I really wish I’d read a post like this before I went to Japan. I’m sure it would’ve saved me from a lot of embarrassing situations and confusion. Like that time I cried in the middle of a Tokyo train station because I was SO HOT AND LOST. Not my finest moment as a solo traveller I’ll admit, but these things happen.
Travelling alone can be tough, so just remember that you might need to have a little silent weep to yourself from time to time, and that’s OK.
No judgement here.
So if you’re planning a trip to Japan any time soon, this post is for you. With any luck, it’ll help you avoid any distressing situations and save you a few pennies too.
Be smart and plan ahead
Usually I would advise travellers or backpackers that planning ahead is a mistake and that it’s always better to go with the flow, but this isn’t the case with Japan. I went in August during the school summer holidays and Obon festival (day of the dead), so everywhere was busy. This meant that all the hostels in Osaka were fully booked.
Every single one.
After hours of searching I was forced to book a hotel room for 3 nights which cost me over £100. As a backpacker, it was really quite painful to hand over the cash. However, I was ill with the flu and there was a scary typhoon outside, so I embraced it by burying myself in my duvet, relaxing in the tub and taking some time out to eat noodles and watch TV in my giant double bed.
It turned out to be just what I needed, despite the hole in my bank balance.
Another reason to plan ahead is because there’s so much to see in Japan, so if you only have a short time there, make sure you do your research.
Check the school holiday dates, book a few hostels, check transport options and make a rough itinerary.
Save money on travel by getting a Japan Rail Pass BEFORE you go
This is a big one. I saved so much money doing this.
Before you fly to Japan make sure you order a Japan Rail Pass from the official website. It gets sent to your house and it gives you unlimited travel on JR train lines (overground) for one week, two weeks or a month. Just like a season ticket. This comes in handy when travelling up and down the country and it includes the Shinkansen bullet trains too.
I used mine to get from Tokyo to Kyoto to Osaka, and all the places in between. It can also get you all the way to Hiroshima.
Word of warning though, if you land in Tokyo don’t do what I did and activate it when you arrive. You won’t really use it in Tokyo as you’ll mainly be getting the subway lines which you pay for separately, so you’ll essentially be wasting your season ticket. So it’s best to activate it when you first head out of the city. Another lesson learned folks.
Visitors can’t buy this pass in Japan either, so make sure you get one beforehand or you’ll miss out.
You will definitely get lost
Please learn from (yet another) of my fails. I didn’t get a SIM card to put in my phone so I didn’t have GPS.
I thought I could survive without it but I was wrong.
I mean, it’s not completely necessary but it would’ve helped. It’s impossible to read street signs, and trying to match the Japanese symbols to the ones in the guide book really does not work. You can try, but trust me, it hurts your eyes after a while and you’ll look mental.
Also, grab a subway map from the nearest station and take it everywhere. It’s a must-have when you’re out and about.
Everything is kinda backwards
Yep, some of the rules in Japan are the complete opposite to some of the rules in England. Or America, Australia or Europe. So be prepared for the initial confusion.
For example, you’re not allowed to smoke in the street but you can smoke in bars, slurping loudly is totally fine when you’re eating, and lastly, you don’t have to tip.
What a time to be alive!
I also went to Monkey Mountain in Arashiyama which is like a backwards zoo, so us humans are the ones in cages. Definitely worth a visit if you like being stared at by monkeys.
Oh, and please don’t wear flip flops. You will slip and fall on the gravel.
Trust me on that one.
Not that many people speak English
This one relates quite heavily to the crying incident I mentioned earlier.
Fact is, the majority of Japanese people won’t understand a word you’re saying. I’m not sure why, but I honestly (and ignorantly) assumed that loads of people would speak English in Japan and I wouldn’t have a problem with getting directions or ordering food.
So very naive.
Thankfully though, I managed to get by with the help of my Lonely Planet book. It comes with translated phrases at the back of it like ‘I don’t eat meat’ and ‘I am lost’, both of which I used daily.
So yeah, be prepared to point at things a lot if you don’t know any Japanese. Especially if you’re vegan/vegetarian/GF.
Or if you’re really organised, make little laminated phrase cards that you can whip out when confusion strikes instead of thumbing through a giant Lonely Planet book looking painfully touristy.
The toilets are just lovely
Having spent a long time in Thailand and Cambodia before I went in Japan, I was in toilet heaven when I landed at Narita airport. In fact, everything about Japan seemed so luxurious and it was nice not to have to worry about hand sanitizer 24/7.
What a treat for the immune system.
Not only are Japan’s toilets clean, but they light up as you walk in, greet you before you sit down and they have all kinds of impressive little functions like spraying, drying and a special flushing sound, which I’m still slightly confused about.
So, there you have it. A few things to bear in mind before you head to Japan.
You can thank me later.
Or pay me in the way of seaweed crisps and sushi?