Japan is quickly becoming a favorite among travelers. In 2018, the country received over 30 million tourists. People from Western countries love how different the culture is. Unfortunately, it’s this cultural gap that causes tourists to make mistakes.
These mistakes aren’t just etiquette breaches; they can land you in trouble. You can get arrested for taking an undesired photo. You could end up waiting forever for your server. With the right cultural and travel knowledge, you won’t make these common mistakes in Japan.
Don’t Look For A Trash Can
Don’t expect Japan to have trash cans on every block. Since the 1995 sarin gas attacks, garbage cans have largely disappeared from Japanese cities. As a result, you may not find a trash can for miles. Don’t waste your time searching for one. Experienced travelers will carry their trash until they find a garbage can.
While you’re out, carry a “trash bag” with you to store your wrappers and bottles. Whatever you do, don’t litter. In Japan, it’s public courtesy to carry your garbage, and you can face a $300 fine if you’re caught dropping trash.
Sit Down Before You Eat
In Japan, there are more vending machines than there are people in Chicago and Los Angeles combined. However, it’s considered rude to eat while walking around. Many tourists make this mistake only to be met with stares. Eating and drinking on local trains is also frowned upon.
So what can you do? Some people enjoy their beverages next to the vending machine. Many areas provide recycling bins next to their vending machines. You can also carry the snack with you until you sit down to eat. Some long-distance express trains allow people to eat while riding.
Some Photos Are Illegal
Yes, photos are an important aspect of traveling. But many tourists rudely snap pictures even when authorities tell them not to. In Japan, many people are wary of being caught in a photo. You can only photograph strangers when they’re indistinguishable in a crowd. It isn’t just etiquette; it’s Japanese law.
If someone reports your inappropriate pictures, you could end up in the police station. Most public areas have clear signs (with pictures) indicating that you should not photograph there. Sensitive areas include shrines and temples, certain stores, students and schools, and public transportation. Most restaurants will let you photograph your food, though.
Don’t Assume That There’s Soap
Soap is a staple in the restroom, right? Not in Japan. In many areas, public restrooms do not provide soap. They have a sink, but no hand soap. If this grosses you out, stock up on hand sanitizer or even a small bottle of hand soap.
To make matters worse, some older restrooms don’t even offer toilet paper. Fortunately, many include toilet paper dispensers. If you spot one of those, stock up before you do your business. Don’t expect public bathrooms to come fully stocked.
Restrooms Don’t Have Paper Towels
Don’t use the restroom unprepared. Although that may sound silly now, it won’t when you use a public restroom and find no paper towels. People in Japan normally use personal hand towels that they carry with them. It’s a nationwide effort to cut down on waste (especially with fewer trash cans).
Due to the absence of paper towels, almost everyone carries a handkerchief. You find one fairly easily from many stores. Some restrooms offer paper towel dispensers, although these are rare. In newer restrooms, you may be lucky enough to find an air dryer.
Don’t Tip Your Server
Yes, you read that right. While tipping is seen as a courtesy in many countries, in Japan, it’s considered rude. If you tip, your server will chase after you to return your money. That’s awkward for everyone and puts them in an uncomfortable position. Don’t be that tourist.
Tipping isn’t required for restaurants, cab rides, or hotel services in Japan. In most restaurants, people pay up-front, so you won’t need to tip anyway. However, there are a couple of exceptions. One is after staying in a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. Another is when your tour receives a special service.
Need To Blow Your Nose? Too Bad
During colder months, you may hear sniffling on the street, but you’ll never hear someone blow their nose. In Japan, it’s considered to be rude. This unspoken rule refers to the etiquette of cleanliness that the Japanese adhere too. The same goes for spitting and burping loudly.
If you need to blow your nose, find a private place where you won’t disturb anyone. Aim for a bathroom or tucked-away corner. Always use a tissue, not a handkerchief, and throw it away as soon as you get the chance. That way, you won’t gross anyone out.
