20-something woman wants to visit Japan for two weeks, alone. Doesn't speak Japanese (but can learn), has never visited Asia. Feasible?
January 8, 2007 6:33 AM   Subscribe

20-something woman wants to visit Japan for two weeks, alone. Doesn't speak Japanese (but can learn), has never visited Asia. Feasible?

I am thinking of spending a two-week vacation in Japan (mainly in Tokyo with side-trips) this year.

How feasible is it for a late-twenties woman to do this alone? (I know it's technically possible, but I would love to hear people's feedback, especially if other women have made this trip)

Additional factors:

* I usually travel alone, though all of my trips so far have been to places in Western Europe
* I can try to find travel companions, but I really enjoy the freedom of traveling alone
* I do not currently speak Japanese, but I would try to take a language course and learn as much as possible beforehand (and I have a good memory that helps picking up languages quickly)
* I don't know anyone in Japan
* Never visited Asia before
* I like to stay at hostels and would most likely try to do this on the trip
* Not sure at the moment what time of year I'd visit. My dream trip would be to go to Design Week in November (if it's being held) but I'm not sure I can line up the time off from work. If not then, then maybe earlier like August
* I'm not the biggest fan of package tours, but I'd be open to the option (or maybe a combo of starting out with a guided tour and then staying on afterwards to explore further)
posted by cadge to Travel & Transportation around Japan (31 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
You might be severly underestimating how hard it is to learn Japanese.
posted by fixedgear at 7:02 AM on January 8, 2007

I have travelled alone as a woman in Japan many times and I can tell you that it is perfectly safe. In fact, I feel more comfortable alone in Japan than I do just about anywhere else.

There is a steep learning curve with normal things like buying dinner (some restaurants have ticket machines) or getting around on the subway, but if you learn a little Japanese you should be able to figure everything out. When in doubt just watch what other people are doing. If anything, I've found that the people in Japan can be a little too helpful if you seem a little lost.

Japan is my favorite country for solo travel. I've found that I can always find someone to talk to when I need one. Old ladies seem to be fond of talking to foreigners, especially the rare unaccompanied female. I've met lots of nice people who I never would have approached me had I not been alone.

All of the hostels I have used have been clean and the staff has been helpful.

Do it! You won't regret it.
posted by Alison at 7:08 AM on January 8, 2007

My partner had this to say:

it's absolutely possible--she should definitely pick up a few phrases (even just from a phrasebook) before she goes, but w/a little patience & forethought, it's definitely possible. there's lots of signage in romaji (western alphabet) which will match w/what will be in her guidebooks, & if she wants she can also pick up bilingual atlases of tokyo or osaka--they're pretty useful, but i think she can do w/o. japan is safe, things are efficient & well-labeled--train platform signs pretty much always have the station name, the previous station, & the next station listed in romaji (at least in the bigger cities & towns). as long as she's patient & friendly (as any traveler to another country should be), she shouldn't have any major problems.

She did 2 1/2 weeks in Japan by herself when she was 23. She'd do it again in a heartbeat.
posted by ursus_comiter at 7:13 AM on January 8, 2007

As a rough metric, myself and two other (male) family members easily managed to travel to and get around Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima, staying in hotels and ryokan, eating, and seeing the sights, under our own steam without a word of Japanese between us. So it's not like it's impossible to get by without knowing the language.

I reckon learning the essentials of the spoken language isn't much trickier than most European languages. The written language is hard, though.
posted by chrismear at 7:14 AM on January 8, 2007

Yes, it's feasible. It'd be an expensive trip—there are ways to mitigate that, but no way to make it a cheap trip. Tokyo's public-transit system is incredibly extensive, and for the most part, tetralingual. There are lodgings of every grade that cater to English speakers. Hell, the are four English-language daily papers.

Getting out into the sticks, while worthwhile, will be a little more of an adventure, and English signage may be sketchier, but you'll find that patience and friendliness go a long way. Sometimes writing things down will be a more effective way to communicate than speech. I've got monolingual friends who traveled all over the Japan countryside and had a great time.

There have been a lot of discussions of Japan travel on AskMe before, so you'll want to read those for additional tips.
posted by adamrice at 7:14 AM on January 8, 2007

Don't bother learning Japanese. You'd be surprised how much you can get by not knowing any. I was in Tokyo a year ago and it is awesome. Everyone is super nice and polite. Everyone will try and give you a helping hand. My brother also enjoyed his stay there. Go to Japan.
posted by chunking express at 7:14 AM on January 8, 2007

Also, when we went together a few years later, we had both taken Japanese classes, but only for a few months. We couldn't really speak Japanese, but we knew enough to ask questions and it was definitely worth the effort.
posted by ursus_comiter at 7:15 AM on January 8, 2007

Totally feasible. I moved here to live at 25 without speaking the language or knowing anyone.

