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Trip Report TRIP REPORT: Solo female traveller in Japan

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Hi everyone!

Finally getting around to writing this before I forget ALL the details! Just to warn you, it will also serve as a travel diary for me so it's pretty long and detailed...apologies if you prefer more concise reports!

I set off for a solo trip to Japan in late May, having booked several months earlier. I’d wanted to go to Japan for YEARS and had seriously started considering it early last year. I initially wanted to go with someone else, but that person could not commit to the time off work and so I decided to take the plunge and go it alone. I’ll be addressing the solo travel and how I felt about it quite a bit in my trip report. I had travelled on my own and lived abroad alone quite a lot, but this was the furthest I’d been from home on a completely solo trip. I had 10 days on the ground in Japan. My original plan was to take a week-long course at a language school, but I eventually decided against it, as it would mean staying in one place for at least 7 of my 10 days and also the courses I found were super expensive, so I decided to just do sightseeing this time around. I was to fly into Tokyo Haneda, so spending a few days in Tokyo, where I have friends I wanted to see, made sense. I booked a few nights in a hostel in Kuramae, Tokyo. I was advised by posters here not to miss Kyoto, so I also booked a few nights’ accommodation there, and then planned to return to Tokyo for my final weekend, with a day trip to Hakone. I had done quite a bit of research, but I've always found it very difficult to really get into planning before having set foot in the country. I decided in the end not to worry too much about this and just to plan what I could, take a guidebook and finalise all the details once in Japan.

The day of my flight, I didn’t have an early start (for once!) I set off around 9am and made my way to Heathrow airport. I was travelling reasonably light – I had a carry-on laptop backpack and medium sized suitcase, so maneuvering around was fairly easy. I checked in for my Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt (where I’d take the flight to Tokyo) and went through security right away to make sure I had plenty of time. The gate was announced very late and when I arrived there, discovered that there was a huge queue for the gate and no seating. This was annoying, as the line moved super slowly and I was standing for over an hour. The flight was slightly delayed and very turbulent, meaning that many passengers did not get their drink and snack because it was too dangerous to have the trolley in the aisle! Not a great start, but not too bad. We arrived at Frankfurt airport slightly late and I went straight to the gate for the Tokyo flight. After a short wait, we started boarding and this time around, it was pretty smooth and painless. I had chosen an aisle seat at the back of the plane and hoped to get plenty of sleep. To cut a long story short, I didn’t. The service was abysmal, not least because the amount of food left us all really hungry and I had a hot drink spilled all over me and I couldn't sleep due to those things, but after a loooooooooooong 11 hours, we arrived in Tokyo. Not as refreshed as I would have liked, but I was in Tokyo!

First impressions weren’t great due to the coldness and rudeness of the immigration officials, but I tried to put that behind me and went to get my suitcase from the carousel (thankfully it hadn’t gone missing! Phew! That would have sucked) and headed to the train station in the airport. I bought a ticket from the machine and got on what appeared to be the right train. Unfortunately, there were NO announcements in English, which seemed ridiculous to me, for an airport train (I love other languages and do not expect to be catered to in every way, but really? An airport line with NOTHING in English? Not even station names in ‘romaji’?) and no display indicating which station was next, so I was really, really lost and confused. Unfortunately, I got off at the wrong station (turned out to be the station before the one I wanted), so I figured that I’d just get on the next train in the same direction. Well, that was a bad decision. I got on the next train, but it went backwards! In the opposite direction to the one I’d got off a few minutes earlier! That was really bizarre. I got off at the next stop and tried to explain to the guy in the ticket office what had happened. He spoke no English and I spoke no Japanese, but with gestures, we managed to understand each other and he gave me a new ticket and gestured to where I had to go. I got on the next train and this time, managed to get to the right station. I had a few more instances of confusion and getting on the wrong train, but I guess it was all part of the adventure. I met a lovely older Japanese lady in one of the metro stations, who helped me out and told me about her daughter who lived in England, so that was nice and interesting! I eventually reached my hostel, 3 hours late and very sweaty, and not in the best of moods. When I got there, I was surprised by all the shoes lined up in the entrance hall. I’m not sure why, as I knew very well that the Japanese take their shoes off before entering their homes, but I suppose I hadn’t expected this rule to apply to hostels as well! I was met by the friendly receptionist and I signed in and went up to my dorm, which was pretty nice for a dorm. There was a girl in there sitting on her bed and I asked if she wanted to come have lunch with me (I was starving by now!), she said yes, and we headed to a local place recommended by the hostel staff.

