Backpacking Solo in Japan – #1 Preparation

Early February this year, I decided to finally see Japan after two years of going on and off about the idea. Think the problem was that I only wanted to visit Japan in the spring season so that I could get a good glimpse of Sakura (cherry blossom). But something or the other came up every time around that period.

The idea was to see Japan in April ’18. That way, I could see Sakura and I also expected the weather to be very pleasant to travel around. However, it seemed too early with only two months in hand. Moreover, an old friend of mine (Yui) from Hong Kong told me about her Tokyo plans in the first week of May with her boyfriend (Chris). She couldn’t reschedule as she had already booked the flights and hotel. So, I decided to break the strict rule of only seeing Japan during Sakura season as now I had more time to plan the trip properly and I could also meet Yui. And, that’s how I got to spend the best 8 days of my life in Japan from Apr 29 to May 7.

Kinkaku-ji Temple

I’ll be writing a couple of blog posts over the next few weeks to break down the entire experience into shorter pieces instead of writing a book all at once. Too much for both of us, right?

As per my current plans, I’ll be writing about the motivation, preparation, trip planning, budget, experience, observations, and recommendations for you guys in the next few posts. If you want me to write about anything else, let me know. 🙂

Before we start with the motivation, I’ll briefly summarize the trip for you.

Briefly summarized trip:
It was an 8-day solo backpacking trip across Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo.
Okay! Moving on.


Starting with the motivation

Why travel?
Because I just love the feeling of being in a new place – interactions with the locals, differences in the culture, completely different food, different kind of weather, and buildings and places that make that place ‘that place’ instead of any other place.

Why Japan?
So many have asked me why I chose Japan over any of the mainstream countries and continents. The answer? I’ve been studying Japan for quite some time now. I just love how wonderful the entire country is. A beautifully organized system that makes everything so easy, and even more amazing people from whom we can learn a lot.
While I’ll cover most of it in my experience in later posts. For starters, you can see how most of the Japanese people you would come across will be super polite, disciplined, punctual, respectful, hardworking, kind, honest, and try their best to maintain the image of their country. It’s not easy to make the entire country do it, right? It’s the system.

Why solo?
Makes traveling easier. Unless you’re traveling with someone who shares similar personality and interests, you’ll have to consider others before planning the itinerary. For example, I was walking for about 10-15 km almost every day in Japan covering 5-6 sights. And, I don’t like museums. But there are so many who love museums and so many who hate to make trips that hectic.

Why backpacking?
You’re traveling light. At times, I was roaming around with all of my stuff (~15 kg) with me, in a backpack.
I chose this one, and I’m happy with my decision.

Wildcraft Karakoram 60L

Preparations for the trip

Since it was a dream trip. I didn’t want to get anything wrong. So, I went beast mode on preparations.

Preparations include flights, accommodation, visa, currency exchange, itinerary, traveling within Japan, activities, packing, learning Japanese, and reading more about Japan.

Flights

Flights were easy. I’m the product manager for Flights at Tapzo. So, directly booked from our app.

The tricky part was deciding between roundtrip flight booking, and separate one-way bookings covering two different cities in Japan. I chose the latter as it saved me more time.

Onward journey: Bangalore -> Osaka
Return journey: Tokyo -> Bangalore

And since I wanted a good view of Mt. Fuji from Shinkansen (bullet train), I chose two different airports and a bullet train from Osaka to Tokyo. And, it only takes about 2.5 hours in the train – a lot lesser compared to what it’d take in the intra-city flight along with the airport <-> city travel time.

Fuji-san from Shinkansen

Accommodation

While I also manage Hotels at Tapzo, we just don’t have international bookings yet. So, I chose Booking.com and Airbnb for accommodation.

I picked backpacker hostels over hotels as I wanted to save money here. Anyway, only needed a place to sleep and shower. Was out the rest of the time.
Got 8-night stay for just Rs. 13,300 ($196) all at excellent localities!

The crazy thing I did was to book three different hostels in Tokyo as I was spending 5 days there. I wanted to experience living in different localities, and it also gives the opportunity to meet more people. I don’t regret it at all!

20180506_164028

Capsule Hotel in Tokyo


Visa

It only costs Indians about Rs. 500 for the Japanese visa. But I didn’t want to waste time over it. So, I chose Thomas Cook as the visa agent at a cost of Rs. 2,870 (incl. visa fee).

However, it turned out that I was better off without the service. As I did all of the work by myself, anyway. And, the process took almost four weeks (about 11 days after the submission of application).
Might make more sense for cases where the embassy is in a different city or the rejection chances are higher. Who knows!

Currency Exchange

I got a good deal at a local currency exchange store in India where I paid about Rs. 0.63 per Yen. Only converted ¥35,000 to have some local cash with me for emergencies. I knew that using my debit cards would, anyway, cost about Rs. 0.64. Didn’t have to carry a lot of cash with me.
While Japan is safe, a lot of cash is still a liability.

