Travel to Japan


  1. Welcome to Japan!
  2. Note
  3. A knack
  4. Must NOT do
    1. Take off shoes?
    2. Use of a bath
    3. Smoking
  5. More cultural codes
    1. More about taking shoes off
    2. Bathroom and hot springs (Onsen)
    3. Money matters
    4. Washing dishes
    5. Garbage
    6. More about smoking
    7. Toilet
    8. Accommodation
    9. Time matters.
    10. Phone
    11. Internet access
    12. Hello!?
    13. Language
    14. Compliment
    15. Traffic
      1. Pedestrians
      2. Car driving
      3. Bicycle and motor-bike
      4. Train, bus
    16. Drinking
    17. Food matters
      1. Basics
      2. At restaurant
      3. Table manner
    18. If you are invited…
    19. Tea ceremony
  6. Outdoor activity
    1. Season
    2. Mountain huts/refugees
    3. Skiing
    4. Camping
    5. Mountain walking/trekking
    6. Right of way
    7. Permissions
    8. Mountain rescue
  7. About this document

Welcome to Japan!

For western people it will be an interesting experience to travel to Japan. When a friend of mine (English) was planning to travel to Japan, a friend of his (again English) said it is the most foreign country. Perhaps the words are not too wrong, if not accurate (my friend later on travelled to Bolivia, and felt that it is far more foreign, though).

Certainly its culture is more different than any other western countries from another western country. Although there must be far more foreign countries, an advantage to travel to Japan is that travellers can enjoy their experience safely in the well civilised environment.

Indeed, the crime rate in Japan is one of the lowest in the world — for example, the homicide rate per population in Japan is one-thirds of the UK and France, one-fifth of Canada and Finland, and one-fifteenth of the USA (according to the Wikipedia).

Arguably the Japanese people as a whole are the most polite and well-behaving people, and the society is the least chaotic. So travellers can have a very comfortable experience, hopefully. However, it also means that they naturally expect other people (including you, a traveller) to behave similarly, that is, behave in a good manner, if not identical to theirs.

Japanese people, of course, are well aware that the culture of western or foreign people is different from theirs, and can be tolerant, perhaps, to some extent. However, Japan is the country more isolated than any European countries in terms of mutual interaction with foreign people. In my hometown, when I spent my youth, I glimpsed foreign people only once a year or so. The city next to my hometown is reasonably big, and is practically the capital of our district (imagine the capital of Wales, that would be a similar situation). During three years when I spent in the city as a high-school student, I think I saw foreign people several times only. In my high-school, I think there was no foreign person among over 1500 students. OK, that is a country side (if you say Cardiff is a country side). The situations in Tokyo (capital) and Kyoto (old capital and most popular sightseeing place) are quite different from it. Nevertheless the number of foreign people is quite small as a ratio. Then, the knowledge and experience by local people about/towards foreign culture is expected to be limited. That is, the tolerance and understanding by local people towards travellers from foreign countries may be limited.

In addition, due to a difference in the cultures, it is not unlikely that travellers from other world may unintentionally behave badly in Japan, that is, do something that is not acceptable, or worse, something illegal in Japan. It might cause a trouble to you, and your travel experience there may turn out to be uncomfortable or even ruined, very unfortunately.

An old Japanese saying says Once going into a village, follow the village code, equivalent to the English saying When in Rome, do as the Romans do. This is a wisdom for travellers, and the locals may naturally expect the travellers to behave like that. I think the globalisation wouldn't happen and shouldn't happen when it comes to the culture, no matter how much the bloody superpower desires.

I am meaning in this article to help your understanding of what to do or not to do in Japan, so that you can avoid troubles beforehand and can fully enjoy your experience. I wouldn't mean to mention every aspect of the difference in the culture; partly because it is practically impossible and moreover I think it is one of the pleasure in a trip abroad to find it out by yourself.

Have fun!

This document was originally written in 2006. In January 2015, I made a major update, following the change of the situations in Japan since, as well as adding some more descriptions.


I hereafter am using Japanese Yen (JYen or JPY) for the unit of money. You can find the currency conversion rate elsewhere, but a very rough rate at the time of writing (2015) is as follows. In the past 20 years, it fluctuated by over 30 per cent to either side, and the current rates as quoted below are actually close to the median in my gut feeling.

Conversion rate to JYen (JPY) in 2015
GBP 1 180 JYen
EUR 1 130 JYen
USD 1 120 JYen
AUD 1 90 JYen

The units used in Japan are all metric. Even shoe sizes and waist sizes for trousers are metric (in unit of centimetre). Note that cc (abbreviation of cubic centimetre) is milli-litre, whereas cl, centi-litre, is not used. In some specific fields, the Japanese empirical units have still survived, such as the amount of rice, although travellers are unlikely to meet them during their short stay.

A knack

Try to observe and imitate locals' behaviour, as is always you (should) do abroad. Although a small number of samples may still give you a wrong answer, you will get a reasonably good answer after you observe more and more.

Be humble. Bear it in mind that your commonsense may not be always their commonsense, even though the underlying emotion could be the same (See section Compliment for a good example).

Must NOT do

Take off shoes?

As you may know, most of houses in Japan are meant to get in with shoes off. There is a Japanese expression, Get in with shoes on, (if I translate it literally), which means "To give the worst insult". Indeed, to get with shoes on into somewhere, where shoes are supposedly off, is abominable for Japanese people.

On the other hand most of the office buildings and western-style hotels are meant to get in with shoes on, although exceptions are not uncommon. Then, how can we distinguish the place supposedly with shoes on and off? For Japanese people, it is so obvious by a glimpse. Therefore I think you can learn it after some observations. I list some hints below, where to take off the shoes.

  • on tatami.
  • the place where other people there are not wearing shoes.
  • the place where slippers are prepared, or where shoes are left.
  • the place where there is a shoe shelf.
  • the place where one step, possibly a slightly higher than a staircase, exists.

Use of a bath

Never ever use a soap or shampoo in a bath tub.

The Japanese bath is one of the things I miss the most in Japan after the friends and foods. Indeed it is the important space for Japanese people. So you'd better take care in using it. There are lots of cultural codes for the use of bathroom. I am mentioning them in more detail in the later part in this article.


Never throw a cigarette with fire on anywhere. It is a criminal offence.

More cultural codes

More about taking shoes off

In general, they have slippers to change where people get off shoes. Those slippers are used on wooden (or hard) floors as a rule of thumb. On tatami, even slippers have to be taken off. On carpets, it depends, but slippers are probably acceptable. In addition, they usually have specific slippers in toilets to change into, even if the toilet space is 1 metre wide and long. Finally, most of gyms don't accept shoes used outside (there is a shoe changing space in the entrance). You'd better prepare specific indoor shoes for it.

This principle of "getting off anything possibly muddy" is applicable anywhere else, too. For example, if you want to climb up a chair, say, to get something high up out of reach, then you must get off your shoes to step up to the chair (providing the chair is used for being seated normally). Bikes have to be parked outside of buildings. In train, you may want to stretch your leg(s), putting your foot on the seat in front of you. Get off your shoes! Otherwise it would be abominable.

Only the exception is probably in the case of evacuation from fire or earthquake. Don't laugh! Pupils are actually taught and training in school not to change the shoes in those emergency cases!

Bathroom and hot springs (Onsen)

For some reason Japanese people are very fond of baths (perhaps due to humid and hot weather in summer and cold weather in winter?). There are a number of public communal baths as well as natural hot springs (called Onsen), in addition to baths in each house. Some hotels do not have a bathroom in each room, but a big communal bathroom, which all the customers (with the same sex) share and use. This is particularly common in the area where the hot water comes from the on-site hot spring.

When I was a student, my accommodation had no bath or shower, and so I used to go to public communal bath every day. There were four public baths in walking distance from my accommodation, so it was not a problem (I'd say it is a bit exceptional situation nowadays; sadly a number of public baths has been decreasing these days, as almost all the houses have a bath now).

In Japan a bathroom is equipped with a bathtub, washing space, and changing space that is separate by a wall and door from the former two (western-style hotels, particularly inexpensive ones, are much more likely to have a western-style bathroom, though). Generally speaking, the bathtub and hot water in it are used by a series of people (maybe at the same time), that is, the same hot water is used by more than one person. Therefore you have to use the hot water in the bath-tub as cleanly as possible (Would you like to get in a bathtub, where the water is dark and apparently polluted after some one used it?).

First of all, never ever use a soap or shampoo in a bathtub. In fact, to get in a bathtub with soap on your body, even a single bubble on your back, is NOT acceptable. Make sure you rinse all the soap and shampoo from your body until the last bubble, before you get in the bathtub. If you fail it badly in a public communal bath, you can be fined easily over 100,000 yen.

Second, do not carry a towel (or sponge or whatever) into a bathtub, I mean, never dip it in the hot water in a bathtub. They are regarded as dirty (it may be clean enough theoretically if you wash it thoroughly; but other people wouldn't know how clean it is. So, not to dip them in a bathtub is a commonsense in Japan, no matter how physically clean it is). In short, do not dip anything but your own body in the hot water. An exception is a (clean) nappy on babies.