This was my first experience of the vending machine in a restaurant – we had to order via the vending machine and get a ticket to give to the staff. I couldn’t understand any of the writing so had to choose based on a picture, which was tiny, so I was a little worried. I needn’t have been concerned – the meal turned out to be tonkatsu along with miso soup, a small salad and a bowl of rice and it was delicious. I was surprised at how reasonably priced it was – just over 1000 yen, if I remember correctly. I chatted to the girl from the hostel about her time in Japan and she gave me some tips about what to see and do in Kyoto. We headed back to the hostel and said goodbye, as she was leaving. I had planned to stay up until bedtime to try to combat jet lag, but having not slept a wink on the overnight flight, I just couldn’t keep my eyes open and ended up crashing in the dorm for a few hours. When I woke up, it was past 9pm and I was hungry again, so headed out for more food. The hostel receptionist had recommended a ramen shop in Asakusa, but I couldn’t find it. However, I did come across Senso-ji, which was night was deserted and quite magical. I enjoyed walking around it and around some of the nearby side streets with their hanging lanterns and izakayas. I loved the atmosphere around the area. I didn't feel like going into an izakaya alone, so headed back towards the hostel and popped into a small place with a vending machine outside. I felt like an expert by now, and ordered what looked like battered pork balls, rice and curry sauce. It turned out to be exactly that. It wasn’t the best food ever, but at 500 yen, it was very reasonably priced and came with free miso soup and water with lemon. I decided to call it a night and went back to the hostel. When I got back to the dorm, there was a girl sitting on the bed above mine. I asked where she was from and she turned out to be Japanese, which was really cool, as I didn’t expect to meet many Japanese tourists in the hostel (as it turned out, she was the first and last one on the entire trip!) We had a conversation, which was rather strained as she spoke virtually no English and I spoke virtually no Japanese, but we used Google translate and dictionaries and managed to communicate quite a lot. We both had early starts so switched out the lights at 11.30pm. Just as I was getting to sleep around midnight, a girl came in and was really noisy, turned on the light and started making her bed (why wouldn’t you do that during the day?) – this is what I really hate about hostels! Another girl came in shortly afterwards and they had a conversation and took their time getting ready, which was annoying. They left the light on, so after a few hours of broken sleep, I woke up enough to get up and turn it off, shortly after which our Japanese friend started snoring really loudly. When my alarm went off at 9am, I was pretty cranky – I really needed a good night’s sleep and hadn’t got one, but never mind, I had a big day ahead...

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    ClementineLdn - I hope the rest of your trip was a lot better than your flights and the train trip from the airport and your first night at the hostel....looking forward to more! :)

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    FIRST DAY IN JAPAN
    I had a quick shower and headed downstairs to the common area, which was pretty cool, as you could make hot drinks there and sit down and chat to people as you ate breakfast. I made myself a cup of green tea (I LOVE the green tea in Asia. It tastes so much better than back home…does anyone else find this?) and ate the two pastries I’d bought the night before at the 7/11. Unfortunately one of them turned out to be a curry bun. Apparently this is quite a common thing in Japan, but I wasn’t expecting it at all – it looked like an innocent sugary bun sitting on the shelf among the croissants and pains au chocolat. I found it really gross, to be honest, and struggled to even eat half of it, but hey, it’s all part of the experience! I had arranged to meet Yuki, a Japanese friend, at 10am, so put my shoes on and went outside, where he was waiting. It was really nice to see him for the first time in over 2 years. When he found out I was visiting Japan, he planned an entire day in Tokyo for me, which was really sweet of him, and I was super excited. First on the list was Senso-ji, which I had briefly visited the night before. It was totally different in the morning, with crowds of people buying things from the long path of small shops leading up to the temple. Yuki explained some things about temples, including how Japanese people put smoke from the smoke thing (I’m sure there’s a word for this but it’s escaped me – anyone?) over their bodies to try to heal their ailments – we tried that out, then we went to pray. Yuki demonstrated what to do, so I followed his lead. I was surprised by how many local Japanese people stopped by to pray and then quickly leave.

