If you’re traveling to Japan for the first time, there are bound to be a few small hurdles or oversights along the way. Language barriers, transport mysteries, different cultural expectations and unfounded assumptions are key players in the “mistakes tourists make” game.
Don’t stress—most mistakes aren’t going to derail your trip. You could consider them speed-bumps rather than roadblocks, but you’d rather have smooth sailing than a bumpy ride, which is why we’ve combined a list of easy-to-make mistakes and the best ways to avoid them.
1. Missing out on sumo tickets
While the assumption may be that sumo tournaments run all-year long, like most sports, they’re a seasonal event, which means that if you want to catch the action, you’ve got to be prepared.
In Tokyo, the main sumo matches—which are known in Japanese as basho—are held in January, May, and September; these are the best opportunities to get in on all the electrifying action. The Ryogoku area is the center of sumo wrestling in Tokyo; here you’ll find sumo stadiums, museums dedicated to the sport, and even hotpot restaurants run by former sumo champions.
If you’re planning to visit Tokyo during sumo season, you can never be too early when it comes to booking your sumo tickets. Through Klook, you can secure your sumo tickets with a visitor-friendly package, which starts at ¥10,000 and includes an English-speaking guide, a tour through the Sumo Museum at Ryogoku Kokugikan, access to a match and an optional dinner at the end of the day. More info.
2. Not buying a JR Pass before you go
The bullet train (known in Japanese as the Shinkansen) is a marvel of engineering, as fast as a speeding bullet and more comfortable than an airplane. This comfort and speed comes at a price, though, so if you’re planning to zip across the country, consider grabbing a JR Pass to make it more economical.
While the nationwide JR Pass is a great option for those hoping to cover a lot of ground, other regional JR passes are available too. One of these passes could be a more budget-friendly option, depending on where you are and where you want to go.
You can buy your rail pass on Klook up to six months in advance, and have it delivered for free. More info.
3. Getting confused with the Tokyo subway system
Arriving at Narita Airport after a long flight, the last thing most travelers feel mentally capable of is deciphering Japan’s intricate rail network. While after a day or two getting around the subway and train system makes sense, it does take a little exploration, which is something we suggest you do without all your luggage.
To avoid any significant confusion on your first rail journey, it helps to grab a Tokyo Skyliner Ticket ahead of time. This train takes you from Narita Airport to downtown Tokyo (Nippori Station) in just 41 minutes and runs three times per hour. It also has free WiFi onboard, plenty of space to stretch your legs, and guaranteed seating. Booking link.
4. Mixing up Skytree and Tokyo Tower
They are Tokyo’s two most iconic cloud-tickling landmarks, but there are some key differences between the pair. Tokyo Tower, located in the Shiba-Koen district of Minato Ward (near the popular nightlife hub of Roppongi) is the more historical of the two. It was built in 1958, as a symbol of the hope that filled the nation during the postwar economic boom. In its verdant orange glow—which is repainted every five years—it was designed to be an homage of sorts to the Eiffel Tower of Paris. It’s the smaller structure, standing at 332.9 meters, with two main observatories, one at 150 meters and another at 250 meters. Entry ticket booking link.
At 634 meters tall, Tokyo Skytree is the tallest tower in the world and the world’s second-tallest structure after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. The Skytree was completed in 2012, to serve as a television and radio broadcast site for the Kanto region. It’s located in Sumida Ward, not far from the historical attractions of Asakusa, like Sensoji Temple. Entry ticket booking link.
If you have to choose between the pair, Skytree offers a more sweeping view of the city thanks to its sheer height. It also holds more modern attractions and shopping opportunities, plus from Skytree you can get an excellent view of Tokyo Tower in its glowing orange glory, so we’d say in this instance bigger is better.
5. Thinking Mt. Fuji is in Tokyo
Contrary to what some artful Instagram pictures might have you believe, Mt. Fuji doesn’t loom over the downtown area of Tokyo. It is still quite easy to get to the iconic mountain from Tokyo, though, and definitely worth a day trip if you have the time. While the length of your journey depends on which area you decide to visit, from Tokyo Station it will take 2-3 hours on average.
Booking a bus tour is an excellent way to avoid the hassles of having to navigate yourself, and can often save you money, too. It’s also an opportunity to explore the scenic towns and sights of the Mt. Fuji area, like Hakone and Lake Kawaguchi.
6. Being afraid of going to a nude hot spring
While getting naked with a bunch of strangers sounds more like a challenge than something to do for fun, in Japan, a hot spring is one of the most traditionally popular places to unwind. Please don’t be too scared or self-conscious to visit a hot spring (onsen in Japanese), because it is one of the most relaxing and liberating feelings out there. Let go of your inhibitions, read up on hot spring etiquette, and leave the clothes behind. You won’t regret it.
One of the most exciting aspects of onsen bathing is the sheer number of onsen experiences out there. You can visit a hot spring theme park, like Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo itself, take a day trip somewhere remote and volcanic, like Izu Oshima Island, or even soak in an outdoor bath right by the base of Mt. Fuji.
What about tattoos?
You may have heard rumblings about tattoos in Japan, and yes—there is a bit of stigma around them. Few hot springs are fully comfortable with tattoos, so we recommend covering them up (e.g. with a skin-colored bandage) if possible, or looking for hot springs and public baths that are known to be tattoo-friendly, if you’ve got a lot of ink and don’t want to dress up like a mummy.
7. Not getting that international driver’s license
Want to live out all your geeky gamer fantasies and cruise around Tokyo in a go-kart? Well, be sure to prepare your international driver’s license ahead of time—because if you want to hit the road, you’re going to need it.
Street go-karting experiences, like the ones in Asakusa and Akihabara, have become one of the most attention-commanding tourist experiences out there. You get to dress up as your favorite gaming character and zip around the city, getting that “only in Tokyo” photo. But all these tours do require relevant driving licenses, so before you book, and before you get to Tokyo, make sure you’ve read the fine print. More info.