It is common (exceptions apply; see the next paragraph) to use the hot water in a bathtub while you are washing your body by taking it with a small bucket or bowl in a home bathroom. Often it is the only way to use the hot water while you are in the washing space anyway. If you do it, then make sure the outer bottom or side of the bucket is clean enough (that is, there's no bubble of soap on it).

On the other hand, if it is a public bath, hot tap water is most likely to be available. In that case, you'd better use it rather than the hot water in a bathtub, because the outer side of your bucket is unlikely to be completely clean of soap. Note some home baths these days can be in a similar situation to public baths. If you are not sure, just ask your host what to do (perhaps before you take off all your clothes?).

Third, lightly wash (to use just a hand and water is acceptable) at least your groin and lower bottom before getting in a bathtub. It is even better to lightly wash your whole body. In particular in the case of a public bath, it is advisable to wash yourself fully, namely, with soap, shampoo, etc., before you get in a bathtub.

Fourth, never flush the water from the bathtub after you finish using it! If there is a lid for the bathtub, which usually there is, cover the bathtub with the lid to keep the water warm (some home bathroom is equipped with two separate lids — use both in that case, or leave the bathroom as you found when you first got in the bathroom). The water in the bathtub will be used by the people who will use the bath after you. Even if you are the last person on the day to use it, don't flush, because it is common for household to use the warm water for washing machine (to wash clothes) later, maybe in the following morning. So, unless you are explicitly asked or told by the host otherwise, which is rather unlikely, do leave the warm water in the bathtub.

Indeed, many washing machines sold in Japan are equipped with the functionality of accepting the warm water from a bathtub! As such, the washing machine in Japanese households is usually placed right next to the bathroom and not in a kitchen, as often seen in Western countries.

Some public baths have a Finnish-style steam sauna room. If you use it, it is advisable to wash your body after the use of the sauna room before you get in the bathtub. At least, rinse the sweat.

Lots of public baths refuse the customers with full of tattoos (Big tattoos are a common symbol of mafia in Japan). If your tattoo is just a small one, perhaps it won't cause a trouble.

In the case of a home bath, it is advisable to wipe your body lightly with a small towel before you get out of the bathroom to the changing space where you use a bath-towel. It will save the mat in the changing space from getting soaked before the next person uses it.

Natural hot springs (Onsen-s) are a gift from the nature, and are loved by Japanese people. They usually include some particular minerals etc., which are generally speaking good for health, although it may cause a harm to the people who have got some allergy, illness or skin troubles. Hot springs must provide a notice board, explaining (in Japanese only, though, generally speaking) what are included in the water, as long as it is owned and run by some one.

Majority of onsens are quite similar to public baths, located indoor, equipped with a washing space next to a bathtub. In that case, just observe the general rule as mentioned above. Some of them are, however, exposed to the elements. In that case probably you shouldn't use the soap even outside the bathtub, as it would pollute the environment.

Some onsens, although not so common, are mixed. Outside of the bathtub, you can either hide your body with a towel or just leave it open, but remember to never dip the towel in the bath tub (Interestingly lots of brochures show photos of a lady(ies) in a bathtub wrapping a bath-towel around the body, but it is just for brochures, and is not acceptable in reality!). Some modern places accept swimming wear (and generally speaking, if they accept swimming wear, that probably means you have to wear it), but it is not common.

As a traveller, you may want to wash your clothes, perhaps in the bathroom. Never do it in the public or communal bath.

Money matters

Japanese Yen is the only currency. I think credit cards are getting popular, but the most widely accepted credit card is JCB, that is, VISA and Master may not be accepted. I had never used a credit card in Japan until I left Japan in the 21st century. When I went to buy a laptop computer, I simply took 300,000 JYen by cash, and it is not uncommon at all. I have heard of the story from a teacher of mine that he had once carried 30,000,000 JYen for his house matter (this is exceptional, though!).

Thus, although credit cards are getting more popular than used to be, the use is still limited in Japan. It is definitely a cash culture. The use of 10,000 JYen notes is absolutely no problem (however the use of 2,000 JYen notes is relatively uncommon — in fact I have never seen one), although (most of) auto-vending machines are unlikely to accept the notes except for 1,000 JYen. You should note the use of a credit card for cheap things (say, less than 5000 JYen?) may be refused, even in the places which say they accept credit cards.

The symbol of JYen (¥) is, in fact, not very frequently used. You'd better remember the kanji character for it ("円"). In addition, the knowledge of kanji of 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 100, 1000 and 10000 will be helpful from time to time.

The Japanese coins are easily distinguishable by blind people. Notes are harder to distinguish by touch, but are possible by the blind.

Washing dishes

Rinse every piece thoroughly and completely after you use detergent, washing-up liquid, or soap on them!! If you didn't have enough water to rinse thoroughly for some reason, then you shouldn't use the detergent or soap from the beginning; that is the commonsense in Japan. Not to mention, if it is your own stuff, do whatever you like. But if you wash someone else's, do remember this Japanese commonsense.

This fact that the European people tend not to rinse stuffs is the thing I was most surprised at since I immigrated to the UK. That is absolutely unthinkable in Japan, and is beyond our imagination.

In some areas, the use of chemical detergent is legally banned, because it is environmentally more harmful than soap. In that case, you should use the soap, of course, for washing clothes or kitchenware. The soap for that use must be sold in the local stores.

If you end up in a situation where you throw a lot of oil, perhaps after deep-frying something, you should not wash it away in a sink. You have to throw it in a bin. One way is using absorbent (newspapers are commonly used for it). Another way is to buy a chemical to solidify the (cooking) oil (you can get it in a supermarket).


First of all, never throw litter away on a street, as you might do in England, even if it is a tiny one.

The garbage policy is very different from area to area (each local authority legislates it), but in general it is tightly legislated, and it is common residents are charged per bin bag they throw in every collection. It is rare nowadays you may be allowed to throw (almost) anything in a single bin. In some areas even plastic bags are not allowed to be included in the flammable garbage. If you stay in some one's home, ask the host what to do with rubbish.

In Japan it is most common for each residential area to have a designated area to throw garbage. Each of residents takes their garbage, often in a locally designated bag (which are charged per bag, and that is how they are charged per bin bag) by the local authority, to the area for a particular type of garbage on a particular day of a week or month. Categorising the garbage is the responsibility of each individual. Reportedly there have been the cases those who have violated the rule have been fined.

A notable tendency I found in 2015 is the lack of public bins on streets or even in railway stations. While I was travelling around, I had to carry the rubbish for hours in the urban area before I find a bin if lucky, or till the end of the day if not. Also, many bins are for one type of garbage only, such as, tins.

Where can travellers find a bin, then? The most popular place is inside or outside convenience stores, which are everywhere in Japan and mostly open for 24 hours. Obviously it is too rude, or usually banned, to pop in those places just to throw the rubbish you bring from somewhere else. But if you buy a thing or two in the store, it may be tolerated. It seems that is a modern way to throw rubbish. The reason I had to carry rubbish for hours was simply because I was too stingy to buy something in convenience stores… Note usually there are a few bins for different types of garbage, so it is your responsibility to choose the right bin. Ask a shop assistant or passer-by, if you are not sure.

As an added note, two common rules are, (1) any batteries shouldn't be included in the ordinary garbage; local stores probably provide a specific bin box for it. (2) If you want to throw metal spray bottles or cartridges, then you have to pierce a hole before throwing them.

More about smoking

The smoking culture in Japan is pretty bad (for non-smokers), unfortunately, though it is slowly getting better year by year. Still, there are some cultural codes for it.

Never throw a cigarette with fire on anywhere. It is a criminal offence. You shouldn't throw a (used) cigarette anyway except in an ash tray. Portable ash trays are increasingly popular among smokers these days.

Many cafes, restaurants and public places provide a non-smoking area nowadays (though many still don't). However, it is often the case the designated area for non-smokers is not separated from the smokers' area in the same premise by a wall or something, that is, you may still smell and suffer from smoke. So, even if they say they have a non-smoking area, take it with a pinch of salt.


Most of public toilets are equipped with papers, but some, particularly those in stations, may not (though increasingly rare nowadays). For those toilets without papers provided, it is common that auto-vending machines of portable tissues are provided in or in front of toilets.

Except for those toilets without papers provided, you shouldn't use portable tissues for toilet, but only toilet rolls, because portable tissues are, generally speaking, less dissoluble in water.

In case of emergency, where should one look for? Perhaps stations are the first candidate, or parks and big stores/store-complex may be a choice. Nowadays convenience stores, which are usually open for 24 hours, are becoming a norm to pop in in those cases. They usually let you use their toilet — just ask a shop assistant for permission.

