While our trip to Japan was wonderful, it was definitely far from perfect. We do have some small regrets, and we know we missed out on a few experiences we would’ve enjoyed. But hey, it’s not like we can’t visit again, right? In fact, ever since we returned Matt has talked about how he misses Japan and wants to plan another trip there. When we do eventually make it back, there are definitely things I would do differently. Hopefully this helps some of y’all first-time visitors in your travels!
1. I would not visit over Christmas/New Year’s.
The weather was nice and cool, with the temperatures in the 40s most days. And it is considered to be “off-season,” but honestly is it ever really off-season in a destination like Japan? Really, there was so much stuff we missed out on because of the holidays. Pretty much everything was open on Christmas day in Tokyo, but being in Kyoto on New Year’s we were not as lucky. Many of the attractions we wanted to visit, such as Nijō Castle, the Imperial Palace, and Nishiki Market, were closed. There were a few museums, like the Toyota Museum, we wanted to visit that were closed for a block of about two weeks around the holidays.
Beyond that, traveling was just more expensive and complicated. The shinkansen lines were also packed and we had a hard time getting tickets when we were going from Tokyo to Kyoto and back. Airfare was also significantly more expensive to fly out on 22 December and back on 5 January. I tracked flight prices for months, and I saw them hovering around $600-800 in October and November, but the lowest they sat for the holiday weeks was around $1,000.
Along with all that, visiting shrines on/around New Year’s is customary in Japan. So if you’re planning on visiting some of the more famous shrines around that time, be prepared to battle the crowds. Sights like the photo below were pretty commonplace, and there were many times where we just felt like we were being herded along a route and weren’t able to experience the shrines and temples.
I think I would prefer to visit in the fall, when the temperatures are cooling down but not in the swing of the holiday season yet.
2. I would redeem my JR Pass at a less busy station.
When you order your JR Pass, you must do it a few weeks (at the least) in advance of your trip. They’ll send a voucher to your home address, and then you have to take that voucher with you to one the select JR stations that have an office that will allow you to redeem it for your pass. We wasted a few hours in a long line of tourists trying to redeem their passes at Tokyo Station. Next time we go, I’ll definitely redeem our passes at a station that’s not basically the busiest shinkansen station in the city.
3. I would splurge on a ryokan.
Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns, and they offer a very unique experience for travelers. We had originally planned to stay a night or two in ryokan, but by the time we got around to booking our accommodations most of them were completely booked. And the ones that remained were so far out of our price range. On our next trip to Japan, I will be absolutely sure to book a ryokan early. I definitely don’t want to miss out on that experience again. Watch the video below to get an idea of what staying in a ryokan entails.
4. I would spend more time in the countryside.
I think me and Matt’s biggest regret from the trip was not spending more time in Hakone. We were enchanted by the Japanese countryside and felt like we had been a little overambitious in our itinerary. If we had known how much we’d love little towns like Hakone, we would have spent more time in them instead of in Tokyo and Kyoto.
5. I would bring back more souvenirs.
We packed light and brought an extra bag with us in preparation for buying and bringing back a bunch of souvenirs. But for the whole trip, I kept seeing things I wanted and I kept saying “oh, I’ll buy it later” or “I’m sure I’ll see more of these, I should shop around for options.” If I could do it all over again, I’d probably buy more stuff that I liked on the spot instead of waiting and then forgetting.
And I would definitely buy more of the flavored Kit Kats!
6. I would take a dip in an onsen.
This one is a little trickier since Japan has some very strict rules about tattoos and onsen use. While tattoos are becoming more widely accepted in the country, their onsen establishments are very much steeped in traditional rules and do not allow people with body ink to use them. I was a pretty scared I would get caught and/or in trouble for having a tattoo while trying to visit the more popular onsens. While there are tattoo friendly onsens scattered throughout Japan, we just didn’t put much effort into seeking them out, which I now regret. I would really recommend prioritizing this experience for those traveling to Japan, and I hope to return one day so I can cross this item off my bucket list.
7. I would [try to] not get sick.
We lost an entire day while we were in Kyoto because we both sick. Matt was sick for most of our trip after arriving in Japan. We think he picked something up on the plane. There were so many people coughing and sneezing during that 15-hour flight that it wouldn’t be surprising if he did. Meanwhile, I was struck by a particularly bad case of vestibular neuritis, which gave me the worst vertigo of my life. Like, had to lay flat on my back all day or else I’d get so dizzy and nauseous I’d hurl type of vertigo. Luckily (I use this term very loosely here) Matt’s worst sick day was the day I was hit with my vertigo, so we just sat in our Airbnb being miserable and sick together all day and didn’t have to feel bad for ruining each other’s day.
I would definitely advise pre-gaming your trip with some immune system boosting. Take some Emergen-C every day in the week leading up to your flight, maybe even take some on the trip with you. Load up on hand sanitizer, too! I’m sure traveling on public transportation played its own part in the illness.
Happy planning, friends!