Four tips on proper etiquette when exploring Japan

By Brandon Loo, October 15 2018
Four tips on proper etiquette when exploring Japan

Japan is famed for its culture of politeness and respect, with a number of traditions which may seem unusual to those visiting this popular destination .

Even if you're there for business, you’ll undoubtedly find some downtime to explore the local surroundings.

Here are a few easy tips to keep in mind, to make your next trip flow smoother and avoid creating potentially awkward situations with the Japanese residents.

1. Leave your cash on the tray

You’ll find the ubiquitous cash tray at just about any establishment that takes payments.

The general idea is you put your cash or card on the tray, let the clerk process the payment, and pick up the change and receipt once they leave it on the tray.

It may seem impersonal to us, but it’s the polite way to handle money in Japan as directly handing someone cash may come off as too strong.

2. Stand on one side of the escalators

If you’re ever at a train station during peak hour, it’ll be impossible to miss the throng of passengers taking up the escalators. You’ll also clearly see without fail, that one side of the escalator is reserved for standing (95% of people), and the other is for walking (the remaining 5% who are running late).

Interestingly, if you’re in the Osaka-Kansai region, people will stand on the right and walk on the left, which may seem counter-intuitive. Over on the Tokyo side (and indeed, the rest of Japan), the norm is to stand on the left and walk up the right.

Never push your way into an escalator line either. Especially when coming off a train onto a crowded platform, find the end of the line and wait your turn to go up. Naturally, this goes for all other types of queuing in Japan as well, such as waiting to board the train.

3. Don’t walk and eat on the streets

Foodies will feel right at home when visiting the street markets after a busy day of business.

Once you have your snack in hand though, it’s best to try find somewhere to sit down and enjoy it properly. Many street market stalls will have dedicated areas behind their shops just for this.

The reason – it’s generally considered impolite to eat food while walking around, or on local trains (bullet and other long-distance trains are okay).

While no one is going to accost you for munching on your snack while strolling, you may notice a few disapproving stares headed your way.

4. Don’t litter

This tip is universal, of course. But a problem you’ll quickly notice is the dearth of general/public rubbish bins around the streets of Japan.


You’ll often find a lot of your rubbish is from street vendor food purchases. In this case, it’s customary to return the waste back to the stall you bought it from (after all, you’re also expected to eat around the shop).

Vending machines will sometimes have recycling bins for bottles nearby, and you might find the odd bin at a train station or shopping mall.

But if there’s no disposal site in sight, then it’s best to just hold on to your waste and get rid of it at the end of the day, when you retire to your room.

Do you have any other tips on travelling around Japan to share?

Brandon Loo

Based in Perth, Brandon enjoys tucking into local delicacies, discovering new cocktails, and making aeroplane food look good on camera.

19 May 2015

Total posts 22

5. Don’t tip.

Delta Air Lines - SkyMiles

16 Oct 2017

Total posts 154

I believe the one exception to the "don't walk and eat on the streets" rule is an ice cream. Is that correct?

28 Aug 2016

Total posts 20

6. Don’t answer your mobile phone on public transport.

Delta Air Lines - SkyMiles

16 Oct 2017

Total posts 154

7. Don't raise your voice.

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

31 Jan 2013

Total posts 26

Learn a couple of polite Japanese words. Sumimasen is probably the most useful, it can mean everything from excuse me, to sorry, to thank you.

If you ask for something, end it with o-ne-gai-shi-masu (silent u). It's a polite form of please.

18 Jun 2015

Total posts 3

Look for the racks in coffee shops in case you are expected to clear your own table.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

19 Mar 2013

Total posts 4

Don’t blow your nose in public

Make sure you wear the toilet slippers provided when going to bathroom


13 Sep 2013

Total posts 115

With the exception of Number 1, these really apply everywhere - not just Japan

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

26 Feb 2017

Total posts 1

Do not blow your nose in public is another thing to avoid. You can sniff or wipe but don’t blow.

Delta Air Lines - SkyMiles

16 Oct 2017

Total posts 154

And always put used tissues straight into a bin, not back into your pocket.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

15 Apr 2016

Total posts 8

Shoes shoes shoes!

Not worn inside homes or in some public places (temples, onsen). Change into the provided slippers.

Yukata close left over right.

Chopsticks are not to be placed upright in bowls of rice.

Good sushi place? Won’t need soy; chef will season it for you and fingers are often acceptable to eat nigiri with.

Don’t even get me started on onsen etiquette...

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

13 Jan 2015

Total posts 592

There are some far more important points to note, several of which are mentioned in other comments.

Don’t answer your mobile phone on public transport is much more important that worrying about handing over cash directly for example.

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