JapanTravel diaries

A first time visitor’s guide to Japan

What to try + Basic etiquette

Japan is the most amazing country I’ve ever been to. When it comes to Japan there’s no in-between: you either fall in love with it or you suffer a deep cultural shock and hate it. I am very biased, but I find the multifaceted and multilayered soul of Japan deeply fascinating. In this land of contrasts, everything makes sense in its weird and unexplainable way.

If you’re planning your first ever trip to Japan and don’t know exactly what to expect, don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. Here are a few basic etiquette things you should be aware of when you get there, as well as some things you absolutely have to try.

What to try

ONSEN

Hot springs and public baths should be a world treasure. They are the most relaxing thing ever. Japanese hot springs are quite different from what we’re used to, so the first time is always interesting and slightly uncomfortable.

First of all, there are separate baths for men and women and that’s because you go into the water naked. No bathing suit is allowed inside the actual pool. This is how it works:

  • First, you enter a dressing room with lockers, where you’re supposed to leave your belongings and clothes.
  • Secondly, you move into the shower room/shower area, where you are provided with shampoo and body soap. You sit on a stool and take your shower.
  • Once clean, you can enter the pool(s) and relax. You’re allowed to bring a towel with you, if you don’t like the idea of walking around in your birth suit.

If you don’t feel comfortable, bear in mind that Japanese people are so used to it that they will never judge you. In fact, if you get stared at, it’s just because you’re a foreigner, it has nothing to do with your body.

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KARAOKE

Karaoke is my absolute favourite thing to do in Japan. Forget about the embarrassing bar karaoke in front of drunk strangers and get ready for the most amazing and fun singing experience ever.

Karaoke in Japan means having your own comfortable room with sofas, a giant TV screen and a machine you use to select songs. Since you’re just with people you know, karaoke here is not so much about singing and performing well as it is about having a good time and singing together. This karaoke is something even people who can’t sing can actually enjoy. Plus, some places offer a soft drink nomihodai (all you can drink) included, some instruments like maracas or tambourine and even cosplay costumes!

Advice: try the 6-hour night course. Get to the karaoke place with your friends at 11 pm and sing, dance and drink the night away until 5 am. The price is unbeatable and fun is guaranteed.

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RYOKAN

Ryokans are traditional Japanese guesthouses. They are usually more pricey than regular hotels or guesthouses, but the experience is worth trying at least once. The rooms are Japanese style, so you’ll be sleeping on a futon unfolded on the tatami. Most ryokans have public baths included, nice verandas and gardens and will provide you with pretty yukata and typical Japanese meals.

MATCHA

Matcha (aka green tea) is another national treasure that you should try in all its forms. From the original bitter green tea to the soft ice-cream cone, the possibilities are endless! Don’t miss your chance to discover one of the best flavors in the world.

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TEMPLES & SHRINES

I’ll talk extensively about temples and shrines in the upcoming posts, so for now it’s enough to learn the difference between the two. Temples (otera) are usually Buddhist buildings, whereas shrines (jinja) belong to the typically Japanese Shintoism. If the name ends with “ji” or “dera” it’s a Buddhist temple. If it contains the word “jingu” it’s a shrine. Visually, pagodas are traditionally an element of the Buddhist tradition, whereas the shrines have red/orange torii archways.

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The Basics

1. Shoes

Always take off your shoes when entering a house, a traditional ryokan/guesthouse, a temple. You’ll find slippers waiting for you at the door. You should also change your slippers when entering the bathroom, use the ones provided.

2. Touch less, bow more.

Personal space is important. In the West (especially in Italy) we’re very touchy, but that’s a no-no in Japan, at least at first. When in doubt, just bow to people.

3. Don’t talk on the phone on public transit.

While everyone stares at their phones on the bus, no one talks on the phone and you shouldn’t either.

4. Don’t tip.

Tipping is considered rude in most cases, so, even if you’ll probably receive excellent service, refrain from tipping.

5. More cash, less credit cards.

Despite its modernity, a lot of places in Japan still don’t accept credit cards. Consider just paying everything with cash to avoid any problems.

This is by no means a complete guide, but it will give you the basics. In the next few days, we’ll dig a bit deeper in the wonders of this enigmatic country. 🙂

Questions or comments? Let’s start a conversation in the comments!
For more countries and destinations, take a look here.

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