In Japan, washlets are increasingly popular. As of 2015, many of even public toilets are equipped with washlets. They are electric-powered shower-washing toilets. In most cases, there is no English description on the controller but in Japanese only. I'd advise you to make sure to get familiarised with washlets, perhaps by researching with guidebooks or Internet, before you travel to Japan. They usually have toilet rolls and so you don't have to use its full functionality if you don't understand. However you may not work out how to flush it after use! And it might be a nuisance for some one who uses it after you!


Roughly speaking, there are three kinds of accommodations: hostels, Japanese and western-style hotels. Unless it is a western-style, you probably have to take off your shoes at the entrance of the building. Japanese-style ones may not always provide an en-suite bathroom/toilet (regardless of the fee of the room), if they have a communal big bathroom.

Except for hostels, it is likely that they offer a toothbrush and paste, perhaps a razor, and green tea in each room for free. They are disposable ones, and you can take them home if you want, but not towels, not to say. They are also likely to offer (Japanese-style) pyjamas (called yukata) at room, which you shouldn't take home, of course.

Generally speaking, it is all right to walk around in a hotel with the provided yukata on, but not out of the hotel, except when the hotel is located in a natural hot-spring village/town, where tons of people are perhaps walking around with yukata on. Note that the proper yukata, which is likely to be far far more expensive, are designed to wear in summer night to walk around anywhere. The yukata provided by default by hotel is a kind of cheap alternative in that sense.

Time matters.

Arguably Japanese people are most punctual people in the world. Trains are insanely accurate. Even watches with radio receiver (to correct the time automatically using the radiowave broadcast for that use) were relatively popular in the 20-th century, before the GPS era.

If you meet up with some one somewhere, then a simple advice is to go there ten minutes before the meeting time.

Only the exception is probably when you are invited to a meal in some one's house. If you arrive too early, the host/hostess may be mad doing the final preparation for the meal. So it may be wise to arrive on time or a tiny bit later in that case.


You may think Japan is a technically highly developed country. True, however when it comes to mobile phones, it is weird. In short, they don't always follow the world standard. Many of Japanese mobile phones have made their own evolution, and are alleged as Gara-kei, which means Galapagos mobile-phone. This is actually a serious trouble for travellers from abroad, because the communication they want to make may not be established as they wish. As far as I know, Japan is the only exceptional country in the world in this sense in the field of mobile communication.

First, the radio-transmission format of mobile phones may be different in Japan from your country. If you want to take and use your mobile phone in Japan, best check it before the trip. SMSs (text messages) are not available among Japanese mobile phones in some cases (it used to be in most cases in circa 2005, but the situation has been gradually improving). However, most of them can receive and send (Internet) emails.

In urban areas in Japan, there is a pretty good coverage of 4G (LTE), sometimes even in tunnels, as in 2015. On the other hand, 2G may not be available. So, if you usually disable 3G in your mobile phone (to save batteries etc), make sure to turn it on.

If you want to get a prepaid SIM card in Japan, again it may not be easy or may be expensive. There have been some crimes reported, where prepaid SIM cards were used, and so the security and restriction for prepaid SIM are rather tight. In short, it is not very convenient or cheap. Arguably it is wise to search for and get it (or arrange it) before you land on Japan, if you want a prepaid SIM. Having said that, as explained in the next section, to somehow get a local SIM card is recommended to connect to the Internet in Japan.

A word of caution is, people, particularly aged people, tend to be irritated with other people's use of mobile phones in the public space. Even crimes related to it are reported occasionally (for example, a guy, who got furious at someone talking loud in front of him with a mobile phone, killed the person, etc.).

It is a standard manner to switch the mobile into the vibration mode in a public transportation. And if you have to talk over the phone in a train, you'd better be away from the seating area to a non-seating area, and minimise the talking time. In the peak time, it may be prohibited to keep the mobile on, particularly near the place for disabled people (the radiowave from the mobile phone may interfere with a heart pace maker etc., and the inside of train in the peak time could be incredibly congested).

As in every other place in the modern world, to play with a smart phone inside public transport is very common in Japan (as in 2015). That is fine, as long as you and your device keep quiet.

Internet access

As for the Internet access, Japan is not too bad for the locals, most of whom nowadays have 3G/4G access via the mobile-phone network. However, as in 2015, it is rather inconvenient for travellers from abroad, because a number of spots where truly public WiFi is available is limited.

You can find a notice board in many places that say they have Free WiFi, however most of them are not in reality! In most places, you have to connect to the Internet first to get the Free WiFi. I am not joking. You have to get on the Internet to connect to the Internet. What they mean is, you have to use your own 3G (or mobile network) to register yourself first to use those WiFi. Travellers from abroad have a limited access or none to the Internet in the first place, so it is of little use.

Also, those Free WiFi often just means Free for their existing customers of a big corporate, most notably one of the Japanese mobile networks. Are you? I bet most of foreign travellers are not a customer of a specific Japan-based corporate. Then it is not for free for you. Sorry.

It is true some places, though not many, offer truly free public WiFi, although you may have to read their Japanese instruction first and to agree with their terms and conditions to set up.

There are Internet cafes. But it seems it is not uncommon to register yourself first to use it with fee to use it. In short, they are not for travellers but for the locals, who go there repeatedly.

Also, I was surprised (as in 2015) the Ethernet-cable connection was used in some places to connect to the Internet, including a massive international airport.

As such, all in all, I found the connectivity to the Internet in Japan in 2015 for foreign travellers was not as good as most of Western Europe.


In the Japanese culture people try to avoid physical contact almost more than anywhere else in the world. People seldom physically touch each other (particularly in public space), such as shaking hands. They just bow and speak in any greetings. That means they express the degree of appreciation, friendship and so on, by the slight difference of the angle of bowing, the number of repetition, timing, sound of voice, etc. As such, communication and greetings in Japan are not so easy. It would take time to master it for the people from other culture

My old note written in 2005 described:

In fact I am not yet sure if I have mastered the most appropriate British way to do it [greetings], depending on the situation, after living over 5 years. It is not easy at all. It seems that there is a slight difference in manner of greeting even between Midland and the London area. Probably this kind of manner is quite subtle from culture to culture anyhow.

Now, in 2015, after having lived in the UK for another 10 years since, I just appreciate how subtle the things are in greetings, and find it to be almost impossible to make it perfect always.

Hence there is no definite solution for what to do and what not to do for foreign travellers. Personally I think it is better to be eloquent than silent for a traveller when s/he wants to express something, because the silent code is harder to be understood between the different cultures (A famous example is that the Japanese gesture of come here is quite similar to the western gesture of go away). That is to say, for example, if you want to express your thanks, it would be better to dare express it explicitly rather than silently, even if it is more your (=western) way than the proper Japanese way. If you are sincere, they would understand what you want to express, hopefully.

Bearing it in mind, I think shaking hands are no problem in Japan. Hugging is debatable; if the person is a lady, better avoid it if you are not sure. Kissing is out. That is my personal opinion.

Similarly there is a cultural code for the behaviour of lovers and partners in the public space. It is much less open than western countries (I have never seen my parents kissing each other even at home). A guideline (in my opinion) is that walking with hand in hand or arm in arm is acceptable, hugging is OK unless it carries a sexual flavour, but kissing is perhaps not in the public space.

In summer the main part of Japan is quite (perhaps almost unbearably) hot and humid. Nevertheless keeping a (T-)shirt on is a common sense except for swimming or bathing area.


The number of sounds in Japanese is much smaller than English. I have learnt English for more than 30 years now, including well over a decade of living in the UK. But still, for example, I can not distinguish "R" and "L" sounds when I hear. "raw", "row", "law" and "low", all of them sound identical to me. I have learnt how to pronounce them, and practised them for years, and so probably I can and I do, but it doesn't mean I can hear the difference. As a result I have to distinguish those words purely based on the context. Needs lots of brain power. And I am not an exception by any means for Japanese people. So can you imagine how hard it is to learn spoken English for Japanese people?

So, first of all, don't expect Japanese people to speak English even in stations or tourist information centres or most of hotels perhaps except for the (western-style) top premium hotels. Airports are the only place guaranteed that English speaking people are there. Fortunately for foreign travellers, more and more signboards in stations and roads have English words (namely alphabet spelling) these days. Korean and Chinese words (on signboards) are also increasingly popular (Anyway most of place names in Japan are described in Chinese characters, although they have different way of simplification).

Some English people I know say They have enough English information in roads and stations (in Japan) etc. Some others say We were really in trouble due to lack of English notices! I can not tell which is correct. Perhaps it is up to your perception and expectation. But it must be certainly true that more countryside you go to, more unlikely you meet foreign-language notices — just as is everywhere else in the world.

Vast majority of Japanese people have learnt English for 6 years or more. Still, their ability of particularly spoken English is quite poor, presumably partly because they don't have to use it at all in Japan. However, they may be able to understand written English to some extent, possibly. So if you are stuck and have to communicate with locals in Japan in English, it would be a good idea to write the words, rather than speak to them in English. When you write, don't use block capitals, but use block upper and lower case letters appropriately. That is definitely more understandable for them.