Don’t Use Your Chopsticks Like A Funeral
Some tourists don’t realize that chopsticks come with their own etiquette standards. Most notably, you shouldn’t stick your chopsticks upright in your food. Don’t share your food using chopsticks or cross them while resting them on the table. All of these actions resemble customs from Buddhist funerals.
If you want to seem like a clean eater, follow these next rules. Rest your chopsticks on the holder, not your plate. Don’t dig through the food to pick a piece you like. Also, don’t eat directly from the shared dishes. Bring a piece to your plate, and eat from there.
Your Waiter Won’t Come To You
In Western restaurants, customers are used to having their servers drop by frequently. Don’t expect the same attention in Japan. Here, it’s considered rude for a waiter to check in with their customers. They don’t want to interrupt a potentially important conversation.
To grab your server’s attention, you’ll have to call for them. Do this by saying “sumimasen,” which means “excuse me” in Japanese. In some restaurants, your table will have a call button that you can press for assistance. Don’t be shy; responding to your call is the waiter’s job.
Get A JR Pass Before You Leave
It’s a mistake not to get a JR Pass. A Japan Rail Pass is used to ride the trains, similar to a bus pass. They’ll save you money on tickets, and they’re easy to use. Since JR Passes are cheaper outside of the country, get yours online before you leave.
That said, JR Passes may not be worth it if your visit is short or limited to one city. These passes cover any time up to three weeks, depending on which package you get. Compare your price options ahead of time. Don’t wait until you’re already off the plane.
It’s Not The Time To Be Picky
Many tourists are used to requesting special substitutions for their meals. But in a Japanese restaurant, this is a mistake. Most Japanese services don’t cater to special requests, except for listed dishes such as ramen. If you’re a picky eater, you might struggle to navigate Japanese menus.
If you have a dietary restriction, don’t fret. Restaurants in major cities, such as Kyoto and Tokyo, usually offer vegan and gluten-free options. Like Western menus, you can locate these dishes with an icon. But don’t expect anything when you ask for no mushrooms.
English Won’t Be Widespread
Travel blogs and websites often argue over how much Japanese a tourist needs to know. If you hear that English is enough to get by, don’t believe it. Yes, some signs are in English; but spoken English is not widespread. Although most Japanese students learn English, many can’t speak it in their day-to-day.
Learning a few Japanese phrases will help you in the long run. Phrases like “Thank you,” “Excuse me,” and “I’d like this, please” will improve your travel experience. Also, most tickets and subway directions are in Japanese, so be prepared to translate.
Wear Easily-Removable Shoes
With long days of walking ahead of them, many travelers will lace-up running shoes or boots for Japan. The problem is that they’ll often have to take them off. Many Asian countries have deeply entrenched rules about removing shoes indoors, and Japan is no exception. Wearing shoes inside some areas is considered dirty and rude.
Prepare to remove your shoes in Japanese rooms and inns. If you see slippers at the entrance, that’s a signal to remove your shoes. Most bathrooms offer slippers, and some restrooms do as well. To keep your feet clean, you may want to carry shoe liners or socks with you.
Pointing Could Get You In A Fight
When we’re traveling, we may point at people and buildings to direct others. Try to reframe from doing this in Japan. Unless there’s a heated argument, nobody points in Japan. It’s seen as rude and, in the worst case, accusatory. You don’t want to get into a fight while traveling abroad.
Fortunately, this unspoken rule only arises when you point with your index finger. You can still direct someone’s attention with your hands. Instead of pointing, gesture at the object with your hand flat, like you’re reaching for a handshake.
Spoiler: You Won’t Avoid The Crowds
If you’re visiting a Japanese city, you will run into crowds. Busy subways, trains, and tourist attractions are impossible to avoid. If you obsess over avoiding crowds, you may miss some of the city’s highlights. Don’t make this mistake.
If crowds make you nervous, look up less-crowded spots as you plan your trip. Even popular spots like Harajuku have less-dense streets. Also, you may want to consider visiting outside of the peak seasons. Popular times include the New Year holidays, summer months, and Golden Week (the end of April through the beginning of May).
