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Cultural Traditions to be Aware of When Going to Japan

Japan is a unique place where there are a lot of cultural differences and etiquettes that are foreign to visitors coming from Western countries. For first time visitors it may seem daunting to manage the etiquette that should be adhered to while visiting Japan. We have all been there where we’re not 100% sure what to do when interacting with the locals in order not to offend.

Photo by Engin Akyurt 

This article goes through the most important things to avoid doing. From food etiquette, behaving in public to interacting with the locals. If you avoided doing the following 20 things, you’ll have made a strong effort to embrace the Japanese culture. It’s important to remember that the Japanese people are one of the friendliest people around. They are welcoming and in most cases will try and help you out if you ask for it.

People in Japan are generally very obedient and they are an extremely respectful culture. It’s important to try and adhere to the local sensibilities.  It’s the little things that count and by familiarizing yourself with this article you should be in good standing to make a positive impression on the country you’re visiting. 

Don’t Tip 

To most visitors this will be quite an odd thing and it will end up saving you quite a bit of money if you’re eating out regularly. Tipping is pretty ubiquitous in most Westerner cultures so it’s important to recognize that you shouldn’t tip for anything in Japan. This includes eating out, going for drinks, Taxi rides etc. In Japanese culture tipping is viewed as offensive, so no matter how happy you were with the food or service, don’t do it. 

In terms of customer service in general Japan has an extremely high level of service. It’s the kind of service that you would expect at a 5 star hotel, but what makes Japan unique is that you will experience this high level of service everywhere you go. As the standards are so high leaving a tip is almost a critique of the service that has been provided. Even if you try and leave a tip the server will most likely reject the tip, so it’s best off not doing it.  

Don’t Eat and Walk 

Eating food while on the go is considered impolite in Japanese culture, so try not to do it if you want to avoid getting looks of disgust from the locals.

The positive thing about this cultural intricity is that all convenience stores and anywhere that sells food will typically have seating where you can chow down on your food. 

Tokyo and Japan in general is a very clean place and local etiquettes like this help in keeping Tokyo the beautiful city that it is, so make sure to respect the local values and take a seat when you eat. 

Photo by Mat Kedzia 

Don’t confuse Convenience stores for their western version 

Convenience stores in Japan are mythical places. Unlikes their Western counterparts these one stops shops for pretty much anything serve up some top quality eats and drinks. In North America and Europe I would only buy prepared food from the likes of 7Eleven in the US and Spar in Europe if I was in dire straits for food. 

The food on offer in the likes of 7Eleven, Lawsons, and FamilyMart  is actually good, from the fresh onigiri to the local offerings that most stores offer.You will be mesmerized by the selections on offer.  

Convenience stores in Japan are part of everyday life for a wide range of Japanese people.  From the suit men looking for a late night meal to college students looking for a cheap nutritious meal. The convenience store is literally a one for all offering.

Most locations are open 24/7 and also sell alcohol at all hours so whether you’re looking for a breakfast or a late night beer for your walk home they will have you covered. 

Don’t hand Cash to Cashiers

In restaurants, shops and convenience stores if you are paying in cash (which is the most widely used form of payment) there will be a small tray that the cashier or server will place in front of you. 

This is meant for you to place the cash on the tray so that the cashier/server can collect the cash. When they provide you with your change they will also use the tray to give you your change. The reason this is done is from a convenience standpoint it means the cash or coins dont fall and also to give visibility to the customer of their payment at all times.  

Don’t rely on your credit and debit cards for payments 

Japan is known as a worldwide leader in the field of technology, so many first times visitors assume that card payments will be accepted anywhere you go and that is not the case.  Japan is a cash based society and some restaurants and bars will accept cards. A lot of locations will not, so you’re better off carrying cash at all times. You don’t want to be stuck washing the dishes.   

The good news is that ATM’s are very prevalent and they typically accept the majority of overseas cards. The fees for withdrawing money will depend on your bank’s international withdrawal fees so make sure to confirm that with your bank before making the trip. Convenience stores typically have ATMs and they are around every street corner, so you’ll never be too far away from one if you’re in need.  

Learn how to use Chopsticks and the etiquette that goes with it 

Photo by Alessandro Albanesi 

Chopsticks are used for all meals and while a lot of restaurants do have knives and forks on request it’s worth doing as the locals do and to learn how to use them if you already don’t know.  

It’s integral that you don’t leave your chopsticks in your rice as you break from your meal. It’s considered rude to do so and leaving chopsticks in rice as it’s associated with death. During funeral rituals a bowl of rice is left with the chopsticks standing vertically in the bowl. So, try not to do it.   

