22 Mistakes People Probably Make When Visiting Japan For The First Time

School yourself now before you book that Japan flight and thank me later.

1. Not getting a JR Pass. If you're going to be traveling to different cities, a JR Pass saves you a ton of money on transportation and makes things so much easier. You don't have to worry about buying extra tickets, either.

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JR Passes are for foreigners only and must be purchased prior to arriving in Japan. It's also not worth it if you're only staying in one city or not traveling around Japan much. With the JR Pass, you save a lot of money if you travel between cities both locally and by bullet train. Use the JR Pass Calculator to enter your trip and figure out if it's worth it for you.

2. Not getting pocket Wi-Fi. It's a great investment and will come in handy so much. Public Wi-Fi is difficult to find in even the biggest cities, as most Japanese people simply use their data plans. A pocket Wi-Fi eliminates the need for that — you'll have Wi-Fi wherever you go.

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When my best friend and I went, we rented one with unlimited Internet access and literally used it for everything during the entire trip — like looking up directions to restaurants and even translations. It's incredibly helpful, especially when you get lost. You can buy one or rent one from the JR Rail Pass site like we did and pick it up at the airport in Japan after landing.

3. Expecting that there will be garbage cans on every corner. There aren't. You will not find one for miles and miles. Streets in Japan are so absolutely and almost ridiculously pristine that you'll just marvel. Prepare to carry your trash with you! And DON'T litter.

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Garbage cans can be found in public bathrooms and near vending machines sometimes, but for the most part they are quite difficult to find. Which probably explains why the streets are so clean. It's like garbage doesn't exist!

4. Expecting that everyone will speak English and be able to understand you. Yes, there will be plenty of signs in English. But that's mostly for the benefit of visitors, and *spoken* English is not widespread. You are in THEIR country. Be respectful.

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Learn a few key Japanese words and phrases, like "excuse me," "sorry," and "thank you." People will appreciate it SO much. If all else fails, Japanese people are great at nonverbal communication — use your hands and gestures. They use a lot of gestures themselves, so learn what the gestures mean so that when they do it to you, you don't end up terribly confused. For example, putting the palms together in a pleading gesture is a sign of apology; a vehement crossing of the arms in an X indicates being closed or unavailable, or simply "no." I remember a shopkeeper doing this X gesture at me in a very fervent, intense way, head shakes and all. I was so confused I thought they were mad at me!

Another way to communicate is by drawing pictures! You'll find that many people are great at drawing maps and figuring out what you're trying to say on paper.

5. Not looking up public transportation details. Trains in Japan stop running at midnight. So if you're landing past that or staying out on the town till 3 a.m., plan accordingly or you risk being stranded or having to take a taxi. And take note of transportation routes to all the places you want to visit.

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Trains start up again at 5 a.m. Look up train schedules and times so you don't end up stranded and have to trek back to your hotel by foot for one hour in the freezing cold and snow (which is totally not a thing that happened to us...haha).

And don't just try to wing it all. Take note of the nearest train stations to your hotel plus the walking distance. Plan your train and bus routes and see how long it will take to get to each place. Trust me, it will come in SO handy. Once you're at your destination, feel free to get lost and wander!

6. Talking loudly on the train to others or on the phone, or blowing your nose in public. Tourists make this mistake most of all. It's just not done. The Japanese are well-mannered and try not to bother anyone with loud talking, music, or games on their phones. If you have to talk, use your inside voice.


In public places, quiet restaurants and cafés, and especially on the train, you'll see that everyone stays silent or discreet about talking to one another. So don't be too loud or talk on the phone. You can do it, but in a way that doesn't draw attention. Nobody wants to be bothered by the noise!


7. Not researching Japan's customs, culture, or places.

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Even if you're staying in only one city, don't just go to all the tourist sites. Look up the hidden gems and you're guaranteed to find something amazing that only locals know about. We found so many great little cafés and charming restaurants this way, where by the second visit the waiters had even memorized our orders (an experience I haven't had in New York City yet 😞).

Learn at least the basics of Japanese culture. Respect goes a long way here. You don't need to know the nuances, but pay attention to little things like bowing slightly, saying hello, queuing up for the train, and waiting your turn instead of skipping the line: These things are part of everyday life and doing some research means you won't be caught unawares. Your actions will be appreciated.

8. Not being open-minded about Japan's differences from the West.

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Yes, there are many super-cool things about Japan (bullet trains and high-tech toilets!) and some...well, decidedly unusual things for a Westerner (used underwear sold in vending machines, anyone?). Japanese people slurp their ramen very loudly — doing so is a sign of enjoying your meal, unlike in the West, where it's rude. There's not a lot of personal space on trains and people will be all up on you, but that's also normal and mostly it's because it's just so dang crowded. You'll likely see very young children in school uniforms — I'm talking kids that don't even come up to your waist — traversing the subway system ALONE and you'll wonder where the heck their parents are.

