Planning your trip to Japan | Part 5 – Twelve cultural must-knows

This post is Part 5 of the Series: Planning your trip to Japan providing some cultural tips to be a conscious respectful traveler during your trip to Japan.

Click on below links to read other parts of the series (opens in new tab).
Part 1: When to visit and how to travel
Part 2: Where to stay and what to see
Part 3: What to eat in Japan
Part 4: What to pack (and not to pack)
Part 5: Twelve cultural must-knows

The culture was the number 1 reason for my visit to Japan – I was obsessed with Japanese culture and traditions for many years and I wanted to experience it for myself.

Although foreigners have more room to behave as they please while in Japan, it helps to know few basics and etiquettes to show respect for Japanese traditions and their way of living.

There are several myths about Japan – the so-called language problem, everything being super expensive, the detached way of living, the ‘extra’ minimalism, depressed and overworked employees and so on. To an extent, some of it maybe true, but the majority is not.

Japan is not perfect, but it could be what perfect could look like, with maybe some more flexibility regarding rules. The people are so kind it makes you feel warm inside and self-reflect on how you want to treat others. They don’t speak good English but that doesn’t stop them from helping you, to the extent of physically walking with you to make sure you reach your destination. They like rules and follow them diligently, and they teach their children to be kind and disciplined.

Here are 12 cultural must- knows which will prepare you for your Japan trip.

1. Shoes are taken off before entering a place
Before entering a house, apartment, hostel, traditional restaurant, temple, or even the bathroom, shoes must be taken off. Hence, make sure you wear socks or if provided switch to slippers. Wearing ‘slip-on shoes’ is a good idea, because you will be taking off and putting on your shoes more often than you think.

2. Bill is paid at the cashier
After a meal at a restaurant, try not to ask for the cheque at the table itself. Instead, pay the bill in full at the cashier. Try to carry cash as many places in Japan do not accept cards. Carrying a coin purse will help to take care of the change, which can get accumulated quite fast.

3. Tips are not given
Japan has a ‘no-tipping’ culture. Although they might not get offended if you leave some change behind at a restaurant, usually the waiters will return it back to you.

4. Food/drinks are not eaten while walking
Do not drink and eat while walking. This is followed quite seriously in Japan. Sometimes you have counters outside convenience stores where you can finish your meals. It works quite well in Japan – no wonder the streets are super clean at all times.

5. Metros and Trains are quiet
Do not talk loudly or take phone calls while using public transport. You will notice that everyone irrespective of age is glued to their phones in Japan. The trains are always quiet, so good to do some reading or planning while en route.

6. Queueing is always in orderly fashion
Queue up whether you are waiting for the train/ bus, at a JR Counter, to pay at a 7-eleven or even to enter an elevator. Do not try to pass queues. Also, try to walk on the left, or observe the side most people are walking on the footpaths or escalators. This helps to keep things running on time.

7. Japanese toilets are always fancy and clean
Japanese toilets are always super clean with fancy buttons and luxurious seat warmers wherever you go – a hostel, train station, restaurant or a hotel. Keep them the way you found them.

8. Respect and kindness are ingrained
Try not to take it granted, and do your bit to give the same kindness back – offer your seat to an elderly person in the public transport, don’t get irritated by queues, be patient to find an English speaking person, and try to enjoy all parts of the culture.

9. Beer is not mixed with sake
While it may be customary to mix drinks while partying, do not mix sake with beer. Try to enjoy the sake you ordered before moving to the next drink.

10. There is a consumption tax on goods
There is a consumption tax of around 8-10% similar to VAT/GST on most goods and services you purchase in Japan. Do not be surprised if your final bill shows a higher number than what you see in the display.

11. Chopsticks are taken seriously
Chopstick etiquettes are a serious thing in Japan. While eating with chopsticks, use the chopstick holders to keep them parallel, and not crossed. If there is no holder, then keep them rested in parallel over the plate or bowl. Never stick them vertically in the rice as this etiquette reminds people of Japanese funeral rights.

12. Tattoos are avoided
Tattoos are unfortunately misunderstood as an art form in Japan. Japanese associate tattoos with Yakuza (members of crime syndicates originating in Japan) and there is still a stigma around it. Do not be surprised to find onsens (hot springs) where only tourists with no tattoos are allowed. If you have a tattoo, you do not need to be too conscious, but still try to cover it if you can in public spaces, especially temples and sacred sites. I would also advise dressing as conservatively as you can while being comfortable.

In addition to that, it could help to know a few Japanese phrases such as
Konnichiwa – Hello
Arigato Gozaimas – Thank you
Kanpei – Cheers
Sumimasen – Excuse me
Konbanwa – Good Evening

This ends Part 5 of the Series: Planning your trip to Japan!
Continue reading here

If you would like to see a glimpse of what Japan has to offer (under 4 minutes), check out the video below 🙂