Explore Several International Airports
According to The Tokyo Chapter, most people fly into Narita International Airport because it offers the most flight options. But Narita is 1.5 hours away from central Tokyo, which is most peoples’ destination. When searching for flights, look into several different airports. It’ll save you about 20,000 yen ($183) in taxi fees.
International airports to consider are Kansai Airport in Osaka, Haneda Airport in Tokyo, and Fukuoka Airport, and Central Japan Airport in Nagoya. For the cheapest airfare, use low-cost carriers such as Jetstar and AirAsia. Indirect flights are longer, but they cost less overall.
If You Have Tattoos, Beware
Tattoos are heavily stigmatized in Japan, and they’re associated with crime gangs such as the Yakuza. For this reason, people with tattoos may not be allowed in certain areas. According to CNN, public swimming pools, beaches, hot springs, and some gyms won’t let you in if you have tattoos.
Watch out for signs that say, “No visible tattoos.” If you have tattoos on your arms, consider wearing long sleeves. No matter how annoying it sounds, you’ll have to respect the rules and culture while you’re visiting Japan.
You’ll Need More Cash Than You Think
Since Japan is known for its advanced technology, many tourists assume that they can get by on their credit and debit cards. Unfortunately for these people, a surprising number of stores and restaurants are cash-only. Even worse, cooperating ATMs are hard to find.
In Japan, many ATMs do not accept foreign cards. If you need more cash, your best bets are a post office, airport, or 7-Eleven. Some train stations and convenience stores have ATMs that accept cards, but just in case, get your cash before you land in Japan.
Expect Your Room To Be Small
Don’t expect a hotel room in Japan to match a hotel room in America. In Japanese cities, space is a commodity. Many tourists expect their rooms to be…well, roomy. Later, they come home and complain about the tiny room. Don’t be this kind of tourist.
Since the rooms are small, it’s imperative to keep the volume down. Most people in Japan don’t speak loudly. As quiet speakers, the Japanese don’t appreciate loud people. Lower your voice in your hotel room and on public transport.
Bring A Wifi Pocket–You’ll Need It
Some travelers assume that Japan’s stores and restaurants offer public Wifi. Don’t make that mistake. Public Wifi is hard to come by in Japan. When outside of their hotel, most tourists rely on their data plans. This quickly adds up, especially including international costs.
Save yourself the struggle by buying a Wifi pocket. Although the cost of Wifi pockets can add up, they’ll be well worth the investment. If you’re the type of person who likes to update Instagram on the fly, you’ll need one in Japan.
Look Up Transportation Schedules Before Landing
This is good practice no matter where you’re traveling, but more so if it’s a foreign country that speaks a different language. When visiting Japan be sure to look up the public transportation schedule prior to your plane landing. You don’t want to be stuck at the airport at three in the morning!
Be aware that the trains in Japan stop running at midnight. So, if you don’t get in until after midnight you might have to pay money for a taxi ride. Either that or you’ll be waiting around until the trains start back up at five in the morning!
Don’t Harass Any Of The Local Animals
Tourists sometimes forget that wild animals, even in a foreign place, are still wild. Don’t be fooled by the cute, furry face, these animals will pack a punch if they’re annoyed. In Nara, Japan, there have been a number of deer-related injuries due to tourists luring the animals in with food and not following through.
Remember that you’d be annoyed, too, if someone was promising food and then took it away. These animals are wild and should be respected from a distance. If you want to feed them, buy some deer food from a local vendor and be mindful when approaching.
Be Mindful Of Defacing World Heritage Locations
A huge tourist destination is Arashiyama in Kyoto, Japan, to see the giant emerald-green bamboo groves. Walking through the stalks of bamboo seems to transport you into another world. Unfortunately, tourists have been known to deface this natural beauty, carving their names into over 100 of the stems. A similar sentiment as leaving a love lock on a Parisian bridge.
Contrary to popular belief, etching your name isn’t romantic, but a form of vandalism. Since each of the stems are rooted, if one bamboo stalk is harmed it can potentially harm them all. Be sure to admire the bamboo from a distance! There is no reason to touch.
Slurp Those Noodles Up!
