Foodie travel etiquette in Japan
The Japanese are very welcoming towards visitors, but their unique customs can present some situations where first-time travellers may accidentally insult locals. “It’s perhaps impossible to have a completely faux-pas free journey the first time around,” says Dean Van Es, the CEO of Fast Cover travel insurance who has travelled to Japan many times. “But it’s well worth learning as many customs as possible before you travel, so you don’t step on any toes!”
Keep these etiquette tips in mind while you’re in Japan and you can lessen the chance of making a mistake!
Foodie travel etiquette Japan – proper eating and drinking
Not being able to use chopsticks properly may be more embarrassing than anything else, but there are also ways you might accidentally insult or offend people around you! Never leave your chopsticks sticking upright in your food, or use the end of the chopsticks you put in your mouth to take food from a communal dish. These actions are linked to rituals associated with death and funerals. Don’t play with your chopsticks by drumming, waving them around or scratching yourself with them.
While eating noodles it’s actually polite to slurp and make noise. So enjoy your ramen or udon noodles loudly!
It’s customary to pour the drinks of other people with you first, but don’t pour your own drink. You are meant to allow someone else in your party to pour your drink for you. Say ‘kanpai’ before drinking to say cheers!
Tipping is not the custom in Japan so if you leave money on the table, you’ll most likely have a waiter come to give it back to you. It is polite to say ‘gochisosama deshita’ which means ‘it was quite a feast’.
Talking with people
Take a bow
Foreigners aren’t often expected to bow in the correct way (there’s proper timing and style to bowing) but bowing when you meet someone, thank them or say goodbye is a sign of respect. Sometimes a small nod of the head will be enough. Work off the person you are speaking with; they may shake your hand as well.
There are many reasons people exchange gifts in Japan. If you’re staying with locals, or need to say thank you to someone, it’s custom to give them a small gift. Nothing lavish or expensive, but things like chocolates or small items from your home country. It might be worthwhile preparing a few small gifts before you leave.
Use two hands to pass something
If you’re handing someone a gift or business card (or receiving one) it is customary to do so with two hands.
Careful where you step
Take your shoes off
If you see there is a space to stow your shoes when you enter a building, you are expected to remove your shoes. You’ll always be expected to remove your footwear in someone’s home, in some accommodation and in temples. Some restaurants will also require you to remove your shoes. If you see tatami, woven straw matting, you are likely going to have to go barefoot.
Slippers on and off
Slippers may be given to you to walk around inside on wooden or other floor types. But again if you are going to be walking on tatami, remove your slippers.
When you remove your shoes don’t step on the ground before stepping into your host’s house. Otherwise you’ll be seen as bringing dirt in and disrespecting your host.
Out and about
Mind the queues
You’ll quickly realise there’s a strong appreciation for the rules and structure in Japan. Wherever there is a queue, you’re expected to line up and behave in an orderly fashion.
It’s not polite to blow your nose in public. If you are sick it is also best practice to use a mouth cover to prevent colds and flus from spreading to the people around you.
Modesty is always more appropriate in Japan, particularly if you are visiting religious sites. That means longer sleeved clothing, long pants or skirts.
If you’re given a kimono to wear, wrap the left side over the right. The opposite is only used to wrap the dead.
Don’t eat while walking as it’s generally considered rude. You won’t see much (if any) dropped food while walking around Tokyo.
Please speak quietly
It is rude to talk loudly on your phone or to someone else while on public transport or while in a shrine.
Onsens (Japanese bath houses)
Men and women bathe separately unless you’ve booked a private onsen. You always go in completely naked except for a small modesty towel. First go to the showers and wash yourself; only after that can you go into the warm baths.
This post was prepared in conjunction with Fast Cover travel insurance, who also supplied some of the images of the Tokyo streetscape.