As more and more foreigners travel to Japan, it has become increasingly important for everyone to understand Japanese manners and etiquette.
Whenever I travel to Japan, I see many foreigners committing the same etiquette mistakes—mainly because they just don’t know that what they are doing is rude or disrespectful. So my goal is to provide information about Japanese manners that will make your next trip a successful one!
- Don’t Touch Sakura!
One of the most popular times of the year for people to travel to Japan is during Sakura (Cherry Blossom) season, which generally occurs between late-March to early-April. One look at the beautiful Sakura, and it’s easy to understand why “Hanami” or “Sakura viewing” has become an important Japanese tradition.
Unfortunately, foreigners make the same mistakes every year when it comes to these beautiful and delicate flowers.
First, it is important to know the meaning behind Sakura, as they have deep symbolism in Japan. Sakura are seen as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of life, and usually bloom and fall within one week. It is amazing how all of Japan brightens into a beautiful shade of white and pink for one week, and then all the flowers are gone again.
So, DON’T TOUCH THE SAKURA! No matter how beautiful they are, and no matter how much you want to touch them. Please fight the urge!
Not only is touching Sakura considered very rude, it is also important for the safety and care of the flowers. The more people touch, move, bend, and pull Sakura and Sakura trees, the more likely that they will be damaged and die. These flowers are very fragile. So please help protect the flowers for years to come.
Also, I would highly recommend not even picking-up the fallen Sakura, as a fallen Sakura symbolizes a fallen samurai who sacrificed his life for the emperor.
The same rule goes for the beautiful Wisteria flowers in Japan. DON’T TOUCH THE WISTERIA!
- Don’t Put Your Mouth On The Water Ladle!
One of the things on everyone’s to-do list when traveling to Japan is visiting a Japanese temple or shrine, and there are plenty of both in Japan. In fact, Kyoto alone has more than 2,000 temples and shrines.
On your way to the shrine or temple you will see a Chozuya, which is an area for you to perform a ritual meant to cleanse your body before worshiping.
The process is pretty simple. You grab the “hishaku” (water ladle) in your right hand, and pour water on your left hand. Then you switch the hishaku to your left hand and pour water on your right hand. Then you grab the hishaku with your right hand and pour water into your left cupped hand, and you use the water in your left hand to wash your mouth. DON’T PUT YOUR MOUTH DIRECTLY ON THE WATER LADLE!
Many people make the mistake of drinking from the hishaku, but the chozuya is not a water fountain! Not only is it rude to place your mouth on the hishaku, it is also not very sanitary.
Also, to finish the cleansing ritual, make sure to hold the hishaku vertically, to allow the remaining water to clean the water ladle before placing it back.
Finally, just an extra tidbit about following proper shrine etiquette; when you pass through the torii on your way to the shrine, don’t walk through the center of the torii. This area is reserved for the gods, while humans walk along the edges. You don’t want to anger the gods…or anyone else.
- Don’t Throw Coins In Ponds!
As you travel through Japan’s many temples, shrines, and gardens, you will likely come across many beautiful ponds—and many will also have a variety of beautiful fish and plants. Think cool koi ponds.
The very first thing people want to do when they see one of these ponds is to reach into their pockets or purses for a coin, because they think that the ponds are “wishing wells.” But if you find yourself in this situation, please stop! DON’T THROW COINS IN THE PONDS! They are not “wishing ponds.” And it is very rude to do this.
Also, it is important to keep the fish and plants in the ponds safe. Throwing coins in ponds can contaminate the water, prevent plants from growing properly, and can be eaten by the fish—causing sickness and even death!
- Don’t Touch Fish At The Market!
Japan is known around the world for its fresh seafood. In fact, Tsukiji Fish Market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, and has the largest tuna auction in the world.
So if you are walking through the many outdoor markets in Japan, you will see many vendors selling fish and other seafood at very cheap prices.
