My love for Japan is hard to put into words. It’s a country of coexisting contrasts, where it’s not unusual to find a tiny, 200-year-old shrine surrounded by 12-story apartment complexes. It’s probably the one place in the world where you can see a man wearing a $1,000 suit with a cat ear headband. Japan may have a reputation for being “Westernized”, but don’t be fooled. There are plenty of things to avoid in Japan when you travel around the country.
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There are dozens of Japan travel mistakes one can make, from the angle at which you bow to the way you fill your drinking glass. This post would be a mile long if I included them all here! Instead, I’m focusing on the most common things to avoid in Japan.
If you’re like me and want to really dive into the ins and outs of Japanese culture rules and etiquette, check out my two favorite books with Japan travel tips: Lonely Plant Japan, and Abby Denson’s Cool Japan Guide. These books are so good, they’ve stayed on my bookshelf after cross-country and trans-Atlantic moves!
And for even more travel preparation, check out my post on how to avoid these frequent international travel mistakes.
Grab a green tea and settle in for this list of stuff to know before traveling to Japan.
Not learning basic Japanese phrases for travelers
If you walk away with nothing else from this list of tips for traveling to Japan, make it this: take the time to learn a few Japanese travel phrases.
Before my trip to Japan, I read a lot of conflicting advice on how much Japanese I needed to know. Many people said English was enough to get by, while others argued that learning some basic Japanese phrases for travelers was essential. Having traveled through Tokyo, Kyoto, and some smaller towns, I can assure you that learning a handful of critical travel phrases is absolutely worth your time.
If you want to get off the beaten path in Japan, like hiking Kamikochi for example, you’ll need to know more than konnichiwa!
Even though most Japanese students study English for 6+ years, very few are comfortable speaking the language. Older people are less likely to know conversational English, even if they work in tourist-laden cities like Tokyo. You’ll put people at ease if you can speak a bit of the language.
Below are 10 essential Japan travel phrases for getting by in shops, restaurants, and other simple interactions. I included rough pronunciation guides, but you should put these phrases into Google translate to hear the audio of a native speaker. It’s hard to capture the subtleties of Japanese pronunciation in Western writing.
Also, I strongly encourage you to download Google Translate on your phone and add these phrases into your phrasebook. And don’t forget to download the Japanese dictionary for offline use!
- Good morning – Ohayo (oh-high-yo)
- Hello – Konnichiwa (cone-nee-chi-wa)
- Good evening – Konbanwa (cone-bahn-wa)
- Yes – Hai (hi)
- Thank you – Arigatou Gozaimasu (a-ree-ga-toe go-zeye-mus)
- Excuse Me – Sumimasen (su-me-mah-sen)
- Do you understand English? – Eigo ga hanasemasu ka? (ay-go gah ha-nah-say-mas kah)
- Sorry, I don’t understand – Sumimasen, wakarimasen (sue-me-mah-sen, wah-kah-ree-mah-sen)
- (I’d like) this, please – Kore o kudasai (koh-reh oh koo-dah-sigh)
- Can I have the bill, please? – Okanjo o onegaishimasu (oh-kahn-jo oh oh-neh-guy-she-mas)
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get an immediate response from someone, or if they look confused. I found that most people were expecting English words to come out of my mouth, so it caught them off guard when I spoke Japanese. Usually they’d say “Ah!” and then respond in Japanese, though sometimes I needed to repeat myself.
Carrying little to no cash
For a country known for advanced technology, there are a surprising number of places that operate as cash-only. It’s critical that you carry plenty of yen in your wallet at all times. Luckily, Japan is one of the few countries I’ve visited where I was comfortable walking around with large sums of money.
The challenge for travelers is that most ATMs in Japan do not accept foreign cards. Your best bet is to find a 7-Eleven or post office, as these ATMs accept international cards. You can find 7-Bank (owned by 7-Eleven) ATMs outside of the convenience stores as well, including at the major airports and train stations. Once you get into rural areas, however, it becomes harder to find international ATMs. This is why planning your cash withdrawals ahead of time is essential.
Not wearing socks (or carrying an extra pair)
Cleanliness is a long-standing cultural value in Japan. And it’s not just about wearing surgical masks in public. There are many places in Japan where you’ll be expected to remove your shoes before entering (the shoe racks at the door will be your first clue). Though some places, like high-traffic temples, will have slippers for you to wear, many traditional restaurants will not. Walking around in bare feet is a no-no, so skip the sandals and choose footwear with socks. Or at the very least, carry an extra pair in your pocket or bag should the need arise.
Tipping your server
Yes, you read that heading right. Of all the things to avoid in Japan, this is probably the easiest travel mistake to make. In Japan, it’s not only wrong to tip for service, it’s actually a bit rude. If you leave money on the table at a restaurant, your server will come chasing after you to return it, which is awkward for everyone.
The only time you might leave a tip in Japan is if you stayed in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). In this case, it’s appropriate to leave a (small) tip in an envelope in your room upon departure.
