Japanese customs: etiquette tips for first-time travellers

Last Updated on 17/04/2021 by secretmoona

Japan is a country with a unique culture, heritage and customs. Manners are essential to the Japanese. The country’s uniqueness is one of the reasons millions of people travel to Japan every year. If you are travelling to Japan for the first time, there are some unspoken rules you will need to know and adhere to them. 

pathway between traditional houses
Photo by Evgeny Tchebotarev on Pexels.com

Even though Japanese customs and rules can be overwhelming, it’s essential to know and familiarise yourself with the cultural traditions before travelling. While you will stick out as a tourist, no matter what you do, learning about the Japanese etiquette and adhering to them will show that your respect for the Japanese people and their culture. 

So before travelling to the land of the Rising Sun, be sure to read these tips to learn some of the basic rules of Japanese customs!

“What cultural things I should know about before travelling in Japan that might make my trip a bit easier?”

Japanese customs infographic for SecretMoona blog

Japanese customs and etiquette for tourists

Meeting and greetings

Bowing and addressing someone

When you meet someone in Japan, it is polite to bow to each other, especially to say “thank you” or “goodbye”. Since bowing is complex, you will notice some people will bow a little while others will take a 90-degree bow; a tourist doesn’t need to do so – A simple nod will suffice in most cases. 

Additionally, when addressing someone, Japanese people use the suffix “san”, “sama”, “kun”, and “chan” to people’s names. “San” is a title of respect added to both male and female names or surnames. “Sama” is used if they want to be even more respectful. For children, “kun” is added to boys’ names and “chan” to girls.

Offer a gift 

If you visit a Japanese person or stay in a guesthouse, it is customary to offer a gift. It doesn’t have to be costly. For example, on my first trip to Japan, I arranged a day with Kyoto’s guide. I brought her some English tea, nicely wrapped. She was pleased even though it was a small gift! Please use both hands to give and receive something from someone.  

When giving and receiving money, a gift, or exchanging business cards with someone, it is polite to use both hands rather than one.

Learn some basic Japanese before you go 

Japanese train stations sign in Japanese and English

English is not widely spoken in Japan, although you will find people who understand and speak well (mainly in big cities like Tokyo). Although you can travel around Japan without knowing the language, it’s always polite to learn a few Japanese words. Don’t worry, you don’t need to be fluent; just being able to greet or thank people will help along the way. Japanese are generally helpful people, so whenever they see a tourist looking list, they are quick to offer help. Note that you also have some excellent translation apps you can use. Read Japanese for first-time travellers for some must-know Japanese.

Avoid being late  

A baffling element of Japanese life is their attention to punctuality. No matter the occasion, arriving on time is significant. You will be impressed just by looking at the train timetable Japanese. When a train or subway is late, even by 30 seconds, the train staff can give a written explanation to travellers so they can present to their workplace or schools. You should respect this Japanese manner and arrive at least 5 minutes before any appointment.

Japanese customs in public

Don’t litter 

Japan is a clean country, and it wants to stay that way. Japanese are taught from a young age that clean means good. You will rarely see graffiti or even street bins. So how come streets are so well looked after? It’s because people take responsibility for their mess and take any rubbish they create home with them to dispose of. Children must clean their schools and private homes, or businesses must keep their areas clean. If you are caught littering, you can be fined up to 30 000 yen. I recommend having a small plastic bag with you so you can keep your rubbish until you arrive at your hotel/accommodation. Note that the bins located near the vending machines are to be used only by vending machine users.

No Smoking outside 

You don’t tend to see people walking along with the street smoking as you might do in Europe or America. This is because walking and smoking are illegal in some areas. The idea is that you could accidentally burn someone on a busy street. It’s not uncommon to see “smoke patrol” in Tokyo’s busy areas like Omotesando or Shinjuku to enforce the rules. There are plenty of designated smoking areas if you keep your eyes well open. If not, the best bet is outside konbini, hotels, bars or large train stations. Again, if you open your eyes, you might see some men pretending to hide their cigarette as they walk. If you get caught, you will be fined 1,000 yen. Some restaurants, especially izakayas, allow people to smoke indoors. If you are uncomfortable, you can ask for a non-smoking area.

Don’t cycle under the influence of alcohol

Out of all the don’ts, the worst cultural offence that one could probably commit not only in Kyoto but also in Japan is cycling while under the influence of alcohol. Anyone spotted committing this act would most likely end up in prison for five years or pay a fine of one million yen.

