Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Wherein I query the internet hivemind about travel

Dear Internet Hivemind,

I am thinking about doing something which seems a tiny bit crazy to my mind.

I want to go visit Japan. I have wanted to go visit Japan for a very long time. I have diligently saved up frequent flier miles for a very long time--and now I have enough to actually go there.

But here's the catch: I'd have to go by myself. I might have a few friends visiting around the same time as me, but it'd essentially be me and the city of Tokyo for ten days.

Have any of you ever taken a long international trip by yourselves? Did you enjoy it? Have any of you ever gone to Japan by yourselves on vacation? Or with others? I would love to get your opinion.

Much love and eager anticipation,

ETA: I speak enough Japanese that I can make my way through my time there without a ton of difficulty. I understand more than I can say.


Sarah N Fisk said...

I have been to Japan several times, but with my family.

I really enjoyed Tokyo Disneyland. The temples in Tokyo are a must-see. I also went to Tokyo tower, which provided some interesting views of the city. Okinawa was OK, I wasn't too impressed.

From my experience, the young people are eager to help you so they can practice their English. One girl called a cab for us and told the cabbie where we wanted to go. Not so much on the older people though...

Brian Buckley said...

I went to Japan for three days with my dad. This was back in 2002; I was sixteen at the time.

I'd say that if you are planning on traveling somewhere internationally by yourself, Japan is a good place to start. The crime rate is extraordinarily low, so you don't have much to worry about there. If you don't speak Japanese, the language barrier will be a problem, but not insurmountable - people there are for the most part very friendly, patient, and polite. (You might also take some time and learn katakana, a part of their writing system, which has a relatively small number of characters and is used to write a lot of English words.) You'll have to get used to the subway/train system too, but my dad and I had the hang of that after a few days and we spoke almost no Japanese.

Really the only thing that might concern you is that everything is very expensive over there, especially in Tokyo. But if you're willing to spend a little extra, I'd say definitely go for it. It was a fantastic experience for me and I think you would love it!

rhienelleth said...

Okay. My husband has been going to Japan for 2-3 weeks every year, for the past eleven years.

The first trip he took with some friends who had been before. The next year, he went by himself. Two weeks was a looooooong time by himself. At the time, e-mail was our only communication. Phone calls home are astronomically expensive. Now, we do video chat, and it makes the trips go by much, much faster. There are internet cafes, and many hotels offer internet service.

While there are many Japanese who do speak English, it is not exactly everywhere you go - in fact, there are MANY situations/places where they don't speak it at all, so knowing some Japanese/being with someone who does doesn't hurt.

However, the husband, as well as other people we both know, has navigated Japan by himself and been fine. But it is vastly different from visiting, say, England, where at least the language is the same.

A couple of tips: do NOT leave a tip at a restaurant in Japan. The wait staff will chase you down the street to give you back the money you "forgot". Also, the line for the American style of toilet will be long, and will also be worth waiting for! :)

If you have any specific questions, ask me, and I'll relay them to him.

Anonymous said...

Go for it. Traveling alone is certainly different than with someone else. As long as you have the confidence to maneuver through airports, you'll be fine.

I've been to Argentina twice on my own, both times for over three weeks, and I only speak enough Spanish to get by. Like you, I understand a fair amount. People in other countries are always very helpful.

The only trip I took to Japan, I went with a friend and stayed in Nagano her son's family. That was a much different experience.

If you decide to go on your own, research places to go, and things to see, pick up guides books and walk everywhere exploring.

Nikki Hootman said...

I love traveling alone. I did a four month stint in London (and visited a couple of other places in Europe) and taught for a year in China. I don't speak Chinese. I like traveling with others, but I find going places by myself is the best way to experience the culture. You notice things more and you interact more with locals. And, without exception, whenever I have gotten myself into a spot where I was confused/lost/flummoxed, someone who spoke (some) English always appeared to give me a little assistance. Often I have hooked up with a local or another traveler for a day or afternoon because we were checking out the same area or doing the same thing.

Note: I am female and quite shy. You don't have to be really outgoing... when you're all alone in a strange place, obviously a foreigner, these connections just seem to happen.

Taymalin said...

I've only traveled internationally once, and it was to Texas (I'm Canadian), and the purpose of the trip was to visit friends. A very different scenario than yours, but, I would definitely go if I were in your situation. It will be an interesting adventure.

Emily C. said...

If you go in May, I'll go with you! My husband and I are going to the Philippines and one of the stops will be in Japan :)

It's easy enough to get there. It's the 20 hour flight that stinks.

Kalika said...

I went to Japan for a month with my sister and boyfriend. Frankly, I wouldn't recommend you going alone unless you're very good at making friends with strangers. The Japanese aren't very friendly in general so you will feel alone. Try youth hostel: lots of young tourists use them and you may be able to make friends by hanging out in the common area.

Knowing some Japanese is very good, because there's way fewer people speaking English than I'd expected. Food places usually have picture menus you can point at ('kore' is the most useful Japanese word, I swear). Even McDo's.