It’s safe to say that visiting Japan will be one of the few opportunities you’ll have to actually slurp your food. If you’re from a western country, your mom and grandma would probably give you a long lecture about table manners and how slurping your food is considered rude. Well, in Japan, it is considered to be a compliment to the chef!
To the Japanese, the louder you slurp up soup or noodles, the more you are enjoying your meal. So, go on and slurp away because once you get home people are just going to start giving you odd looks!
Unlike in western countries, bowing is a very important part of Japanese culture, so it would be wise to learn the different occasions in which you should perform the act. Although there are many different forms, it would be useful for a tourist to know just a few, such as when you’re meeting and greeting someone, thanking someone, and saying sorry to someone.
Be sure to keep your back and neck straight while bowing, almost like you’re bending forward with your hips. Don’t worry if you forget to bow, as it’s not muscle memory for most of us. It is also appropriate to nod your head in thanks.
Keep A Hushed Voice On Public Transportation
Japanese culture is grounded in respect and consideration for others, making it a big no-no to speak loudly or answer the phone on any form of public transportation. This also means no playing loud music, or having the volume up high while playing a game on your phone. Crying babies are even taken to secluded areas on trains so others don’t have to hear.
You might think this is silly. It is public transportation, after all. Well, the Japanese people actually have a good reason when it comes to being quiet. It’s so commuters who work long hours are able to catch a few z’s before returning home.
Use Two Hands To Accept Business Cards
Although you should be mindful of accepting things with two hands at all times, it is especially important to do so when accepting a business card. Believe it or not, business cards are considered to be an extension of the person who is giving it to you. So, to be respectful, you should accept the card with two hands and give a polite nod.
Be sure to study the card thoughtfully before placing it down and don’t automatically shove it into your pocket or wallet. It is just another small show of respect that goes a long way!
Jaywalking Can Result In Others Following You
No one knows the roots of the jaywalking law, but it is definitely illegal for a reason — it’s dangerous! If a pedestrian sees one person walking while the light is still red, they might follow suit, resulting in one huge accident in Japan’s busy streets.
It’s better to stand on the sidewalk and wait for the light to change with everyone else. Honestly, this is true for a lot of places, so it might even be muscle memory for you at this point!
Eat Convenience Store Foods
As odd as it sounds, do try some of the foods at the convenience stores! You won’t be disappointed. The stereotype is that convenience store foods are dry, stale, tasteless things that people only spend money on during long road trips. This couldn’t be further from the truth in Japan!
Unlike western stores, Japanese convenience stores will have hot pork steam buns, karaage chicken nuggets, and even hot stews and noodles. One of the common stores around Japan, Lawson, prides themselves in introducing new foods and beverage every week or so just to mix things up a bit!
Dressing Like You’re On Vacation Is A Bad Idea
Vacation is usually the time to pack all of your shorts, tee shirts, dresses, and flip flops. Well, if you are planning on making a trip to Japan, scrap that entire suitcase full of clothing for something a bit more conservative and smart.
If you plan on visiting some of Japan’s more religious areas, people are expected to have their shoulders and knees covered, while leaving their shoes outside. Even if you’re exploring the city for the day, people tend to dress very smartly. So that means no activewear while milling about! Look at the bright side — this means you get to go shopping!
Don’t Test Fate. Book Your Accommodation In Advance
Honestly, there is no reason to add on to the stress of traveling by not booking accommodations ahead of arriving. That being said, in recent years, we recommend not using Airbnb in Japan due to a new law that was passed in 2018.
This law cracked down on areas that were hosting illegal Airbnbs. So, now, hosts have to be in a legal zone and have a “minpaku” license. The crackdown cost Airbnb a supposed $100 million. Considering you’re on vacation, there’s no need to stress over legal verse illegal zones. Book a hotel before you get there. Maybe you’ll get lucky and find a room at the Suiran!
Be Sure To Keep Your Phone On Silent
Japan is a country full of culture and religious monuments. Be mindful of what volume setting your phone is one whenever you visit a place of worship. It is impolite to have your phone ringing or making notification sounds while you’re in a temple or at a shrine.