Japan is also a pretty safe place for single women to travel as well - although general big city street smart won't hurt.

I would suggest staying at ryokan (Japanese inns) rather than hostels - I haven't used this site myself but it's recommended as it's in English - http://stayat.jp/. Several (especially those listed here) are foreigner-friendly and some places may even speak English.

On the language issue - there is a lot of English here really. Train stations have English on their signs and lots of places have English guides. Quite a few places even have staff who can speak some English. Fixedgear has a point though - Japanese isn't a particularly easy language to learn - and they way people speak is quite different from what you might learn from text books in a few months.

Don't bother to come to Tokyo in August - it's hot, humid and with little relief from the heat. Also midway through August is obon and Tokyo seems to clear out for a couple of days. Lots of places close. Also travelling is usually more expensive at that time. Really if you have more of a choice then April is a better bet - you might even be lucky enough to see the Cherry Blossoms - and that is worth seeing.

Design Week can be fun and manic - be prepared for many, many people in one space though.
posted by gomichild at 7:17 AM on January 8, 2007

It's not so realistic to learn Japanese like you might pickup conversational French from a set of Berlitz tapes. In the major cities, you can easily find people in most commercial situations who speak English, as ESL has been big in Japan for decades. The further you go into the countryside, however, the less you'll be catered for if you don't speak Japanese. Unfortunately, the rail transit system has maddeningly little Western signage, still, and the Japanese have a big love/hate relationship with street signs and addresses, so traveling alone, expect to be lost a lot in the major cities, and keep a reliable street atlas of your own handy. Asking directions is more a hit or miss proposition in Japan than it is, by far, in NYC.

But Japan is a very safe country, crime wise. I've never felt threatened there, as I often do, living in the U.S., and I've been in some pretty dodgy sections of Tokyo and Osaka, when I shouldn't have been. The people are generally polite, but don't go out of their way generally to be kind to gaijin.

It's a society of nuance, however, and the major problem with traveling alone is that you miss much of that. I feel fortunate that in my first travels there, I had the constant help and attention of skilled business translators, whose exhausting job was not only to translate language, but to coach me and my colleagues in Japanese custom and interpersonal relationships. Until I spent some weeks there, I had no appreciation of how exhausting their jobs were, in terms of trying to span vastly different cultures in a way that made personal interactions, even such highly structured ones as business dealings, tolerable, if not pleasant, to both sides.

For example, understanding the importance of group action to the individual is nearly impossible for the casual Westerner, traveling alone, and yet, you see Japanese governing their own behavior by group identification in public all the time. "Popular" is a far more vital concept in Japan than it is in the West. If something is "popular" it is more than good, it is broadly endorsed by all, and your expression of like/dislike of the thing will determine how you are percieved by others, not how the thing is percieved freshly by those to whom you comment.

If this is your first trip to Japan, you'll do far, far better to work hard at making connections with Japanese people who have some interest in you or your trip, and will take on the task of showing you something of the country. There are many organizations that exist to promote just such interactions, and your trip will be both more meaningful, and far more pleasant if you don't try to so hard to be a loner. It's not a country in which being a solo wanderer is highly regarded.
posted by paulsc at 7:26 AM on January 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

Your entire description applied to me and I just did this very thing in September. Japan is a great place to travel alone. Stay in ryokan where possible. Business hotels can be almost as cheap as hostels, though, and are easier to find if you are just wandering as opposed to having a preplanned itinerary for the whole trip.

Things I found useful:
Japan railpass (must buy in the USA)
This website for train scheduling; seriously, this is the best thing ever.
The Rough Guide to Japan (Let's Go Japan sucks; Lonely Planet is okay)
Small notepad and paper (people read English a lot better than they speak it; if you are having trouble with directions, etc., write it down)
Romanji maps (sometimes available at the tourist desk in the railway station)

You will have a great time. Good luck.
posted by amber_dale at 7:46 AM on January 8, 2007

The Japanese language is nothing like your saxon/germanic/romantic languages. The structure is completely different, and levels of politeness are bewildering, and it's a tonal language where the rise and fall of the pitch define which word you're saying. Throw in a new alphabet (or, three).

As another poster suggested, you're probably underestimating how hard the language will be to learn.

I studied "Nihongo" for three quarters in college long ago, and gave it up when I realized that no matter how hard I tried -- if I studied it for the rest of my life, even -- I would never progress beyond sounding like a 5-year-old little girl.
posted by cmiller at 7:53 AM on January 8, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice so far, everyone!

