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Culture Shock 101: Expect the Unexpected on Your Japan Trip

A first trip to Japan can be filled with all sorts of surprises! Here’s what to expect to avoid problems and stay respectful.

By 4 min read

When visiting Japan for the first time, you’re bound to encounter things you’re not used to, and that’s all part of the fun!

But whether it’s being bowed to instead of shaking hands or being given a dish you didn’t order, there are some things to be aware of to avoid misunderstandings and help your trip go as smoothly as possible.

Let’s take a look at some of the things to expect on your first trip to Japan.

Eating out

Interesting culinary surprises await.

Most restaurants in Japan will greet you with a loud “irasshaimase,” meaning “welcome,” that will be echoed by the floor staff. This happens when you leave too, with “arigatou gozaimashita” (thank you for coming). You don’t need to respond.

When it comes to food, a big source of confusion for travelers is Japan’s otoshi, a small dish you get before ordering, usually served cold. It’s non-negotiable and serves as a seating charge in most izakaya (Japanese style pubs), so you’ll just have to accept it!

The otoshi is often something pickled or stewed, which might involve unfamiliar flavors. And unfamiliar dishes don’t stop there! In meat dishes, Japan typically uses as much of the animal as possible. You’ll often come across this at yakitori (grilled chicken) and yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurants, where most of the menu is just different parts of the meat, including things like heart and liver.

Speaking of meat, while plant-based meals are gaining popularity in the west, Japan’s vegetarian and vegan options are comparatively limited. Big cities like Tokyo always have some vegetarian restaurants, but a regular Japanese restaurant probably won’t have any or many options. Fish broth is often added to dishes, even ones that are mainly vegetables.

Getting around

Line up when waiting for a train!

One of the biggest hurdles for first-time travelers is Tokyo’s complicated railway system. There are 13 subway lines and many over-ground lines out of the city. Thankfully, each station has signs in English, and Google Maps is fairly reliable for getting around.

The other surprise you might encounter is the orderly queueing system. When waiting for a train, people will line up at either side where the doors open and then wait for passengers to get off before boarding.

When it gets to rush hour, the system is exactly the same, but people will smush themselves onto trains that look like they’re already full. It’s best to avoid trains during the morning rush hour and just after 5 p.m.

Types of accommodation

Spending a night at a traditional Japanese inn is an opportunity you wouldn’t want to miss.

Once you’ve made it through the crowds to your hotel, there might be some new experiences awaiting you depending on the type of accommodation you’re at. Here are a few things to be aware of at the different types:

  • International hotel: Largely what you might expect elsewhere, sometimes with an onsen (shared bath)
  • Business hotel: Usually small with minimal amenities
  • Airbnb: You may have futons on the floor instead of beds. Usually, these will be laid out for you but they might be in the cupboard.
  • Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn): Very traditional. Breakfast and dinner are usually at set times, and there will be set times for the futon to be placed or removed, often early in the morning.
  • Minshuku (Japanese bed and breakfast): Very traditional. You will likely have meals with the owners, which will be traditional Japanese, and may share a bathroom. Futons are provided instead of beds.
  • Love Hotel: Not somewhere to take your family! These do not show up on regular booking websites and are usually paid for by the hour for a bit of couple’s time… if you catch my drift.

Language and customs

Don’t be offended if you see this gesture!

Staff at shops and restaurants in big cities may speak some English, and hotel staff even more, but you cannot rely on it. The best way to deal with it is to plan in advance and use GaijinPot’s language blog to learn some basics before you go.

Aside from language, there are obviously a whole variety of different customs, too. It’s good to be aware of those differences, but here are some important ones to note:

  • People generally bow instead of shaking hands in Japan, but may extend their hand to shake if they know you are from abroad. Bowing also means “thank you” and “sorry.”
  • Making an X with fingers or arms means “no” “we’re closed” or “no seats,” and is generally used when someone is feeling nervous about using English, so use this gesture instead.
  • Don’t tip for anything in Japan, including restaurants and taxis. They will return the money to you.

Of course, you might come across tons of other cultural differences, but these should give you a good foundation to be prepared and respectful during your first trip to Japan!

What surprised you most on your first trip to Japan? Share your experiences in the comments below to help out first-time travelers! 

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