It’s also important never to pass food with your chopsticks. This also has a pretty morbid connotation in Japanese culture. At funeral services, chopsticks are used to pass the cremated bones of the deceased at funerals.  So, if you fancy a bite from someone elses plate. Use your own chopsticks to get the bite yourself. 

Similar to Knives and forks, once you have finished your meal you can leave your chopsticks resting across your bowl. The chopsticks should be paired together, but not crossing. Crossing chopsticks is also a ritual at funeral ceremonies so stay aware from that as well. If there is a chopstick holder provided be sure to use it. 

Sharing food is very common in Japan and when you order a shared dish, be sure to transfer the food to your plate or bowl before eating. Also, don’t point at people with your chopsticks as it’s considered rude. There are even more elements that you could take into account when using chopsticks but what we have here are the most important elements to avoid. 

Bring your trash home to your hotel or hostel

This is definitely something that confuses first-time visitors.  For a city that is impeccably clean, there are virtually no trash cans around. The reason Japan in general is so clean comes down to the respectfulness of the people. As a culture, they understand that someone else will have to pick it up if they litter, so they just don’t do it. People will pack away rubbish and bring it home if they are not near a trash can. 

There are always trash cans at Convenience stores and because their eating and walking are frowned upon. It’s generally expected that you either eat your snack at the convenience store and bin your rubbish straight after or you consume your food at home. Simple isn’t it? But it’s another example of the Japanese just having life figured out. 

If your visiting a home or a bathhouse take off your shoes 

If you’re visiting a place that requires you to take off your shoes before entering it will be pretty obvious. The telltale sign that it is required is if there’s a pile of shoes at the entrance of the establishment. So, this isn’t really something that needs to be fretted about. 

Again this is a pretty practical thing to do. Outdoor shoes are considered unclean, so it means the floors stay cleaner for longer. Again, it’s very efficient. In place bathhouses and restaurants, there will typically be house slippers that will be available for you to use. These should be worn after removing your shoes, don’t walk around in your socks. 

This is definitely something that is more prevalent outside of the major cities, so when you visit the small towns be aware that hotels, restaurants could require you to remove your shoes. If you ever end up visiting someone’s home. Always remove your shoes. No matter what city it is in. 

Don’t Just Go to Tokyo on your Trip 

There are lots of great places to visit in Japan outside of Tokyo. If you want to experience traditional Japan, make sure that you visit Kyoto. Kyoto is fast becoming one of the most popular areas to visit in Japan. As a child, this is probably what you had pictured Japan as being. Temples, Bamboos, Geisha girls wearing kimonos. It really is the cultural and historical heart of Japan. 

There are lots to do in Kyoto. From visiting the array of shrines and temples to immersing yourself in their food culture, there are lots to be explored in this wonderful city. 

There are a number of must-do things in Kyoto such as the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine which is a beautiful shrine that is located halfway up a mountainside. So, you can take in the views of Kyoto as you wander around the gardens and shrines.  

We also suggest going to the Kiyomizu-Dera Temple. The temple is a Unesco world heritage site and is one of Japan’s most iconic temples. Surrounded by Cherry Blossoms this temple is best to visit this temple in Cherry Blossom season. This usually takes place in April and if you can organize your trip around this, it’s well worth it. As the cities really do flourish in Cherry Blossom season. 

Don’t skip inline 

Lining up in Japan is taken very seriously and there are a number of rules that come with lining up. So, let’s delve into it. For places that you are expected to line up for like trains and buses, there are typically markings on the floor that indicate where to line up. Again, this just makes sense and means there is no pushing or rushing when trying to get on a train or bus.  

Even at restaurants when you are waiting for a table there will be an orderly queue if there’s any sort of a wait. While you wait in the queue it’s also important to be quiet and respectful as you wait. Even if you’re waiting with other people, it’s important to talk quietly if you’re going to do so. Japanese people are very aware of their surroundings and not to disturb other people. Similar to lines in Japan is the flow of traffic on escalators. To be as efficient as possible there are two lanes to an escalator. The left-hand side is meant for people that are standing while the right-hand side is for people that prefer to walk up the escalator or are in a rush.  

Don’t Blow your nose in public when in close quarters

The Japanese are a very health-conscious group of people. You will notice that a lot of people will wear a face mask (this happened even before COVID). People typically wear face masks if they are under the weather as a preventive measure to stop the spreading. It’s a very selfless act and speaks to the Japanese way of thinking. Obviously, if you need to blow your nose go for it, but try and have tissues at the ready. 

