Japan is an amazing country with a fascinating history and culture. It was the last stop on our trip around the world last year, and after spending so much time in Southeast Asia, Japan was a bit of a culture shock, but in a good way.
At first, when we landed it Tokyo it seemed a lot like the US; the big city, all the technology, the orderly way everything seemed to work. But once I looked a little closer I started to realize there are some very interesting differences between Japan and the west.
It’s always good to be aware of cultural differences before traveling to a country. So here are ten facts about the culture and everyday life that I learned while we traveled around Japan.
Take off your shoes and put on slippers inside
When entering homes, and many other buildings like hotels or businesses you must take your shoes off and put on the guest slippers provided. There is usually a rack or space in the entryway to put your shoes to keep things tidy. Similarly many places will have seperate slippers for the bathroom. It’s seen as a cleanliness issue, so only wear the bathroom slippers in the bathroom and put the regular indoor slippers back on when in the rest of the home or building.
Bowing is very important in Japanese culture and manners. There are several different types of bows from informal to very formal, and the Japanese learn these forms of etiquette from a very young age. For a non-Japanese person though, you are not expected to bow, and many times a handshake will suffice. However I found that small bows when saying hello, goodbye, or thank you were appreciated.
Money and paying
Many stores and restaurants will have a small tray at the counter where you are to put your money when paying. If there is no tray it is seen as polite to hand your money or card to the cashier with both hands.
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Cue for the subway
When waiting for the subway or train you’ll notice lines on the ground directing you where and how to enter and exit the cars. Lining up according guides is a must, nobody likes a line cutter. These guides also helps streamline the offboarding and onboarding process so people aren’t running into each other.
Trains are the best way to get around
Japan has amazing train systems both in cities and getting between cities. We took the train everywhere during our three weeks in Japan. For going long distances getting to take the bullet train was pretty awesome
Slurp your noodles and soup
When you are in Japan you’ll most likely eat a ramen or a noodle dish at some point. So when you get the delicious steaming bowl of noodles and soup, know that proper etiquette is to slurp those noodles. It’s seen as a compliment to the chef, and also helps to cool the noodles down so you don’t burn your mouth.
When communicating be as exact as possible
Japanese people value preciseness, and I really noticed this when it came to communicating. One example of this was asking a taxi to drop us off at an intersection, those directions were not good enough, the taxi driver wanted an exact address. You’ll notice that any directions or instructions will be very thorough, so if you need to direct or explain anything make sure to be as exact as possible.
Vending machine are everywhere
This is something that I kind of love about Japan, there are vending machines selling everything from chips and snacks to hot coffee! Running into these vending machines everywhere made it easy to stay caffeinated and ward off hunger while running around seeing the sites.
No tattoos in the Onsen
Although this is beginning to change, most traditional onsen spas do not allow people with tattoos in. This rule comes from a time when only members of illegal organizations had tattoos and therefore were not accepted by regular society. We looked into going to an onsen in Hokkaido, and when I asked about my tattoos I was told if they were small it would be ok. Unfortunately two of my tattoos are rather large so we didn’t end up going.
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Sweets are a big deal
If you are a dessert person you will be in heaven in Japan. From crepe stands, to giant cotton candy, to perfectly decorated donuts, and green tea everything, dessert is not to be missed. So many of the the desserts are decorated so beautifully and colorfully that it seems a shame to eat them, but definitely do it!
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