Don’t blow your nose in public

Blowing your nose in public is considered rude. Hence why you can see people walking around wearing surgical-style masks. Most people prefer to use these when they have a cold or flu to help prevent passing on their germs to others. Masks are found everywhere, from convenience stores, pharmacies to beauty shops. Be sure to wear a mask if you have a cold. It’s not an ideal solution, but if you must blow your nose, go to a public toilet to do so.

Mask-wearing is even more important since the pandemic to avoid the spread of Covid-19. Since each country has its each guideline, it would be advisable to check before travelling. In general, it’s essential to keep your hands clean and sanitised at all moment, especially when entering shops and restaurants, keep your distance from other people, wear your masks while indoors while maintaining social distancing.

Taking photos 

Women walking on the road in their traditional wear
Photo by Satoshi Hirayama on Pexels.com

The one thing I hate the most is tourists blatantly disregarding the rules and taking pictures and selfies where it is not allowed. Ensure whether taking pictures is allowed, especially in temples, shrines, museums and kabuki theatres. People seem to forget that temples and shrines are not attractions, but places of worship need to be respected. Flash photography can be damaging to some of the old paintings in the shrines and temples. 

Also, avoid taking pictures of people in the streets (you wouldn’t want them taking your photos, would you?). Always ask for their permissions. This goes for taking pictures of geishas and maikos too. Take photos from a distance, behind them or from an angle where their faces are not recognisable. Be respectful and avoid stopping, blocking or shouting at them. 

Don’t jump the queue

Japan is an orderly and organised country. With that in mind, you will find queue lines everywhere: restaurants, shops and especially train platforms. Tokyo Underground even has markers indicating where people should stand to wait for the train. You wait for passengers to exit before boarding. Common sense!

Japanese toilet with multiple buttons

Keep toilets clean 

Like most places, you want to leave the bathroom the way you found it, so it’s no different in Japan. Japanese toilets are fascinating. They have both the ultra-modern type with thousands of buttons and the old Japanese style toilets (looks like a urinal placed on the grounds). Both will take some getting used to, but the general rule is to keep them clean for the next person. If you are interested in Japanese toilets’ history, you might want to visit the Toto Museum in Kitakyushu.

Wet umbrellas 

People seem to be always carrying an umbrella. On rainy days, shops and restaurants will provide plastic covers for your umbrellas. Not only they avoid the floor being wet and slippery, but they also avoid making other people wet by mistake. 

Remove your shoes 

Line of shoes in front of step to temple. Fundamental part of Japanese customs
Image by AlinaDeng from Pixabay

An essential Japanese customs you will need to adhere to is taking your shoes off. People don’t wear shoes in Japanese homes or tatami floors. Some restaurants, hotels will ask their guests to remove their shoes if they have traditional Japanese flooring. One of the reasons is that tatami floors are very delicate. So, if you are staying at a ryokan with a tatami mat in the room, you will be asked to wear them only in the hallways or other areas within the premises. 

Some tourist sites, including temples and shrines, will also ask you to remove your shoes. There will be a rack where you can store your shoes and slippers to use while indoors. Most places will display a sign; when in doubt, look and do as the locals or ask.

You will also see bathroom slippers – they are to be used exclusively in the toilets. You will need to take off your shoes before entering the restroom and wear toilet slippers. Be sure not to forget to take them off as you leave the bathroom if you want to avoid embarrassment. Bathroom slippers will be found in most hotels, restaurants, guesthouses and private homes. 

“Tip: while sightseeing in Japan, wear comfortable shoes you can remove easily. Also, do wear nice and clean shocks!”

Japanese customs: Shopping

Japanese free service stall

Don’t leave a tip 

There is no custom of tipping waiters at restaurants or taxi drivers like in many European or American cities. Tipping can be confusing for them or even insulting. If you leave money on the table, people will likely run after you to give you money, thinking you forgot them. When you finish eating at a restaurant, you will generally pay at a counter. Also, cash is usually not passed from hand to hand. Instead, cashiers will place the money in a small tray.

Don’t count the change 

n western countries, it’s normal to count the change you receive. In Japan, people trust each other; therefore, it is considered rude to recount after someone has given you the difference. People might understand that you don’t trust them. 

