Japan is one of the most wonderful countries in the world. It’s part futuristic and part traditional, and immersing yourself in the culture can be a life-changing experience. But for many foreigners, the local customs may be difficult to navigate. These are some helpful things to know before visiting Japan that will help you blend in better in your surroundings.
It’s rude to talk on public transportation.
One of the most surprising things for many people visiting Japan is how a place that is so crowded can be so quiet. That’s because in some public spaces, particularly public transportation, it’s considered rude to make noise. It’s customary to silence your phone and not speak at all while you ride metros and trains so as to not disturb other passengers.
There is no tipping in Japan.
Unlike many Western countries, where tipping is either required or expected, tipping is not a thing in Japan. In fact, it may be considered rude and make people feel embarrassed or ashamed to receive a tip. Restaurant or hotel staff may refuse a tip. So it’s better to avoid an awkward situation if you pay your bill without leaving extra cash.
You shouldn’t blow your nose in public.
Whether you are on public transportation or in a restaurant, it’s considered extremely rude to blow your nose in public. The Japanese are very clean and hygienic, and they consider this a way to spread germs.
When in Rome, mask as the Romans do.
Regardless of how you feel about masks because of Covid, wearing masks is not a new concept in Japan. People have been doing it for years as a way to be considerate of others, especially if you’re feeling sick. Wearing a mask prevents you from spreading your own illness to others. Though masking is not mandatory, it’s certainly widespread especially on public transport. If you are on a crowded train, you may find that you are the only person without a mask. So if you don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb or get looks of disapproval, bring a mask with you at all times, and mask up for the time you’re on public transport.
Public toilets are everywhere and they’re free.
Unlike Europe where you usually need to pay a fee to use the bathroom in public, bathrooms in Japan are everywhere from train stations to street corners, and they’re absolutely free. Best of all, they’re usually spotless.
There are no trash cans anywhere.
Back in the 90s, there were a series of biological attacks where sarin gas was stuffed into public trash cans, leading the government to do away with trash cans altogether. Though the threat of terrorism is probably no longer the main reason, the Japanese have also taken the initiative as an opportunity to reduce public waste. Though there is nowhere to throw away trash, there is also no trash anywhere.
A few things you can do with your trash:
- Keep it with you until you’re back at your hotel room.
- If you’re eating from a food stand, give the trash back to them.
- Don’t get take-away food, and always eat somewhere so you don’t create any waste.
If your trash is recyclable, recycling bins for cans and bottles can sometimes be found around vending machines.
You’ll need cash to use public transportation.
Though incredibly easy to use and efficient, riding local public transportation requires cash. All the machines where you can buy a metro or subway ticket only accept cash. This is even true if you’re using the machine to top-up a prepaid transport card. The only exception are the ticket machines for long-distance trains like the Shinkansen bullet trains. However, in this case the machines still only take cards that have a PIN, which disqualifies most credit cards. However, you can use credit cards at manned JR train station offices and ticket books.
You don’t need to prebook tickets to the Shinkansen trains.
One of the most popular ways to get around Japan is on the Shinkansen bullet trains. Unlike the regular long-distance trains you’re probably used to, popular Shinkansen routes like Tokyo to Kyoto run faster than some city subways do in the rest of the world. So you can just walk up when you’re ready to take it and buy a reserved or unreserved seat on the next train. You’ll probably wait a maximum of 5 or 10 minutes for it.
You’re supposed to walk and drive on the left side, not the right.
Like the UK, the Japanese walk and drive on the left side of oncoming traffic. This actually comes from samurai tradition. During the Edo period, samurais would carry their swords on the left-hand side, making them easy to access with their right hand closest to a potential oncoming threat. While there is no threat of getting your head chopped off by a samurai, you will probably cause a bit of traffic if you’re walking on the wrong side. Luckily, there are usually signs to remind you.
Escalator etiquette varies around the country.