If you are willing to learn Japanese, don't be afraid. Although it is very very different from the Indo-European languages, they say the spoken Japanese is rather easy (in the beginners' level). You don't have to worry about the accents like Chinese (in the beginners' level).

On the other hand, allegedly the written Japanese is one of the world most complicated. However, I personally think it would be not too bad for novices' level. I recommend travellers to learn Katakana first of all, which are purely phonetic characters, where Japanese characters consist of three different character sets, Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. If you read Katakana, you may be able to read a good part of the menu in cafes and restaurants, as lots of western cuisine are just English (or French, Italian etc) but written with Katakana (Katakana is predominantly used to write any imported words; in other words, anything written in Katakana is probably originated somewhere abroad). A friend of mine, while staying in Japan, realised sirloin steak is sirloin steak in the menu, but written in Katakana.


As far as I have seen, compliments are world common. However, the expression of compliments may be very different from region to region, and could be completely the opposite in extreme cases, even though the underlying emotions are the same.

A good example is an expression when you give a gift/present to some one. In western countries, you should say something like This is a very good thing! Please accept this. In Japan, you should say Sorry, this is (may be) a rather poor thing. But, if you please…

The underlying emotions are exactly the same: respect to your friend, to whom you are giving it. In western countries' custom, it is more direct and explicit:

You are so great. Therefore I have prepared this excellent thing for you with all my effort, because you are such a nice person!

In Japan, the underlying expression is a bit more obscured:

You are so great. Not to mention, I have made all the effort to find the thing to suit you, and this is the one. However, you are so superbly great that it is impossible to find the one that suits you, for a material is just a material, and you are definitely better than any materialistic stuff! As a result, this one is actually a poor thing, comparing with your greatness. I am sorry to give such a poor thing to the great person, you, but if you kindly accept it, I will be glad.

Now you see the identicalness in the underlying emotion, as well as the difference in the apparent expression? A possible problem is that since this is rooted in culture, it does not matter which language they speak. I speak English, and how many times have I found that I had said This is a poor thing, but… in English, when I was giving a gift to some one? Even though I know it as a knowledge, the natural instinctive expression is that, and so I unintentionally mentioned something like that many times in this country, which must have caused lots of misunderstandings around me… (To be fair, it does not happen nowadays to me, after having lived here over a decade, but it used to!)

OK, it was my fault, but if you travel to Japan, be warned that will be your situation. So, please do not misunderstand them, if they say This is a poor thing… (either in Japanese or English!) when they are giving you a present. Do not take it literally, but try to guess the underlying emotion, which should be something already familiar with you.

Conversely, if I give a present to some one in Japan, I shouldn't say in principle "This is an excellent thing" — this kind of attitude is received as an arrogance, and worse, possibly, evokes some anger in her/him: I see, so in your view I am only as good as this bloody material! 10 quid? 50 quid? Is that all I am worth?

However, I would say it might be better for you, as a foreigner, who is not so familiar with either the language or custom, to be just honest, because taking into account the difficulty in the communication, they might literally take your words only in the case with you… Just bear the custom in mind, and don't exaggerate the thing, such as shouting This is absolutely fantastic!!!, but calmly mention the fact, I think this is a very good thing among blah-blah, as far as I know. I guess that would do the job, hopefully.

By the way, as you may imagine, this kind of obscurity sometimes leads to a good joke situation, such as…

A guest came to my house with a souvenir. It was a hot day, so I served pieces of peach from my fridge, saying I am afraid these may not taste so good…. After the guest left, I opened the souvenir and found that they were peaches! Oh, no, believe me, I did not serve you the peach you had given me (while I mentioned not taste so good)!!

Note that in the Japanese custom they do not open the gift on site. They tend to keep the package (which is likely to be the world most fantastic and complicated, but world most environmentally wasteful) on until the person(s) leaves. Also, it is common that people keep the gift somewhere off sight after they receive it.



People follow the traffic lights strictly. That is, even there is no car passing apparently, pedestrians wouldn't cross the street during a red light. Best follow it. Car drivers naturally assume that the pedestrians strictly follow the traffic light. If you don't, that would surprise car drivers, and then…

Similarly pedestrians had better cross the road in the designated crossing place, as the traffic law dictates. If a pedestrian crosses a road in an undesignated place close to the designated place and is hit by a car, I learnt (in my driving test) that the pedestrian owes the 40 per cent of the responsibility of the accident. That would mean if a pedestrian hit by a car is luckily uninjured, and if the car hitting the pedestrian is damaged badly as a result of the sudden manoeuvre, it is rather the pedestrian to pay for the (40 per cent of the) damage of the car.

Car driving

You may want to hire a car. Then, make sure to follow the traffic rule. The cars drive in the left-hand side. British/Australian/Indian etc people would feel home.

I know the most notorious region (Osaka) in Japan in terms of bad manner of car drivers. Then I came to England and realised that the drivers' manner in England to pedestrians is definitely worse than Osaka. In other words, you'd better drive extremely carefully in Japan, otherwise you would end up being the worst driver over there, again to pedestrians. Note in terms of the manner between car drivers, Britons are overall better than Japanese.

In Japan, carry your driver's license with you always when you drive. Never drink and drive. Pedestrians are gods. Respect their priorities. When the road sign says, stop (in Japanese, though!), then you have to stop completely, namely, the speed must be zero at one moment. When you cross the railway track, you have to stop completely once even if you see no train at all (except for the train crossing with traffic lights). The driver's manual tells you that you should open the window to hear the alarm sound in a railway crossing. If you think you can not go across the crossing in one go due to heavy traffic, never ever get in the railway crossing, until the space is clear. When you cross the pedestrian way (probably by turning right or left from a main road), you have to stop completely once. When you see the pedestrians crossing the area (or see a pedestrian waiting for it), you must stop and let them cross first. Remember that pedestrians generally assume cars will stop in that case. Use the indicators always; by law it has to be at the earlier occasion either before 3 seconds or 30 metres of the turn.

The speed limit is often ignored (as is everywhere else?). Allegedly overspeeding by up to 10 km/h would be OK (no guarantee, though. There are certainly exceptions). If you overspeed more than 30 km/h, and are spotted by police, the consequence would be rather serious; you would be taken into the court. Parking in the urban area is problematic, but best find the dedicated parking area even if it is expensive. They have recently installed the monitoring system for violation of parking by private companies; it has been proved to be effective, meaning more cars parking illegally are spotted. Be warned.

To wear a seat-belt in the front seats is a legal requirement, whereas it is not for the rear seats. You would need a bus and lorry driver license to drive a car with more than 10 passenger seats (there is no license for minibus driving).

Bicycle and motor-bike

With a normal car driving license, you are allowed to drive motorbikes with the engine size of less than 50cc (ie., 50 ml). Remember that the speed limit for those motorbikes (less than 50cc engine) is only 30 km/h. In addition, in some crossing roads (sign-posted), those motorbikes have to follow two steps to turn right. That is, first go straight across the cross roads up to the corner following the traffic light and stop there. Then wait until the crossing traffic light turns green, and go across that way. Those small motorbikes are not allowed to get in motorways. You may find rent-a-motorbike for those small motorbikes.

You would need a specific license for larger size motorbikes, and each license has an upper limit of the engine size to drive. To wear a helmet in driving motorbikes (and riding as a passenger) is a legal requirement (including those smaller-engine-size bikes).

On the other hand, hardly any people wear a helmet on bicycles. In Japan, bicycles are kind of closer to pedestrians than cars. They tend to ride bikes even on pedestrian ways in practice, though not encouraged (Don't speed anyway; some pedestrian ways are banned to drive a bike, though).

To turn right in cross roads with traffic lights, cyclists always have to cross them in two steps. Don't turn right as cars do. I have once spotted in Japan an apparently foreign person on a bike waiting to turn right along cars in the middle of big cross roads. I was utterly amazed, and thought he would be practically committing suicide. It would be normal in the UK, but abnormal in Japan.

To take bikes into public transportation is very often not allowed, except folding bikes. None of them have designated space for it. The connector for the air pump system is different from those popular in the UK.

In Japan bikes should be parked outside of building. Do not fix/attach the bike to anything, such as a metal post, as you do in the UK. That is, the locking system should lock the tyre(s) only. In other words, any people can move your bike, if necessary. If you take your own bike, make sure it has got a self-stand. Otherwise you would give surrounding people a great nuisance when parking your bike. In the urban area, there are bike parking areas. Lots of buildings and stations have got some space for it. Use it, and don't park the bike somewhere different. For example, never lock your bike to a traffic pole or something.

Bike theft is perhaps the most popular crime in Japan, unfortunately. Still, it is much safer and less common than the UK. And it is unlikely that a thief uses a car for the theft. I think it is thought naughty teenagers are the main people to blame — town bikes used in Japan are so cheap in general no one would steal them for money.

