Travelling Solo in Tokyo: Know Before You Go

Traditional Washi paper shop in Tokyo street, shot in black and white, with calligraphy on display. Credit Soranyan via Flickr

You might remember me naming Japan as one of the hot destinations for Spring/Summer 2016, as it’s loved by fashion designers right now, not to mention travel magazines and websites.

Well, guest blogger June has captured the mood and is here to inspire you with tips for travelling solo in Tokyo, so you can see what all the fuss is about…

Solo travel can be daunting, let alone when you want to see the most populated metropolis in the world. Tokyo, the capital of Japan, is a massive city with a population of more than 13.3 million people, and it’s known worldwide for great food, trendsetting fashions, shopping areas and a stark contrast of tradition and modernity. There’s something for everyone, especially solo travellers.

Green and yellow luggage label from Japanese airline designed for travellers' baggage
A very cool retro luggage tag from Japan Air Lines. Credit: Zazzle.

Flying Solo in Tokyo

The best airport to fly into is Haneda Airport as it’s just 14 km (9 miles) outside the city, compared to Narita’s 60 km (37 miles). Japan Airlines (JAL), All Nippon Airways (ANA) and British Airways all fly direct to Haneda. If you want to start your trip in comfort and style, treat yourself to an upgrade in business class – spoil yourself, you’re travelling alone! All three airlines have fully flat beds in business class, which will leave you rested and ready to take on the ‘Eastern Capital’.

There are a number of ways to get to the city from the airport, but limousine bus transfers are probably the easiest way to reach greater Tokyo. You can buy a ticket for around 3,000 yen (roughly £19) which gets you into central Tokyo in around 60–90 minutes, depending on traffic. Most buses serve the main hotels, making them a great alternative to trains – especially for first-time visitors.

Old-fashioned print map of Tokyo with main sights and key points for visitors
Ready to explore this city? Credit: Jacques Liozu Art/Etsy.

Getting Around

Public transport in Tokyo can look confusing from the outset, but once you figure out the system it becomes easier to navigate. For one thing, all the signs in the train stations are written in both English and Japanese. An app can help, but probably the most helpful way is to combine the use of maps in each station together with Google Maps if you have it on your smart phone. Next, get hold of a SUICA or PASMO card (prepaid travel cards), rather than buying tickets singularly, to save time and money. They’re basically the same thing issued by two different companies.

If you want to travel out of Tokyo, buy a JR pass for use on the Shinkansen (bullet trains). These are only for tourists and must be purchased before you arrive in Japan. A voucher will be issued to you which must be exchanged for the actual JR pass once you arrive in the country. JR passes are also valid on many local and regional trains, allowing you unlimited great value travel on Japan’s extensive network. Yes, it involves organisation, but you’ll find it useful if you’re heading beyond the city itself.

Old pre-loved books for sale across an entire Tokyo district with hundreds of bookshops to visit
Just get me to Jimbocho for a second-hand book splurge. Credit: Antonio Tajuelo (flickr.com/photos/antoniotajuelo).

What to See

Make time to visit the Harajuku district, known for its street style opportunities, the famous Lafaret shopping mall, and countless boutiques. Head to Shibuya district for great food and a spot of solo karaoke in 1 Kara, or take a trip to the Toyko ward of Suginami, where anime is king. If the weather’s good, take the water bus around the harbour for alternative city views and easy access to sightseeing spots like the Hama Rikyu garden. Of course, free walking tours are an easy way to see even more of the main sights on a budget, and they’re ideal for solo visitors.

Bookworms shouldn’t miss Jimbocho: this neighbourhood has nearly 200 second-hand bookshops. Those of you who get more excited over paper and pens should look out for specialist stationery shops, selling pens, notebooks and traditional handmade patterned paper (washi). Try Ozu Washi, established 1653, or visit Kyukyodo, which opened in the Ginza district in 1880.

Tourist lies in pod capsule in futuristic Japanese accommodation for budget travelers
Not just ideal for solo travellers – grab a capsule if you’re just sick of sharing a bed with a duvet stealer… Credit: Uniq Hotels.

Where to Stay

If you’re feeling adventurous, try a capsule hotel, which you’ve probably seen online. These are great for a tight budget, but are also really convenient for anyone who happens to miss the last train! Try Siesta, by Ebisu station. Some capsule hotels, like Centurion Hotel & Spa, are for women only, which will appeal to solo female travellers.

Not convinced by a capsule? Consider a Ryokan: a traditional Japanese inn which is small but comfortable and includes a traditional futon bed. Alternatively, go one step further and achieve total cultural immersion by staying at an Onsen (hot spring bath). Try an overnight stay in one of the many Onsen hotels in the Mount Aso region and completely relax amidst lush surroundings under the stars!

Traditional Japanese noodle dish with egg, meat and vegetables in bowl
Ramen seems like a bit of a food cliché but you have to try it. Credit: George Alexander Ishida Newman (flickr.com/photos/takoyaki_king).

Where to Eat

Tokyo is truly a foodie’s paradise, with over 60,000 places to eat, and more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city! A great way to start your Tokyo food diary is with ramen at Menya Kissou. It’s been voted the number one ramen shop in Japan by Japanese food review sites – and if the locals like it, then it’s a pretty safe bet. At most places, ordering is easy due to the plastic menus displayed. Just point and choose. No words are needed to ask for the bill, either – just cross both of your index fingers to signal for your bill.

Next, there’s no better place to eat sushi than at the famous Sushi Daiwa at Tsukiji Fish Markets. The lines can get lengthy but being just one person, you should get admitted in reasonable time and it’s definitely worth the wait. If sushi’s not your thing, visit Tsunahachi Rin in Shinjuku, which is the up-market branch of one of Tokyo’s most successful Tempura chains. It has a great atmosphere and very good food. They also serve some non-tempura options and excellent desserts.

Tokyo, whilst still steeped in so much traditional culture, has managed to forge ahead with modern living. From the outset, it appears to be mind-boggling, but this is actually one of the most organised places in the world, so going solo isn’t a problem. Get ready to have your mind blown by this extraordinary mega-city.

Author Bio: June Winstead built up unrivalled travel knowledge by exploring the world for most of her life. Now based in the UK, June loves writing destination reviews and checking out new airline routes.

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