The reason behind this guide is simple: as a content creator, I write travel pieces introducing people to Japan. The very least I can do is make sure that travelers, a record-breaking 27 million foreign visitors in 2017, make the most of their visit while respecting the customs and people of Japan.
Use this guide as a primer on Japanese customs, and etiquette. It also includes useful tips and tricks to help you make the most of your trip to Japan!
Your trip in Japan, especially in major cities, is all possible thanks to the country’s amazing network of trains, buses, taxis, and ferries.
Get yourself a rechargeable Suica or Pasmo transit card so you can avoid long lines at ticket machines. You can also use these rechargeable IC cards on the bus, at convenience stores, restaurants, and other places that accept electronic money (電子マネー/denshi mane-).
Just because you see some Japanese sitting in the priority seat doesn’t mean that it is OK for you to do so. Even if you are not sitting in the priority seats, just go ahead and give your seat to someone who needs it.
Please watch the tone of your voice. Other Japanese, especially school kids, might be chatting about in loud voices, but that’s not a cue for you to follow! Your foreign language will stick out like a sore thumb and you will be subject to plenty of side eye.
Likewise, remember to turn off your phone’s ringer and avoid talking on the phone in a loud voice. If you must talk, end your call quickly or head to an empty part of the train.
If you’re lost and need to check out your map or app, please get on the side, out of the way! You may be lost, but the rest of us are not.
When in need of directions, try to find a Koban (交番/police box) or train station staff. They’ll be able to assist you in getting to your destination. There’s this thing of foreigners in Japan “avoiding” other foreigners, but if you really need help, I say just ask away.
Eating in Public
As a general social rule, eating is OK on long distance trains (Shinkansen, limited express trains). That’s why ekiben (駅弁/special train station lunch boxes) are popular.
If you must munch on something while you’re on the go, try to finish before you get on a train or bus. If you’re lucky enough to snag a row of seats to yourself, then by all means, eat, but be sure to avoid messy snacks and foods with a strong odor.
Avoid eating and drinking during peak hours. The last thing you want to do is start a confrontation after your Pocky crumbs and Calpis drink get all over some salaryman on his way to a very important meeting.
It is also OK to munch on foods like senbei (rice crackers), manju (steamed buns) in areas like Asakusa or crepes in Harajuku. Eating in public is also accepted at a matsuri (festival). If in doubt, just take cues from the locals!
You’ll find vending machines all over Japan, so if you need something refreshing, just be on the lookout for the nearest machine. The nearest trash can, however, may be far away, so it’s best to finish your drink in front of the vending machine.
If you need a trash can, keep your eyes open for a convenience store or wait until you get to a train station. Public trash cans are rare, but recycling bins are aplenty!
Temples and Shrines
Japanese people may tell you that they are not religious, but Japanese culture has deep roots in Buddhist and Shinto folklore and tradition. Strip away all references to Buddhism and Shinto and all you’ll have left is Valentine’s Day, Christmas, KFC, and Disneyland!
The point I’m trying to make is that Shinto and Buddhism go back way before the times of major Western religions. Temples and shrines can be extremely photogenic places, but at the end of the day, they are still places of worship.
If you don’t feel comfortable engaging in rituals like ringing a bell at a temple or purifying your body with smoke wafting from incense, there’s no need to. But, remember to conduct your visit respectfully.
If you’re lucky enough to stumble upon a Japanese wedding taking place on the day of your shrine or temple visit, keep a respectable distance as you take photos.
Do not interrupt the procession. Weddings are an expensive and stressful affair — the last thing anyone needs is some bumbling gaijin tourist getting in the way and causing a distraction.
The elaborate towering gates marking the entrance of a Shinto shrine are torii (鳥居) and denote the division of the profane human world and the divine world of kami (神), or Japanese gods.
Kami pass through the middle of the torii, so when you enter through a torii, avoid the middle path and walk on the left or right side.
Oh, and those wooden wish boards with pictures and Japanese words written on them? Those are ema (絵馬) and you’re actually not supposed to take photos of them! It’s bad luck!
The “swastika” mark that you see on maps the symbol for Buddhist temples and is NOT a swastika. It is a manji (卍), the Sanskrit symbol for good luck and good health. It may be alarming the first time you encounter this symbol. Do take caution if you decide to share photos of your temple visit on social media if the manji symbol is visible.
Cash is still king, but credit cards usage is increasing in popularity in the 10 years that I’ve been here. If you need to withdraw cash, head to your nearest post office or to a 7-Eleven convenience store.
Staff may hesitate to approach you out of fear of not knowing what language to use. If you can speak Japanese and a staff speaks to you in English, there’s no need to be huffy. It’s annoying, I know.
Please understand that they are trying to do their job by accommodating you in the only way they know how. Again, I know. I’ve spent nearly half of my time here in Japan doing retail.
Haggling and Discounts
Unlike other Asian nations, haggling is virtually unheard of in Japan. Unless you’re buying household appliances, some serious bling, vehicles, or property, don’t waste your time asking for a discount.
This also applies if you’re shopping and there’s stained or damaged merchandise. The custom of giving a discount because merchandise is soiled or damaged is nearly nonexistent. It will simply be sent back to the distributor.
However, if you’re shopping at a local fruit and veggie stand or a souvenir shop and the (usually a kind grandma or grandpa) gives you a freebie, first refuse to accept. After the second or third time it is offered, bow slightly, then say sumimasen or osore irimasu (both polite ways to say “thank you”) to show your appreciation.
If you’re coming to Japan as an exchange student or on business, it’s always a good idea to prepare a gift. They make great ice breakers and allow you to introduce your home town, country, or culture.
In Japan, snacks and foods are always a safe choice, I think compared to the West, where dietary or religious reasons may play a big role. Other alternatives to snacks are coffee and tea, hand creams, and cosmetics.
Try to package your gift nicely. If you’re not the best gift wrapper, opt for tissue paper and crinkle cut confetti to cover your gift.
Lots of people praise or make fun of Japan’s love for excessive gift wrapping and excessive packaging, but 75% of a present is presentation. Don’t believe me? Next time you give a gift to a Japanese person, pay close attention on how they unwrap it. They literally unwrap it, not tear apart.
This is because the person who wrapped it took their time to wrap the present; to tear it apart would be rude. (Of course this is a very broad generalization!)
If you want your purchases gift wrapped, many stores will kindly wrap your gifts, free of charge. Just say, Gifuto you de, onegai shimasu. (ギフト用で、お願いします). But, be aware that it takes a long time — unless you’re in a department store like Takashimaya. For some reason, they gift wrap things lighting fast.
When getting presents wrapped, you really don’t need to stand there and watch. I’ve been there on the other side of the counter. It’s really nerve-wracking!
But, if you simply feel compelled to watch how gift wrapping is done in Japan, the precision and dedication will blow you away. If you need to take photos for your Instagram Story or whatever… ask first and try not to get the staff in the shot unless they give you specific permission to do so.
Need help planning your upcoming trip to Japan? Have questions about Japanese culture? Let me know in the comments!