What NOT to do in Japan

Photo above: Tavallai

Matador’s destination expert on Japan lays out the country’s avoidable attractions…and what to do instead.
1. Don’t… play pachinko

Pachinko is one of the few ways to legally gamble in Japan, but don’t be lured into a parlor thinking you’ll see attractions like those of Vegas. The place is beyond loud, and full of cigarette smoke.

The games themselves should be reserved for a 10th circle in Dante’s Inferno. Imagine a pinball machine with a computer screen display; once you pull the lever you have literally no control as to where the ball ends up.

Just like in Vegas, you’ll find burnt-out slot jockeys mechanically inserting yen, winning once every 27 days. Fun fun.

Photo: Steph & Adam

Do… sing karaoke

A karaoke booth with an all-you-can-drink special is a much better alternative if you want to be surrounded by video screens and loud noises.

It’s nothing like a country-western karaoke bar in the U.S.

All the booths in Japan are private, so you can only make an ass of yourself in front of close friends.

The Shidax chain is my favorite, but every town should have at least one place to sing.

2. Don’t… climb Mt. Fuji when there’s a line

Fuji is swamped with foreign and Japanese tourists in the official hiking season (peak in August), and completely overwhelmed during the Obon holiday week.

By this, I mean you’ll have to wait in line the entire climb and struggle to crop people out of your photos.

Do… climb in the off-season

Photo: Ryuugakusei

Late September and October would be “safest,” with minimal snow, but if you want the trek to yourself, bring the right gear and see if you can get permission from the 5th station to go in November or December.

Obviously, this can be rather dangerous, and I don’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have mountaineering experience. Attempting the ascent early, in May or June, can be just as risky with the rains.

If you’re looking for an alternative path to the summit, check out the Fuji Mountain Race.

3. Don’t… drink at the Lost in Translation bar

The film-famous establishment is located at the top of the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku and should be avoided by all but the most fanatical Johansson/Murray fans.

Unless you enjoy paying 4,000 yen (USD40) for a fruit and cheese platter.

Do… enjoy city views elsewhere

The gallery and coffeeshop atop Roppongi Hills immediately comes to mind.

4. Don’t… pay to dress like a geisha

This is an activity many Kyoto guesthouses and hostels offer for the ladies (maybe the men too?).

Photo: FranUlloa

For about 10,000-30,000 yen (USD100-300), depending on services offered and time allowed, your face will be painted pale white, your hair arranged in traditional geisha style, and your body stuffed and folded into a slim silk kimono.

Why? For photos to send home…the chance to see what geisha experience…sometimes you’re allowed to take a short walk outside in full regalia and watch the reactions of startled Japanese men and tourists thinking “Wow! A real geisha! Get the camera!”

Unfortunately, it’s just not worth it; with foreign noses, eyes, and facial features, we simply look ridiculous.

Do… meet the one foreigner who can pull it off

American-born Sayuki, currently working in the Asakusa district of Tokyo: www.sayuki.net

5. Don’t… travel far and wide for cherry blossoms

Imagine you’ve just flown into Tokyo one Sunday in April; those flowering trees that have inspired thousands of haiku and drunken hanami (viewing parties) are now in full bloom and ripe for the watching.

Photo: ajari

Instantly, you think: “I’ve got to get to the best viewing spots in the country, quickly!” Many travelers do this, following the spread of the sakura (cherry blossoms) from the south of Okinawa in February all the way to Hokkaido in May.

If you ask me, it’s not worth the effort.

Do… check out your local sakura

The very best blossoms might be right where you’re at. Every city, town, and prefecture in Japan has a great place to lay down a blanket, crack open an Asahi, and view the pedals falling as gently as snow.

I won’t deny there are some great trees out there, but don’t feel pressured to rush out of town; cherry blossoms bloom for only one week, and even with reliable sakura forecasts, it’s difficult to schedule a holiday precisely around full bloom.

Instead, take advantage of your present surroundings.

6. Don’t… restrict your WWII studies to hiroshima

Japanese World War II history goes way beyond Hiroshima City’s Peace Museum, A-Bomb Dome, and Paper Crane Memorial. By all means, visit each of those, but once you finish…


* Take the train over to Nagasaki and tour its Peace Park. Did you know Kokura was the original target on August 9th, but cloud cover caused the pilot to divert to Nagasaki?

* Really go off the beaten path with the Kamizake Museum in Chiran, Kagoshima Prefecture. Hundreds of letters are on display, written by pilots as goodbyes to their families.

* Visit the controversial Yasukuni War Memorial shrine in Tokyo, which honors the spirits of those fallen.

