In today’s Japan Travel Q&A we answer a question about Japanese etiquette from Kelly in Bay City, Michigan:
“What are some cultural things I should know about traveling in Japan that might make my trip a bit easier?”
Don’t feel like watching a video? Read below for today’s answer!
Great question, Kelly!
Japanese people are extremely polite and welcoming, but many travelers to Japan worry about accidentally offending them by saying or doing the wrong thing.
The main thing you want to keep in mind is that Japanese people don’t expect you, as a traveler, to know all of their customs.
As long as you act kindly and with respect, you’ll fit right in – even if you do make an etiquette mistake (or two) once in a while!
That being said, making a little effort can go a long way, and Japanese people are extremely appreciative when travelers make the effort to learn their customs.
We hope the etiquette tips below help you get more out of your trip to Japan – and by following them, you’ll be sure to impress Japanese people along the way!
For a fascinating up-close look at Japanese etiquette in action, we recommend Terrace House: Boys & Girls in the City, a Japanese television show on Netflix.
Japanese Etiquette Tips & Taboos
Bowing is one of Japan’s most well-known customs, and most travelers are aware that Japanese people bow when greeting one another.
If you’re used to shaking hands when meeting people, it may be difficult to get used to bowing instead of shaking hands.
But don’t worry: many Japanese people are accustomed to shaking hands when meeting non-Japanese, so whether you bow or put out your hand to shake, in most cases you’ll be fine either way!
Bowing is also used when thanking someone or apologizing. The deeper the bow, the more respectful!
Removing Your Shoes
If possible, we recommend traveling to Japan with shoes that slip on and off easily.
Before entering a home, a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), or any area with tatami matting, you will need to remove your shoes. Since you’ll be doing this a lot in Japan, it’s nice to have shoes that come on and off easily.
Because of this, it’s also a good idea to make sure your socks match (and don’t have any holes in them)!
During your travels in Japan, at places such as ryokan and izakaya (Japanese gastropubs), you may notice that there are slippers provided especially for use in the bathroom.
When you enter the bathroom, leave your non-bathroom slippers outside of the bathroom, and switch to the bathroom slippers.
The part where many non-Japanese commit an accidental faux pas is by forgetting to switch back to non-bathroom slippers upon leaving the bathroom.
Do your best to avoid this slip-up, otherwise you may be greeted by (friendly) laughter upon returning to the table still wearing bathroom slippers!
Japan is famous for its technology and efficiency, so it’s no surprise that taxi doors open automatically!
When you hail a taxi, the driver will pull up – and the door will open for you automatically.
For first-time visitors to Japan, this always comes as a surprise. The door will open and close automatically, so simply wait for it to open, get in the taxi, and then wait for the door to close.
In Japan, money is rarely passed directly from hand to hand.
When purchasing an item or service – rather than handing your money to the cashier – place your payment (whether cash or credit) on the small tray provided. This is where your change will be placed as well.
This practice is prevalent in Japan, and you’ll see it in hotels, restaurants, taxis, convenience stores, cafes, bath houses, train stations, and even at the local Starbucks!
Baths and Hot Springs
Perhaps nothing is more enjoyable, and potentially perplexing, to Japan visitors than going to a traditional onsen (hot spring) or neighborhood sento (bath house).
Onsen and sento offer a very authentic cultural experience, and when visiting there are a few key guidelines to keep in mind:
- First get clean, then bathe. The baths themselves are for relaxing, so make sure to shower thoroughly before you get in. At onsen and sento, before you reach the baths you’ll enter a washing area where you can shower and get clean for the bath.
- No swimsuits. At traditional onsen and sento, swimsuits are not permitted. Some modern-day onsen “theme parks” do allow swimsuits, though these tend to lack the character and authenticity of real traditional baths!
- Large towel, small towel. At onsen you’ll be provided with two towels: one large and one small. The large one is for fully drying off after your relaxing soak; take the small one to (not into) the bath with you, however it’s important not to let the towel touch the water! Most Japanese people place the towel either on their head or on a nearby rock or other surface. (At sento the same rule applies, though you typically bring your own towel, or buy one for a small fee at the front desk).
Even if you consider yourself a chopsticks expert, you might not be aware of some important chopsticks etiquette. While much of this is common sense, some might surprise you:
- Never point your chopsticks at another person, wave them in the air, or spear food with them!
- Don’t stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice, as this is reminiscent of a funeral rite.
- Don’t pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks, as this too is reminiscent of a funeral rite.
- When serving yourself from a communal dish, use the opposite end of your chopsticks (not the end you put in your mouth!) to serve yourself.
Warm and Cold Towels
When you go to a restaurant or izakaya you’ll be provided a wet towel, which will be hot or cold depending on the season.
Use the towel to clean your hands, and then fold it and place it on the table in front of you.
Even though you will occasionally see men use this towel to wipe the sweat off their faces, this is generally considered slightly rude behavior, so we recommend avoiding this!
Avoid leaving tips at restaurants, bars or in taxis.
For travelers from countries where tipping is prevalent (such as the US), it may feel odd to receive such amazing service and not leave a tip.
The fact is, tipping is simply not expected – it’s really not a part of Japanese culture – so if you leave a tip it will only cause confusion, and almost definitely won’t be accepted!
Unlike in many countries, even guides in Japan do not expect tips. However, it is acceptable to give your guide a tip if you feel so inclined (not at all required). If doing so, please make sure to first place the money into an envelope, and then politely hand the envelope to your guide (ideally while bowing and saying thank you!).
You can read our full article about tipping in Japan for more information.
Don’t worry if you can’t remember all of these etiquette tips – Japanese people are extremely understanding, and realize that most travelers are simply not aware of all of their customs.
Learn more surprising Japan travel tips in our article on The Top 9 Myths About Travel in Japan.