My First Japan and Korea Trip: Things That Went Wrong & What I Learned

Everything That Went Wrong During My First Trip to Japan and South Korea

In short, the best trip ever!

The year is 2017. I had just completed my studies abroad and, in a last-ditch attempt to delay my inevitable entry into the workforce, I decided to embark on a week-long trip to South Korea. As fate would have it, one of my closest friends (let’s call him J), also wanted one last grand adventure before we were both thrust into a mundane life of nine-to-five routines and paying bills. The only catch was J wanted to travel to Japan

We decided there and then to combine our itineraries into a two-week post-uni trip instead. Fast forward after a few weeks of planning, and there we both were at the departure gate boarding a flight to Tokyo Haneda Airport for the very first time. My friends, the trip was everything I imagined it to be — full of thrills, fun memories, and plenty of unique first-time experiences. 

That doesn’t mean everything went according to plan though! In fact, out of all the trips I had taken before, this trip was easily the most chaotic one ever. Today, I raise a (metaphorical) toast and look back on everything that went wrong during my Japan and South Korea trip. Reader, I pray that you never make these same mistakes (although they were mostly harmless in the end). 

1. Almost becoming an airport security threat

osaka castle japan and south korea trip

Having arrived in Tokyo after a long flight, J and I went for a quick dinner before purchasing train tickets to the city where our capsule hotel was. But before all that, we had to stop at the Information Counter at the airport to sort out our SIM cards. A few hours later, we passed through the turnstile of the adjoining train station, ready to board the train to Ueno

It was at this moment that J suddenly asked, “Where’s my camera bag?” I turned to see the colour rapidly draining from my friend’s face. After convincing the security at the station to let us back out (I shall spare you the details of J panicking in between), we dashed through the airport in search of J’s lost piece of luggage.  

pokemon centre japan and south korea trip

You know how when you visit an airport, or a bustling transport hub, one of the key announcements you always hear is to “Never leave your belongings unattended, or they will be removed as a security measure”? The moment we saw a group of three to four security officers huddled together at one spot over the Information Counter, we knew we’d found the bag. 

The officers eyed us up with stern expressions, but apparently, I was the only one who noticed that. J, on the other hand, just rushed forward. I was pretty sure he was about to be tased or tackled to the ground. Thankfully, the officers didn’t deem my friend to be a threatening figure, and they just shook their heads as he collected his lost luggage. Dear readers, that was the first hour into our trip!

Also read: 32 Things to See and Do in Japan for First-Time Travellers

2. Missing the last train to Ueno

japan and south korea trip

As a direct result of our spontaneous marathon through Haneda Airport to search for our forgotten luggage, we, unsurprisingly, missed the last train to Ueno, which is in the city centre. Left with no choice, we took a cab instead, having to pay much more than we had planned (but still reasonable in my opinion). 

The real fun started after we got to the area. You see, the train station was directly opposite the street where our capsule hotel was. Had we taken the train, we would have easily found it within minutes of arriving at the station. But because we took a cab with limited Japanese language skills, we somehow ended up on the other side of Ueno. 

It would be a good 40 minutes of walking, including stopping by an auxiliary police stand and a round of charades before we finally made it to the check-in lobby. Thankfully, our hotel had a 24-hour reception so we finally got to settle down just a little past midnight. Quite an eventful start to our Japan and South Korea trip in every sense of the word! 

Also read: This Is How I Survived Being Lost (and Drunk) in Tokyo

3. Finding out my friend doesn’t eat raw fish…at a sushi bar

japan sushi bar

Notice how there’s only one person giving the thumbs up sign

What’s the one thing you will definitely eat while in Japan? Sushi, right? While we were in Tokyo during our Japan and South Korea trip, we found this quaint standing sushi bar on the outskirts of Shibuya. Realising that the price was fairly decent, J and I decided to give the place a try. 

The sushi was divine. Fresh, delicious, and with just the right amount of wasabi. It was everything I imagined fresh sushi in Japan to be and more. At one point, I was having a casual chat with a couple of American travellers who had also stopped by for lunch. At one point, one of them goes, “Is your friend alright?”

seafood tokyo

I turn and see J looking like he was on the brink of throwing up. Remembering that he doesn’t handle spicy food, I thought that the wasabi had gotten to him. To my bemusement, he then told me it was because he’d never had raw seafood before and the texture wasn’t at all what he imagined it to be. 

To this day, whenever someone asks him about the sushi bar in Japan, J will simply say “the tamago (egg) sushi was delicious”. I try my best not to reveal what had actually happened.  

Also read: 12 Best Tokyo Districts and Neighbourhoods to Visit on Your Holiday

4. Booking the wrong accommodation in Kyoto


One of the problems with planning a two-week trip that included stops in different cities is keeping track of everything. Somehow, while J and I made all the bookings together, neither of us realised a glaring mistake when booking our accommodation in Kyoto until we arrived at the inn. 

As we made our way to the counter, the receptionist took a look at our booking, looked back at us, and with a puzzled look, asked “Do you have more friends coming”? I asked what was wrong and he told us that the inn did indeed have a booking under our names, but it was for a couple of nights in… an all-girls dormitory. I looked at J who stared blankly back. There were no available rooms in the male dormitories. 