Bicycles are so popular in Japan (I guess the number of bikes in Japan is comparable with a number of population) that to find bike shops is relatively easy. They rent you the air pump for free for a temporal use (ie., don't take it outside).

Train, bus

In most of the train stations, people without valid tickets are not allowed to get into the platform. There are ticket gates in each station, which are mostly automatic, as are the case of London tubes. If you want to get in the platform for some reason, such as waving hands to say final good bye, then you probably have to buy a ticket just to enter, called nyujo-ken, which would normally costs as much as the ticket to the next station.

In the mega-city area, an increasing number of automatic ticket gates accept the IC card only, which the locals use (like an Oyster card, but it can be a [Galapagos] mobile phone in Japan). As a traveller, you may just have a paper ticket. Find the right gate. In major gates, there should be a manned post as well if you have an issue.

In the country-side railways, you may be able to get on with no checking. In that case you are bound to pay the fare to the assistant driver when you get off (by cash, of course). In some cases you may be expected to buy a train ticket, before you get on, at the news agency in front of the station (even though some people may be working in the station). In the country side, all sorts of weird local regulation may exist. So, my advice is just being honest, and is ready to pay the proper fare always. Don't try to cheat. As long as you are honest and sincere, I suppose they should understand you.

The fare system in busses varies. Sometimes they have uniform fare system within the city. But in most of the cases, you pick up a ticket, called seiri-ken, when you get on, and pay when you get off with your seiri-ken. In front of the bus, there is the board, which changes in every couple of bus-stops and show how much your journey costs.


Japanese (or oriental) people tend to be genetically weak on alcohol. It depends on the genetic type, so some are as tough as western people, whereas others may get sick/drunk when they just smell alcohol in extreme cases. Nevertheless (or possibly because of that?), they tend to drink a lot (not in the sense of absolute amount, but in the relative term with their body allowance). For example, I have seen friends taken to a hospital in front of me by ambulance more than once. They drink too much, and worse, it is quite common to force the companies to drink more.

Generally speaking, Japanese people are socially less tolerant to other people's bad behaviour, as I have already mentioned the above. Only the exception is towards the drunk people. I think the bad behaviour as a result of being drunk is more likely to be forgiven in Japan than that in the UK.

The exception for this tolerance is driving after drink. There is no tolerance for it. If one drinks even half a glass of beer, and is checked by police (checking drunk drivers by police at night is common in Japan), her/his driver's license can be straightaway taken away (depending on the blood alcohol content level). If s/he is a civil servant, s/he is likely to be sucked immediately (In some regions, passengers can be sucked if they know the driver has drunk). Hence, if you drink even a bit, never ever drive! Although Japanese people tend to be pushy in drinking, if you say I will be driving., they won't be pushy any more.

If one knows some one will be driving and still offers a drink, that deed is also a criminal offence. For example, a master of a pub was reportedly arrested because he served alcohol to a (regular) customer, who he knew would drive afterwards.

As a result, particularly in urban areas, the alternative driving service is common. They are working as a pair of drivers with a car. One of them drives your car (after you drink), taking both you and your car to your home or destination, while the other follows your car by their car, so that they two can return by their car afterwards. If you end up driving somewhere to drink, then that service will be handy.

Food matters

Welcome to the country of the world best cuisine!

To be honest, that is my conclusion after having travelled (and even lived) many countries in the world. It is true that foods should be highly related to the local climate; for example, people in the extreme cold should take loads of fat, or people in hot and dry area should take loads of water. Therefore Japanese cuisine wouldn't be the best for the people in that kind of climate. In that sense, Japanese cuisines would be the best only in Japan; however, I should note that the climate is a kind of similar to most of Europe and northern America, particularly when most of houses are anyhow heated/air-conditioned.

I have very very rarely seen the foreign meals/cuisines that compete with the supreme delicacy, deliciousness and healthiness of Japanese ones. Full-English breakfast may be fine arguably, if it is the best one, but you wouldn't eat it every day unless you were ready to die of heart-attack at the age of 50, whereas loads of, though not all, Japanese cuisine are good and healthy as everyday foods.

It has a long tradition, too. I heard that as early as 18th century in Japan (Tokyo?), a book titled 100 methods of cooking tofu (n.b., tofu is bean curd) became the best-seller. As such, culturally, Japanese people have been, and are, very interested in foods. Good cooks are well respected in the same sense as a good artist in Japan. Indeed, top cuisine is pretty much the fine art.

For example, I have once been to a Japanese restaurant in a country side in Japan. The restaurant can accept only 10 people or so at maximum, which makes sense as that would be the maximum number, of which one chef can take care well. The last meal (before desert) was a bowl of (Japonica) rice topped with salmon eggs. It was absolutely fantastic. The chef explained how she had cooked it. That sounded really elaborate (I am too lazy to feel like mimicking it…). She said it is, indeed, but that makes difference. On top of it, she serves that meal only for a couple of weeks per year, as the particular couple of weeks in a year is the only (best) season for it, even though salmon eggs are available throughout a year these season-less modern days. When the season of it is over, another thing comes in season by then, and she would use it, again for a couple of weeks.

Although junk food culture is, sad to say, catching on these days in Japan, as is everywhere else, still the food culture there is very rich. And when the culture is rich, there is naturally some codes for it to follow, which I am explaining below.


Japan has experienced severe starvation a number of times in the past. Possibly because of that, there is some particular cultural code for eating foods. For example, it can be either a heaven or hell for vegetarian people.

Japan is an island country. Therefore seafoods are very popular in any coastal regions. Due to the development of modern traffic system, seafoods are available even in the most inland region, and indeed dried seefoods are the essential foods even in those regions in modern Japan. Nevertheless the fresh seafoods are, generally speaking, far better in coastal areas, particularly the areas close to a fishing port.

In Japan, food is a kind of holly thing. People should appreciate and eat with thanks what they can get, which is the gift from the mother nature. Therefore, to eat anything and everything is a virtue, as wasting food is regarded as a bad act. If you don't think you are a big eater (which is a bit unlikely for you in Japan, though, as people are significantly smaller than western people), or can not eat something, it is (at least traditionally) recommended to ask to serve you less (or without something) before you are served, even in a restaurant, so that you can eat the whole dish served. And once you are served, as a rule of thumb, it is better to eat everything, if possible, whatever it is. In particular, you'd better eat a bowl of rice literally until the last grain in the bowl, leaving literally nothing in the bowl.

Following the same concept, to eat something while walking is highly discouraged except in festivals held outside. I think the background concept is that people should take foods with respect. Indeed, traditionally it used to be (or still is?) a commonsense to sit in seiza on floor, while eating (see the section Table manner), where seiza is the most formal way of sitting way in Japan. Therefore, it is recommended to at least sit down while you are eating something, although in the recent (particularly urban) culture, where you can get ready-to-eat meals for 24 hours, this principle is slowly breaking down especially among young people. Finally why is the festive time/place exceptional? I would say because to do something unacceptable in daily life is the definition of a festival, isn't it?

This principle of eating anything and everything served could be a bad news for vegetarians, as not to eat something (meat, fish, veggie, or whatever) is regarded as a bad thing, except for allergy and perhaps alcohol. I have never seen a single vegetarian Japanese. However I presume Japanese people do understand that, for example, Hindi people do not eat beef, etc. In that sense they must have some understanding for the people with different taste, hopefully.

If you are a big meat eater, you will not have a trouble in Japan, as meat dishes are reasonably popular (although they are likely to be more expensive than other dishes, and the standard amount of meat is likely to be smaller than those in western countries). However, if you don't like vegetables, then again it will be a trouble for you, as not to eat something is regarded as a bad thing.

Another bad news for strict vegetarians is that a base in meals in Japan could include anything; I mean, a dish, which is named a vegetable dish and looks a pure vegetable dish, could include something fish-based (or possibly meat-based) as a base. Again the assumed rule there is people would eat anything. So when mixing something else likely enhances the flavour, why wouldn't they do it? In modern cuisine in Japan (past two hundred years?), dried/smoked bonito and kombu seaweed are the two most common base for lots of meals.

A good news for vegetarians is that Japan is much more vegetable eating country than any western countries (as far as I know). Although people eat meat these days willingly, it is a relatively modern habit, as Japanese people used to have a kind of aversion to eat meat until 19th century, except for those living far from coast; for example, reportedly the averaged amount of meat per person in the beginning of 20th century in Japan is a mere few gramme per day. Stockbreeding had never caught on before 20th century.

I have heard loads of friends/acquaintances of mine, who visited the western countries, complaining how little vegetables are available in meals. I think that the English meals are, generally speaking, particularly poor in vegetables both in amount and quality, without counting potatoes as vegetable. The expression Would you like some veggies? is a common question when a meal is served in a pub. What a lack of respect towards vegetable meals! Whey don't they call the name of the individual vegetable dishes? But indeed those vegetable dishes are not fantastic, and are not well thought in cooking (this is a polite way of saying by me, by the way), so that kind of disrespectful expression may be in a way justified.

