Solo Travel in Japan: My Trip To Tokyo, Hakone & Kyoto
I never would have considered Japan for a solo trip without hearing other female travelers rave about it. The language barrier (and Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift) left me intimidated. But after reading other women’s stories, I booked a flight for April to catch the cherry blossoms, and fell in love with the Land of the Rising Sun.
I decided to split my trip between three cities: Tokyo, Hakone, and Kyoto, and I purchased the 7-day Japan Rail Pass to travel between the three (more on that later). Here’s the scoop on where I stayed and what I loved about each place.
THE ITINERARY - Traveling in April
TOKYO: 4 Nights
Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world, which led me to believe it wasn’t very safe. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The crime rate is low and there are women-only subway carriages offered during certain hours of the day. People don’t even lock their bikes up on the street. As with anywhere in the world, you still need to use common sense, but I felt incredibly safe there.
I highly recommend staying near a major train station. The subway is extremely efficient - it’s the only thing I used. I stayed in Shinjuku because the station there is a major hub for all of Tokyo - it has a direct line to the airport and many areas of the city.
Lodging: Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku
A two-minute walk from Shinjuku station, this hotel is modern, clean, and most importantly, entirely non-smoking. Hotels with smoking optional rooms are still the norm in Japan (even in major chains), so if this is a concern for you, be careful when booking.
Things To Do:
Take a cooking class. This was my highlight of Tokyo. I took the Mosaic Sushi course with Tokyo Kitchen and had the best time learning about Japanese table etiquette and food preparation. It was also a great way to chat with other travelers!
Visit Sensoji Temple in Asakusa.
Make a wish at the Meiji Shrine.
Stroll through Shinjuku-Gyoen Park to see the cherry blossoms.
Ride an elevator 1,480 feet to the top of the Tokyo Skytree - the tallest broadcasting tower in the world.
Good Eats: Ichiran Ramen (dinner) - perfect for solo travelers because you order from a vending machine and can sit in a single booth! Also, Innsyoutei (dinner) - beautiful restaurant in Ueno Park. You have to remove your shoes to enter and sitting at the bar was beautiful. The menu is only written in Japanese, but is seafood based!
Carry cash - you can get it at the airport when you land. Japan is a cash-based society. Subway ticket kiosks and many other establishments will be cash-only or will not accept American cards.
Most Japanese ATMs do NOT take American cards (Visa, Mastercard, etc.). ATMs that accept American cards are hard to find, especially because when you ask locals for directions to the nearest machine, they will direct you to Japanese-only ATMs. The airport will have worldwide ATMs available - get your cash there and plan ahead if you are going to need more during your trip.
HAKONE: 1 Night
If you are heading west of Tokyo, Hakone is a perfect stop and a great way to experience Japan outside of the bustling cities. The area is lush and serene. I hopped on the bullet train out of Tokyo, changed at Odawara station, and got off at Tonosawa Station to walk to Hakone Yuryo (see Things To Do).
Lodging: Ashinoko Hanaori
If you’re willing to get off the beaten path, this hotel is luxe and the view over Lake Ashi is incredible. The room was very modern and high-tech (I swear the toilet had 20 different settings), and guests are given yukatas (Japanese robes) to wear around the establishment. However, the hotel is far from the closest train stop, so you need to take the local bus or pay a taxi to get there (the onsen and hotel called taxis for me). I paid about $40 for the taxi because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to figure out the right bus stop (I didn’t see any English). The taxi was about 30 minutes from Hakone Yuryo, through winding roads.
Things To Do:
Visit an onsen. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring, and there are lots of hotels and day spas situated around the springs to take advantage of the steamy waters. If you’re in Hakone, you must visit Hakone Yuryo. I booked a private room for two hours and it was a highlight of my trip. Reservations open one month in advance, and I highly recommend emailing to book the first day to make sure you get the room you want. Public onsens are available as well but swimwear is not allowed in the onsen (nude only), so I opted for the private experience. Just a heads up, tattoos are also not allowed in onsens. Japan is still very conservative when it comes to acceptance of tattoos. I do not have any tattoos, and they did not check/ask if I had any, but the signs are there.
KYOTO: 4 Nights
From Hotel Ashinoko Hanaori I caught a taxi back to the train station, then zipped off to Kyoto on another bullet train. Kyoto is quieter than Tokyo, full of quaint neighborhoods, shrines and little shops. There is a large performing arts community in Kyoto, so you’ll pass geishas in your stroll around the city.
Lodging: Hotel Ms Gran Kyoto
I chose this hotel because of its central location, non-smoking policy, and affordable price (especially for high season). It was underwhelming. Very small room, thin walls, one slow elevator for the entire hotel. It was clean, staff was friendly, but if I returned to Kyoto, I would stay elsewhere.
Things To Do:
Take a stroll through Gion, Kyoto’s famous geisha district.
Walk through the vermillion torii gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine. This shinto shrine is famous for its thousands of orange gates leading up Inari mountain. It’s a must see, and like every tourist site, get there early. I was there at 7:30am and was able to get some photos without people in them, but by 8:30, tour groups and crowds had already arrived.
Stroll through the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
Hop on the train and take a day trip to Nara. It’s only an hour away and this is a MUST DO. The park in Nara is home to thousands of wild, FRIENDLY deer. Vendors in the park sell crackers to feed them, and they will eat right out of your hand. You can even take selfies with them. Such a cool experience! In the park is also the Todaiji Temple, holding Japan’s largest bronze Buddha statue.
(April only) See a geisha performance. The Miyako Odori shows run for the month of April and it was such a fun way to experience another part of Japanese culture.
Good Eats: My favorite meal in Kyoto was at a hole-in-the-wall sushi spot, Isami Sushi. It’s owned by two older Japanese men, and I happened to be the only customer, so I sat at the bar and chatted with them throughout my meal. It was a great opportunity to connect with locals.
If you are visiting multiple cities in Japan, you will save money buy purchasing a Japan Rail Pass in advance. This must be purchased BEFORE you visit and activated once you arrive, as it is not sold within Japan. The JR Pass is valid for travels on all JR national trains, including Shinkansen bullet trains (which I used between cities) and Narita Express (to and from Narita Airport). You can select 7, 14 or 21 consecutive validity days. I didn’t want to pay extra for the 14-day pass, so I purchased the 7-day and didn’t activate it until the day before I left Tokyo, and it lasted the rest of my trip. It just meant that I paid my Narita Express ride into Tokyo out-of-pocket.
This trip was the experience of a lifetime and I’m so glad I went. The people of Japan are so nice, and I felt welcome and comfortable the entire time. If you’re considering Japan, you won’t regret going!
Have you been to Japan? What did you love about it?