A local shop in a small Japanese town

Do support local shops 

Like you would do in your home country, try to support local businesses by shopping closer to your accommodation. Japan has lots of traditional shopping arcades, known as shōtengai. Consisting of restaurants, stores and small clothing shops, they are usually found near train stations or along main streets. These struggling shopping streets have a wide variety of products, and everything is available there, so whatever you’re looking for, you will find it locally. By shopping locally, you help the community and also your wallet as things will be cheaper.

Japanese table manners

Say Itadakimasu/gochisousama/kanpai 

The most important table etiquette in Japan is to say the customary phrases before and after eating a meal. It’s a custom for Japanese people to say before eating “itadakimasu”. This phrase which translates to I receives this food, is the equivalent of Bon appétit. I have always seen people doing this, from my Japanese friends to people at restaurants. After finishing your food, make sure to thank the waiter or your host by saying “gochisousama deshita”. 

The same goes for drinking. When drinking with a group of friends, wait until everyone has their drink first, then say “kanpai” (cheers in English) before taking a sip of your drink.

Japanese customs and table manners: chopsticks use

Do use your chopsticks properly 

People will be impressed if you know how to use chopsticks. If not, some restaurant will have forks. In any case, remember not to play with your chopsticks. For example: signal the waiter with your chopsticks, point at someone, rub your chopsticks, drum on the table etc. Most importantly, don’t commit the following faux pas: cross the chopsticks, leave them standing upright in your food bowl (funeral ritual) or pass food to someone else’s chopsticks. If you are taking food from a sharing plate, use the large end of the chopsticks. The Japanese are extremely clean and conscious of personal hygiene, hence using the same chopsticks to share food is frown upon.

Cleaning your face with oshibori 

Many restaurants will provide a wet towel that’s either cool or hot. These towels are used to clean your hand before eating. It is considered rude to clean your face with them or to use them as a napkin. Therefore, once you have cleaned your hands, fold them and put them aside.

Do slurp 

Noodle slurping is one behaviour that will turn heads in Europe but not in Japan. It is highly recommended as it shows appreciation. If the chef sees you slurping, it means the food is good, and you enjoy it. It is not customary to bite your noodle. It is even said that slurping cools down the noodles as you eat, so slurp away.

Person holding of box of Takoyaki.
Osaka is perhaps the only place in Japan where you can eat and walk freely

Walking and eating

Another thing that is seen as impolite is walking and eating. I nearly committed a faux pas once when I started opening a packet of dry mango in the street. My friend was quick to tell me that eating in the street was frowned upon. I realised after the reasons I kept seeing people standing or crouching near food stalls while eating street food! You are expected to consume your food or drink on the spot.

Most places like convenience stores will have small eating areas, albeit small, to enjoy the food on the spot. Also, vending machines, available at every corner, have bins to discard food packaging and empty bottles or cans. Of course, it’s possible to eat while walking in some places like food festivals at shrines or temples. Don’t eat on the trains either. You will notice that nobody eats or drinks on the street, perhaps one reason why Japan is so clean!

Another point to note when using chopsticks is to make sure the part you put in your mouth doesn’t touch the table. Instead, put them on the chopstick stand. If they are disposable ones, put them on the paper cover.

Do not bring food and drinks bought elsewhere to a restaurant 

Japan is full of places to eat from yatai (屋台 small food stall), izakaya ( 居酒屋) to fancy Michelin star restaurants, you have a wide range of choices to enjoy local specialities. One thing to remember is that eating food or drink bought from another restaurant, konbini, or stall is bad manners. For example, when you enter a yatai, be sure to order food from their menu and bring the things you have bought elsewhere back to your hotel.  And no, ordering drinks is not part of the equation.

Customs for Japanese Temples and shrines

Respect Japanese customs when visiting Sensoji Temple

Respect the customs  

When in Japan, follow as the Japanese do. There are lots of Shinto shrines (jinja) and Buddhist temples (o-tera) open to everyone (worshippers or not). They are still religious sites; therefore, proper etiquette should be obeyed. When you’re visiting a temple, follow the standard practice: 

  • Be quiet
  • Do not eat or drink within the temple or shrine’s grounds
  • Do not venture where you are not allowed to
  • Bow at the gate, bow two times, make your wish, clap twice, bow again. 
  • Wash your hands properly – There will be a water source in front of any shrine. Before entering the shrine, use the ladles provided to pour water over your hands to rinse them, and pour water into your hand to rinse your mouth (spit out on the ground, not back into the water source).
  • Again, photograph appropriately. Do not take a photo of the shrine by standing in the middle of the tori, where you would be blocking the entrance. When there is a ceremony being held, avoid taking photos as this may disrupt the event.