Clarification about the language - I know I wouldn't be able to master much before going. What I'm hoping is to be able to learn enough to travel and not go over there completely cold, language-wise. (Then again, I've never even touched it - maybe even just this is expecting a bit too much)
posted by cadge at 8:07 AM on January 8, 2007

Go for it! As much as the naysayers talk about how hard Japanese is to learn, you can pick up some amount of useful conversational language pretty quickly, especially if you find that you are good at picking up languages. Although you won't sound any more sophisticated than a 5-year-old and will be almost completely illiterate, you'll be able to get your point across. The Japanese will exclaim how good you are at Japanese (which I took as a polite way of being amused at your half-successful trying), and probably respond in English if they can. Get a maps with both Japanese and English if you can.

Drunk old men in the evening can be creepy, as can drunk younger men. You might get approached by bolder Japanese who might wish to practice their English on you. If you go to particularly touristy places, you may get approached by hordes of elementary/middle school children asking for help on their homework (involving talking to foreigners and asking simple questions). As a younger woman on your own, you will seem more approachable in those sorts of situations.

Japan is HOT in August unless you're up pretty far north. In Kyushu and southern Honshu, it is hot and humid and sticky and sometimes oppressively so.

Try to find hole-in-the-wall restaurants specializing in certain types of food (okonomiyaki for one). Delicious and cheap! In bigger cities they may (or may not) have a paper menu with English.

Otherwise, I would try to convince you to visit Kyushu in the Autumn. You can get around the whole island pretty quickly by rail, and there are some collection of awesome places to go to. I loved Nagasaki and Fukuoka, and since they aren't nearly as big as Tokyo, they don't have nearly the level of hurry and stress.
posted by that girl at 8:25 AM on January 8, 2007

People are easy to impress in Japan. They will heap praise on you if you just learn to say 'hello' and use chopsticks.

Below are simple Japanese phrases that might make your life easier, but are far from necessary.

Arigatou (gozaimasu) : thank you (very much)

Sumimasen : excuse me
Use this in crowded places to excuse yourself or get someone's attention. In Japanese restaurants your server will not always come to you automatically. Use this to call the server over to your table when you are ready to order or get the check.

____ eki : _____ station
If you know a place name you can usually stick it in front of 'eki' to get to the nearest train or subway station, "Ueno eki" or "Ginza Eki", for example. Eki by itself just means station and you can use it to find the nearest one. You can just ask "Eki?" and people will get what you mean. If you want to be polite you can say "Eki wa doko desu ka?" and hope they point.

____ onegaishimasu : please give me _____
At a restaurant you can just say " onegaishimasu" when ordering. You can also use this one in a cab. Say "Ueno eki onegaishimasu" and you will be taken there.

If you have any food allergies:

____ arerugi ga arimasu : I have _____ allergy.
You never know what will show up in Japanese cusine, especially if you are having ryokan meals (they are often included in the price of your stay). Let them know if something will kill you or make you sick.

Also, for the bathroom:
If you do not like squat toilets look for the symbol: 洋式. It will indicate a western sit-down toilet. If you enjoy exotic restroom experiences try: 和式, or japanese-style.

There may be a debate in this thread about the appropriate level of politeness. Don't worry about being appropriate, just worry about being understood when you need to be. I speak Japanese and there have been plenty of times that I have made a complete ass out of myself. People are very gracious in Japan and will cut you lots of slack because you are a foreigner. Just have fun and don't be self-conscious.

posted by Alison at 8:47 AM on January 8, 2007 [5 favorites]

Ok, the language is difficult, but you're not going to need to have involved conversations. For the most part, you'll need to say things like "Excuse me, where is the restaurant/subway station/bathroom?" and you can totally handle this. Oh and "I don't understand", I used that one a lot too.

I recently acquired level one of Pimsleur Japanese, and even after doing only five of the 30 half hour lessons, I've learned a bunch of stuff that would have been totally useful when I actually went to Japan a few years ago. They may not be the best way to learn Japanese, but don't just discard the option, especially if you've got a few months to learn.

Getting around can be tricky. I found the trains and the larger streets to be totally easy, due to the large amount of english signage. HOWEVER I did have some serious trouble finding individual buildings on small streets. I only made it to the guest house I was staying at because another foreigner found me sitting on my suitcase trying to figure out where the hell it was.

I went (alone, though I am male FWIW) when I was 17, for three weeks, knowing how to read a little, and speak a little broken Japanese, and I had a great time. My main regret was that I didn't try more of the food!

