This week on the Girls Go Abroad podcast we talked to Whitney O’Halek all about solo female travel in Japan!
Whitney O’Halek is a small girl from a small town in rural Tennessee, currently living in the Washington, D.C. area and blogging over at Quick Whit Travel. She started blogging during her first-ever trip abroad in 2006 to teach English in Japan for a summer in college, and all these years later it seems like she never unpacked!
Whitney’s hope is to inspire other small town folks (or big town folks!) to experience the world. Seeing how others live, work, eat, and interact changed her life and grew her faith in ways she never knew possible, and that’s her hope for you, too.
I sat down with Whitney over a cup of virtual coffee to talk all about her solo female travel journey and to get some insider tips on solo female travel in Japan as well!
She hit me with so many amazing gems about solo female travel in Japan, and solo female travel in general, so you’ll definitely want to hit play on this episode!
Teaching English in Japan
When Whitney was still in college, the opportunity to teach English in Japan just fell in her lap. “One of my professors had a connection with some people in Japan who were trying to keep an English school open,” she told me. But in order to keep it open they needed a native English speaker to be one of the teachers. “I applied and got it.”
There was a slight problem though – she still hadn’t finished school and they really needed someone with a college degree. She also couldn’t just take a year off to teach English!
“So they offered me a position for 3 months to try it out.” She got internship credit and was able to get a feel for it and see if she wanted to teach in the future. “I’m so glad I did that because I did not want to teach English,” she laughed.
When she first landed in Japan, her first impression of the country was a heated toilet seat. “I thought it was the best place ever, which sounds ridiculous, but, you know, first impressions really matter. I mostly was amazed because it was so different and yet it was so similar to where I had grown up in Tennessee.”
She started her blog to keep family back home updated on what she was up to, because no one she knew had ever been to Japan before and they were all super curious.
Learning She Could Do It
Living abroad on her own, teaching English in Japan, Whitney learned that she can do anything.
“That was probably the biggest takeaway. I had struggled with underestimation all my life. And even after I got back from Japan, I still had self-doubts. But if I can make it in Japan where I cannot even read road signs, I can totally make it anywhere.“
“I think that when people first think about traveling solo–if they’re not
too young and dumb to be afraid–they think ‘I don’t know if I can do this. How
am I going to get around if I don’t speak the language?'”
“I did not know a lick of Japanese when I went. And so the biggest takeaway was that I can do it, I am capable and I am stronger than I thought that I was. And just solo travel, in general, gives me that feeling.”
Solo Female Travel in Japan
After talking a bit more about her solo travel experiences since living in Japan all those years ago, we turned to talk specifically about solo female travel in Japan. After living there for 3 months, I was sure that Whitney would have some great tips–and she definitely delivered!
Here’s a quick rundown of some of Whitney’s top tips for solo female travel in Japan.
The Top 3 Reasons Why Women Should Travel Solo In Japan
Whitney highly recommends traveling solo as a woman in Japan for a few reasons.
1. It’s incredibly safe
“If you want a first solo travel experience that is safe, I would pick Japan every time–not that other places are not safe and not that there aren’t things you should look out for when you’re traveling to any other country, but Japan, in particular, is very safe,” she explains.
2. It’s Easy to Get Around
“It’s very easy to get around on the train,” Whitney says. “There’s a two-week bullet train ticket that you can get and for two weeks you can just ride the bullet train however many times you want, wherever you want, however far you want.”
3. People Want to Help You
The last reason that you should travel solo in Japan (at least of the ones that Whitney listed) is because people are helpful and kind! People were always around to help when she needed it:
“There was this one lady, I was trying to go to Nagoya and so I just said Nagoya and pointed to the train and the lady, you know, nodded her head and motioned like she wanted me to follow her. I got it through just our hand gestures and so she made sure I got off at the right spot.”
“It was just such a great, solo travel experience for the first time solo female traveler because the people were helpful. I always felt safe. Even when I got lost, I was like, okay, I’m going to find my way. Because people were really helpful.”
The Best Destinations for Solo Female Travel in Japan
Mikimoto Pearl Island
Of all the places that Whitney recommends you go on your solo trip to Japan, Mikimoto Pearl Island is the most unique. Located in Toba, Japan, Mikimoto Pearl Island is where the pearl was first cultivated.
“You can still see the women divers who can hold their breath for a long time for like minutes and minutes and minutes underwater to harvest all of these pearls.”