Aside from being a bit disrespectful, people are there to enjoy the tranquil peace that comes with a place of worship. You don’t want to be the reason their prayers are being disrupted! Besides, these temples are too gorgeous not to receive your undivided attention.
The Onsen Is One Place You Can Not Wear Clothing
Onsens, or traditional Japanese spas, are a big part of Japanese culture, with thousands located around the country. The spas are usually built around natural hot springs and can either have indoor or outdoor baths. The plot twist to this spa is that no clothes should be worn inside, not even a bathing suit.
Before entering the onsen, you are given two towels — a small one to wrap around your head while you’re soaking in the spring and a larger one for when you get out. The water is meant to be a sort of therapy to cleanse oneself.
Don’t Forget To Look Right When Crossing The Street
If you come from a country where they drive on the left side of the road, then you’re already used to this! For those who are used to seeing cars on the right-hand side, beware of oncoming traffic!
Be wary that traffic is coming from the right-hand side of the street and that you’re going to want to look both ways multiple times before crossing. The good news is that there is a way to avoid getting hit by a stray car or bicyclist! Follow the locals and use all of the main crosswalks whenever you need to get to the other side of the road.
Hot Towels Are Meant For Your Hands, Not Your Face
Although we usually don’t think twice about putting a nice hot towel on our faces, try to resist when you’re at a Japanese restaurant. Whenever you’re handed a hot towel, know that it is strictly for your hands and not your face.
It is meant to be a cleaning agent for your hands before eating. It’s usually not a huge deal if a tourist is seen using the towel to pat their face, but keep in mind that you’re not in a spa and it is frowned upon. Trust us when we say the warm towel feels just as good on your hands!
If You’re A Guest You Don’t Pay
Even though western people tend to joke about paying for one another, it is a very real concept in Japan. If you invite someone to dinner you are paying for their meal. If you try and pay for your own meal, the person who invited you might be insulted.
Even though you mean nothing by saying you can pay for your own meal, the implication is that whoever invited you is unable to pay for both meals. You don’t want to unintentionally disrespect someone’s profession, so let go of your pride and allow them to pay for your meal.
Pro Tip: Don’t Be Late!
Unlike some of the other big cities around the world, Japan likes to run on time. This means that all of their public transportation is more than likely going to be on schedule, meaning you should be, too.
Japan is big on respect and saving face, so when something or someone is running behind schedule, it is a form of embarrassment. Being punctual is part of Japanese culture, something that you, as a tourist, should try and acknowledge and mimic. When in Japan, do as the Japanese do!
While In A Train Station Line, Mind Your Manners
While you might be used to people pushing each other to get on or off a train, it is the opposite in Japan. Here, you want to wait in line to board a train. Also, when people are getting off the train, it is typical for everyone in front of them to get off, let the people pass, and then re-board.
The system is very well-mannered in the eyes of western countries! But, in all honesty, it is probably a way more efficient system than boxing out the guy standing next to you.
Enjoy The Unique Cuisine
If you don’t know what you are eating or what is on a menu, don’t worry about it! Part of the experience of traveling to Japan is enjoying all of the unique cuisines the country has to offer. A good rule to live by is that if it looks good or interesting, then try it! Who knows the next time you’ll be able to.
Also, if you’re in a restaurant, the wait staff is more than willing to help you pair together each of the various foods you’ve ordered. Even with the language barrier, food is a universal language! That being said, try all of the street food you can.
Only Visiting Toyko Is A Mistake
Don’t get us wrong, definitely visit Toyko! But make sure it isn’t your only stop in Japan. There are so many other wonderful cities and rural areas to visit, it would be a shame to stick to the main hub. And if you have a JR pass, it is fairly cheap to go explore other parts of the country.
Depending on what you’re interested in, Japan has landscapes ranging from beaches and islands to mountains and forests. You can visit the deer in Nara or even the infamous bamboo forests in Kyoto, or even Himeji Castle in the springtime when the flowers are in bloom. The options are endless!