Culture Shock | 12 Things You Should Know Before Traveling To Tokyo

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Japan is a destination for tourists and adventurers all over the world, but there’s a lot we don’t know about the mysterious country until we get there, which leads to some very awkward situations. Here are 12 things you need to know before you go.

1. Don’t Tip

If there’s one thing to realize about Japan, it’s that the rules are rules and a price is a price. This means that there is no situation that warrants tipping, including eating out, getting a haircut or taking a cab ride. Not only is it not required, tipping is actually considered an insult, because it’s undermining the authority of the person who set the price by assuming you know best. If you handed your cab driver an extra 500 yen, it would basically be the equivalent of saying, “You know, I think you have it all wrong charging only 3,000 yen for that drive. I’m going to prove how wrong you are by giving you an extra 500 and forcing you take it.” Don’t be a jerk and keep your tips to yourself. 

2. Don’t Eat Cheap Bentos

If you’re at a restaurant where bento boxes are served in ornate wooden boxes, by all means indulge and enjoy! Aside from that, however, think twice before ordering one of Japan’s most famous lunchboxes. Generally speaking, bento boxes are served in Styrofoam packages and covered with plastic, and then microwaved by the vendor upon purchase and served to you piping hot – carcinogens and all. I’m pretty sure we all learn from a young age the things you should never put in a microwave, but the Japanese seem to focus their scientific efforts on robot-run restaurants and super-fast public transportation instead of microwave exposures.

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3. Loitering Is Not Tolerated 

Unlike in America, where restaurants and waitstaff are generally understanding towards a guest’s wants, Tokyo has a different stance. In the same way offering a tip is considered undermining the price, going to a bar and not ordering a drink is disrespecting the establishment. If a group of people sit down at a bar, every person must order a drink. Food does not count in the ordering. If five people are sitting, you can’t just have four people order cocktails and one order sushi. If the point of bars is to indulge in libations, then that is what you must do. And like it.

4. Don’t Abuse The Wet Nap

Before being served a meal, the host or hostess will bring you a wet cloth or sealed wet napkin. You might think this is for an after-meal cleanup, the way they give you a wetnap to clean up grease at a barbecue joint, but you are very wrong. When your food has arrived, wipe your hands and then carefully fold the napkin and set it aside. Don’t use it during your meal like a napkin and don’t even think about wiping your soy sauce covered mouth with it. You already wiped your germs on it earlier, remember? Don’t be gross.

5. Handle Your Own Trash 

There are no trashcans in Tokyo. Well, maybe that’s an understatement – they give you a tiny bathroom-sized one if you splurge on a hotel room, or a grocery bag in a standard hostel or room-share – but there are no trashcans on the streets, even in the most densely populated areas. Despite that, there is also zero litter as it is strictly prohibited by law. The result? You basically have to carry your trash around with you all day, or go to a restaurant and hide it under your wet nap and sneak out as fast as you can.

6. Don’t Wear Ugly Socks

Because you will take off your shoes before you pass just about any threshold – including all homes, museums, castles, and your hotel – pick out your socks with care. In public situations where tourists are more prominent, there’s literally a doorman who makes sure everyone’s shoes are off before entering. This doorman is also a sock inspector. If your socks are too dirty, holey or if they gross him out in way, he will ask you take them off as well, lest you shame the establishment with your embarrassing socks.

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7. Obey the Rules

In Japan, conformity trumps individuality, and this is difficult for western tourists to understand. You’re already going to stick out like a sore thumb, so do the Japanese a favor and try to blend in as much as possible. This can mean the obvious, like don’t act like a drunk fool in public, or it can be more subtle, like don’t blow your nose on a subway or talk on a cell phone in crowded area. It also means obeying the traffic signals when crossing the road, even if there isn’t a car in sight. Frustrating, I know. 

8. Bow Properly

When you meet someone for the first time, it’s customary to bow as a sign of respect. However, the bow can say a lot more than you’d think, and the duration and inclination of the bow is of the utmost importance. For instance, meeting a friend or friend-of-a-friend could easily warrant a quick, 30-degree bow, but addressing a superior or authority figure should involve a slow 70-degree bow with eyes turned down to the ground. Don’t worry if you don’t get it right – they will only judge you in secret.

 9. Tattoos Are Basically a Sign That You’re a Criminal 

In Japan, tattoos are associated with organized crime and the Yakuza, Japanese gangsters. As a result, people with tattoos are virtually exiled from the Japanese community and literally banned from places where shirts are optional — like pools, saunas, resorts and hot springs — to avoid the risk of stirring up any bad blood. If you have a tattoo, consider covering it up or risk not being allowed inside an attraction. 

10. Don’t Eat, Drink, Or Basically Do Anything Besides Walking While Walking 

In Tokyo, walking should be given the same amount of care and caution as driving. That means no eating, drinking, smoking or talking on a cell phone while you’re walking. You won’t get arrested or anything if you break this rule, but it’s considered horrible form and some places will even ask you to leave. For instance at the LaQua, a huge theme park and mall located at the Tokyo Dome, loud speakers make announcements in English to remind tourists of this rule every 30 minutes and security is on constant watch to make sure the rule is followed.

11. Keep Your Second Hand Smoke to Yourself

Tokyo has some pretty strict smoking laws in place, and everyone follows them. There are designated smoking areas conveniently located just about anywhere you go (where most cities would have a trashcan, just saying) and restaurants and bars have designated smoking rooms, where you can eat and get your nicotine fix at the same time. Smoking outside these places is considered terribly rude, and security will more than likely find you within seconds of lighting up. Whatever you do, don’t smoke while walking.

12. Walk On The Left

If you’ve ever been that person who gets frustrated if someone messes with the flow of traffic by walking on the wrong side of the walkway, you’re about to get your karma. That’s because in Japan you walk on the left, and there’s something terribly confusing about this. The locals will not understand your confusion and openly express their annoyance at your blunder.

Good luck!