On a whim, I traveled solo to Tokyo this past December on the last leg of a three month trip. With no price difference on American Airlines to have a two hour layover or a five day layover in Tokyo on a flight from Hanoi to Washington DC, I just had to take advantage of this essentially free flight. Long stopovers such as this are a great travel hacker tool, and although a stop in Japan would be pricer than schlepping around Southeast Asia, ultimately, it was still a thrifty way to see one last place.
If Japan is Anything Like Japan Airlines, then I’m Already in Love…
My impressions of Japan start at the airport. First of all, because of a super-spacey mental lapse on my part, of which I’m still kicking myself in the butt for, I showed up a day late for my flight (don’t judge). I realized this about 10 minutes away from the airport in Hanoi and promptly started to inwardly panic, faced with the dreaded scene of how an African (and most likely, Vietnamese) airline would handle this: counter attendant scolds me, then ushers over someone else to consult my predicament in a language I don’t understand.
The attendant, somehow sensing my anxiety, smiled again and said “it’s going to be OK”
Second person walks away and comes back with two other people to consult. The four of them keep discussing. Meanwhile, the line behind me is getting angry and finally they send me to some dark corner of the airport to settle the matter, where again, the counter attendant needs to consult everyone in the vicinity before deciding my fate, which is ultimately: buy a new ticket for tomorrow’s flight.
Fortunately, this was Japan Airlines. No one consulted anyone else, an emergency plan for idiots like me apparently part of the protocol. They just smiled and asked very apologetically if I wouldn’t mind paying a $100 flight change fee.
“Perfect!” I exclaimed. The attendant, somehow sensing my anxiety, smiled again and said “it’s going to be OK”. I hadn’t even left the airport yet, and I was already in love with Japan.
Getting Lost in Asakusa
Fast forward to Tokyo. The city was just waking up. Businessmen with sleek suitcases sipped espresso at the airport train station while I waited. Once on the train, neatly stylish women in long skirts and boots, or young girls in school uniforms filled the seats as we sped towards Tokyo. Everyone seemed preoccupied, texting, listening to music, reading, or jotting down notes in small notebooks. Even with all the movement, it felt so peaceful.
Armed with confusing directions from the hostel and an address that Google Maps didn’t understand (Japanese addresses are organized “district-block-building” and look like “10-5-8″) I got terribly lost and wound up walking in circles for awhile before finally getting it right. But getting lost on foot is just the point of visiting Asakusa.
Each small street presents the potential for new discovery, and if they do eventually lead you to Sensō-ji, you’ll be rewarded with a magnificent old temple surrounded by gardens (and tourists…)
Still not tired of visiting Japanese temples — which are distinctly different from their Southeast neighbors — I later sped off to Kamakura for a day trip and enjoyed seeing even larger, less crowded temples.
Things to Do in Tokyo: A City Full of Distractions
It’s near impossible to be bored in Tokyo. Whatever your interests are, there’s something for you. Personally, I have no patience for museums, but prefer to spend city travel in bars, restaurants, parks, and sometimes shops. I also didn’t seek out any of the cliche-ishly crazy aspects of Tokyo, but still found great things to do (solo!). My personal favorites:
- Seeing Tokyo from above — The new Tokyo Skytree offers visitors a great view of the Tokyo skyline, but you have to pay. For a free option, try the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (photo above taken from the top!)
- Sipping on a Japanese craft beer — I had no idea craft beer was gaining enough popularity in Japan that there were multiple bars specializing in it. Time Out Tokyo has a great list of craft beer bars. I sampled Craft Beer Market and Harajuku Taproom. Craft Beer Market won out for price, while Harajuku Taproom had a better location and ambiance.
- Eating Japanese food — I won’t pretend like I always knew what I was eating (one Tokyoite I met took me on a dinner where is sole goal was to order the “strangest food on the menu”) but I can confidently say, Tokyo is full of great food, and manta ray jerky is delicious.
- Exploring the city, one station at a time — Each area in Tokyo has it’s own feel. In fact, many visitors to Tokyo explain it as a huge mass of micro-cities. Harajuku is quirky, Asakusa is quaint. Get on the train and explore.
- Staying out all night — Since the trains close pretty early, you may have to. But that’s OK, Tokyo has a low crime rate and there’s enough nightlife (Karaoke, anyone?) to keep the fun going until dawn.
- Browsing the latest trends — Tokyo is full of shopping. Sibuya 109, though well trodden, features a lot of Japanese designers and give visitors a great taste of what’s hip in Japan.
- Buddhist temples and parks – As a whole, Tokyo is a sprawling concrete jungle, but pockets of green and calm are blissfully easy to come by. There are Asakusa’s Senso-ji and Harajuku’s Yoyogi, just to name two, but take to the streets and explore.
- Tokyo neighborhoods — Each neighborhood within Tokyo has it’s own distinct personality and feel. This microcosm of unique places are one of the many reasons that makes Tokyo a fantastic city to explore endlessly.
- The Ghibli Museum – I adore Spirited Away and basically anything Miyazaki directs. Expectedly, Tokyo has a museum dedicated to Miyazaki films where kids are encouraged to get lost and explore. Buy tickets well in advance, though, since they can sell out days — even weeks — in advanced. [Photo below]
Why Tokyo Rocks for Solo Travel
My favorite quote about Tokyo is from Matthew Amster-Burton in his food-centric, Toyko travelogue Pretty Good Number One (a must read for anyone about to travel to Tokyo):
Tokyo is the opposite of the DMV. It is the least annoying place I have ever been.
Ditto. Even the parts about Tokyo that I first believed would be chaotic and overwhelming, like cramming onto a rush-hour train at Shinjuku, were still efficient and not obnoxious at all to navigate. More amazing still was how quiet the station and trains were, even with a mass of hundreds of people shuffling to and from trains.
What this also means though, is Tokyo is a fantastic place for the solo traveler. In fact, I made a list of all the reasons why Tokyo is a great destination for solo travelers — even women traveling solo.
- Being alone isn’t weird
- And even if it was weird, no one would tell you that you’re being weird
- The Tokyo Train System is the most user-friendly public transportation in the world. Buy a Suica or Pasmo card at the airport. You’ll be refunded for your deposit when you return it later.
- There are unlimited sights and attractions to see — you’ll never be bored or able see it all
- Friendly and polite locals – seriously. This is the total opposite of the DMV.
- Tokyo is the safest city in the world. So safe, some budget travelers sleep outside in the summer months to save money.
- For places to sleep, there are a variety of hostel and Couchsurfing options. I stayed at Khaosan World, in part because they had a sale, but also because of its ambiance and non-party hostel vibe. I loved it enough that I’d stay and pay full price if I ever go back — especially since the bunks are comfy, spacious, and allow you a good amount of privacy for a shared room.
- Lots of couchsurfing and expat meetups, if you care to meet someone outside your hostel.
In sum: Tokyo is easy to fall in love with, and undoubtedly one of the best destinations for solo travelers — if not the best.