Japan: 13 (Weird) Things to Know Before You Go

Shrine in Kyoto Japan
The Hei-an Jingu Shrine in Kyoto, Japan.

Japan is hot right now – but there are some things about the culture you need to know before you go… or it could get a little weird.

The land of the rising sun has seen a dramatic increase in tourism over the past year with Americans flocking to its islands in record numbers. While Europe, the Middle East and South America have seen tourism plummet due to safety and Zika fears, in February, March and April alone, almost 200,000 Americans visited Japan – up 16 percent from last year. And for good reasons. The country is safe, beautiful, clean, has great food, an abundance of culture and history and, thanks to the strong dollar, won’t break the bank. But, as with every place, you’re going to have a better time if you know the local customs, the (mostly unspoken) rules and particular peccadillos before you go. Don’t worry – I got you.

Related: Disappearing Japan: Go Now While You Still Can

In March, I went on a walking tour of the UNESCO sanctioned Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trail  in the Kii Peninsula with Walk Japan and here’s what I learned:

1. 7-Eleven is the Bank.

A 7-Eleven in Japan aint just for Cheetos. This is your bank. Not kidding.

Forget the fact that your bank is an international one or that you can take cash out on your Visa almost anywhere in the world, in Japan, the only place you will be able to take out cash is a 7-Eleven. No, really. Even if you, like me, are an HSBC customer and there is an HSBC branch right there – you still won’t be able to take money out. And in Japan, you need cash – especially if you are traveling outside of Tokyo or Kyoto to places like Ise, where almost no one will accept credit cards. So when you find a 7-Eleven, get a decent amount out, because you never know when you’ll find another one. On the bright side, your chances of being mugged for the decent amount of cash you are now carrying are very low.

2. Keep your hands to yourself. 

do not touch
Do not touch the geisha. Or take selfies. Or litter. Or….

There are a lot of rules in Japan, including no geisha fondling (in Kyoto); No selfies; No eating and drinking while walking; No littering; No sitting on the steps…

While this sign is from the Gion Geisha District in Kyoto, a lot of these rules are still applicable in the whole of the country. Japan is a restricted society, so, unlike Americans, Japanese do not hug (especially in public), they don’t touch (often), and they are much more reserved in general.

3. Slippers are really, really important.

house slippers
I got so used to house slippers in Japan, I now have house slippers in New York.

Japan is a very clean country and they have rules to help keep things clean – like the slipper rules, which include: never wear your outside shoes inside a house, you will be given house slippers to wear instead. But take care to not wear the house slippers into a bathroom as there are toilet slippers for that special dirty room. And never forget that you are wearing toilet slippers and start roaming the inside of the house or hotel.

4. Do not point.

Pointing with one finger is considered incredibly rude. Instead, use your whole hand, fingers together with your palm upwards to gesture towards something.

5. Do not freak out in public.

Freaking out
Do not lose your cool. In my defense, this picture was taken in Puerto Rico (where screaming is okay) and I came across a park load of pigeons. I hate pigeons. 

Things go wrong – they always do. But in Japan, it is important to not lose your cool and whatever you do, do not start yelling or screaming. It is considered losing face and you will be dismissed and ignored.

6. Chopsticks point east to west

When you rest your chopsticks on your bowl, point them east to west… in Japan,chopsticks are placed west to east during funeral rites.

7. Robes are put on left flap over right flap.

When you check into a hotel, especially in smaller towns, you will be given a Yukata robe – an outer robe to wear to dinner or to the Onsen hot baths. It must be folded over your chest left over right as the other way is how the Japanese dress the dead. If you get it wrong, people will fix it for you.

8. The toilets are the BEST. Sit back, relax and just… enjoy.

japanese toilet
Japanese toilets can do almost everything but walk your dog.

My Aunt Dee always said, “The most underrated thing in life is a good (bowel movement)” – and she is not wrong.  There has always been a special appreciation in the Froelich family for the porcelain throne, but my mind was blown by the Japanese toilets. The seats are heated, they spray water from all sides to ensure everything is clean and some even have air dryers. They are the ultimate in bathroom awesomeness and they are everywhere – not just in first class airline lounges. We are talking in tiny villages, in every public restroom and in every home you will find a magnificent john, and it is wondrous.

9. There are no trash cans.

In all of Japan you will be hard pressed to find a trash can – yet there is no littering. It may drive you crazy, wandering around Tokyo or Kyoto, clutching an empty water bottle, a Kind bar wrapper and other assorted bits of garbage you pick up during a day of sightseeing, but there’s nothing to be done about it except to hold on to it until you get back to your hotel. It was explained to me like this by my Walk Japan guide, Nami Yamamoto: “After the Sarin gas attack on the subway (in 1995) the government removed all the trash cans. The cans were eventually going to be replaced, but then they noticed the subway and streets were cleaner without trash cans everywhere so they never replaced them.”

Carry a small plastic sack for your trash – and do not leave trash anywhere as you will be followed and reprimanded, even in a restaurant. I went to a noodle shop, had a meal and left behind an empty candy wrapper I had in my bag. The restaurant owner followed me out onto the street demanding I take my trash with me. “Trash is considered your personal responsibility,” my pal Tatsuro explained.

10. You must be on time.

The Japanese really don’t like late. Neither do I, for that matter.

11. Whatever you do, do not waste rice.

japanese dinner
An average meal will consist of several smaller course, but there is always rice.

Every meal will come with a bowl of rice, which is considered sacred in Japan. “The country was built on rice,” Nami said, “and it is an arduous process to farm it, so we have appreciation for it. If you are given it, it is okay to leave some if you are not hungry, but if you ask for it, you should finish it.” So basically – if you ask for seconds on rice, eat it all.

Related: The Tuna Kings of Japan

12. Tattoos are taboo.

Japan rules know when you go
The Japanese are like your grandma – they both don’t like tattoos.

The sign above is from the entryway of a hotel – warning people they will be denied entry if they have tattoos. Signs like this are all over the place.

“In Japan, tattoos are a sign of the Yakuza (Japanese mafia),” my pal Tatsuro explained, “and they are not welcome in polite society.” Funnily enough, the Japanese government has started sending notice to hotels, spas and restaurants warning them of foreigners’ predilections for ink and asking them to ease up on the rules – especially for the summer Olympics in 2020.

13. Get over your fear of nudity.

Communal hot springs and hot baths, also known as Onsen, are a wonderful, amazing, relaxing part of Japanese culture. Everyone strips, bathes and soaks. Deal with it. It’s worth it.

Thanks to Walk Japan for an excellent trip that pretty much changed my life.