Japan is one of the world’s most compelling destinations, but to first-time travellers, it can sometimes feel overwhelming. Here’s how to avoid some of the most common pitfalls and gaffes.
Credit cards may be more or less ubiquitous around the majority of the developed world, but it looks like Japan didn’t get the memo. Surprisingly few establishments accept plastic, which means you’ll want to carry a substantial supply of yen around at all times.
There are no street names.
Travellers in Japan often struggle to orient themselves since addresses look entirely different from their Western counterparts. Instead of street names, the Japanese use block numbers.
You will need a strong sock game.
Don’t even think about traipsing around the inside of somebody’s apartment in your dirty shoes. Cleanliness is an essential part of Japanese culture, to the extent that some restaurants will politely request that customers leave their sneakers at the door. In other words, this isn’t the place to bust out those novelty socks with a hole in the toe that your aunt gave you last holiday season.
Pay attention to chopstick etiquette.
Even if you’re capable of manoeuvring your food from your plate to your mouth, you may still be inadvertently offending everyone around you in the process. For example, many foreigners stick their chopsticks upright in their rice bowl, which reminds Japanese diners of the incense sticks used at funerals. Never stab food with your chopsticks, since it’s considered rude, and never scrape them together, since it makes it look as though you’re accustomed to using cheap chopsticks.
Buying a rail pass is wise.
Japan’s hyper-modern, sparklingly clean rail system is the envy of all and the only way you want to get around. The Shinkansen, or “bullet train,” races across the country at blistering speeds, yet glides as smoothly and silently as the wind. Purchase a seven-day, 14-day, or 21-day rail pass and you’ll enjoy swift, efficient, and affordable transportation for the duration of your trip. If you find yourself boarding a Shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto, ask for a window seat on the Mount Fuji side for a spectacular view of the slumbering stratovolcano.
Tattoos are considered to be a taboo.
The full sleeve that everyone in Shoreditch thought was oh-so-cool isn’t going to win you many friends here. To most Japanese, tattoos are something worn by yakuza gang members and carry a serious negative stigma. Some onsen (hot springs) even go as far as to prohibit guests with tattoos. If you’re already inked, cover it up as much as possible to avoid disapproving looks.
You don’t need to tip.
Restaurant prices may be on the steep side in Japan, but they always include service. While no one will complain if you round up or leave some of the change on the table, staff do not expect you to tip.
Pointing at people and things is rude.
Granted, it’s not always easy to communicate in a foreign language and the temptation to simply thrust your finger in the direction of you want is omnipresent. If you refrain from doing so, however, locals are much more likely to try and help you. Learning a few basic phrases in Japanese and packing a translation app on your phone can help break through the linguistic barrier.
Respect the subway rules.
Courtesy is of utmost importance here and locals will always appreciate it if you mind your manners. That means no pushing, no shoving, and no cutting in line to crowd into the train cars.
Department stores are a foodie’s paradise.
It might sound odd to the uninitiated, but the depachika (food halls) located in the basements of Tokyo’s mammoth department stores boast some of the finest food in town. Sample everything from ultra-fresh sashimi from Tsukiji Market to matcha-flavoured soft serve ice cream in these sprawling gastronomic havens.