The Japanese are forgiving towards their foreign guests. However, there are a few essentials to abide by and other manners that will be quietly appreciated by your hosts. Some manners may seem a bit oppressive when read here but in practice are much less onerous. If in doubt ask your Walk Japan tour leader.
Removing shoes and wearing slippers
Never enter a Japanese house or ryokan, Japanese inn, with your shoes on. Within the entrance there is usually a step up into the building proper. Slippers, which are to wear inside, lined up awaiting use are another common indicator that you are at the appropriate place to remove your shoes. Ideally, you should slip out of your shoes, stepping straight up into the interior and not walk around in stockinged or bare feet in the entrance way.
Slippers on tatami and in toilets
Traditionally, tatami straw mats are used for sitting, dining and sleeping and so should be kept as clean as possible.
For this reason, do not wear slippers into tatami rooms. Slip them off and leave them at the entrance to the room. Always walk on the tatami in stockinged or bare feet.
Slippers are also shed when entering a toilet. Inside you will find another pair of slippers for exclusive use within. Always remember to leave them in the toilet after use and not walk around the building in them. This is a faux pas that creates great laughter and will cause your hostess to quickly scurry off with the offending articles. The slipper shuffle does not apply to public toilets, where you keep your shoes on.
Private and respected areas
Do not sit on tables or in the tokonoma, an alcove traditionally displaying a scroll with a seasonal theme, flowers, and an ceramic objet d’art.
Arranging the futon
In a ryokan your futon bed will usually be laid out for you but some minshuku, inns run on a small family scale, will expect you to lay out your own futon bedding. This is considered a convenience, rather than a chore, as you may convert limited room space at your leisure.
Lay it out such that your head is pointing in any direction except north. Only the deceased are laid out at funerals with their head to the north.
The order is one or two heavier shiki-buton mats that are laid on the floor first (occasionally with a light, foam mattress underneath), followed by pressed sheets, and the kake-buton duvet/comforter on top.
Japanese traditional yukata (kimono-style pajamas) may be provided in some accommodations along with slippers. These may be worn around the hotel, to dinner, as well as to the onsen hot spring changing area.
Regardless of gender, it is proper etiquette to wear them left over right, as the opposite is reserved for the deceased. The obi sash may be tied as you wish around your waist, usually hanging on your side or back.
In Japan it is custom to wash before soaking in the bath. By the side of each bathtub is a shower unit. Completely rinse any soap and shampoo before stepping into the bath. The bath is shared in turn by everyone so do not empty it after you have bathed. Also, replace the wood or plastic cover, if there is one, to the bath. The Japanese like bathing in fairly hot water 38 to 45 degrees centigrade, (100 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit). If you find it too hot you may add some cold water, but not so much that it becomes tepid. Others following in the bathing queue will not appreciate it.
In hotels with en suite facilities you may bathe in the same manner as you would in the west.
Before entering the onsen hot spring baths
The entrance to the onsen communal hot spring baths are usually doors or curtains marked with “ゆ” (meaning hot water) and are often blue/black (marked by either 男/殿方) for men, and pink/red (marked 女/婦人/姫方) for women.
You may be expected to bring the larger room towel for drying after the bath as well as the small bathing towel, often provided in your room, which can be taken into the bathing area to wash.
Take off all your clothes in the changing area, leaving them in a locker or basket provided. Baskets/keyless lockers inside the changing area are usually safe enough for clothes and towels, but please leave any valuables in either secure lockers or at the front desk.
Move into the bathing area, sit at one of the shower stalls and wash yourself before entering the communal bath waters. Use soap and shampoo, and please be sure to rinse off all suds before soaking in the bath.
After washing yourself, soak in the onsen communal bath waters.
In the onsen
Do not dip your small bathing towel in the communal bath water. You may place this somewhere outside of the bath, or fold and place it on your head when bathing.
Do not “swim” in the bath.
Be careful when rising up out of the bath. First-timers may feel dizzy or faint if they sit in the bath too long and/or get up too quickly. If not feeling well, first, sit on the edge of the bath and allow your body a few minutes to adjust.
It is recommended not to eat or drink too much before entering onsen.
Please wipe off your body of any excess water before re-entering the changing area.
After bathing, please be sure to rest and drink plenty of water.
Chopstick do’s and don’ts
Do not stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice and leave them there. Do not pass food between chopsticks, instead pass food onto a plate. These are both taboo because they are associated with Buddhist funerals.
