If you’ve never left North America or travelled to a foreign land, I suggest brushing up on local customs and culture so that you can be as respectful as possible to the locals. When traveling to Japan, I noticed quite a few things about Japanese culture that are much different than North American culture that I’d like to explain to you before you visit one of my favourite countries in the world!
Here are 10 things to know when traveling to Japan:
#1: Mind Your Manners
The Japenese are some of the most well-mannered people I have ever encountered. They are kind and considerate of everyone around them.
In general, you will notice a few things about manners when visiting:
- People will bow (or give you a slight nod) to thank you silently for things, so be sure to bow or nod back.
- The Japanese will also say “thank you” potentially more than once. You will hear the words “Arigato Gozaimas!” several times daily. Be sure to respond in kind.
- When walking on the street they will almost always give you right of way and are just hyper-considerate of everyone around them. (note that this makes returning to North America quite frustrating!)
- Walking and eating is generally frowned upon, except for soft serve ice cream, it seems. Most street food vendors or little kiosks have areas for you to sit or stand to eat your food before moving on.
- Pre-Meal Hand Washing: You will be given either a hot towel or a wet-nap/moist towelette before your meal so that you can wash your hands before eating. If you get takeout, they’ll put wet naps in the bag. They also provide you a straw for every drink you buy, even at convenience stores.
#2: No Tipping
Japan is a tipless society, so be conscious of this. Tipping is considered rude there as it says to them “I didn’t expect you to be competent at the job I was already paying you for.” Also, like in Europe, tips are included in the cost of food as to pay their employees a fair, living wage.
#3: Gift Giving
If you wish to “tip” someone in Japan for exemplary service, I recommend a small gift from home. For example, my husband and I visited the home of a Japanese Sword-smith where we learned all about forging Katanas. We spent an entire day at this man’s home with him and his translator. We were so honoured to be their guests that we presented them with small bottles of maple syrup from Canada and they were incredibly touched by our gesture.
A few notes on gift-giving in Japan:
- Present the gift with two hands to the recipient as that is what is considered polite.
- If the recipient does not unwrap a gift in front of you, please do not be offended. Waiting until they are in private to unwrap a gift given to them is customary.
#4: Face Masks
You may see people walking on the street, driving in cars, taking the subway, etc. wearing surgical masks. What we’re lead to believe on television is that people who do this tend to be germaphobic and/or are trying to avoid some kind of avian flu. The truth is, you will see people with medical masks on and that is because they are either sick (they wear masks for the slightest sniffle) and don’t want to pass their germs on to anyone else or because there is pollen in the air and they suffer from allergies.
The wearing of surgical masks is just another element of politeness and consideration that the Japanese have towards those around them.
#5: Perfumes, Colognes & Scented Products
The Japanese are a clean society that does not wear any scent at all – they wouldn’t want to offend anyone with their perfume/cologne or to cause anyone to have an allergic reaction because of them. This is important to keep in mind when travelling there. I am a firm believer in the rule of “When In Rome”, so when in Japan, go easy on the scents.
#6: Fashion Choices
The Japanese are a modest society and they always look nice in the way that they present themselves. You won’t see many low necklines or short skirts/shorts. You also will not see the Japanese wearing any ‘athleisure’ wear unless they are actually doing an athletic activity. I would shy away from leggings, yoga pants and anything that isn’t fairly modest. You’ll see most women in skirts at or below the knee, sleeveless when warm out, but never strapless or spaghetti straps. If you see someone in short shorts, it’s often someone under 25 and they often have tights on, too. Because it is pretty warm there and humid (about Vancouver-level humidity), I would suggest cotton and linen above all.
#7: All of the Dogs
You will see lots of dogs that are toy breeds as well as their prized Akita and Shiba Inu breeds. If you notice a dog or even smile at one, owners will stop to let you pet the dog – almost every time! You will also see animals in strollers and 90% of them wear clothing – this clothing is sold everywhere just in case you want to bring a kimono home for your pup!
Many dogs are revered in Japanese culture and folklore for their loyalty to their owners. You will see statues of them, monuments and icons of them throughout the country. Japan has listed 6 different breeds of dogs as “national treasures”.
#8: Paying with Cash vs. Credit
When traveling in Japan, I would use a mix of cash and credit cards. All major credit cards are accepted in Japan (with pin code chip technology) and credit cards are accepted at almost all retailers and dining establishments.
Opt to carry some cash with you, though, as many street vendors and small shop owners only take cash. There’s no need to bring tons of cash with you, though. Almost every 7-11 store (on every second corner) has an ATM machine that accepts North American bank cards where you can make a withdrawl at any time. Keep in mind that the crime rate in Japan is basically non-existent so you don’t have to fret about getting mugged or pickpocketed.
#9: Snacks & Trash Bins
First of all, you will find the best snacks you have ever seen in your life when you visit Japan. You can buy snacks on just about every street corner so there’s no real need to plan ahead (unless you are taking a train trip or a hike or something). Food and takeout establishments are plentiful in Japan, as are vending machines.
Vending machines are everywhere – train platforms, outside of stores, train stations, etc. You will see vending machines on the sidewalk of residential areas! These vending machines have all sorts of drinks, bottled water and snacks that you’ll need on the go all at reasonable prices (no jacked up pricing here!). This is really convenient because a lot of times you’ll want to stock up on water and things like that, but this way, it’s available everywhere and you won’t have to carry it around all day.
TIP: Looking for a garbage or recycling bin? Look for the vending machines as they are often in the same vicinity.
People have often asked me if they need to keep a grocery bag or something for garbage with them. I honestly didn’t have any trouble finding trash bins or recycle bins. If you’re eating on the go, it’s likely on a train or somewhere near a train station, where bins are plentiful. Most vending machines have garbage and recycle bins near them, too. I didn’t find I was carrying an empty water bottle around for long. Once we figured out where the bins usually were, it was a breeze.
#10: Souvenirs & Shopping Tips
There are tons of places to shop in Japan from well-known global retailers like Zara and H&M, Japanese brands like Uniqlo, designer goods and local markets. Whatever you’re looking for, you’re sure to find it. Some designers have “Japan Exclusive” product releases, too! I like to shop a mix of their high streets and their local markets for dishes, souvenirs, clothing and more. Here are a few noteworthy shops for you:
- 100 Yen Shops & Daiso: These ‘dollar stores’ are an amazing find. They’re a great place to get cheap souvenirs, umbrellas, candy and snacks and all sorts of other cool things.
- 7-11 & Family Mart: These stores are literally on every second corner. This is where you can get just about anything from food, drinks, and candy to socks, umbrellas, souvenirs and cheap toiletries.
- Tax Free Shopping: There are these ‘tax free’ shops everywhere – we didn’t go into them, but we did notice in Kyoto especially, that if you spent a certain dollar amount and showed your passport (passports are the only ID accepted for this kind of thing) then you didn’t have to pay tax. Sales tax is about 8% there.
- Consumer Electronics: Think of BestBuy on steroids and then quadruple it and you’ll be able to understand the electronics shops in Japan. Some of their stores for consumer electronics boast 10 stories high packed with any little thing you can think of!
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