If you go, I think you'll have a fantastic time. Good luck!
posted by benign at 8:50 AM on January 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


Don't worry about safety. Everyone I know feels Japan, even it it's seediest parts, is safer than almost everywhere in America.

I wouldn't sweat the language too much if you're going for only two weeks. I'd learn the characters for Woman (女) Man (男) (For the bathrooms in some places) Open (開) and Close(閉) and Entrance(入口) and Exit(出口) And you'll be okay.

Most of the signs in train stations of any size is in English. Second the JR Rail pass. If you want to travel the country, it's an amazing deal.

However, you will be missing out on a great deal if you don't know anyone in Japan. Hit a message board or get hooked up though the hostel or Cragislist or something, but have someone there to show you around, even for an afternoon. You'll get an experience like you can't get otherwise.
posted by Ookseer at 9:13 AM on January 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

it's a tonal language where the rise and fall of the pitch define which word you're saying

No it's not. Don't let this put you off.
posted by chrismear at 9:18 AM on January 8, 2007

I went to Japan for two weeks with friends (I'm a girl, they were two boys, all 20ish). As far as language goes, we didn't know more than konichiwa on arrival, and did fine reading the Lonely Planet Japan phrases at the back as we went, even to avoiding pork and shellfish for the jewish guy. I would suggest that as well as the good list of basic phrases above, you learn all your numbers - even a basic shop transaction feels much better if you can hear the total the shopkeeper gives you, rather than looking blank and offering your notepad for them to write on.

Also - no, it's not tonal. And it was great fun - enjoy your trip!
posted by jacalata at 9:40 AM on January 8, 2007

2nding chrismear. whoever said it was tonal has it confused with chinese. there are a few homonym words like "bridge" and "chopsticks" where the syllables are the same but the stress is different, but this is not really the rule as far as i can tell.

its still difficult given how different it is from english. if you can speak german you might be more comfortable with japanese sentence word order, which is subject-object-verb, though lots of times subject is omitted.

also lots of people in japan learn english, they just can't speak it very well. so it might help to write things down if you are asking someone for help, so they can see what you are trying to say. they may be able to parse it better without the realtime stress of hearing language.
posted by joeblough at 9:41 AM on January 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

I asked a friend of mine who made a similar journey for any advice. She said "I would definitely give someone outside the coutry an itinerary of where she is going to be. We were in Nagoya and realized we had left the address of the hostel in the hostel and couldn't get back without it. Had no idea where it is, or even the specific name. Luckily my mom had requested an itinerary before I went, which I begrudgingly gave her. It was a lifesaver! When you are not familiar with the language, lots of words sound alike!"
posted by Dave Faris at 10:13 AM on January 8, 2007

If you're thinking of studying Japanese for your trip, you might want to learn katakana (the syllabary used to write foreign words). It's only about 50 characters, and you will be able to read a lot when you get there, because most words written in katakana are either English or some other word you already know ("karaoke", etc.) Knowing katakana will especially help in figuring out places to eat -- signs for things like "ramen", "curry", or "bar" are often in katakana.
posted by vorfeed at 11:28 AM on January 8, 2007

I went for the first time last year, although not alone. I had a wonderful time, the only Japanese I could speak was the very, very basic phrasebook words. I managed just fine and people were pleased/amused when I stumblingly spoke a few words of Japanese. I went to restaurants and cafes where there were no English menus, and the wait staff were happy to communicate using sign language, or show me samples so I could point to whatever I wanted to order. Everyone is very tolerant of non-Japanese speakers, and extremely friendly and helpful. I was almost disappointed how easy it was to get by without the language, I was expecting more of a challenge. I also felt safe wherever we went.

I highly recommend you go and have fun. Don't worry about missing out on some aspects by being a lone traveller, if that's how you prefer to travel, then go and enjoy yourself. Travellers always miss some aspects of the country they are visiting, and if its your first trip, then go and enjoy yourself the way you like to travel, instead of worrying about whether you getting the "authentic experience". Its just one trip, you can always take another and do things differently to see another side of the country/culture/people.
posted by Joh at 11:57 AM on January 8, 2007

The best piece of advice I could give you is to head straight to the JNTO tourist information offices when you arrive in a major city (I used those in Tokyo and Kyoto). They are incredibly helpful and the staff speak excellent English.

I was only able to get my first night's accomodation booked before I arrived in Japan, and was getting rather worried about havng to sleep on train station platforms or in parks, but the JNTO staff were able to find and reserve everything I needed for the rest of the month (ended up staying at a mixture of business hotels and ryokans, all of them reasonably priced).

They can also put you in touch with volunteer English-speaking guides, who will happily spend a day showing you around their home city for free - just buy them lunch and pay their transport costs. If you want to go to any particular sights or attractions they will accompany you and give you a great insight into the history of places that you might otherwise miss. Perfect for the lone traveller.

