16 Japanese Customs to know before you visit

Observing and learning the customs of another culture is one of the more fascinating and exhilarating aspects of travel. It can also be a bit embarrassing when you stand out like a sore thumb because you forget, bungle or just simply aren’t aware of a certain etiquette or custom. Don’t be too hard on yourself I didn’t find the Japanese to be.

While having an Udon noodle lunch with my local guide in Tokyo, I had broth flying off my chopsticks and dripping down my chin. I was in desperate need of a napkin and there were none, nor were there in most of the other restaurants I visited. I did have, however, the warm washcloth the Japanese present before every meal. They’re intended to wash your hands. I had to use it to dab my chin every so often, and I had read in my guidebook, that this was not OK, especially for women. I asked my guide about it.

“It’s OK, you can use it if you need to,” she said quietly, but not very convincingly. I’m sure she was just trying not to embarrass me. But which is worse? Using the washcloth, having broth dripping down your chin, or using your sleeve as a napkin? I’ll take the washcloth.

Here are 16 more Japanese customs I came across in my recent travels. Do you have any to add to the list?

1. Do not eat or drink while walking. While younger Japanese sometimes break this rule, the older generations are sticklers for it. I bought a freshly baked sweet treat called Ningyoyaki, which is a small cake with red bean paste, in one of the shops leading to Tokyo’s Sensoji Temple. The shopkeeper who sold it to me made sure I knew the rules.

“You can eat this here or take it home,” she told me rather sternly. Since it was fresh out of the oven and warm, I chose to eat it there, but would have preferred browsing through the other shops as I ate.

Another friend was drinking a cup of coffee on a train and the local person he was with turned to him and said, “It must be hard to drink coffee and stand on the train at the same time.”

Passive aggressive, much?

Here’s what threw me: Starbucks is everywhere in Japan (more than 1,000 at last count) and they serve drinks in the same take-out cups with plastic to-go lids that we use here in the States, yet I saw no one leaving the store with one, nor anyone carrying one on the streets of Tokyo. If you can’t take it with you, why the waste? Why not just use real cups?

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Eat and drink where you buy it, or take it home. I ate a local sweet treat standing in front of the shop I bought it from.
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The Harajuku district, a teen haven, might be the only place in Tokyo where you commonly see people eating and drinking while walking. I doubt these two finished this whole cotton candy before continuing on their way.
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If you can’t take it with you, why bother with the paper to-go cup?

2. Drink tea holding the cup with both hands. This is especially nice in winter because it keeps your hands warm, but has nothing to do with etiquette.

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Use both hands to drink your tea, unless you need one to take a selfie.

3. Slurp your noodles. Everyone does. And then drink the broth from your bowl rather than use the spoon, unless there’s a ladle-like spoon. You may use that.

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Every restaurant gives you either a warm washcloth or a plastic-wrapped wet wipe when you arrive. Use it to wash your hands. It’s not used to wash your face, but if there are no napkins (as there aren’t in most restaurants) you may have to resort to this breach of etiquette to save (ahem) face.
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Udon noodles, topped with bean curd, and cooked in broth were nearly impossible for me to eat with chopsticks and no napkin. Photo credit: Michael Shen, imstillhungry.net

4. Pick up the bowl. Similarly, when our Kyoto guide saw my husband and I having trouble using our chopsticks to get food from our bowls on the table, all the way into our mouths, she said, “You know, in Japan, it’s OK to hold your bowl close to your mouth while you eat. It’s what we do.” Whew, does this mean even they have trouble with chopsticks?

5. Don’t hand a shopkeeper money. Instead, place it in the tray on the counter. The cashier will return your change the same way. Money does not exchange hands in Japan, except when tourists forget.

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See the brown tray? Put your money or credit card there.

6. Use both hands to give people things, and to accept things. While I really don’t know if this goes for everything, it’s a good rule of thumb to follow. Business cards, for example. They are an essential part of Japanese culture and everyone has them, from business people to housewives. Hand yours, and accept theirs, with both hands.

7. Carry plenty of business cards, especially if you’re doing any business. After giving and receiving a business card with both hands, examine it and admire something about it even if all you can come up with is “this is very nice.” My husband brings a healthy supply of business cards with him when he travels to Japan, and returns home with a health supply of cards he collects from others. Full disclosure: I did not have a business card with me to share and not one person, to my great disappointment, shared one with me. The one time I thought a local was digging into her bag to give me a business card, she pulled out an origami crane. A lovely gesture, of course, especially since she made it herself.