Apparently, the guys at Bangalore Airport were offering me a yen at Rs. 0.80. This is just plain expensive. Don’t do that at any cost.

Just make sure you have a global card that you can use in Japan. I have MasterCard and Visa. Both worked. You’ll conveniently find an MUFG ATM or a Seven Bank ATM (7-Eleven Store) almost everywhere – Train Stations, Airports, Malls, Stores, and at many other localities within the city.

Itinerary

This took me a while. But it was worth the efforts.

Based on the time I was spending in every city, I Googled itinerary suggestions.
For example, ‘Tokyo 5-day itinerary’. Actually, searched for 3-day, 4-day, and 6-day itineraries as well, just in case.

After listing down every suggestion that others had, I could create a comprehensive list of what I would see on a particular day.
Here’s a list I created for Tokyo. Osaka and Kyoto were easier as I was spending very less time. So, I directly copied it to the itinerary sheet.

After doing it for a week, I had this itinerary with me.

Itinerary.PNG

If you can’t see the image properly, or if you want to copy stuff from the list, here’s a copy of the actual spreadsheet here.
This was the planned itinerary. However, I deviated a bit from this plan to accommodate changes and the possibility to see more.


Traveling within Japan

Inter-city Travel:
(Osaka -> Tokyo)
For the longer journey trip from Osaka to Tokyo (~ 500 km), I had planned a Shinkansen ride (bullet train). What it offers is a good view of Mt. Fuji from the train and the promise of getting to Tokyo in just 2.5 hours.
It costs about ¥15,000

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Sorry, I didn’t take any pics of the trains or stations.

(Osaka <-> Kyoto)
I had planned a train/bus ride. I had heard both the options are easily available and are very pocket-friendly. Eventually, picked a train.

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Sorry, I didn’t take any pics of the trains or stations.


Intra-city Travel
I had read very good reviews of local trains/subway and buses for intra-city travel. So, I planned train rides and bus rides along with Uber for local transportation.

 

However, it turned out that Uber and other local cabs are very expensive compared to public transport. So, I didn’t take a cab ride in Japan.

Screenshot_20180513-205704Roughly about $8 to $20 for 1.7 km

Activities

I didn’t really have a big list. A couple of activities I definitely wanted to do were:

– Mt. Fuji View
– Shinkansen Ride
– View from Tokyo Tower and Umeda Sky Building
– Seeing Cosplay
– Trying Sake (Japanese rice wine)
– Buying Japanese kit kat
– Go-karting on the roads of Tokyo (Didn’t do as I don’t have a driving license just yet)
Watching people cross the Shibuya Intersection
– Detective Conan souvenir (Ended up watching the movie)
– 
Seeing traditional Japanese houses
– Speaking in Japanese with the locals
– Trying Starbucks at Ueno-Onshi Park
– Tasting Japanese food (including veg sushi – But then I ate almost everything despite being a vegetarian. Different story, will explain in another post.)
– Japanese haircut (Didn’t do it either as I had a haircut just before the trip – Was looking like Winter Soldier #exaggeration)
etc.

While I didn’t maintain this list anywhere in the spreadsheet. The activities were always in my mind.
The rest of the activities are already covered in the itinerary.

Packing

Packing was very important as I wanted to travel light. So, I Googled for packing advice for a backpacking trip in Japan. Also, most of my hostels had washing machines and dryers available. So, I didn’t have to worry much about dirty laundry.

Based on my experience, I think I over-packed a bit. My luggage weighed around 15 kg, and I think I could’ve easily brought it down to 11 kg.

Here’s my packing checklist which turned out to be a lifesaver. First, I listed down every important item I should keep, and then I just marked the item as ‘packed’ once I put it in the backpack. That way, I didn’t forget anything.

Talking about clothes, 3 shirts, 2 t-shirts, 2 pairs of pants, and a pair of lounge pants are enough. You can pack 1-2 tank top/undershirts if you want.
Note: I didn’t pack any warm clothes because the temperature was gonna be between 13°C and 27°C. But if you’re picking a different time or if you find this weather hotter or colder, then you should pack accordingly.

Things I could’ve avoided:
– Laptop (Didn’t work at all; For travel plans, the phone was enough)
– Shower gel and hair conditioner (Every hostel provided it)
– A couple more items that I’ve listed in the same spreadsheet

Things I missed:
Traveler adapter that could work with Japanese plug sockets. I totally forgot about it.
I bought one at FamilyMart in Osaka.
Japanese plug and socket

Learning Japanese

I was already learning Japanese. So, it kind of helped.