I was in Japan (mainly Kyoto, Tokyo & Hiroshima) last October/November and the weather was great - about 24C most days and very little rain. People were telling me that it was unusually good for that time of year good, though.
posted by boosh at 12:20 PM on January 8, 2007

Yes, you can have a very enjoyable trip, with minimal Japanese language

Are you game for a homestay? They are rare in Japan, but I had a wonderful experience -- I think any family who volunteer to do such an un-Japanese thing will probably be interesting! I doubt if they will be central, given Japanese housing costs.

August is very hot and humid, and Tokyo empties -- although the American Club used to do a good Obon party for the festival when everything closes.

Do you know the story of the retiring sailor who walked inland with an oar over his shoulder until he reached somewhere where people said "what's that"? I would recommend travelling far enough off the beaten track to find somewhere where your presence is so unusual that you reduce schoolchildren to helpless giggles or the very young to screams of horror -- actually you don't have to go very far to cause that!

Must sees -- I use the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites as a starting point -- be aware that many of the Japanese historical "sights"are tiny -- the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto for instance, which was worthwhile but much smaller than I had expected from the photographs, and Zen gardens can be very small (I would not go far to see another one).

I found that asking for help in a general way, in a subway carriage for instance, was not effective but walking up and accosting an individual resulted in friendly help. Map reading is not a universal skill, so you may have to rely on asking a succession of people to find your goal -- knowing the Japanese for "left", ""right" and "straight ahead" along with some numbers does help. Once you have found your accommodation, pick up a card to show to people when you try to find your way back.

There isn't necessarily an easy way to find a building from its address -- you can find the block but numbering within it may be very odd, again you may have to ask people.
posted by Idcoytco at 4:25 PM on January 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

Very feasible, and easier all the time (for example, nowadays stops on the bullet train are announced in both Japanese and English). Do it!
posted by Rash at 6:16 PM on January 8, 2007

If you're at a restaurant that has a display case of menu items at the front (and many do), it's perfectly acceptable to take the waitress to that case and point to what you want if you can't read the menu.
posted by concrete at 7:10 PM on January 8, 2007

I'm 26, female, and dream of going to Japan for a vacation someday... in the meantime, I really enjoy Japan-Guide, which will teach you some of the cultural things to do or not do, like not sticking your chopsticks straight up out of your rice.

I hope you enjoy your trip and if you think of it, I'd love to hear from you when you get back, especially if you make a little travel blog or otherwise have stories to tell! (E-mail's in my profile.)
posted by IndigoRain at 7:48 PM on January 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's totally possible. Learn how to ask "How much?" and "Where is the....?" and you will just about be able to do anything. I was amazed at the power of gesture while i was there. The Japanese are required to take six years of English in high school, though they are not required to practice speaking. This means that most people will at least be able to understand a lot of the nouns and -ing verbs you use. Couple this with gesture and you're all set. Don't stress out too much about your Japanese: it's really hard and you'll get by just fine with a couple of phrases.
Good luck! Bring lots of money!
posted by simonemarie at 12:23 AM on January 9, 2007

Oh! A thing to add--a good place to go if you're lost is to the Koban (police boxes). They range from the size of a small room in a shopping arcade to independent buildings (search google images for "koban" and you'll get a good selection of pictures).

One of the things that the policemen are very good at is giving directions. They have maps of the area, and although their English won't be the best, having someone show you a place on a map, in context, can be very very useful in getting around.
posted by that girl at 6:22 AM on January 9, 2007

I lived in Japan for a year when I was 23 (& a female with no Japanese skills, or, at the beginning, friends & acquaintances). Japan is undeniably safe and usually quite easy to travel in. For what it's worth, I spent a lot of time hitchhiking and taking the train to out-of-the-way places, and never once did I have a legitimately bad experience.

I'd encourage you to learn katakana (& familiarize yourself with interpreting what it means!), and to use hospitalityclub.org or couchsurfers to find interesting strangers to stay with. It'll save you a lot of money, but more importantly will make your trip much, much more nuanced and interesting.
posted by soviet sleepover at 2:02 PM on January 9, 2007

Go for it!

Bring a pad of paper & a pen. The Japanese are fucking amazing at Pictionary. Don't know where something is? Draw a picture of it. It works wonders. I lived in Japan for many years and didn't learn Japanese. (Yes, I tried, very hard. It just didn't stick.)

It's a pretty safe place, but with any place on Earth, do be careful and don't do anything stupid.
posted by drstein at 7:07 PM on January 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

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