Japan’s mystery unfolds in front of travelers in unexpected ways. In between its modernist skyscrapers, you’ll find ancient rituals and deep history. With its intensely rich culture, very unique customs, mouth watering beautiful dishes, there’s no doubt that travelers will find themselves enamored with the Land Of The Rising Sun. For travelers about to embark on their first trip to Japan, it can seem overwhelming to assimilate into its daily life. So, here’s our biggest tips on how to avoid looking like a tourist in Japan!
Walk To The Left
Japan, especially its largest cities, is an incredibly systematic country. The level of organization and attention to detail will floor you. Every step of your path, whether its walking to the cleanest subway system you’ll ever experience or maneuvering through bustling Shibuya crossing is organized.
Tourists, especially Americans, might struggle to (literally) go with the flow if they don’t know to always walk to the left. So, now you’ll know better! Walking, driving and riding to the left is the ticket to making your way through Japan a breeze. There are even markings that split the tunnel systems of Tokyo’s subway to show visitors where to walk!
Be Aware Of Your Volume & Space At All Times
Visitors can sometimes stick out like a sore thumb. You’re very likely to if you’re blissfully unaware of your volume when in Japan! The locals are very accustomed to being mindful of the level in which they talk. Public transportation is seemly almost silent on most rides! So, be conscious of how loud you’re being in public spaces. Turn your phone on silent, keep your chatter to a soft hush and never intrude on someone else’s conversation by overwhelming them with your own volume!
Similarly, be observant of your space at all times… especially on transportation and maneuvering through busy streets. Japanese locals are incredibly conscious of the space they are in. Be weary of invading anyone’s personal space and always apologize if you happen to brush by someone.
Know Local Customs
There are lots of little nuanced customs in Japan. But here are some basic ones to keep in mind!
- Always return a bow (we’ll discuss more on customary ways to say hello later in this post!)
- Be observant when you enter a restaurant. Take off your shoes if you see a pile of them in the entrance!
- Acknowledge every greeting you recieve
- Say “kampai!” before you clink your drinks for a cheers
- Be mindful of how you use your chopsticks (more on this later!)
- Don’t hand your money directly to the cashier… instead, place it on a tray that’s near the cash register
- Take business cards offered to you with two hands
Know How To Dress
Sure, you’re bound to see young Japanese locals decked out in their wild outfits in Harajuku… but unless you’re part of the fashion scene, you’ll need to dress more conservatively. Generally in Japan, you’ll find polished looks and chic pieces everywhere. Men and women often are dressed incredibly professionally while out and about, especially since many of them are coming and going from their workplace.
To fit in, dress up your look a little extra! Wear comfortable clothes that you can easily move in, but also are stylishly sharp. Tuck in your shirt to a well-fitting pair of jeans or shorts, and be sure to wear shoes you can easily slip on or off.
Clean Up After Yourself
When in Japan, you’ll notice how incredibly clean everything is. Any sign of litter, trash or rubbish is a completely oddity in the country. That being said, always be sure to tidy up after yourself!
Learn How To Handle Chopsticks
Yes, chopsticks are (typically) your only option for utensil in Japan. So, buff up one your chopstick skills if you’re a complete newbie. There are some classic no-go’s when it comes to using chopsticks. Here are some basic things to know:
- Be sure not to point at something using your chopsticks. This is considered rude!
- Avoid sticking your chopsticks straight up into rice. In general, it is good practice to always place them on the table when you are not using them.
- Don’t pass food using chopsticks. This is considered impolite and mirrors the funeral tradition of transferring cremated bones to an urn. Yikes!
- When sharing a plate, use the opposite end of the chopsticks that you eat from (the wider part) to take a portion.
- Don’t rub your chopsticks together! This is often read as you telling the owners of the restaurant that you think they’re a cheap establishment!
Master The Subway
The Tokyo subway is fantastic (if you haven’t caught on already)! The public transport system throughout Japan is just as incredible. The buses, trains, subways and more are clean, efficient and impressively punctual.
To master the subway system, be sure to buy a prepaid card (like the Pasmo card)… even if you’re just visiting for a few days. Simply buy them at the vending machines in most subway stations and load them up whenever you need to. They’re able to be used on all trains, buses and subways in Tokyo! And most of the time, all you have to do is tap them on a sensor near the entrance gate.
The subway system is very easy to understand. Most of Tokyo labels their neighborhood by its nearest subway station. Simply using Google Maps will direct you. Be sure to note which exit you should take! Some of the stations you’ll be using are incredibly huge and you don’t want to be on the opposite side of where you want to be!
Slurp Your Noodles
The notion of slurping makes Americans shudder. But in Japan, loudly slurping your noodles is a signal of the deliciousness of your meal!
Don’t Harass Geishas Or Sacred Deer
There are many sacred traditions in Japanese culture. Do not overstep the boundaries!
P.S. if you’re planning a trip to especially see Japan’s magical cherry blossoms… check out this post!
Don’t Leave A Tip
Unlike American culture, the Japanese do not view tips as a recognition of great service. In fact, many consider it to be rude! Unlike other restaurants around the world, you’ll find that Japanese restaurants have their customers pay at the front register when they are ready to leave. So, save yourself some cash and avoid looking like a tourist in Japan at the same time!
Learn Basic Phrases
Knowing a few simple phrases is a great way to show respect for Japanese culture… and it goes a long way! Here are some basic ones to keep on hand:
- “Konnichiwa” (hello)
- “Sayonara” (goodbye)
- “Arigato” (thank you)
- “Sumimasen” (excuse me)
- “Oishi” (delicious)
Greet Locals Appropriately
Japan may be the most polite country in the world! And that is no joke. You’ll find that Japanese culture lends itself to expecting all citizens and visitors alike to show grace and appropriate behaviors at all time. Here are some things to keep in mind when interacting with locals. You’ll be charming them in no time!
- Address professionals by “sensei” or “san” … but never refer to yourself as “san”
- Know when to bow! The longer and deeper the bow, the more respect you convey. Simply put your hands behind your back and bow for an informal interactions. Casual interactions don’t require a bow, but always return one if someone gives one to you! If you’re meeting someone for dinner or thanking them, lower is better. Men should also keep their hands at their sides, women with their hands in their lap for more formal situations.
- Handshakes are very common after or during a bow!
- Take your shoes off when entering a home. And always be sure to take a peek if others have taken their shoes off in restaurants and gathering places.
- Pour your friends drinks and never pour your own. This tradition comes from the viewpoint many Japanese have that pouring your own drink is selfish.
- Never point using your fingers, use your whole hand instead!