Most, if not all, of Japanese meal include far more vegetable dishes. Each vegetable dish has its own name. In a proper restaurant, possibly you may have, for example, 5 dishes of vegetable plates in front of you at the same time, possibly in addition to a couple of meat/fish dishes, and they can name each dish. In fact, there is no discrimination between vegetables and meat in Japanese meals. Good foods are good and justifiably appreciated, whether it is vegetable or meat/fish, or probably mixed; it doesn't matter at all.

The life expectancy in Japan is the highest in the world. And it is the well-known fact that the food culture contributes to it a lot, and probably is the major factor. However, interestingly, the healthiness of food is not the first priority in Japan. Deliciousness is the first priority. In other words, any food, which is not good in taste, never catches on, no matter how healthy it is. Low-fat milk? Vegetable mince? No way.

In other words, Japanese people have sought for good and healthy food for centuries. Cooking is regarded as an art (as is everything else in Japan, it could be a life-or-death matter in the upper-class (i.e., worrier-class) society centuries ago), and good cooks are well respected. As a matter of fact, healthy meals should include loads of vegetables. If a vegetarian stands a bit of fish/meat flavour, s/he will find that Japan offers superb dishes.

Finally the meals in Japan are more regional (and seasonal) than the UK. Different regions boast their own dishes and tastes. This is particularly true in coastal regions, as the freshest seafoods are available there. People in Osaka or Kansai are famous of being proud of their meals (and I think it is justified). Tokyo, definitely the most popular destination by foreign travellers, is notorious in that sense, and is often even despised. I personally think that criticism is not very fair; it is possible to get good meals in Tokyo, of course, as it is the capital of Japan, but you just have to pay a lot. Arguably, junk foods in Tokyo are worse than those in other regions, though. (I confess I am from the west, so my view may be a bit biased :-P)

At restaurant

First of all, never leave any money, particularly tips, on your table in a restaurant. You always have to pay it at the cashier. If you leave a tip on a table quietly, legally speaking, the people in the restaurant have to take it to the police, regarding it as being left accidentally. So, your expression of thanks would actually get them in trouble.

Tips have never become popular in Japan. Any serviceman never expects a tip from you. If you want to pay tips nevertheless, for some reason, make sure you hand it directly and that they realise it is a tip (otherwise they would have to go to police, as mentioned). A smart way is to pay with a slightly bigger note than required and to say keep the change.

Possibly being against the common belief among western countries, chopsticks are not the only cutlery they use in Japan. I think I can name more than 10 kinds of cutlery in Japan, including spoons and forks, which are used, depending on the meals. Therefore, arguably, they are more tolerant in the use of cutlery (I think this is a good thing; imagine how hard it is for blind or one-handed people to cut something on their plate with knife by themselves).

The default cutlery served in most of restaurants is, nevertheless, chopsticks, in most cases. However, most of restaurants have some spoons and forks, if not knives. So if you are not comfortable in using chopsticks, do not hesitate to ask them for a fork and/or spoon. It is not an offence. To have a good time in meals is, I believe, far more important. And don't worry about a knife, because you wouldn't need one anyway (unless it is served by default in a western style restaurant), as the meals are either precut or tender enough.

The price of meals in restaurants tend to be cheaper than that in the UK, despite of ingredients being more expensive, perhaps mainly due to difference in taxation. In my student days in Kyoto, when I was quite poor, it was not unusual to go to various restaurants 5 days a week. 400 to 600 JYen per meal, it was the standard. Still, the meals I took those days are perhaps better (in taste and healthiness, though not in amount) than most of pub meals in the UK. Now, I expect a delicious meal by default if I pay over 1000 JYen (excluding drinks). If I pay over 2000 JYen, the meal has to be fantastic. That is what I expect, and what you can aim at, although you need a nose to find a good and reasonably-priced restaurant, as is everywhere else. Note that Tokyo region is probably an exception; you have to pay more to get the same standard.

Another note is that price may not always reflect the superiority of some meals. There are increasingly popular tours in Japan to fly to the area, perhaps paying 40,000 JYen, to go to noodle bars (the area is famous for a particular type of noodle), where a bowl of noodle may cost mere 100 JYen. I personally think that cuisine deserves the cost of flight. (I confess I am from that region, so my view may be a bit biased :-P)

Table manner

Generally speaking, there is no order in eating. That is, you can have soup at any time during eating, for example. Perhaps people are likely to eat the dishes alternatively bit by bit, such as, rice, soup, fish, rice, veggie, rice, soup, veggie, etc. (That is the way they are taught in school!) But, it is entirely up to you.

People are definitely more tolerant in making noises in eating. As they don't use a spoon for Japanese style soup in general (but for western-style soup), it is almost inevitable to make a small noise. Nevertheless it is regarded as decent if you make less noise. Don't worry, probably you naturally make less noise than most of Japanese people anyway. An exception is (soup) noodle, where you are, generally speaking, allowed to make a big noise.

In some restaurants or just at home, there may be no chair. You are bound to be directly seated on tatami, Japanese mattress/carpet. The formal way of sitting is seiza, the kneeling position (folding your legs under yourself and sitting on your heels). Indeed the traditional-fashioned Japanese tables are designed for seiza. In the most formal situation, you'd better keep the position during the meals, but don't worry, it is very unlikely. After all, one should enjoy the time, not suffer. Perhaps people sit like that when they start eating, then maybe immediately relax to more comfortable position. If you are invited for a meal, then the host is most likely to suggest you to relax yourself.

Note that whereas western people are more likely to suffer from seiza position partly due to the anatomical reason, it offers some good things for Japanese people. Allegedly it is the most comfortable sitting way on the floor while they are wearing traditional clothes in Japan.

If you are having a meal with companies, when to start eating may be important. If in a party, wait for the yell Kampai (Cheers) to have the first sip of your glass (In a badly organised party, you may have to wait for a long time, feeling the temperature of your drink to become too mild. Nevertheless, wait). At a restaurant, you may as well wait until all of your companies have meals to eat in front of them (unless some ask you to start before). If you are invited, wait till the host/ess asks you to do so.

There are "greeting" words in Japanese when you start/finish a meal; Itadakimasu and Gochisou-sama-deshita, respectively. If you are invited, it is definitely the manner to say so (as an expression of thanks). In fact, most people say so wherever/whenever they eat, as long as it is a proper meal (for foods are kind of holly things as a concept).

In the use of chopsticks, there are two things you should avoid, although the rule is not so strict (I mean, people may be tolerant). The first is not to pass something with your chopsticks directly to other's chopsticks (although the untrained perhaps wouldn't imagine to do it in the first place). The second is to pierce chopsticks to foods, particularly into a bowl of rice.
The reasons? Superstition.

As I mentioned above, Japanese people are fond of offering alcohol. Indeed, if a guest pours alcohol into her/his glass by her/himself, it is regarded as disgraceful for the host not having noticed that the glass of their valuable guest has been already empty. The formal manner to accept the offer is, first to empty your glass (I mean, drink it!), then to hold the glass in the air with both hands, while saying thanks with a small bow. I would say, you don't have to follow this strictly. Indeed they are likely to be already drunk. So, never mind.

If you are invited…

Be relaxed. I think that is the most important thing wherever it is in the world when you are invited. The fact that you are invited means that the host/hostess is willing to welcome you, being aware of the possible difference in commonsense between you and them. So, although it is wise to remember the cultural code I mention above, I suppose you don't have to try so hard. Just be relaxed.

One thing worth remembering is that Japan (and perhaps oriental countries) is a gift-culture country. People give and receive lots of presents in number of occasions. When one is invited, then it is nice to take a souvenir.

Then, what kind of souvenir is good? Good question! It depends, as tastes differ, so there's no simple answer, as is always the case in giving a gift. Most popular ones are food, particularly sweets, though. Foods are good, generally speaking, because they are consumed and disappear before long; otherwise loads of presents they have received will be stacked unused in their small house eventually (which is quite common in a gift-culture country, in fact). But don't buy one in the local supermarket in the area where you are invited, if it is a food (That is an offence), while flowers from the local supermarket may be acceptable.

Generally speaking, the best souvenir is something that is unusual (and good, of course) and hard to get for them; that is, if it is a food, some local food in guest's area is good (In Japan, each region boasts its own local food, perhaps in an almost exaggerated level, so it is not so hard to get local foods). Therefore, if you traveller know beforehand you will be invited, then you are advised to get something in your region (presumably abroad) before the trip. Although you don't have to, you will certainly gain appreciation by doing that.

When you sleep in the invited place, it is advisable not to sleep naked, I mean, keep pyjamas or T-shirt on. It is likely that a set of pyjama is offered by the hosts (though it is also not unlikely that it may be too small for you…). You can either accept or decline the offer, but just don't sleep naked. The underlying idea is to use the sleeping cloth (futon or its cover) cleanly.

