What To Expect When You Travel To Japan


I felt like I’d spotted a unicorn or some fictitious being you only hear about in fairy tales. I was walking the streets of Kyoto, Japan, and it wasn’t a unicorn I saw but a demure-looking Geisha as she crossed the street in front of me.

She was making her way from one alley to another and I only just briefly caught sight of her painted face, her colorful kimono and her wooden geta shoes, which she teetered in hurriedly, as she quietly shuffled out of view.

If you travel to Japan you will see that it is a country of contrasts, where businessmen in expensive suits fall asleep on trains next to grown women dressed as techno-colorred school girls, who busily check their Hello Kitty-encased smartphones. It’s a country where quaint noodle bars line the same streets as high-end Euro-inspired hotels, where Shinto shrines are frequented by the same people who play at the pachinko parlours in Roppongi.

Pachinko Parlour, Japan
Pachinko Parlour, Japan

The old and the new converge, spectacularly and obviously, colorfully and shamelessly, in this fantastically contradictory country called Japan.

The first time I’d visited Japan was during a work trip. I’d found myself on the ski slopes in the former Olympic Winter Games host prefecture of Nagano. I’d never skied before, but with a quick lesson, all in Japanese and met with my blank stares, I managed to snowplough my way down the Karamatsu slope on Hakuba’s Tsugaike Mountain.

It was during my stay in Hakuba that I began to realise the juxtaposition between old and new, traditional and contemporary, quaint and in your face.

With its 10 resort areas and more than 200 ski runs, Hakuba has a definite European feel, but is equally traditional with its shrines, rice fields, izakaya restaurants and thatch-roofed houses which line the road alongside the villas and chateaux.

On visiting nearby Myoko Kogen, about an hour out of Nagano, I realised the extent of the contrast between the old and new. One of the hotels I’d visited had only just recently opened its doors to foreigners, or gaijin, proving that while Japan moves rapidly forward, they have one foot firmly planted in the past.

Japan highstreet
Japan highstreet

Gaijin in Japan

Tradition reigns supreme in Japan and there is a deep respect for custom, food and culture. So, if you do find yourself wandering through Japan, for business or pleasure, then be sure to be aware of the local norms.

Not sure how to use a public bath? Or why you should slurp your noodles loudly at a restaurant? Well, let me fill you in on some interesting customs in Japanese culture so you don’t step on any toes during your stay.

At the dinner table

  • It is absolutely OK to make noises and slurp while you’re eating noodles, actually it’s a sign of respect to the chef and shows that you’re really enjoying your meal.
  • Use your chopsticks with care, never use them to take food from shared dishes and never stick them into your rice.
  • If you’re not using your chopsticks, make sure you use the chopstick holder. Be neat and tidy where possible.
  • Don’t rub your chopsticks together. Rubbing chopstick together removes the excess wood when you snap them apart. But if you do this in a restaurant, you’re basically saying their chopsticks are cheap.

At home

  • Remember to take your shoes off when you enter a hotel, someone’s home or anywhere where traditional tatami mats are used.
  • There is always an allocated area for your shoes, so just be aware of that when entering a new establishment. You’ll also be given indoor shoes or slippers to wear.

Social occasions

  • Be polite while using your phone in public places by avoiding loud conversations. Also, place your phone on vibration so you don’t disturb anyone with your ringtone.
  • If you’re paying a visit to a public bath, or onsen, then you have to be in your birthday suit. Not swimwear allowed.
  • You might be refused entry into an onsen if you have tattoos.
  • Be careful when making your way into the onsen, this goes for bathrooms too, red is for women, blue is for men.
  • Tipping is considered rude.
  • It’s also rude to blow your nose in public spaces, go to the bathroom or a private area.
Japanese food

Sarah eating Japanese food

On my last night in Japan, eager to find some fresh local fare, I sat at the quaint noodle bar, hidden down some quiet stairs on a busy street in Myoko.

I slurped my noodles, trying not to offend the chef, drank the sake that was poured for me and ate raw fish for the first time, making sure I didn’t stick my chopsticks into the rice.

After spending a mere week in Japan I was surprised when a woman came over to compliment me on my chopstick dexterity.

“You might have been Japanese in a past life, because you eat better than I do,” she said, laughing.

I was pretty warm from the sake by then, so I laughed and continued slurping my noodles, this time a little louder.


Connect with Sarah via Twitter @duncansm, and be sure to check out here musings over at www.collecivepressco.com and www.sarepa.com.

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