Japan is a culturally rich country where traditions are an important part of daily life and respecting these customs can have advantages. You’ll learn more about the country, its way of life and blend in with the locals. It can also help you avoid the typical tourist cliches.
If you’re planning your first trip to Japan, here are a few useful things to look out for as well as some helpful hints and tips on exploring Japan with ease.
In Japan you’ll have the chance to upgrade your chopsticks skills! Don’t worry though, most restaurants will have knives and forks if you ask for them. Regardless of how comfortable you are when it comes to eating with chopsticks, there is one massive faux pas to avoid. Don’t put your chopstick vertically in your rice bowl. This is because, in Japanese funeral rituals, two chopsticks are left stuck in a bowl of rice so that the deceased can have a last meal.
It’s also polite to avoid directly eating food from a shared plate straight from your own chopsticks. You should instead place the food on your own plate before eating it and then placing your chopsticks in their own little holder.
Having a stuffy or runny nose in Japan is a challenge. Whether you’re sick or have hay fever, you might want to blow your nose every five minutes. In the western world, the polite thing to do would be to blow your nose to avoid annoying those around you. In Japan, the opposite is true and it’s considered impolite to blow your nose in public. If you can, it’s better to wait until you’re in private.
Japan has lots of food stalls great food stalls in its city centres and parks and it may seem normal to grab some food to eat while visiting nearby tourist attractions. However, in Japan, it’s considered to be a sign of bad manners to eat your food while walking. There’s actually a saying in Japanese “ikkai ichi dousa” which means “one thing at a time”. It’s thought that by eating while you walk, you give little attention to the food you are eating. It’s seen as polite to avoid this kind of multi-tasking! Don’t worry though, there’s usually space for you to eat your food near the food stalls and sometimes even a shared space of tables and chairs.
It’s considered especially impolite to eat or drink when visiting a shrine, with the exception of festivals and celebrations.
PS: Aside from being considered bad manners, it can also be dangerous to eat and walk in Japan. Crowded streets mean you might end up bumping into someone and wasting your delicious food.
This is a pretty basic tip but a very useful one to remember. cash is the main form of payment in Japan. While you can pay by card in some shops, others will not accept card payments. To avoid being stranded in a shop and having to leave your souvenirs there, it’s always a good idea to have cash with you and avoid spending time finding an ATM.
Japanese transport can be quite expensive. If you’re just staying in one city you should take a local transport card (Pasmo or Suica are the most common, available in each train station from a machine). You can top it easily and make your daily travel quicker (you won’t have to buy a ticket every time you want to use the bus/subway).
If you’re visiting several cities, we strongly recommend you buy a JR Pass which allows you to travel as much as you want without having to pay extra. It’s really worth your money if you decide to travel to more than 2 cities in Japan.
As in many Asian countries, you shouldn’t wear your shoes inside. This includes houses, some restaurants, ryokan (traditional Japanese hotels), onsen, some shrines or temples and schools. Each house and even some restaurants will have a small area at the entrance for you to take your shoes off and either put on some indoor slippers or stay in your socks (depending on what is available). This avoids dirtying the place, but also avoids damaging the straw matting or tatami. Be sure to wear shoes that are easy to take off when visiting a friend!
The Japanese love to queue! In such an organised country, don’t be surprised when you see people queueing up to hop on a train or bus (especially during the rush hour)! There are even lines on the floor indicating where the queue starts, which is also the exact spot where the train’s doors will open. Queuing is also inevitable in food stalls, restaurants and in front of elevators.
Talking loudly or making phone calls on the subway is considered rude in a country that favours discretion and privacy. You’ll find public transport in Japan to be pretty silent compared to in Europe. The Japanese usually sleep, read or text while using the subway, especially after a long day of work. If you do need to make a phone call, it’s best to be discreet.