Roppongi, however all the major stations in the city would have something catering to non-Japanese visitors. I'm sure the major guidebooks will lead the way to these places. Otherwise, you can see who advertises in English publications like Metropolis. Another suggestion to find other international tourists is to find what sorts of conventions, etc., may be going on. As an example, the international Rugby Sevens tournament is happening at the end of March - you might find other tourists at such a gathering.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by Metro Gnome at 7:51 PM on February 19, 2012

Any tourist just arriving in Japan should visit the nearest Tourist Information Center on one of your first days there. These are operated by the Japan National Tourist Office. (JTB also operates tourist offices I'm unfamiliar with.) JNTO operate a counter at Narita, which is fine for some quick questions, but the office near the Ginza is a lot less hectic, with far more resources. They speak English and have lots of information, with offices in Osaka and Kyoto but the big one in Tokyo is near Yurakucho station, in a new location.
posted by Rash at 10:53 AM on February 20, 2012

Try to go to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo...it is really a spectacular place. Afterwards you can eat delicious sushi for breakfast at one of the little shops around the market. I didn't really do much research into where to eat here, we just looked for a place with a moderately short line and it worked out great.

Definitely get a rail pass. I really loved visiting Kyoto - take your time so you don't get temple-ed out. Fushimi Inari Taisha was my favorite shrine to visit. We really wandered a lot in Kyoto - and got lost a bit - but people were glad to help us find our way even if they didn't speak English. I'd also really recommend that you visit Hiroshima (don't miss the peace museum) & also Miyajima Island (lots of deer and tourists to watch). Also - there are TONS of karaoke bars and if you can sing at all, you'll make lots of friends in them.

We stayed in hostels and 'business hotels', most of them good, all booked in advance because I'm a little bit ocd. Memail me if you want specific suggestions.
posted by wearyaswater at 4:24 PM on February 20, 2012

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