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Japanese customs first-time travellers need to be aware of

Japanese customs first-time travellers need to be aware of

26 Nov 2018 Travel Tips
From samurai to sushi, Japan's history and culture are instantly recognisable. While vacationing in the Land of the Rising Sun is a popular choice for many Australians, it's important to realise that Japanese social customs and practices are very different from our own.

Adhering to the following tips won't only endear you to the welcoming people but could also save you from causing serious offence.

Meeting and greeting in Japan

A lot of thought goes into first impressions among the Japanese, with a bow being the most common form of acknowledgement. While there are intricate meanings behind the length, depth and number of bows, don't worry - tourists aren't expected to get it perfectly right. If someone bows to you, a simple nod or shallow bow in return will be enough.

Handshaking isn't nearly as common as it is in Australia, but it does happen on occasion. A good rule of thumb is wait and see if the other person offers to shake rather than initiating it yourself and be gentle - don't expect a firm grip.

Entering a Japanese house

If you're invited into a Japanese home, be honoured. This is a privilege and should be treated as such. Follow these tips to be a good guest:

  • Bring a gift - The more wrapping (and the fancier), the better and be sure to present it with two hands. If this event was planned in advance, a gift from Australia will be well received, but otherwise keep it small - you don't want to embarrass your host by being too generous.
  • Take off your shoes - Japanese people don't wear shoes inside, and instead you'll likely be presented with a pair of clean slippers upon entry.
  • Dress smartly - You'll notice as you walk the streets of Japan's bigger cities that this is a well-dressed nation. While there's no need to go overboard, making an effort will definitely be appreciated.
  • Let your host take the lead - It's likely your hosts have planned for your arrival, so they should call the shots. For example, when shown into a living room, don't just sit anywhere - either wait for direction or ask.

Japanese etiquette also holds strict rules for meal times that tourists should be aware of, but these deserve their own section.

Japanese eating and drinking etiquette

Something that regularly catches tourists out when visiting Japan is the lack of public bins, but the reason is simple. Eating on the go is looked down upon (including on public transport), so the need for bins is greatly reduced. The only times you might see lots of Japanese people eating on the street is during festivals. However, when at a restaurant or a private property, there are plenty of rules to be aware of:

  • Don't fill your own glass - When dining at someone's house, filling your own glass can insinuate poor hospitality on the part of your host. Pouring drinks for others, on the other hand, is encouraged.
  • Chopstick use - Never pass food to someone else's chopsticks using your own, this is a practice used in rituals and will certainly raise eyebrows. Similarly, while these may seem like the perfect utensils to re-enact your favourite drum solo, anything that could be considered as playing with chopsticks should be avoided.
  • Slurping - Slurping isn't considered rude in Japanese culture, and it'll be one of the first things you notice in many restaurants. For smaller dishes, you'll also see people picking up the bowl and holding it close to their face, feel free to join in! 
  • Show gratitude - If eating with the cook, be sure to make your appreciation for their efforts clear during and after the meal.
  • Tipping - As a general rule, avoid tipping. It isn't common and may cause confusion among staff.

Visiting sacred places in Japan

Japan's temples are among its top draw cards for tourists, and there are several key customs that visitors must observe. A lot of this is common sense, for example; lower your voice, wear appropriate clothing and don't interrupt ceremonies. Photography is usually permitted in the temple grounds, but not inside the buildings themselves.

Less expected are the cleansing practices that Japanese people conduct before entering a temple or shrine. You'll see water fountains outside sacred spaces, and tradition dictates that you rinse your hands and inside mouth. You're not expected to swallow the water, however, and you will witness other temple-goers spitting it onto the ground next to the fountain. 

As with people's homes, be prepared to remove your shoes. Sometimes slippers will be provided but make this an occasion to put on your best socks, just in case. 

In Japan, adopting these cultural practices is not only polite, but is very much part of the experience. To find out more about the options for exploring this fascinating destination, get in touch with your local Travellers Choice agent today.


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