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Japan Tips For First-Time Visitors

Japanese culture is a fascinating combination of modern efficiency and polite traditions but navigating the local customs can be confusing for a first-time visitor. From business greetings to the etiquette when eating, travel blogger and 4-time visitor to Japan, Jayne Gorman, shares with Skyscanner Australia the things she wishes she’d known before her first visit.

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Come with some cash

Shibuya Crossing Tokyo

A surprising number of businesses in Japan operate on a cash only basis including the ticket machines at train stations. If you’re planning to take public transport as soon as you arrive it’s best to come armed with cash instead of flapping around the airport looking for an ATM (I speak from experience). Also be aware that not all ATMs accept foreign cards and they don’t all have an English language button either. Your best bet is to head to a 7-11 where the cash machines tend to be foreigner-friendly.

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No need to tip

Breakfast in Tokyo

Tipping is not a Japanese custom, in fact, it’s considered rude if you try to give your driver or waiter extra money and they’ll probably try to refuse it. You’ll also find the concept of ‘keep the change’ is not a done thing and that a taxi driver might chase after you with coins if he thinks you’ve forgotten them.

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The concept of losing face

Sensoji Temple Tokyo

The concept of face (mentsu) is very important in Japanese culture and to disagree with someone in public, thus making them “lose face” (mentsu wo ushinau), is often skilfully avoided. As a result tourists sometimes encounter confusing answers when asking for directions, being told ‘Yes, this is the right way to x’ while being pointed in the opposite direction to which they were heading. Do not be afraid to ask for help though. One of my most memorable encounters was when I was lost in Wakayama and a lady offered to walk me to the bus stop. She didn’t let the fact that she didn’t know where the bus stop was stand in her way, we walked for 10 mins before she quietly said, ‘I think we need to go this way’, pointing back the way we came. Those 20 minutes of walking, talking and getting lost with her are one of my favourite moments.

Don’t walk and eat

Dotonbori food street Osaka

I made a rather embarrassing cultural gaff in Osaka when I purchased some (mighty fine) Japanese Fried Chicken from a take away stand in Dotobori and then walked off down the street while munching it. Although I’d like to think the announcement over the public speaker wasn’t just for my benefit, I was horrified to hear a broadcast asking that visitors not eat as they walk down the street, just as I tucked into another mayo covered morsel outside a souvenir shop.

As the announcement went on to explain, you are requested to consume any take away food you buy directly in front of the premises you buy it from, not as you browse the shops down the street. This explains why I saw so many people hanging around take away stands after they’d received their orders. Oops!

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Observe the etiquette of meishi koukan (business card exchange)

Sensoji Temple Tokyo

If you are travelling to Japan on business make sure you come prepared with a large stash of business cards and that you observe the proper etiquette when exchanging them. As Michael Gakuran, who writes a website for foreigners in Japan, explains, the custom of meishi koukan has certain rules:

  1. The highest ranking person gives out their business cards first.
  2. Cards must be given and received with two hands.
  3. Cards should be handed face-down to the receiver.
  4. Cards should be kept on display for the remainder of the interaction.
  5. Cards should be kept as immaculate as possible.

You got that?

It’s also important to show your respect by bowing at the beginning and end of your meeting. The duration and inclination of the bow is proportionate to the level of the person you’re addressing, so for senior management a low and slow 70-degree bow would be expected. For tourists in everyday situations, however, a quick inclination of the head or an attempt at a bow at the waist will be just fine.

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The art of gifting

Park Hotel Tokyo

Each time I’ve been to Japan my guide has so sweetly greeted me with an immaculately wrapped box of Japanese snacks or something I might find useful for my trip (like self-heating socks – yes, seriously!). You’ll notice in Japanese department stores that they have whole sections dedicated to immaculately wrapped boxes of cookies, crackers and red bean sweets. Look out for them on your trip – it’s like a lesson in the art of presentation. If you have arranged any homestays or private guides during your trip, maybe pack some Aussie souvenirs so you’re prepared to return the gesture if a gift is forthcoming.

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About The Author

Jayne Gorman is a sushi-loving travel blogger based in Sydney who has travelled to 60+ countries and heads to Japan every chance she can get. Find more of her Japan tales and tips on her blog Girl Tweets World.

All images by Jayne Gorman