7. Don’t… see Japan through emerald glasses

For most foreigners coming to Kyoto, [the cityscape's distasteful modernity] merely whets their appetite to find the old Japan they know must be there. When they finally get to Honen-In Temple and see a monk raking the gravel under maple trees, they say to themselves, “Yes it does exist. I’ve found it!” And their enthusiasm for Kyoto ever after knows no bounds. The minute they walk out of Honen-In they’re back in the jumbly modern city, but it doesn’t impinge on the retina – they’re still looking at the dream.
Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, Alex Kerr (quoting Mason Florence)

Most Japan newbies are on the hunt for “old Japan”: Zen temples with chanting monks, samurai warriors parading the streets.

But the truth is, even though a few pockets of the country have successfully preserved it, that Japan has been fading from existence since the 1960s.

Photo: Shadowgate

Do… question the value of unchecked modernization

At some level we all appreciate the fancy robots and electronics in Akihabara, the high-speed trains, the capsule hotels.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy your Japanese holiday by reaping all the benefits of modernization. Just be aware of some of the things the country has given up to get to this point.

Community Connection

More from Matador’s destination expert on Japan:

Shima to Shima: Southern Islands of Japan

10 Japanese Customs You Must Know Before a Trip to Japan

Insider’s Guide to Tokyo

Losing My Travel Virginity: Majime

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  • http://hemanthology.wordpress.com Hemanth

    Lovely article….I also heard that travelling in Japan is expensive especially for backpackers ! Is it true?

  • http://desmotspoursetaire.blogspot.com aelle

    Good points. Having lived over a year in Japan I agree with most dos and don’ts here (although I’d skip Mount Fuji alltogether – climbing a cone of gravel has very little interest – and enjoy some of the less famous but more interesting mountain climbing).

  • http://desmotspoursetaire.blogspot.com aelle

    Hemanth, Japan is a first world country, so compare the expenses with travelling in Europe or North America, not South East Asia… Transportation and accomodation can be expensive,especially if you don’t speak the language and can’t find the cost saving solutions. But food is a lot cheaper than in Europe, and many of the points of interests are free (of course this depends on what you came to see).

  • http://musictravelwrite.wordpress.com Michelle

    Interesting….I had no idea there was an actual line to climb up Fuji. Crazy.

  • joshua johnson

    Love the format of the article, I want to see more like this!
    Great work Turner! My roommate just got back from a visit to Japan and warned me about pachinko! yuk!

    • http://matadortrips.com/ Hal Amen

      Get ready for it, Josh. We’re hoping all of our destination experts will contribute one of these.

      Interested in “What NOT to Do in Saigon”?

  • http://nancythegnomette.com Nancy

    Nice article! Super informative. I’ll be bookmarking this for the future. :)

  • http://www.nileguide.com Alexi

    These are great; I’m always fascinated by cultural do’s and don’ts around the world. It’s like a quick immersion into another place. So cool. And I love the “don’t play dress up” tip, because who wants to look like the clueless tourist? No one.

    The NileGuide blog actually just did a similar post! We had our Local Experts around the world give their top few do’s and don’ts for their destinations. Check it out here for some advice outside of Japan. :)

  • http://www.icheapairfares.com/blog Fresh Airfare

    Don’t…visit Japan with zero Japanese words in your repertoire. If you step off the plane at Narita Airport only knowing “konichiwa” and “sayanora” then prepare for a lot of short, polite, semi-awkward conversations during your stay.

    In my experience, the Japanese know very little English and have difficulty pronouncing it correctly.

    My longest conversation with a local was actually in Spanish with a Japanese student who was majoring in that language. All my English conversations consisted of quick small talk.

    Do…learn these 16 words/phrases to start…

    excuse me = sumimasen
    can i please have? = kudasai
    yes = hai
    please = one gai she masu
    do you have? = ari masca
    i don’t have = ari masen
    i have = ari mas
    where = doko
    water = mizu
    tea = o’cha
    coffee = kohey
    this = kore
    can i have this? = kore kudasai
    thank you very much indeed = domo ari gato gozi mashta
    check please = (just cross your two index fingers)
    have a nice trip = kiotzkete

    This is a good start. If you want to take it further, download “Rapid Japanese: Volume 1 (Earworms Learning)” from iTunes for $10. Listen to it in your iPod when you’re laying down to go to sleep at night.

    Japanese is a lot easier for English speakers to learn, than vice-versa.


  • http://nodebtworldtravel.com brian

    I may still want to do it, but Fuji’s lines are a little off putting. If I wanted lines like that I could stay home.

