Do’s and Don’ts for Travelers to Japan

How to Respectfully Experience Japanese Shrines and Temples

Nikko shrine (c) RDB 2017
  1. There are wells (purification fountains) on the way into shrines and temples, and if you rinse your hands, try to avoid touching the ladle anywhere but the handle, and pour used water into the gutter. You can also pour some water into your hand to rinse your mouth (don’t drink).
  2. If you want to worship at a Shinto shrine, when you get to the offering hall toss some coinage into the offering box. If there is a bell, ring it, bow two times, clap your hands twice, and then bow one more time.
  3. Don’t eat or drink anything other than water in the shrine or temple.
  4. Be quiet and respectful; these are holy places.

Being Polite In While Traveling by Train in Japan

The shinkansen (c) ABR 2015
  1. When waiting to get on the train, pay attention to the lines painted on the sidewalk, and be sure to stand in line.
  2. Don’t talk on your phone; if chatting with a pal, try to be quiet.
  3. If it gets crowded, take your bag off and hold it in front.
  4. If you have an assigned seat, make sure that is where you sit.
  5. Don’t be pushy, and make sure that you leave room for other people to get on and off the train.

How to Avoid Annoying Japanese People

Crowds in Japan (c) RDB 2017
  1. Read ALL the signs, especially when you are in a shrine or temple. Many will tell you where you can and cannot go, and what you need to do while in any area (e.g. take off your shoes, etc).
  2. Stand in line. This goes for lots of different places that you might not expect depending on where you are from. We even stood in line while hiking, and while that ad hoc happens in the US sometimes, it was not ok to move up in the line in Japan.
  3. Learn and use please (“sumimasen,” which really means excuse me) and thank you (“arigato”) in Japanese. When you are in a restaurant, it is not impolite to hail your waiter by saying “sumimasen.”
  4. Be quiet if you are in an Airbnb, because people live very close to one another, and the Japanese work day/week is very long.
  5. Be quiet and respectful in Onsens and follow all rules while bathing.
  6. Watch other people, and take note of their behavior. This can serve as your guide for how to act when you are uncertain.

Other Japanese Customs You Might Want to Know About (But Which Visitors Aren’t Expected to Understand)

Tokyo (c) RDB 2017
  1. Bowing. In Japan, there’s a complexity to bowing in which people of different standings bow to different depths. Bowing can also be casual or formal. Luckily, visitors aren’t expected to know how this all works.
  2. Gift-giving is another important but complicated aspect of Japanese culture. Generally speaking, people don’t open their gifts in front of the gift-giver, and whenever you receive a gift, you are supposed to return the favor. Again, however, travelers aren’t expected to do this all properly.

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26 thoughts on “Do’s and Don’ts for Travelers to Japan

  1. Very important tips! Another one which took us by surprise coming from NYC is not to eat or drink outside on the street. But, you can definitely eat on the Shinkansen (and other long distance trains), and there are a million food options at the train stations including elaborate boxes and beautiful sushi.

  2. I love this, I plan on visiting someday and you will save me from getting into trouble lol.
    I’m glad that they don’t expect us foreigners to abide by ALL of the rules, but most are pretty reasonable anyway. Thanks for taking the time to teach us some new works as well! Arigato!

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