The following is a short guide for those who have never been to Japan before and might be having slight anxiety about travelling to a foreign country, especially one with such a different culture than you may be used to back home. Please note, however, that if you do not look Japanese, you will generally not be expected to know anything about Japanese customs, so don’t feel like it is imperative to memorize all the cultural rules and customs that I will mention.
You are expected to remove your shoes before stepping up from the entry area into a Japanese home. This custom is also observed in many traditional Japanese restaurants, temples and shrines, store dressing rooms and a few other businesses. No footwear, not even slippers, should be worn on tatami (reed mat) floors.
Smoking is permitted in most restaurants, cafes and on local trains that have designated smoking cars available. Many hotels also still have smoking rooms and even entire floors dedicated to smoking. Unlike the United States, smoking seems to be more regulated outdoors than indoors, as it is illegal to walk and smoke at the same time. If you wish to smoke outdoors, please find a designated smoking area.
Hot Springs and Public Baths
If you are the adventurous or non-bashful type, Japan has quite the array of hot springs and public baths that can be the perfect activity after a long day of sightseeing. It is a very wonderful and relaxing experience once you get over being naked in front of other people and has been proven to have a plethora of health benefits. If you are horrified of the idea, many hotels and hot spring resorts also have private Japanese-style baths that can be rented by the hour.
Take off your shoes in the entryway. Try not to bring valuables with you. If you have something irreplaceable, use the lockers, or leave it with
the front desk. Enter the locker room, and place your clothes neatly in a basket on the shelf, bathing suits are not allowed. Leave your drying towel in the basket, and use the small hand towel for ‘modesty’.
Enter the bath inside room, and wash your body completely. Try to stay seated on the stool while doing this. Use the shampoo, soap, shower head, and bowls provided. Don’t keep the water running when not in use, and try not to splash anyone around you.
When you have cleansed and rinsed thoroughly, you can move to the bath. There’s no swimming or fooling around. The purpose is relaxation. If you have a modesty towel, don’t let it touch the water, this is seen as soiling the water. Most people place it on their head or on the side. Please do not wash clothes or other items.
Before returning to the locker room, rinse off again in the shower stalls near the door, and remove all excess water from your body before entering the locker room. Once back in the
locker room, dry off and get dressed. Make sure to drink lots of water.
The Japanese style toilet is quite different from what you are probably used to. When using it, you don’t sit down on it, but squat over it, facing the raised portion. In some ways, it can even be considered more sanitary than the western style toilet. However, if you are not used to the Japanese style, your legs can become tired, and it can be trying. This page is included as a public service! When in doubt, look for a “Western Style Toilets” sign at the public restroom.
Most major hotels have signs in their coffee shops and restaurants prohibiting the use of mobile phones. If it is necessary, you can leave the restaurant and take or make the call outside. All trains have announcements that ask passengers to be considerate of others when using their phones on the train. Some train companies actually ban the use of mobile phones on their trains. It is basically a matter of common courtesy not too talk too loudly when using a mobile phone in public.
Bowing as a form of greeting
In Japan you can express basic greetings, “Hello”, “Thank you” and “Excuse me” by simply bowing! Did you know that different meanings depend on the angle of the bow?
- 15° – Hi
- 30° – Thanks
- 40° – I’m sorry
The right way to use an escalator in Tokyo
In Tokyo, you must stand on the left side in order to allow people to pass on the right side. In Osaka, the etiquette is opposite. I wonder which could be considered the world standard?
Temples and homes, Never With shoes!
Have a good look around at the people around you. Generally, you will not be allowed to wear your shoes in temples and Japanese homes.
Do’s and Don’ts
This is a popular “dos and don’ts” list. As I’ve mentioned before, unless you’re planning to live here, these are not for you to have constant anxiety about while on your vacation, it’s just for a little bit of insight on how complex Japanese culture really is.
- It is impolite to eat or drink something while walking down the street.
- Do not bite or clean your fingernails, gnaw on pencils, or lick your fingers in front of others.
- Restaurants often offer a small, moist rolled-up towel (cold in summer, hot in winter) called an “oshibori” to wipe your hands before your meal. It’s impolite to wipe your face and neck with it, though some do in less formal places.
- When eating with others in a formal situation, there is no need to pour your own drink. You pour your companion’s drink and your companion pours yours.
- If you don’t want any more to drink, leave your glass full, or else you will continue to have your glass filled for you.
- It’s customary to say “Itadakimasu!” before eating and “Gochisosama deshita!” after eating, as well as “Kampai!” meaning “Cheers!” when a toast is made in a group.
- When there is a platter of food for the group to share, put what you want on your own plate first before eating it.
- Do not use your chopsticks to skewer food, move dishes around, or point at someone with.
- Don’t leave your chopsticks standing up in your food. Put them on the plate or on top of a bowl, and don’t pass food to someone from chopsticks to chopsticks, just place it on their plate. Both of these acts are similar to a ritual performed at funerals.
- It is normal in Japan to pick up your rice or miso soup bowl and hold it under your chin to keep stuff from falling, rather than leaning over it.
- Soy sauce is rarely poured over rice. If you must, try to dip the rice in the sauce instead.
- When using a toothpick, many Japanese will cover their mouths with their other hand.
- Be aware that in Japan it is normal to make slurping sounds when you’re eating noodles and is actually encouraged as a way to help eat the noodles while they are still hot.
- It is normal to pay a restaurant tab at the register instead of giving money to the waiter/waitress. Remember: There is no tipping in Japan.
Useful Kanji Symbols