Do not play with, point with, or spear your food with chopsticks. You may, though, very occasionally see Japanese surreptitiously spear a particularly slippery morsel.
Leaving excess food
Make an effort not to leave food, especially rice. You can usually control the amount of rice you receive and can always have more. If you have ever grown rice the Japanese way, which is time-consuming and laborious, you will appreciate why they tend not to leave even one grain.
Never pour soy sauce over rice. Japanese rice is considered good tasting - and it usually is - although other foods may be added atop the rice for flavor combinations, it should never be adulterated with soy sauce, an act considered an affront by most Japanese.
When eating sushi or sashimi a separate small dish is provided for soy sauce. Pour in only as much as you will use. You can always add more to your dish should you run out.
Refilling a companions glass
When sharing a meal, or just drinking, make an effort to fill or refill the glasses of your companions. They will return the compliment. If you have an empty glass and nobody has noticed, serve someone else. The Japanese will respond in kind. You may be thought a bit of a lush if you pour your own alcoholic drink. If you do not want a refill leave your glass full.
The Japanese often like to start a meal with a toast and, just beforehand, you will be plied with an alcoholic drink. Even if you do not drink, accept it and at the toast make a gesture of drinking it. A clear refusal of anything, especially at a time of enjoyment, is a bit jarring to Japanese sensibilities. However, going through the motions is perfectly acceptable.
Manners before and after eating
It is polite to say Itadakimasu (a humble-honorific meaning “to receive” ) once before eating or drinking, and Gochiso sama deshita (“It was a feast”) to your host or the restaurant’s staff after finishing your meal.
Upon sitting for a meal, the host or waiting staff will offer you a towel which may be warm or cool depending on the season. These towels are called Oshibori and should be used to clean your hands before eating. They are typically not for wiping the face or table. Napkins should also be provided for these purposes. If oshibori are not offered, they can usually be found wrapped on the table.
Blowing your nose
Refrain from blowing your nose in front of other people and only use paper tissues for the purpose. If you cannot help having a blow or need to sneeze turn your back on your Japanese counterpart. When face to face a dainty dab or wipe is not considered rude.
Walking and eating in Japan
Japanese tend not to eat while walking along or standing around on the street. However, it is acceptable to drink while standing aside a vending machine. Eating and drinking on local trains, but not long distance express trains, is also frowned upon.
Manners on the train
When riding on trains and buses turn your mobile/cell phone to silent mode and do not use it for conversation. Text messaging, though, is not considered a problem and you will see many Japanese furiously tapping away.
Manners on the hiking trails
Rubbish bins are hard to come by even in large cities, let alone in small villages and hiking trails. As such, be prepared to carry any rubbish with you back to the accommodation or a larger public space such as a train station where you may discard it. Respect the policy of “leave only footprints, take only photos”.
Priority should be given to ascending walkers on mountainous terrain.
Refrain from taking pictures of passersby without consent, especially of children.
Tipping is not required or expected in regular service transactions, for transport or during meals. As it is not culturally common, it may instead lead to confusion on the part of service providers.
Although Japan is aiming to shift towards a cashless society, many transactions remain cash only, particularly in the smaller, independent establishments which we visit on our tours.
Small dishes are usually displayed close to the cash register in which cash is to be exchanged, rather than directly handing it to the clerk, although most locals will kindly assist with confusion in finding the correct coins.
When hailing a taxi, do not open or close the taxi door by yourself. It is controlled by the driver.
Umbrella covers and stands
Umbrella stands are often found outside shops and restaurants. Use these on rainy days before entering. Some establishments provide plastic covers for umbrellas. Slip this over the wet article and walk in with it in hand.
Do not point your finger, feet, or chopsticks at people. If you have to indicate a person, object or direction, wave your fingers with the palm face up in the general direction.
Exchanging business cards
If you are given a business or name card accept it with both hands. First look at it before carefully putting it away. If you are sitting at a table, place the card on the table in front of you. Do not fold it, play with it, or write on it especially in front of the giver. At an appropriate moment, either at the end of the meeting or after a reasonable period of time has elapsed, put it away into your card holder.
Formal seating arrangements
If you are visiting someone, especially for business, do not sit down of your own accord. Allow your Japanese host to indicate the seat for you to use. This would, in normal circumstances, be considered the best in the room.
When visiting a Japanese family take a small gift. A food item is ideal.