“They have this Pearl demonstration and you can shop in their little shop,” Whitney explains. “I got some imperfect pearls because they were the ones that I could afford when I was 20, and I still have them, they still are really special to me.
“So I would say Toba to go to Mikimoto Pearl Island, because that was just such a unique experience.”
Of course, you can’t miss Tokyo when you’re in Japan. Whitney says that Tokyo is such a unique and confounding experience because “it’s this like little island over there, and yet they have this huge industrial city and it was fascinating to me.
“Just to see this 1000-year-old temple right next to the Tokyo TV tower, like the juxtaposition and the contrast, the old and the new like living in harmony was just fascinating in a lot of different ways.”
Kyoto is another popular destination in Japan and a great place for solo female travelers, says Whitney. “There are so many special things in Kyoto,” she says. But don’t forget about the green tea ice cream!
Finally, Whitney recommends Shingo as a great destination for solo female travelers in Japan.
“It’s this shrine in the mountains and it’s totally green and beautiful and misty. There’s this waterfall right behind the shrine and it was just one of the most beautiful, picturesque places that I’ve ever been.”
Things to Do in Japan
Aside from the best destinations in Japan for solo female travelers, here are some of the things Whitney recommends you can’t miss.
Of course, you can’t go to Japan without absolutely stuffing your face with sushi, so it’s top of Whitney’s list of things you have to do while you’re there.
“Even if you’re a little bit afraid of raw fish,” you need to try it. “They do have cooked sushi and you can ask specifically for that.”
Go to the Shrines
Going to shrines is an incredibly cool experience because everyone is so respectful of them.
“People can be talking and having a good time and laughing out in the parking lot, but then they walk into the respectful area and they’re just completely silent. And that was a cool experience for me as, as an American where sometimes people are not reverent when they should be.”
Go to a Castle
You might not think of castles when you think of Japan, but “Japan has these fantastic castles.”
Whitney highly recommends Ueno Castle. “There are all of these artifacts from samurai and ninjas and they actually have a Ninja demonstration as well.”
You can also have tea at Nagoya Castle!
Solo Female Travel in Japan – Safety Tips
Although Japan is a pretty safe country, Whitney does have a few safety tips for when you go.
“I would definitely recommend having a phrasebook because you can only get so far with hand motions and charades. But if you can have a phrasebook has letters instead of symbols, you can sound it out. It’ll really help you when you’re getting around if you don’t speak the language.”
And of course, “in general, you know, don’t hang your purse on the back of your chair, just have it either at your feet or in your lap,” and other common-sense safety tips.
Accommodation for Solo Female Travel in Japan
Although Whitney mostly stayed in her apartment or with friends while she was in Japan, she says that the hostels are pretty good. “You can pretty much bet on their being clean and safe,” she says.
If you can, try to stay in a place with traditional tatami mats for at least one night. Airbnb is a great place to find traditional homestays (and you can get $55 off your first trip here!).
Eating Alone in Japan
Eating alone as a solo traveler is one of the biggest concerns for a lot of people, but you don’t need to be scared of it in Japan. Not only do they have ramen restaurants where you can eat alone, but places like sushi bars are also great. There, you can just sit on your own and talk to the sushi chef.
What to Eat in Japan
Japan is most famous for its sushi, but there are so many other things that you have to try while you’re there as well. Here are a few that you might not think of at first that Whitney recommends:
- Pumpkin – “It sort of looks like what we would call acorn squash. They marinate it in a sweet soy sauce and it is one of my favorite things.”
- Sweet potatoes – In Japan they’re purple and have yellow flesh
You can find even more of Whitney’s recommendations on what to eat in Japan here.
Budget Tips for Solo Travel in Japan
Japan is often thought of as an expensive country, but there area few things you can do to keep your costs down.
Whitney highly recommends the 100 yen store. “It’s like a convenience store but everything is about a dollar.”
To save money on food, you can also have a big lunch and then pick something up at the grocery store for dinner. And ramen is always inexpensive!
There are also shops at tourist places that will have a bunch of different souvenirs for about $10.50. Whitney got a small geisha doll at one of these shops that she absolutely loves.
And if you want a kimono, check out the secondhand shops.
When it comes to solo female travel in Japan, Whitney says that it’s one of the best experiences of her life.
“I think at the end of the day, just be willing to try things,” she says. “Be willing to try the food, be willing to try to talk to people with your hands, be willing to learn about their culture and try a few phrases and that will get you so far.”
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