    The views are magnificent I’m sure, which may make it all the worthwhile tho…

    • http://matadortravel.com/travel-community/vagabonderz Carlo Alcos

      It probably comes down to more of a “put this one under belt” kind of thing, where you can say you did it, rather than really doing it for your own reasons. I was talking to someone about the Milford Track in NZ recently, one of the most popular treks in the world, where you need to book up to 6 months in advance…the thing is, there are beautiful hikes all around the world (and probably countless ones in NZ alone), every hike can be beautiful and its own experience. What makes this one so special? Point being, it’s been built up so much as the “must do” hike that you feel you have to do it. It’s hard to imagine anything being able live up to that.

      • http://www.keepingpaceinjapan.com Turner

        Good analogy, Carlos. Once I read up on Milford I knew I wanted to head down there, but the crowds… well, like Fuji, just ruin it for me. When I’m doing a hike like either of those, though it may impossible, I want to be alone.

  • http://www.mikesryukyugallery.com Ryukyu Mike

    Might have to grab my camera and shoot some pachinko scenes and do an insiders Tips Article someday. I don’ gamble anymore, but there was a time…

    Cool post and it is a novel format; be great to see more like this.

  • http://www.ski-resorts-japan.com Jordy

    Nice one Fresh Airfare on giving those quick words & phrases to start with when travelling to Japan. My Japanese at school only left me with the phrase of ‘My I have your phone number?’ something us kids loved to toy the girls in class with.

    40USD for a cheese platter = you’ve got to be kidding me!


    • http://onceatraveler.com Turner

      To be fair, the strawberries were divine…

  • http://www.maryandseansadventuresabroad.blogspot.com Mary R

    I’ve lived in Japan for over a year now, and it’s funny that I’ve done almost all those things mentioned by the author NOT to do… including the expensive cheese platter (which I would not order again, but another thing on the menu at that bar (duck fat fries)? Absolutely worth the price!)

    I’m all for doing things off the beaten track, but in my experience, I actually have to disagree that somehow those experiences are less than interesting or insightful or fulfilling in some way… in fact, I’d say that it’s limiting to go into a country as a traveler and go by someone else’s list…

    sure, you may not want to have to deal with masses inside smoky pachinko parlors or on Mt Fuji, but the crowds, the expense, the drunken cherry blossom viewing are all aspects that make this place wacky and distinct, and I want to experience that in addition to hidden treasures that I stumble on.

    When we’re on a budget and limited time, it’s nice to know what other people recommend, but like blockbuster movies and restaurants, you have to take someone else’s word as a grain of salt. We all travel with different goals and motivations inside… we can’t expect a place to entertain us; it’s up to us to appreciate the destination for what it is- crowds and smoke and cheesiness and all.

  • http://openflights.org Jani Patokallio

    Telling people to climb Mt. Fuji off-season is quite irresponsible. Fujiyoshida City’s official site equates winter conditions to an “8000m Himalayan peak … dangerous for even the most professional alpinists”, and the mountain can and regularly does kill people who do not believe this.


    • http://carlo-alcos.com Carlo

      To be fair, Turner addressed all this, stated when the “safest” is for off-season, and even said he doesn’t recommend it unless you have mountaineering experience and also to get permission. He even mentioned that pre-peak season can be dangerous as well because of the rains. I believe he covered his bases there.

    • http://onceatraveler.com Turner

      I’m well aware of that, Jani. I believe I told others of the dangers as well. The issue is having the best experience on Fuji, and I personally believe you can’t really do that walking in a line 90% of the way.

  • http://www.ostrichtours.com Kerala Tour Packages

    I think you can find more information at gojapan.about.com/od/attractions/u/whattodoinjapan.htm ortripadvisor.com/Attractions-g294232-Activities-Japan.html .


  • Yonatan

    Definitely would recommend looking to other mountains in addition to Mt. Fuji. Japan has a LOT of mountains, and even though it’s not that big of a country, an hour in any direction often shows completely different landscapes. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life climbing mountains here, and I still may never climb them all. Fuji’s the tallest, but representative of all the others in (mistaken) idea only. Come to Kyushu and you’ll see a completely different world.

    And for people interested in backpacking- it’s possible, but think about making use of the trains on your treks. You can travel the entire country this way and see Japan at its heart (and I’m not talking about going via shinkansen either- it’s the local trains that wind around and around steep mountains, long rocky ocean cliffs, and green rice paddies. The shinkansen spend most of their journeys underground in tunnels…) Either invest in the all-you-can ride JR passes before coming, or time you treks for the Seishun 18 Ticket travel periods in winter, spring, and summer (where you can ride the local trains for an unlimited amount up to 5 days, split those 5 days between multiple partners, etc.)

