Solo Trip to Japan
How did the trip come about?
My husband has 6 siblings – 4 brothers and 2 sisters (sigh!) which means those many children multiplied. One of my brothers in law decided to take ALL the 14 children in the family for a holiday to Dubai. The age group ranged from 7 to 24 years with my son being the youngest. We decided that either one of us should go along as it will be too much for a single adult to handle so many and specially Veer, because he has a severe eye allergy that needs constant care and eye drops. Finally, my husband booked his tickets for Dubai and mine for Japan.
Most of us moms feel that we have and must share all our experiences with our children and that includes travel. Mom’s guilt is a real thing. When I decided to do this trip I told myself that Veer will have his share of travels and I need to do this for myself and not feel guilty about it. They say that to love others, first you need to love yourself and I was at peace.
The husband travels a lot to Japan on work and I have never accompanied him on any of his trips but developed a huge fascination for that country from his stories. I have even watched many Japanese shows with subtitles. It was definitely one of the top places on my lists of travel.
When I looked up online about safety for female solo travelers, Japan came up almost everywhere as the number 1 choice. And to hit the final nail on my choice of destination, one of my best friends had moved to Tokyo just a month ago. So I started with my planning.
I have realized that many countries are hesitant to grant a visa to an unemployed person and that too, to a stay at home mother. The concern is about how he or she will fund the trip. This was my experience when I applied for Schengen visa the previous year (We were three mothers who went on a trip to Europe). I learnt that the papers backing your finance need to be strong. The best option for unemployed mothers like me is to get a sponsorship from the husband or show property papers that are in your name. I would love to know if you did it otherwise.
Japanese visa however doesn’t allow sponsorship except if the spouse has a valid visa that covers the period of travel or more. My husband has a 5 year visa so I got mine easily for 5 years as well.
My earlier travels have always been with family or friends. This was the first time I was going to be travelling alone and that too, international. I was the sole decision maker of what I wanted to do, see or eat. This was such a refreshing and welcome change. To not worry about where to stay, availability of food, packing of food, child friendly places, bars that allow children etc. I felt I earned this trip from all the sacrifices I made to be a stay at home mother. So yes, no matter what you choose, at some point your choices will always reward you.
I decided to stay in Tokyo for 4 nights with my friend*, 2 nights in Kyoto and 1 night in Osaka. I had a special fascination for Kyoto and that will become important in my story later.
*My friend is also a SAHM to an 8 year old boy.
I took the flight via Kuala Lumpur and it was so peaceful. I watched movies all the way along. No child to entertain, I could sleep without worry and felt butterflies of excitement to be on my own.
After being married and always travelling with someone gives you the comfort of handling things collectively, which is very different from when you are travelling alone. There are apprehensions, a little anxiety and triumph all mixed into one.
Day 1 – Tokyo
I arrived at 7:00 am Tokyo time and took a bus to the Tokyo Station. Before the trip, I activated international roaming on my phone so that I could navigate easily. Since I had just landed, my friend decided to come pick me up from a pre-decided location near the Tokyo Station.
We chit chatted non-stop and soon after, headed to the very famous Senso-ji Temple. There is a long street lined with handicraft & souvenir shops, food stalls etc that leads to the temple. We had a quick lunch at a small eatery and I had my first of the many handcrafted ice-creams that Japan is known for. I tried a toasted black sesame ice cream sandwich and it was bomb.
This is a must visit for the vibe of the place, the shopping and on a clear day you might even be able to see Mt. Fuji. The temple itself is stunning.
We went back home and I decided to get some sleep as I had been travelling for the last 48 hours. In the evening, my husband’s colleagues had graciously offered to take my friend and me out to dinner.
We went to a lovely Japanese place in Ginza. Mayu San was able to guide us with what to eat, how to drink Sake and told us interesting things about the Japanese food culture. We left the restaurant based on when we could get the last train of the night because there was no need to hurry up for a change. It was past midnight by the time we reached the station near home which was a 800 meters walk from the station. We were both moms without a care in the world, happy and walking back in a safe country celebrating our day.
Day 2 – Tokyo
I woke up with a huge swollen face. I knew I am allergic to sea food but I was adventurous the previous night because I was in Tokyo, and because one must try the sashimi and other fish, I did just that. This triggered an allergic reaction! My eyelids felt like a kg each. My friend gave me an Allegra because I carried no medicines other than Paracetamol and Disprin because no child… remember?
