Whether you’re headed to Japan for a short vacation or making a permanent move, there’s a lot to know before you get here. You might have heard before that Japanese people have strict, stylistic forms of etiquette, but you may not realize that some of your base instincts might go completely against Japanese culture. For example, my instinct to laugh loudly and heartily is often met by embarrassment from my Japanese friends.
Maybe you’ve heard some rumors about Japanese culture, but you might find that those rumors are simply that, rumors. Like how I thought Japan would be full of eccentric characters in crazy fashion, but actually, most people shop at the Gap. And then there are some things that you possibly can’t prepare for without some insider knowledge. Simple things like how you walk, eat, and speak can impact your experience for the better or the worse, so here’s a list of 20 Things to Know Before You Go to Japan.
Light packers might be tempted to throw one pair of sweats, a couple of old T-shirts, and maybe a light jacket in the duffel and go. However, if you hit the streets looking like this, you might feel out of place right away. Japanese people (for the most part) tend to dress rather nicely no matter where they go.
You don't need to update your entire wardrobe to the latest fashions. Not everyone is a trendy dresser, but very few people wear tacky clothes. Appearances are important in Japan, and most people keep the clothes clean and neat, hair kept, and necklines high. If you're wearing that old T-shirt you've had since high school but can't let go of no matter how many holes it gets, you might get a fair share of giggles and stares.
When you’re packing your clothes, keep your appearances and the weather in mind because....
Before making any final decisions on clothes, the most well-versed travelers will check the forecast for their destination. In general, Japan has four distinct seasons, but if you’re planning on moving around the country keep in mind that temperatures can vary depending on where you stay. Japan's latitude stretches over several climates. Hokkaido can stay chilly as late as June, while Okinawa starts to get warm as early as January.
If you plan to remain mostly in central Japan, generally you can pack according to the season unless you intend to go to Mt. Fuji or other high-altitude areas. Mt. Fuji’s summit averages -7°C (20°F) annually. Even on hot, summer 30°C (86°F) days, Fuji’s peak can dip as low as 7°C (44°F) with winds reaching an annual average of 11 miles per second. Travelers planning a trip to Mt. Fuji should expect to bring at least one extra layer of clothes for this excursion at any time of year. Once you’ve got your weather appropriate and politely attired outfits together, you can finally leave your hotel for a night out, but….
You might be used to carrying credit or debit cards as your main method of payment and perhaps a little pocket change in case of an emergency. In Japan, you’ll find the opposite is true. Japan’s economy is cash-centered, and many establishments don’t accept credit cards. Large companies in big cities have adapted to credit systems, but your neighborhood mom-and-pop shop might not. And forget about using a credit card for riding public transportation. You can't use a card to buy a train ticket, ride a bus, and some taxi drivers only accept cash!
*Note* You might see taxis advertising that they accept cards on their windows, but be careful. I once rode a taxi that had a "Credit Cards Accepted" sticker, but at the end of my ride, the driver told me he didn't have the means to process a card! Now, I always ask, "Kaado Dai-jou-bu Desu ka?" (Are credit cards OK?) before I get in.
If you end up carrying more cash than you’re accustomed to, don’t let your wallet fill you with anxiety. Most Japanese people carry large amounts of cash on them at all times and in large bills. Also, don't worry if you want to buy a 100 JPY (US $1) item, but you only have a 10,000 JPY (US $100) bill. Most establishments can easily give you change without much fuss.
Pro-tip 1: If you can’t find an international ATM, look out for a 7/11 convenience store. The ATMs inside accept most international cards.
Pro-tip 2: Get a wallet with a large coin pouch or a coin purse before you arrive. The lowest Japanese coin is 1 JPY (US $0.01), and the highest is 500 JPY (US $5.00). You’ll use coins more than you might think!
Keys, wallet, money, passport—as a foreign tourist you are legally required by the Japanese government to have either your passport or a high-quality color copy on your person at all times—and we’re ready to go! On the streets, you might quickly notice Japanese people drive on the left side of the road. Take heed that they walk on the left side as well! Of course, this isn’t a hard truth, there are exceptions, but most Japanese people will gravitate towards the left side and not the right.
You’ll find this especially true when in indoor places like malls or stations, and crowded areas like festivals and markets. If you’re not used to this, try to pay attention as much as possible as to not run into anyone. While you’re watching out for the crowds, you might notice a sight that could seem a little unusual.
As you walk through town, you'll see a person wearing a surgical mask every so often. No, Japan isn't aflush with unemployed dentists. There are several reasons why people in Japan wear masks. Most commonly, they wear masks if they have a cold and don't want to cough and sneeze on others. Some do it to prevent from being coughed and sneezed on. And some women slap on a mask when they don't have time for makeup!
