Guide: Japan – Know Before You Go

by Carrinicole


Japan is one of my favorite countries to visit. Everything about it is perfection – the history, sights, culture, dining, nightlife. I always have a new experience, bringing back more knowledge and understanding of my Pacific neighbor.

Similar to other eastern cultures, Japanese customs greatly differ than the West. It is imperative that you understand what is and isn’t appropriate before you go to prevent offending anyone.

Here are my top 10 things to know:

1. Greetings

Saying hello and goodbye to anyone – from concierge at the hotel to employees at a restaurant – requires a bow. Handshaking is not the custom. A bow is not tilting your head down, but a full upper body movement. A little bow at the waist is all you need.

2. Shoes

Always be aware of the shoe policy in any building you walk into. Many restaurants or museums require you to leave the grime of the street at the door. You take your shoes off there, and someone will help direct you on where to place them. Then you either slip on a pair of slippers or walk in your socks. You will know what to do based on the floor material. If there are tatami mats on the floor, you always walk on those with socks only. There will be separate slippers waiting outside hallways to the bathroom. So always wear shoes that can easily be taken off and on, and wear nice socks!

3. Walking & Eating/Drinking

Eating and drinking are not activities you do on the go, it is considered unpolite and rude. You’ll notice when you’re in Japan that while there are 7-11s and vending machines everywhere, with people congregated around them, eating and drinking whatever they purchased. People are not eating and drinking on the street, and you’ll find that its hard to even find a trash can. The only exception is ice cream! You can eat an ice cream cone while you walk. Absolutely no food or drink on the metro.

4. Tissues & Blowing Your Nose

Blowing your nose in public is considered gross and rude. Save it for privacy of a restroom or hotel. If you are sick, then you are expected to wear a face mask out of courtesy to the health of those around you.

5. Ordering Food

When I say that many people in Japan don’t speak English, this also translates to English signs and menus. Depending on the popularity of your metro stop, you might be met with signs in only Japanese. Some of the best restaurants have an electronic ordering system, where you place your order at the door, and hand your ticket to the chef. These ordering boards are many times in Japanese – if someone cannot help you understand what to order, a rule of thumb is that the upper left button is the house special. Can’t go wrong with that!

6. Tipping

It is never appropriate to tip – this is always one of the hardest customs for me! Tipping assumes you think that the price is incorrect for the service, that you expected subpar service and were surprised. The Japanese point of view is that their level of service is already accurately reflected in the price you are paying.

7. Slurping

There are a few customs that are polite in Japan, but not in the West. First is slurping. This signifies to the chef that their food is delicious. You also want to incorporate slurping while eating your ramen as a method to help cool the broth. You also can pick up your bowl with your hands to place your food closer to your mouth, and drink broth straight from the bowl.

8. Chopsticks

Similar to restaurants not having English menus, they will not have western utensils. If you don’t feel comfortable eating with chopsticks… practice, practice, practice. Don’t be that American that pulls a fork out of her bag. If three year old children can do it, you can too!

9. Paying

You do not hand currency directly to employees. Many places like 7-11s and other shops have a little tray. You hold your bills with two hands (similar to how you would present a business card) and place your money on the tray. They will in turn provide your change that way too.

10. Taxis

You’ll see taxi’s everywhere, and they are a convenient way to get around. Fun fact: the doors of their cabs are automated! You are not expected to open or close your door. Many taxi drivers – and individuals living in Japan in general – do not speak English. Always have a business card of your hotel or have the name of your destination readily available in Japanese. Also note that cars do drive on the left side of the street.

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