Leaving chopsticks to rest sticking downwards in a bowl of food is considered rude in Japanese culture. Instead, balance them on the chopstick rest provided or across the top of your bowl. More importantly, never pass food between your chopsticks and somebody else’s, as this action is reminiscent of part of the Japanese funeral rites.
If you’re not confident with chopsticks, ask the person serving you naifu toh fouku oh oh-neh-ga-i-shi-mass (Can I have a knife and fork please).
This also applies when taking taxis. There is no established culture of tipping in Japan and attempting to do so will likely cause confusion or embarrassment.
You will notice that people in Japan don’t eat on the street (unless you’re at a designated street food market) or on public transport. If you’re desperate for a quick bite, many larger konbini (convenience stores) have small seated areas, where you can eat food you have purchased there. It’s fine to eat and drink on long distance journeys taken on trains or shinkansen (bullet trains).
While in Western countries, slurping over a bowl of soup is considered rude, in Japan it’s quite the opposite. Slurping while eating a bowl of ramen or udon noodles is seen as a gesture of appreciation towards the chef.
Some restaurants are laid out in a traditional style with tatami (straw) mats covering the floor, tables that are low to the ground and floor-cushions rather than chairs. If you enter one of these restaurants, make sure to take off your shoes in the genkan (entrance area) before stepping onto the tatami. As a rule of thumb, if a place has tatami, you will be expected to take off your shoes.
In most restaurants in Japan, you will receive your bill (check) at the table before taking it to a cashier at the door to pay.
On entering any kind of shop, from a convenience store to a luxury boutique, the staff will almost always shout out ‘Irrashaimase!’, meaning welcome. Don’t worry – you aren’t expected to respond!
Many (though not all) clothing stores in Japan will ask that you remove your shoes before entering their changing room. A small basket in which to place your shoes is often provided, and some stores will even give you a pair of slippers to wear while you try stuff on!
In some women’s clothing stores, you will be given a bag made of transparent, gauzy material to place over your head while you try on clothes. This is requested in order to prevent makeup transferring onto clothes – smart eh? If you’re not aware of this practice in advance, it can lead to some quite baffling exchanges, so consider yourself warned!
When you get to the cash register to pay for your items, you will almost always be presented with a small tray. This is intended for you to place your cash or bank card on, before the store assistant processes your payment.
Lots of stores in Japan offer duty free shopping to foreign tourists, so look out for posters advertising this. In order to take advantage of the discount you will need to show your passport at the till, into which the cashier will insert a receipt for your duty-free purchases.
Most Japanese people stay silent or talk very quietly while using public transport. It’s also considered rude to speak on the phone while travelling on a bus or train.
On train and subway platforms there are markings on the floor which show you where the train doors will stop. If a station is busy (which in Tokyo, it most often is), join the queue at these markings rather than attempting to barge onto the train. It’s also common to queue up at bus stops.
Lots of people in Japan choose to wear a surgical-style mask in public, particularly while on transport. This is to avoid catching and spreading contagious illnesses.
Bowing is an integral part of Japanese culture and is used in a variety of contexts to signify thanks and/or humility. When leaving a shop, restaurant or hotel, it is common for the staff to bow to the customer. You can do a small bow in return to show your gratitude. You may come to find that this is a hard habit to break even once you’ve returned from your trip!
As a tourist, it’s always a good idea to master a few basic phrases as a show of respect to a country’s culture and people. Japanese is actually pretty straightforward when it comes to pronunciation, so you’ve for no excuses! Here are a few greetings that are good to know:
O-hai-yo go-zai-mass – Good morning
Kon-nee-chee-wah – Hello
Kon-ban-wah – Good evening
Oh-ya-soo-mee-na-sai – Good night
Japanese streets are incredibly clean and you should try to help keep them that way during your trip. You’ll notice a distinct lack of bins on the street, so try to minimise the amount of rubbish you accumulate during the day. Consider carrying a small plastic bag in which to put rubbish, which you can then throw away when you get back to your hostel.
Shrines (jinja) are buildings or structures associated with Japan’s native religion, Shinto, which are believed to house spirits (kami). Temples (otera), are places of worship for Buddhists.
While visiting a shrine or temple, remember that they are not merely pretty buildings but places of religious significance for many of your fellow visitors. Behave as you would in any religious building by keeping quiet and being aware of your surroundings.
It will be made very clear with posters whether you are required to remove your shoes before entering a shrine or temple building. You will either need to leave your shoes on a shelf at the entrance or to carry them around with you in a plastic bag, which will be given to you at the entrance and will be retrieved as you exit.
There will be clear signage if you enter a building or area where photography is not permitted. Most temples and shrines are happy for visitors to photograph the grounds and buildings’ exteriors.
Shinto shrines typically have a fountain of water near the entrance. If you would like to partake in a purification ritual, use one of the ceremonial ladles provided to rinse your hands in the fountain’s water.
Japan is one of the world’s most volcanically active countries and an upside of this is its wealth of natural hot springs – called onsen in Japanese. There are hot spring resorts all over the country, allowing visitors to wallow in balmy geothermal waters. Many traditional inns (ryokan) have their own onsen baths, located either indoors or outdoors (some offer both). There is also a tradition of bathing in sento, public bathhouses, used either by people who do not have a bath at home, or those who enjoy the communal bathing experience.
On entering an onsen or sento, you’ll be required to remove your shoes and change into slippers or flip flops. These are provided but you are welcome to bring your own. You can store your shoes in the lockers provided.
Most public bathing facilities in Japan prohibit those with visible tattoos, due to their traditional association with organised crime. Cover up your tattoos with plasters or risk being denied entry.
Public baths are gender segregated, so once you’ve made your way past the entrance be sure to choose the correct changing room. In case it isn’t obvious which changing room is which, it’s worth taking note of these characters: 女の湯 for women and 男の湯 for men.
Leave all of your clothes and jewellery in one of the changing room lockers, swimwear is not permitted. All you need to bring with you to the bath is a small towel, some soap and shampoo. It’s completely normal in Japan to bathe naked in communal baths, so try to leave any embarrassment at the door.
You will notice showers, stools and buckets located near the bathing area. Sit on a stool and use the bucket and shower to wash your hair and body before entering the bath.
When you check into a ryokan, you will be given a thin cotton robe called a yukata, as well as a pair of slippers and a padded jacket called a haori. While inside the inn, you are expected to wear this outfit, including at mealtimes.
While staying at a ryokan, you will sleep on a futon mattress rather than a Western-style bed. During the day, these are usually stored in cupboards, so that the bedroom can double up as a living room. Staff will lay out your futon while you have your evening meal.
Ryokans are notoriously strict when it comes to check-in and meal times. Make sure you arrive within the allocated check-in window, to avoid stressing out your hosts! You will most often be given a choice of time slots in which to have breakfast and dinner and they tend to be on the early side.
If you have any dietary requirements of allergies, let the ryokan know in advance so that they can accommodate your needs. In some cases they may not be able to cater to your requests.
Ryokans are usually old buildings and the rooms are not well sound-proofed. Be mindful of your fellow guests and keep noise to a minimum, particularly after 10pm.
After reading about the Ultimate Guide to Japanese Culture, do you want to have your own Japan group tour? Check out our Japan Adventure Tours or Japan Family Tours! Drop us a message in the chat box below or send us an email at email@example.com to find out more!