10 of the Worst Things Travelers Can Do in Japan

One of the most interesting aspects of travel is understanding the quirks and idiosyncrasies that make up a culture.

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In Japan, their unique collection of modern rituals, social faux pas and unwritten rules of society could fill an encyclopaedia. If you have the misfortune of breaking one of these rules, you will know. Characteristic high pitched shrieking around the event is commonplace, as are sour looks, scoffs and the simple gaze filled with the intensity of a thousand high powered lasers.

We wont go into Brittanical detail about the topic, but here are a few insights from our experiences in Nihon to save going red in the face.

1. What Not to Do in a Japanese Onsen

If you have tattoos, cover them with a bandage or you might be turned away from entering an onsen. Few onsens tolerate tattoos because they suggest gang associations. 

Make sure you remove all clothing before entering the main onsen. Even though your hair is clean from showering before entering the actual onsen, never let it touch the water. If you have long hair, do as the locals do – use a small towel to wrap it up into a bun.

2. Don't Wear Shoes Indoors

This is the most common mistake. There’s a reason the entrance of each house has a spot for your shoes. Some restaurants might ask you to remove your shoes before entering, so make sure you're wearing matching socks, and that they have no holes.

Toilets are generally regarded as unclean areas, so many homes and even some public toilets have slippers lined up at their entrances. Just make sure you use these when you’re inside the toilet area only.

3. Blowing Your Nose is Rude

Believe it or not, sniffling is preferred over blowing your nose in public. If you have to blow your nose, find a private spot, like inside a bathroom. The idea of blowing your nose is repulsive to some. It goes without saying, hold onto your tissues until you find a bin.

4. Train Etiquette in Japan

Never barge your way onto the train. Platforms have markings that show where to form orderly queues while you wait and always let others disembark before you get on. 

Once you’re on board, try to keep noise to a minimum. Loud behaviour is usually frowned upon because it invades others’ space. Avoid talking on the phone (put it on silent) and send messages instead. 

There are also designated seats for the elderly, injured, pregnant women, and those with young children – don’t be rude and sit in them if there’s someone who obviously fit one of these categories.

5. Don't Talk Loudly on Public Transport

Japanese people are known to work very hard, and as a result, get very tired on their commute home. The last thing they want is a loudmouth talking at a high volume. But, Japanese people are so polite that you won't ever be told off, nor will there be any commotion. You will indeed feel the palpable, silent thickness of fury, and see rage in their stares.

6. Behaving on the Streets of Japan

Do not show public displays of affection. If you do, you will gather discouraging looks especially from older Japanese people.

You might be in a rush, but don’t eat in public. Sitting while eating shows you have an appreciation for the food.

Smoking on the street is illegal. Instead, find a clearly marked smoking area to light up.

Locals generally follow rules when crossing roads, but occasionally people do cross on red signals, especially in cities. The rules are in place to keep you safe.

7. Chopsticks and Rules at the Dinner Table

Never use your own chopsticks to grab food from a communal dish, unless you have the okay from everyone on the table. One workaround is to use the non-pointed ends to tuck in, or to serve others. 

It’s polite to serve others before serving yourself. Passing food from one pair of chopsticks to another or sticking them upright inside the bowls are big no-no. This is reserved for funeral rites. 

8. Don't Wear Your Slippers to the Toilet

The most disgusting thing in the world to Japanese people is not not eating live eels or the poisonous Fugu fish. No, these things are relatively normal in comparison to this abomination: toilet slippers. They sit outside bathrooms in homes and restaurants, and are designed to keep offensive toilet floor material off your feet. They inspire dread into the heart of Japanese people. They are the most vile, putrid thing to exist or that ever will exist – no matter how creative Japanese game-shows try to be.

If you make the mistake of going into a bathroom without these on, be prepared for a banshee squeal that can break glass. Expect one with double the ferocity if you wear these slippers back out onto the tatami mat.

9. Expect Logic

Japan is one of the most technologically advanced civilizations on earth. Their innovations continue to revolutionize our society on a daily basis, and their adherence to systems of order, ritual and cleanliness are utterly remarkable.

But for a society that places incredible importance on tradition and system, sometimes it can backfire.

Take the JR Rail line. It’s an astonishing train system, a perfect piece of engineering and a transport system that is the envy of the world. But when you go to buy a pass, it can take hours. This is because they still use paper entry system, by way of filing cabinets. Upon entry to the office, someone slowly goes over to the cabinet, extracts 17 sheets of pink paper, fills out some, looks at another, asks a question to someone else about one, gets you to fill one in, looks at it, goes to ask someone about it, gets you to fill another one in, goes away for 10 minutes, comes back with more papers.

Another example, when you take a look at the business world, you’ll see a tradition where nobody wants to leave the office before his or her boss, because this would create great shame. So you get offices filled with people who have nothing to do, yet stay until 9pm, and then commute home for an hour and a half.

But, because this is the tradition, it’s never questioned or examined – it’s just the way things are. As a traveler, from time to time you will encounter these kinds of traditions that defy logic – the best thing for you to do is to accept this is the Japanese way of life.

10. Express Anger or Excessive Emotion

The Japanese disposition is composed and collected – even if there might be a tumult of emotions boiling and bubbling under the surface. Maintaining an even demeanour in the face of absolutely anything is an extremely important factor in Japanese society, so if you are frustrated, it’s the Japanese way to keep those emotional waves locked away to deal with in private.

Shouting, screaming, raising your voice – it's just not the done thing in Japan, and people who do are considered uncouth barbarians.

Just wait till you get home, then use your screaming voice.

Righting a Faux Pas

Despite these tips, you’re bound to commit one or more of these if it’s your first (or even fifth) visit to Japan. 

Fortunately, most Japanese locals are very generous and will kindly point you in the right direction. A quick bow, a genuine “Sumimasen” (sorry), and following correct etiquette will soon put you on the right path again!

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