20 Surprises for First-Time Visitors to Japan

Japan is a country rich in culture, technology, cuisine, and friendly people. However, there are many aspects of Japanese culture and society that often catch first-time visitors off-guard. Here are 20 common surprises travelers may encounter when visiting Japan for the first time:

1. Tattoos are Highly Taboo

In Japan, tattoos are strongly associated with the yakuza, or Japanese mafia. As a result, many public facilities such as gyms, hot springs, beaches, pools, and even some restaurants prohibit entry to people with tattoos. The reason is to keep out individuals affiliated with criminal organizations.

Tattoos of any size in visible areas should be covered up when out in public. Large, visible tattoos especially may get you denied service or access to facilities. Smaller tattoos are generally more accepted, but it’s better to err on the side of being conservative. Any tattoos with anti-social imagery or gang symbols are complete no-gos.

If visiting an onsen (hot spring), look for ones that explicitly allow tattoos, as most do not. Using stickers to cover up tattoos is an option, but not a guarantee you’ll get entry. When in doubt, call ahead to confirm the policy.

The taboo is not so much against foreigners, but against the image tattoos project in Japan. With some care, you can still enjoy your trip despite the tattoo stigma.

2. Public Trash Cans are Hard to Find

Japan is known for being exceptionally clean, yet public trash receptacles can be very hard to find. This is mainly a legacy of past terrorism – trash cans were historically used to hide explosive devices, most notoriously in the 1995 Tokyo subway attacks. As a result, Japan systematically removed public trash cans from locations like train stations, streets, and parks.

When you have trash while out and about, be prepared to carry it with you until you can properly dispose of it. Options include returning to your hotel, finding a convenience store, or locating a manned trash collection point. It is helpful to keep a small foldable bag on hand to store trash temporarily.

Don’t even consider littering – this is extremely frowned upon and you may get reported. Strive to follow the Japanese example of carrying personal waste until the proper disposal opportunity arises. The lack of public bins helps keep the country clean for all.

3. Remove Your Shoes Indoors

Removing shoes before entering homes or certain restaurants and temples is customary in Japan. The reason is to keep interiors clean and minimize dirt tracked in from outside.

Slippers are usually provided for wearing indoor after taking shoes off. Bring socks too, as it’s more comfortable walking around sock-footed than barefoot.

Remember to also remove slippers when stepping onto tatami mat floors found in traditional rooms. Never wear outdoor footwear on tatami mats as the straw material can easily be damaged. following shoe removal etiquette shows respect for homes and historical structures.

Interestingly, some high-end restaurants and clubs buck the norm and allow footwear to impress foreign customers. But it’s always wise to observe shoe removal unless explicitly told otherwise.

4. Squat Toilets Still Exist

While high-tech washlets with heated seats and bidet functions have become standard, you may still come across squat toilets in rural areas or older buildings.

These consist of porcelain holes in the floor that you squat over to do your business. It can take practice to comfortably hold the squatting position without straining your legs.

Most public restroom facilities offer both squat and western-style toilets, so opt for the seated version if you prefer. If you want to try using a squat toilet, face the hood and use the provided handrails for balance.

Remember to bring your own toilet paper, as squat toilets rarely provide any. Experiencing a squat toilet at least once offers insight into old-school Japanese bathroom habits.

5. Bowing is Taken Seriously

Bowing is deeply ingrained as the proper way to greet people and show respect in Japan. The angle of the bow depends on the situation and relationship between the parties.

For casual greetings, a simple nod or bow of 15 degrees is common. 30 degree bows demonstrate respect, while bows of 45 to 90 degrees convey apologies or sincere gratitude.

Foreigners aren’t expected to execute perfect bows, but making some effort is appreciated. Avoid overly deep bows unless sincerely apologizing for a serious mistake. The most important point is to gauge your bowing to match the formality of the occasion.

Overbowing may come across as mockery. With some observation of when and how Japanese people bow, you can avoid looking clueless.

6. Tipping is Not Part of the Culture

Japan has no tipping culture to speak of – the price listed or quoted is the price paid, tax included. Leaving extra money may even be considered strange or insulting. Japanese value providing good service not for economic incentive, but because it is culturally appropriate to treat customers well.

