Hayley van Dinter
Travel Designer

Hayley van Dinter
15 Must-Know Japanese Customs

Japan is a place of contradictions, a land bound by ancient customs and traditions whilst simultaneously being a country of thriving and vibrant metropolises.

For the open minded traveller it has a lot to offer, from peaceful, serene villages, untouched by time right through to modern, bustling cities showing off the best of Japanese counter culture.

As fascinating as it is though, those customs and traditions we mentioned are embedded within the Japanese mind-set and the wise tourist would do well to learn some of them before choosing to travel there…



1-The Bow Is The New ‘Hello’

Perhaps bowing, more than any other tradition, is the most well-known of Japanese traditions to Western travelers and bowing to others is drilled into young Japanese children from a young age. Whilst you wouldn’t be expected to conform as a visitor, a small bend of the head will go a long way…


2-Slip Off Your Shoes For Slippers

Anyone entering a house in Japan will be expected to remove their shoes and put on the slippers provided. And it’s not just in houses either…

Temples, traditional restaurants and even some museums will expect this behaviour too, so if you ever come across a row of slippers in Japan, embrace the tradition and swap them for your shoes!


3-Embrace Japanese Normality

Don’t panic, this isn’t essential for all Japanese hotels but they are pretty common for traveling business people or those who have stayed out too late and missed their train.

We’re not sure we’d spend our whole holiday here but if you’re visiting a big city like Tokyo it might be worth giving it a go just so you can say you’ve sampled the ‘real’ Japan. You’ll certainly be adding new things to your list before even ticking them off…


4-Get Onto The Superstitious Side

If you didn’t already know, the Japanese word for death is almost identical to their word for four so naturally this has become an unlucky number for the country, much like our number thirteen… just worse.

So if you really want to get a feel for the Japanese way of life, don’t buy things in groups of four or take any risky decisions on the fourth day of any month, and don’t be surprised if buildings miss out the fourth floor altogether!

5-Get The Etiquette Right

Over in Japan, eating whilst walking is considered a sign of low status and is seen as slovenly or rude… so to avoid this.

But don’t worry, usually it depends on your location so definitely avoid it on public transport and you’ll be glad to know ice creams are considered an exception to the rule altogether… 

6-Slurping On The Go However…

Despite the strict rules of no eating on the go, slurping your food is totally OK (and very noodle-friendly). It’s actually something that’s considered polite! The Japanese love to know that you’re enjoying your food so slurping is the way to let them know…

7-Know This Nose Rule

To most Japanese people blowing your nose won’t just be considered rude… it’s totally disgusting. It is considered the most catastrophic faux pas of tourists so keep your tissues in your pockets and blend in like a local; this still counts as part of embracing the culture!

8-Eyes Off The Screen

Believe it or not, there are several rules to follow of train etiquette in Japan, starting with mobile phones!

It’ll be hard to break this rule because everywhere you look there’ll be signs everywhere you look! It is considered incredible disrespectful to be chatting on a phonecall on the train or bus, but the one thing you will be granted is a ‘grace period’ where you have around 10 seconds to finish up a conversation as soon as you’ve stepped on the train…

9-Tricky Hands

If you’re not feeling natural in using chopsticks in replacement for your fork or knife then just know, despite other strangely strict rules, raising your bowl to your mouth (and slurping) is completely understood and acceptable – especially if you’re eating rice.


10-Excuse The Rush

Japan put rush hour into a new light with roughly 1.2 million people travelling by train on just one line per day! That’s a staggering 64,000 passengers per hour. And to put this into some real context, Germany’s trains only transport 10 million passengers per year (less than 1% of the trains in Tokyo!)

And just so you’re prepared, there are people in Japanese railway stations whose only job is pushing packed commuters onto trains to make room for others- a whole other world to London’s rush hour we think we know so well…

11-Speaking Of Trains…

On Japan’s crowded trains it’s perfectly acceptable for a stranger to lay their head on your shoulder and go to sleep (but it’s not acceptable for you to snuggle them)…

12-Keep The Change

The UK and America might be big on leaving a tip wherever you go, whether it be your cruise ship cabin or a diner, but Japan is very different. It’s actually considered rude and your server would sooner think you’ve overpaid or misunderstood your cost.

If you don’t want to be chased down a street with excess change being flung at you, stay safe and don’t leave a tip…

13-Hands To Yourself (Literally…)

Perhaps it’s only natural that in a big city the fear of bugs and colds being passed on becomes common place. In many shops in Japan you’ll find a small tray next to the till. If you see one, never hand your money directly to the cashier; instead place it on the tray for them to pick up.

We’re sorry to say it but the tray means they don’t want to touch you! Welcome to the place of clean…

14-Let The Drink Do The Talking

Even if you find yourself in a social setting over in Japan, just remember to never fill your own glass. Instead, put the bottle down and someone else will fill your glass.

If you haven’t gathered by now, good manners are everything over there and you don’t want to get this wrong. But don’t worry, you won’t have to keep waiting for staff to get around to you; you can pour your companions drink and they can pour yours!

15-It’s Not What It Looks Like…

Eating out in a foreign country is always fraught with peril… what should you eat; what should you say; what should you do? And just when you think you can’t go wrong with the simple side of things, you’re wrong!

In most Japanese restaurants you’ll be given a small, wet cloth to clean your fingers. Use it, fold it neatly and lay it on the side of your plate – Never use it to wash your face or clean up spilled food and drink.

It’s not a napkin, it’s officially called a oshibori so be prepared. In the summer it will be cold and in the winter it will be hot, you’ll go home wishing it wasn’t just a part of Japanese culture…


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