It might surprise you to know that my first real solo travel experience didn’t happen until last month. I’ve always considered myself to be far too extroverted to see the world alone. As it turns out, traveling solo doesn’t actually mean that you’re alone.
I’ve been to Europe where I hopped on a plane to Paris from New York. I was only alone in the city of love for a couple of hours before I met up with my oldest friend who was patiently waiting for me on a nearby rue. I came to teach English in Korea with one of my good friends from university. She left early for personal reasons, and although it took some getting used to, I’ve made enough friends that I never really feel like I’m by myself. Even this recent trip to Japan was a half assed version of solo travel because most of it was spent with a friend who came to visit all the way from Texas. It wasn’t until the last three days of this week long vacation that I found myself in a country where I literally knew no one but myself.
What a liberating feeling. It’s also a scary thing to know that you don’t have a familiar face to comfort you just in case something does go wrong. If you’re thinking about venturing into the world alone, especially as a woman, I strongly urge you to consider Japan as a destination to dip your toes into the world of solo travel. I certainly can’t guarantee that your experience will be as pleasant as mine, but what I can tell you is that there wasn’t an instance in which I felt unsafe.
People are Kind
I was overwhelmed by the amount of people, locals and foreigners alike, willing to help us out when we were lost. The first night my friend and I arrived in Kyoto we needed to find our hostel, which was walking distance from one train stop or another. If you’ve ever been to Japan you can sympathize with our complete and utter inability to understand the public transportation system at 11pm in the evening.
We bumped into an older gentleman who spoke English and offered to help us find our way. I guess I lied before, I did feel unsafe just this once, but that was my western mindset creeping in. He insisted it would be easier to walk from the stop that wasn’t on our directions sheet. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I will show you.” We kindly turned down the offer and took a $20 cab, knowing fully well that nobody is nice enough to voluntarily walk so far out of their way for two strangers unless they want something. Right?
I’ll never know what that man’s true intensions were, but I quickly discovered that people really can be that kind. They’ll sit with you on the train and tell you about all the places you need to try in Kyoto; they’ll sheepishly tap you on the shoulder and ask if you’re lost; they will translate maps for you when you can’t understand the language; they might even walk you into restaurants and help you ask for a table for two, even though they’ve got far better places to be.
(FYI I’m pretty sure I’m doing this wrong)
Language is Manageable
The first thing I notice about Japan was how open to foreigners Japanese people seemed to be. Granted, we were traveling through some of the touristiest* areas of Japan – Osaka and Kyoto – but I found the attitude to be hugely different from that of Korea. Outside of the major cities like Seoul and Busan, tourism just isn’t booming. Korea is growing as a major place to visit in the world, but it’s still in that awkward stage, much like a teenager going through puberty. Sometimes Korea is in a great mood and you run into people who are so willing to help, and other days you get nothing but a cold shoulder and elbows to the ribs.
Japan welcomed us with open arms. Even people who didn’t speak English were willing to try and understand us. People didn’t stare as we walked down the street; we weren’t the first foreigner to enter their turf. The train systems were definitely confusing, but when I got lost there was always someone around to help us. Signs were in more than one language, including English and Chinese. Even the hardest days were just so easy. I might be in love.
Bar Culture Surprised Me
I spent one evening alone in a small upstairs bar where I made friends with the bar tender. I noticed him step outside every time a customer left, but I didn’t think too much of it. Once I said my goodbyes and stepped outside I noticed him follow me down the stairs. Instinctually I grew weary; he asked me where I was staying and walked me out to the street. “Do you know how to get there?” he said, “You can walk; you don’t need to take a taxi, but please be safe. Will you be okay?” He was just looking out for me. He did this for all his customers. What a revelation!
Things closed early, I didn’t see drunk men (or women, for that matter) stumbling around in a boozy stupor. This was quite a change from my everyday life in Daegu. I was surprised when I stepped outside at 10pm and everything was shutting down, but I grew to take comfort in it.
I only went out until the wee hours of the morning one time in Japan, on my last night in Osaka. I met a group of people at the hostel I stayed at who invited me out for a night of noodles and Karaoke. The trains shut down around 1am and we walked home with no problem.
Thank you Japan. I couldn’t have asked for a better solo travel experience. My only fear is that you’ve spoiled me.