The offered place to sleep on/in is most likely to be not a western-style bed but futon-s. In the following morning, when you get up, you can fold futon-s, which will be appreciated, although you don't have to. But don't crush duvet (kake-buton) with (heavy) mattress (shiki-buton). Leave folded duvet (and blanket) on top of folded mattress, that is a habit.

Tea ceremony

If you are fortunate enough to receive an honour to be invited to a tea ceremony, my first advice is again to relax. It is true that the tea ceremony nowadays is known to be the most formalistic in any kind of ceremony. However, the basic spirit of tea ceremony is the art of hospitality (as well as the art of appreciation of hospitality, namely it is the art of the mutual hearty communication). In other words the guest should be relaxed, otherwise the entire ceremony wouldn't make any sense, and it would disappoint the very host/ess.

Nevertheless if you study the formalism beforehand, if you can, then surely it will be well appreciated.

In fact, if you study the meaning of each formalism, you will realise that it is the most sophisticated procedure and way; I mean, the formalism has not been established for the sake of formalism, but in fact almost (or completely?) purely for the sake of efficiency and hearty exchange of communication, although some of them may be too subtle to realise for most of people, including me….

Another thing worth remembering is the things used in the tea ceremony could be extremely expensive. A (earthwork) bowl may cost over 10 million yen, and a picture in the room may cost so as well, in an extreme case. Therefore you had better treat them with an extreme care.

Finally the formal way of sitting is again seiza. If you can't sit in seiza comfortably, which is I imagine most likely, then it is advisable to ask the host/ess for the permission to sit in an easy way. Surely the host/ess will be willing to accept it.

Note that it is regarded as coarse if one sits with a leg(s) straight or if ladies sit with both legs crossed, in principle, though.

If I am a guest, I will sit in seiza first, then soon ask the permission for an easy way of sitting (or the host/ess may suggest me to sit in an easy way), then when I am actually served a bowl of tea and drink it, I resit in seiza (to show a respect). But remember, the bowl could be very expensive, so if you feel uneasy in seiza and if it is possible that you may fumble the bowl, then you'd best sit in a more stable way for you so that you can handle the bowl in confidence (again, the verbal communication about it, stating you might fumble it or something and so blah-blah, will be well appreciated).

I should note that all the above comments are applicable only when the guest(s) and host/ess have some connection beforehand. There may be some commercial tea ceremonies, which one attends with some fee. They can not be real in terms of the spirit. As I mentioned above, the spirit of the tea ceremony is the art of hospitality. When the host/ess and guest(s) don't know each other at all and are connected only through money, what kind of true hospitality could possibly exist?

Lots of (perhaps most of) Japanese people have never been invited to any tea ceremony (as most of people don't know the proper way — you have to spend at least months or likely years to learn, depending on the desired/required level; yes, as I said, it is an art). So, if you have an opportunity, you are a lucky one!

Outdoor activity

Welcome to Japan, a country of full of nature! Japan is an island country, and 70 per cent of the land is mountainous, full of woods. Combined with a mild climate, it offers a superb opportunity to enjoy the nature! There are a few deadly creatures, but it is, generally speaking, unlikely to encounter them (It is not like Australia at all in that sense). I myself am a mountaineer, so I am mainly explaining about the cultural code in mountains (rather than seaside).

Lots of Japanese mountains are remote, or much more remote than those in the UK, if not as remote as those in Canada or elsewhere. A simple return trip to a summit may take a couple of days in some cases. Be warned that if you get lost, the consequence could be serious.

A safe side is, though, most of the established paths are (exceedingly) well sign-posted, with red tapes, paint marks on rocks, and/or even fences and staircases. An unsafe side is that in the Japanese mountains the boundary among tourists, hikers and mountain walkers/mountaineers tends to be vague. As a result, a number of cases have been reported where tourists strayed into mountains, got lost, and have never been found since, or found dead.


It varies a lot from area to area. In August, most of the regions except for a few have snow. In winter, some of the mountains become world-notorious snowy regions due to local climate. Allegedly those regions in winter are more serious than European Alps and are as serious as Himalayan 6000m mountains, according to one of the best 8000m hunters in Japan. Perhaps it is not the destination you want to go to, or you may?

Generally speaking, either spring or autumn is the best season. You can see loads of plants, trees and lives flourishing, coloured with beautiful green, in spring, and can see any sort of bright coloured falling leaves in autumn. Magnificent. But when is spring or autumn depends on each mountain a lot. In Tokyo, April and November are the seasons, but in high mountains, it could correspond to even July and September, respectively.

Particularly in spring and autumn, loads of natural foods are available in mountains. If you know which is edible and how to cook it, it is a paradise for you. But be warned that people die every year because they eat deadly mushrooms or something like that. And some of them are legally prohibited to take. So watch out for the regional code. Generally speaking, plants/fruits/fungus are accepted to hunt, amphibians/reptiles are probably all right with some exceptions, fish depends, and mammals and birds are not.


In the last 10 or so years, skiing in Japan has been becoming increasingly popular among foreigners, most notably those from Australia and New Zealand (they can ski in their summer, and they have a least difference in the time-zone). Some areas in Japan are one of the world most snowy regions, so allegedly it is a heaven for those powder seekers.

My sister visited and stayed in Scotland in February 2014, and was surprised how little snow there was in Highlands. A funny thing was it was one of the most snowy years in Highlands in years, but that was nothing for her, who has almost never skied on anything but powder.

Some popular ski areas in Japan are open only in April or later onward (till July), because the road is impossible to access due to too much snow before that. Ski mountaineering in Japan is fairly popular, but be warned with the high risk of avalanches.

Arguably the most popular powder ski place is Hokkaido, the north-most main island. It is because there is not as much snow as more southern areas but just metres of powder, accessible by roads, and the temperature is reliably low. Do the homework and you will find many good places.

One of the attractions in skiing in Japan can be an onsen. Many ski resorts have onsens fairly close to or even directly inside it. To enjoy the natural hot spring while your hair above water gets frozen would be an unique experience?

Although I have never been, I guess the fact they are increasingly popular among foreign skiers mean the language barrier is likely to be marginalised.

Mountain huts/refugees

There are a substantial number of mountain huts (refugees) in Japanese mountains. They tend to be closed in winter (and perhaps early spring and late autumn) season (except for a few days around New Year's Day and during the Golden Week in May). Most of them are like the refugees in French Alps, that is, they serve you dinner/breakfast, bed, and other basic facility, such as toilets. You can even ask for a packed lunch for the following day in most huts (with an extra fee).

The mountain refugees are also likely to sell drink, foods, (possibly) gas cartridges and souvenir, such as postcards. So they are popularly used as an oasis by passer-bys (If you climb Mt. Fuji, you will see tons of those huts one after another).

On the other hand, some of the huts have no guardian/caretaker, a kind of bothy. In that case you can use it for free, although they are not likely to provide anything, including toilet and water. Only the thing you can expect to be provided is just a shelter from harsh element. If you use one, make sure you use it cleanly and leave nothing behind.


There are two type of camp sites: one accessible with a car (autocamp-jo) and the other by foot only. I have hardly used the former type, so I am here explaining the latter one.

Most of camp sites in the middle of mountains are associated with a mountain hut. You pay there and put up your tent. Most of those campsites are next to the hut, but some may need a long approach, taking tens of minutes in walking on a potentially serious terrain. You are probably allowed to use the facilities in the hut, such as toilets, unless those only for campers are provided separately. Don't expect hot water, let alone shower, is available.

In most areas, wild camping is prohibited, except for winter, when everything is covered with deep snow. Therefore, you are advised to plan to use those designated camp sites, unless you bivvy without a tent.

The cultural code in those camp sites is much more strict than those in the UK, as users themselves are supposed to take care of the environment. Those camp sites are located in a vulnerable place by human activity, so stick to the code. Read below carefully, if you plan to use one.

Most of campsites offer a (cold) water tap and toilet. The water from the tap may not be guaranteed to be completely safe, although most of people don't mind. If you are not used to Japanese water, then it may be wise to boil it first. Nevertheless the water tap is generally for drinking/cooking use only (or washing your hands/face without soap). You shouldn't wash your clothes or plates/pans there. I repeat, there is no place for washing plates/pans, because you mustn't.

There is no bin provided in those camp sites. You are supposed to take all the litter back home. You must not use any kind of soap and detergent at all to wash anything, including hands/plates/pans/clothes, for whatever the reason is. You must not throw your food, either left over or those that are stuck on to your plate, at all into the wilderness or somewhere around your tent. Just wipe it with a piece of tissue, and take the dirty tissue back home. If you boil pasta, fine, but remember you have no place to throw the water after cooking. Drink it or carry it home (Serious!). For that reason, pasta is not at all a common camping food in Japan.

The way of use of toilets varies a lot from site to site. Read (or ask) the on-site instruction (the description in foreign languages is very unlikely to be provided, though). But it is quite likely that you are not allowed to throw the dirty tissues, let alone napkins or something like that, into a toilet after use. The reason is obviously that papers are less degradable in the environment; the same as many French refugees or the CIC hut. In that case a bin must be provided next to the toilet, which you throw the tissues into. That is, the toilet is used only for the human waste.

