Customs and manners are so important to Japanese culture that many travel websites have sections devoted to the subject.
Japan is currently closed to international travelers, but the country is looking for ways to safely reopen before the Tokyo Summer Olympics begin, which is slated for late July. Tourists are not expected to understand all of Japan’s complex social rules, but they can avoid the most common gaffe.
Here’s a guide on what to do – and what to avoid – based on advice from the Japanese government-affiliated tourism organizations.
Don’t touch the geisha
What many travelers call “geisha” is called “maiko” or “geiko” in Kyoto. This is considered to be one of the best places in Japan to see the decorated female entertainers.
If anyone is spotted, the Kyoto City Tourism Association (KCTA) travel website advises travelers not to stop or ask Maiko to pose for photos.
“Don’t bother her or grab her by the kimono sleeves,” the website said.
A maiko or appentice geisha walks in the snow in the Gion district of Kyoto, Japan.
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This is one of Kyoto’s Akimahen Manners, a list of 18 tips, recommendations, and warnings for those traveling in Japan’s Capital of Culture.
The list of “Akimahen” (which means “not” in the local dialect) ranges from tips on automatic taxi doors (“Make sure you stand far enough for the door to open without bumping into you”) to trash can result in a fine of 30,000 Japanese yen (US $ 280).
Emoticon ratings indicate the severity of each crime. Tipping, which is frowned upon in all of Japan instead of thanking people in the local dialect (“okini”), takes on a sad face. Riding a bike drunk gives you three angry faces – the worst rating – not to mention a possible prison sentence of up to five years.
Expect pushing but not talking on trains
Travelers should expect to push and push on crowded trains, according to Go Tokyo, the Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau’s travel guide website.
“But remember that this is not aggressive behavior, just the product of daily life in a metropolis,” the website says.
Japanese people rarely talk or eat on trains, especially when they are crowded.
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Videos of white-gloved train attendants cramming people into Japanese trains have delighted travelers for years. They also make it easy to understand one of the most important rules of Japanese public transport: no cell phone calls. In fact, travelers are advised not to even let them ring the doorbell.
“If you have a phone with you, leave it in silent mode,” the Go Tokyo website said.
“Etiquette in public places is serious business in Japan,” said the travel website of the government-affiliated Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). “Public observance of these rules is probably the main reason a big city like Tokyo can function so smoothly.”
Eat sushi with your hands
Travelers unfamiliar with chopsticks can request cutlery, advises the JNTO travel website, although they “may not be available, especially in more traditional locations”.
Instead of fighting with chopsticks, the tourism organization recommends travelers to follow another local custom.
In Japan, it is common to eat sushi with your hands, especially nigiri sushi, which translates as “two fingers”.
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“If you came to Japan for sushi, remember that you can eat it with your hands,” the website says.
Shrines and temples
A tourist attraction for one person is a sacred place of worship for another person. According to the KCTA website, travelers should “be calm and respectful in shrines and temples”.
The Kyoto Tourism Association also asks visitors to remove hats and sunglasses in places of worship.
Dai Miyamoto, founder of Tokyo Localized Tour Company, said he often saw tourists “sitting all over the place … shrines and temples”, even in places “where there is no bank or place to rest.” He also sees tourists taking photos of Buddha statues and places where photography is prohibited.
Go Tokyo recommends travelers to enjoy the “full cultural experience” of the Shinto shrines by walking along the sides of the path leading to the shrine, as the center is “technically reserved for the anchored deity”.
At the entrance to the site, travelers can rinse their hands and mouth with “cleansing water” before approaching the main hall. There they can “bow slightly, ring the bells, put a small offer of money in the box, bow twice, clap twice, and bow again to complete the ritual,” according to the website.
The rules of the ryokan
Staying in a traditional inn or ryokan is a popular way to experience Japanese hospitality, but this involves more social rules than staying in a hotel.
Ryokans tend to be neither cheap nor exceptionally classy, which may surprise travelers who associate higher prices with sprawling suites and plush bedding. Ryokans are typically one-bedroom accommodations that are spartan and lined with straw tatami mats.
Ryokan prices are often quoted per person rather than per night.
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KCTA has a list of guidelines for ryokan guests, including changing into (provided) slippers before entering. Luggage wheels must not touch the inner floor. And bags should never be kept on the wall molding or the tokonoma where flowers and scrolls are displayed.
Meals are often served in rooms and visitors dress in casual kimonos called yukata to eat. After dinner, plates are cleared and futon-style mattresses are placed on the floor for sleeping.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s How to Enjoy Tokyo: Manners & Custom Handbook advises travelers to remove all clothing and use onsens, which are bathing areas associated with Japan’s natural hot springs.
As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens, many of which are part of a hotel or ryokan and are segregated by gender.
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According to the government manual, bathers must rinse off before entering and not swim, jump, or dive into the water. Hair and towels must not touch the water.
People with tattoos may be denied access to more traditional onsens as tattoos are linked to Japan’s “yakuza” or organized crime groups, Miyamoto said. This is on the decline due to the popularity of tattoos among younger generations and foreign travelers.
Sightseeing and shopping
Cutting lines is banned in most countries, but in Japan, keeping a place for friends or family members is also considered inappropriate, according to Tokyo’s Manner Guide.
It also advises travelers not to go up or down escalators. If you are in a hurry, you should use the stairs.
Negotiating better prices is not common when shopping. And the clothing sizes differ from those in western countries. An oversized men’s shirt in Japan is similar to a medium-sized US men’s shirt.
Miyamoto, 5 feet 9 inches tall and 185 pounds, wears a Japanese size XL because “big is too small”. However, he said Americans who need larger sizes are out of luck.
“Uniqlo, the most famous casual brand in Japan, sells over XXL sizes … in online stores,” he said.