Japan’s tourism industry is continuously on the rise, with the number of tourists increasing from 19.7 million in 2015 to a record-setting 24.04 million in 2016!
Whether you’re waiting for the 2020 Summer Olympics (to be hosted in Tokyo) or planning your trip much sooner, your first trip can be a daunting but extremely rewarding experience. Although the best way to learn some of the nuances of the Japanese lifestyle is to jump in and immerse yourself for a few days, we’ve put together a brief but comprehensive list of do’s and don’ts—as well as a heads-up on some of the more surprising elements.
And just because no trip to Japan is complete without a visit in Tokyo, we’ve also included a flexible itinerary!
How (and When) to Bow
When greeting anyone, it is considered polite to bow about fifteen degrees from the waist. This is called Eshaku. However, when meeting elders you should bow deeper—between 30 degrees (Futsuu Rei) and 45 degrees (Saikeirei—the highest form of respect).
Good table manners also require that you perform Eshaku before and after a meal to thank your hosts.
Restaurant Etiquette and Tips
Always make sure that you’re wearing nice socks, because traditional Japanese restaurants require that you take your shoes off at the door. Men sit cross-legged at the table, and women with their legs tucked in beneath their hips.
Whether traditional or otherwise, some Japanese restaurants allow you to sit anywhere. A good rule of thumb is to wait few moments when you arrive, and if a waiter doesn’t direct you you’re free to choose your own spot.
If you want to order anything not included in the limited English sections of food menus in Japan, simply point to the meal’s picture or plastic replica.
When you’re ready for the bill, simply cross your forefingers into an ‘X’. Bear in mind that you don’t have to tip— perfect service is considered a matter of honor in the hospitality trade. It’s so important the Japanese even have a word dedicated to it—omotenashi. In fact, outside of the Roppongi area in Tokyo, your server will chase you down to return the tip— and may even be offended by your good intentions!
Lastly, always carry cash. Outside of the post-office and 7/11 stores, Japanese ATMS won’t accept your foreign card, and most establishments have a cash-only policy. 10 000 to 20 000 Yen (about $90 to $180) is a good figure to carry every time you leave your apartment.
What’s That Word?
You’ll quickly find yourself wondering what irasshaimase means, because you’ll hear it everywhere you go—whether walking into a boisterous bar or a quiet boutique. It’s simply a polite traditional greeting, and while a response is not mandatory you may consider giving the room a small bow.
Tokyo in 5 Days
Whether you’re visiting Japan for the 2020 Summer Olympics or not, no trip to the Land of the Rising Sun is complete without visiting the beautiful capital, and we’ve got a seven-day Tokyo itinerary to make sure you get the best out of it.
If you won’t be in Tokyo for that long, you can simply pick and choose from this list to fit your time-frame.
Day 1 – This is when you’ll be arriving and settling in at your hotel. Staying in either Shinjuku or Ginza is recommended so you’ll get to tourist sites easily via public transport. You’ll also want to get a Suica or Pasmo transport card, which is rechargeable and can be used on just about every train and bus in Tokyo.
Day 2 – Ready to step out of the city and view Mount Fuji? Try the 1-Day Tour to Mount Fuji and interact with ninjas while exploring Mount Fuji 5th Station, the Oshino Ninja Village and Lake Kawaguchiko!
Day 3 – The Tsukiji Fish Market is world famous, and visitors scramble to book one of the limited spots available to the public to watch the tuna auctions in the early hours of the morning. From there, it’s an easy walk to Ginza for lunch before taking a stroll (or guided tour) at the Imperial Palace. Marunouchi, Tokyo’s main CBD, is a great place to do some urban trawling, and you’ll want to head back to Ginza later to watch the city light up after dark.
Day 4 – The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku has a viewing deck on the 45th floor that offers an amazing view free of charge. Shibuya is also home to a world-famous road crossing and the Hachiko statue, and from there it’s a stroll up Cat Street toward the Meiji-jingū Shinto shrine and Yoyogi Park.
Day 5 – If you have enough time before your flight, you’ll want to spend your last few hours in Tokyo visiting Asakusa—one of Tokyo’s oldest neighborhoods—is well-worth exploring. There’s there’s the Sensoji Temple, rickshaws, and plenty of opportunity to do some souvenir shopping and snacking on Nakamise Street before checking out of your hotel.
Of course, this is merely a suggested itinerary, and there are many other attractions and activities worth considering if you have more time or aren’t interested in some of the above recommendations.
One thing you do need to take into consideration is the lack of public bins. Japanese businesses and households pay for garbage collection by the bag, so you’ll have to keep your trash with you until you get back to your hotel.
The Japanese are incredibly friendly and will often go the extra mile to help you—even if you can’t speak a word of Japanese and they don’t understand English! It’s one of the many things that make every trip a pleasant experience, and after your first you’ll be itching to return.