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 of course 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.

Note: There are some other common mistakes that we’ve left off this list, such as not taking off your shoes before entering a house, or putting chopsticks upright in rice (like they do during funerals). Don’t do that.

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1. Bowing with your hands together (or too low)

This is not the way to bow in Japan unless you’ve done something very, very wrong. | Photo by Getty Images

There is a wrong way to bow in Japan, especially for someone who is just visiting. A common misconception is that people bow with their hands together — as they do in countries like Thailand — but in Japan, you’ll want to keep those flailing limbs by your side.

Another mistake is to bow too low. If you are a tourist, you’re not likely to come across a situation that will have you bowing from the waist (keep that back straight!). These bows are reserved for apologies or to show respect to someone with a much higher authority (like for religious reasons or if you are lucky enough to meet the Emperor).

We don’t want to get too technical, but try to keep the bow at around a 15-degree angle for casual situations — and a tiny bit deeper for formal situations.

2. Spending too much on sushi

Avoid Jiro Sushi and just grab a platter of sushi at your local chain. | Photo by Aimee Gardner

Don’t leave just yet. While this is one of the most controversial picks on the list, listen to our reasoning.

Sushi in Japan is not like elsewhere in the world; even the cheapest stuff has merits. If you aren’t a connoisseur, then it will be hard for your palate to differentiate between a budget sushi place and the world-renowned Jiro Sushi.

The same can be said for ramen and teppanyaki (it is just grilled meat, y’know). So keep it simple, and spend your money on something else, like the Samurai Restaurant.

3. Tipping (and not paying the cover charge)

Take that change with you. | Photo by Getty Images

This is the most common mistake people mention when coming to Japan. Unlike some parts of the world, tipping after a meal is not done here. Not even 1% of the bill. Staff have been known to chase customers down to return change, perhaps assuming you left it behind by accident.

Saying all that, there is something that could be akin to a tip in Japan — a “compulsory appetizer” or cover charge. Often found in slightly upmarket izakaya or restaurants, this cover charge (called an otoshi in Japanese) is usually around ¥500 per person and also includes a small dish. You don’t want to reject this; just put it to the side if you don’t want to eat it. You’ll have to pay for it, regardless.

If this addition at the end of the bill comes as a shock, just think of it as a tip.

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4. Traveling with large luggage

Photo by iStock.com/izusek

If you’ve got a lot of baggage (and we don’t mean emotionally), then Tokyo is not a forgiving place to be. Rush hour usually lasts from around 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. and again from 5:30 p.m. to around 7:30 p.m.

At those times of day, it is near impossible to join the sardines with a suitcase unless you hop on one of the first stops of the train line. Even then, it’s stressful. High-speed rail isn’t any better due to the Shinkansen luggage rules.

But Japan does have a solution in the form of lockers and storage facilities, as well as sending luggage to your next destination. So travel smart (and light).

5. Only doing overrated things

This is the line you’ll encounter at Hakone Shrine, but is it worth the wait? | Photo by Alex Ziminski

While traveling around Japan, you’ll see many long, long lines that lead into ramen shops, stores, bars, and breakfast cafes. Why are all these people queuing up for hours, you ask? Beats us, but it’s not always because they are must-see attractions (see no. 6).

Trends are big here and often the store or attraction will have just been featured on television or is making the rounds on social media. We suggest waiting till the fever settles down or skipping it altogether. Although, there are bound to be your personal must-sees that probably require advanced reservations …

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6. Not making reservations

The sunset at Shibuya Sky is one of the best and one you’ll need a reservation for. | Photo by Alex Ziminski

Reservations are a must in Japan for top attractions and sights. Anywhere from a few days to a few weeks may be required to grab a spot, and if you are going during Japan’s busy periods, then you may need to double it.

What attractions may need reservations? Popular observation decks — such as Shibuya Sky and Tokyo Skytree — should be pre-booked, as well as themed restaurants and cafés. Also, don’t forget popular art exhibitions like teamLab Planets and theme parks.

7. Wearing kimono incorrectly

Japanese woman wearing a kimono
Ask for a helping hand. | Photo by istock.com/tsuyoshi_kinjyo

Putting on a kimono and taking a stroll around Asakusa is a unique experience that you can’t do in any other country, but just throwing on a ¥2,000 yukata from a local secondhand store and heading to Sensōji Temple is not the way to go.

There are rules to wearing a kimono, such as the way to tie the obi (belt) and which side it should be folded. As with chopsticks, some ways are reserved for funerals and should be avoided. Luckily, there are plenty of rental shops that will do the job for you, so you can take a stroll without worrying you’ll offend anyone.

8. Being rude

Follow the rules if you can. | Photo by Getty Images

What is and isn’t rude changes from culture to culture. Japan is no different, and so it can be confusing to find out where the line is. Just remember, if in doubt, do as the Japanese do.

You’ll find that generally, trains aren’t for taking phone calls or eating your latest convenience store find. In fact, you may want to avoid being overly loud or in-your-face anywhere you go. Keep it respectful, especially when you are in a tranquil spot in nature or visiting a shrine or temple. And don’t forget to follow the rules, no matter how small they may seem.

9. Mixing up Tokyo Skytree and Tokyo Tower

Tokyo Tower is pretty distinctive. Just don’t forget its name.

They are Tokyo’s two most iconic, cloud-tickling landmarks, but there are some key (slightly obvious) differences between the pair. Tokyo Tower, located in the Shiba-Koen district of Minato Ward (near the popular nightlife hub of Roppongi), is bright orange for one and was designed to be an homage of sorts to the Eiffel Tower of Paris.

Tokyo Tower is also a smaller structure, standing at 332.9 meters, with two main observatories, one at 150 meters and another at 250 meters. You can book tickets in advance if this sounds like the tower you want to visit.

At 634 meters tall, Tokyo Skytree is one of the tallest towers in the world. It’s located in Sumida Ward, not far from the historical attractions of Asakusa, like Sensōji Temple. If you think bigger is better, then you can book here.

Read our article that compares Tokyo’s observation decks, so you can choose the one that suits you.

10. Thinking Mt. Fuji is in Tokyo

This is NOT an accurate representation of where Mt. Fuji is. | Photo by Getty Images

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 Shinjuku Station it will take around 2 hours.

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 Kawaguchiko.

While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. This post was originally published in February 2020. Last updated in October 2023.

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