You'll encounter these things a lot. But seeing anything that's different as "weird" and judging it all by your own culture's sense of what's normal is not what traveling is about. Be open-minded. Observe your surroundings and the people: the adults and children moving to and fro from work and school every day. This is their daily life. It's a whole different country and culture — of course it won't be the same.

9. Saying, "Let's just take the next train, it'll be less crowded." HAHAHAHAHA. ROOKIE MISTAKE. If this train is crowded, the next train won't even have space for your toenail. Have fun waiting on the platform for a century! When the train comes and you notice any smidge of space, you push and cram and elbow your way in there.

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This also ties back into why there's really no concept of personal space on trains in Japan; everyone will be up on you — that also means you'll have to be up on everyone! If you want to ever reach your destination, that is. Don't worry; the Japanese don't see it as rude or mean — heck, they'll be doing it to you too (so don't get mad about it!).

When we were waiting on the platform (with our LUGGAGE, to make things worse), we kept making this mistake. After not being able to get on three trains, we said YOLO and all but shoved our luggage into a myriad of limbs and legs, forcing people to part and make space for us. But hey, it worked! The train world in Japan is a crazy one.


10. Only staying in Tokyo. Um, you guys? Japan is huge and the cities are all so beautiful in their own way. If you're not visiting the beauty that is Kyoto and Osaka, smaller cities like Himeji and Kamakura, the gorgeous countryside in Gifu, or the mountains of Nikko and Hakone, well, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?

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What's more is just how easy it is to get to cities like Kyoto, Osaka, Kanazawa, and Nara from Tokyo! They are all within a few hours' distance from Tokyo by bullet train (that's what the JR Pass is for!). We mapped out our trip so we spent a few days in each city instead of taking day trips, but you can make the closest cities your day trips if you wake up early enough. Tokyo is beautiful, but it's only one city. Don't miss out.

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11. Not working out timing. You already know about trains stopping at midnight, but in many major cities and rural areas, things you'd expect to stay open late close early (I'm talking like 7 p.m. early) and open late the next morning. Like, I'm pretty sure we were the last visitors at this owl café that evening, judging from this owl's disgruntled expression.

I can't tell you how many times we made the trek across Tokyo to get to a teahouse or tourist site we wanted to see, only to find that it had JUST closed. We took the cable car all the way up to Mount Hakone once, then found out the return-trip cable car was the LAST one on the schedule and it was LEAVING the mountain right that minute and returning to the station (meaning we'd be stranded on the mountain). The day hadn't even darkened yet! We had to rush and take it back without being able to explore Hakone.

It was all very frustrating and a waste of a good 2–3 hours that we could've used wisely for something else. So when you plan, look up timing and note when things open and close, and the travel distance to those places from where you are. Be prepared. That way, even when you see something's still open and think you can get there on time, you'll know the specifics (it'll take you an hour to get there and the place closes in an hour and a half? Yeah, not happening).

12. Rushing. Stop! Rushing! You're in a beautiful country. Japan is so big that you have to accept you WON'T see everything. You'll only get tired and frustrated. Slow down and take it in.

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Make a list of the places you want to go in each city. It'll turn into a really long one (possibly even 10 pages), but cut it down and make it simple! Don't rush from place to place without even stopping to take it in. Japan is huge. You're not going to see it all. And if you try, you'll totally burn out, feel exhausted, and not make the most of your trip. So make a list but don't overplan — go and leave time to just walk around and explore, because that is the best part.

13. Not mingling with locals, or hesitating to approach them because of the language or culture barrier. Don't be afraid! Japanese people are the sweetest and a majority of them are always willing to go out of their way to help you.

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The number of times we got lost and either approached a local or were approached ourselves by someone who was worried about us is incredible — we never had to become completely hopeless! One man, instead of just giving directions, led us over an entire bridge himself to ensure we wouldn't get lost when we asked how to get to Shibuya Crossing. One mother-daughter duo actually helped us haul our luggage five blocks to our hotel at 1 a.m. — and we had only asked them for directions! Another time, we asked a man working in a garage for directions and showed him our map and his entire crew came over, surrounded him to study the map together, and tried to figure out how to communicate the directions to us!

You've probably heard that even if you accidentally leave your phone, wallet, or bag behind, no one will steal it: It will stay right where you leave it, or someone will watch over it until you come back for it. That's the level of help and respect you'll find! Often you'll see that Japanese people can recognize the look of someone who is lost or see when you're trying to read a complicated map, and will approach you themselves asking if you need help. Furthermore, they're always eager to be friends or practice their English with you. You might have strangers asking to take photos with you, and they will often also try to respond in English, even if you speak Japanese, either to be polite or to try and practice with you, so don't take it rudely.


14. Paying your bill at the table and waiting for the server to come pick it up, like in the US. They won't — you'll be sitting there forever. This is something you won't know 'til you go, so here I am, telling you! In most restaurants, the server will place your check on the table, but you have to go up and pay at the counter. That's where the server will be waiting for you!

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I remember the first time this happened, my best friend and I were so confused about why no one was coming and whether we should go up to the register or if it would seem rude. We sat there, finished plates and all, for like 20 minutes! After finding out you pay at the register, future restaurant experiences became much easier.

