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10 mistakes to avoid when traveling to Japan

What Not to Do in Your First Trip

⏱ 5 minutes

Japan has become an increasingly popular destination thanks to several campaigns (Yokoso Japan, Cool Japan) aimed at prospective tourists during the 2000's. Japan’s pop culture also attracts a number of fans or otaku-wannabes who may not be used to traveling in general. Each destination is different, of course, but Japan has its unique codes and quite a singular society.

We made a selection of 10 possible mistakes while planning a trip to Japan and once you are there. Try to avoid them to get the most of what this country has to offer.

💬 Fear to ask or speak with Japanese people, not learning a few words of Japanese

Most of Japanese people are willing to help. Sometimes, if they see you looking for something on a map, they will come by themselves to ask if you need help. You can also go ahead and ask them. Most of the time, they will help you with pleasure, usually in English as they would do with any "gaikokujin" ("people from another country"). Do not be offended by them always trying to speak in English, even if you answer in Japanese; it is rather a mark of politeness than not. That said, it is not a reason to not learn at least a few words of Japanese.

If you do try to, you will probably earn some praise from Japanese people. You are not asked to prepare for the level-1 JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test – an international exam). But if possible, learn the usual politeness expressions, basic vocabulary and some simple commonly used kanji signs. Basically a few hours of easy and interesting learning, with a Japanese learning method.

🍣 Not tasting food or trying to eat with chopsticks

If you are in Japan to rotate between McDonald’s and KFC, or to eat sushi 🍣 with a fork and a knife, you better ask yourself some questions. Japanese people are fond of their cuisine, and there is a good reason behind this: it is surprisingly delicate and diversified. Bonus à la Japanese: you can eat a lot for cheap, and without gaining weight.

🗼 Stay only in Tokyo

Japan’s capital is certainly a constant wonder. And our editor-in-chief cannot say otherwise as he dedicated most of his first trip to Japan in 2003 to the city. But as attractive as it can be, Tokyo remains *only* its capital. The megalopolis should not be the beautiful tree hiding a marvelous forest : Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, Osaka, Hiroshima and Miyajima, Fukuoka, Sapporo, Nikko, Kamakura, Yokohama, Ise, and many more extraordinary places are waiting for you…

So, order your Japan Rail Pass before your trip and ride the Shinkansen 🚅 to discover all the wonders of Japan!

🙏 Not respecting local habits and customs

Japanese people are organized and respectful of many rules. A Japanese woman once summarized their way of life in a beautiful sentence:

“In Japan, do as everyone else”.

It is therefore necessary to learn about the habits and conventions of social life in Japan to blend up into the mass. You will never be Japanese but doing like them in interpersonal relationships is probably one of the best ways to show respect.

👺 Go to Japan only for its popular culture

So, you endured a 12-hour flight ✈️ to squat Akihabara, drink a grape Fanta with a maid, and take pictures under the skirts of cosplay girls in Harajuku ? Come on, read Kanpai Japan and start discovering all the wonders that Japan has to offer!

👱‍♀️ Go to Japan only to hit on Japanese women

It is quite an urban legend, but as all of them, it has a substantive truth. And we must acknowledge that, in general, Westerners are still popular. But rest assured that the Japanese woman who is going to play for an hour with you in the nearby love hotel 🏨, has as little respect for you than you have for yourself.

🤔 See everything different as weird

  • "Japanese people make a lot of noise when eating their ramen"
  • "They have a degrading sense of sexuality that leads to perversion"
  • "Their omnipotent group effect is exacerbated by the concept of Honne-Tatemae"
  • etc.

Not showing a minimum of openness about what does not refer to the education of your mother is a seed of xenophobic thinking. At least, a little bit.

♨️ Miss the Japanese particularities

Going to Japan also means experience things you cannot see or do elsewhere. There are many examples and opportunities, but what first come to mind are:

  • A Sumo tournament, or at least a training. Even if you are not a fan of wrestling sports, it can be a surprising experience that you might love. Tournaments last all day long, and it is possible to attend at your convenience.
  • A onsen ♨️ or a sento. Hotsprings and public baths in Japan are deeply ingrained in the culture. The main hurdle for foreign tourists are however tattoos (but with a little research it is possible to find places that accept tattooed customers) and decency, that may prevent some to be naked in front of strangers.

📋 Not investigating before you go and / or arrive without much planning

You can dream your Japan for years through anime and be slapped by harsh reality when arriving at your Eden fantasy because, oh dear god!, Japanese people are not perfect. Or you can be dragged in a trip to Japan without having prepared about the destination and get a Lost in Translation syndrome.

It would be a shame for such a long and expensive trip, would not it?

✈️ Say you will go back to Japan another time soon, or if you have missed [something in Japan], you will do it next time

The circumstances of life (time, money, etc.) and the intangibles of tourism will not ever get you the same travel conditions twice. So if it is late or you don’t feel your legs anymore, dare a little extra effort to visit this last spot, which will eventually get you the picture on your album’s front page, or ride this train to get to this region, a little distant but very attractive. Not only will you avoid regret, but in addition you will be thankful.

— With all of this in mind, you will be able to fully enjoy your trip to Japan !

Updated on October 09, 2020 - 10 erreurs du voyageur au Japon