Things to know before visiting Japan as a solo traveling girl

Japan – It’s been on my list for quite a while and this October/November, I finally made it there. During the weeks leading up to the trip, I had so many people coming up to me telling me how difficult it is to travel Japan because of language barriers and how much of a challenge it will be. I got so anxious about it that I couldn’t even get excited anymore.
My main four questions were:

#1 How will I get around?
#2 Will I really spend a fortune over there?
#3 Will anyone even understand what I’m saying?
#4 Will I meet people along the way?

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I definitely have some answers to those questions now. Not all positive, but the trip was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve done and I’m proud of myself for doing it.

But first, let’s start with the normal preparations I took beforehand.

First of all, I planned my trip in advance. I normally try not to do that, but because of my anxiety beforehand, I really wanted to have my whole itinerary laid out already. So I booked my hostels, I checked the distances and I wrote down things I definitely wanted to do and see. I also ordered my Japan Railway Pass and my Pocket WiFi in advance, which made my trip so much easier.
Good to know about the Japan Railway Pass: Once you order it, you get a letter and a form by mail. With that, you need to go to a JR station and exchange it into the actual pass. You can either do it right at the airport or just go to one of the big stations (Ikebukuro, Shibuya or Akihabara for example) and do it there. Don’t forget your passport though! You can choose the starting date of your pass as well.
[There’ll be a separat blogpost about my itinerary and my travels within Japan.]

#1 Transportation

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Trains around Japan

By accident I stumbled upon this app called “Japan Official Travel App” and it kind of saved my life. It has a section “Routes” where you can find the easiest routes for you to take in order to get to your next destination. Google Maps is also a huge help when it comes to that, but the app even tells you how much the ticket is and which platform the train leaves from.
In Japan, subways are all private, which means there are different providers. Therefore, you can’t just go to any machine and buy a ticket, you have to make sure it’s the right machine for the train you have to take. (That’s where the app comes in handy.) If you want to avoid that struggle, you can also get an IC card, which covers all subways around Japan and works like an Oyster card in London – you charge it with a certain amount of money and just tap it at the subway entrance.
The subway system in Japan’s big cities isn’t that hard to handle, once you figured it out. The stations have numbers, so if you are worried you might mix up the station names (sometimes they sound similar), you can just remember the number. Once again, the app helps you with that. That system also helps, when you are not sure if you are going into the right direction – if you are traveling from station number 18 to 24 for example and the next station is 17, you are clearly on the wrong train. On top of that, it really helps that the trains are ALWAYS on time. If you ever sit on a train that leaves a few minutes before or after your schedule told you, you might be on the wrong one.

So in conclusion: Get an app, that helps you with routes, remember your station number, get an IC card – and you’ll be good to go!

#2 Costs

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If you want to save money, definitely don’t go shopping in Harajuku!

As you might have guessed, Japan is pretty expensive. But I think that the main costs are the ones for transportation – both within the cities but also across the country. When it comes to living costs, you can definitely find some ways to safe money.

  • Stay in Hostels. That might be a given, but it really is a way of saving money. Hostels are around 15-20€ a night, which is totally fine, considering they are the cleanest I’ve ever seen and most of them even have hair dryers and bodywash+shampoos in every shower.
  • Walk more. I’ve walked around 200km throughout my two weeks there. My legs hurt like crazy, but I definitely saved some money on trains. And I got to discover areas, I might have not seen otherwise.
  • 7Eleven is your friend. There are not a lot of places around the world, where I would easily eat anything at 7Eleven but in Asia, it seems to be very common. And in Japan, 7Eleven definitely offers enough choices for you not to get sick of it. You can for example get Onigiri (rice wrapped in seaweed and filled with different things, such as tuna mayonnaise, beef & egg or salmon) for around 130Yen a piece (=1€) and two of them are enough to fill you up for a meal. They also have pre-made Japanese dishes with rice and meat or fish – if you are looking for a bit more and have access to a microwave. Those dishes are around 300-400Yen (so up to 3,50€). So if you choose 7Eleven for one meal a day, you can save up some money for sure!

#3 Communication

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I guess that was one of the first things people who’ve been to Japan (or know people who have) warned me about: No one in Japan speaks English.
I don’t necessarily think that’s true. And if it is, it’s not as much of a burden as you might think. I’ve never been in a situation, where I was became desperate because no one could help me. The “experts” (hostel employees, subway employees, etc.) can always answer the basic questions. If it comes to more complex things, you might have troubles, but since I had my Pocket WiFi, I just googled things, if people couldn’t answer.
We once had a situation at a Izakaya (a restaurant) in Osaka, where literally NO ONE spoke any English and they didn’t even offer an English menu – but we managed. We just showed photos of food we wanted or used Google Translate to get us where we wanted.
So it’s definitely doable and since Japanese people are super helpful, they try their bests to help you out with any enquiry. 

#4 Meeting people

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Yes, that was an issue, I’m not gonna lie – it was the “loneliest” solo travel I’ve done so far. Which isn’t as dramatic as it sounds – I enjoyed having the opportunity to do everything I wanted to whenever I wanted to do it. In a country like Japan, that has so much to offer, that’s definitely worth something! But still, it got lonely sometimes. I mainly stayed in Hostels, but the atmosphere in them is so much different than what I’m used to from South East Asia for example. Even if the hostels had their own bar or common area, you rarely find people chatting up there. 80% or more of the hostels visitors are Asian (Japanese, Korean, Chinese) and they are a very quiet group of people. Maybe it’s their lack of knowledge of the English language, maybe it’s them being shy, I don’t really know, but there was no way of ever talking to any of them.
So I had to get out of my comfort zone a few times to just talk to people in very quiet surroundings, without having spoken to anyone for a whole day.
But don’t get me wrong: I did meet some great people that I loved spending time with, just not as many as I am used to. But you always learn and grow from experience, so I’m happy it happened that way! 

And now some more random facts about Japan:

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  • There are toilets EVERYWHERE. Every train station has them, most sights have them and sometimes just random street corners as well. And they are mainly clean and free – every travelers dream!
  • Japan is generally a very clean country – even though there are almost no trash cans anywhere. So either bring all your garbage back to your hostel or just carry it around with you, until you found one. Convenience stores usually have one.
  • People don’t eat on the streets. It’s just not common. There are barely any street vendors around and if there are, there’s a crowd of people in front of it, eating what they just got. So if you get anything at a convenience store or a café to go, make sure to sit down on some park bench or anywhere else to eat it. It’s not forbidden but you’ll definitely get some weird looks when eating on the street.
  • There might be no trash on the streets, but Japan is definitely one of those countries that produces a shitload of it. Every little thing is wrapped. Ever apple is wrapped. There are croissants, breadrolls and other baked goods wrapped in plastic. Onigiri are wrapped in plastic. It’s insane. They do recycle though, which makes it a little less bad, but it still made me furious at times.
  • There are vending machines with drinks on every corner. Fancy a coke in the middle of nowhere? There’s definitely a vending machine just around the corner.
  • And the most important thing for me: MATCHA EVERYWHERE. 

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