Girls in kimono

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Tips for First-time Travelers in Japan: Dos and Don’ts

Are you planning on your first visit to Japan? If yes, surely you would not want to miss out on several simple tips that will come in very handy during your trip. Japan is a very welcoming and unique country; but at the same time its rich culture can be a little surprising if you come unprepared. From language to eating etiquette, here are 6 useful tips which will surely make your trip worry-free.

1. Know the Language

Sign for Central Japan International Airport
Photo by Tennen-Gas (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The first thing travelers need to prepare is, definitely: language. Since Japan has a unique writing system and characters, travelling to Japan for the first time can be quite confusing if you cannot read or speak Japanese. Even in tourist destinations and airports, many signs are written in Japanese. Learning and memorizing a few handy phrases will certainly help you along the way. Aim for daily situation phrases such as greetings and useful questions that will help you get around Japan and also in urgent and emergency situations. Don’t forget to also pack in a pocket dictionary or mobile app before you leave.

Mind Your Ps and Qs

If you are on your way on learning a few Japanese phrases, “arigato”  (thank you) and “kudasai” or "onegai shimasu" (please) would be on top of the list. You will hear these phrases along with “gomen nasai” (sorry) or “sumimasen" (excuse me) quite often in places around Japan as people are treated with the utmost respect. As you shop briefly at a Japanese convenience store, for example, the cashier or store clerk might say thank you and please three to four times while bowing down to hand over your groceries with both hands in such politeness.

Know When to Bow

Formal Japaense bow
Photo by Maya-Anaïs Yataghène from Paris, France (Japan - Tokyo) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Besides language, another courtesy in Japanese society is to bow down as an act of respect. Most people in Japan will bow as they greet each other, especially strangers when they meet for the first time. Bowing down translates into many different functions in Japan and can be used in different situations, including but not limited to, apologizing, greeting, and congratulating.

No Littering

Trash and recycling bins in Japan
Photo by Corpse Reviver (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

For those who have stepped foot in Japan before, it comes as no surprise how squeaky clean the streets are. The country takes littering as a serious matter. Never litter and always put away trash in the garbage bin according to its correct recycling category. A fun fact: despite being very clean and disciplined in litter, there are not many garbage cans placed in public areas, and it can be a little tricky to find one. Most are placed in convenience stores, so until you find one, it would be best to keep litter inside your bag.

Handle Chopsticks with Care

Using chopsticks to pick up sushi
Photo by Takashi Mukoda [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A trip to Japan will not be complete without having a culinary adventure, but with a little note on table manners. If you are going to use chopsticks, which will most likely be the case, be sure to never stab your food with them. It is considered rude and sometimes childish to stab food with a chopstick. Another eating etiquette with chopsticks is that it is seen as impolite to stick chopsticks vertically inside a bowl, such as in a bowl of rice. Placing chopsticks vertically in the center of a bowl is believed to bring bad luck.

Slurp Away

Dipping tsukemen noodles before slurping
Photo by City Foodsters [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Besides chopsticks, other dining etiquette includes slurping! Yes, you read that right. If you find yourself to be a noisy eater, then worry not. While in some countries it is uncommon to make loud noises of slurping when eating soup, it is quite the opposite in Japan. As you eat out in Japanese restaurants, you can easily find yourself dining surrounded by the sound of people joyfully slurping their noodles quite distinctly. When eating meals with broth or soup, such as udon and ramen, it is common practice in Japan to slurp away. It is even considered impolite to not do so.

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