Today’s post comes to you from a delightful British company by the name of ‘Journeys of Distinction’ and is a British guide to travelling in Japan.
JOD have been operating since 1973 and make the expert planning and crafting of a gorgeous holiday their professional goal. They’re all about tailoring a whirlwind getaway for your particular needs and budget and take inspiration from enthusiastic travellers who are keen to see and try new things.
If you’re a reader from the UK who’s after something a little different, why not head on over to their website and check them out.
In the mean time, here’s their comprehensive guide to visiting Japan:
A British Guide to Japan
If you’re hoping to take advantage of our Bullet Trains, Blossoms, and Mount Fuji tour, this guide will be of great assistance to you. As you may have guessed, there are many customs and practices in Japan, which differ from our own here in the UK.
For example, something we may consider as rude behaviour may be encouraged in Japan, and vice versa. That means that it’s vital to do your research before you go, to ensure not only that you do not offend, but also that you understand the way life works.
So read on for our British guide to Japan.
When to go
Japan is beautiful at any time of the year, but one of the best times to visit is towards the end of March, when the cherry blossom season begins. The blossoms are in full bloom during the month of April, also considered the ideal time to visit.
So you’ve arrived in Japan – now’s the time to make the most of the public transport. Japan is famous for its bullet trains, which get you from A to B at super high speed. There is however, a certain train etiquette which should be observed. Follow this advice to avoid making any mistakes:
Check the last train
You may think that trains in Japan would run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. However, in reality, the majority stop just before 1am. It’s not all bad though, because if you do happen to miss the last train, you’ll find plenty of internet cafes open, where you can grab a snack, have a refreshing drink or curl up for a few hours’ sleep. It’s not recommended to try to hail down a taxi, as they can become very costly in Japan.
Send your luggage on ahead
Trains can become extremely busy in Japan, and if you’re travelling with suitcases and heavy bags, you may find it an incredibly uncomfortable squeeze, particularly if you’re arriving at rush hour. You can avoid this by sending your luggage ahead to your hotel using a delivery service. This inexpensive service can be arranged at the airport when you arrive, and will assure you a more comfortable and pleasant trip to your hotel form the airport – ideal after a long flight.
Text instead of phoning
It’s considered extremely rude to make a phone call on a Japanese train, so if you absolutely must stay in touch with someone, use the text messaging function or social media instead.
Look out for women-only carriages
Many trains in Japan, especially Tokyo, offer a women-only service. If you do happen to miss the sign, you’ll probably be informed before you step onto the train, but it’s worth noting, as it could lead to an embarrassing altercation.
Walking can be considered rude in Japan
You may not realise, but depending on what you have in your hand at the time, it may be considered rude to walk. If you smoke for example, you should never light up while walking around – this practice is illegal in many parts of Japan. Walking while eating and drinking used to be something only the lower classes would do – often you’ll see locals purchasing a drink from a vending machine on the street and finishing it while standing next to the machine, before they continue their journey. And similarly to on the train, it’s considered rude to walk while talking on the phone.
Shopping in Japan
Don’t be fooled into thinking that something is an absolute bargain when browsing the shops for souvenirs – when you get to the till, the vendor will add consumption tax to the cost. This currently stands at five per cent, but is due to increase to 10 per cent in April 2014. While many shops do not give discounts for produce, some of the bigger electronic shops offer special duty-free prices for tourists. Make sure you always have some cash on you, as some of the smaller shops will not accept credit cards.
Visiting a temple
Remember when you visit a temple that it is a place of worship and reverence. This means that you should behave respectfully. The following actions are customary to follow when visiting temples in Japan:
- Take your shoes off when entering – there is usually a dedicated shelf at the entrance where you can leave them.
- Say a short prayer in front of the sacred object.
- Be sure to put a few coins into the offering box.
- Check the rules around photography – it’s forbidden to take photographs inside some temples.
Visiting a shrine
Similarly to visiting a temple, there are certain practices which should be obeyed when visiting a shrine. These include:
- Washing your hands with the water from the purification fountain before entering.
- Not visiting if you are poorly, or in mourning, as you are considered to be impure.
- Depositing a coin into the offering box, before bowing twice, clapping your hands twice, bowing once again and saying a short prayer.
- It’s usually permitted to take photographs in shrines.
You will notice that in Japan, people bow to each other, rather than shaking hands. While there are specific rules around how deeply you should bow, depending on the status of the other person, the Japanese tend to make an exception for tourists. If you are unsure whether or not to bow, a customary nod of the head will usually be considered sufficiently polite. Times when bowing is most common include: expressing thanks, apologising, making a request, or asking for a favour.
Entering the restaurant
You’ll usually be greeted with “irasshaimase” when entering a restaurant. This means “welcome, please come in”. It’s common for you to be shown to your table, rather than finding your own seat. While the majority of restaurants in Japan provide western style seating, there will be some restaurants which offer traditional Japanese tables only. In this case, you’ll be expected to remove your shoes before stepping onto the seating area, and you’ll sit at a low table, on a large cushion on the floor.
The majority of Japanese restaurants permit smoking inside, but some will have separate smoking and non-smoking areas. Your waiter or waitress will usually ask for your preference before seating you.
Upon being seated, you’ll usually be given a free glass of water or some tea. There may also be a self-service option in one section of the restaurant. You’ll also receive a wet towel (oshibori), which you use to clean your hands before eating.
Many of the menus will simply be illustrations of the food available. Some restaurants will hang the menu on the wall, while others will display it in the window of the restaurant for you to peruse before entering. If you’re unsure, you can always ask for a recommendation (osusume), or leave the choice up to the chef (omakase) – if you do choose either of those options however, you should prepare yourself to be a little adventurous and try something completely new.