    I had been worried about the weather being a bit too hot in May and to be honest, it was a lot too hot. Yuki told me it was much hotter than normal for May, and this made it uncomfortable to be outside sightseeing. Luckily, we spotted some guys selling shaved ice. I’d never had this before and it was DELICIOUS. Totally simple idea, but so refreshing! Yuki wanted to take me to a place selling sweetbread, but we couldn’t find it and after walking around sweating for a long time, we decided to give up and just go into the first café we saw. I was surprised by how expensive tea/coffee often are in cafes – sometimes up to 2/3 of the price of a simple but decent meal. We didn’t stay long, as the next stop was Yuki’s mother’s apartment, where I would be getting my own personal cooking class!

    We arrived later than planned, which I felt terrible about, but Yuki told me he would apologise profusely. His mom had already started the prep, and after I had given her a gift from England (Earl Grey tea and shortbread), we quickly got down to business too, learning how to make gyozas. It was really fun and interesting to be in a Japanese home and this was one of the highlights of my trip. We cooked and ate the gyozas for lunch – they were absolutely delicious!

    After a short rest and some green tea, it was time to move on to our next stop – Harajuku. Having heard so much about the street fashion, I was super excited about going there. As we came out of the metro, I was overwhelmed by how many people were crowding around – I’m from London and used to crowds, but this was crazy. We walked down the famous Takeshita street. To be honest, I found this slightly underwhelming, perhaps because I had read up on the place SO MUCH that I was expecting something bigger. The shops there were mostly full of tacky touristy stuff and I was surprised to find I had no interest in buying anything. Still, it was interesting to take a look at the street fashion on show and soak up the atmosphere. We stopped at Godiva for a quick chocolate milkshake type drink (delicious!) and sat on an outside terrace where we could people watch – that was really cool! Yuki then took me around a famous shopping centre just around the corner from Takeshita street (forgot the name) – that was interesting – and then we walked up Omote-sando. I’m not big on luxury shops, but I liked the atmosphere there and the design of some of the buildings was really cool. I had initially thought it weird that Japan bans smoking on the street and allows it in bars, but once I got there, it seemed totally logical. It was bliss to be able to walk down the street without breathing in cigarette smoke and dodging lit cigarettes. Omote-sando had lots of designated smoker areas – great idea!

    We had planned to do some karaoke, but decided it wouldn’t be the greatest fun with just the two of us, in the afternoon, so we headed right on to Shibuya. I was surprised at how easy it was to walk all this – the distances aren’t far at all. When we reached Shibuya, I had to see the famous Shibuya crossing, which is now replicated on Oxford Street in London. The original is bigger, though, and much busier! I went to the Starbucks nearby to get an aerial view. We were getting tired and a little hungry by this time, so went looking for an izakaya. A guy approached us, persuading us to go into his izakaya. I got a bad feeling, as he seemed desperate, and why would someone working for a decent izakaya be so desperate? But Yuki told me it was fine. Once we got inside, we both had a bad feeling about the place…most of the staff were not Japanese and there was a bad vibe, with big guys acting like security guards who were staring at the customers and staff. We said we were leaving and were pretty much told that we had to order something before we were ‘allowed’ to leave. Yuki ordered some beer and some food, which we ate as quickly as possible before we rushed out, with the staff scowling after us. Safely on the street, we looked for another izakaya. By this time, all the decent looking ones were busy and had no tables, so we settled on one with traditional food from Okinawa. It looked slightly tacky, but safe, so we headed inside! This one had a great atmosphere and we enjoyed a few beers and sampled Okinawa food, including sea grapes. I wasn’t a huge fan of the food, but we had a great time. As we got up to leave, Yuki handed me a piece of paper…he had written out instructions about how to take the metro back to my hostel! How thoughtful! I took my first metro ride alone and it was fine – I found the metro MUCH easier to navigate than the JR lines. I arrived back at the hostel around midnight, exhausted, having had a great day in Tokyo and done so much!

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    I'm following your report. We went to Japan for the first time in November. We were also surprised by what was difficult and what was easy. Sometimes where you least expect it, there are English signs, and a place where you would expect it there are none. Fortunately, locals helped us out a couple of times. Looking forward to more.

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