Last year Japan attracted a record number of Australian tourists, but if you’re not one of the 552,400 travellers who headed to the Land of the Rising Sun in 2018, here’s some etiquette advice (and a few fun facts) that might surprise you.

The basics

Okay, let’s get the basics sorted. Japan is an island nation (6,852 of them to be exact) surrounded by the Sea of Japan to the East and the Pacific Ocean to the West. The highest point in Japan in Mount Fuji (3,776m) and Tokyo is the capital of the country and the largest metropolitan area on earth – hosting over 36 million people. The crime rate in Japan is one of the lowest in the world, while life expectancy is amongst the highest. (As of 3 June 2019, the oldest known living person is Japanese woman Kane Tanaka of Japan – aged 116 years, 152 days).

It’s a numbers game

When it comes to counting, there are two numbering systems – one for counting items – typically used in ordering (the Native Japanese or hitotsu system) and another for numbers like time, people and money (the more commonly known Sino or ichi system). So, for example, if you were booking a table for two at a restaurant, it would be ‘ni’ (1-10 = ichi, ni, san, chi/yon, go, roku, shichia/nana, hachi, ku/kyuu, jus) but if you were at a restaurant and wanted to order two beers, it wouldn’t be ‘ni’ but it would be ‘futatsu’ (1-10 = hitotsu, futatsu, mittsu, yottsu, itsutsu, muttsu, nanatsu, yattsu, kokonotsu, tou).

Just the tip!

Enjoy your Asahi, but never leave a tip! It is offensive and will often be refused as it implies that the person you are tipping doesn’t earn very much.

Happy vending

With approximately one vending machine per 23 people, Japan has the highest density of vending machines worldwide. But it’s not just sugary cans of soft drink here. You can actually get some amazing traditional dishes from these dispensers. Excellent ready-made meals can also be easily purchased from convenience stores such as Family Mart, 7 Eleven and Lawson. But (tempting as it is to tuck right in) don’t eat in the streets as you are walking. It’s seen as bad manners to eat while in the street.

Use your noodle

There’s a technique to eating ramen correctly. Use the spoon to hold the bottom of the noodles, then use the chopsticks to feed the noodles into your mouth – always eating the entire length of noodle and never biting through them. And despite what your mother told you, feel free to slurp your noodles! According to Japanese custom, this enhances the flavours, and shows the cook that you appreciate the food too.

Dealing with a (chop)sticky situation

Speaking of chopsticks, do not treat them as a pair of swords and tap them against each other! It suggests you think they are cheap and is, therefore, an insult. Avoid standing them upright in your bowl of rice – it’s the way rice is offered to a deceased person’s spirit. When you are finished eating, rest them on the rim of the bowl to signal you are done.

For training purposes

Talking on trains is considered rude, so don’t try to strike up a conversation with your fellow commuters. Japanese locals are extremely polite but very reserved. If absolutely necessary, lower your voice when chatting (but definitely avoid phone calls).

Don’t get off on the wrong foot

If you see shoes at the entrance of buildings, be sure to remove yours before stepping in. Wearing shoes indoors is considered dirty. And always leave them facing down – It’s impolite to show someone the bottom of your kicks. Consider it the Japanese equivalent of putting your feet up on someone’s dinner table!

My cup runneth over

Sake is a big part of Japanese dining culture. It is usually drunk at the beginning of a meal with appetisers. Everyone gets a small cup and a small sake vessel. The rule is that you only ever use your own sake vessel to fill other people’s cups, never your own. And despite the cup looking like a shot glass, it is always meant to be sipped.

Bow down

While not completely expected among visitors, if you want to show politeness and cultural awareness, you should bow instead of shaking hands. As a general ‘cheat’ you should keep your back and neck straight and bow at the same angle as the person in front of you. According to tradition, the lower you bow, the more respect you show towards the other person.

Hugs for hire

Cuddle cafes are a thing…but it’s all relatively G-rated. These places – where you can get a hug, lie down in someone’s lap, or just spend time together with another human being – exist because of a demand for intimacy among lonely (often overworked) locals.

We have an inkling…

You should hide your tattoos! Body art is culturally taboo (due to an association with organised crime gangs, the Yakuza) and you are unlikely to be allowed in swimming pools, spas, and gyms, unless you cover up.

Nothing to sneeze at

It’s highly offensive to blow your nose in public. Just discreetly use tissues to sniff.

It’s hip to be square

Don’t let the square melons freak you out! They’re mostly ornamental and cultivated that way because they’re easier to store.

Take the bait

Japanese eat more fish than anywhere else in the world (17 million tonnes a year) and sushi is unsurprisingly one of the most popular meals in the country. But here are a few tips for those who may be more used to California-roll dining…

  • Try to eat the fish in the order the chef recommends or as they are placed on your plate.
  • Typically, chefs grate fresh wasabi to-order on the sushi piece, making it unnecessary to add much yourself.
  • Don’t top your sushi with pickled ginger – it’s there for a palate cleanser, not to be eaten with the sushi.
  • Avoid too much soy sauce – it’s insulting to the sushi chef who has prepared the dish according to his vision on how it should be eaten. If necessary, dip sushi fish-side down. This is mainly to prevent the rice from falling apart, but it also tastes better.
  • Put down the chopsticks and eat nigiri with your hands. Turn the piece upside down and put it in your mouth The fish is the star, this ensures it’s the first – and finest – thing your palate should experience.