The number of people sporting a face mask goes up in the spring and winter. Masks can prevent dust and pollen from entering the system in the warm months, and protect your face from the dry air when it's cold outside. Don't feel concerned when you see someone wearing a mask in Japan. There are some other things we’ll go over that you should worry about, however, for example....
At one point or another, you’ll run into a pedestrian crossing while exploring Japan. In big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, small streets and alleyways don't have signals. If you see zebra stripes on the road, you have the right-of-way. If you see a car coming, take precaution, but don't wait for them to stop at the intersection. Although they're legally supposed to yield, drivers in Tokyo tend to slowly pull through if no one is crossing at the time.
If there is a walk signal, it's highly encouraged that you obey it for safety and appearance's sake. This might feel a little frustrating at first. Japanese people usually don't cross the street when the signal is red despite the actual traffic conditions. This is because in Japan....
Most of us follow the law. Some of us break a few rules. Many of us might slightly bend a rule if it makes life a little more convenient. In Japan, this isn't the case. Most Japanese people follow a strict moral code. Even the slightest “workarounds” might seem questionable. People in Japan don’t like making waves, and they worry that they could inconvenience others by not acting properly. This kind of thinking has a lot of effect on Japanese society in general, including the fact that….
Every society has its own accepted decibel levels. The Japanese, however, speak much softer than their international counterparts. Even your "library voice" might sound noisy in Japan. If you don't want to annoy anyone outside of your group, try to speak so that only your group can hear you, especially if you're in a neighborhood at night or on a train. There are some exceptions where you don't have to worry about this, and we'll go over those further down, but first, let's cover some basic tips for eating out in Japan.
If you have food allergies, sensitivities, or other medical restrictions, you probably know how to navigate your situation in your home country. If you have little to no Japanese ability, carry a card with you listing ingredients that can adversely affect you, and let your server know as soon as you enter. The staff will be more than willing to suggest items or slightly alter dishes to suit your needs.
For folks who are one specialized lifestyle diets, however, Japan can be a little difficult to navigate. Vegetarians, for example, might be surprised that although Japan is a Buddhist country, restaurants don't always offer filling, meat-free dishes. You may want to research restaurants in your destinations before you arrive, especially if you're going to the countryside.
Once decide where to eat, be wary that you might need to take off your shoes. Most people know that the Japanese don't wear shoes in their homes, but some are surprised to see that this can apply to public areas! In a restaurant, a server will point out where to store your shoes. If you need to make a quick trip to the bathroom and don't want to tie up your boots over and over, shops usually provide slippers for patrons to use.
Some businesses, like hot springs spas, won't necessarily show you what to do. If you aren't sure, watch out if the entrance way is recessed from the main floors—the first sign you should remove your shoes—or peek at the feet of the other patrons inside. Once you get settled at your table, wipe your hands with the towel or wet napkin provided and order your meal.
You’ll never catch a Japanese server quietly observing you for subtle clues that you need them. Restaurants don't assign tables to each employee. Instead, every worker is responsible for every customer’s well-being. When you need assistance, call out "Sumimasen," (excuse me) or ring the doorbell-like button provided on your table.
Although it might seem like a confusing system at first, it’s one of the things that I’ve grown to love about Japanese culture. No more having to tell a server “A few more minutes please,” as you ponder the menu, nor the panic when everyone is ready to order except you. Once you get your meal out in front of you, well, you know what’s next.
If you don’t know how to use chopsticks yet, get practicing! You’ll have to use them at some point, and you can’t always ask for forks. You don’t need to concern yourself with using perfect form, but never put your chopsticks in your rice upright. Japanese people only do this during a funeral, and every other guest will notice. Otherwise, no one will judge you for how poorly you might use chopsticks.
If you’re having a lot of trouble, it’s perfectly acceptable to hold your small plate or rice bowl close to your mouth. If you can't get the hang of it, there are plenty of dishes that don't require chopsticks. For example, sushi and yakitori (grilled chicken) is eaten by hand and Japanese curry is eaten with a spoon.
The price on the bill is the price you pay. If you a tip, the staff will chase you down and return it. As much as you insist they take it, they'll insist harder that you take it back. Restaurant employees usually get paid by the hour and don't depend on tips. That goes for taxi drivers, hairdressers, massage therapists, and so on.
A notable exception would be if you stay in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), and have a nakai-san (private concierge). In this case, you pay the tip (wrapped in a special envelope) at check-in. The rule of thumb is 1,000 JPY (US $10) per person. Another exception might be a tour guide who you feel provided exceptional service. In this case, you can determine how much to give at the end of the tour. After paying for your meal, you may want to stop for a quick restroom break.
