From groundbreaking technological innovation to stunning natural vistas to traditional Shinto shrines and Zen rock gardens, Japan has intrigued generations of visitors who come from near and far to experience the island-nation. While some aspects of Japanese culture have made dramatic and lasting breakthroughs into our global consciousness (think sushi, anime, video games, and movies), some things remain a mystery to those hailing from the west. And nothing can be more confusing than navigating Japan’s centuries-old tradition of social etiquette, which is both complicated and important.
But don’t let that scare you away! Like most places you visit on your travels, making an attempt to understand and take part in their traditions and culture is more than enough of a signal that you are trying to be a good guest in their country. But if you’re still worried, don’t be! We’re here to shed some light on the dos and don’ts before you take your next trip to the “Land of the Rising Sun.”
Take a bow.
Probably the most iconic Japanese custom, bowing is also one of the easiest to be unsure about! This greeting takes a lot of different forms, but generally speaking, it is divided into three categories: informal, formal, and very formal. The formality of the bow is determined by the relationship between the two individuals that are greeting one another. Young people bow longer and deeper when greeting elders and employees do the same when greeting the CEO. As a foreigner, a bow of the head is probably all you need to do as most Japanese don’t expect visitors to know all the rules!
Shoes on? Shoes off?
A good rule of thumb is that if there is a change in level inside a building—especially if the step up or down lands you on a woven rush grass (tatami) mat—remove your shoes. This rule applies most everywhere including homes, hotels, restaurants and temples. When in doubt, look for a line of shoes when you enter a building or room. If shoes are there, then you’re going to want to take yours off too. We recommend wearing traveling shoes that are easy to slip on and off since you’ll be expected to remove them often.
Chopsticks & Tea.
While dining has its own set of rules, there are a few major ones that should help you finish the meal embarrassment-free!
At the start of the meal, you might be handed a small wet towel. This is to clean your hands before you dig in, but it’s considered a faux pas to clean your face (or elsewhere) with this towel. When you’re done, fold it back up and, usually, someone will come back to collect it. When the food arrives, use the chopsticks to eat but never stick them straight up in the rice which is considered rude. And if you’re sharing food with others at the table, use the opposite ends of your chopsticks to serve pieces from the dish onto your own plate. Also, feel free to pick up your small bowl and hold it closer to your mouth when eating noodles or soup. Slurping is allowed, and actually lets the chef know you enjoyed their food!
Finally, tradition dictates that you don’t take your first drink before everyone at the table has something to sip. Then raise your glass for a toast, saying Kampai (cheers)! It’s also worth noting that you should avoid pouring your own drink. Traditionally, others will pour for you and you should pour for others.
Temples & Shrines.
There are always rules when visiting sacred sites across the globe, and the many temples and shrines that dot the Japanese landscape are no different. In general, you will want to behave with reverence as many locals may be there paying respects and praying in accordance to the Shinto faith. You may notice a large gate, like the one pictured above. This is called a torii gate, and walking through it symbolizes an entrance into the “spirit world” and, therefore, holy ground. (Don’t forget to remove your shoes!) Finally, pay special attention to the photography rules where you are visiting. Most of the time, photos of the shrine or temple are permitted but in some instances flash may not be okay, and in some sacred rooms, photos may not be allowed at all.
As we mentioned earlier, if you make an effort to learn some of the customs and rules you’ll be seen as a considerate guest. And a little bit of effort goes a long way! So don’t fret, review these tips and tricks a few times before you leave and then go and have a wonderful time exploring one of Asia’s hottest destinations! If you need some extra travel inspiration, check out our four tours to Japan.
This blog was written in partnership with Japan National Tourism Office (JNTO)