In the summer of 2013, I took my first solo trip to Japan.
I had a few friends from the UK or America who were living in the country, but I knew exactly 0 Japanese people, only a scattering of Japanese words and was very much throwing myself in at the deep-end.
Some people thought it sounded pretty crazy, a 20-something-single-female roaming off to farflung place without a good grasp of the language, but it was an amazing experience that I honestly can’t recommend enough.
I came for about 7 weeks as part of my research project for my Masters, and loved it so much that I solo-moved back to Japan in January 2014.
When I say solo-moved, what I mean is that, although by this time I did have a variety of friends, colleagues and contacts around Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto(the main places I’d hit on my solo-travel-research-summer) – I moved straight to Sapporo, in the very north of the country.
I’d previously never made it to the north island of Japan. In Hokkaido, I again knew a total of 0 people (Japanese or otherwise). I’d had an encouraging Skype call with the couple that turned into my employers and friends, a few positive emails with some connections I wanted to interview in order to finish my thesis, and I could now order food in some restaurants – but that was my lot.
Again, I had, and continue to have an amazing experience of coming to Japan. Living in Sapporo has not always been easy, but it has always been worthwhile and full of adventure (I say 4 years on, as a 30-something-married-to-a-Japanese-guy-expecting-our-first-baby-female!)
Whether you are an experienced or inexperienced solo-traveler, I really do think that Japan, and specifically Hokkaido, is the place to add to your bucket-list and make sure that you tick off within the next few years!
Here are my top 5 reasons:
1. The people.
Now Japanese people have a well-earned-world-wide reputation for being respectful, polite and generally lovely – and on the whole I have found this to be true wherever I’ve visited.
However, I’ve also found it true that Japanese people can be quite shy, especially when meeting or making friends with foreigners – even if they want to. Some of this is the language barrier, which I totally get. Some of this is also that in larger cities, the communities of those from overseas are largely big enough to keep to themselves and use English.
However, my experience in Hokkaido has been quite different. I’ve found Hokkaido people to be more talkative and easier to get to know than elsewhere. There isn’t a large enough foreigner-community to be isolated, so there tend to be more chances to meet local people and local people tend to be very proactive in getting out of their comfort zones in terms of communication.
I’ve made friends sitting in coffee shops, in outdoor shopping streets and through community, language-school or guesthouse events. Real friends too – who 4 years on are still a massive part of the tribe I hang out with.
Going in solo was scary at times – but so, so worthwhile.
People are also really helpful if they see you looking lost, struggling to order, or staring blankly at the train board in the station.
2. The safety.
Japan is also famous for being one of the safest countries in the world. I have consistently been surprised by lost items (like wallets or phones) being returned, forgotten items (like umbrellas) being left exactly where they are, and generally not feeling unsafe when walking home on a dark evening.
That’s not to say that Japan is crime-free and you should definitely use your common sense – however, Sapporo is one of the safest cities in an already safe country, and this does make it a wonderful thing as a solo-traveler.
On a side note, for female travelers, there are also a couple of extra safety options to remember. The first is that at peak times on the subway, when rush-hour means everyone is crowded together, there are female-only carriages at the front of each underground. You can identify these by their wonderfully-stereotypical pink colour, but regardless, it is a nice gesture!
The other thing is that when staying in hostels, most in Japan have female-only dormitory options. If you are worried or bothered by communal dorms in any way, then it’s worth checking out!
3. The accommodation.
Following on from this, for solo travelers I definitely recommend staying in a hostel or guesthouse. We have four small places in Sapporo, so I know I have a bias here, but I honestly believe it.
Sapporo boasts an amazing network of hostels, from small to big, but they are all cheap, clean and the best place to meet new people easily.
One of our favourite parts of running guesthouses are the events we can put on that bring local people and travelers together. Whether that’s cooking dinner together, introducing Japanese food, live music, local sightseeing, grabbing a drink in our bar or a coffee in our cafe – this is really what it’s all about.
Traditional, large hotels are difficult to meet people in, whereas hostels offer cozy, communal spaces that lend themselves to making new friendships.
This year we are also working with a local tour company to offer day trips that solo-travelers from our guesthouses can jump into easily and cheaply. Chances like this are amazing! Hokkaido really is an easy place to meet people!
4. The transport.
My nicest surprise when I moved to Sapporo was how easy the public transport was to navigate! Tokyo’s subway system was insane to understand and I got lost SO many times! Kyoto had a bus system that I really struggled to comprehend, depsite the fact that it was reasonably priced. It was more luck about where I got on and off and whether it was exactly where I’d hoped for.
In contrast, Sapporo is simple!
There’s a subway system with only three lines that runs throughout the majority of the city. A train system that has clear timetabling in English and Japanese. A tram-line that runs in a circle around the downtown. And a bus system that is workable, if not easy the first few times. Public transport runs from about 6am until just after midnight, so it’s pretty comprehensive as well.
Heading out of Sapporo, you’ll be looking at either the trains, public buses, or chartering your own bus.
As a solo-traveler, the cheapest and most convenient option is often appealing – but as I mentioned, this year we are launching a charter-bus option that might be just what you are looking for. If joining with other solo-travelers or backpackers to get out of the city for a day and try a bunch of activities together sounds up your street, then drop me an email and I can give you more information.
5. The year-round things to do.
Finally, but maybe most importantly, Hokkaido is a solo-traveler’s dream because there is just so-much-to-do, whenever in the year you come. Winter boasts phenomenal snow, skiing, snowboarding, and winter festivals. Spring brings flowers, famous cherry blossom, the best season for rafting, plus stunning views. Summer continues the flowers and nature theme, but you can also add in Hokkaido’s beaches, surfing and water sports, hiking and summer festivals. Which leads us into autumn, where the fall-leaves will take your breath away and the food will blow your mind! All-year round you can enjoy hot springs, outdoor activities, fresh seafood, and the combination of a large city that’s grown up in the close proximity to some of the most stunning nature.
I promise you, as a solo-traveler, you will not be disappointed in Hokkaido!
Feel free to get in touch if you want any more personal recommendations, are interested in our guesthouses or our bus trips! I’d love to help if I can!
And if you’re not a solo-traveler… Well, watch this space. As I transition into family-travel myself I’ll make some Hokkaido recommendations for groups and families as well!