Article by Suraj Kizhakkutte on 16-Jan-2020
Japanese culture and traditions are very complex but beautiful. During the Edo Era (1603 – 1868), Japan exercised a strict isolationist policy, closing its doors to all relationships with the outside world. This cultivated a distinctly Japanese culture. Though modern-day Japan has revised many policies & practices in the wake of western cultural influence and other factors, still a first-time visitor to Japan is bound to face numerous “culture-shocks”. Hence, we should ensure to respect the deep-rooted Japanese culture and traditions when visiting here.
Here are some Tips or Do’s/Don’ts that any traveller must keep in mind. Please note that the below points are brief and may be used as a starting point for further exploration.
If you are traveling in a metro train or a long-distance trip on the JR Metro line, please ensure the following:
- Train compartments are a quiet place, just like a library. Keep your voice down while talking. Better don’t talk or learn to whisper.
- Never talk on a mobile phone.
- Don’t eat inside a train (esp. Metro train), unless provided with a dedicated eating tray like in Shinkansen Bullet trains.
- Keep in mind that some priority seats are reserved for pregnant women, injured or old aged persons. Please offer a seat if you find anyone standing on the train.
- Keep backpacks to the front or in between feet in busy trains.
- Bear in mind the ladies' special coach during peak hours. Peak hours on weekdays are typically 7.30 AM – 9.30 AM & 6 PM – 8 PM.
It is customary to leave one side of the escalator open so that those in a hurry can pass. In Tokyo, people stand on the left side, and leave the right side open, whereas, in the Kansai region, people stand on the right side, and leave the left side open. Better keep an eye around your surroundings & follow what others do.
With the pandemic hitting across the world, mask-wearing has become the new normal. But before 2020 or the pre-COVID era, it was difficult for many foreign travellers to wear a mask in public as they felt suffocated. In Japan, the mask culture was prevailing much before. Wearing a mask is a habit that has been widely practiced for over a century and appears to have its roots in religious festivals. This has very much helped in tackling the COVID spread in the country to a large extend.
A big for NO! - Tipping is not a customary thing in Japan. It is considered to be a rude and insulting act for most Japanese. Hence, just pay for your bill amount. Remember, never use the phrase ‘Keep the change’ as it is inappropriate or confusing in Japan.
English is not widely spoken across Japan, and most Japanese don’t understand or speak English either. In a metropolitan city like Tokyo, you may find some English support. But as you travel to the deeper roots of Japan, it is better to get accustomed to basic Japanese phrases such as ‘Sumimasen’ (Excuse me), Gommennasai (Sorry), Hai (Yes), Toire Doko desu ka (where is Toilet?), etc. These phrases will help you in various situations. It is always advisable to keep some translation tool/ app such as Google Translate (explained in the next point) to further assistance.
Translation tools such as google translate, Apple Translate, etc. are very handy which will help in translating the name boards, voice, text, etc.
People here are very anxious not to be late for their appointments. In general, they ensure to arrive at least 10-15 minutes early for the meetings and discussions. Foreigners visiting Japan are always impressed by the punctuality of the public transport system. When you are told that the Bus starts at 10 AM, the bus departs at 10:00:00 AM! Same for the trains as well. Hence, be extra cautious not to miss the transport.
Japan doesn’t have enough waste bins on the streets as in other countries. Still, it is a wonder how the country is so clean and litter-free. The rules and manners around the waste disposal are quite strict that if the waste bin is not found in your vicinity you are bound to take the trash back to your room/home and dispose of it.
While disposing of the trash, ensure to separate it into the correct bin. E.g. in a regular Metro station, the garbage bins have 3 separations – (1) Newspaper/Magazines (2) PET Bottles (3) Others.
Streets in Japan are clean and litter-free. Japanese don’t encourage them to walk and eat as it may inadvertently spill some chunks to the street which is not encouraged. Hence, if you want to munch during travel - stop at a place, eat, and always remember to carry the trash back with you until you find a waste bin.
There are many indoor rules and etiquette in Japan. The most important one being footwear etiquette in Japanese homes and some shops as well. A clear line is traditionally drawn at the entrance wherein you are supposed to remove your footwear and use the indoor footwear as provided by the host.
Capsule hotels or pod hotels are small bed-sized rooms called Capsules. Capsule hotels provide cheap, basic overnight accommodation for guests who do not require or who cannot afford larger, more expensive rooms offered by more conventional hotels. This is quite useful for backpackers and budget travellers. But ensure to research the safety index and reviews of the hotels before experience.
For someone relatively new to use Chopsticks and want to give it a try in Japan, please ensure to follow basic etiquettes around Chopsticks usage:
- Don't Play with Your Chopsticks in Japan.
- Don't Pass Food from One Set of Chopsticks to Another.
- Don't Rub Your Chopsticks Together.
- Don't Stick Your Chopsticks into Rice.
- Don't Cross Your Chopsticks.
Undoubtedly, Japan is world no.1 in public hot springs or Onsens. An entire chapter can be written on the rules to be followed for public onsens. The link - https://www.kashiwaya.org/e/magazine/onsen/rules2.html provides a detailed description of the same.
Japan is the country most affected by natural disasters. Due to the climate and topography, Japan has experienced numerous typhoons, earthquakes, floods, tsunami, and all other types of disasters. Hence travellers are always advised to keep a bag of emergency kit handy while you stay in Japan. The link provides a detailed description of the same: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/community/2020/08/20/how-tos/emergency-kit-prep/
Japan does suffer from seasonal Flu/disease outbreak every year. Hence, it is always suggested to take medical insurance before you travel. Various insurance providers cover not only medical care but also lost luggage, cancelled hotel and plane tickets, and damaged or stolen gear (although theft in Japan is extremely rare, it does occasionally happen).
Japanese are humble by nature and culture. Visit any Japanese shop or departmental store, you will be welcomed by the workers with the phrase “Irasshaimase..” which means “Welcome to the store!” or “Come on in!”. As a first time traveller, you will be amused by the Japanese hospitality. Hence, ensure to know about it & acknowledge them with a smile.
To conclude, Japan is an amazing tourist destination that provides a very unique experience of a lifetime. Here you can witness a perfect blend of modern high-tech technology with upheld traditional values. The cuisines, breath-taking nature, beautiful zen temples along with modern artificial islands (such as Odaiba) is a package that no other place can provide. Hence, if you are planning a trip to Japan, the above pointers are a good starting point for you.