Get Lost and Found on a Solo Journey Through Japan
Surfer babes and jazz clubs invite you to come as you are.
Japan is not the most straightforward country to travel through alone. There are great swathes of the country where no one speaks English. You will get lost. You will feel at odds with yourself, disoriented in a body of translation that might make you panic and feel as lonesome as ScarJo at the Hyatt. My advice: Make Google Translate your friend, have multiple battery packs on hand, retain composure, and trust the process that is Japan on your own.
After all, there’s so much reward to be reaped. A journey through Japan feels life-affirming, personal boundary-breaking, and answerless. Japan is itself a philosophy, and by the time you come home, you’re so humbled by its marvelousness that it’s almost too cringe to talk about. But, alas, here we are.
Whether you head north towards Hokkaido, south to Okinawa, east for Tokyo and Karuizawa, or west in the San’in region, there will be feasts aplenty instore for the eye and mouth. Foreign tourists swear by the JR Pass, which offers unlimited transport (including bullet train and local buses) for one week, two weeks, or 30 consecutive days, starting at $215 or $287 first class (dubbed the Green Pass). To rent a sub-compact car is around $50 a day, and while tolls can be hefty, driving would be recommended for the western arm.
Whichever way you choose to roam, here are the islands around Japan to suit your personality, whether that’s surrounded by rugged hikers, beach bums, jazz cats, or shōchū drinkers. Here’s where to find your people or find yourself in Japan.
Hike in national parks and mountains in Hokkaido
Hokkaido is for mountain lovers. On this northern island, you’ll find at least six national parks, fresh powder, famous pumpkins, and (as it turns out with most things Japanese) plenty magic in between. For outdoorsy-meets-foodie folks, Niseko Village sits in the foothills of the 4,292-foot Mount Niseko Annupuri and is teeming with stuff to do for lone travelers. During the ski season, you can apres with the finest sushi platters and omakase money can buy, shop around the village’s fancy stores, or head out to explore Sapporo’s breweries, Nikka’s celebrated whisky distilleries, and Otaru’s luxe seafood scene.
In the green season, ogle the dazzling sakura trees in full bloom, kaleidoscopic fruit orchards, and meadows peppered with ume (plum), narcissus, fawn leaves, and Japanese wisteria. Set out on a hike or team up with others to go white water rafting down the Shiribetsu River with staggering views of Mount Yotei, all safely facilitated with robust regulations and procedures.
Later, decompress at the sleek and sophisticated Higashiyama Niseko Village, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve boasting snowy-view glass windows from sunken tubs in silk- and hardwood-laden suites for one. For something more low-key, bask in the alpine softness of Kasara Niseko Village Townhouse or consider booking a room at The Green Leaf, home to a sprawling spa and onsen to soothe any aching muscles.
Admire surf and sea in Okinawa
Maybe you recognise the name of this archipelago from Kill Bill Vol 1, when Uma Thurman wanders into a beachside sushi shop for a chat about swords. Regardless of whether or not you're into Tarantino films, Okinawa Prefecture is a place worthy of such an elaborate tale, with its dedication to nature and age-old tradition. To get there, you can either fly two and a half hours from Tokyo or take the Shinkansen to Kagoshima and catch the ferry to Okinawa.
Made up of 160 islands, Okinawa boasts some of the most secluded reaches of Japan. But it’s far from skimping on beach accommodation. In the capital Naha on the main island (the best of the 59 inhabited islands for solo travel ease and options), you can rent a bedroom with a shared bath for as low as $22 a night—one of the many perks of traveling alone—and your homebase will be within throwing distance to the beaches, where Okinawan surfer babe life thrives. You’ll find a number of kitschy, colorful hotels like Sun Palace, with a facade as brilliant and welcoming as its staff. Or there’s Hotel Palm Royal Naha Kokusai Street, with its pink and blue accents, neon pool sign, and palm trees. Upgrading at either of these hotels, even with tatami mat areas and breakfast included, will still cost you less than $100.
In addition to sun and sand, there’s a strong underwater scene here, where diving schools and scuba sites cluster around the magnificent coves, capes, reefs, and even underwater monuments like Yonaguni. The Kerama Islands’ marine national park offers other-worldly sights for divers, including coral, tropical fish, manta rays, and octopus.
As for eats, try the cold soba noodles and goya champuru (stir-fried melon). And if you get the chance, the green turban (giant sea snail) is another adventure worth writing home about.
Find your art in and around Tokyo
Tokyo attracts people who vibrate with energy and have a need for fast-paced metropolises. There’s an endless amount to do in the city, but for being on your own, the neighborhood of Shimokitazawa (nicknamed Shimo) will keep you busy thanks to everything from cozy izakayas to esteemed vintage shopping and neon-lit late night bars. It’s not far from Shibuya, and has much of the iconic district’s electric draw without all the selfie-sticks and overpriced ramen. A good place to start could be heading to a conveyor-belt-style sushi train restaurant (ideal for solo diners), browsing buttery silks at Ginza Mall or perusing Kawaii jewelry in Harajuku, or ambling around Meiji Jingu Gaien or Yoyogi Park for some fresh air.