Our plan today was to hit the shopping streets of Ginza. It has all the possible designer brands and is very up market. The Uniqlo store in Ginza is the largest in the world – it is massive and has 12 floors!
We headed for lunch soon to a place that offered lunch based on time. You could choose 30/45/ 60 minutes depending on how hungry you are. So basically you pay for the time and eat all you want within that time period. The food was fabulous and fresh and had lots of vegetarian options as well. Unlike India, we didn’t see anyone in need of a reminder to tell them that their time is over.
For the evening I had pre-booked tickets to the Mori Digital Museum to avoid serpentine lines. A mono rail takes you to the station right outside this Museum. It’s a beautiful ride as the tracks of the mono rail are highest (above all other tracks) and so you get a beautiful view of the city.
Mori Digital Museum is an experience you shouldn’t miss. All their light work is interactive – it moves, reacts to every touch. They have a special section for children with really innovative fun things to do. I really missed Veer here because I knew he would be enthralled by it. You should keep 2 to 2.5 hours to explore the place fully. The forest of the resonating lamps (red lanterns) particularly is very popular and gives you many photo opportunities.
After I finished, I decided to head back. On my way back I saw a massive giant wheel and the child in me wanted to go. There are about 5 full glass (transparent) bogies out of 30 odd bogies on it. I chose to sit in one of those. It was about 7:00 pm so the lights were on and I got a fabulous view of the Sky Tree, The Rainbow Bridge, and Tokyo city at night and a full view of the ground below me.
Day 3 – Tokyo
We woke up to news of a very strong Typhoon (Hagibis) making way for Tokyo. There were warnings all over the city and it was going to be a category 4 typhoon. Hagibis was predicted and later confirmed to be the deadliest typhoon to hit Japan since “Typhoon Tip” in 1979. It sounded scary but we went about our day because it was still 48 hours away.
Today my plan was to explore Roppongi on my own. I was lost for about 30 minutes after reaching this area. After being found again, I sat to eat a dessert as a breather and also because I had made a mental note to eat at least 3 desserts daily because they were so so good! I was usually full after meals and that is why I started eating them before my meals 🙂
I chose this area because my search today was for a Ramen place, Afuri which my friend in Bangalore had recommended. It was one of the few places that had a Yuzu Ramen that I was dying to try out. Yuzu is a citrus lemony kind of fruit that is native to Japan. My husband had brought many Yuzu things from his travels to Japan and I love the flavor.
Afuri is a chain of ramen restaurants. It is not up market. It was small, compact and offered ramen at a great value. First problem, I needed to order through a vending machine. Everything was in Japanese and I couldn’t understand anything! I tried and tried and understood a bit, but I wanted to make changes to the meat being offered in my bowl and there was no way I understood enough to be able to do that. I finally decided to ask for help. The guy behind the counter came and was sweet enough to help and place the order (through the machine) for me. Phew!
Second problem, the bowl arrived and it had one huge ladle and a pair of chopsticks. I got confused. I didn’t know if I am supposed to use the ladle to pour the ramen into a smaller bowl or what exactly am I supposed to do. I finally asked the same helpful guy for a fork. By then a lady came in and ordered a ramen too. I saw how she ate hers and learnt how to eat mine.
You scoop some of the meat, seaweed, noodles on to the ladle and then use your chopsticks to slurp it up from the ladle. And yes, slurping is highly recommended and is the correct way to eat ramen!
At night, my friend and I decided to explore the Golden Gai area in Shinjuku. It is the red light area and is lined with many bars, clubs and maid cafes. The local bars are called Izakayas and I definitely wanted to go to one. After walking around for a bit we decided to choose our Izakaya.
These places are so tiny and it is unbelievable the number of people it can fit! Tables are compact with hooks below it to hang your bags. The Japanese are genius at these small hacks that make complete sense. The prices on the menu seemed really low so we ordered 6 things. When it came we realized that they are all small plates and oh so gooood.
A plate of roasted sweet potato with butter had 3 wedges on a skewer. We ordered so much food and everything was spectacular. The portion size gave you freedom to sample almost all the menu! On the drinks front they have a highball pretty much all the time, beer and a lot of sours to choose from as well.
Day 4 – Tokyo
In my plan today was to visit the Meiji Jingu Shrine and Harajuku in the morning, watch the Shibuya scramble in the evening and later, step out for a family dinner with my friend. I was to leave by a Shinkansen (bullet train) for Kyoto the next morning.
