Japan tour
June 8, 2023 10:22 PM   Subscribe

Solo female traveller wants to fulfill lifelong goal of a Japan trip. I’ve accepted that all of the things I want to do will likely require multiple trips. For my first trip I’d be willing to go as part of a group. I’m an introvert and would appreciate a good balance of organized tours and activities and free time.

I’d prefer to stay in my own room which will likely require a bogus single supplement fee. I will begrudgingly accept that, but bonus points if singletons aren’t penalized. Of note:

- preferred travel time is autumn/winter
- onsen appreciated
- no need to go during Sakura season
- nightlife/robot cafe/clubs doesn’t interest me
- smaller cities are more my thing, no need for a ton of time in Tokyo
- textiles, pottery, kitchenware a major plus
- Kyoto included

I am grateful for your recommendations!
posted by Juniper Toast to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should just take a first trip where you go to Kyoto and explore it and the smaller towns within its local rail orbit. With a WiFi access point and google maps/google translate and some basic phrases, Japan is pretty tourist-accessible.

If you do venture further afield, you will want to use Luggage Forwarding so you can wander lightly and catch up with your luggage at your destination(s).
posted by janell at 11:04 PM on June 8 [4 favorites]

Find a local travel agency who specializes in trips to Japan. I found one in my area that has a cherry blossom tour, an autumn tour, etc.
posted by AnyUsernameWillDo at 11:09 PM on June 8

Just some general tips to start with:

> autumn/winter
> Kyoto included

Just a heads-up: autumn is one of if not THE most in-demand season ( = $$$) for visiting Kyoto. If Kyoto is a must, I'd book this part first, and then build the rest of the trip around it...

If all your target cities end up in one region, consider flights into/out of a non-Tokyo airport (e.g. Kansai, Centrair).

> bogus single supplement fee
> introvert

Is this a thing with group travel? I've never seen this fee when traveling solo, but maybe it's because I look for hotels that are geared towards solo travelers in the first place (e.g. "business hotel" category). A lot of amenities in Japan are meant for a solo audience anyway; for example, it's standard for certain categories of cafes/restaurants to have mini-cubicles for solo diners, and this was a thing before Covid and is even more of a thing during/after the pandemic. YMMV if you are in a place with especially social people or other international travelers...

>textiles, pottery, kitchenware a major plus

Lots of possibilities here. I would look up Japanese textiles and pottery to see which regions appeal to you, then look up interesting villages/towns that specialize in those styles. Some places have tourist-ified enough to offer experiences or lessons (but it might take time to receive the finished project, so check the timeframes). Oh, and watch out for local holidays--my family once visited a town famous for its textiles but we happened to choose a holiday and almost all the shops were closed...

Specifically in Kyoto: the Nishiki market is famous for traditional kitchen ware.
Some of my and my friends' recent splurges in Japan have included modern kitchenware, like fancy toasters or super-light cast-iron cookware, Hario coffee/tea gear, manual coffee grinders, knife-sharpening stones...

General shopping tip: look into "tax-free shopping" for tourist perks.

> onsen appreciated

Again, so many possibilities! I would look up lists of recommended onsen and choose based on something that appeals to you (views, the special qualities of the water, gourmet/amenities, closeness/isolation compared to nearby cities). If you opt for the communal ones, make sure to be familiar with the basic etiquette (e.g. washing thoroughly before entering the baths, tying up hair if you have long hair, etc). There are a lot of ryokan that offer your own private onsen tub, too.
posted by Sockin'inthefreeworld at 11:10 PM on June 8

Best answer: I did a Japan tour through G Adventures as a solo female traveler back in 2008. I had a great time! It was a small group, all public transit (no tour bus), and a good balance for me of some group activities and solo time (I am a huge introvert!). I don’t think I had to pay a single supplement, but I did have to room with another solo female traveler (worked out fine for me, but probably could have opted for private rooms for a fee).
posted by wsquared at 11:19 PM on June 8 [5 favorites]

Couple more mini-tips:

> autumn/winter

Wear socks/tights + shoes that you can easily remove. If you visit traditional or non-Westernized spots, there's a high chance you'll have to remove shoes to enter.