But one of the best activities to seek out in Tokyo while solo is the jazz culture. Tokyo’s jazz kissa (cafes founded largely in the ‘60s and ‘70s) are delectably fun. In some, you can listen to extensive vinyl collections with headphones, while in others, guests are banned from talking at all. Chyokuristu Enjin, Posy, and Jazz Inn Uncle Tom (the latter of which offers excellent sashimi and sake) are musts.
Beyond Tokyo, you won’t want to miss traveling through the east of Japan, with its hot spring resorts and wildlife sanctuaries. One ideal destination is Karuizawa, stationed just an hour and a half by train from Tokyo.
In the 1930s, Tokyo’s painters and literati needed to retreat occasionally from the glamorous yet fast developing capital. Karuizawa became the alluring place du jour, like a mix between the Hamptons and Joshua Tree for Japan's artsy elite. Today, there’s plenty of hot spring lounging, bird-watching, and forest bathing fit for one throughout the enchanting resort town, while Chisun Inn Karuizawa offers budget digs from $40 a night in the low season. Horseback ride at the bottom of Mount Asama, stargaze, or go on a wildlife tour at a bird and bear sanctuary set up in 1974 in part by Godo Nakanishi, a famous Japanese poet and philosopher. (And make sure to look out for flying squirrels, moon bear dens, and wild boar as you explore.)
Wander through ancient towns in Osaka
The San’in region on the western side of Japan has numerous seaside towns that spring to life during the warmer months. Think undulating mountainscapes, dramatic tides and geysers, locally sourced dishes, and ancient villages imbued with ancient architecture and centuries of folklore. Journeying through these largely non-touristic lands means dealing with trickier navigation if you’re going it alone, but it’s worth it for the gems you won’t find elsewhere Japan.
The region begins around Matsue, where you’ll find a tower cursed by a legend of a sacrificed dancer and gardens flecked with shrines and fountains. Dine on a multi-course kaiseki for one spanning sushi, shiso flowers, and chilled sake at the spectacular Yuushien. Kaiseki differs from omakase in that while it’s still a chef’s menu, it’s more artfully and sensually presented.
From Matsue, you’ll want to head towards Nagato. The area in between is brimming with samurai history and delightful delicacies. If you’re driving through the area, make sure to stop at the gas station stores stocked with rose lemonade, ready-to-eat conch, and hard-to-find sake paired with natural healing crystals. Spend time in quaint Tsuwano, dubbed Little Kyoto thanks to its historic Japanese architecture, koi-stocked waterways running through narrow streets, delicious ramen restaurants, and old-timey stores like the wood and glass herbal remedy apothecary. Later, pull over for a geyser-like phenomenon called Ryugu no Shiofuki, where ocean waves crash into the cliffs in a way that looks like a dragon flying towards the gods above. Then continue onward to the Motonosumi Shrine, built in honor of a white fox spirit, where 123 gle
A good place to stay overnight is the town of Nagato. Guesthouse Neruyama is a 35-minute bus ride from the Nagato-Yumoto train station and offers tasteful single rooms with tatami-matted futons for $30 a night. Or if you’re looking to treat yourself, Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saikyo is a 10-minute walk from the station. It’s on the pricier end at $250 for a family-sized futon room, but it’s a wonderful way to indulge the senses with access to the hot springs, breakfast, and an elaborate kaiseki dinner included. Expect painstakingly pretty dishes which far exceed 3-star resort expectations (stars in Japan hit different). Don the pale green yukata robe you’re handed upon check-in and duck into the indoor-outdoor nude onsen (note that as with many traditional onsens, tattoos aren’t allowed). Private karaoke booths line the basement, which also houses a bowling alley—sounds like a one-two punch for meeting some friends. While in Nagato, make sure to visit the Tainei-ji Temple, Omi Island (set within Kita-Nagato Kaigan Quasi-National Park), and Senjojiki Rock Circle.
After wrapping up the San’in route, stop in Fukuoka on the island of Kyūshū, famed for its diverse nightlife, raw chicken sashimi (trust us on this one), and the shared mizutaki hot pot. The art museum here houses Dali and Rothko, and Canal City, the town’s exquisite Barbie-pink shopping and entertainment center, feels very now and very wow. While you’re there, make time to explore the night markets and cabarets of Nakasu. The vibrant port city is Japan’s youngest major urban area and has long acted as a welcoming ambassador to many queer immigrants from across Southeast Asia, bursting with an infectious “come as you are” ethos that also makes the ideal landing spot for solo travelers on the tail end of a long trip.