While Japan is an amazing place to visit, being welcoming and warm to travelers, the country has a very unique culture that can be as mysterious as it is interesting for a first-time visitor. Japan is not a country where you can just go and wing it. For foreign visitors, Japan’s technology can be overwhelming, the prices terrifying and the language barrier intimidating.
When visiting Japan, the key is preparation. Knowledge of etiquette, including when to remove your shoes, when and how to bow, how to get around the country and what to pack, can make your Japanese experience go a lot smoother.
CUSTOMS and ETIQUETTE
Greeting: Upon meeting or leaving someone, bow politely, say hello or goodbye and always say “thank you” when appropriate. When bowing, the duration, depth and number of bows isn’t something visitors are expected to know, it’s the effort that counts. Typically, Japanese don’t shake hands, so it is best to wait for the other person to extend their hand. Exchanging of name or business cards is important during formal introductions. Use both hands when exchanging cards, and gifts.
Gifts: Returning from trips, changing of the seasons and moving to a new home are just a few of the reasons to exchange gifts in Japan. Be prepared by bringing small items from home to have on hand when you need to extend a special “thank you.” Avoid expensive gifts, instead going with small items that may only be available in your country, such as chocolate bars or souvenir shot glasses.
Footwear: Always be sure your socks are clean, because you will be taking your shoes off a lot in Japan. If a building has genkan, or a sunken-style entrance, with shelves of shoes by the entrance, you’re expected to remove your shoes. Always remove footwear when entering a private home, traditional accommodations and temples. Some historic sites and hostels will also require you to go shoeless. Restaurants with woven straw matting, called “tatami,” will most often require guests to remove their shoes. Some establishments will offer a pair of slippers, but never wear even slippers on a tatami.
Dining: There are some definite dos and don’ts surrounding the use of chopsticks, with perhaps the two biggest don’ts being never to leave your chopsticks sticking upright in a bowl of rice or use your sticks to pass food to another’s chopsticks, as these actions are reminiscent of funeral rituals. “Playing” with your chopsticks is severely frowned upon. Tipping isn’t a custom in Japan, and leaving cash on the table often results in your waiter running after you to return your money.
Temples and Shrines: Always speak in a quiet manner, don’t go poking around closed-off areas and avoid dressing too casually. Rinse your hands with the provided ladles and water before entering a shrine. Pour water into your hand and rinse your mouth. Spit the water out onto the ground, and never back into the water source.
Public Behavior: Always follow the queues when boarding buses and trains. Talking on your cell phone while on a bus or train or speaking loudly with with others is considered quite rude. Never blow your nose in public. Some people will wearing surgical masks when ill to prevent passing their germs to others.
Language: Learning a few basic Japanese words and phrases will help tremendously. English isn’t as widely spoken or understood in Japan as some might expect, so never approach someone assuming they’ll be able to speak it.
TRAVELING in JAPAN
Packing: Try to travel light, as you will often have to carry you luggage over long flights of stairs, especially when boarding trains.
Take the Train: Rental cars in Japan are insanely expensive, so book a Japan Rail Pass, also known as a “JR Pass,” before you leave home. This pass gives you unlimited JR train rides anywhere in Japan, however, non JR trains are additional. You can book a JR Pass at jrpass.com. Be sure to take into account the time/date changes when booking. The JR Pass must be booked before leaving home.
Finding Your Hotel: Because most Japanese don’t speak English, print out your hotel address in Japanese and keep it with you at all times, just in case you get lost.
Mix the Old with the New: Make time to visit both Kyoto, a traditional Japanese city, and modern high-tech Tokyo. Kyoto is said to be one of the most beautiful spots in the world, filled to the brim with old-world Japanese culture, claiming over 1,500 beautiful temples, Sakura trees too numerous to count and often-empty streets. Tokyo, on the other hand, offers all the glitzy allure of any big city anywhere in the world.