Etiquette is often described as a minefield for backpackers on a Japan tour. But this isn’t quite true. A minefield suggests that one misstep results in an explosion of embarrassment, awkwardness or anger from your hosts. This is highly unlikely.
The scariest thing about committing a faux-pas in Japan is that you probably won’t know you’ve done it, such is the Japanese determination not to make you feel embarrassed. And so you’ll probably carry on blowing your nose in public or leaving your chopsticks stuck in your rice unaware of the offence you’re causing.
So, here are a few tips to put you at ease on your Japan tour and help you avoid those cultural banana-skins.
Shoes off, slippers on
I still have nightmares about seeing Jesse – big, blonde, Canadian – striding back into the Kyoto tea ceremony room totally oblivious to the fact that with every step he was sending our kimono-wearing hostess into a silent spiral of despair. It was only when Jesse was about to sit down again that he realised his error: the word “toilet” was embossed on both of the slippers, helpfully in English and Japanese just to make sure everyone understood he was still wearing the slippers specifically worn only in the toilet. Wet footprints all over immaculate tatami mat – cringe!
Tip 1 – always, always, always take your shoes off. It is NOT optional. Wear the slippers you’re given and always swap those for the toilet slippers when provided. BUT, don’t do a Jesse and remember to remove the toilet slippers before contaminating the cleanest room in the building.
Nude is not lewd
It’s fully naked or nothing at Japanese bathhouses, so leave any inhibitions at the door. There are other points of etiquette to look out for. I remember going to the Jakotsu-yu bathhouse in Tokyo and seeing another tourist sitting in one of the baths, smiling unknowingly at the locals while scrubbing his arms and face with his towel and wringing excess water out in the bath. It wasn’t long before the locals got up to leave.
Tip 2 – It is considered rude to wash yourself while in the bath – you’re supposed to have a thorough wash before you get into the baths, so don’t try to skip this crucial first step. Finally, leave the towel on the side of the bath and do NOT wring water out in the bath.
Japan invented karaoke as we now know it: you and your friends sitting in a private room with lots of alcohol, lots of echo and very little talent. It makes for a loud, fun, blurry mess. The only thing that can spoil it is a sudden shortage of alcohol OR a pesky microphone hog. You know what I mean, the person that loads the karaoke machine up with Chris de Burgh’s b-sides and won’t give anyone else a sniff.
Tip 3 – Don’t be a mic hog. It goes down like a lead balloon in any country, but in Japan it’s a fiery balloon heading straight into a mountainside. Sing “Lady in Red” once and then join the back of the song queue. And no more Chris de Burgh! Also, just because the machine has a decent selection of your favourite thrash metal tracks, doesn’t mean you should sing them – Japanese karaoke is about mutual enjoyment, so think about the people you’re with.
Sushi spice challenge
Even on a backpacker budget you’ve got to try sushi or sashimi in Japan at least once. A cheap way of doing it is combining it with a tour of the amazing Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. Once you’ve finished watching the Bluefin tuna auction, head to the outer market where there are plenty of hole-in-the-wall sushi counters. There’s no need to get too pernickety, but there are a couple of basic points of sushi etiquette that will save your blushes.
Tip 4 – You can eat sushi (fish on top of rice, or fish and rice wrapped in seaweed) with your hands. But sashimi – just sliced raw fish with no rice – must be eaten with chopsticks. AND the itamae, the chef preparing the fish, will normally add the appropriate amount of wasabi for each piece he prepares, so adding a whole load more is basically saying “screw you and your amazing fish, I just want to breathe fire from my nostrils”, which is not ok.
Late? No excuses, just say sorry
“Sumo practice went on longer than expected”, “The bullet train isn’t as fast as I thought”, “I had to help someone out of their Godzilla costume in Harajuku” – no one wants to hear it! Japanese people are incredibly punctual (some might say early), and when they’re late they don’t make excuses, they just apologise lots.
Tip 5 – If you’re going to be late, don’t waste time thinking of excuses. Instead tell whoever you’re meeting you’re going to be late (if possible), and then give a sincere apology when you get there.
To enjoy tea rooms in Kyoto, onsen bathhouses and the Tsukiji fish market, check out our 13-day Japan backpacker tour, which includes all of these places and more.
See our other blog posts here for more Japan travel tips and inspiration.
About Wiets Helwig
Wietske’s taste for wanderlust was sparked at an early age. She grew up as an expat living in Belgium, Austria, Poland, China, Canada, The Netherlands, and The United Kingdom. Each year, she sets out to explore a new country, her latest adventure taking her to the Tibetan Plateau.
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