Take off your sunglasses/hats 

Remember to respect the local practices wherever you visit a place of worship, even when you don’t follow the religion of the site you’re at. That being said, you will need to remove your shoes, including hats and sunglasses, if you are wearing any. You wouldn’t visit a church or mosque with sunglasses, would you?

Train and public transport etiquette

Be quiet on public transport. 

There is a type of tourist not appreciated by locals: a group of tourists who speak too loudly. I recall a situation where a group of excited tourists were travelling on a busy metro. Not only were they talking a little too loud, but they also had their backpacks on their backs. All the locals were looking at them, and you could see how uncomfortable they were. Do not be that kind of tourist; try to blend in and keep your volume down. If travelling on a packed train, track your backpack off your shoulders and try not to disturb people with your belongings.

Train and public transport etiquette

Don’t use your phone on public transport.

Talking on your phone while on the train or bus is considered rude. Rather than calling someone, or if someone calls you, reject the call and text them instead and put your phone on silent. If the call is urgent, respond but be brief. Should you need to respond, get off at the next station to resume the call. If you are travelling to someone, speak quietly.

Taxi doors 

Respect Japanese customs around taxi

Japanese taxis have automatic doors so you can feel like a VIP by letting the drivers open and close the door for you; they get offended if you open the door yourself. You should be polite and quiet during the journey. Be sure to take all your belongings when you leave, and you shouldn’t leave any rubbish.

Bathing etiquette

Japanese customs - bathing etiquette

Japanese public bathhouses (sento) are very popular around the country, whether you are in Kyoto or a small town like Ozu. Hot springs (onsen) are also found everywhere and are popular weekend getaway destinations. There are some manners around onsen. The concept of taking a bath is entirely different. Unlike in Europe or other western countries, you use the tub to soak after you have washed and rinsed first in Japan. If you are not too self-conscious, try to visit a sento or onsen. People will not judge your body shape, age, skin colours or the language you speak. People visit public baths to socialise, and most of them are separated by gender. The experience is fantastic: soaking in hot water while listening to the sound of the water and nature in front of you is truly a great feeling. 

Bathing etiquette:

  • don’t get into the bathtub / communal bath before showing first 
  • bathing suits are not allowed 
  • never let the small towel provided touch with the bathwater; they are only used to wash yourself hide your modesty. You will see people putting them on their head  
  • don’t swim in the onsen
Yukata for men and women worn at Japanese onsen

Tattoos

Staying in a Japanese ryokan is a bucket-list-worthy experience. If you have a tattoo and plan on staying in a ryokan, please inform the hotel before confirming your reservation. Tattoos in Japan are associated with the Yakuza (organised crime), so they are not welcomed in a traditional Japanese onsen. If you have small tattoos, you can probably cover them. Otherwise, you might get refused entry to the onsen. If you have visible tattoos, you can ask to book a room with its private Ibsen bath. Again, do check with the hotel’s onsen before booking. Similar rules will apply in some gyms and pools too. If in doubt, please check.

Miscellaneous tips

Do plan your itinerary

Planning your Japanese trip will save you time and avoid the stress associated with trip planning. 

Do book your accommodation in advance. 

The truth is accommodations can be very cheap in Japan but equally expensive. With a well-established travel plan in hand, you can tackle the hotel bookings. Capsule hotels, ryokans, guest houses, western hotels, the choice is endless. Although you can find spotless rooms for less than £40 a night, the earlier you book, the better.

Tip: Always book fully refundable rooms at this point in case you change your mind; fares will still be cheap compared with last-minute bookings.

The JR Pass also offers discounted rates for unlimited JR travel in Japan for a week or two. Japan Airlines and ANA offer discounted regional flights for international travellers. Do check them as they might sometimes be cheaper than the Shinkansen.

Japanese customs infographic

Great, now you know the essential Japanese manners and etiquette. Be sure to follow some of these customs when visiting Japan: one of the most incredible countries in the world! Do you know any other Japanese customs? Let me know by leaving a comment below.


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Hi there! I'm Mayi. Welcome to my blog SecretMoona! I hope to share with you the hidden secret of places I visit.

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