Japanese culture and traditions are incredibly unique, making it a dream destination for a lot of travelers—myself included. That said, the fact is that Japan can be an intimidating country for first-time visitors, and not just because of the language barrier.
Getting to know the ins and outs of local culture is important no matter where you’re traveling, and Japanese culture is no exception. If you’re planning a trip to Japan—or daydreaming about planning one in the future!—here are some handy etiquette tips and facts to know before you go.
Japanese Culture & Tradition Facts: 11 Etiquette Tips Before You Go
1. Take Off Your Shoes
Some places will require that you take off your shoes indoors, especially in a persons home, or anywhere there are tatami mats. You obviously won’t need to take your shoes off everywhere, but if there’s a mat next to the front door with some shoes next to it, that’s your cue.
Slippers are sometimes provided in restrooms, hotels and private homes. Use them!
2. Bow When Greeting
There are all kinds of customs around bowing, but you shouldn’t worry about knowing all the particulars—the Japanese generally don’t expect foreigners to get it completely right. But as a baseline, tradition is that you should bow when greeting someone out of respect. That can vary from a slight nod of the head to completely bending down at the waist.
The longer and deeper the bow, the more respectful—but don’t feel obligated to overdo it every time! And—pro tip—bowing with your hands together in front of your chest isn’t the custom in Japan.
3. Don’t Tip
Tipping is always something to adjust to when you’re in a new country, because it seems that every one is different. In the Japanese culture, it’s easy: you don’t have to do any quick math or remember specific percentages because tipping is not customary. Not in the traditional restaurants, hotels or for cabs. You can leave some leftover coins, but tips aren’t expected.
Though tipping is not traditionally customary or expected, there may be exceptions to this rule when staying at large hotel chains or more americanized attractions or restaurants.
4. Bring the Gift of Food
You’ll notice that at train stations and airports there are entire shops filled with a plethora of food products. If you want to buy a gift for someone in Japan, that’s usually the way to go. Stay away from tchotchkes like magnets and shot glasses. Instead, food items like matcha flavored snacks or mochi are more the tradition.
5. Slurp Your Noodles
In Japanese culture, slurping your noodles is not only customary, it is good manners—a sign that you’re enjoying your food. Whether you’re drinking soup from a bowl or eating noodles with chopsticks, slurping at a reasonable volume is pretty standard. If you’re worried about being too loud, you can always take note of how loudly (or quietly) everyone else is eating.
Of course, burping and loudly crunching are still off limits.
6. Don’t Slam Taxi Doors
When you’re taking taxis, you might be surprised to find that the doors close automatically. That’s definitely something that takes a little getting used to, but you don’t want to shut the door when you get out of the car and accidentally slam it.
I did it once and ended up scaring the bejesus out of our driver in Shinjuku!
7. Know That Business Cards are Important
Handing out and receiving business cards is a much less casual thing in Japan than it is in most Western countries. In Japan, you always hand a business card over using two hands and, of course, a little bow.
8. Wear Kimonos The Right Way
Kimonos might seem like an article of clothing that you can’t really get wrong. You just put it on, wrap one side in front of the other, and tie, right? Well, sort of. There is huge variation in the types of kimonos that you can wear, with different styles for formal and casual events, or for married and unmarried women. But, like with the tradition of bowing, you don’t need to know all of the specifics.
That would be a whole lot of information to take in, but for now here’s a basic tip: for both women and men, kimonos fold left over right—exactly the opposite of women’s clothing in the US. With some kimonos, you can tell pretty quickly if you’ve put the wrong side on top because it will interrupt the pattern. Regardless, remember: left over right!
9. Use Chopsticks Appropriately
Here’s another one that might take some getting used to: how to use chopsticks. Even once you’ve gotten the form down, there are a few customs to keep in mind.
It’s considered inappropriate to stab or cut food with your chopsticks, or to stick them upright in your food. Putting your chopsticks upright in rice, for example, is associated with funeral traditions.
If you need to break up a large piece of food, like tempura, you can always just lift it with the chopsticks and take a bite off. That might feel silly, but it’s actually more appropriate than stabbing or breaking it up with your chopsticks.
When you’re done eating, you can place your chopsticks in front of you, with the tips facing to the left.
10. Know the Etiquette When Visiting an Onsen (Hot Spring Bath)
If you’re not familiar with public baths, they can be pretty intimidating. Visitors to the traditional public hot springs in Japan bath naked—swimsuits aren’t allowed—which might make you wonder about how hygienic the whole thing is. Not to worry, though! Everyone washes up before they get into the bath.
Once you go to the changing rooms and put your clothes up, you’ll take a small towel with you to the baths. The first thing to do once you get there is wash off at one of the showers. Typically, these showers will be equipped with small stools, movable showerheads, soap, and shampoo, so that you can sit down and wash up before getting into the bath.
After that, you’re good to go! You can get in and out as many times as you like, but the important thing is to wash up and rinse off first.
11. Be Courteous on the Subway
This is a pretty simple one, but it’s worth stating. When you’re riding on the subway in Japan mind your manners. It’s generally best practice to not eat or talk on your phone. Other than that, the usual courtesies apply!
So there you have it: all of the etiquette tips that I would have wanted to know on my first trip to Japan. Hopefully, through learning (and using) these tips, you’ll have gained a little bit of insight into Japanese culture and traditions. The next step? Book that flight!