Japan is a land of captivating duality. You can land in a modern city outfitted with the latest technologies while neon lights stream for miles, yet find yourself barely an hour away from ancient temples that have stood for hundreds of years. Traveling to Japan with friends is one of the most fun experiences imaginable. It's also a fantastic spot for a solo vacation.
Solo Japan Travel Mistakes and How To Avoid Them
After years of intense restrictions, Japan has reopened its borders to foreign visitors. With the US dollar experiencing a historically favorable exchange rate to the yen, it's the ideal time to take that solo vacation you always dreamed of!
There are a couple of pitfalls to look out for when planning a trip to Japan yourself. These are some of my solo Japan travel mistakes and how you can avoid them on your travels.
Compare Rail Passes for Best Value
Spending too much money on the rail pass was my biggest mistake on this trip.
Countless peers who previously visited Japan told me to get a nationwide rail pass. On the surface, it's a smart purchase because buying Japan Rail (also known as JR) tickets a la carte is expensive. Foreign tourists can purchase national rail passes at adult and child prices, which is a better deal. You can use the pass on the Shinkansen and numerous local JR lines, but not the Nozomi rapid service.
There are also regional rail passes, such as the JR East, JR Hokkaido, and JR Central passes. A regional pass might have saved money since I spent most of my time in eastern and southern Japan. There are solo vacations when you want to see as much of a new country as possible and solo holidays spent at a more relaxed pace where you may not want to hop on a train every day. I picked the latter.
Consider Timing of Travel for Rail Pass Use
Purchasing the nationwide pass is still a bargain considering how much one bullet train trip between Tokyo and Osaka would cost, let alone farther cities. Depending on where you plan to spend your vacation and how you will get around, the timing can interfere with the cost of the rail pass.
Rail passes can be sent to your home before the trip. Then they must be activated at the airport or any JR office (popular locations are Shinjuku in Tokyo and Shin-Osaka). Rail passes are available in 7-day, 14-day, and 21-day durations.
I bought a 14-day pass for an 18-day trip and planned to spend the last six days in Tokyo and Yokohama. I stayed in Tokyo for a week, then journeyed to Nagano and Matsumoto, followed by Osaka for a week to make a day trip to Kyoto while I was there.
Since I wanted to explore Tokyo and its environs first, I could've saved more money with a 7-day rail pass activated right before I went to Nagano.
Rail Pass Has Multiple Uses, Even Regionally
Another way I could've gotten more value from the rail pass was by relying on something other than my New Yorker instincts. Japanese transit can be dizzying to Americans used to seeing very few operators in one place, even if it's a large city. Amtrak and regional commuter rails like NJ Transit and Long Island Railroad flank the MTA in New York. However, navigating the city is primarily done via the MTA. Navigating this way is different for Tokyo and other large Japanese cities.
I spent the arrival and departure legs of my trip visiting Tokyo. I wanted to see different parts of the city where I could get cheap but decent hotel rooms near Tokyo Metro stations with elevators for the luggage. I bought weekly Tokyo Metro passes to get around the city.
When I first looked at the Tokyo Metro subway map, it seemed oddly small for a city so large and transit-oriented. JR and multiple other operators, such as the Toei subway, go to all these places that the Metro doesn't!
I saw that I could show my rail pass at the numerous local JR lines but had yet to think of JR as a means to get around Tokyo. Shinjuku is the most convenient spot to do this if you want to see most of the city and quickly reach other towns since it's a central rail hub. However, I was happy exploring Tokyo at my own pace and experiencing the cleanest subway I'd ever ridden.
Get a Suica Card Before The Trip or After Arrival
Many online retailers selling Japanese rail passes, SIM cards, and related items also sell Suica cards. Buying one in advance is wise, but you can also find them in the airport and convenience stores. Prepaid cards work on anything from local transit systems to convenience stores and vending machines!
I recall seeing signs for Suica all over Tokyo but learned how they worked when I saw an Abroad in Japan video. While it's prudent to have cash on hand before leaving your home country (and never exchange money at the airport, call your bank in advance to buy yen), it can be cumbersome determining whether you have the correct change for the bus in a random transit system where the rail pass is unusable.
Load $20 onto your Suica card to ride buses to random places, explore taxis if your feet hurt, and hit the infamous Haunted Vending Machine Alley of Akiba. Loading small amounts onto a Suica card would've cost less in the long run and opened up more at the ground level.
Buy a Sim Card or Get Portable Wi-Fi To Avoid International Roaming Charges.
Before my Japan vacation, the last time I'd left the country was when it was customary to leave your cell phone at home or keep it turned off until you were stateside again. My phone came with me, but my carrier dinged me $10 daily for international roaming.
If you have an unlocked phone, the cheapest and easiest way to get around this is to buy a Japanese SIM card before you leave the country. You can order them online for $35-50 for 15-30 days or about 10GB of data. Some will be available for pickup when you get to the airport. Narita and Haneda airports also have shops near the JR office where you can buy a SIM card the day you arrive. As a bonus, the SIM card is yours to keep! You can use it again if you return to Japan or give it to a friend traveling there with an unlocked phone.
Depending on your phone type, ensure you have a bent-up paperclip or unique key handy to poke the SIM tray open to swap the cards easily. Later versions of the iPhone made this process notoriously tricky.
If your phone is locked, portable Wi-Fi is another option. Portable Wi-Fi bricks are available at the airport and should be reserved at least a week in advance. Rental charges are based on how many days you need it, and you will often get a volume discount if you rent it for more extended periods.
The ideal solution depends on your phone type and how long you plan to stay. I blew $180 on roaming charges when I could've saved over $120 getting portable Wi-Fi or a SIM card, don't make the same mistake.
When To Plan Your Visit to Japan
Early to mid-May is the best time of the year to visit Japan. You'll miss the hanami in April and the crowds of tourists and influencers trying to get the perfect selfie with those pink trees. Hotels are cheaper before the summer rush, and you should have impeccable weather in May. Summers are unbearably hot, and tourists back up the queues everywhere.
Reservations for Tourist Spots May Still Be Necessary
Even though tourists were less numerous when I went, I needed help getting into some cool anime cafes I wanted to visit. Many require reservations in advance. Other “experience” cafes like cat and reptile cafes may be reservation-optional, then have a 3-hour wait when you arrive.
Check each cafe's website before your trip to determine whether they require reservations and how far in advance you can make them. If you prefer spontaneity, there are plenty of other uncrowded cafes, and food stands this time of year, although they won't have Inuyasha pancakes.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks Travel.