As soon as most foreigners see the great seafood prices, they immediately think that something must be wrong with the fish, and they want to “test” the quality. But stop! DON’T TOUCH THE FISH AT THE MARKET! This is a very common mistake.
Also, picking-up, touching, or poking the seafood can damage the quality of the food. Just think about seafood like an avocado or tomato—the more people grab and squeeze them, the more you bruise and ruin it. Not a good thing—unless you want your seafood to look like guacamole.
- Don’t Walk Past Barriers!
This one seems like an obvious one, but based on the number of foreigners that break this rule, it deserved to be mentioned again.
Most of the time, you will find small and large barriers in and around gardens, temples, shrines, museums, and other tourist areas. But many people will ignore the barriers because they want to get that great Instagram or Facebook picture. I mean, it wouldn’t hurt if you just quickly ignored the rules for a little bit, right? WRONG. DON’T WALK PAST THE BARRIERS!
Not following the rules is obviously rude. But it is important to understand that these rules are there for a reason. If you see small barriers in gardens—think Sakura and Wisteria—then don’t step over them. These barriers protect the roots of the plants and trees. Ignoring the barrier could kill the plants!
The same thing goes for barriers at temples, shrines, and museums, as they are meant to protect sacred areas and priceless items. If you damage any of these, you can’t just buy a new item on the internet.
- Don’t Forget To Separate Your Trash!
Most people in America, and other countries, are accustomed to throwing all of their trash in one bag, and then throwing the bag in a dumpster. Unless you recycle, you don’t really think twice about trash.
However, Japan has an important system of trash disposal, meant to keep the country from becoming a giant landfill. The method is very simple. You generally separate trash into different categories: burnable; non-burnable; over-sized garbage; and recyclable plastic bottles and cans.
I know what you are thinking. This seems like too much work. But do not think like a lazy foreigner. DON’T FORGET TO SEPARATE YOUR TRASH! This is the system in Japan, so you should do your best to respect this system. Don’t be rude.
- Don’t Put Your Towel In Onsen Water!
One of the coolest things you should experience in Japan is an authentic “onsen” or Japanese hot spring. I’ve had the opportunity to visit a Japanese onsen, and it was one of the most relaxing experiences I have had—once you get past the part where you are in a room full of naked people.
Many other sites and articles regularly discuss the many rules to going to an onsen, including:
- You have to be naked;
- You have to wash before entering the onsen;
- You have to make sure you wash the stool you used to wash yourself; and
- You are not supposed to splash or dive into an onsen
But one of the things that is especially rude to do in an onsen has to do with the little towels you get to help you wash yourself. DON’T PUT YOUR TOWEL IN THE ONSEN WATER! This is seen as very rude.
Most casual onsen-goers will place their towels on the side of the onsen—which is perfectly fine. But the master-class will balance the towels on their heads.
Also, please don’t dip your head under water in an onsen. This is also seen as rude, since you may leave some of your hair floating in the water. Plus, it avoids the onsen water going into your mouth—just trying to help you from getting sick.
- Don’t Double-Dip The Kushikatsu!
Let’s finish this article on Japanese manners by going over a rule that crosses all geographic and language barriers.
Kushikatsu is Japanese deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables. And yes, it is as delicious as it sounds. But this delicious meal becomes even better when you dip the kushikatsu into the awesome sauce that is provided to you. But remember this very simple rule: DON’T DOUBLE DIP THE KUSHIKATSU!
People know this rule in America, where we typically tell people not to double-dip chips into the dips, so it shouldn’t be too surprising. But what is surprising is just how important this rule is to kushikatsu eating etiquette. In fact, step into a kushikatsu restaurant and you will see hundreds of signs warning you to avoid this big mistake.
Well, I hope that some of this information will help you from avoiding some of the common mistakes foreigners make when traveling to Japan. Remember that you are a guest in another country, so you should do your best to respect their traditions and customs.
See you next time everyone!