I’ve always been intrigued and fascinated by the ornamental and animated culture of Japan and their openness to experimentation with technology and style. It can be shocking in contrast to their seemingly rigid customs and norms.
The differences can be pinpointed in contrasting aesthetics such as the bright childlike, animal laden TV sets of comedy shows vs. minimalist, cleanly fashioned trays of high-grade sushi.
To be honest there’s not a lot that I know about Japanese culture, norms and best practices so before going, I’ve checked out some tips to help both you and me before traveling to Japan.
1. A little nod goes a long way
Bowing in Japan is the acceptable way to acknowledge and greet someone.
While there are specific degrees to which you can bow (a 45 or 30 degree angle), it’s better to simply nod your head when not sure.
More and more Japanese understand that westerners shake hands so don’t be surprised if someone offers a handshake.
2. Shoes are for outside
Whether you are entering a temple or someone’s home, you will be expected to remove your shoes. Even some restaurants require shoes to be removed.
Pro tip: If you see a collection of shoes in an entrance, you should put yours there as well.
3. Try your hand at chopsticks
Of course, it’s not mandatory to use chopsticks while you travel in Japan, but it will allow you to experience something new if you’ve never used them before. Keep in mind some simple chopstick tips I gleaned from this FluentU article to ensure you don’t get weird looks from the locals.
- You should never use your chopsticks to pass a food item to another person. (this is something reserved for funeral ceremonies).
- Don’t stab your chopsticks into things (it’s commonly known as bad luck), just place them flat on the chopstick plate or rests that should be next to your plate.
- While we often smother our (Americanized) Asian cuisine in soy sauce, this is definitely not something the Japanese do. They take pride in the way they cook their rice and pouring soy sauce all over might even be offensive.
4. Don’t tip, but keep cash in hand
When visiting a restaurant in Japan, it’s not customary to leave a tip.
The Japanese take immense pride in their service and hospitality, so leaving a tip is just seen as strange or unnecessary.
It is important to note that while traveling in Japan you should make sure you have cash for paying your bill. You can certainly bring your credit cards, but unlike western countries most places won’t accept payment with that method. ATM’s can be found at the post office or in convenience stores such as 7-eleven.
5. What’s all the fuss about Wifi?
Maybe it was worse years ago, but the bottom line (as with travelling anywhere in Asia or elsewhere) is that if you are leaving the confines of any major city, your ability to connect with internet quickly becomes limited.
If you aren’t concerned with that or happen to be staying within a single city such as Tokyo, then you can simply rely on public Wifi access available in convenience stores and train stations. Just make sure you have maps downloaded when you venture beyond or have researched properly.
For those who can’t live without internet and or if it’s your first visit and you need access to google translate for sanity, make sure you purchase a SIM card or pocket WiFi.
6. …Speaking of convenience
While everyone has surely heard about the bizarro vending machines around Japan (you can buy sushi socks or a new pup, just pop in some coins), lesser known is the absolute, true to form service that Japanese-style convenience stores offer.
Not only can you grab your cash from an ATM there or find Wifi access, these stores are 24-7, offer shockingly fresh food, steamy coffee and every last thing you might forgotten or didn’t know you needed. Japanese people don’t know how lucky they are.
7. Get the pass, take the train
The best way to travel if you want to visit multiple cities around Japan is by train.
There are some specific train travel tips that first-timers should know. For one, it’s a time for quiet transit. Many Japanese will sleep on their way to work on their return home, so respect the unspoken rule of silence. That being said, make sure you aren’t eating or drinking on the trains (unless it’s a longer train with cup holders). Keeping trains orderly and clean is standard.
Be ready for your stop and respect the train stations clearly defined queue (either single file or two by two) behind the textured line on the platform. Keep an eye out for queues specifically for women-only train cars.
Pro Tip: I wasn’t sure what the JR Pass was until reading about it here.
This pass is specifically offered for visitors and a voucher must be purchased prior to your arrival. The Japan Rail Pass offers the best option for getting around and exploring various parts of Japan.
It is important to research the pass before you arrive because there are specific trains you have access to with it and even some buses and ferries (but not the metro or subway). Be careful to know exactly what you have access to, because some of the bullet trains are not available with this pass while others are.
For example, if you want to go from Tokyo to Kyoto, there is a fast train service called Nozomi which is unavailable to JR Pass holders, whereas the Hikari and Kodama train lines, while a bit slower, are both included with your pass.
8. Shrines and Temples
What’s the difference?
Interacting directly with the Japanese, you will not find people speaking of religion or preaching about their beliefs, although their culture is heavily laced with both Shinto and Buddhist ideals.
Shintoism is the spiritual core of the Japanese tradition and is demonstrated in celebrations surrounding the changing of the seasons (think cherry blossom festivals) or in the reverence Japanese have for nature and gardens. You will find Shinto shrines as you explore Japan, marked by a torii’ gate and with water located near the entrance for purification before you enter.
Buddhism arrived in Japan straight from China and is more concerned with soul and afterlife. Throughout your travels in Japan you can discover numerous of these ornamental, incensed temples. Just outside of Tokyo you can find the Kotoku-in temple which is also home to a monumental statue, “The Great Buddha.”
9. Japanese Style Castles
When you picture castles you probably think of stony medieval fortresses or high towered Disney-esque magical palaces. When you travel to Japan you have to push reset on everything you’ve ever learned about what visually defines a castle.
These fortresses, such as the Osaka Castle, have the usual wall and moat, but their architectural elements are distinctly Japanese and have a lighter construction.
With ornamental and curved roof edges that decorate and adorn the various levels of the central tower of the castle, these castles are worth a special visit.