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16 things you should never do in Japan

Australians love Japan. We love it in winter for snow, in spring for cherry blossoms, in summer for a warm escape and in autumn for incredible colour. We love to visit Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hakuba, Hiroshima and we’re starting to go off the beaten track. 

In Family Travel’s Best of Family Travel awards 2018, Japan won the best cultural destination for families. 

But, be warned. You’re probably doing quite a few things wrong. Are you guilty of any of these Japan culture mistakes?

Wearing the Yukata like a dead body

Japan Yukata

This is a Yukata and you need to know how to wear it. Picture: Alison Godfrey

The Yukata is a casual summer kimono made of cotton or synthetic fabric. You will find them in every Japanese Ryokan hotel. Guests should wear the yukata to dinner, to breakfast and to the onsen when staying in a hotel.

But be warned. You need to fold the right side UNDER the left side. Only dead bodies placed in coffins have the yukata folder right over left. Don’t be dead. 

Hint: It will come folded exactly how you are meant to wear it. Pay attention before you pull it out of the box. 

Wearing toilet shoes to dinner

Toilet shoes in Japan. Picture: Alison Godfrey

Most hotels will supply shoes in the bathroom. Not all of them will say “toilet” like the ones above. Toilet shoes should stay in the toilet. You will find more shoes near the door for wearing to dinner and around the hotel. 

Wearing shoes on the tatami mats

Japan shoes Alison Godfrey

Japanese slippers must stay in the hallway of the ryokan. Picture: Alison Godfrey

Do not do this. Shoes should never be worn on tatami mats. Take your shoes off. Socks are totally fine. 

Failing to cleanse at the Shinto Shrine

Shinto Shrine Japan

The entrance to a Shinto Shrine in Japan. Picture: Alison Godfrey

At every Shinto Shrine, you will find a pool of water and ladles. Guests entering the shrine should clean their left hand first, then their right, then their mouth (and spit the water outside the basin). Finally, you need to wash the scoop. And then replace it, neatly and carefully for the next person. 

Handing items to people using one hand

Use two hands when giving or receiving items in Japan. Picture: By aijiro / Shutterstock

In Japan, when you are giving or receiving an item you should use two hands.  To use one hand is a rude gesture. 

Wearing swimmers in the onsen

Onsen Japan

No swimmers in the onsen. Picture: Shutterstock

You also need to get naked in the onsen. No swimmers. Yes, you will see pictures of the onsen with women in towels like the one above. That’s just for photos. 

Failing to shower before the onsen

Use the shower before the onsen. Picture: Shutterstock

When you enter the onsen, you need to strip off all your clothes and head for the showers. Wash and scrub your entire body before you enter the hot spring. This rule is in place to keep the water clean. You should also wash after the onsen. 

Pushing the wrong button on the toilet

Japanese toilets are high tech

Japanese toilets are high tech. Picture: Shutterstock

Japanese toilets are awesome. Most have seat warmers that are great for cold winters. They also have loads of buttons that squirt water in all kinds of different ways. My tour guide tells me she regularly has guests who can’t find the flush but who have squirted themselves in the face while testing the buttons. You need to have your bottom on the seat to squirt the water. The flush button is often separate from the other functions. 

Asking for “Nashi Pear”

Pear in Japan

Nashi means pear. Picture: Alison Godfrey

Nashi means pear in Japan. When you ask for a nashi pear, you are asking for “pear pear”. Japanese pears are known by different regions. Some are as big as your head. 

Leaving your slippers in a mess 

Slippers Japan

This is NOT the way to leave slippers. Picture: Alison Godfrey

Watch the Japanese guests when they take off their slippers. They back up to the step until their heels touch the edge. Then they step out of their slippers and up onto the step backwards. So then when it comes to going down, they can effortlessly slip their slippers on and walk away. 

Eating from the tea cup

Japan etiquette

So many tiny containers. Be careful you don’t use the wrong one. Picture: Alison Godfrey

A Japanese banquet can be tricky. So many plates and cups and bowls. At one of our Japanese dinners, our host carefully told a British guest they were eating rice from the tea cup. In his defence, the tea cup did look similar to the sauce bowls. Be careful. Ask if you are not sure. 

Using the wrong gender language


In Japan language is gender specific. Picture: Alison Godfrey

Think you know a bit of Japanese? Be careful who you learned from. Some words are different depending on the gender of the speaker. If you were taught by a female and you are a male – you may have a few awkward moments. 

Pushing in at the breakfast buffet

breakfast buffet.

Follow the order at the breakfast buffet. Picture: Nithid Memanee / Shutterstock

Watch the Japanese carefully at the breakfast buffet. We westerners tend to grab a plate and head to the nearest delicacy. But the Japanese follow a patter and an order. They will not push in, but they may skip you and go past if you are too slow. 

Asking for the bed

Japanese Ryokan hotel

A traditional Japanese Ryokan hotel. Picture: Alison Godfrey

You should spend a few nights in a traditional Japanese hotel. But don’t go asking the staff for a bed. The tatami matt room will be set up with a chair and table. At night, when you are at dinner, the staff will come into the room and add a futon mattress to the floor. 

Ask permission to take photos

Universal Studios Japan.

A group of girls dressed up at Universal Studios Japan. Picture: Alison Godfrey

Yes, the Japanese can be particularly photogenic. Kimono-clad women and kids and groups of similarly dressed teens make great photos. But you do need to ask permission to take their photo. 

Be careful in the fish market

Whale in Japan

Be careful in the fish market. Picture: Alison Godfrey

I saw a woman crumbing fish in the fish market and was fascinated by her skills. It was only when I came closer that I noticed the fish was actually whale. Be careful what you choose to eat. Not all places will have a helpful little character sign. 

Want to read more about Japan? 

Should you take the kids to Hiroshima?

Tokyo Disneyland or DisneySea?

5 sports to try in Japan


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