Japan Travel Tips: Mistakes to Avoid When Planning a Trip to Japan

Of all my travels, our trip to Japan was riddled with simple travel mistakes that could have been easily avoided with proper planning and basic research. Sure, we booked our flight to Japan on a whim only months before departure, in the midst of another scheduled vacation and a job change, but no excuses… here are some mistakes I made and some Japan travel tips to travelers who are embarking to the Far East.

PS – if you’re looking for an idea of things to do in Japan, here’s my 11 day Japan itinerary!

Japan Travel Tips: Mistakes to Avoid For Your Trip to Japan

My first mistake for traveling to Japan was not learning the language. One of my Japan travel tips would be to practice the language and learn some basic Japanese expressions.

Mistake #1: Not learning basic Japanese.

Though my lack of Japanese language skills didn’t hinder our ability to navigate around Japan, there was a void of communication opportunities that could have enriched the experience had I taken the time to learn the language basics. Beyond the exchange of greetings, there were several “lost in translation” instances where I wished I could say, “the food is delicious” or “where is…” or “thank you for the hospitality.”

I started using Mango Languages to learn some simple expressions, but didn’t regularly use the app to grasp any useful travel phrases. In retrospect, I should have began and concluded my day with 15 minutes of Japanese language learning to prepare my brain for the sounds of the language.

Japan Travel Tip: learn basic Japanese expressions.

Embarking the Japan Rail in Tokyo.

Mistake #2. Overthinking the Japan Rail Pass.

Is the Japan Rail Pass worth it? How much would it cost if I didn’t get the JR pass? What JR pass should I get? How does the JR pass work? Should I buy it? Maybe I shouldn’t buy it. Where do I get a JR pass? Who is a reputable JR pass distributor? Should I buy a JR pass? Let me fall into a black hole of JR Pass research for the next 5 weeks…

I let the JR Pass consume my travel worries and travel planning much longer than I should have. In fact, I spent so much time researching how the pass worked and being nervous about who I should buy the pass from, that by the time I pulled the trigger to purchase the JR Pass, I was worried that it wouldn’t arrive on time. 

Japan Travel Tip: If you decide to purchase a JR Pass, do so significantly ahead of time from an authorized JR pass agent.

Mistake #3: Procrastinating accommodation bookings.

Do not wait until the last minute to reserve your hotel, ryokan, capsule, hostel or wherever you’re planning to stay in Japan. I began securing my Japan accommodations less than a month to my departure. Oops. Every day procrastinated to book your accommodation decreases the chances to find places within your budget and desired location.  I ended up paying more than I would have liked because the more affordable hotels were already at capacity.

Japan Travel Trip: Book your accommodation as soon as you are able!

I booked all my accommodations on Booking.com, which is has a very friendly cancellation policy if you want to get something booked but don’t want to make a strong commitment.


Here’s where we stayed in Japan during our trip:

The views and architecture found in Ueno Park in Tokyo, Japan.

Mistake #4: Scheduling a short layover.

Imagine a couple running through the airport (wearing thick sweaters), red-faced, and panicked because their rescheduled connecting flight was scheduled to depart 5 minutes ago. That was our situation. Our 90 minute layover looked desirable when we first booked our flight. Less time to travel = more time in Japan. We didn’t account for potential delays and flight cancellations. This resulted in missing our connecting flight, then being late for our rescheduled connecting flight. Had our rescheduled connection not been delayed, we would have been stranded in Texas until the next flight out the following day. The amount of stress and frustration this caused was not worth what would have only been a 90 minute layover. 

Japan Travel Tip: If your international trip requires connecting flights, consider longer layovers.

Beautiful photo of Ginza at night. Ginza is where you should shop in Tokyo.

Mistake #5: Checking luggage.

Our luggage got lost. Probably because of the flight fiasco mentioned above. My carry-on was my camera bag that included some essentials for the flight. Our luggage arrived three days after our arrival. Three days of no toiletries and no clothes. Three days of no contacts and no deodorant and no makeup. Out of desperation, we spent a half day shopping in Ginza and spent too much money on buying a replacement clothes. I also quickly learned that my butt is too big for Japanese elastic waistbands, so there’s that. Sure, shopping in Japan was a fun bonding experience that I wouldn’t have otherwise planned, but I think I would have preferred to spend my time and money elsewhere. 

Japan Travel Tip: If you’re checking a bag, make sure you have basic essentials and a couple outfits in a carry-on or personal item.

Mistake #6: Not understanding the different wards of Tokyo and what to do there.

Tokyo is divided by different wards. Call them neighborhoods, regions, districts… whatever makes sense to you. Understanding the different areas (and what to do in each) can really help you lay out your itinerary. It’s like compartmentalizing your activities based on location. I didn’t do this ahead of time and found myself quite confused with fragmented plans. On our first day in Japan we were traveling all around the JR because the things I wanted to do were dispersed across Tokyo in different wards. Here’s my quick summary:

  • Akihabara – video games, manga, anime, electronics
  • Shibuya – the Times Square of Tokyo, lights, and nightlife
  • Shinbashi – high rises, businesses, fish market (**relocating in 2017)
  • Harajuku – fashion and shopping and all things cute
  • Shinjuku – party time
  • Ginza – high end shopping, think Fifth Ave NYC
  • Ueno – parks, museums, cultural sites

Japan Travel Tip: Plan your itinerary geographically.

a boat on Lake Ashi in Hakone, Japan.

Mistake #7: Not planning a detailed itinerary.

I’m an ENFP. I’m plan-averse. I conducted minimal research before our trip. Every morning while on our trip in Japan, I’d consult with my Lonely Planet guidebook to determine our schedule for the day. Not tracking when places open/close resulted in showing up too early or too late. I did a TERRIBLE job at optimizing my time in Japan. I could have condensed, seen, and done a lot more had I simply created a plan ahead of time. See mistake #6 – rather than make a list of things I wanted to do in Tokyo, I should have looked at a map and determined what to do and where to go based on geography. This country is overwhelming; it’s important to find a sense of organization for your trip to Japan. 

Japan Travel Tip: Take the time to do your research and build a detailed travel itinerary.

Looking for a travel plan? Check out my Japan itinerary to learn more about what I did and other ideas for what to do in Japan.

Visiting Toshogu Shrine in Ueno Park in Tokyo, Japan. A beautiful shrine with gold doors!

This smile says “I have no idea what I’m posing in front of right now.”

Mistake #8: Not going on guided tours.

I LOVE tours. Yet, I never seem to book any in favor of saving money. I think Japan is a place that begs you to go on a tour. If you’re someone (like me) who doesn’t know much about the culture, it’s easy to get lost, overwhelmed, and confused about what the heck is happening. When an informed person explains what’s around you, you have a greater understanding of, appreciation for, and connection to the place you’re visiting. I was recommended to go on Tokyo Free Guide or Kyoto Free Guide tours, but unfortunately inquired about a tour too late. Being a procrastinator is the worst.

While visiting Senso-ji, we ran into an expat showing around his friends. He invited us to join them. Turned out he actually was a tour guide for his day job. In the 2 hours we spent with him, we learned more about Japan than we had on our own for the entire trip. He actually has his own YouTube series called Happy in Japan. Check them out!

The only “tour” I purchased was a sushi making class in Tokyo. Worth. Every. Penny. I regret not booking more tours!

Japan Travel Tip: If you’re unfamiliar with the region or the culture, spend the extra time and money on a guided tour.

More Japan Travel Tips and Inspiration

Have you ever been to Japan? What mistakes have you made? Any Japan travel tips you’d like to share?

japan travel tips



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