In some cities, like Tokyo, people stand on the left-hand side so that there is space for those who want to walk to the right. In Osaka, people stand on the right-hand side instead. In Kyoto, it’s kind of a mixed bag. The best thing to do is to observe what other people are doing and follow suit.
Constipation is a real problem in Japan.
Though Japanese cuisine is relatively healthy (compared to the greasy shit we eat elsewhere), it has a disproportionate amount of carbs and protein and not enough fiber. This is such a problem in fact, that there is a special high-fiber Coca Cola in Japan called Coke Plus. So if you’re eating out constantly and you find yourself bloated, you can try that or… you know, eat an apple.
You should always respect the line.
Japan is big on queue culture. People form orderly lines for the train, for dinner, for the bathroom. It’s not uncommon to see a long queue outside popular restaurants at lunch time or several long lines at each of subway door on a crowded platform. Hopefully, I don’t have to tell you why it’s impolite to skip people in line at a restaurant, but in the train stations, you may need a little help.
Every train or subway station has markings on the floor so you know exactly where the doors will open. This space should be left empty to allow people exiting the train to do so easily. The line forms on either side of each door. During rush hour, there may be hundreds up people queuing for the same train. If the train fills up, you just have to wait in the line until the next train arrives. Luckily this takes only one or two minutes.
A Suica card can save you a lot of time and stress when riding public transportation.
The Suica is a prepaid transit card that you can fill and refill with as much money as you want as many times as you want. Suica is accepted everywhere from JR train lines to private trains to local buses and even taxis. Having a Suica saves you the time it would take to buy a ticket each time you ride something. You also avoid having to find the correct amount of change, particularly to ride things like a bus or a streetcar.
Smoking is only allowed in designated areas.
An integral part of Japanese consideration is keeping the disgusting smell of smoke out of public spaces. There are designated smoking areas both in public and in hotels or shopping centers where people can smoke. Thankfully for the rest of us, these areas are so well insulated (even the outdoor smoking areas) that you can walk right by it and not smell a thing. Sparking up anywhere outside these areas is a big no-no.
Know the rules about onsens.
One of the most incredible things about Japan is the availability of natural hot springs or onsens. Though it is an amazing and relaxing thing to do in Japan, it also has its own set of rules.
For one, people with tattoos are not allowed in most onsens. This is in part because the Japanese believe that tattoos are associated with criminal activity. For instance, the Japanese organized crime syndicate, the Yakuza, heavily tattoo their bodies. Obviously the Japanese understand the difference between those kinds of tattoos and the “Live Laugh Love” tramp stamp on some white girl from Georgia. So some onsens around Japan – either public or hotel/ryokan onsens – do allow people with tattoos; you just have to do your research.
The other two main things to remember about onsens is that you cannot wear anything to bathe in an onsen and you must be clean. The latter is not such a hard thing for most visitors – showers are available in onsen facilities like the dressing room, and you’re expected to wash yourself fully before entering the onsen. The former, however, is a tougher pill to swallow but it’s non-negotiable. You’re not allowed to wear a bathing suit, a coverup, or a towel. It’s considered unhygienic. So unless you’re comfortable being naked in front of strangers, you may have to find a private onsen.
If you’re a woman and you’re nervous about leery men staring at your naked body, the good news is that most onsens are gendered. Women and men both have separate onsen facilities. If you’re traveling with a heterosexual partner, this also means that you can’t enjoy the onsen together – it’s good to be gay sometimes! If you do want to enjoy a naked soak with members of the opposite sex, you may have to book a private onsen.
It’s polite to bow, but not too much.
When you’re leaving a restaurant or thanking someone for their service, it’s polite to bow. Though bowing etiquette is extremely intricate and complex, visitors are not expected to know all the rules. But it’s polite to show respect by bowing when someone bows at you. The proper way to bow is to bend at the waist with your back straight and your arms at your sides and your eyes looking down.
So as is customary, I’ll leave you with these tips and a bow.