Asking for substitutions or customizations in your meal
Japan has the best food of any country I’ve ever visited. I’ve even made a guide for the Japanese dishes you must eat during your trip. However, if you’re a picky eater or have food aversions/intolerances, Japan’s restaurant scene will be tricky to navigate.
Unlike the have-it-your-way mentality of the US, Japanese restaurants rarely cater to special requests. Some dishes, like ramen, offer the option to add in your favorite items. But don’t expect to order a bowl of tensoba and ask for no mushrooms.
For those with dietary restrictions, I have good news. In major cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, restaurants have started offering gluten free items and usually indicate them with an icon on the menu. Speciality vegetarian and vegan restaurants are also cropping up around the country. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, check out these guides to vegetarian restaurants and vegan foods from Never Ending Voyage and The Nomadic Vegan.
Shying away from local restaurants
As I noted above, it’s hard to go wrong when eating in Japan. But there’s definitely a benefit to getting off the beaten path and eating at a small, local restaurant. Most travelers are afraid of the language barrier, but if you listened to my advice and learned some basic Japanese phrases, you’ll be just fine.
Service and courtesy are paramount in Japan, so your host will do their best to communicate with you. Plus, many Japanese restaurants (even the non-touristy ones) have pictures on the menu, so you can point to what you’d like and say kore o kudasai.
Worst case scenario, you can’t read the menu and your server doesn’t speak English. Never fear! Just ask the server what he/she recommends by saying osusume wa nan desu ka?
Don’t forget these things to avoid in Japan!
Eating while walking or riding public transit
If you haven’t figured it out by now, food plays a large role in Japanese culture and etiquette. With the number of street food vendors in Japan, you may be surprised to see no one wandering around while munching on okonomiyaki. That’s because it’s considered impolite to walk and eat. Instead, you’ll find people huddled next to food stalls, discreetly scarfing down their treats before moving on to the next destination.
And consuming food or drink on public transit is a serious transgression. The only time you can eat or imbibe while traveling is when you’re on the Shinkansen (bullet train). In fact, there will even be trolley service offering beautiful bento boxes and cold drinks while you zip across the country. I enjoyed a delicious onigiri bento on my way to a day trip to Nara.
Assuming the JR Rail Pass is cost-effective
You won’t offend anyone but yourself if you make this Japan travel mistake. However, it’s worth mentioning for the sake of your wallet (and future travel fund)! If you’ve already started researching your trip to Japan, you’ve probably seen a ton of people recommending you get the JR Rail Pass.
While it’s true that these passes can make traveling Japan convenient, they are not guaranteed to save you money. At the time of this post, the cost of a 7-day JR Rail Pass is 29,110 yen. Even if your itinerary involves a couple day trips and a Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Kyoto, it’s still possible that individual tickets and a Suica card will be a better value.
Your best bet is to plan out a rough itinerary and use HyperDia to figure out the cost of your transit. If you want to learn more about the JR Rail Pass, you can check out this in-depth rail pass guide from Two Aussie Travellers.
Spending 30 minutes looking for a trash bin
The ratio of people to rubbish bins in Japan is astoundingly low. Despite the lack of trash receptacles, you’ll rarely see any litter on the streets. This is because everyone carries their garbage around until they happen across a bin. If they don’t find a trash can, they’ll carry their rubbish all the way home. As a traveler, you’re better off embracing this reality than wasting precious time looking for a bin. Pro tip: keep a resealable baggie in your backpack/purse to hold your trash until you find a receptacle.
Blowing your nose in public
You’ll hear a lot of sniffling in the cold months, but you won’t hear the sound of anyone blowing their nose. This goes back to my previous comment about cleanliness, as well as the Japanese aversion to spreading sickness. This may seem like a harmless Japan travel mistake, but it’s actually one of the most offensive things you could do, especially if you’re on the subway.
If you have a runny nose, do what the locals do and keep sniffling. Once you’re somewhere discreet, wipe your nose. Don’t blow your nose until you’re in the privacy of your own hotel room.
Expecting to find soap and hand dryers/paper towels in public restrooms
Remember how I said Japan was a country of contrasts? On the one hand, you have high-tech bathrooms with warm toilet seats and buttons that play music and fake flushing sounds. And then you have bathrooms with squat toilets, one working sink, and no soap or hand-drying device to be found. It’s pretty common for Japanese restrooms to lack one or both of these things, so I recommend carrying sanitizing wipes and a handkerchief while you’re out and about. Getting sick is definitely one of the top things to avoid in Japan!
Invading people’s privacy at shrines and temples
One of the biggest draws for people visiting Japan is the wealth of incredible shrines and temples. From the famous Fushimi Inari shrine to the towering wooden hall of Todai-ji, Japan is full of photo-worthy religious sites. However, it’s important to realize that shrines and temples are active places of prayer.
The most popular places will have a steady stream of people coming to pray, so you should be mindful of where you stand and how close you get to the actual ritual areas. Disrupting rituals and offending people are critical things to avoid in Japan. It would be wildly inappropriate to walk into a cathedral and snap a selfie next to someone taking communion, so treat Japanese worshippers with the same respect.
Have any more tips on stuff to know before traveling to Japan? Share your story in the comments section!