9 Tips for Traveling in Japan

By Laurie R. King, author of Dreaming Spies

Anytime you visit a new place, it takes a while to adjust to the new culture. Paying attention to even the slightest behavioral differences is key to understanding the way people operate in a different country. In Japan, distinctions in accepting business cards and greeting strangers can make un-informed visitors stand out. These nine travel tips will help you easily navigate Japanese culture on your next trip. 

1. Greetings. It’s fine to appear shy when encountering a new acquaintance or a shopkeeper, but casual indifference comes across as rude. Upon entering a shop, seek out the eyes of the person behind the counter and greet them (or at least nod and smile).

2. Bowing and handshakes. The subtleties of the Japanese bow are beyond the reach of most outsiders—how deep, how long, the placement of hands, etc. At the same time, only Westerns who look local will be expected to know how to bow correctly, and the Japanese give points for any attempt at good manners. If they’re familiar with Western habits, they may shake hands, but if a hand comes out in your direction, be cautious: the proper Japanese handshake feels limp to someone accustomed to the vigorous grab-and-pump of the West, which variety may spark an uncomfortable laugh (see below) or involuntary wince. 

3. Shoes. In Japan, you do not wear outside footwear into private homes or traditional hotels. (In 1924, the year Dreaming Spies takes place, the first Tokyo department store created a hubbub by permitting street shoes to be worn inside.) Wear slip-on shoes and good socks, since you’re going to be leaving your shoes in a lot of entryways. Generally, slippers are provided at the door, although socks are acceptable (but not bare feet—if it’s sandal weather, carry a pair of socks with you.) Often you find a different set of slippers outside the toilet door. Use them and be sure to change back into the house slippers when you come out!

4. Business cards. Even if you don’t use cards much at home, have some made for travel in Japan. Give and accept cards formally and treat them with respect. Using both hands, read any card you have been given, then place it carefully on the table in front of you or into your wallet or case—never just stick it in a pocket. If you want to write a note on the card, do so later, not in front of the person who gave it to you.

5. Laughter. Around the world, laughter is both a sign of relaxed enjoyment and a way to conceal discomfort. Paying attention to the difference between the two in your own culture makes it easier to tell them apart in Japan. If a relative stranger, or someone in a lesser position socially (shopkeeper, hotel staff) laughs, you’ve probably embarrassed them. 

6. Bath. The communal bath (mostly single-sex) is central to Japanese culture. Since the water is not changed after every use, all require a scrub before soaking: there will be either showers or the more traditional buckets for all-over sluicing.

7. Toilets. With heated seats, washing sprays, and even buttons for tinkle-obscuring noises, these are an endless source of entertainment for Western visitors. Freeway rest stops are shrines to the toilet art, with flower arrangements, murals, and internal gardens. The one thing they often lack is a means of drying hands after washing, so take a small quick-dry towel, sold by travel shops, along with you.

8. Payments. If there’s a little tray near the cash register, put your money there rather than thrusting it at the cashier. 

9. Pay attention. This should be the basic approach to all travel, but cannot be repeated enough. Paying attention to local behavior amounts to a college degree in the culture. Do pedestrians here obey the Don’t Walk signs or ignore them? Do they crowd in when a shop door opens or neatly queue up? Wave their hands to attract the attention of a waiter or sit attentively with their menus closed? Bargain or go by the price tags? In some countries, hesitation and scrupulous manners can mean you never get across a street and spend the whole trip hungry, but in Japan, when in doubt, go for the formal and conservative, and emulate the locals in their behavior. If they see you’re trying, you’ll receive fewer uncomfortable laughs and more true smiles.

Laurie R. King is the New York Times bestselling author of 23 crime novels, including The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and The Bones of Paris. Her new novel, Dreaming Spies, is a historical mystery set in Japan and Oxford, England.

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