Without a doubt, Japan is one of my favourite countries I have ever visited and each time I go, I fall more in love with it. A huge part of what makes Japan so special, other than the great food, stunning landscape and fascinating history, is the culture. When you arrive, you’ll soon realise Japan has a culture unlike any other you’ve experienced, with a huge focus on respect. There are many things you need to be mindful of when travelling through Japan and, after visiting a few times, we wanted to share some of them with you to help you have the best experience possible. Here are 17 things you really need to avoid doing in Japan.
If you’re a Japanese local or have had the pleasure of visiting yourself, be sure to add any I may have missed in the comments below. You may also like to read: ‘These 7 useful tips make Tokyo travel easier!’
But first, watch this…
1. Wearing your shoes indoors
As you travel through Japan you’ll be asked to remove your shoes at the entryway to some places you visit. We experienced this at our accommodation in ryokans, onsens and some hotels as well as some restaurants and cafes too. In each instance, we were invited to remove our shoes at the entry, place them into a shoe cubby and slide on slippers provided to us. Be sure to look out for any signs or staff at the spot you’re visiting, asking you to remove your shoes and be sure to cooperate. I recommend wearing shoes that are easy and quick to take on and off (I’ve made the mistake of wearing my lace-up Converse boots one too many times!)
2. Taking a long time to eat in a small restaurant
Some of the smaller restaurants you may visit in Japan can have very limited seating. We’ve been in Ramen spots that seat a maximum of 8 at bar-style seating. In situations like that one, it’s not really appropriate to sit down and enjoy a long meal. The people who run the restaurant are most likely trying to get as many people through as possible so they can keep their business running, and all the people outside waiting are probably eager to have their meal too. It doesn’t mean you have to inhale your food without chewing, just that it’s important to observe common courtesy and respect by ordering, enjoying your meal then moving on so others can enjoy a meal too.
3. Travelling without cash
Japan is known for being a unique blend of modern and traditional, which could lend travellers to think their credit cards or bank/debit/EFTPOS cards will be accepted everywhere. As we’ve experienced time and time again, there are many places that simply don’t accept cards and will only accept cash as payment. We’ve experienced this everywhere from public transport, restaurant and cafes to hotels who required full cash payment upfront. Be sure not to get caught out and have sufficient cash on you for everything you plan on seeing/doing that day + a little extra just-in-case.
4. Being rude, aggressive or disrespectful
One of the things I love most about Japan is how gentle, kind, thoughtful and friendly the locals are. I have never seen a Japanese local being rude, aggressive or disrespectful to others. As travellers, it’s always important to observe the local culture and being kind and considerate is a huge part of Japanese culture. It’s never okay to raise voices at service staff, become irate at the train station or get drunk and belligerent. Always address people in Japan with humility and respect, treating everyone you meet with kindness.
If you’re from North America, your first instinct after a delicious meal in Japan may be to show your gratitude by leaving a generous tip. While your heart is in the right place, it’s unnecessary as service tax is already calculated and added to your bill. Instead, learning a little local language will go a really long way to show your appreciation, respect and gratitude. Practice saying, ‘Arigatou gozaimasu’ which is ‘thank you,’ and, ‘Oishii’ which is, ‘delicious!’ Be sure to bow a little after you say them and use your body language to convey to the staff just how much you loved your meal – a big smile and eye contact can transcend any language barrier.
6. Waiting for your server to take your order
In most cases, if you sit in a restaurant and wait for the server to come and take your order, you’ll be waiting for a very long time! We experienced one of two things at nearly every restaurant we visited in Japan. We either needed to place our order at a vending machine at the front door or call out to the server to come over when we were ready to take our order. The vending machine thing takes a minute to get used to, especially if you don’t read Japanese. You’ll need to go over to the machine, put some cash in, select what you want then give the ticket to your server. The calling out to your server thing was hard because I’ve always been taught it’s rude to call out to servers from across the restaurant. Not in Japan! You’re most welcome to, politely, yell out, ‘Sumimasen!’ which is ‘excuse me.’
7. Ignoring the queues
You’ll quickly notice just how organised, planned and well thought-out things are in Japan. From airports to trains, hotels to restaurants, the Japanese have a wonderful approach to order and every single part of my over-organised mind lives for it. It’s all just so civil! As a traveller, it’s really important to notice things like this and observe them. One, in particular, is the culture of queuing. It’s not okay to disregard the queue, push in or shove. At the train/subway, for example, you’ll need to join the queue to get on the next train and wait your turn.
8. Being weird at the public bath
Don’t be weird at the public bath. I’m going to say that again, just to be sure it got through. Do. Not. Be. Weird. At. The. Public. Bath. If you’re staying at an onsen or ryokan, for example, you may get to experience the Japanese culture of public baths. In fact, your room may not have a shower at all and your only ability to wash will be at the public bath.
So, how does it work? Baths are separated into male and female areas only. You enter the dressing room and remove all your clothing, placing it in a basket or cubby provided. Then, you take your bath products and stroll your nude self into the communal bathing area. There should be individual shower spots set up around the outside of the actual bath, usually with a small stool, mirror and hand-held shower head. Grab a seat on a stool and wash your hair, body, face etc then rinse off completely. Once you’re clean, you can get into the deliciously warm, clean bath and feel your body relax. It’s actually awesome because your muscles relax after a big day of walking around sightseeing – it helped me a lot with tension in my shoulders, back and legs.
Now, Matt and I had two very different experiences at the public bath. Mine was a tranquil experience of divine feminine energy and goddess empowerment surrounded by local Japanese ladies. Women of all shapes and sizes minding their business, showering themselves with self-love through their favourite bath products and embracing every lump, bump, curve and line as we soaked in the steamy hot water, revelling in the pure love and acceptance of our feminine forms. Matt’s experience was much, much different. It was, in his words, ‘a traumatic event’ involving a lot of staring, gawking and lathering created, entirely, by one tourist who was being weird and making everyone in there feel uncomfortable. Don’t be weird at the public bath. Just… don’t.