For taxis, restaurants, room service, and other hospitality contexts, the price encompasses any expected gratuity. Hotel porters may chase you down the street to return a forgotten coin from your change.

There’s no need to agonize over tip calculations like in some countries. Just pay the billed amount without worries of undertipping. Of course, leaving spare change is fine if you really want to. But as a rule, no tipping is the norm.

7. Extreme Public Safety

Japan is renowned for remarkably low violent crime rates. Women can comfortably walk alone late at night without fear of assault. Lost valuables like wallets and cellphones are likely to be turned in to the authorities.

But don’t take safety for granted – petty crimes like bicycle theft still occur. Use common sense precautions with valuables.

Overall, Japan’s reputation for safety means you don’t need to be overly worried about crime compared to some large cities. Caution is still warranted, but violent gun crime basically doesn’t exist.

You’ll see children commuting to school alone and drunks passed out on benches at night – all perfectly safe. Enjoy the ability to explore without constant vigilance of your surroundings.

8. Rush Hour Defies Expectations

Planning your train trip schedule to avoid rush hour makes sense, right? Not necessarily in Japan. Due to the hyper-efficient public transportation, trains actually run at full bike-packing capacity during peak times.

Attempting to ride at rush hour is certainly a cramped experience, but also reveals how the system operates at maximum levels when needed.

The real pro tip is avoiding trains just before and after rush hour when local commuters pack into the system. Early morning and late night trains generally have more open space if you want to sit comfortably. Bullet trains require seat reservations anyway.

So embrace rush hour’s cultural insights if you dare, otherwise travel at off-peak times for a calmer ride.

9. Police Have Broad Authority

Japanese police legally possess broad powers of search, seizure, and detention compared to Western nations. They can stop you randomly to ask for identification and question your activities.

While often just curiosity about foreigners, be cooperative if queried and don’t give excuses to be detained.

Avoid confrontations or trying to assert individual rights if stopped by police, even if you believe the encounter unfair. The Japanese justice system grants police latitude, so polite compliance is recommended to quickly resolve the situation.

However, actual police abuse of power is relatively rare – just another surprise cultural difference between Japan and other developed democracies.

10. Indoor Smoking Persists

Smoking is culturally ingrained in Japan, and indoor smoking regulations are still evolving. Lighting up inside restaurants, bars, and izakaya (taverns) is allowed in certain establishmnents.

While banned in many municipalities, loopholes exist if facilities have adequate ventilation and non-smoking sections.

Cigarette smoke in your drinking and dining experiences may be an unpleasant surprise for visitors from smoke-free environments. Seek out nonsmoking establishments if possible.

Otherwise ask to be seated in non-smoking sections, which unfortunately don’t always prevent smoke drift. More venues are banning smoking each year as cultural attitudes shift, but it remains an ongoing issue.

11. Slurping Noodles is Okay

Slurping hot noodles or ramen is considered normal or even polite in Japan. This allows faster cooling and an enhanced flavor experience – and the Japanese do love their food experiences!

At any ramen joint or noodle stall, listen for the raucous slurping symphony that may shock first-timers.

If you can’t bring yourself to loudly slurp noodles like the locals, at least don’t judge those audibly enjoying their meals. The extra sounds signal a tasty dish, not poor manners.

Many Japanese customs surrounding food evolved to enhance enjoyment rather than constrain it – so don’t be shy to join in! But no mouth open chewing, please.

12. Cold Drinks Mean No Ice

Ordering a cold beverage may get you a surprise – a room temperature drink with zero ice. The Japanese generally dislike chilled drinks with ice, considering the practice unsanitary and detrimental to flavor. So cold drinks means cold when poured, not chilled throughout consumption.

Some modern establishments like international hotels do offer Western-style drinks with ice cubes. But tradition dictates drinks unadulterated. For hot drinks, no need to specify no ice.

Also, don’t be surprised if cold water is also poured at room temperature – ice water does not really exist in Japan. If you absolutely need icy drinks, Confirm ice availability before ordering.

13. Bathing Without Clothes is Normal

Public bathing in onsen (hot springs) or sento (bath houses) will involve going without clothes, even in mixed-gender situations. Japanese people are very comfortable with being unclothed around others of the same gender due to their cultural history of public bathing.

