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A guide on how not to embarrass yourself while traveling in Japan

Customs and manners are so important to Japanese culture that many travel websites have sections dedicated to the topic.

Japan is currently closed to international travelers, but the country is exploring ways to safely reopen before the start of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, which is scheduled for late July. Tourists aren’t expected to understand all of Japan’s complex social rules, but they can avoid the most commonly committed faux pas.  

Here’s a guide on what to do — and what to avoid — based on advice from Japan’s government-affiliated tourism organizations.

Don’t touch the geisha

What many travelers call “geisha,” are referred to as “maiko” or “geiko” in Kyoto, which is considered one of the best places in Japan to see the decorated female entertainers.

If one is spotted, the travel website for the Kyoto City Tourism Association (KCTA) advises travelers against stopping or asking maiko to pose for photographs.  

“Do not bother them or grab them by their kimono sleeves,” states the website.

A maiko, or appentice geisha, walks in the snow in the district of Gion in Kyoto, Japan.

Koichi Kamoshida | Getty Images News | Getty Images

This is one of Kyoto’s Manners Akimahen, a list of 18 tips, recommendations and warnings for those traveling in Japan’s cultural capital.

The list of “akimahen” (which means “don’t” in the local dialect) ranges from tips about automatic taxi doors (“make sure to stand far enough away that the door can open without bumping into you”) to littering, which can lead to a fine of 30,000 Japanese yen ($280).

Emoticon ratings indicate the seriousness of each offense. Tipping, which is frowned upon throughout Japan, rather than saying thank you in the local dialect (“okini”) is given one sad face. Bicycling while intoxicated earns three angry faces — the worst rating — not to mention a possible prison sentence of up to five years.

Expect pushing, but no talking on trains

Travelers should expect pushing and shoving on crowded trains, states Go Tokyo, the travel guide website for the Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“But bear in mind that this is not aggressive behavior, just the product of daily life in a metropolis,” states the website.

Japanese rarely talk or eat on trains, especially when they are crowded.

Junko Kimura | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Videos of white-gloved train attendants cramming people into Japanese trains have enthralled travelers for years. They also make it easy to understand one of the top rules of Japanese public transport: no talking on mobile phones. In fact, travelers are advised to not even let them ring.

“If you carry a phone, keep it on silent mode,” states Go Tokyo’s website.  

“Etiquette in public places is a serious business in Japan,” states the travel website for the government-affiliated Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). “A public-wide respect for these rules is probably the main reason why a megalopolis like Tokyo can function so smoothly.”

Eat sushi with your hands

Travelers who are not proficient with chopsticks can ask for flatware, advises JNTO’s travel website, although they “may not be available, especially at more traditional spots.”

Rather than struggling with chopsticks, the tourism organization recommends travelers follow another local custom.

It’s customary to eat sushi with your hands in Japan, especially nigiri sushi, which translates to “two fingers.”

Makiko Tanigawa | DigitalVision | Getty Images

“If you have come to Japan for sushi, remember, you can eat it with your hands,” states the website.

Shrines and temples

A tourist attraction to one person is a sacred place of worship to another. Travelers should “be quiet and respectful in shrines and temples,” according to KCTA’s website.

Kyoto’s tourism association also asks that visitors remove hats and sunglasses in houses of worship.

Dai Miyamoto, founder of the tour company Tokyo Localized, said he frequently sees tourists “sitting everywhere inside … shrine and temples,” even in places “where it is not a bench or a place to take a rest.” He also sees tourists taking photos of Buddha statues and in locations where photographs are prohibited.

Go Tokyo recommends travelers embrace the “full cultural experience” at Shinto shrines by walking on the sides of the pathway that leads to the shrine because the center is “technically reserved for the enshrined deity.”

At the compound entrance, travelers can rinse their hands and mouth with “purifying water” before approaching the main hall. There they can “bow lightly, ring the bells, place a small monetary offering in the box, bow twice, clap twice, and bow once more to complete the ritual,” according to the website.

The rules of the ryokan

Staying at a traditional inn, or ryokan, is a popular way to experience Japanese hospitality, but doing so comes with more social rules than a hotel stay.

Ryokans are typically neither cheap nor exceptionally plush, which can surprise travelers who associate higher prices with sprawling suites and luxurious bedding. Ryokans are typically one-room accommodations that are spartanly furnished and lined with straw tatami mats.

Ryokan prices are often quoted per person, not per night.

recep-bg | E+ | Getty Images

KCTA has a list of guidelines for ryokan guests, including changing into (provided) slippers before entering. Luggage wheels are not to touch interior flooring. And, bags should never be stored on the wall ledge, or tokonoma, where flowers and scrolls are displayed.

Meals are often served in guestrooms, and visitors change into casual kimonos, called yukata, to eat. After dinner, plates are cleared and futon-style mattresses are arranged on the floor for sleeping.

Onsen etiquette

Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s “How to Enjoy Tokyo: Manners & Custom Handbook” advises travelers to remove all clothing to use onsens, which are bathing areas connected to Japan’s natural hot springs.

As a volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsens, many of which are part of a hotel or ryokan and separated by gender.

John S Lander | LightRocket | Getty Images

According to the government handbook, bathers are to rinse off before entering and refrain from swimming, jumping or diving into the water. Hair and towels should not touch the water.

People with tattoos may be refused entry to more traditional onsens due to tattoos being associated with Japan’s “yakuza,” or organized crime groups, said Miyamoto. This is decreasing, he said, due to the popularity of tattoos among younger generations and foreign travelers.

Sightseeing and shopping

Cutting lines is verboten in most countries, but in Japan, holding a space for friends or family members is also considered improper, according to Tokyo’s manners handbook.

It also advises travelers to refrain from walking up or down escalators; those in a hurry should use the stairs.  

When shopping, bargaining for better pricing isn’t common. And clothing sizes differ from those in Western nations. An extra-large men’s shirt in Japan is akin to a U.S. men’s size medium.

Miyamoto, who is 5 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 185 pounds, wears a Japanese size XL because “large is too small.” He said Americans who need larger sizes aren’t out of luck though.

“Uniqlo, which is the most famous casual brand in Japan, sells over XXL size … in online shops,” he said.

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