By Susan Benton
It’s always been a dream of mine to travel alone. I got the opportunity recently when I found myself in between jobs, bored, and in possession of more frequent flyer miles than I knew what to do with.
With a week left before I started a new job, I threw caution to the wind and decided to burn the miles and visit Tokyo. My friend’s parents, both teachers at the American School in Japan, were my gracious hosts. Since they had to work mid-week, I was on my own to discover the city and outlying areas.
While I had a free place to stay, I had little else – no tour guide, no mode of transportation, no cell phone, no sense of Tokyo and its culture at all beyond the guidebooks and a depiction of the city in movies á la “Lost In Translation.”
Based on the maps I’d reviewed on the 11-hour flight from Los Angeles, I felt well-versed on many areas of the city and comfortable choosing a path for my week-long trip. I was excited to immerse myself in a new world, meet new people and explore at my own pace.
Once there I realized – despite my preparation – navigating the transportation system, communicating with locals and understanding the layout of Tokyo was challenging. Particularly since my guidebook had lots of useful tidbits on the culture but left much to be desired in terms of practical details – especially when tackling Tokyo as a solo traveler.
- When traveling anywhere, alone or with a group, it’s important to attempt to speak the language, show common courtesy and respect the local customs and traditions. When traveling alone, especially as a woman, there are certain must-haves in order to navigate the city in a safe and smart manner.
Below is a list of the things every solo traveler, but especially women, should note (and all the things I wish I would’ve known) for a successful, stress-free jaunt to the fascinating, often overstimulating, capital of Japan.
Sumimasen. I Am Lost.
First and foremost, when venturing into an unknown land, in addition to a comprehensive, detailed map of the area (carry it with you at all times), make sure you have:
1.) A map of all the train lines and their schedules. In Tokyo, you need a map of the subway system, and one of the JR Yamanote Line. Perhaps most importantly, you need a map of the Yamanote connecting lines that run throughout the city – which are, more or less, the backbone of the Tokyo train system (and my primary mode of transportation while there).
- 2.) For supplemental trips outside of Tokyo, make sure you have a detailed map of the streets and transportation lines (if any) for the area once you arrive. Some of the more remote places, like Kamakura, are must-see destinations for the gardens, temples and The Great Daibutsu (Large Buddha), but they’re quite a distance from a city “center” and not well-signed, once you start exploring.
Always study your maps beforehand so you don’t look like a frustrated, lost tourist once you’re there. A good rule of thumb is to stay close to populated areas, especially when traveling alone. This doesn’t mean you should be relegated to the touristy, crowded areas. Just don’t venture too far off the beaten path, down dark alleys or into deserted areas. In other words, use common sense.
Seriously Lost in Translation
In my experience, the more remote the region, the higher the likelihood that English will not be spoken. What’s more, as you get further outside of Tokyo, the signs all switch from R?maji (Roman letters) to Japanese script, so it’s important to have the accompanying descriptions for the Japanese characters so you can attempt translation. (Good luck.)
- Night-time – Not Necessarily the Right Time
Japan historically has had a low crime rate, but this shouldn’t give you a false sense of security – especially when traveling alone. As a general rule, women should be especially careful, particularly if you find yourself out after the sun goes down.
This happened to me a couple of times during my trip – either I caught the wrong train going the wrong direction, or I simply lost track of time or miscalculated how long it would take to get home. Keep your wits about you. Chances are you’ll run into a knowledgeable local who can assist.
The train stations all have helpful employees and information booths, as well – though not everyone speaks English. (You can always point to places on the map. Remember, you’ll be carrying one with you at all times.)
Always keep your belongings close, avoid wearing expensive clothes and/or bags, and consider wearing little or no jewelry, to dissuade petty thieves from considering you a target. Again, the crime rate is low, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
- Worse Than a Hole In the Floor
Actually non-Western toilets ARE a hole in the floor. It’s important to know how to use them. As a woman, the best advice I can give is: limber up, get low and wear skirts. It’ll make your life much easier during your stay. It’s always advisable to carry tissues napkins or flushable sanitary wipes with you, in case none are available in the facility. (Which is often the case.)
Don’t Be Cash-Poor
To my surprise, many places did not take credit cards, so you should always have some money on you. The best advice for obtaining yen: save yourself the hassle, exchange your currency before you leave your country of origin. Getting money once you’re in Tokyo can be difficult. The CitiBank across the street from Shinjuku station, as well as select other ATMs throughout, take American bank cards – but you’d be surprised how many don’t.
- Visiting Temples and Shrines
Note that some temples and shrines charge high entry fees, while other – equally impressive temples – are next-to-nothing or free. Choose wisely, based on your budget.
When visiting a temple, services may be in progress. Are you being disrespectful if you join, watch or speak? Visitors are generally accepted to pray and are expected to show respect at temples and shrines. This includes washing your hands in the fountains before entering, making a short prayer in front of the sacred object and offering a donation. You may be required to remove your shoes, as well.
