Japan has a reputation as an etiquette-bound place that can be intimidating for first-time visitors. Don’t buy it.
The traditions here are no more formal or constricting than in many other destinations around the world. Moreover, most locals are more than willing to help out or to give foreign travelers a pass for any perceived faux pas.
As with just about anything in life, expectation management is key. So put your mind at ease with our top tips for smooth traveling in Japan.
Book accommodations in advance
In a pinch you can probably get a room at a basic business hotel without a reservation, but why risk it? Top accommodations can book up weeks or even months in advance, so plan ahead. Particularly busy travel periods include the first week of January, cherry blossom season (late March through April, depending on the destination), “Golden Week” (April 29 to May 5) and August.
You should also keep in mind that smaller inns or ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) often have fixed check-in times outside of which staff won’t be present, and rooms won’t be made up. Coordinate your arrival time in advance.
Pack light and with certain situations in mind
Since hotel rooms in Japan tend to be small, especially in cities, there is little room for large suitcases – which can also be a pain to wrangle on public transport. Never a bad idea, packing on the lighter is especially advisable for Japan.
Note that such religious sights as Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines don’t have dress codes. High-end restaurants, bars and clubs sometimes do, but that usually just means no sleeveless shirts or sandals on men. Also keep in mind that you might find yourself sitting on the floor when dining out, which can be uncomfortable in short or tight clothing.
The right shoes can make your trip
Comfortable walking shoes are a must. You’ll also likely have to take your shoes off frequently at religious sights, traditional inns and some restaurants – you’ll thank yourself later if you pack shoes that are easy to slip on and off. Also, since you’ll be slipping into a pair of communal slippers when you take your own shoes off, many visitors prefer to wear socks.
Get a data-heavy SIM card at the airport
Or a pocket wi-fi device. Japan’s street-address system is notoriously difficult to navigate – even for locals – so smartphones with navigation apps have been a real boon for travelers. Count on relying on data usage.
Learn to love the bidet toilet
Called “washlets,” Japan’s high-tech, electronic bidet toilets will wash and dry your delicate parts with the touch of a button. (Don’t worry about any language barrier: the pictograms on the buttons are easy to understand.) Other toilet customs in Japan might throw you for a loop. Motion-sensor-activated sound machines in the women’s toilets are intended to conceal, um, sensitive noises. And expect dedicated toilet slippers in shoes-off establishments, as well as a frequent lack of towels and hand dryers (locals carry small cloths with them for this reason).
Be prepared for the weather
Summers in Japan are hot and humid, which can mean a real risk of heatstroke. Be sure to carry water with you; a folding umbrella with UV blocking can also help – and does double duty in case of a sudden shower. Late June is the start of the annual rainy season, when it can rain without end for days; this can last a few weeks or through most of July.
Rains, as well as punishing winds, are likely again during typhoon season, which runs from September through October (and earlier in Okinawa). Typhoons can cause serious travel disruption; monitor the situation with the Japan Meteorological Agency’s storm and other weather warnings, which are available in English. Winters can get chilly, and Tōhoku and Hokkaidō up north can get huge dumps of snow.
Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores are handy for weather-related necessities like umbrellas, hats, cooling wipes and pocket warmers.
Earthquakes really do happen frequently
Japan is one of the most seismically active places on the planet. While strong earthquakes happen rarely, minor temblors happen all the time. If this occurs during your time here, stay calm and take your cue from those around you. Head under a table or stand in a doorway if the shaking picks up; strict building codes generally keep harm to a minimum.
Rarer but more dangerous tsunami can follow a significant quake. Should this occur, listen for tsunami warnings and get to higher ground fast if you are near the coast.
Make sure to carry cash…
In rural Japan and at older family businesses in cities, credit cards may not be accepted. It’s wise to assume you’ll need to pay cash at country ryokan and smaller restaurants and shops; stock up when you’re in a town with an ATM. To pay as the Japanese do, place your cash or card in the small tray at the register rather than handing either to the cashier.
…But don’t worry about tipping
Though tour guides who regularly take around foreign tourists might expect an extra, Japan has no custom of tipping, and an attempt to add to your bill will more often than not fluster or embarrass staff. In lieu of tipping, some bars and restaurants will charge a flat-rate service fee, usually around ¥300–500 ($2.50–4.25) per person; others, typically fancy ones, will automatically add a 10% service charge to the bill.
Appreciate the local flavors
As visitors quickly discover, the Japanese are absolutely obsessed with food. You’ll find that every island and region of Japan has its own meibutsu (local specialty) that is a point of pride. Train stations and highway rest stops sell o-miyage (souvenirs) of packaged regional delicacies. Meanwhile, in tourist areas, vendors sell soft-serve ice cream in local flavors like melon (Hokkaidō) and purple sweet potato (Okinawa).
Know the local lingo
English is widely spoken in cities and around major tourist attractions; in rural areas, though, it can be hit or miss. Some Japanese words that will come in handy when dining out:
• omori (large portion, often free at ramen stalls)
• okawari (refill)
• mochikaeri (takeaway)
• tennai de (eat-in)
• onegai shimasu (please). Follow up any of your orders or requests with this; for example, if you want tea, say “O-cha onegai shimasu.”
• sumimasen (excuse me)
• arigato gozaimasu (thank you). Because it’s a bit of a mouthful, it’s tempting to shorten it to simply arigato. Think of it as the difference between “thank you” and “thanks” and go for the politer “arigato gozaimasu.”
• toire (toilet; pronounced “to-ee-rey”)
Join the queue
The Japanese are big on queues, forming neat lines at everywhere from check-out counters to train platforms. (Regarding the latter: after the train doors open, it’s everyone for themselves when it comes to scoring a seat.)
Stand to the left, or to the right
Always ride on one side of the escalator – but which side depends on where you are. In Kanto and eastwards, it’s to the left; in Kansai and westwards, it’s to the right. (The dividing point is somewhere just west of Nagoya.) Incidentally, train operators want passengers to stand on both sides of the escalator and refrain from walking altogether, even if commuters have so far shrugged at these guidelines.
There’s no 24-hour public transport in Japan
City subways run until 1am at the very latest. If you miss the last train for the night, the alternative is to catch a taxi, which can be expensive.
The morning commute can be intense
For Tokyoites, the morning commute is a contact sport. On weekdays from 7:30am to 9am, millions squeeze into trains across the city, sometimes helped along by station staff who make sure everyone’s packed in. Shinjuku Station, the busiest in the world, sees an average of over 3.5 million commuters a day; there are more than 200 exits leading in and out of the complex.
Eating in public is a no-no – except for certain situations
It’s considered bad form to eat in public, especially while walking. Exceptions include the shinkansen (bullet train) and other reserved-seat limited-express trains, where it is customary to eat a bentō (boxed meal) on board; festivals or market streets with food vendors; picnics; and ice cream. It’s also okay to take sips from a resealable beverage container, like a water bottle.