By now the warnings for the typhoon were very serious and I had to make some quick decisions.
But first about Meiji Jingu – It is a huge expanse of very well preserved forest area in the middle of what is an extremely busy area of Tokyo. The frenzy outside the area versus the peace inside the shrine area is remarkably stark. I could not spend as much time as I wanted to due to the typhoon scare.
We moved on to Harajuku which is essentially a shopping area that is frequented by the Japanese school girls post school hours. So you will find all the cute (kawaii) anime kind of makeup, quick food bites, and lots and lots of sneaker shops. Harajuku is popular with tourists for the number of sneaker stores it has. I definitely wanted to buy a pair of sneakers and I did.
I had the best ever savory and sweet crepes here. They are so good and still haunt me in my dreams. My friend’s husband called and asked us to come back right away because the typhoon warnings had gone up a notch.
So here I was on a holiday, in the middle of a historically terrible typhoon and it was forcing me to make decisions on the go. I cannot imagine the panic I would have felt if Veer was with me.
The Bullet trains (Shinkansens) were suspended for the next 2 days. If I had to get out of Tokyo (other areas were not going to be hit as badly as Tokyo) it had to be today else I had the choice to stay back in Tokyo and not visit Kyoto at all.
After I have been married, I feel most of my decisions are made together in consultation with my husband (by choice). In this situation too I wanted his opinion on what I should do. But as luck would have it, he was in Dubai and it was 3 am there at that time and I decided not to wake him.
This was an important moment for me.
Many times we need to remind ourselves that we are capable of handling things and that we can do so without external reassurance. It was exactly that time for me.
We got back and I quickly packed and decided to get onto the next Shinkansen to Osaka and not Kyoto even though I had a reservation in Kyoto for the next 2 nights. Tonight was planned to be in Tokyo. The reason I chose Osaka was because I was supposed to be flying back to Bangalore from there and I thought just in case the devastation is bad post the typhoon at least I will be in the city from where I had to fly back.
The Shinkansen experience is also another thing most travelers going to Japan want to experience and I was no exception. The circumstances however had changed completely. The station was a horrifying sight with crazy lines for tickets and no reserved seats available. There are 3 unreserved coaches on each bullet train and you are lucky if you get a seat otherwise you can stand for the 3 hours journey. A window seat would be a luxury. I never thought I would be in this situation. I reached the platform and boy it was crowded!
Unlike India, people stood in serpentine lines respectfully. There was no pushing, cutting or any uncivilized behavior. I too stood in a line. I definitely wanted a window seat. I was spending roughly INR 11000 on the ticket and didn’t want to miss my chance to experience it the way I had imagined, typhoon or no typhoon. I waited to be within the first 10 in line for the next train because that would guarantee me a seat versus boarding a train where I was among the last few to board because that would mean I would have to stand. After all this mathematics I managed to get a window seat. While I was on the train I booked my hotel and reached Osaka.
Once again after reaching I was lost for an hour. Their stations are multi level and have similar names many times. Finally, I found my hotel and checked in. It was 8 pm by then. I was famished because I didn’t carry any food along and no carts could come to serve on the train because the aisles were full of people. They serve beer, highball in cans, sushi, everything!
The hotel that I booked had an option of a ladies floor and I booked my room on that floor as it was the only one available plus why not experience it. I guess it is things like these that make Japan so safe for solo female travelers. So basically, the lift doesn’t take you up onto that floor unless you have access on your key card.
Next I had to figure how to get to Kyoto. The typhoon was expected to make landfall the next day at about 2:00 pm. I just took a long hot bath after dinner and took the whole day in and slept off without worrying about what I would do tomorrow.
Day 5 – Kyoto
Skies were overcast and the morning looked gloomy. I was still undecided about what to do. I found out that local trains were still running to and from Kyoto so, decided to get on one. On my walk to the station I saw policemen everywhere available to help. It was so windy that my umbrella kept upturning and I was barely able to walk. Since it was a 300 mtrs walk to the station I managed and took a train for Kyoto. My hostel was a kilometer away from the station and I got lost again for some time. By now, getting lost meant – eat a dessert, so I did just that!
I had made a booking at a pod hostel for 2 nights. It was economical and I was fascinated by the pod concept. The pods were private, very clean and comfortable but do take some getting used to. It was far fancier than I had expected. I rested for 2 hours as site seeing was closed for the day due to the typhoon. I walked around to Nishiki Market and other shopping areas, ate some japanese gyoza and called it a night.
