First Time in Japan


Proud of its old traditions, stunning natural landscapes and social norms that make every minute of human interaction pleasant, Japan is a great holiday choice for anyone who is tired with the dominating, commonplace Western order of things. If you are looking for a place that will enchant you with long-forgotten etiquette, fabulous ceremonies and rich culture, the land of cherry blossom is the place!

Below we have put together a guide for first-time travellers that can’t wait to experience something new. To complete your knowledge with more inside- info, don't forget to visit a Japan travel guide.

Do embrace the culture

If there is one thing you need to be aware of before travelling to Japan, be aware that etiquette is still prevalent there. Visitors often feel bewildered at when finding out, that their natural charm, big smiles or simple politeness don't do the job, as it would in any other European country. Japan is famous for its old, or as some might say, a bit arcane set of rules and conventions that are fixed for certain situations.

As a result, respect for people is not measured by how nice you are to them, but by someone’s' ability to reply with a right gesture or to do one at a right moment. To fully enjoy your time there, and discover the country’s unique culture, without risking any etiquette mistakes, you will have to learn these few essential facts:

Meeting and greeting -  Although a handshake is a normal way of greeting people in Western Countries, in Japan you will need to be a bit more expressive, to show the same emotion.  Instead of reaching for someone’s palm, bow politely when you meet them, want to thank, or say goodbye. The duration and depth of bow will vary, depending on the situation, however, visitors are not expected to know all the intricacies. If taking a full bow seems to be a way too odd, an incline of the head might also work on some occasions. Shake hands only if the someone offers it first.

Get used to taking your shoes off -  Shoes on or off? If you are not sure, the best thing is to look around. Shelves with footwear by the door might give you a hint. Another hint would be woven tatami mats that are manufactured from rice straws. You are not supposed to walk on them with your outdoor shoes on. You might come across shoe-free zones in traditional accommodation, heritage, and historical sites.  You might also be asked to take off your shoes in some Japanese restaurants, therefore, a few pairs of new socks are an absolute necessity for this trip.

Follow two hands rule – In Japan, even a simple act of exchanging items is important. So important, that it has to be done with both hands. You might have heard about exchanging business cards with both hands, but this also extends to giving and receiving gifts.

Do taste Japanese food -  Living like a local often means eating like a local and there can’t be a better place to do it than Japan! Japanese cuisine is one of the most popular in the world, however, everyone who has ever been to Japan will testify that to get an original taste of their exquisite dishes, you will have to visit the country yourself.  Believe us there is more to try than just sushi rolls. You can find plenty of good Michelin stars restaurants hidden in the backstreets of Tokyo, but don’t be afraid to trust your gut. When you walk down the streets and see all the appetizing delicacies, do be tempted by the food stalls. They are the best choice if you want to try Japanese delicious, bite-sized snacks such as Yakitori or Gyoza.

Do visit Japan during cherry blossom season - It is hard to think of Japan in spring without picturing in your head the iconic image of blossoming, ornament cherry treats also known as Sakura. There is something mystique and ephemeral about pausing to rest beneath these blooms, that is enough to make your trip to Japan a remarkable experience.

Don’t litter - It's easier said than done, as there are scarcely any rubbish bins on Japanese streets. This is because of the strict waste management laws introduced in the 1990s, to clamp down on the rising amount of garbage that the country generates every year. Thus, while in Japan, it might be useful to copy some of the local “life - hacks” like avoiding eating while walking (rubbish bins are usually near food stalls and vending machines) or buying products with packaging that could be disposed of long after they are consumed.

Don’t make too much noise when in public - Our individual-centred culture has taught us that the louder we behave, the more noticeable we are to others.  In Japanese society, individualism is not that deeply rooted, hence people aren't used to acting loudly, and proving their existence to others at all times. As a result, disturbing the silence is considered by many as rude behaviour. This is especially true for public transport, where passengers are often reminded to switch their phones to silent mode and keep their conversations quiet. 

Rebecca Carey