Travelling to Japan for the first time is intimidating. Although I have travelled to many new places before, in Japan, I felt a certain pressure to be extremely careful and ensure my actions don’t offend or annoy locals. Especially while visiting the main sites, I noticed an alarming number of tourists conducting themselves in a way that visibly clashes with the norms of the general Japanese population. In their defence, I know it’s sometimes easy to miss social cues while in a new place – I have also done it many times! However, part of travelling to a new place is embracing the norms of the country, so a bit of extra attention to how the Romans do it could get you far, and might also make you new friends along the way!
1. You will rarely find trash bins in public, so hold onto your garbage!
One of my biggest surprises in Japan was the lack of public trash bins. Yet, there is not one piece of litter in sight! I know it might sound like an odd cause and effect problem, yet the Japanese care about keeping their public areas spotless to such an extent that any display of public garbage (and I’m not only referring to that on the ground) is somehow seen as unorthodox. It will be very hard to dispose your trash, so you must keep it with you throughout the day. I know what you’re thinking – public toilets or department stores! Sadly, public toilets are all automated so there are no trash bins for paper (except in some rare cases) and department stores will not accept your trash most of the time! I recommend keeping a large re-sealable bag in your backpack where you can accumulate your trash throughout the day and disposing it at home.
In Kyoto, we grabbed a bite from one of the street vendors and they only accept the garbage that was produced from the items you bought at that specific stand. They will refuse to take anything else. I put an empty plastic bottle together with the rest of the trash, and the lady sorted through and gave it back to me. There are very little loopholes, so you need to do like the Japanese and plan ahead to store your trash!
2. Use the small trays next to the cash register. It’s good manners!
You will notice that most Japanese stores place a tray next to the cash register. It is considered impolite to hand money directly, so the transaction is done by placing your money or card on the tray, then leaving it for the cashier to take and process. If this exists, you must use it when handling payments. Your change and receipt will be returned on the same tray. I noticed many foreigners handing over the whole tray (which always leads to a bit of a panicked look on the salesperson’s face). Try to avoid doing that – just leave it down and the staff will take it when they are ready.
3. Take off your shoes in fitting rooms!
I am guilty of making this mistake. I got so excited to try on my new Japanese purchases that I stepped right into the fitting room…with my shoes on! I did not even realize there was a mat placed inside for you to stand barefoot on, nor did I notice the signs that had “no shoes allowed” in big, bold letters. I’ve personally never encountered it before, so nothing even remotely alerted me that I could be doing something wrong. Needless to say, I did get told off by the staff, and millions of apologies later, I realized all the cues that I have missed in my excitement. This was yet another reminder that you’ve got to keep your eyes open at all times when you don’t know the rules of the land!
4. On escalators in Tokyo, stand on the left. In Osaka, stand on the right.
As a very general rule around the world, the escalator etiquette of where to stand follows the driving rules of the country. When I first landed in Tokyo, nothing seemed unusual. Yet, later arriving into Osaka, I noticed everything was the other way around! How odd, I thought. Turns out, this has been an actual debate among the Japanese for a while now. Even the government considered implementing an ordinance to move Osaka ‘in line’ with the rest of Japan to ease the confusion tourists may face before the 2020 Olympics. The people of Kansai are not pleased!
No one really knows for sure how this regional difference came to be. One potential theory is rooted back to the Edo Period, when samurai would walk on the left hand side in Tokyo to protect passersby from their swords. In the Kansai region, merchants would generally carry their goods in their right hands and were more likely to walk on the right side of the road.1
Regardless of how much the government may try to change it, the people of Kansai are not willing to adjust their etiquette norms anytime soon, and definitely neither should you while visiting!
5. Taxi doors open and close automatically. No need to do it yourself!
Japanese love enabling technology to make daily life more efficient. From toilets to transportation, the Japanese way of life narrows down to convenience and organization. You’ll notice this pretty early in your trip, especially if you plan on taking a cab from the airport. I believe automatic taxi doors are unique to Japan (someone correct me if I’m wrong here), so you can always feel like royalty whenever you grab a cab. P.S. Do keep in mind this is also a very pricy travel option around the city, so mind your appetite for these kinds of luxurious experiences!
6. In supermarkets, pack your groceries on the side.
Now I could write an entire article about supermarket norms in Japan (yes, even grocery shopping is an adventure in Japan), but the biggest mishap I’ve noticed, and something most Japanese seem to be very adamant about is bagging groceries. In general, this is how check-out works in a supermarket. You first bring your basket to the cashier (there are no big carts, but baskets attached to a cart skeleton). You might notice cashiers also have another empty basket next to them; while they are scanning your items, they will transfer produce from one basket to the other. When this is finished, you will pay (don’t forget the tray), and then move the newly filled basket to the side where you can take as long as you need to sort and bag your purchases. There will be stations to facilitate that. Pretty neat!
7. Slurp away. Yes, you heard me!
Slurping is actually considered good manners in Japan. I learnt this the first night when stepping into a noodle place next to our apartment. It was quite late and there were only a couple of night owl professionals there, yet the silence was filled with slurping noises. It’s okay if you need a minute to let it all sink in; you get told your whole life not to slurp, so it does feel a bit odd as a foreigner experiencing this for the first time. However, in Japan, the louder you slurp, the more you’re showing your enjoyment of the food and expressing your gratitude towards the chef. So it’s not only acceptable, but encouraged to do so! I tried doing it a couple of times, but it does take a bit of getting used to – part of your brain keeps telling you to stop, so it can be a bit of a struggle!
Japanese culture can be a bit hard to grasp at first, so don’t worry if things might seem intimidating. You’ll pick it up in no time and the locals will be more than happy to assist if you appear lost!
© 1. Robin Wright, Japan Times