Beyond temple etiquette, the Japanese consider eating on any form of public transportation rude – as I found out the hard way (when my crunching into an apple was met with incredulous, disgusted stares from the few Japanese passengers sharing one particular train bound for Ueno). Unless you are on a long journey where food is served, avoid eating on public transportation.
Blowing your nose in public is also considered rude. Don’t do it.
Always remember to remove your shoes anytime you enter a family home or Japanese-style restaurant. Once inside, there will usually be slippers offered that you can wear.
Whenever possible, talk to and watch the locals so you can emulate what they do to avoid common gaffes.
Loosen Up! You’re on Vacation.
For funky, fun shops, restaurants, and people-watching: head to Harajuku. You’ll have the experience of seeing the impeccably made-up Harajuku kids and overzealous street performers.
You’ll also have a chance to catch up on the latest Japanese fashion trends by strolling shop-to-shop. For of-the-minute, off-the-wall finds, head over to Takeshita-dori. The 400-meter long pedestrian-only street is lined with dozens of fashion boutiques, cafes and restaurants.
Then there’s Shibuya – the location of the famous scramble crossing, where all traffic stops to allow pedestrians to cross the intersection in every direction at the same time. Here, you’ll find world-class shopping – everything from department stores to boutiques; from grocery stores to consumer electronics.
Check out Shibuya 109 – a 10 floor fashion complex with more than one hundred boutiques filled with the latest trends.
Both Shibuya and Harajuku are accessible via the JR Yamanote Line.
- Go Beyond the Guidebooks
If you’re able to communicate, talk to locals. Often times, they’ll tip you off to places outside of the obvious tourist traps and stale guidebook recommendations.
For instance, I found Kichijoji to be one of the more underrated areas of the city and one of the areas I enjoyed the most. This ward has an energy all its own. While exploring its lively, bustling streets, one can find galleries, delicious restaurants, coffee shops, live music (including many karaoke bars) and even ice cream parlors (open late)!
The beautiful Inokashira Park, with its lake and walking paths, is a serene escape where you can enjoy the blooming cherry blossoms, rent a boat or picnic in the park. To get to Kichijoji, take the JR Chuo or Keio Inokashira Line and exit Kichijoji Station. (It’s about 20 minutes from Shinjuku and Shibuya, respectively.)
For an incredible sensory experience just outside the city, visit Hakone. On a clear day, you’ll see breathtaking views of Mt. Fuji and will have the opportunity to experience some of the most unique geographic areas that all of Japan has to offer.
To get to the Hakone region is an adventure itself. Take the Odakyu and Odawara trains out of Tokyo and catch the Hakone-Yumoto Tozan line. Jump off at the Chokoku-no-mori station and visit the Hakone Open Air Museum to see more than 100 works of modern and contemporary art on display indoors and out.
Spend a couple of hours there, then catch the Hakone-Tozan Cablecar, the funicular railway that climbs the mountainside, before boarding the Hakone Ropeway, Japan’s longest cable car route (2.7 miles) to Owakudani (“big boiling valley”). If the smell of sulfur doesn’t overwhelm you, continue on.
From Owakudani, take the ropeway again – pass over valleys and cliffs before descending to
Togendai Station, where passengers disembark near Lake Ashi and can walk to the garish pirate ship – the primary mode of transportation for crossing the lake. (You can’t miss it.)
Lake Ashi is thought to be in the crater of a volcano (Mt. Hakone) that blew its top 3,000 years ago. It never freezes due to the volcanic activity still going on beneath, which also accounts for Owakudani’s sulfur production.
After sailing across to Hakonemachi, you’ll be rewarded with a gorgeous view of the lake with Mt. Fuji presiding powerfully in the distance, provided it’s not shrouded in clouds (which it often is).
Stop at the gift shop in Hakonemachi for a quick bite of Soba noodles and, for an interesting dessert, sample candy and custard made of every type of Japanese “bean jelly” imaginable. Be sure to buy some for the bus or train ride home (just don’t let anyone see you snacking en route).
Get Out of Town
Narita International is about 45 miles away from Tokyo central. As a rule of thumb, plan to purchase JR Narita Express (N’EX) high-speed train tickets a day or two before your flight, and choose a time that is scheduled to arrive at least one hour earlier than you would like to arrive at the airport.
Delays are common – including the train I was on. Luckily, I had purchased a ticket to arrive early. By the time I checked my bag and cleared security, I arrived at the gate just in time to catch my flight home.
You can purchase N’EX tickets in the airport or at major station on the JR Line. All larger and medium-sized stations have separate ticketing areas called Midori-no-Madoguchi (‘Green Ticket Windows’) for long-distance tickets or seat reservations.
Tokyo and its surrounding areas offer many unique, breathtaking sites and unforgettable experiences. With a little planning, some common sense, and a strong sense of adventure, traveling solo in a foreign land can be a breeze and most certainly will be a trip you won’t soon forget.
Susan Benton is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has authored travel and leisure pieces, as well as lifestyle and human interest articles. Most recently, her work has been featured in several electronic and print outlets, including Road and Travel Magazine, International Travel News and TravelMag.
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