If the public bath isn’t something you feel comfortable with, that’s totally cool! Just be sure to find accommodation that allows you to have an ensuite.
9. Spreading germs in public
Another thing you’ll notice in Japan is many people wearing face masks in public. I asked a local if this was because they were worried about pollution and while that is the motivation for some, the person I spoke with said, “If we’re sick, we don’t want anyone else to catch it, so we use the mask to make sure they don’t.” That really touched my soul. I’ve been sneezed and coughed on more times than I can count, especially on planes, trains and public transport in general. If you’re sick, don’t sneeze or cough into your hand then touch a handrail. Instead, observe the local culture and get a face mask, use hand sanitiser and dispose of dirty tissues.
10. Being loud on public transport
Another top tip for moving through Japan’s incredible public transport network is to keep the noise down. You won’t find people watching shows at high volume, playing games on their phone without headphones on or even taking phone calls on the train. Instead, it’s important to be quiet, peaceful and respectful on the train. Don’t have loud conversations or create any unnecessary noise. Sit quietly and comfortably and just enjoy the ride, daydreaming of all the great things you’re going to see, do and eat today.
11. Pointing and staring
Japan’s modern and traditional blend means you’ll see a range of beautiful clothing and fashion. From traditional kimonos to the more fashion-forward, bright outfits in spots like Harajuku. Wherever you are and whatever you see, just be aware it’s not considered polite to point, stare and gawk at others. The great thing about that is it works both ways so if you are someone who tends to find people notice your dress sense, prepare to feel right at home and able to express yourself fully in Japan! In fact, you probably won’t even be aware of yourself feeling like a ‘tourist’ as we found nobody ever stared at us or made us feel like we were ‘out of place’ as we travelled through Japan.
12. Pouring yourself a drink
If you’re going out for a few drinks with those you’re travelling with or some locals you’ve befriended, you need to be aware of the culture of pouring your own drink. This one is really lovely and thoughtful! You’re most welcome to pour a drink, sake for example, for everyone at the table but just be sure to have someone else pour your drink for you. When someone is filling your drink for you, pay attention to what they’re doing, hold your cup for them with both hands and make a little eye contact and bow your head to show respect. Also, don’t start drinking your own drink until everyone else has theirs. These little moments of kindness and respect are a key part of Japanese culture and, honestly, they’re so enjoyable to experience as a visitor.
13. Putting a business card in your back pocket
If you meet someone in Japan and they give you a business card, it’s important you treat it with respect. In fact, any meeting with a new person should be a very respectful affair. Be sure to look into their eyes, shake their hand firmly and bow. You may need to bow multiple times. If they give you a business card do not stick it in your back pocket or shove it in your bag! This can be seen as a sign of disrespect. I always accept a business card using both my hands, clasp it between my palms and bow. Then, I place it in a very safe spot, showing my care and respect for it.
14. Forgetting to say thank you and bow
I’m sure I’ve covered it already but, just to really hammer it home – it’s important to say thank you, make eye contact and bow. Don’t go in for a kiss on the cheek or a hug in the first instance, particularly if you’ve never met the person before. After we’d spent a few days getting to know our local guides in Japan, I felt I’d established a very strong bond with them and when we went to say goodbye, felt comfortable asking if I could hug them and they very happily said yes. With everything you do in Japan, have respect at the front of your mind and mimic local behaviour to express it appropriately. I mean look at the photo below, even the deer in Nara bow!
15. Photographing people without permission
Whenever we travel we always ask people before we take a photo or film them and this rule should apply in Japan too. The only exceptions we have to this is just when we’re taking a photo of a huge crowd, of course, because we can’t run around Shibuya an ask 5,000 people for their permission. But, if we want to take a portrait of a woman selling street food, for example, we always ask. If you don’t speak Japanese, you can convey the sentiment by holding up your camera, pointing to it then pointing to them with a questioning look. They’ll get what you mean and will either say yes or no. As always, photographing children is strictly off-limits at all times!
16. Breaking the chopstick etiquette rules
Challenging yourself to try new things outside your comfort zone is just one of the many wonderful things about travel. In Japan, you’ll be given many opportunities to eat with chopsticks. Many restaurants will have spoons and forks for you to use but if you don’t push through and try, you’ll never learn how to use chopsticks. I don’t know about you, but I always have respect for people who try! When using chopsticks, just be sure not to do anything that could come off as careless or disrespectful of the food, like skewering a dumpling with one chopstick and lowering it into your mouth from above like a claw machine. Also, never stand your chopsticks up vertically in your rice. At a Japanese funeral, chopsticks are stuck vertically into a bowl of rice so doing so at a restaurant can be seen as disrespectful and a sign of bad luck.
17. Making a vlog in the suicide forest
This entire post has basically been a guide to navigating Japan’s incredible culture of respect. Even if you didn’t read this or any other guide, you would very quickly pick up on each of these things as you travel through Japan and naturally adapt. With that in mind, it’s unbelievable anybody could do anything as silly as thinking it’s okay to make a vlog in a suicide forest, film a person’s body and then upload it to YouTube. Still, these things happen and this final point isn’t really about that YouTuber, his video or even a warning not to make a video like his because, really, we all know that isn’t right.
This point is just a reminder that everything we do has meaning and influence, whether it’s your little sister viewing your travel photos on Instagram or 500,000 people watching your vlog on YouTube. What you share and how you behave has an impact. Use your trip to Japan to set the tone for other travellers on how to have an amazing, fun adventure while still respecting local culture.
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