Two important points that I suggest everyone note before your Japan trip:

1. Learn Hiragana and Katakana (Japanese alphabets)
There are only about a hundred of them. So, you’re good!
You can learn Hiragana and Katakana from Tofugu. They associate the shape of the characters with some real-life objects so that you directly relate to it once you recognize the shape. Links: Hiragana | Katakana

2. Note down basic Japanese phrases around introduction, greetings, goodbyes, thank yous, food, shopping, directions, and language
The Japanese only use Japanese in their daily communication. So, it’s common for people not to be able to speak with you in English. I suggest you learn the basic phrases which can help you communicate at the restaurants, shops, hotel, with strangers when you’re lost, with the new Japanese friend you made at the bar etc.
I referred to Human Japanese and FluentuFluentu for the same. Then, I also used Google Translate and other sources for common translations like going left, going right, taking a turn, crossing the intersection etc.
Basically, know what you might have to ask anybody. And keep the translations handy at the time of action.

I loved talking to people in Japanese. Though, I got stuck after a while every time. It was an amazing feeling, and it made me more confident every time a Japanese could understand me and I could understand them.

 

Reading more about Japan

There are some very obvious differences that you’ll notice only in the Japanese people. Maybe South Korean? I’m talking from an Indian’s perspective here. So, some of you might already be doing it. Who knows!

Luckily, I’d already read a lot about the culture before my trip. If you’re planning a trip to Japan, it’ll be a good idea to read more about public etiquette.

There are many YouTubers and Bloggers who have covered this section. All you need to do is search the keywords. There’ll be a plenty of content around it.

Just to elaborate on what I’m saying, I’m including two examples here. The rest will be covered in another blog post about my observations in Japan.

Escalators and Moving Sidewalks
Stand on the left side. Walk on the right side. Do not block anyone’s path. If they’re walking on the escalators, they really wanna get there faster.
I had read about this before my trip so I didn’t look like an idiot foreigner blocking everyone’s way by standing on the wrong side.

Don’t be loud in public transport; Don’t speak at all, maybe.
Because the Japanese have space problems. It’s common for people to share the same wall, or to have houses so close to each other. Hence they try their best to not disturb others and they expect the same from others. Now it’s become a system.
If you’re taking a subway or a train full of people, please avoid talking loud.

 

So, that’s all about planning & preparation. Will come back with detailed itinerary and budget in the next blog post.

またね。

33 thoughts on “Backpacking Solo in Japan – #1 Preparation

  1. Very helpful post. Thank you for the loads of information. We have plans to do an Asian tour next year and Japan is definitely on our list. I will bookmark this article for reference.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My sister and her best friend recently visited Japan and they enjoyed their short vacation there. I was a little envious, but we do have a trip planned for next year. I will bookmark this page for reference. Thanks for all the helpful information!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It sounds like you have everything you need and in place for travelling alone. I like your reasoning for doing so too, it sounds like you enjoy the freedom to choose your own path. I hope you have the best time.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never traveled by myself and it’s hard to imagine how people do this, but I really impressed by these. I also like to walk a lot, but i also love museum as well 😉

    The White Ocean

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a comprehensive guide of planning a trip to Japan! I’d love to explore that part of the world someday in my life. I’m also curious to know about Japanese Kit-kat. How is it different from an Indian kit-kat or do they both tastes same?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s cool that you chose a less common destination for backpacking! I have been to both Tokyo and Osaka and love it. Tokyo is a bit overwhelming for me, so I hope to go back and spend a bit more time there to fully explore the city.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, you’re right. I spent 5 days there. And I feel like it requires at least two more weeks to see all of it.
      Would love to read about your experience in Japan. Is there a blog post?

      Like

  7. Such a nice post and will definitely save this for my future travel in Japan. I love saving money while having a great experience and creating happy memories when traveling. Thank you for sharing this with us!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. It’s a complete guide for anyone planning a trip to Japan. I don’t think you need to look anywhere else especially if you are traveling to above places. Thank you for such an elaborative and informative post!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’ve never even been to japan, but I would LOVE to go. I mean, I do get what you mean about them being so polite and lovely most of the time. I love that. I have never met a mean Japanese person, actually. And yes, most of Japan (from pictures I’ve seen) seems to be quite clean. Their products are made with great quality and care. So much so that it really does have me intrigued. I love that you’re doing all this by yourself. So cool and totally brave!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! It’s a beautiful country. I loved interacting with the locals. It sure would’ve been better had I learned enough Japanese to be able to communicate properly. Definitely next time. 🙂
      Let me know if you’ve any questions about traveling in Japan.

      Like

  10. I really love to visit Japan someday. It’s in my bucket list. One of my friend visited Japan and she said it’s so beautiful country though people are so busy. They are very known for a good quality product. See you soon Japan.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Great information for those who want to brave a solo backpacking trip through Japan. Not sure, I could do it, but would encourage my children to when they are old enough.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. The capsule hotel is good for solo backpackers. But honestly, I don’t think I can survive the night. I am claustrophobic and it almost feels like a casket. Sorry, I might have a panic attack 😦

    For now, no more backpacking trips for me. The family usually comes with me.

    Liked by 1 person

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