> onsen

If you have tattoos, be aware that tattoos are still taboo in many public baths, though many places allow them now...
posted by Sockin'inthefreeworld at 11:24 PM on June 8

Best answer: Check out the tours offered through Ten Thousand Waves.
posted by shadygrove at 11:32 PM on June 8 [1 favorite]

I haven't used them, but Womens' Association Kyoto (WAK) offers a number of classes which can be private or in groups and include some of your interests (Kyoto, crafts).
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 1:03 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

I appreciate that you're asking about tours, and I have no experience of those. But, given your interest in pottery: if you're a confident enough traveller to be up to taking local buses, you might want to time your trip so that you can go to the Mashiko Pottery Fair in early November. It's pretty amazing. You can take a train from Tokyo to Utsunomiya and then get a bus from there, or take a bus all the way from Tokyo.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:52 AM on June 9 [3 favorites]

As far as any worries about having difficulty finding activities/lodgings as a single traveler, aside from business travel, solo travel for pleasure is not at all uncommon in Japan. For most travel accommodations beyond business hotels (pensions, minshuku, ryokan) rooms are usually charged per occupant, not by a flat room rate, if that helps.

Weather-wise, while people claim Japan has four seasons (sorry, living in Japan joke), autumn is more of a cruel hoax. At least near Tokyo, summer ends around the first or second week or so of October, and there’s usually a two week window of long sleeve shirts and jeans weather before it’s noticeably winter (the boring kind, with no snow). Further west or north, especially anywhere in or near mountains, snow can be an issue, and it can play havoc with transportation.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:53 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

Also an introverted female solo traveler in my thirties, also had a great October trip to Japan with G Adventures that checks your boxes (though I opted for a version that had shared rooms for some nights.)
posted by jameaterblues at 7:19 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Check out Inside Japan Tours. They put together our self-guided honeymoon ages ago and it was great. They also do small groups. And they have Japanese employees based in Japan, so there's local help even if you're on your own.

They were very good about listening to us when we said we wanted to visit some places a little off the beaten path, and sent us to some areas that are more popular with domestic than international travelers. And we had a wonderful time in those places, despite few translations being available (this is likely better now) and my Japanese being almost nonexistent at the time.

I also don't care about nightlife and said I didn't particularly want to spend time in Tokyo, but I let them talk me into it and I'm glad I did. It's a neighborhood-focused city and the individual neighborhoods have all sorts of interesting, charming, historical, and creative (definitely including the artisanal crafting categories you're interested in) places and things to do that are not just generic Big International City. That said, they'll listen to you if you really don't want to do something.

We went in December-January and and loved it, since I'd much rather be chilly than sweaty. There were also fewer tourists most places, which was great. (I don't know if that's still how it is.) Inside Japan Tours helped us plan around the expense of New Year's accommodations. Obviously shrines were massively crowded on New Year's Day, but somehow things were pretty chill and I didn't mind. Luckily I didn't know the typical attendance numbers for Fushimi Inari-taisha in advance, or I would've hid in our business hotel all day.

I hope you have a great time!
posted by wintersweet at 7:50 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

If you go for an organized tour, I'd look for one from a company that caters to primarily to foreigners, vs an English (or other non-Japanese) language tour by a company primarily aimed at the Japanese market. I went on an organized outing at a conference and it was felt like very stressful rushing about trying to see All The Things, and this was 100% a disconnect between what the Japanese organizers would expect from such an outing and what the overwhelmingly non-Japanese attendees would expect.

If you're interested in commercial textile production at all, the Toyota museum in Nagoya (the one about the company history, not the entirely car-focused one) is an easy walk from the main station and accessible without knowledge of Japanese. I want to say I spent about two hours there and I went through the whole thing (you could ditch the car parts). Nagoya's not really a tourist destination, but you could stop there while en route elsewhere as it's reasonably central.
posted by hoyland at 9:07 AM on June 9

I spent -all day- in the textile hall of the Toyota Museum. But then I am a loom-owner. Highly recommend. And it’s not far from Kyoto - maybe an hour on the Shinkansen?
posted by janell at 11:53 AM on June 9

If you do go that way, take the commuter rail out to the village/suburb Arimatsu. It was a center of tourist-goods for a long time and developed and kept a lot of the shibori dyeing techniques. There is a shibori museum and various artist studios.
posted by janell at 11:55 AM on June 9 [1 favorite]

I wanted to affirm that Japan is an easy country to travel in if you speak English. I visited pre-smartphone as a female 20-something and I can’t imagine it’s gotten harder since then. There were lots of signs in romanji, lots of menus with pictures you can point at, and a fair amount of buying things from machines that were pretty self-explanatory (I paid for a capsule hotel at a vending machine). I got on a wrong train on a small rural route, but the conductor got me sorted out. Lots of people speak at least some English in cities and will be happy to practice and show the poor lost foreigner around. Nobody harassed me. Kyoto is totally doable on your own, if you want.
posted by momus_window at 6:25 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]

Seconding Inside Japan (aka InsideAsia). We used them for our first trip to Japan and they were incredibly helpful.

I recently travelled to Tokyo and Kyoto for a week and wrote up some notes you may find useful, too!
posted by adrianhon at 3:37 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

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