"I want to do my own thing when I travel" and "coordinating my schedule with a friend is complicated" are just two of the reasons why more and more people are traveling alone. If you lack the confidence to go alone, however, don't worry. The travel industry offers tours especially for solo travelers, as well as ways to make solo trips efficiently.
Once you experience solo travel, you can get hooked like Yukiko Nishikawa, 67, of Higashiosaka, Osaka Prefecture, who has enjoyed traveling on her own over the past decade.
Nishikawa hates airplanes, so she travels by train or bus, and sometimes uses the affordable Seishun 18 Kippu (Youth 18 ticket) for JR local train services. She’s highlighted on a map the routes she’s used to travel from Hokkaido to Kagoshima Prefecture. The map makes her "realize how much I’ve traveled so far, and I think, 'Where to next?’" she said.
Nishikawa started traveling on her own after her husband died at the age of 57 in 2006.
"We had just started discussing where to go first or which places we should revisit following his retirement," she recalled.
After taking some time to grieve, Nishikawa decided to reboot and started making day trips. Several months later, she took the Shinkansen bullet train to Kanagawa Prefecture. During the ride, she was moved by seeing Mt. Fuji out the window and realized she could enjoy traveling alone — a discovery that helped her overcome her reluctance to try any travel involving overnight stays, she said.
Since then, Nishikawa has made at least a few solo trips a year, including one weeklong one.
Nishikawa tries to travel light, but she always brings a notebook in which she keeps records beginning from her first solo trip as "an indispensable travel companion," she said.
She enjoys reading books and knitting while traveling from one place to another. After sightseeing, she buys meals at local supermarkets or other shops before checking into a hotel, where she writes down memorable events of the day on postcards. She brings them to local post offices to get special stamps featuring the designs of landscapes, famous figures or other elements associated with her travel destinations, and then sends them to her relatives and friends.
The Yomiuri Shimbun
Some of the special postmarks Nishikawa has collected show designs featuring landscapes or famous figures associated with her travel destinations.
The Yomiuri Shimbun
Bags and other items that Nishikawa brings with her when traveling alone
"I also bring blank postcards to get these special postmarks on them for my own collection," Nishikawa said. "If I’m traveling with someone, I hesitate to ask if they’ll go to the post office with me, but I don’t have to worry about it when I’m alone."
When Nishikawa visited Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, she became ill and was helped by local residents. In Izumo, Shimane Prefecture, she was impressed with the local dialect, which reminded her of Seicho Matsumoto’s masterpiece mystery "Suna no Utsuwa" (Castle of Sand). The novel describes how the local dialect sounds similar to one spoken in the distant Tohoku region as an important clue.
Nishikawa said her two daughters have found it surprising their mother enjoys traveling alone because she used to just follow her husband around during their trips.
"I’ve never felt lonely at all," Nishikawa said. "I can meet many people, some of whom I now correspond with."
Taking the first step
Many people are probably interested in traveling alone but hesitate to do so out of concerns about reserving transportation and accommodations, in addition to possibly feeling lonely when dining and traveling from one place to another. Travel agencies offer various services to ease these concerns.
Club Tourism International Inc. in Tokyo, for example, is a pioneer in offering tours just for solo tourists. Its first tour was offered in 1997 as a day trip that started and ended at a particular sightseeing spot.
The service has now expanded to offer many overseas travel packages. In fiscal 2015, about 47,000 solo travelers took part in such tours, over 20 times more than when the service was first offered.
More and more lodging facilities are also more amenable to accepting solo travelers now.
Hoshino Resorts Inc. in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, offers programs for solo customers, such as nature tours and some involving sutra recitations at a temple. At restaurants operated by the company, people who dine alone are guided to counter seats or semiprivate rooms.
Cerca Travel Co. in Kyoto, which mainly caters to women, provides a service in which an employee not only helps a customer organize an overnight trip, but also travels with her so she can smoothly make a solo trip, such as helping her check in at an airport.
Of those whose trips within Japan during fiscal 2015 included overnight stays, 17.5 percent of respondents went alone — the second-largest group following the 25.3 percent who went with their spouse, according to a survey conducted in April last year by Recruit Lifestyle Co.’s Jalan Research Center in Tokyo. The ratio of lone travelers increased for the 11th straight year.
Asked why they made solo trips — with multiple answers allowed — 67 percent said they "can enjoy travel their way."