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Shibuya shopping

Some Cultural Nuances to Expect When Travelling to Japan

Visiting other countries makes us keenly aware about the cultural differences we may encounter. These experiences broaden our minds and opens doors for personal growth. Every country has its own unique way of life, every encounter can be a life-changing journey. When visiting Japan, whether its your first time or nth time, you’re bound to encounter something new. Here are some unique cultural differences you may come across.Bowing by the window

Greeting people

People almost always bow instead of shaking hands in Japan. Bowing is so important in Japan that most companies provide training to their employees on the right execution of the act. The custom of bowing is more complicated than most people think. Bowing can be used for introductions, appreciation, apologies, and greetings. The specific intricacies of bowing are far more complex, with duration and depth of bow prescribed for every circumstance.


Visitors to Japan are amazed by the trains, its punctuality and how clean they are. The Japanese take pride in their high standards for public transportation, and they are known for having flawless manners. It’s helpful to know the proper etiquette to observe when commuting by train and other public transportation. Ques are generally orderly and during rush hours, people will squeeze themselves to get inside a train.

Eating out

Chopsticks are used for eating and as kitchen utensils in Japan. It spread to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam in 500 CE.  Spoons, forks, and knives are commonly reserved for Western dishes. There are some golden rules to remember when dining with chopsticks in line with Japanese customs.

Japanese wooden shoesOther customs

Tipping is an unnecessary practice among many Japanese. They consider good service as standard and therefore do not expect to receive tips. The Japanese have a kind of tipping etiquette that’s helpful to know.

Take off your shoes when entering a Japanese home or temple. Slippers are often provided. Socks are also allowed on tatami (straw mats). When changing shoes, don’t touch the floor with your feet. When you take off your shoes, place them neatly together.

The Japanese rarely use first names when addressing colleagues or acquaintances. Last names are used more often, with the polite attachment san (Mr./Ms.) or sensei (for physicians, teachers, politicians) after the name. Always use sensei when addressing your instructors.

After food has been placed on the table and you sit down for dinner, it is very common to say, “itadakimasu,” literally, “I will receive.” At the end of a meal, it is common to say, “gochisosama deshita (Thank you for the great meal),” a polite and respectful way to offer thanks. If you feel uncomfortable at first saying these phrases before and after dinner, try listening to your host family. You will gradually feel more comfortable.

Onsen with bamboo bucket

Japanese open air hot spa onsen

Japanese culture exhibits ties between water and religion. Many Japanese wash their hands and mouth as a customary behavior when they enter the grounds of a shrine. Bathing in an onsen or hot spring is something to experience when in Japan. It is customary to thoroughly wash your entire body before entering the water in any communal bath in Japan whether an onsen or a sentō. It would simply be unthought of to bathe naked with friends and family, what more with strangers. But that is the traditional bathing culture in Japan.

Cars in Japan drive on the left side of the road and pass on the right side. (Drivers sit on the right side of the car.) In other words, cars drive on opposite sides from what you are used to in the States.

Happy travels!

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Read all about Japanese immersion learning and studying abroad. Check out our eZasshi archives for more articles!