8. It’s OK for foreigners not to bow, but I found the courtesy contagious. Bow if you want and don’t worry about the rules. The Japanese don’t sweat the details with foreigners, or maybe they’re just too polite to say anything. By the end of the trip, I found myself nodding my head, with some slight movement in my upper body to almost everyone I met. Similarly, don’t reach to shake a Japanese person’s hand unless they extend theirs.

9. Stand left and walk right on the escalators, unless you’re in Osaka. In Osaka, they do the opposite. Neither of my tour guides, even the one who lived in Osaka, knew why.

10. Look right, not left when crossing the street. The Japanese drive on the left just like the Brits. I can’t believe I didn’t know this before I saw it for myself. The Japanese are among 35% of countries that drive on the left. If you’re interested in why, read this interesting article that outlines the historical reasons and origin. Otherwise, just be aware when stepping off a sidewalk.

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A view from a sky bridge over Omote-Sando street, a popular stroll with high-end shops.

11. Don’t jaywalk. Foreign pedestrian safety doesn’t seem to be as a big of a concern as it is in London, largely because I did not see any Japanese cross against the traffic light. Follow the locals and you’ll be fine. As a longtime Seattle resident, I felt right at home. We don’t jaywalk either, even if no cars are coming.

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The Shibuya scramble, one of the busiest crossings in the world.

12. Do not cut the line. The Japanese stand politely in line and wait their turns to get on the subway, step onto an escalator, or get a table at a busy restaurant. At one train stop, the line for the escalator stretched down the platform and every last person I saw walked all the way down to the end of the growing line. No one crowded around the escalator to cut in line. It was impressive.

On our last day, we ate at a restaurant that had chairs lined up outside its doors for diners who were waiting for a table. They weren’t the only ones. Other restaurants in the area operated the same way. As each party was called and seated inside, everyone moved down the line of chairs to the next seat. It was like the Japanese version of musical chairs. To make the process even more efficient, a waiter passed out menus, gave us time to make our choices, and placed our orders even before we had a table.

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Morning commuters wait in line for the train at Shinagawa Station in Tokyo.
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Waiting for a table.

13. Remove street shoes. While both of our hotel rooms had slippers for our use, assuming we would leave our shoes at the door (and for the most part we did), and Delta airlines passed out slippers on both the inbound and outbound flights, this practice wasn’t as common as I thought it would be. I’m sure it’s a strict rule in Japanese homes, but we didn’t visit any.

I had read it was a strict rule in Shinto and Buddhist sights as well, but I only had to remove my shoes twice out of more than a half dozen temples and shrines I visited.

The best “no shoes” experience we had was at a yakatori (grilled meat served on skewers) restaurant in Kyoto called Kushi Kura. We removed our shoes just inside the front door and the staff whisked them away into wooden boxes. Impressively, they knew exactly which were ours upon leaving. The floor at our table was heated so it was quite cozy while eating in our stocking feet. There was a row of slippers in the restroom, for use only in the restroom. Bathroom slippers. Don’t forget to remove and replace them before leaving.

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Japanese bathroom slippers, in the men’s room of a restaurant.

14. Carry your own towel. It took me days to figure out how Japanese women weren’t leaving public restrooms shaking their hands or wiping them on their pants the way I was. They carry a reusable hand towel, available for purchase in any convenience store. There were very few hand dryers or paper towels in the public restrooms. Come prepared.

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Department store hand towels.
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Convenience store hand towels.

 

15. Don’t touch the door handles of taxis. They’re automatic and the driver controls opening and closing. I found this difficult to get used to in the short time I was there and I kept forgetting. It’s a nice convenience though, especially during flu season.

16. Speaking of flu season, consider wearing a mask. A lot of Japanese wear them to prevent catching or spreading disease. My tour guide said women sometimes also wear one if they didn’t have time to put on make-up before leaving home.

I didn’t see any foreigners wearing face masks, but it would be polite to wear one if you are feeling under the weather, especially in close quarters, such as trains. They can be purchased in convenience stores or kiosks at any train station.

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Look at that! A mint-infused face mask.
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