This tip is probably most pertinent when you are in close quarters. So, when you’re on the train or in a restaurant try to avoid sneezing loudly. If possible try and go to a bathroom to sneeze, but sometimes that is not possible so if you really need to sneeze try and do so discreetly in a tissue.  

Don’t try to open a Taxi Door 

Photo by Andrey Grushnikov

Taxis can be another minefield to navigate.  First-timers sometimes struggle with this as they jump in a taxi from the airport. It’s natural to reach for the door to open it, but in Japan all Taxi doors are automatic.  So, once the driver has confirmed that he can take your fare, they will open the door for you.  The same principle goes for closing the Taxi door. 

The reason this is done is mainly done for the safety of the driver. As the driver can choose who they let in their Taxi and who they don’t.  If there is a larger group of you and you need someone to sit in the front of the Taxi, then you will have to manually open these doors as the back doors are the only ones that are automatic.  

A general word of warning on Taxis in Japan.  They can be quite expensive and with the efficiency of the span of the public transport system, it is a lot economically to go this route. But if you prefer a Taxi you can expect impeccable service for the price you pay. There’s no asking for directions, the drivers are knowledgeable and polite, and did I mention they all wear white gloves.  

Don’t J-Walk 

Like all things in Japan. The rules are there to be obeyed and the Japanese people adhere to the rules. So, small things such as crossing an empty road when there are no cars or cyclists coming should also be adhered to by tourists. Although you really won’t get a ticket or in any real trouble it’s important to adhere to the rules in the country you’re visiting.

Don’t smoke in public places 

Although smoking is pretty popular in Japan, smoking in public areas is not acceptable and can be met with a fine of up to $400 USD.  Dotted throughout the cities are smoking zones where you can smoke away to your heart’s content. These are designated areas in buildings, within convenience stores, and little shed-like buildings to name a few locations where you can smoke. 

Since April 1st, 2020, smoking in the majority of bars and restaurants has been outlawed. There are a few exceptions, but overall you should assume that you can’t smoke anywhere. Cigarettes are widely available, you can even pick them up in vending machines if you have a Taspo card (age identification card). 

Don’t go to the tourist traps (Especially Disneyland)

Tokyo like all major cities has a number of tourist traps that should be avoided. Although themed restaurants are pretty abundant in Tokyo they should definitely be avoided. The entertainment is over the top and the food is generally average,  so try to avoid them.  The place should be cat cafes, robot restaurants, and ninja restaurants all fall under this category.  If you enjoy this type of entertainment and paying for the experience then by all means go ahead. 

Disneyland Tokyo is a special mention.  At InspoTravel we like the odd trip to Disney or Universal, but Tokyo Disney is a rare bred. It is potentially the busiest theme parks and general enclosed area that we’ve ever attended and we attended mid-week. I’m not sure if it’s always that busy, but it scarred me for life and I vowed to myself that day. Never to return to Disneyland Tokyo.  We waited 3 hours for Splash mountain. So avoid at all costs. 

The final tourist trap that we suggest you avoid is the Tokyo Tower. Again when we visited it was very busy, but that’s not our main gripe with Tokyo Tower.  Don’t get me wrong, Tokyo Tower is an iconic piece of the Tokyo skyline, but like all towers and buildings that literally tower over all of the other buildings, it’s best to observe the skyline from a mid-sized building so you can include the impressive piece of engineering in your view. 

Don’t take a phone call while on a train 

Photo by Liam Burnett-Blue

The Japanese train system is widely known as one of the best in the world. It’s efficient, clean and far reaching. It’s extremely easy for tourists to use the local city trains as well as the famous bullet trains that link the major cities. 

When you are utilizing this fantastic service is important to adhere to the local etiquette of how to behave on a train. Taking a phone call on a train is considered impolite, although you probably won’t get called out by the local, you will definitely get some looks of disgust from the locals. Nobody wants to be that obnoxious tourist, so try and wait until you’re off the train to take your phone call.  

Avoid public displays of affections and general physical contact 

This is a funny one and may seem quite odd to westerners visiting the country, but public displays of affection are not really commonplace in Japan. It’s best to avoid these types of contact. 

It’s an overall interesting topic because physical contact in general is not really commonplace. For instance, shaking hands is not a practice. Bowing is how you greet other people and you should only shake someone else’s hand or hug someone else if they initiate the contact.  Tokyo Odaiba Oedo Onsen Monogatari is one of the most popular large Onsens in Tokyo.