Highlight of the walk was spotting a Geisha / Maiko during my walk in the small alleys of Gion. Gion had an old world charm like no other place I have visited. Half my love for Kyoto was to discover Gion. One of my favourite books of all time has been Memoirs of a Geisha. Kyoto was special because it still has the old Japan charm and beautiful shrines.
Day 6 – Kyoto
Typhoon had passed and Kyoto was as normal as could be. I woke up early because there were many places I wanted to see and I had only one day now thanks to it being cut short.
I had read that Kyoto is better connected by bus so I bought a 1 day pass to go see the various shrines. The Kinkaku-ji Temple (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) was first and so breathtakingly beautiful. Next, I headed to the Ryoan-ji Temple and had read a lot about the iconic Zen rock garden that dated to the late 15thcentury. Honestly, I was quite baffled by what I saw as it was a dry rock garden of 15 large rock formations amidst a sweep of smooth small pebbles arranged in a Japanese precision. I liked their old green gardens a lot more than this rock garden.
Next I visited the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. The forest itself is quite skippable but the area in and around this place was spectacular. It had these beautiful boutique shops of Japanese art, handicrafts, carts with small eats and cafes in a beautiful setting. I had lunch at one such café which was inside a home. It is one of my most memorable meals ever.
My next stop was Fushimi Inari Shrine. I was very fascinated by the orange Tori gates and it was on my must see list. What a beauty this place was. The orange of the gates is bright, the locals wear their kimonos and come out to pray and there was a peace about this shrine that I loved.
In the evening I went for a Geisha Show at the Gion Corner. You must watch this if you are interested in Japanese history and specially their tea ceremonies, Maikos and Geishas. As I walked around alone in small dark lanes, not once did it feel abnormal or unsafe. I forgot I was a mother, wife, sister or any other person and only absorbed the experience and felt so proud of how I managed my trip around this crazy typhoon.
Day 7 – Osaka
Woke up late, had an elaborate breakfast at a nearby café and left for Osaka. I had booked a hotel room and not a hostel room here because my husband had rightly pointed out that I will need the space to pack my bags as I was to leave the next morning.
The typhoon day when I had to make an impromptu booking in Osaka, I chose the same hotel so that I wouldn’t have to change hotels in case I had to cancel Kyoto, and if it went as per plan, I would know the location already. It helped because i was able to pack a small bag for Kyoto and left my suitcase at the hotel. They allowed that because I had a booking for a later date. This worked out so well because I had to get to each place on foot and it would be tough to walk around with a suitcase.
I had kept the day for shopping because Osaka is a shopper’s paradise and I didn’t want make my bags heavy with shopping earlier on. Osaka is well known for its street food. The Japanese refer to it as their food capital. Topping their list of must eats is Okonomiyaki (flat savory pancake with lots of topping choices) and Takoyaki (These are ball shaped japanese snack made of wheat batter and cooked in a appe pan. It’s usually filled with diced octopus.)
At night I wanted to see Dotonbori so I headed there.
Dotonbori area is famous for its canal, gaudy neon lights and the very famous billboard sign of the Glica man running. In between all the eating and drinking I took a boat ride because I am a sucker for these, a ferris wheel ride in the most obnoxious looking one I had ever seen (it goes crazy high up and is inside a building!) and yes shopped some more!
Day 8 – Back Home
I took a bus to reach the Kansai International Airport. On the flight I watched movies all along, drank some more and was ready for Bangalore. I felt satisfied with my experience, was rejuvenated and looked forward to meeting my boys, listening to their stories and telling mine J
My key takes from this trip:
- As a parent, it is so important to take time off and be you.
- No matter what you have chosen, you are doing the best you can.
- Every year, pledge to do something you have never done and make it happen.
- Love yourself
Japan is a country that has a lifestyle where people are very used to eating alone, walking alone, doing pretty much everything alone. Not once did I feel out of place. Restaurants have more single seat options than shared tables. Should you decide to take your child along, it is also very child friendly.
I hope I was able to share my experience with you and inspire you to travel solo. Would love to hear what you would have done similarly or differently. Do reach out to me with any questions that you might have 🙂
About the Author:
Komal Bhandari is a 38 year old stay at home mother to a 7 year old boy, Veer. She is a MBA specializing in marketing & quit her job when she was carrying Veer. She loves to travel, is an avid reader and enjoys cooking healthy food for her family. Recently she has started her own company and she plans to earn to spend!