    Most importantly, Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto are important, but they are not all Japan is. Kyushu, Shikoku, the islands between Kyushuu and Okinawa, Hokkaido, etc. all seem like different worlds. If most of your trip is confined to those 3 above-mentioned cities and the shinkansen tunnel connecting them, you will go home never seeing 90% of this place. Get out into the inaka (countryside) and explore.

  • http://www.thepuffpuffstore.com Puff Puff

    Excellent article! And the karaoke booth looks especially intriguing.

    Thanks for publishing this!

  • http://www.vagabondquest.com/ Dina VagabondQuest

    If it’s my list, I will add this:

    Don’t jump to the onsen without shower first. Those ladies/guys are not staring at you because they admire your body, but rather, they are annoyed that you jump without washing your body first.

    Do shower first prior to enter the onsen.


  • samuel welsh

    good artical but dressing like a geshia, climbing fuji san and traveling to see cherry blossoms are a must

  • http://www.keralatourismpackage.com Kerala Tourism Packages

    Excellent article! And the karaoke looks very intresting

    Thanks for the post

  • Marek

    I would agree with some of your points, but being a foreigner living in Tokyo for 4 years some of the points you list that you recommend NOT to do I think depends on the person.

    1. DO CLIMB MT. FUJI. It will be one of the best things (but still difficult) things you’ll ever do. There are many ways to avoid the crowds even during the hiking season. Just do a bit of research… find the right trails… and talk with people who have done it before. I just recently climbed Mt. Fuji and I would recommend taking the Subashiri trail and then cross over to the Yoshida trail around the 6th or 7th station up. Better yet… start your climb at lunch time… book a hut at the 7th station (a few weeks before)… see the sun set with some beers… sleep early… wake up at 2am and continue the climb on the yoshida trail to the summit to see the sun rise.

    2. Try Pachinko… it’s weird and nothing like a casino… yes… it’s load… yes it’s smokey… but most bars, and drinking holes in this country will be anyway.

    3. DO DRINK at the LOST IN TRANSLATION BAR… why not… if you have the money to spend and that movie is special to you… you’ll make a great memory for yourself.

  • zentotoro

    Not only did my wife and I drink at the “Lost in Translation” bar we stayed at that hotel for two and a half weeks. I was our first trip to Japan and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Don’t let someone tell you what to do or not to do on your trip… Make it yours….

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  • Anonymous

    If you are a tourist and like to gamble here and there, go to a Pachinko parlor. Sure it’s loud, so is a night club or a rock concert, but you get used to the loudness. Pachinko is a part of the Japanese culture. Obviously he didn’t win and wishes a place in hell for it. “Imagine a pinball machine with a computer screen display; once you pull the lever you have literally no control as to where the ball ends up.”…The lever is a throttle of how hard you want to launch the balls. Different machines have different areas of pins to land the balls to get them in the slot. Sure not all of them will fall in the slot, that’s why there are machines that are only 1yen per ball. Just like all gambling places around the world, you will not always win. Enjoy Japan, enjoy your own adventure and not his…

  • Robin Hurst

    This article is sloppily written and researched and has few merits as a serious piece of travel writing. I suspect that it was written primarily tongue in cheek but the number of errors makes me wonder how the writer can be called a ‘Destination Expert’…

    Point 1 : The section on dressing up as a ‘geisha’ should be amended to dressing up as a MAIKO. The practice is called ‘maiko henshin’.

    Point 2 : Fiona Graham, the foreigner who became the geisha known as Sayuki is AUSTRALIAN. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fiona_Graham

    Point 3 : Advising tourists to come to Japan and climb Fuji in November/December? I appreciate that you qualified that by saying that you don’t recommend it for anyone without mountaineering experience, but seriously? This was not clever advice.

    Point 4 : I have enjoyed hanami parties all over Japan for many years but not once have I seen ‘pedals’ falling. I don’t think that I would particularly enjoy that.

  • Rizal Yus

    I have been reading your writing about Japan, love it and I think it’s accurate. I lived and studied in Japan for five years. One of the best experience of my life. Miss the onsen, the politeness and innocence of the people, and miss my foreigner friends!. I was thinking of doing shukatsu there but dislike the seniority system in Japanese society. Instead, went to sydney and found a job here.

    Overall love Japan from the perspective of tourist, but not so much if I have to settle and live there for good.

    • Aryan Ak

      yesterday I was talking about you Rizal :)
      hope u r well and good…. miss u
      take care ;)

    • Nozomi Ikari

      Rizal , (>_<)miss u a lot ! Need skype (^o^)v