Do’s and Don’ts Tips On Visiting Japan

Japan, like all other countries, has its own set of norms, culture, habits, and ideas of taboo. If you aren’t immersed at all in Japanese culture, you’re going to get culturally shocked. It’s always important when visiting a foreign country out of your own to be like a local to minimize frustrating or offending the locals. You may feel a little bit odd at first, but when you’re mindful on these tips below, you will get accustomed to it over time while visiting Japan.

It’s always a good idea to research a bit of a country’s culture before traveling there anyways. These tips will help you become a confident traveler through Japan and that you can prove to be unlike those foreign visitors who ruined it for Kyoto where locals have said some tourists treated their neighborhoods as “theme parks”. Learning Japan’s culture and having respect for it shows respect towards the locals who call Japan their home.

So below is a list of do’s and don’ts I noted when I was visiting this beautiful country of Japan.

Do’s in visiting Japan

1. Keep quiet in trains and waiting areas. Use your low-volume voice. 

One thing to know about Japanese locals is they do not like attention or disturbance in the places they see as their own time. The quietest set of trains you’ll ever come across is probably going to be in Japan. To be honest, it was very quiet for me, but I understand that locals live by this unspoken rule. Many locals use trains for their commuting and see this time as a time to rest and decompress before heading out to work or heading out of work.

It doesn’t mean you can’t talk at all, but try to use your low-volume voice if it is absolutely necessary to talk to someone. Most people on these trains will just stay busy on their phones, reading books, playing games, or listening to music, but the volume of these electronics will be externally muted, so keep in mind of that too. Also try to stray away from talking on the phone, but like I said if it’s absolutely necessary, use that low-volume voice or wait when you get off your first stop. 

Trains also aren’t the only places that honor this unspoken rule, but any waiting areas are very similar. You’ll see in the train stations and other places, that rule no longer applies.

2. Take off your shoes in certain places. (Like homes, restaurants, temples, tatami mats.) Also, leave them facing the right way.

Japan loves keeping their places clean and I think this is such a smart practical way anywhere you are anyways! Japan isn’t the only Asian country that practices this but many. The no-shoe policy is more than just for cleanliness and hygiene but to provide respect to the places you are granted to visit. 

Some businesses like hotels, hostels, rental homes, and restaurants will require you to take off your shoes and may accommodate you with a set of slippers meant for walking around on the floors. Be careful not to have the slippers touch the outdoor shoe area. The rule is to leave your outdoor shoes outside of the entrance or before entering the home’s floors. It is also very important to not to do it in places that have tatami mats.

Consider also leaving your outdoor shoes facing the right way, which is right by the edge of the door or a ledge and face them towards the door, that way you can easily slip into your shoes.

Slippers in Japan

3. Clean up after yourself.

It’s definitely always the polite thing when you are eating at a restaurant to not just leave your trays of food on the restaurant if it is one of those places where you pick up your food from a counter. Aside from that, Japanese admires tidying up so it is absolutely necessary to clean up after yourself. 

You might be pleasantly surprised how clean Japan is with little to no garbage to find in the streets and that is because Japan strictly prohibits littering. So anything you have used and ready to throw out, just take it with you and hold off on throwing it where it belongs. The next point is something important along these lines.

4. Hold onto your trash. Make sure to bring a trash bag.

Like I mentioned, littering is a huge no in this country. After Japan went through the 1995 Sarin Gas Attacks, a terrorist attack organized putting out toxic and potentially lethal gas around several Tokyo subway lines, garbage cans were removed from many public settings. 

To this present day, you will not have luck finding garbage cans for miles on end. The key is to hold a small trash bag in your bag and to throw your trash there for now, and when you finally come across a garbage can, then you can get rid of it. You will be expected to hold garbage for hours in Japan, even in the tourist attraction sites.

5. Try to avoid PDA in public. 

Many couples in Japan will stray away from being overly affectionate or romantic in public, which may be different and more open to do so in your country. Holding hands is more acceptable here though, but in respect to the locals here, try to keep anything more behind closed doors.

6. Try to walk on the left side to give room for others passing by and bikers.

This was one of the things I really had to adjust to! In your country, at least for me in America, we usually walk on the right side. We even drive on the right side. In Japan, it’s the left side. You need to be mindful to walk on the left side on sidewalks, escalators, hallways, and pretty much everywhere so you can let people pass on the right side. Walking on the left also applies to bikers riding on the biking lanes (or even without any) where they ride on the right, or else, you may experience a few bike honks.

Biking lane and walking lane in Shinjuku City, Japan
In somewhere in Shinjuku City, you can see a bike lane and the walking lane specifically distinguished.

7. Try not to tip customer service workers.

Tipping isn’t a thing in Japan at all. In fact, Japanese people would be confused if you tried to tip them and may try to give back your money. It’s not a thing in restaurants, which is where a lot of tipping is done for customer service workers. Tipping may also be considered condescending and rude because it may show the workers aren’t being valued to their employers to offer decent pay. Not tipping taxi drivers is also an unspoken rule you must consider.

8. Do research for onsens and waterparks first: Tattoos are not accepted everywhere.

In Japanese culture, tattoos aren’t generally well-praised. The reason is that they can be associated with the Yakuza mafia members or a sign of someone having done crimes and violence. Sadly, many places, like onsens (hot springs), public bathhouses, and waterparks, ban people with tattoos from entering. 