Pick your time carefully. We went in May and to us it was very hot. But for the Japanese, it was cool and they were in long sleeves. Summer over there is a killer. Avoid winter too. Spring/Fall is best. Spring has the sakura trees in bloom, too.

What else... Tokyo isn't the best city in Japan. We got bored after two days and went elsewhere. You should invest in a 7-day train pass, which allows you to go anywhere really fast. Then you'd be able to check out Kyoto and Osaka and maybe Nara (they have lots of tame deer roaming there, loved it). Nagoya is close by too. Tokyo-Osaka is less than 3 hours with the hikari trains.

If you have any specific questions, I can blabber on.

pj schnyder said...

Go for it. :)

I travel alone quite a bit for my day job. Actually, I was just in Japan this past summer.

The most interesting activity I had was in Odaiba and the train ride to it is lovely enough for pictures of Rainbow Bridge on a clear day. That's also where the father-son project of building a 1:1 scale model Gundam is located. There, very close to the Telecon station (about a block away) is a lovely and luxurious onsen called Oedo-onsen Monogatari. It's a fantastic experience and incredibly self-indulgent to relax at a set of hot springs.

Also, there's plenty of fun shopping and people watching in Harajuku. And lots to see and eat in Akihabara, especially if you are into anime/manga or electronics.

If you love sushi/sashimi, the Tsukije fish market is a definite visit to see the tuna auction first thing in the morning and then enjoy the freshest sushi in the world at some of the nearby sushi restaurants of the market. It's a little confusing to find the right restaurants, but everyone was very friendly and helpful.

The trains really do get you just about everywhere.

Tokyo Tower is lovely at night, especially if you choose a nice restaurant with a good view of it and Tokyo Disneyland is fun.

I do have several contacts in Japan and have gone several times for business and for vacation. I'd love to talk with you more about it if you'd like.

William said...

I've owned two travel agencies and been around the world both by myself and with others several times. Since you know the language, ie...some, that is a plus, but ten days after a very long journey is a long time for anyone. Are you that type of person, someone who can handle being alone as much as you make it sound like you will be? I think that is the most basic question. Tokyo is a great city, very vibrant with tremendous things to do, plus the train system is easy to use and overall the people are friendly, but not unlike NY, there are places you don't want to be and things you don't want to do. There's only so much sushi to go eat. I spent eleven days there once and really enjoyed the first three or four, but after that it all ran together. NCL has a wonderful cruise of Japan that offers three days in Tokyo plus several other stops, and many of the cruise lines today will exchange with air milage, have a look, it might be of some interest. Again, it's up to you, sure there is plenty to do there to fill ten days, but traveling alone gets old after a while I think for anyone. If you'd like some more information, I'd be glad to help.

Jarucia said...

I traveled to Spain by myself for two weeks (when I was 26), with about as much Spanish as you seem to have Japanese.


I went on the cheap, staying at youth hostels the whole time. This turned out well because I met some very cool people to hang with and got great day trip recommendation that I had thought of doing.

I was there during the running of the bulls...I couldn't get a place to stay in Pamplona (I was there for 36hrs), so I met some other North Americans and hung out with them the whole time. It was awesome.

The only expectation I had from the trip was to see Pablo Picasso's Guernica in Madrid, other than that I simply enjoyed 'being' there. Can't recommend that enough.

Saw too many people rushing around, snapping photographs and running off again.

I took afternoon naps in the park next to the royal palace. On hindsight that may have been a safety concern.

Bottom line, when you do go to Japan, have just a small handful of must see/do, but otherwise enjoy 'being' there. You'll have a much more memorable experience.

Happy planning!

Angelo said...

There is a lot of great advice already in here, most of which is specific to Japan. I would just like to add one thing for general international travel: before you leave the hotel you are staying at, get a business card or the equivalent and have it on you at all times. Even if you can't communicate effectively with anyone on the street, and get totally lost (which can easily happen in an unfamiliar city), you can still call a cab, show them the business card, and get back to where you are staying with ease. If you can't find a cab, find someone wearing a uniform and ask them.

Personally, I try to learn local customs/major laws before I visit a foreign country. Wouldn't want to get arrested (or beaten, or worse) for doing something you didn't know was against the rules. Tokyo is not as bad as, say, Mecca, but I would still learn as much as I could before going.. sounds like there are multiple people following this post who can help you out. Since I've never been to Japan, I can't. If you were traveling to Central America, Europe, or Florida, I could help you out.

Sleeper said...

I had a great week in Kyoto by myself, despite not speaking any Japanese. I stayed in a ryoko, and just wandered around - like you, I had always dreamed of visiting, and this was the perfect way to do it. I enjoyed the solitude - I found a copy of "The Fountainhead" in the hotel's bookshelf, and read that, and generally had a very elevating time. Speaking Japanese will be a great help, as I found that English was not so prevalent as it is in Europe. This was not a huge problem, and actually, at the time, I quite enjoyed the feeling of being separate from everything and everyone.

green_knight said...