Thankfully, just as J and I contemplated sleeping out on the sidewalk of some random Kyoto suburb street, the owner of the inn came out and offered us a ryokan at his house. We had to pay, of course, but we were glad to at least have a place to stay the night. And hey, if not for our silly mistake, we wouldn’t have had the pleasure of staying in a traditional ryokan during the trip. So there’s always a silver lining to everything! 

Also read: A Guide to Staying at A Japanese Ryokan: The Dos and Don’ts

5. Getting stopped by airport security

arashiyama kyoto

The day we were supposed to fly to Busan from Osaka on our Japan and South Korea trip (told you we had multiple stops), my friend and I visited Nara. Along the way, we stopped by a premium souvenir shop where J picked up a letter opener that was designed like a very sharp kunai. He stuffed it in his backpack and forgot about it. 

Not a problem until you try to carry that said backpack past airport security! We were stopped (or rather, J was, but I felt compelled not to abandon him) just outside the boarding gate. J was told to empty his belongings because they had seen a “weapon-like item” through the screening. 

Facepalming hard, J mouthed “the kunai”. I exhaled sharply as the sharp blade hit the table with a dull thud. “Here we go,” I thought to myself, “we’re about to be interrogated.” 

The officer picked up the kunai, stared at it for what felt like a minute, shrugged, and said, “Don’t take this out during the flight,” before returning it to J. I suppose it does pay off to have an innocent-looking face. 

6. Running up Mount Hallasan on Jeju Island


Our time in South Korea was significantly more smooth sailing. That was until we decided, for whatever reason, to hike up Mount Hallasan: the tallest peak in the whole country. We had planned everything to perfection, including the path we would take, and how long it would take us to get to the top.

The next morning, just one thing went wrong and turned the entire plan on its head. We were supposed to take the very first bus which would allow us to arrive at the foot of Hallasan by 8am at the latest. We woke up at 8am instead. By the time we arrived, it was already a little past 10am. 

A part of me wanted to turn back. We had an extra day after all. But after some encouragement from J, we decided to just go for it anyway. So we made a beeline to the very start of the Seongpanak Trail and started ascending, failing to take note of a little wooden signboard at the entrance. 

Halfway through the rocky path, the same signboard appeared. And this time, I saw what was written on it. If you ever plan on hiking to Mount Hallasan’s peak, just know that there are certain checkpoints that you must reach by a certain time or you won’t be allowed to proceed. 

hallasan japan and south korea trip

What I saw was that we had to reach the midway point shelter by 1pm. or we would have to turn back. A quick glance at my watch: 12.06pm. Stuck halfway up Korea’s tallest mountain, J and I decided to gun it, almost running up the path to the shelter. I asked J to play some songs to hype us up. He decided to go with the classic What A Wonderful World instead. 

Ignoring Louis Armstrong musing about the colour of the sky, my friend and I huffed and puffed our way to the shelter just a few minutes before it was closed. We barely had time to refill our bottles before resuming the hike. At around 2pm, we finally arrived at the summit, surrounded by lofty clouds and the cool alpine air. 

That’s when we noticed another sign, which said that the summit closes at 2.30pm and that everyone had to descend at that time. Great. We took a few photos, admired the clouds for a bit, then started our descent. Well, at least we left our footprints at the peak? 

7. Spending a night at the airport


After a topsy-turvy two weeks, our final grand adventure before officially entering adulthood came to an end. But there was one last twist that awaited us back home. 

J and I are both from Penang, Malaysia. Most flights from Seoul only land at KLIA in Kuala Lumpur. So to get home, we would have had to catch a connecting flight to Penang. Again we had planned everything to perfection down to the last minute. But on the day of our flight, there was a 40-minute delay for our first flight. 

japan and south korea trip

We arrived at KLIA just as the flight to Penang departed. We tried our luck to see if there were any other available flights but none were. And since it was already approaching midnight, we decided to just spend the night at the airport and take the first flight home the next day. 

If you’ve never stayed overnight at an airport, we don’t recommend it. It is far removed from the bustling hub of activity you see during the day. You would find yourself sleeping in a near-deserted corridor with little to no foot traffic and dim lights. Most of the shops would also be closed so you’d hardly have anything to eat. 

Thankfully, the next flight was only a few hours away, so after a light nap and reminiscing about the trip, J and I finally made it home safely. Thus concludes our epic Japan and South Korea trip!

Also read: I Survived 24 Hours in Changi Airport: My Essential Tips for Crazy Flight Cancellations

Memorable all the same

Thinking back, I realise I wouldn’t have wanted my Japan and South Korea trip to go any other way. Yes, some of the things that went wrong were a real bother and sometimes dangerous (we could have really gotten hurt running up the steep steps at Hallasan), but they are that I remember most vividly about my first trip to Japan and South Korea. 

I’m not saying repeat our mistakes. If anything, I hope my story helps you in making your own trip smooth sailing! That said, if things do go wrong, approach it with an open mind. I’m sure at the end of the trip, all will be well. You might even look back at them and smile! 

Got a travel story like this one to share? Let us know, we’d love to hear from you! 

All images credited to Darren Yeoh.

About Author

Darren Yeoh
Darren Yeoh

Darren enjoys the finer things in life and loves exploring unfamiliar places on foot, guided with nothing but instinct and a good-old fashioned map. He enjoys cultural experiences and exciting adventures and is not a stranger to travelling alone. When he's not putting his travel experiences into words, he's probably sitting behind his laptop, planning his upcoming adventure.