A First-Timer’s Guide to Japan Etiquette: 8 Things You Shouldn’t Do in Japan as a Tourist
It won’t hurt to be more respectful.
by Edgardo Toledo | January 17, 2023
Japan is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful countries in the world. From sweeping landscapes, impeccable cuisine, and fun attractions to shopping districts, it’s the place to have that envied one-of-a-kind adventure. But the Land of the Rising Sun is big on values and traditions that reflect their centuries-old culture as one nation. If you’re a first-time traveler to Japan, there are some things you should be aware of to start your trip on the right foot. Take notes!
Don’t mess up chopsticks etiquette
When eating out, never stick your chopsticks upright in the rice because it denotes death (it reminds people of incense used in funerals). Japanese people see this as bad luck, so make sure to brush up on your chopsticks etiquette before going on a Japanese food crawl. If you’re not using your chopsticks, lay them flat on the table on top of a chopsticks holder.
Avoid talking on the train
You might find it normal to talk to your companions in your home country, but it’s a no-no in Japan. Talking loudly in crowded areas like trains is a sure way to get weird stares from Japanese locals. It may surprise you, but they really don’t do that. Trains are quiet spaces, so you can wait until you get to your stop before you resume your convo.
Don’t cut queues
Although this is a general rule anywhere, Japanese people are known to be disciplined, and falling in line is a given, regardless of where you are. It doesn’t matter if you have to wait an hour or more, cutting in line is considered REALLY disrespectful in Japan.
Avoid eating while walking
Chowing down food while walking is known as Tabearuki in Japanese culture. It’s a frowned-upon gesture because Japanese citizens believe one should appreciate the flavors of a meal while seated or at least standing as a sign of respect. Another reason is to prevent unnecessary trash from scattering on streets. Japan has a reputation as one of the cleanest countries in the world, and they want to maintain that.
Don’t wear your shoes indoors
Speaking of cleanliness, some places in Japan, like ryokans (Japanese inns), historic buildings, shrines, temples, and (to a certain extent) Japanese homes, enforce a no-shoe policy to keep everything neat. You’ll usually spot a designated area to leave your shoes, or the host will provide some soft slippers. Be observant or ask questions before entering a place to avoid coming off as impolite.
Avoid going to public bathhouses and hot springs without showering first
Going to public bathhouses (sento) and hot springs (onsen) are part of the Japanese experience, but before doing so, wash first. Nobody wants to see you scrubbing in a shared pool. It’s best to wash up while you’re seated to avoid splashing water on other bathers. Remember, these establishments are shared spaces. Don’t forget to leave your towel and tie your hair before dipping your toes. Also, expect to go naked.
Don’t leave a tip
While tipping is a nice gesture, it’s really not a thing in Japan. In some cases, tipping is perceived as awkward or rude. It’s just not part of their culture, although there are several exceptions, like giving tips to ryokan staff for commendable service.
Avoid taking pictures with maikos or geishas
We get it, you’re excited to meet a maiko or geisha, and snapping a selfie or two would make a good souvenir, but it’s really not a good idea you think it is. In fact, a photography ban was implemented in the Gion district due to travelers harassing them. Their time is precious since they have clients who book them in advance, and you wouldn’t want to be that tourist who would interrupt them over a few photos. It’s best to observe from a distance if you see geishas — or you could hire them if you like!
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