Do’s and Don’ts: Japanese etiquette for first-time travellers

Well now! How are you? It’s been a while. Myself and my partner are just back from an epic adventure to Japan.

We spent 3 whole weeks traipsing across the country and flew home to Ireland just last Thursday, so as you can imagine – we’re still recovering. But boy, do I have so much to write about! It was one of the best trips I’ve had and I loved every moment (You can see all of our photos here).

Image via Pixabay

To kick things off though, before we jump into what we saw and where we stayed I want to delve into the world of Japanese etiquette and rules. I had read about this before we went over but to see it all at work was fascinating.

While no system is perfect, we have to say that we greatly enjoyed the politeness of the Japanese and how much order was in place. As a tourist it didn’t feel too rigid or controlled either (though I imagine we would see another side to Japan if we lived there!). Here are things you should know before you jet off to Japan.

Prepare to bow a lot

Bowing is a mark of respect and you’ll get used to it very quickly. We don’t mean a full on down-to-the-knees bow either, it’s more of a dipping nod. Oh, and don’t put your hands together like you’re praying! You will be doing it all the time in daily interactions and to be honest, I loved it. The respect felt mutual. The Japanese sometimes shake peoples’ hands, but it’s more polite to wait for them to offer their hand first.

Using two hands is good

Accepting or giving something like a business card over with two hands is good and a mark of respect. Remember to look over the business card carefully too. However when it comes to money in restaurants, shops and supermarkets there’s usually a small tray on the counter where you put your money into.

Jaywalking is not cool

Being Irish, we’re constantly jaywalking but it’s a big no-no in Japan. You obey the lights regardless if there’s no traffic anywhere and then you walk when it’s green. Sounds simple right? But believe me, when you’re in a rush, the temptation to jaywalk as an Irish person is overwhelming!

Osaka at night. Image via Pixabay

Their system is slightly different to ours too in that if the “green man” is green and the road is clear, a car will go through it. So in one way, the cars are “jay walking”.

Don’t walk while eating or drinking

Japan is incredibly clean. We were astounded by how immaculate the streets are and even the subway and public toilets were spotless. Interestingly enough, there are hardly any bins in Japan but you can find some in supermarkets or often by vending machines. But why is it so clean? We think it’s partly down to the fact that people don’t walk while eating snacks. If you buy something delicious like chicken skewers or pork buns from the local supermarket, what people generally do is stop right outside and eat there (or save it for later). You’ll even see people deciding that they want to have a snack while walking and moving off the main pathway to stop for a few minutes.

Avoid pointing with your finger

In general when giving directions, Japanese people will gesture in the direction using a palm upwards rather than a finger as it comes across less threatening.

There are designated smoking areas

In big cities like Tokyo, you can’t smoke freely in public but there are smoking areas that are clearly marked. Many of them look like glass rooms with no roof. There’s a chance you will be fined if caught smoking outside of these areas.

Don’t take calls on the subway and generally be quiet

I could do a whole list of subway etiquette but this is one of the most important ones. While it’s ok to be on your phone if it’s on silent, no one takes calls while on the train. You’ll see signs on the metro itself for this. The non-eating rule also comes into play here too. You’ll see people having little sips of drinks every-so-often but it’s not the norm. The only real exception to this is on the bullet trains like the Shinkansen and some private trains where you will see people having their lunches and a there will be a trolley service.

Image via Pixabay

It’s also frowned upon if you’re being loud on the train. Talking quietly is fine but it’s disrespectful to be loud. If only Dublin Bus had that same rule!!

Don’t cut queues for public transport

Another rule that when written seems obvious but the Japanese are systematic about their queues. In many of the undergrounds and JR trains (over ground routes), you will see actual lines on the ground showing people where to queue. With buses, it’s the same idea and people don’t dart out in front of each other.

Blow your nose privately

This is considered rude to do publicly so many people will retreat to washrooms or away from people to do so.

Taxi doors!

Taxis in Japan are really expensive but if you’re ever in the need to take one, know that often the doors are automatic e.g. automatic customer service. Drivers may get upset if you try and operate it yourself.

Resist the urge to tip

Tipping is not done in Japan. Just don’t do it. In fact, tipping can be seen as insulting because the Japanese believe that the quality of their service should be good enough. From what we experienced, their customer service is a cut above the rest and Ireland needs to take a leaf out of their book.

Image via Pixabay

A simple gesture of a bow and thank you, (arigatou gozaimasu) will be enough to tell them that you appreciated their service.

What’s in a name?

Unless you’re very familiar with someone, it’s appropriate to address them with their last name followed by the polite prefix “-san”. For example, I’d be Kavanagh-san and it’s also gender neutral to use!