15. Wearing shoes that take forever to put on and take off. You will be taking your shoes off maybe 3–5 times per day depending on where you go. It is considered highly disrespectful and unclean if you don't. And no heels unless you want to kill your feet. Most of Japan's cities are walking cities and most sights are reached only by walking. Whether you walk from the train, the bus, wherever — you WILL be walking!

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Because you'll be taking your shoes off so much, it's best to wear simple shoes like boots and sneakers that you can quickly slip on and off. Overly complicated footwear? No thanks. Also, DO take them off. In homes, temples, restaurants — wherever they don't allow shoes.

In Japan, there are even restaurants where you have to take your shoes off, especially traditional ones where you sit on the floor. This is also true if you stay in a traditional ryokan — outdoor shoes are taken off at the entrance and you have to put on indoor slippers.

Furthermore, bathroom slippers are different: Do not enter the bathroom in your indoor slippers and do NOT walk through the house in the bathroom slippers! Bathroom slippers are kept outside the bathroom door; switch when using the bathroom and then switch out again when you're done. As you can tell, Japan's culture is all about cleanliness.


16. Eating, drinking, or smoking while walking in public. You'll be hard-pressed to find any Japanese person doing this. It's highly discouraged and smoking in public is even illegal in certain areas.

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There are hundreds of designated smoking areas, even in restaurants and cafés, so find one of those if you need to. If you have to eat, find a bench or some grass to sit on. A drink from a vending machine is okay as long as you're not spilling it all over the place. And if you have a drink in hand while on the train, wait 'til you're off before drinking. Don't be like me and try to take a sip only to spill half of it all over yourself...

17. Only relying on credit and debit cards. Cash is a must in Japan! Many places still take cash only — this is true *especially* outside of Tokyo. Even in Tokyo, there are countless local shops, markets, restaurants, and attractions you'll walk into only to find that they don't take card. Having cash on hand will make life much easier for everyone.

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Japanese money is pretty easy to understand once you get the hang of it, and it's easy to get cash in Japan! Exchange at the airport when you land or in your home country before you leave. And once you're settled in, nothing to fear, friends — ATMs are everywhere in Japan (in the cities)! They're found in almost all 7-Elevens, convenience stores, and post offices.

Inform your bank that you'll be traveling abroad and make sure your card is a well-known brand (like Mastercard, which is widely accepted in credit card places in Japan) so you won't have much trouble.

18. Taking photos in temples, shrines, and museums when they're not allowed. Always read the signs first or ask!

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Temples and shrines are sacred places, so always look for signs or ask the staff if photos are allowed or you'll risk upsetting them. Some places are open to the public and photos are completely okay — for example, the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. Other places, like Senso-ji temple in Tokyo, are fine from the outside but you can't take photos inside.

19. Tipping the waiters. No! Tipping! It's rude.

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The Japanese show gratitude to the customer and believe it should be that way rather than the other way around. And they also don't rely on tipping like in the US. They will chase you down if you so much as leave a coin on the table.

20. Not being aware of the stigma around tattoos in Japan. Because yes, there is a stigma, even now. Tattoos are associated with the yakuza, the Japanese mafia, who are identified by heavily tattooed skin that they openly display. So if you have a tattoo, consider keeping it hidden or putting a sticker over it. At the very least, don't flaunt it all around, especially in places like temples and onsens (hot spring baths).

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As recently as 2015, nearly 56% of onsen owners had a ban on bathers with tattoos using their facilities. The original reason is, of course, to keep out members of crime gangs. While some onsen owners are easing up on these rules due to increased tourism, you still need to either cover up your tattoos for public onsens or rent a private onsen for yourself.


21. Giving and receiving things with one hand. Again, this is about respect — you'll notice the Japanese people using both hands to give and take things, even small items like money and cards. And when paying at a shop or restaurant, most of the time there is a small tray next to the cash register where you put the money, instead of giving it directly to the cashier.

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22. Entering the onsen without showering first. Don't! That's dirty!

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For many tourists, experiencing an indoor or outdoor onsen is on their Japan bucket list. But you have to remember to shower BEFORE you enter it! Don't even leave a trace of soap on your skin. There are rules and etiquette regarding hot springs. You have to completely wash and rinse down your body. Especially if it's a public onsen — think about it: You wouldn't want to share that water with a stranger who hasn't washed up and just plopped in, sweat, dirt, oil, and all, would you? Gross! Japan is big on cleanliness, as mentioned before, and this is just part of it.

Other rules: Bathing suits are not allowed — you should be naked, so if you're not comfortable with that, an onsen is not for you! Hair should be tied up to keep it out of the water. And no swimming. However, you can bring a small towel with you; just don't let it touch the water.


Overall, visiting Japan is an incredible and unforgettable experience. We had the time of our lives and so will you! Even if you forget some of these tips, as long as you're respectful and genuine, you can't go wrong. So book that ticket and happy traveling!

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