Mountain walking/trekking

Here I refer to mountain walking/trekking as hill walking in Britain. The major difference is simply the vastness of mountains, and seriousness once you get lost. Most of major mountains in Japan, except for some rugged ones and active volcanoes, are accessible via established and well-signposted paths.

One of the major concerns in outdoor activity may be a toilet issue. It is better to use toilets provided, probably in mountain huts en route. If it is associated with a mountain hut, it is a manner to ask the people there for a permission of use. They may charge you a small amount of fee; don't be cheapskate, pay for it, as maintaining toilets deep in a mountain is not an easy task.

If you are in a hurry, it is OK to do it in the nature. The cultural code is as follows.

  • Think of the site. Never use a stream (which may be used as a water source downstream). Be away from the path and water source (river, pond etc) by, say, 20 metres at least.
  • Urination is all right as long as you choose the right place (not stream).
  • Faeces can be left on site, generally speaking (some area is introducing the scheme to encourage people to carry a portable toilet, though).
  • Never leave dirty tissues on site. You have to take them back home.
  • In winter, dig snow until you reach the solid ground if possible. Think of what is going to happen after the snow is melt.

As for the other kinds of litter, you have to take it back home. Mountain huts are likely to provide some bins. However, they are only used for the products you buy in the hut. It is not for your personal litter. Indeed the manner books in mountain walking recommend you (if you please) to take the litter even of the products you buy in mountain huts, such as a tin of coca-cola, to home, so as to save the mountain hut to handle all the litter. Similarly don't throw the litter of yours to a bin in the starting point (such as parking area) of the route. Take it home.

This is also the same for the food garbage. Never leave any food, except for the things you actually collect on site, such as mushrooms. This means that if you boil pasta, then you have to drink all the water used for boiling or take it home. Never ever use soap or detergent. Just wipe the pan and plates with tissues, and take them home.

Consequently I imagine you wouldn't like to take loads of stuffs to mountains from the beginning, which would inevitably lead you to carry loads of litter back home. That is how the ecology works, isn't it?

Right of way

In Japan the public right of way is, in my understanding, fairly vague. Most lands, except national parks and publicly owned lands, are privately owned. And, by law you should not enter the private land without permission of the landlord.

There are two major greatest concerns in Japanese mountains. The first is the risk factor, especially the hazardous areas, perhaps due to volcanic activities. The second is the environmental damage. Mountain walking being a popular activity in Japan, their collective damage to the environment can be very significant, particularly on the rare mountain flora and fauna.

For those sensitive areas, be it hazardous or environmentally vulnerable, there is often a restriction of which way to go into the mountain. It can be seasonal. For example, when the ground is covered with a thick layer of snow, the ban can be lifted.

When a restriction is enforced, in general the notice (most likely only in Japanese) is put near the beginning of the established mountain path. For particularly hazardous areas, like those of active volcanoes, a rope or even fence can be put up so no one would not enter the area.

There are a great number of established paths in vast majority of mountains in Japan, as indicated on the topographic maps. Most walkers just take those paths, and so there would be no problem.

If you are one of those small group of people who want to venture beyond the established paths, what should you do? First, make sure it is not within an environmentally protected area. If the paths have a rope in either or both side, that is a good indication you should not go off the path. Second, be sensible, just like roaming on Scottish hills. As long as you don't cause damage or nuisance, trespassing tends to be tolerated, except for the protected area. Third, remember the paths are there for a good reason. In most cases in the lower ground, no one would like to go off the paths anyway, as they are either too woody or bushy, except along a river or stream. Why would you like to go off the path? If you have a good reason, then probably some other people have already had the same idea before, perhaps repeatedly, and may have made a vague path, like climbers' path. Look for it.


In most mountains in Japan in most of times, you don't need any permission. However there are some exceptions, where you have to get a permission from the authority before going in.

  • Rock climbing in Mt. Tanigawa(-dake) (谷川岳), Guinness-record death toll of climbers — 805 deaths between 1931-2012
  • Winter months (1 December - 15 May) in Mt. Tsurugi(-dake) (剣岳) in Toyama, the form must be submitted at least 20 days before the climb
  • Shirakami-Sanchi (白神山地), UNESCO World Heritage (Natural criteria), The standard path to and around Mt. Shirakami-dake do not require a permission, but non-standard routes like gill-climbing do.
  • Mt. Miwa (三輪山) in Nara, photo-shooting is forbidden and you need to pay a small fee (300 JYen) to the shrine before going in.
  • Mt. Atago (愛宕山) in Chiba, needs to get a permission from the military branch, as there is a military facility near the summit.
  • Women on Mt. Omine (大峰山), Women are banned to access the highest peak and areas around, which are owned by a thousand-years old temple. The access has never been granted (though some women have openly climbed it and stirred the controversy).

I am sure this list is far from complete. After all, you need to get a permission to pass any private land, legally speaking. Many minor mountains can be restricted in that sense.

In addition, some active volcanoes are off limits for an obvious reason. Also, in some mountains you have to follow the established paths strictly due to the environmental reason.

Another concern is the hunting activity in mountains. In Japan, the standard hunting season is between mid-November and mid-February. But there are some exceptions, depending on the area. Also, generally speaking, there is no restriction for going into a mountain to climb during the hunting season. As long as you follow established paths, it is very unlikely you are shot accidentally, as the hunters would not go near the area close to the paths. However, if you go off the path, you may be at risk. In that case, if you know the area is used for hunting (there are generally notice board in paths), it is recommended to wear bright clothes and make noise like bells.

It is common there is a post at the starting point of the established mountain paths, to which you should post a form that describes your planned itinerary in the mountain. Sometimes there is a pile of paper, and you can take a sheet and fill it to post. But in fact any form is accepted. You can prepare one in a A4 sheet in the free format, write down your planned itinerary, and post it there. It is for emergency use in case you get lost and you or your family call for a rescue. Wherever there is a designated post, you should leave the sheet of your plan in it.

Mountain rescue

In Japan, the mountain rescue is mainly conducted by the local police. So, you just call the standard emergency number (110) of police to call for a rescue. They would not charge you for it. In some areas, private rescue helicopters may be available, which may speed up the rescue activity — just expect an expensive cost (some private teams are renowned to be superb in rescuing in harsh conditions). Even if you want the help from the private rescue, only you have to do is to call police. The police may advise you to use the private service in some cases, then it is up to you (or your family?) to take the offer or not.

There are a couple of problems. First, many Japanese mountains are remote and the local climate can be harsh. The rescue effort may take days, even if the rescue team know exactly where the victim is, let alone if they don't. For example, here is a rescue story of a party of climbers in Mt Tsurugi-dake, which is one of the most serious mountains in Japan in winter due to its harsh weather:

A party had a trouble and called for a rescue. The weather was too bad for a helicopter to fly, so the rescue team sent two people over the ground. It took 7 days for the two rescuers to reach the victim party. The victims survived, and the rescuers provided some essential to them on arrival. On the eighth day, the weather cleared at last, and so the helicopter flew and rescued all of them off the mountain to safety.

Second, many remote areas in Japanese mountains are off limit of the mobile phone signals. If you go deep into the mountain, particularly as a solitary party, it is advisable to take a proper radio-ham transceiver (not to mention, legally you need a proper ham license to use it; good news is the ham license in the UK is recognised in Japan, too). There is no specially designated band for the rescue, but you can call for a help from public (whoever is on the ham at the time), to whom you can ask to call a police to get back to you eventually.

Third, it is anyway shameful to call for a (tax-funded) rescue, and in principle you shouldn't have been in the situation in the first place. This ethics must be common across the world, but in Japan it is probably more extreme. If you call for a rescue, expect a harsh backlash from the public. Here is an excerpt of a testimony of a climber, who was stranded in the middle of a winter mountain in the worsening conditions, called for a mountain rescue, and was safely rescued alive. You may find his thinking to be extraordinary, but Japanese climbers would at least understand his thought, if they would not feel the same.

To be rescued by a chopper is very disgraceful for climbers. We [the party] hotly debated whether we should call for a rescue. But I thought of it. Whether we are rescued or die, it will become a scandal. In that case, I thought it would be better to come back alive. If we die, our friends in our club will have a big trouble to search for our bodies. Many people, not only our club members but more, will have to come to this remote mountain repeatedly to find our bodies, taking half a year or so. Considering that, I thought it would be better if we don't die.

In Mt. Tsurugi, in 1989. From 「気象遭難」[Mountain accidents due to poor weather] by 羽根田治 [Haneda, Osamu] (2013, originally published in 2003, Yamakei Library). Translation into English by Masa.

About this document

Although I have written this document as accurately as I can, I give no guarantee for the accuracy of this document, and I wouldn't take any responsibility for a possible loss, disadvantage, damage and alike this document might cause.

(by Masa Sakano)