That is not to say that there aren’t some places in Japan that do accept those with tattoos! There are some places that are generally welcoming to those who do. You would want to do some research ahead and translate Japanese websites to figure out if they are tattoo-friendly. My sister went to an onsen in Shinjuku, Tokyo called Mannenyu that is tattoo-friendly.

9. Do translate bidets first before using. And anything else you don’t understand.

Bidets, washing basins, are common on the toilets there. It might seem like bidets might seem easy to use by looking at the icons, but what you think might not actually be the right setting to use. To prevent a mess and even avoid buying the wrong things at stores, I would recommend downloading the Google Translate app and using the camera feature, where you can take a picture and translate it.

10. Use a coin purse and use the tray offered to you.

Having a coin purse in Japan is a MUST! You will end up getting a lot of yen back in coins than cash and it is common for coins to be used in a lot of places like when you’re buying a train station ticket at machines, doing gacha machines, buying a drink from the vending machines, etc.

If you are still figuring out which coin is which in terms of monetary value, you can simply pour out your coin purse on a tray, which most places in Japan will have on their cash register counters, and you can pick out the coins to get even change. Workers are also nice enough to help you out to make the process faster, considering some of these workers will pick up soon you’re a tourist. They were definitely godsend for me!

11. Do ask for permission or find out if photography is allowed before attempting to photograph.

When traveling, you may feel like photography is just a thing you can do anywhere. However, that’s not the case in many places in Japan, even for those tourist attraction spots. Many temples will not allow you to photograph certain parts of them as those areas are deemed sacred. 

Some people working will also not like you photographing them and may consider it rude. It’s a good thing to always ask people permission first if it’s okay to photograph them and to watch out for the signs that announce “photography is not allowed”. Also in many museums around the world anyways, flash photography is prohibited so keep that in mind too.

Yakushi-ji temple
It is prohibited to photograph inside the Yakushi-ji temple.

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Don’ts in visiting Japan

12. Don’t put bags in the train seat, put your bags in your lap or above to make space for someone to sit.

As a traveler, you may bring lots of bags with you on the trains and you might have some shopping bags too. You should not place your bags on the seat next to you as you are likely taking away a spot for someone who needs it most. Instead put them on your lap and there are going to be many options to rest your bag on top of the metal racks above train seats.

It’s also best to not sit in the “Priority seats” of trains and leave it for people who are handicapped or have a medical reason. Most of those people will have a specific red tag with a cross on it to show they are authorized for this.

13. Don’t eat while walking or riding in trains.

It is considered rude to eat while walking in Japan, as well as on the trains. Not only will it prevent you from littering if you don’t eat and walk, but it shows you respect others around you passing by. If you have to eat, you should stand in one place or sit where there are tables. It’s okay to sip on your drink or water if you need to as you walk on, but generally, most locals will avoid eating or drinking on walks or in trains.

Chicken tempura bowl in Japan
It looks tempting to just eat this chicken tempura bowl while walking around, most especially the sausage I had with it (unpictured), but sitting at a table with your food is the proper way in Japan.

14. Don’t skip lines – be patient and wait behind others.

I think this is a universal rule but it can be often forgotten to be practiced at times for some reason. Never skip or cut people in lines, always give people the benefit to go first if they were there first, even if you’re unsure if it is a formed line. In train tracks, you definitely need to stand behind others who were at platforms first at stations and wait for others to get off a train before you can hop in one.

Kyushu Jangara Ramen in Akihabara
Waited about 20 minutes to eat some really amazing ramen in Kyushu Jangara, Akihabara – as you can see the seats are limited in the restaurant.

15. Don’t try to open the door manually in taxis.

Taxi services are exceptional in Japan. Most of them may wear a suit and tie while providing a taxi ride, and I think that shows how professional they really can be! Most taxis have automatic settings to open the door without you or even the driver doing so, so don’t try to open the door manually. Also, allow the taxi driver to open the door for you as you step in! Chivalry isn’t dead when it comes to Japan’s taxi drivers.

16. Don’t ask for bargain prices and refunds.

In some Asian countries like my heritage place of the Philippines, bargaining at shops is okay and in America, asking for refunds is okay too. In Japan, it’s a different story – don’t try to bargain and accept the prices as is and as for refunds, returns are not accepted unless that item has some defects or there is a policy set in place wherever you purchased an item in the store with your receipt and with that, you need to check beforehand.

If you’re looking to save from taxes, you can especially as a tourist, you can be tax-exempt. Make sure to show your actual passport to the cashiers so you can try to get a tax refund receipt that can be refunded in airports, and if it gets bagged in a tax-exempt bag, DO NOT open these bags until you leave Japan.

17. Don’t try to ask if there’s space for you to sit by them. Japanese likes privacy!

As the Japanese value their quiet time on trains, they also value privacy in general. Many do not like attention. 

It is different in America where I’m from where it’s okay to ask if you can sit at a table if an individual is by themselves when all tables are packed. Not everyone will say yes of course, but it isn’t weird to try to ask. You do not want to do the same in Japan and just respect when an individual is by themselves. Try to just wait for a table to open up if you really need a place for seating.

18. Don’t make loud noises at night.

It may feel tempting to vacuum your rental place at night or to have late-night hangouts with your friends or family in your place, but since places in Japan can have thin walls and the homes are not exactly in distance from each other, you need to minimize noise at night. Keep the noise to lower volumes at night whether you have to clean something or have company over. I’d also hold off on vacuuming until the daytime, where locals would do their chores during that time instead.

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