For many people, traveling to Japan is the trip of a lifetime. But traveling to any foreign country can be a little intimidating, especially if you don’t know what to expect. The good news is that Japan is one of the cleanest, safest countries in the world, and visitors who got to Japan will find that they don’t have to worry about many of the problems they may experience in other Asian countries.
It is important to remember, as a traveler, that you are visiting a country that is rich in tradition and custom, and there are some basic rules that will help prevent you from becoming one of the “rude tourists” that give travelers a bad name. The following are a few simple tips for traveling in Japan:
- When visiting Japan, you will need to remember that shoes used for walking outside are considered dirty and should be removed in many places. You will need to remove shoes when entering religious places like shrines and temples, when you enter a restaurant, and when you enter a hotel or inn. Many travelers find that wearing slip-on shoes or those with Velcro can make the process easier and faster. Be sure to find out whether you should remove shoes before entering any building.
- Japanese restrooms are different than those found in the US or other parts of the world. There are two types of toilets that you will encounter- “western style” toilets are similar to what you are used to and you will find these in most newer buildings. However, “Japanese style” toilets are sunk into the floor and will require that you squat over the toilets. Toilet paper is not always available in public restrooms, so it is a good idea to carry tissues with you. In private homes and many inns, you will find that there are slippers provided exclusively for use in the restroom. Remember to wear these slippers inside the restroom and remove them when you leave.
- Bathing in Japan is also different than bathing in other parts of the world. Baths are not only designed to help you get clean, they are also designed for relaxation. Most Japanese bathrooms feature an entrance room with a sink where you will undress before entering a second room with a deep bathtub and a shower. Before entering the bath, wash your body using the washbowl provided outside of the bath, and then soak in the bathwater. When you are done soaking, get out of the tub and wash up with soap, but do not get soap in the bathwater. After you have washed up, get back into the tub for a final soaking. In many homes, the bathwater is left to be used by the next family member, so do not drain the tub. Hotels will provide more traditional “Western” bathing facilities, and small inns may provide an “Onsen”, or communal bathing area.
- Tipping in Japan is generally not done, and is considered rude in most circumstances. In large cities, most people will simply respond “no, thank you” and decline your tip, but the practice may be more upsetting to people in smaller areas. If you stay in a ryoken, or Japanese Inn, you may be able to place some paper money in an envelope and give it to the person who deserves it, however, you should never pull money from a pocket or envelope and attempt to hand it to anyone as a tip. Tipping is not practiced in Japanese restaurants.
- Dining in Japan is slightly different from dining in other countries. First, do not “help yourself”, wait for the host (even at restaurants) to offer you food, and do not pour your own drink. If you leave a plate empty, it signifies that you want more to eat, so be sure to leave some food on your plate if you are full. The area where you eat should be left tidy, with the napkin folded and chopsticks set neatly together. Never take a napkin, chopsticks, or any other small “souvenir” item- this is considered rude. Be sure to thank your host both before and after the meal. Also, slurping when eating noodles or drinking soup is considered respectful, showing that you enjoy your meal, so don’t be surprised when you hear it.
- Body language and positioning is very important, and showing poor manners by not following accepted practices is a quick way to make people around you upset. Japanese people do not like to be touched, and they do not enjoy standing very close to others. When you sit, do not show the bottoms of your shoes. When you talk to others, do not put your hands in your pocket, and avoid making direct eye contact or staring. When visiting with someone, sit erect on the edge of the chair or bench, as leaning back or slouching is considered bad manners especially for strangers. Remember to that smiling doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is happy- it can show that someone is mad, embarrassed, disappointed, or sad. Never walk away when you are being greeted, and greet people with a quick handshake without making eye contact. Bowing has many rules, but most Japanese people do not expect tourists to bow correctly.