Shoes off

This isn’t the case for all buildings but if your place has a sunken-foyer entrance and a ledge up, it’s expected that you remove your shoes. This will always be the case for private homes, traditional accommodation like a ryokan (inns) and temple halls. Sometimes you will be given the option to slip on a pair of slippers. These are for walking around inside HOWEVER if your place has a tatami room (woven straw matting) you should NEVER wear any shoes or slippers before you step on it. If you’re staying at a ryokan, you may also be given garden slippers, as the name suggests, they’re for outdoors only.

Don’t mess with your chopsticks

It’s incredibly disrespectful and cringy to see people messing around with their chopsticks (keep the drumming to drums). Also, do not leave you chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of rice – these actions are reminiscent of ritual associated with funerals. Same as, do not pass food directly from your chopsticks to another person’s chopsticks.

Know when to pour

If you’re pouring glasses from a shared bottle of something like sake or whiskey, it’s customary to pour drinks for others in your party and for someone else to pour yours for you. Basically, don’t pour your own drink! This is also the case for when you’re invited out by someone, they will pour the drink for you (unless it’s already in the glass).

Soup soup

Soup isn’t actually typically eaten with a spoon, so don’t be afraid to pick up the bowl and drink from it.

Use the ladle properly

If you visit a shrine in Japan, you’ll see a water source with ladles. Before entering you should use them. First you pour the water over the left hand, then your right and then finally you put a little in your hand to put into your mouth and then spit it out BUT not into the water source. There’s a lower area for that. If you’re unsure, watch someone do it beforehand. It’s basically a cleansing ritual.

Wet and warm towels are for hands not faces

When visiting a place like a café or restaurant, quite often you may be given a hot or cold towel depending on the season. These aren’t for your face, even if it’s sweating! They’re to gently clean off your hands. They’re also not for using to continuously wiping your hands during a meal – there are separate serviettes for that.

Eat sushi the right way

Much easier to show you this through a video – using your hands is also an option:

Slow your chopsticks

If someone is taking something from the main dish, give them space to do so. It’s considered rude to all grab from the same dish at the time. Also, never eat directly from the common dish, take some and put it on your plate.

Chopstick holders

Chances are in restaurants you will be given a chopstick holder which is like a little rest to lay your chopsticks on. Use these when you’re not eating. If no holder is provide you can make one with the paper your chopsticks came in or use your plate. Just don’t lay them on the table.

Praise before meals

It’s common to say itadakimasu (“I humbly receive”) at the start of the meal before eating and is actually more cultural than religious.

Image via Pixabay

Hot springs washing

Visiting an onsen (hot spring) or sento (bathhouse) is a fascinating Japanese experience but there are a  few things you need to keep in mind. First, you clean yourself and then you bathe. The baths themselves are not for cleaning, they’re for relaxing. Make sure you shower thoroughly before you get in. Also, swimsuits are not allowed in traditional bathhouses. You will usually get two towels, a large one and a small one. The large one is for drying off after your soak and you can take the smaller one can be take to BUT NOT INTO the bath with you. A lot of Japanese people place the smaller towel on their head or to the side.

Put your umbrella away

Umbrellas in Japan are used for both rain and hot weather for shade but when going into a building like a shop there will be a stand for umbrellas outside to slot them into. Some businesses will also provide special bags for wet umbrellas so they’re not dripping.

Phew! Feeling exhausted? Don’t worry if you can’t remember all of these etiquette tips. The Japanese are well aware that people aren’t aware of all of their customs and are quite understanding. I will be putting more posts on our experiences in the next few weeks. Keep an eye out!


Hello! Úna-Minh is a journalist, social media consultant and virtual assistant who loves (you guessed it) TRAVEL. She also feels a bit strange writing in the third person so she'll stop that now. You can find out more about me and my Mammy in the about section of this blog!

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  1. So Interesting Una-Minh. I think it’s a great idea to research cultural customs before you travel so that you gain insight into the people of the country you visit. My son wants to go to Japan so I’ll need to show him this!

  2. That is a really useful list, thanks. I am lucky enough to be able to confirm many of those first hand. I have found that there are exceptions to eating on a train as long as the eating is done on a Shinkansen as opposed to the subway and regional trains.

    1. Ah yes! I definitely should have mentioned that – will make the edit now. On the Shinkansen we saw people tucking into delicious bento boxes!

  3. Shoes, Many Japanese have easy-to-remove shoes because you remove them so often! When you are somewhere that you wear slippers there are separate slippers to wear in the WC. And don’t wear these usually colourful slippers outside of there.

    Extra credit ! After meals and to restaurant staff when leaving the usual phrase is gochisosama deshita. (It was a feast)

    For a humorous take on manners of drinking sushi bowing search for The Japanese Tradition by the Rahmens on YouTube.

    — I want to say so much more! Glad you enjoyed Japan.

    1. Thanks Robert! In our trip we rarely had to remove our shoes apart from when we were in a Ryokan or at the Shiba Café – it probably depends on the activity you’re doing! Thanks for those extra tips, it’s fascinating to see the variety of customs in Japan!

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