Solo travel in Japan: A history lover explores Kyoto

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Laura Barnes, travel consultant and Japanese history buff, shares her experiences of travelling solo to seek out small temples in Kyoto.

Solo travel in Japan

Solo travel in Japan - Laura in Meoto Iwa in Ise
Laura in Meoto Iwa in Ise

Before living in Japan I had never considered solo travel. The idea of travelling alone in a different country raised a series of nervous questions. What if I get lost? Would I get lonely? Where would I eat? Would I look odd dining solo?

For those with serious anxieties, travelling with friends and family is the best option. However, for those of us with somewhat… niche interests in Japan, compromise can be a deal breaker. It’s difficult to persuade your loved ones that the tiny temple you’ve read about in your book is worth their time and attention. Or that they absolutely have to visit Tokyo’s hidden record stores. You’ll obviously still enjoy your trip to Japan, but you’ll also be disappointed that you never got to indulge your quirks.

Small record store in Tokyo

Japanese history

Living in Japan was living with temptation. As a bit of a history nut I wanted to visit various museums, castles, battlefields and more – but if I wanted to see them, I had to go alone. I knew by the way my friends’ eyes glazed over when I tried to recruit them for my history tour that they weren’t interested (then again, that could be due to the shochu I tried to ply them with).

Finally I decided to put my nerd hat on, pack my bags and set off for a week-long trip around Kansai during the height of summer. It would be hot and humid, maybe even a little lonely, but I was determined to make the best of it.

Exploring Kyoto

Temple roof in Kyoto - solo travel in Japan

Amongst the battlefields, castle ruins and obscure temples I planned to visit in the countryside, I also decided to make my first homage to the cultural capital of Japan: Kyoto. A couple of years prior to my stay in Japan I read a fantastic book by Romulus Hillsborough called Shinsengumi which encompasses the history of Kyoto’s most notorious group of samurai-policeman. They have been immortalised in Japanese movies and TV, anime, manga and even a dating sim game. I wanted to go to Kyoto and trace the steps of these men, visiting key historical sites and graves.

I found the ‘walking tour’ online and printed the handy maps to take with me. The trail took me down a tiny side-street off a main road where the scenery evolved from grey office buildings to humble Japanese homes. I was about 10 minutes down the road when I realised I was utterly lost, and there wasn’t anyone else on the street to ask for directions.

It’s at times like these that you wish you had companions to bolster your confidence. But I reminded myself that I am a strong, independent explorer. With a little more searching I found what I was looking for: a small door to the side of a much larger gate, beyond which is the tiny temple of Koenji.

Koenji and Mibudera

Statue at Mibudera in Kyoto

Kyoto is full of these little temples, many of which are local places of worship and meditation rather than tourist spots. Koenji is a cross between the two. As I gingerly stepped beyond the gate (feeling a little like Mary in The Secret Garden), I was greeted by a very surprised, elderly Japanese lady who muttered something about a 100 yen entrance fee. Cheerily I handed over the money and she gave me a map of the graveyard, pointing out key gravestones. She disappeared back into the temple and I went to check out the graves, beaming with satisfaction. Next stop: Mibudera.

The streets between Koenji and Mibudera are very traditional and full of beautiful, untouched buildings. There are some other key Shinsengumi sites along the route but their owners are savvy about the tourist trade and charge a fee to go inside. One man stopped me as I tried to translate a sign and explained in English that I could come and have tea where the Shinsengumi commander used to patron. My raised eyebrow was rejection enough.

Mibudera temple, Kyoto - Solo travel in Japan

Mibudera, however, is donation only. It was a temple before the notorious Shinsengumi commandeered it as a base. Nowadays it is still a functioning temple but it celebrates its joint history with the Shinsengumi with a dedicated memorial garden and grave sites. What was so lovely about my experience there (besides more graves, of course) was that the two elderly women manning the information desk were so welcoming.

Meaningful encounters

As a solo traveller I’ve encountered far more meaningful interactions with people on my travels than when I’m with friends. These two old dears were amazed that I had travelled so far to see such a niche part of Kyoto, and wanted to know everything about me. They had a chat about the Shinsengumi with me and recommended some other places I should visit whilst in Kyoto. I loved speaking with them and it truly made my trip to Kyoto all the more special.

To round off my Shinsengumi trail I visited Nishihonganji (another functioning temple and former base) and the Ryozen Museum of History. I loved visiting these sites that were important to me and chatting with Kyoto locals. Not to mention all the cool merchandise I bought! If you feel that your geeky interests would be overlooked in a group, do as I did and dust off your nerd hat, hitch up your rucksack and take a solo trip to indulge them? I promise you won’t regret it.

Book our Japan Solo Self-Guided Adventure by the end of November to save £150/$202 USD, or get in touch for more information about solo travel in Japan (from a group of serious Japanophiles who have all given in a go).

Disclaimer: The photographs of Laura are not actually in Kyoto; there is one downside about travelling alone – no-one there to take your picture!

Himeji Castle - solo travel in Japan
Laura at Himeji Castle

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