In addition to social taboos, I’d also like to include some travel tips for those not used to traveling across Japan.
- Don’t invade personal space. Many people from Western cultures are used to shaking hands, hugging, or talking to someone at a very close distance, but it is not common in Japanese culture. Whether you want to hug or shake hands with someone you feel you connected with is up to you, but be careful not to stand too close when talking to people, whether it be store employees or acquaintances. It’s safe to stand at at least an arm’s length. Many times my bosses comment that our Mexican employees stand way too close to them for comfort when they talk to them. If they can even slightly smell your breath, you’re too close.
- Don’t only speak only in your language. Of course I’m not saying you should speak Japanese perfectly before ever visiting Japan. But, a few phrases in Japanese will go a long way. Even just memorizing “Hello (Konnichiwa)” and “Thank you (Arigatou)” and using them may make the Japanese feel closer to you. Overall the times I’ve seen my foreign friends use the little Japanese they know, they usually got back a heartfelt response, a little chuckle, or a nice smile.
- Don’t leave your passport. During travel it might seem like a better idea to keep your passport locked up in a safe vault back in the hotel. However, since the risk of getting your passport stolen in Japan is relatively close to zero, the benefits of carrying it around far outweigh the small risk of losing it. There are many discount stores such as and that don’t charge tax if you meet requirements and show your passport. (See: ) Also, technically a police officer is entitled to ask to see your passport at any given moment, so better safe than sorry.
- Don’t listen to music on high volume. I was once on a train in Tokyo listening to my iPod. Well, apparently it was leaking from my earphones, and the salary-man I accidentally woke up started to yell at me at the top of his lungs and even proceeded to push me with his fist so hard I toppled backwards. While he was an extreme case (and an utter jerk), the truth remains that in recent years leaking music has come to be considered as a public nuisance. Removing your head/earphones and checking the volume once will help you avoid annoying those around you.
- Don’t go empty handed. If you’re traveling on a budget, you might end up booking through , , or even . While it’s not guaranteed that you will meet the host or other guests, it’s a great idea to have small trinkets (whether it be candy or key chains) representative of your country to be able to share with unexpected friends you make along the way. They will be greatly appreciated.
- Do carry around pocket tissue. It’s probably no secret that Japan has some of the most technologically advanced, cleanest bathrooms ever. But don’t be fooled, there are public bathrooms that are quite dirty, and even worse, have no toilet paper. I’ve ran into bathrooms desperately many times before only to find I have nothing to wipe with. Sometimes restaurants don’t have napkins as well so tissue really comes in handy. Also, if you go to the train station you can normally find people handing out free pocket tissue.
- Do use free WiFi. Data roaming can quickly empty out your bank account, and that’s where free WiFi comes in handy. You may already know about hot spots in the airport, but did you also know convenience stores such as 7-Eleven and Family Mart have started offering free WiFi, as well as Tokyo Metro stations and Toei buses? In addition, many McDonald’s have hot spots as well as major tourist destinations such as Tokyo Skytree and Kyoto. (See: )
- Do buy a Suica. is a rechargeable transportation card that you can purchase at major JR train stations. In different regions of Japan they have different names, such as Pasmo and Icoca. While you do have to pay 500 yen (4.50 U.S. dollars) just for the card, having a prepaid card instead of buying train tickets every single trip will save you a lot of time. They are also super useful since you can use them for vending machines as well as in many convenience stores, kiosks, and restaurants.
- Also remember that the 500 yen you pay for the Suica is refundable if you hand back the card at the end of your trip.
- Do use all-night buses. Last month I took a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto and paid a whopping 13,830 yen (124 dollars). On the way back, I reserved an all-night bus and only paid 3,000 yen (27 dollars). While these buses aren’t comfortable and sometimes don’t have bathrooms, saving thousands of yen and a night of lodging means more money for fun stuff, like food and souvenirs! Reservations and bus terminals are slightly complicated so you may have to ask for help from a local, but nonetheless I definitely think these buses are worth at least one try. (See: )
- Do bring comfortable shoes. Those go-to comfy shoes you have? Think again. Just because they feel great for walking short distances doesn’t mean they will for long distances. In Mexico I only walk about 3,000 steps a day whereas in Japan I walked at least 8,000 and on weekends, up to 20,000. I took my comfiest boots to Japan last month and was limping and crying at the end of the day. Do make sure that your shoes are really going to hold up to the high amount of walking that Japan will have you doing.
In regards to avoiding offensive behavior, it can be mind-boggling as the culture in Japan is quite complex. I honestly do not think I can list every single taboo to have ever existed, so I’d like to sum it all up into one basic rule I invented:
When in doubt, act as you would in a public library.
That means no loud talking, cellphones, rapid movements, running, and overall disruptive actions. Put yourself in others shoes and think, “If I saw someone else doing this, would I feel bothered, even if only in the slightest?”
If the answer is a yes, don’t do it. I think you pretty much can’t go wrong.