You never know what you’re going to get when you walk into a public restroom. At best, Japanese toilets are dizzyingly high-tech, porcelain masterpieces. At worst, they’re a hole in the floor without any tissue paper. When traveling, it’s always smart to expect the best but prepare for the worst. Many people in Japan, especially women, keep pocket tissues and kerchiefs on hand for these situations.
If you get a great toilet, don’t be alarmed if the seat is warm when you sit as many seats are kept this way through mechanisms. You’ll also find an array of buttons either on the wall next to the toilet or close to the seat. If you can’t find the handle to flush, check the buttons to see if the flush comes from there, or if there’s a handless flush on the wall behind the toilet. Also, take note that some homes and restaurants have slippers in the bathrooms to use inside, and only inside, of there. Don’t forget to change your slippers before and after using the facilities! After all this potty talk, I think it’s high time to get into some trash talking.
After traipsing about town, you might find a plethora of empty snack packs and water bottles in your bag. No, you can't throw them out any old where not even in the cans inside of public restrooms. You must find the proper bin depending on the type of garbage you're carrying. The problem is, public trash cans aren't on every corner. You can lose twenty minutes trying to find any garbage cans at all!
It might seem tempting to discard your trash on the streets, but Japanese people don't usually do this. Remember that strict moral code? The Japanese will carry garbage all the way home if they can't find a public receptacle. Many convenience stores, parks, and vending machines have garbage bins nearby. When you find a place to throw away your trash, take the time to make sure you use the proper receptacle. Japan separates its trash into several categories to fight pollution.
As the sun sets, you might feel a change in the atmosphere. Quiet, reserved masks of the crowds around you fall away into jeering mobs as people finish their work for the day and head out for dinner and drinks, usually at Izakaya (Japanese pubs). If you go to Izakaya, you don’t have to worry about the level of your voice anymore as everyone’s librarian-like conversations gain the boom of MCs. Even if you don’t imbibe, it's worth it experience the nightlife for a few hours to watch everyone howl at the moon. If you do join in the fun, be wary that….
Depending on where you stay, some bus systems might finish in the early evening, and trains may stop running shortly before or after midnight, even in Tokyo. If you miss the last train, it's possible to return by taxi if you're willing to pay the extra nighttime percentages. Japanese people usually stay over in a capsule hotel or stay out partying until morning. If you can keep up join in the fun! Many establishments stay open through the night to serve stragglers. Keep in mind that drinking and smoking laws might differ from you're home country.
Japanese people drink and smoke a lot compared to some countries, but they follow a lot of rules so as not to disturb others. For example, Japan doesn’t have laws banning open containers, but Japanese people don’t usually take advantage of this. Some events, like viewing cherry blossoms or seasonal festivals, include drinking outside, but on a regular day, Japanese people generally don’t drink publicly. If they do, they usually stand outside of the store they bought their can, finish it quickly, then move on without causing disruption.
For smoking, many restaurants have smoking and non-smoking sections. Some restaurants and most bars, however, don’t have this separation and every table provides an ashtray. More and more shops, though, are trying to phase out these practices and become completely non-smoking. Though smoking inside of shops doesn’t have heavy regulations, for now, smoking outside can only be done in designated areas. Hardly anyone smokes as they walk through the streets, and smokers usually carry pocket ashtrays to dispose of their butts and ashes. It may seem like a backward practice, but it’s not the only thing that might seem backward.
Japan has a reputation for always being at the forefront of the world’s technologies. Cars, home electronics, and robotics that come out of Japan make up key components of the economy. Everyday life, however, hasn’t caught up with the latest developments. Businesses and government institutions still use pen and paper methods by and far. If you need to retrieve or replace essential documents, the bureaucracy struggle can be real. Duplicate and triplicate all of your important papers! It may seem inconvenient, but it could save you a lot of time in an emergency.
You might have heard this one before. Many establishments in Japan have policies banning patrons with tattoos. Most famously many public pools and baths don’t allow guests with tattoos, but some restaurants and other establishments have similar rules. Don’t worry! Some public pools and baths, in fact, provide waterproof, band-aid like stickers for customers to cover their smaller tattoos. You can still get a fulfilling experience in Japan if you have some ink, but you might get a few inquisitive stares.
If you can, it might help to reduce the visibility of your tattoos on the street. Japanese people are aware that many countries have different ways of thinking about tattoos, but it's tough to shake off your culture's values and morals, right? Take comfort in knowing that Japanese people don't hold the same regard against tatted foreigners they might against other Japanese people. In fact, that's true for a lot of points in this article!
Japanese people are extremely aware that their cultural norms are different from the rest of the world. They realize how difficult foreigners find Japan’s rules of etiquette, and many Japanese people find it stressful to follow them sometimes as well. If you make a small mistake, don’t worry too much. Just try to keep it in mind for the future!