It’s 4pm in Tokyo and I’m deep underground, a puzzled expression on my face. I peer at my map with its colour-coded tangle of lines, trying to navigate the Japanese capital’s complex subway system. With a hefty suitcase by my side and a backpack full to bursting, I’m desperately trying not to look like a lost tourist – but I’m failing. On the platform, a young lad in school uniform spots my confusion and asks me in English if I need help. “You look lost, let me help you,” he says with a smile, before pointing me in the right direction.
This is not the only time I experienced help from a total stranger during my two-week trip to Japan. On a separate occasion, I asked a man for directions to Shinjuku Gyoen, a beautiful park in central Tokyo. The man took 10 minutes out of his day to walk me right to the gates. Another local, instead of simply saying ‘sorry’ and turning away, took out her phone and translated Japanese to English to give me information on a museum opening time.
It’s a willingness to help I’ve rarely experienced in other countries – and just one of the reasons that the country is so good for solo travel, and in particular, for solo female travel.
I travel a lot on my own, but I was still slightly nervous about heading to Japan solo. Its language, culture and food are all completely alien from anything I’m used to, so I knew I was heading out of my comfort zone.
I needn’t have worried. For starters, Japan is the safest country in Asia – and one of the safest in the world – according to the Global Peace Index. During my trip, I spotted a group of women in Tokyo who left their bags at a table as they went to order coffee – presumably safe in the knowledge that the country benefits from very low levels of crime. And yet, clearly it’s wise not to be lulled into a false sense of security, but to take the normal precautions you would at home.
Travelling as a female in Japan is rewarding – and it’s getting easier. There are now several train companies that have introduced women-only carriages, while some hotels, hostels and ryokan (Japanese inns) are also female-only.
Of course, one of the best things about solo travel is that you get to experience the world on your own terms. It’s just you, away from your everyday life, meeting new people and having fascinating experiences in fresh surroundings. Travelling alone also gives you the opportunity to indulge whatever interest you might have, whether that’s touring the country by bicycle or a particular restaurant you want to visit.
If you’re not used to travelling on your tod, a great way to warm up to it is to head to a restaurant. Eating on your own is totally normal in Japan, particularly in ramen bars and ‘izakaya’, which are like the Japanese version of a gastropub.
On my first day in Japan, in Osaka, I joined locals in a ramen bar across from my hotel at lunchtime. Slipping onto the counter next to a line of office workers, I watched the way they huddled over their bowls and deftly slurped the steaming noodles. With no companion to distract me from taking the scene in, or to embarrass with my table manners, I gave it a go – and left with broth all over my chin but a newfound determination to master the skill.
Of course, you don’t have to be on your own for long as a solo traveller. Alone, you are more approachable and it’s easier to make new friends. I joined Intrepid’s new 14-day Cycle Japan trip with six other holidaymakers, all of us keen to explore the country in a more adventurous way – on two wheels – than your average journey by coach and train.
By day we were unified as a group – pedalling past some of Japan’s most beautiful and varied landscapes all together like an overexcited peloton. And yet, come the evening or during free time, it was easy for me to slip off on my own to sip sake with the locals at an izakaya, glimpsing a side to the culture that you only see when alone, observing and listening, your senses more alert than in a group scenario. It was the best of both worlds. On the one hand, I was sharing my experiences with like-minded travellers who, like me, wanted to see Japan by bike. On the other, I was alone, free to set my own schedule at my own pace and, ultimately, able to get a richer understanding of the extraordinary country I found myself in.
Tips for solo female travellers in Japan:
- Rent a portable wifi device: For a country that’s so modern in so many ways, free wifi is not as available as you might imagine. If you’re travelling alone, make your life easier by ensuring you have data to look up trains, information and maps when you need.
- Book ahead: Unlike many backpacker-friendly destinations, it’s not so easy in Japan to improvise when it comes to accommodation. Many hotels book up quickly, so it’s wise to book in advance.
- Plan your itinerary: You don’t want to wander about aimlessly. It’s a good idea to share this with someone at home, or let someone on your group trip know where you’re going if you’re heading out alone.
- Always have cash on you: Japan is predominantly a cash-based society – many businesses don’t accept cards and ATMs don’t accept all foreign cards. You don’t want to be stranded with no money on you.
- Learn some Japanese: It’s always a good idea to learn a few handy words and phrases when travelling to a foreign country, particularly when you’re on your own. Keep some like “tasukete kudasai” (please help me) and “arigato” (thank you) up your sleeve.
- Carry your hotel business card: You can then show this to a taxi driver or a local if you get lost.
- Know what to wear: Women in Japan tend to dress conservatively. Blend in by covering your shoulders and opting for loose-fitting garments.
- Call 110 for emergencies.
Written by Ellie Ross. Follow more of her adventures at ellieross.co.uk