Don’t be alarmed to find yourself without clothes in a tub with a group of your fellow men or women. However, be sure to thoroughly wash yourself before entering the bath to keep the water clean for everyone.

If the idea of being without clothes in public makes you uncomfortable, there is an alternative option to reserve private baths in advance. Also, it’s essential to check with the hot spring facilities regarding their policies on tattoos before planning a visit to an onsen.

Embracing an open-minded attitude towards Japanese bathing practices can lead to a unique and enriching cultural experience in public baths.

14. Staying in a Capsule Hotel

Thrifty travelers may consider a capsule hotel for ultra-cheap, basic accommodations. As the name suggests, this involves sleeping in a small enclosed pod or capsule stacked among many others. The capsules provide a bed, some amenities like TV and WiFi, and a door for privacy. Bathing facilities, lockers, and other services are communal.

While not luxurious, capsule hotels provide affordable lodging starting around $30-40 per night. Located in major cities, they appeal to commuters catching early trains and weekend revelers.

As a unique Japanese institution, an evening in a capsule hotel offers insight into how some locals live. Just know creature comforts are limited by design, and ceilings may feel low for tall guests.

15. Kanji Characters are Everywhere

The Japanese writing system consists of four different scripts mixing Chinese characters (kanji), phonetic characters (hiragana and katakana), and numbers (Arabic and kanji).

It’s common to encounter all four on signs, packaging, and advertisements. Learning to read even a few hundred kanji helps make basic sense of menus, destinations, and more.

Don’t worry about attaining full literacy – just recognizing key logographic kanji and understanding that hiragana indicates Japanese language phonetics goes a long way. Mobile translation apps also help decipher tricky written text.

Regardless, the varieties of Japanese writing may feel visually impenetrable at first. But exposure over time increases familiarity with the scripts intermixing everywhere.

16. Cash is Commonly Used

Many visitors assume credit cards are widely accepted in technologically advanced Japan. In reality, cash remains king, especially at traditional shops and restaurants. Carry ample yen when traveling outside major hubs. Some establishments like shrines and street food stalls only take cash.

Getting cash is easy via ATMs found ubiquitously at convenience stores, post offices, and airports. Though credit card use is growing, have backup cash for places that don’t accept them.

17. Don’t Eat or Drink While Walking

You’ll rarely see locals eating on the go. It’s considered rude to eat while walking in Japan, even drinking coffee. The thinking is that you risk bothering others by spilling or emitting food odors. While increasingly common, especially among younger generations, eating and walking still raises eyebrows.

For good manners, stop alongside streets or find a cafe. Major tourist districts will have designated eating while walking areas. When in doubt, join the ranks of polite Japanese and avoid meals on the move.

18. Drinking Age is 20

Japan’s legal drinking age of 20 often astonishes visitors from countries like the United States. Any convenience store will sell alcohol to those appearing suitably aged.

Vending machines containing beer and sake are also commonplace. However, rules have tightened recently, with some stores now asking for identification from younger-looking patrons.

Though lax by global standards, be prepared to show your passport if questioned. For tourists over 20, Japan’s relaxed alcohol laws are a libation-lovers dream.

19. Reliable WiFi is a Must

Don’t bank on free public WiFi in Japan. While available at major stations, connectivity is spotty. For constant access, rent a pocket WiFi device or local SIM card. Compare options online based on coverage and speed caps.

Unlimited data plans throttle speeds after several GB per day. As a backup, convenience store chains have free WiFi. For minimal hassle, arrive with a mobile hotspot or unlocked phone and get a data SIM. Stay connected and skip the hunt for elusive signals.

20. Train Passes Can Save Money

Japan’s famed bullet trains offer a comfortable way for tourists to travel between cities. But the fare can add up quickly. Purchasing a rail pass in advance, like the Japan Rail Pass for overseas visitors, means unlimited rides are covered in the pass price.

Do some calculations to see if a pass makes financial sense based on your itinerary. Passes must be bought before arriving. With strategically timed rides, a rail pass is an excellent value.

Visiting Japan for the first time means experiencing a culture with practices and perspectives different from your own. Keeping an open mind will help overcome initial surprises and appreciate uniqueness.

The Japanese people are generally very understanding of faux pas by visitors still learning the ropes. With research beforehand and respect for local ways, your trip will be full of great memories to share back home.

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