Don't spend your ten days in Tokyo. Tokyo is nice, and you can do a number of day trips but it's only a tiny slice of Japan - an urbanized, bustling, noisy slice.

Get a rail pass - you need to buy before you go - and pick one or two cities you want to see. Lonely Planet is your friend - you can get incredibly detailed instructions on what to see and how to get there.

I went backpacking for a fortnight after Worldcon two years ago, and found it a very easy travelling country - it's clean and safe and I had sufficient maps. Japanese cities are very well set up for tourists - I very much fell in love with it as a travelling country.

CKHB said...

Oh my yes, GO GO GO! And buy a train pass and spend some time in Kyoto as well. It's an incredibly safe and clean country, so I would have no qualms about traveling alone. You would have to WORK to get into trouble. Especially if you have basic language skills -- anyway, there will be tons of high school kids at every tourist location eager to practice their English with you.

I was born in Japan (my parents return regularly), have some introductory language skills, and went with my husband for 2 weeks in 2006. It's just lovely, and I think it can absolutely be appreciated on a solo trip. Email me, and I'll give you suggestions for an itinerary.


Jenny Rae Rappaport said...

Wow, thank you all for your tons of comments. I'm going to try to answer some of them.

I mainly want to stay in Tokyo because it reduces costs, but also due to timing. For example, I want to go to Akiba, but that's best on a weekend. I also want to visit the imperial gardens, see the Meiji shrine, Tokyo Tower, the Rainbow Bridge, and wander endlessly around neighborhoods. I have a friend or two who live in Tokyo that I'll probably get to see for short periods of time, so that's to be taken into account to.

I also want to see Hokkaido, but not during the spring. I want to go during the flowers in the summer, which are drop-dead gorgeous. I'm also interested in Nara and Kyoto, but every time I move between cities, I go up in cost. If I base myself in Tokyo, I can at least travel to Yokohama and the surrounding region.

I do want to try to do at least one day at an onsen, but I haven't even started researching that. And there are places in northern Honshu that are gorgeous too, but might still be snowy when I'm thinking of going in March.

That said, I'm totally up for any and all arguments about why I should go to different places.

ryan field said...

If you go to Japan alone, you're my new hero. I don't even like going to restaurants alone, but I wish I did.

Anonymous said...

I love to travel by myself. The very best vacations, imo, are the ones I take alone.

As far as Japan goes, I HIGHLY recommend you avoid the touristy part of Tokyo. Sure, see the major sites, but get off the beaten path and into the rest of the place.

Are you sure you want to stay only in Tokyo? Kyoto is lovely (yeah, very touristy, but in a better way, I feel). I adored Ise and wished I had more than one day there.

Gina Black said...

There are few real hard and fast rules in life. One of them is to never give up the possibility of a trip to Japan. I've been twice. I'm going back as soon as I can. I love it there.

There is tons to do in Tokyo. Add Asakusa to your list, Ueno Park, Ghibli Museum, Harajuku.

A must for me is the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. In fact, all of Kyoto is not to be missed. It's worth scraping together the extra money.

green_knight said...

Jenny, Tokyo is expensive. It depends on the demands you make of your accommodation, but I stayed cheaply at business hotels (basic-but-clean) and ate at basic restaurants - which cut my budget tremendously. (I travelled for a fortnight what others paid for a four-day bus trip with five star hotels, and I did not feel the slightest bit shortchanged.)

You can't get a feel for the country if you just stay in one city.

Sarah Olutola said...

It'd be fun to find someone to go with. I'd definitely be a little scared going off to Japan by myself, but I think it could also be a wonderful experience (and kind of an adventure). Go for it!

I really want to do it one day just to prove to myself that I can :) Plus I'm a huge anime/manga/ j-drama fan so I'd love to go to Japan at least once.

adventurat said...

I have never been to Japan, but I did a solo round-the-world trip for a year, and it was the best thing I ever did. When you travel solo, you never have to be alone unless you want to be, and you meet many more people than you tend to if you're part of a pair or a group.

I would never advise anyone not to travel simply because they hadn't anyone to travel with. Have an idea what you're interested in, but be flexible with time and money.

Bon voyage!

Richmond Writer said...

The only time I traveled overseas by myself was when I was 13. I went on a trip to the Holy Land. Mother asked a preacher to look after me and he sold me for 20+ camels. I got home despite this.

Jennifer Sellers said...

I lived in Kanazawa after college, and it is a gorgeous town, the Kyoto of the Japan Sea coast. If you go, you must visit Kenroku-en, my favorite garden of all time. I long to go back. Ishikawa-joo is also lovely, though it is just the guard-house. The actually castle has not been re-built.

Tokyo, of course, is a must, as well as Kyoto. If you go to Tokyo, make a day trip to Nikko, where Tokugawa Ieyasu is buried and the See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil monkeys are. Osaka has a lovely castle that has been made into a museum. I enjoyed Kobe (spent a month there in language study), and it is a international city because it is a port. Fukuoka is good for a more small town feel.

I love Japan.