Once you’ve made up your mind about the food you would like, you can signal a waiter or waitress to attend your table by saying “sumimasen” which means “excuse me”. There may also be a call button at the table – if so, press this when you’re in need of assistance.
Rules to observe
There are a few rules which should be observed in restaurants. These include table manners, drinking rules, and the use of chopsticks.
You should never blow your nose in public, but especially not while sat at a table.Unlike in China, where it is considered polite to leave a few morsels of food, the Japanese prefer it if you finish your plate. Refrain from burping after a meal as this is considered impolite. Once you have finished your meal, you should place all dishes and chopsticks in the way you found them. This includes putting the chopsticks into the slip of paper they came in.
If you are drinking alcohol, you should serve each other. You should keep a watchful eye on your neighbour’s cup, and when it appears to be getting low, offer to top it up again. You should also wait until everyone’s drink has been served before you drink. The drinking salute in Japan is “kampai”.
How to use chopsticks
You should hold your chopsticks at the end, rather than towards the middle or in the front portion – this is considered as a sign of intelligence.
When not in use, you should place your chopsticks to the left hand side of your dish.You should never stick your chopsticks into food, as this practice is only done at the altar during a funeral. Similarly, chopsticks should not be used for spearing food or for pointing during conversation.
If you cannot comfortably use chopsticks to eat your meal, you can use fingers (for sushi), or request a knife and fork – although the latter is generally only used for western style food, they tend to make an exception for tourists.
How to eat
Rice: The bowl should be held in one hand, while using your chopsticks to shovel rice into your mouth with the other. Make it easier for yourself by lifting the bowl up to your mouth, rather than bending your face towards the bowl. You should also refrain from pouring soy sauce onto cooked rice.
Sushi: You can either use chopsticks or your fingers to eat sushi, although it tends to be only Japanese men who use fingers. Only pour as much soy sauce as you intend to use – wastage is considered rude.
Miso soup: Rather than use a spoon to eat your soup, lift the bowl to your mouth and drink it.
Noodles: Believe it or not, making a slurping noise when eating noodles is considered as encouragement, and a sign that you are enjoying your food. Use your chopsticks much in the same way as you would eat rice. Sometimes a ceramic spoon will be given to you – if so, you should use that rather than chopsticks.
Paying the bill
In Japan, your bill will always be given to you face down. You will be expected to pay at the till before leaving, rather than at the table. Many Japanese restaurants accept credit cards as payment, but it is more common to pay in cash.
Some cheaper restaurants however adopt a completely different principle. Ramen and gyudon restaurants use the idea of meal tickets in lieu of payment. You will be able to buy these from a vending machine outside the restaurant. Simply choose a ticket to the value of the meal you would like and present it to the person serving upon ordering.
You should not leave a tip in Japan – show your appreciation for the meal instead by saying “gochisosama deshita” when you leave, which means “thank you for the meal”.
As karaoke is such a huge part of the entertainment in Japan, it’s a good idea to get clued up on what’s considered polite. You can avoid embarrassment by ensuring the following:
Don’t break the equipment
Japanese karaoke can get quite wild, and it’s not uncommon for people to dance or jump on the chairs. If you happen to break something in the process though, the owners of the establishment are likely to get angry and phone the police, which will leave you with one of two options: either pay a fine worth more than the original value of the equipment (out of respect for having damaged it), or be taken to jail for an undetermined length of time.
Be prepared to pay a lot
It’s very easy to run up a large bill when doing karaoke. Some places may charge as much as 2500 yen per hour per person on an all-you-can-drink basis. If people happen to join your party and you’re enjoying yourself so much that you end up staying for around five hours, you’ll be charged for the number of people and the full amount of time you have stayed there for.
It’s understood that you don’t have to be an amazing singer to enjoy karaoke. So if there’s someone destroying your favourite song by singing out of tune, try not to criticise them for it – you never know how sensitive they might be. And of course, you’ll leave yourself wide open to criticism when you next get up to sing. Just sit back, have a laugh, and enjoy yourself, and don’t take it too seriously.
So what’s not rude in Japan?
It may sound like there are a lot of rules and customs to follow when visiting Japan. That said, there are a few things that are not considered rude – these may surprise you:
Shouting in a restaurant
In the UK, you’re likely to get ignored or your soup spat in if you yell to get the attention of the waiter or waitress. In Japan however, it’s a perfectly acceptable thing to do, and the person serving you will come straight to your table.
Jostling on a train
Japanese trains are far too crowded to become irritated by the odd push and shove. And of course, because they get so busy, you may well find yourself having to push people further into the train in order to get on before the doors close. Don’t apologise for this behaviour – you’ll earn some confused glances your way.
Rather than showing appreciation by tipping, you should simply say thank you for the service. To tip people in Japan is considered to be an insult. You’ll still receive fantastic service, even if you don’t tip.
Eating with your hands
We mentioned above that you can either eat sushi with your chopsticks or with your hands. It’s not considered any less polite to eat with your hands, although it is generally a practice observed by more men than women.
Slurping your food
Again, another way to show appreciation and enjoyment of food is to slurp it, as loudly as possible. While we consider this to be rude in the UK, you’ll find many people in Japan slurping their food noisily – it may take some time to get used to eat, but feel free to slurp away.
As you can see, there are many differences in the way people behave in Japan, compared to how we behave in the UK. This is why it is important to do your research before you go, and to arrive in Japan with an open mind – you’ll enjoy yourself far more for doing so.
Wow – super comprehensive! Hopefully it keeps you prepared for your first, second, or even third trip to beautiful and captivating Japan.
Until next time,
Sources and Credits:
All written material (barring introduction/conclusion) and images sourced from the Journeys of Distinction website