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10 Customs Every Visitor Should Know Before Traveling to Japan

Posted By on Apr 18, 2014

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Many daily customs in Japan are far different from what we’re used to in the West. So before you plan your next trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, it’s best to learn a few customs and proper etiquette so you don’t offend anyone.

Here are 10 customs that every visitor should know before traveling to Japan.

1. Don’t eat food while walking

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Japan is one of the cleanest countries I’ve ever been to and it’s not because they have trash cans lining the streets. In fact, it’s almost a challenge to find a trash can on the streets of Japan.

So how does Japan stay so clean with the lack of trash cans? Simple. No one eats or drinks while on the go.

Food is a huge part of Japanese culture and thus they believe it deserves proper respect; i.e. sitting down to properly enjoy the taste and texture of the meal, and not just shoving it quickly in your face as you run errands.

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2. Be careful what you gift

Gift giving can be a bit complicated in Japan.

The main points to remember here is that for any gift received, it is important to give something of equal or greater value. Japanese people will often keep a drawer filled with gifts in their home–ready incase they receive a gift.

It is normal to refuse a gift on first offer. However, if they offer a second time, you can gladly accept. If someone offers you a gift, thank them and take it home to open later, unless they request you open it then.

Always bring a gift when going to someone’s home and remember: the wrapping is just as important as the gift itself. All stores offer professional wrapping services– use it.

3. Don’t use your phone on trains

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The Japanese generally refrain from having loud conversations on their phones, especially in public areas. You may notice that everyone is on the phone in trains; however, you will also notice they are texting rather than calling.

You’ll rarely ever see people answering calls while riding the train or when shopping in stores. People normally keep their phone on “manner mode” (similar to vibrate only).
Enjoying peace and quiet on the train

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4. Wear a mask when sick

Sterilized masks, similar to what is worn in hospitals, are commonly worn in Japan. It’s more of a courtesy to protect others from your germs, rather than protecting yourself. So if you find yourself coughing or sneezing, pick up an inexpensive mask from any convenience store.

5. Remove your shoes

It’s important to take off your shoes when entering all homes, as well as many businesses and hotels. In the entrance there will usually be a shoe rack for you to leave your shoes, as well as guest slippers for you to put on.

When entering bathrooms in Japan, it is common for a different set of slippers to be waiting for you. Make sure to never wear your house slippers in the bathroom and don’t let the bathroom slippers wander into the rest of the house!

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6. Do Bow

The duration and angle of the bow is proportionate to the amount of respect you are conveying. The slower and lower the bow, the more respect you are showing. However, bowing is not only used to show respect, but also as a greeting.

Although it might feel weird at first, as a tourist a simple lowering of your head (almost like you’re nodding with your whole neck) when greeting others or making requests will go a long way.

7. Bathing before baths

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When visiting an onsen or taking a bath in a Japanese home, it is important to bathe before getting in the bathtub. Sounds counterintuitive right?

There will be a separate shower that you must use to rinse off and clean your body. Never bring soap or shampoo into the bath!

Unlike in the West, the bath in Japan is used for relaxation. Often families will run one bath that everyone will use before emptying the water. Therefore, it is very important not to dirty the water. It is very rude and shows that you have no consideration for the sanctity of the bath and for those who will use it after you.
Never enter a bath without bathing first

8. Business Cards

When receiving someones meishi, be sure to receive it using both hands and read the card before putting it away.

It is considered very rude to grab someone’s card without looking it over and to shove it in your pocket. Even after you’ve thoroughly read over the card, make sure to put it somewhere nicer than your pants pocket!

9. Escalators etiquette

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Escalators are strictly stand on the right, and pass on the left in Osaka. If you head to Tokyo you’ll find that it’s exactly the opposite– stand left and pass right.

There is nothing more frustrating than being late for school and trying to rush up an escalator to catch your train while being blocked by tourists. Even if you forget what the proper side is for your location, just be observant. If you notice that everyone is standing on the right side of the escalator, there is probably a reason for it.

10. Pay Nicely and Don’t Tip

At all registers are small trays. Sometimes they are more decorative using leather or wood and sometimes they are plastic with rubber bumps. This tray is for placing your money when paying. Do not hand your money directly to the cashier.

Likewise, the cashiers will lay your change out on the tray with your receipt, so do not try to grab it from their hands.

A price is a price in Japan, and leaving extra money is often considered rude. Tipping is widely unheard of in Japan, and for first-rate restaurants, gratuity is already included in the bill.

While all of this might seem overwhelming, remember that the Japanese are indeed people too. They will be understanding and patient of people different from themselves. And if you ever find yourself in a situation where you don’t know how to act, just look around. Watch what others are doing and try to follow suite– that way, you can’t go wrong.

[post by Beth]

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Beth Williams

Originally from Chicago, Beth got her first true taste of travel when she studied abroad in Japan during her final year of university. She ended up loving Asia so much, she found herself moving right back upon graduating and is currently teaching English full-time in Hong Kong. Armed with her camera and a passion for travel, she is currently on a mission to photograph the world-- proving that you can work the normal “9-5” and still find time to travel on her blog Besudesu Abroad.

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