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Friday 5 January 2024

Useful tips for first-time visitors to Japan

Japan can be an intimidating destination for first-time visitors.

Few westerners speak the language and the custom are very different.

The Japanese are very welcoming, however, and there were 19.8 million overseas visitors between January and October.

Learning a few key common phrases is a good idea, as is learning about local etiquette and expectations.

The experts at JRPass have pulled together some of their top tips to help tourists navigate common etiquette and practices when visiting Japan.

# The customs for greetings in Japan look noticeably different than those in most western countries, and bowing is the most common Japanese greeting, ranging from a nod of the head to a deep bend at the waist. If you aren’t sure what type of bow is required in a given situation, don’t panic. Tourists are not expected to know the intricacies of the bowing customs in Japan.

# Many Japanese restaurants will have traditional seating, consisting of low tables and cushions on the tatami floor. Make sure to take off your shoes before stepping onto the tatami floor and avoid stepping on any cushions other than your own. It is common to wait until everyone has received their food, and then start the meal with the phrase "itadakimasu" ("I gratefully receive"). When eating from a small bowl, it is good manners to pick this up with your hand and bring it closer to your mouth. Slurping is encouraged. Never stab your food with chopsticks and do not place them upright in the bowl (this is a ritual reserved for funerals). Use the opposite end of your chopsticks to serve yourself from a communal dish and don’t point at things (dishes or people) with your chopsticks.

When it comes to drinks it is customary to serve each other, so you should never pour your own drink (you pour your friends’ drinks, and they return the favour).

# It is important to avoid loitering and blocking the flow of traffic, especially on busy streets. If you must stop, move to an area where you will not be disturbing the flow. This is especially important if you have lots of luggage taking up space. It is considered bad manners to eat or drink while walking in Japan. Instead, stop and take a break whilst you eat; many places (including many convenience stores) have designated places for you to stop and eat. Keeping the streets clean is a point of pride in Japan, and you should hang on to all your rubbish until you find a bin or get home.

# While it may be tempting in today's Insta-obsessed culture, you should not approach Geishas and Maikos for selfies in the street. They are working and often hurrying from one engagement to another, and as such, it is very disrespectful to hold them up for the purposes of getting a photo. Also, do not blow your nose in public as it is seen as very rude.

# When moving around stations, always follow the flow of traffic – don’t worry, there tend to be arrows or signs to help point you in the right direction. If you have to make use of priority seating, you must give up your seat and respect the rules should someone who is elderly, disabled, or pregnant board the train. On all public transport you should keep your phone on silent and avoid taking calls when onboard and keep any noise to a minimum.


Haroun Khan, founder and owner at JRPass, says: “Adjusting to a world of new etiquette and customs may seem initially confusing as a visitor to Japan, but it isn’t something that should deter you from visiting this beautiful country.

“Experiencing a different culture to your own is an exciting opportunity and one to jump into. Japan is an incredibly welcoming place, and no visitor is expected to know the ins and outs of every unique custom, however, learning some of the basic etiquette is always an appreciated effort.

“Of course, these are just some of the many common courtesies and rules followed when in Japan, and the country has many other fascinating rules to keep in mind when travelling around there, so we’d encourage you to do your research before you visit.”

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Images: and Winsor Dobbin

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