THINGS TO KNOW: CULTURAL TIPS

No one wants to accidentally offend anyone when travelling in another country. Below are some of the basic DOs and DON'Ts of Japanese etiquette, and some other things you might want to know to keep things running smoothly.

Greetings

When Eating Out

On the Train

When Visiting Someone’s Home

When Going to the Bathroom

At a Hot Spring (onsen) or Public Bath (sento)

GREETINGS

  • Bowing is the standard.  Although the western custom of shaking hands can be used, bowing or nodding is far more common. 
  • Bowing is multi-purpose.   In Japan, people bow to express thanks, to apologize, to make a request or to ask for a favour.  It is used to greet or acknowledge someone, as well as to give or receive something.
  • There are different levels of bowing.  Bowing ranges from a small nod of the head to a full 90-degree bend at the waist.  The depth of the bow depends on how humble you are being.  In most casual situations, a head nod will suffice.

WHEN EATING OUT

  • You may need to take off your shoes.  In traditional Japanese restaurants, you may be required to take off your shoes at the entrance or before stepping onto the seating area.  There will be shelves or lockers for you to keep your shoes.
  • Buying meal tickets. Some places (ramen noodle shops, beef bowl shops etc.) have vending machines near the front where you can select what you want and buy a ticket.  You then hand your ticket over to the staff who prepare and serve the meal.
  • Free water or tea. A glass of water or tea is usually served once you sit down.
  • Wet towels. Some restaurants provide you with a hot, wet hand towel at the beginning of the meal.  This is to clean your hands before you eat.
  • Slurping is common. In Japan, people often slurp when they eat soup noodles such as ramen.
  • Paying. At most restaurants, you can pay the bill at the cashier near the exit on your way out.
  • Tipping. Tipping is not common or expected throughout Japan.  This includes at restaurants, hotels, and even taxis.

ON THE TRAIN

  • Wait your turn.  While waiting for the train, people generally form lines where the train doors will open.  Wait for people to get off the train before trying to get on, and don’t push your way ahead of other people.  Trains can get packed, but these lines are adhered to when entering the train.   
  • Women’s only cars.  Certain train lines designate Women-only cars for peak rush hour times.  Check for signs on the train cars to determine if the car is for women only, and what times the restriction is in effect.
  • Set your phone to silent.  In Japan, the setting for silent/vibrate on your cellphone is called “Manner Mode”.  Texting is fine, but try not to talk on your cell phone while you’re on the train.
  • Turn your phone off. Certain sections of the train are priority seating for expectant mothers, the elderly, and the disabled. Look for signs that designate these areas, as you must turn off your phone near theses seats.

WHEN VISITING SOMEONE'S HOME

  • Take off your shoes at the entrance.  Just inside the door, there is usually an area for you to take off your shoes.  Put on a pair of slippers if they’re provided, otherwise socks or even bare feet are perfectly acceptable.
  • Take off your slippers on Tatami mats.  Rooms floored with straw Tatami mats are socks/bare feet only.  The mats need to be kept clean and slippers can be damaging, so leave your slippers at the door when you enter a tatami room.
  • Make use of toilet slippers. Homes often have a separate pair of slippers for bathroom use only.  Change your slippers at the bathroom entrance, but don’t forget to change them back when you leave!

WHEN GOING TO THE BATHROOM

  • Public washrooms may be equipped with Japanese-style toilets, Western-style toilets, or both.
  • Japanese-style toilets require you to squat over the toilet, facing the hood.
  • Western-style toilets include many features like heated seats, an automatically-opening lid, or a bidet spray.
  • Both types usually have 2 flush modes. There are often two different buttons to regulate the amount of water used to flush: small and large
  • Toilet paper is not always provided in public washrooms.  It is recommended that you carry around a small package of tissues, in case you run into one of these bathrooms.  Toilet paper can often be purchased from vending machines outside of these washrooms.
  • Paper towels or dryers are not always provided.  Many Japanese people carry a handkerchief with them to dry their hands on.
  • Toilet slippers are for bathroom use only.  As mentioned in the Visiting someone’s home section, if there are bathroom slippers available, please make sure to use them.

AT A HOT SPRING (ONSEN) OR PUBLIC BATH (SENTO)

  • Wash before getting into the bath. Washing and soaking are kept meticulously separate in Japan, whether at a hot spring, public bath, or even a private home.  Wash and rinse off before going for a soak in the bathtub.
  • No swimsuits allowed.  Tempting though it may be, swimsuits are generally not permitted in hot springs or public baths.
  • No Tattoos.  People with tattoos should be aware that they might not be permitted in hot springs or public baths.