My Top 10 Most Insightful Observations While Traveling in Japan

I recently had the opportunity to travel across Japan, utilizing the famous bullet trains, regional trains, private drivers, buses and planes during my two week trip.

While in Japan, I was able to visit fourteen cities and was exposed to the most beautiful shrines, temples and gardens along the way. I enjoyed staying at a mix of western style hotels and Japanese traditional hotels called ryokans. Some of the most interesting experiences I had were focused on the Japanese customs and social conventions. Below, please find my top ten most insightful observations that I encountered.

Tipping is Not Necessary

In Japan, both restaurant and hotel staff do not expect to be given gratuities and likely will refuse to take any tips. In the Japanese culture, tipping is considered somewhat rude.

However, there are two instances when tipping is graciously accepted:

1.)  At mid to high-end ryokans. Normally, you will have your own ‘nakai-san’ or a female clerk assigned to your room, and offering a gratuity for your entire stay between $10 – $25 (1,000 to 3,000 yen) is acceptable. 

2.) The other profession where tips are appreciated is with private tour guides and drivers. Please expect to tip a full day guide $50 (5,600 yen), half day guide $25 (2,850 yen) and a driver $15 – $25 (1,700 – 2,850 yen).

“Ladies First” Not Practiced

In many western countries, “ladies first” is practiced, however, this custom is not as popular in Japan. If you happen to arrive at an entry or exit door and see a Japanese man coming in or out, do not expect him to hold the door for you.

Nose Blowing Etiquette

Japanese etiquette dictates only blowing your nose in private, along with never using a handkerchief – disposable tissues are preferred due to sanitation reasons. Don’t be surprised to see Japanese people sniffling until they can be in private to blow their noses.

Be Your Own Streetcleaner

The Japanese are very conscientious of garbage (“gomi”) and everyone carries their trash with them during the day, so it is recommended to carry a plastic bag with you while traveling. All trash cans were removed in 1995 in major cities, after the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subways.

This may lead you to think that the streets would be littered, however it is much the opposite. Even though Tokyo has 13 million residents, is the cleanest city I have ever visited, the streets are pristine.

Body Language is Important

Given that very few Japanese natives speak English, body language becomes much more significant while visiting Japan. Please remember that meanings of specific body language may denote different actions. For example, when a Japanese person asks you to come, they will put their hand out palm-down and point their fingers towards you, which is often understood as “go away” in the west.

Another important social convention in Japan is bowing. When the Japanese bow, the bower expresses appreciation and respect to the person being bowed to by bending at the waist. One mistake travelers tend to make is to bow with hands put together in front of their chest, which is more of a Thai custom.

While traveling to Nara Deer Park, I even experienced the deer bowing to me graciously while I fed them.

Understanding Japanese Toilets

Using public restrooms in Japan may be slightly daunting. The toilets in hotels, shopping centers, restaurants and airports can be quite complex.

You have likely heard of the high-tech toilets in Japan, but until you see these multi-functioning products in action you can’t credibly describe the experience.

Having sampled many of these modern flushers, I came to realize they had more buttons than my television remote.

From automatic seat lifting, flushing and heating, to deodorizing, spraying and blow-drying to noise covering and music playing, I learned an entirely new programming language. There is actually a museum fully dedicated to the manufacturer of the beloved washlet located in the southernmost part of Japan’s four main islands – Kitakyushu. The Toto company built this $60 million museum to commemorate their 100th anniversary in 2017.  Another interesting display at the museum is the toilet that General Douglas MacArthur used in his office during the post-World War II occupation of Japan.

One important observation I picked up in my Japanese travels is that many public restrooms do not have soap for washing hands or towels for drying hands. Therefore, I recommend travelers carry sanitizer and hand wipes for such occasions.

Knowing What a “Love Hotel” is!

Many Japanese adults live with their parents until they are married due to economics. Thus this has resulted in the burgeoning business of “love hotels.” They are quite common everywhere, not just in large cities.

Entrances of “love hotels” are often labeled as “love hotels” in English and once inside you can select from an array of rooms, in which you will press the button of the room you want, pay and receive the key without ever seeing anyone. The rooms are typically rented for a minimum of two hours or a maximum of one day.

As a travel advisor, I am always scouting potential hotels for clients, so I had to consciously make note not to conduct site inspections at these “specialty hotels.”

Slipper Etiquette

Japan is known for slipper wearing; so expect to be taking off your shoes many times while visiting.  One helpful hint is to make sure you wear socks.

When entering a person’s home, ryokan, tea room or restaurant, you will be offered a pair of slippers to wear and it is important to point your street shoes toward the door after entering.

You’ll also find another pair of slippers in the bathroom, and you must change into them. In Japanese culture, they separate areas into clean and unclean, and the contact between these areas should be minimized. Just remember to change your slippers back – wearing toilet slippers inside your friend’s living room, or your table at the restaurant is quite embarrassing!

Money Exchange

In Japan, money is rarely passed directly from one person’s hand to another. This practice is prevalent in Japan, and you’ll see it in all hotels, restaurants, taxis, convenience stores and cafes.

When purchasing an item or service – rather than handing your money to the cashier – place your payment (whether cash or credit) on the small tray provided. This is where your change will be placed as well.

Number 4 Avoidance

The Japanese are very superstitious of the number four and avoid using this number.  Japanese people believe this is due to the fact that the word for four is “shi” (四/し) which closely resembles the word for death “shi” (死/し).

In my Japanese travels, this was apparent as I saw no car license plates with the number four, there were no fourth floors labeled in the hotels and one of my private guides advised me not to purchase four of an item.

After a while it became a game for me, looking for the number four in any capacity, and honestly, it was difficult to find. Although, I did observe it in the restaurants – four guests having dinner together and in the convenience stores – four beverages sold as a group.

Another interesting observation I encountered was the Japanese concept of Mottainai which has four guiding principles, which is counter to their “four phobia” – “The Four R’s”

  1. Reduce
  2. Reuse
  3. Recycle
  4. Respect

Which is a nice philosophy to live your life by!  

I hope these observations have been helpful and if you are planning a trip to Japan; please reach out to me for your planning needs and please don’t request me to book the fourth floor for your hotel stay!

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  • Hi Beth,
    I just had a chance to peruse your post. I loved the video of you feeding the deer!
    Your observations were very helpful and entertaining.
    I am curious about slipper patrol ie how does one monitor whether you changed your slippers to enter the bathroom?
    Also, do you know whether the Japanese toilet technology is available in the U.S.?
    Warm regards,