Japan - Top 10 mistakes while planning a trip to Japan

Once upon a time, I wrote a piece about the "top 10 mistakes people planning a trip to Japan made" in Reddit ↗. That article was really read out, and I even saw it being copied on blogs and pages (so original! for that reason I keep proof of original contents nowadays). The thing is, after 6 more month taking note of the most common mistakes people make, and more experience on helping these lost souls, I realized there are other mistakes that are more often or serious than I originally posted. So this is a revised version. 

In time, this applies mostly for first timers. One trip and you will get all of these straight for better or for worse.

So welcome to top 10 mistakes people make planning a trip to Japan - revised (this version is not ordered by any kind of importance).

  • Expecting English to be the "Lingua Franca" everywhere - or worrying you don't know any Japanese

English might be understood in Airports, major stations and most Hotel lobbies, but other than that, don't expect people to know more than a couple of words. Conversely, not knowing Japanese is not going to ruin your trip, after all, the only "important" communication is at Airports, major stations and Hotel lobbies (get it?). Mime language and pointing go a long way to pretty much everything. 


  • Trusting Internet rumors - or family/friends rumors.

There are so many misinformation and completely weird rumors about Japan, some from Anime (some people think that the Japan from Anime is actual Japan ... going as far as to say that Anime "has to be based on some part of the truth" ... yes, a lot of nuanced truth behind tentacle hentai right?), and some even from family. People get such weird ideas that there is even a sad sub-reddit where unhelpful chaps won't forgive any sort of misconception and have a laugh at anyone who don't have the perfect information. Don't fall prey for random stuff, usually a simple google can bust most of them, and forget everything you saw or read on anime/manga, it is fiction. Also, when your grandma who visited Japan once says all males are perverted and you might get raped in the metro ... yeah, maybe not (this was actually asked in reddit once).

  • Thinking Japan is small

Japan is small, sure it is, that is why you think it is small, except it is so packed of things to do and see, so many important and historical/awesome cities and sights, that you can pretty much cover more time in Japan than in most bigger countries. For those looking for completionism, Tokyo alone can cover a month! So remember, size does not matter in this regard, and you will need more than a trip to visit mostly of what would delight you.

  • Forgetting smaller (often important) commutes when calculating your budget

Airport-to-Stay, or the commute between large stations, or making the huge mistake of taking a cab to go "just around the corner" (when the corner is 20Km away). One should always be aware how close things are and therefore the cost. Some Airports are indeed just downtown (like Osaka International or Haneda), but others are a whole hour away (like Kansai International or Narita). And when distances are high, even public transportation will make a dent on the budget, so be warned to not forget the minor commutes.

  • Either ignoring/not knowing about JR-Passes (notice plural), or thinking they are a "beat-it-all" trump card always worth it.

Since you probably know it (right?), remember that the main JR-Pass can only be purchased outside Japan (since 2017, it can be purchased in Japan, but will cost you about 10% more), so you should really look into it before your travel. One should be aware there are several other regional JR passes from JR-Kyushu, JR-West and JR-East that are cheaper while covering only a small part of the country (maybe the one you will actually stay). However, two things must be understood: First, the JR Passes cover only lines by Japan Rail Group, which while being the majority of the inter-city express / super-express trains, are often reduced or not present at all inside towns (there are more other private subways in Tokyo or Kyoto than JR lines, for instance). Second, all these passes are meant for long-haul travel within Japan, not for subway/metro (even if they do cover some). So if you are staying in only one town, or close towns, chances are they are not worthy at all. Check our JR-Passes calculator to get an idea.

For local metro, look into pre-paid IC cards that, while not really an economical highlight, is really convenient, or local metro passes - usually unlimited one-day passes, for some actual savings.

  • Rushed or last minute planning/booking

It is perfectly fine not to plan your trip, that is a travel style. The problem is when you decide to trust on your plan, but you kind of don't do one. If you are going to plan, then plan. Don't do a mediocre mesh of bits and pieces you gather on the internet and guides and consider it "planned", because the gaps between the bits and pieces might either be hiding awesome gems that you will miss, or important notices that might cost you or damage your trip. Either don't plan at all and get the mindset on "I plan as I go", or do a proper plan. That being said, it is important to notice that, mostly due to internal tourism, Hotels and even AirBnB's get crowded really fast, and you won't be getting that very nice and cheap stay you are planning if you don't book it ASAP. A general rule of thumb on booking the best cost/benefit is at least 3 month advance. Make it 6 during the High-season of Spring.

  • Over-planning

Be it because this is your first trip, or because you just realized Japan has some different nuances on planning, some people go to the extreme end of "don't plan" and make insanely huge and detailed itineraries, sometimes with minute-by-minute planning (really!? really!). Sure, there is some fun in planning your trip and then living it, but if it gets stressful this should be your warning something is not right. Do not overplan. Do not make minute-by-minute (or even hourly) itineraries, because you are one diarrhea away from a cascade catastrophic plan-busting delay (ok, maybe a lengthy bathroom break, or you found a hidden gem that deserves an hour of your un-planned time). Make general plans, keep the days flexible (do you know the weather? it loves ruining fixed-day plans). So take it easy, check what can be done each day, make it flexible what days you will do it, and then when fate slaps in your face, you are ready.

  • Failing to properly realize what is "far" and what is "close" in Japanese context

This one is weird, but it happens a lot. To better understand this, here are two examples:

1. As a metropolis, Tokyo is seen by most people as big - and they are right - but you do not need to plan day-trips to get from Akihabara to Shinjuku . You don't need to change your stays within the city to visit the different areas. First, because they are not that far, and second, the subway system is really good. So while Tokyo is big, it is very well connected and you won't have a problem going to another neighborhood for the day. Even other cities in the metropolitan area are not that far: Yokohama is less than 40 minute away in normal metro, Saitama is pretty much already considered Tokyo.

2. Kyoto and Osaka. Two major cities, so you have got to plan separately right? Well, no. Kyoto and Osaka, along with other cities like Nara and Kobe, are pretty much now know as the Kansai metropolis because they are so close that are pretty much one big metropolis (just like Tokyo is actually several cities merged). Takes less than 30 minutes between Osaka and Kyoto, and 45 minutes between Kyoto and Nara or Osaka and Nara. So, don't worry about changing stays or "day-trips", because going from Osaka to Kyoto can be faster than visiting another neighborhood in Tokyo!

The takeout is simple: if an area have a good public transport system with rapid and express trains, distances are "shortened", so regard it as one.

  • Worrying that your descent, race, gender, or anything will influence how others perceive and treat you.

It doesn't matter at all any of the above, you will be treated as a foreigner, and all foreigners are actually treated the same. In fact, you might get an ocasional "wow" because you are different. Japanese love differences (probably why they invented cosplay culture). So when they are staring at you, it is not because you are (insert what you think they are looking here), but because you are foreign. 

  • Not looking at a map

It is actually astonishing how people can actually "plan" without looking at a map. How far each city is from each other? or even better, how far/close is a neighborhood from each other. While it is true that Japanese transit system is great, you shouldn't put northwest neighborhoods with southeast neighborhoods on the same day, or worse, plan to visit things in complete different areas of town. Looking at a map is fun, it might reveal other things to do, and it will give you a much needed sense of placement and distance. So when time comes, you won't be surprised that Hiroshima is not close to Tokyo, or - amazing realization - you can't take the Shinkansen to Okinawa.

You are taking your phone with you aren't you? get an offline map app and have fun with the GPS while at it.