“Moshi moshi!”

“Moshi moshi” is a way of saying “hello” but it’s only used when you’re speaking on the phone. When making and receiving a call, start off with a “moshi moshi” and you’re a step closer to being a local around here.



If you’ve ever been in the busy town of Tokyo, you’ve surely spotted the typical scene of “salarymen” at stations bowing to the person they’re talking to on the phone. This may seem quite strange at first, but bowing is a common sight in Japan - try it out during your stay!

Think of bowing - or “ojigi” - as a Japanese alternative to a handshake. It could be used as a greeting, a sign of respect, gratitude or even an apology depending on the context. The most casual and perhaps the most commonly use one of them all is the “eshaku” where you do a light bow by lightly dipping your head forward. Bow at a 15-degree angle if you want to keep things technical.

So when do you use the “eshaku”? Common examples would be when you’re saying thank you to the restaurant/store staff, when you bump into someone while walking the crowded streets of Tokyo and you want to say “sumimasen,” (lit. “sorry or excuse me”) when you pass by a coworker at work who is around the same age as you, and so on. Keep in mind that the “eshaku” is the most casual form of the ojigi so it may come off to be disrespectful if you choose to do this to someone who is significantly older or of a higher status than you.

Following the “eshaku” are the “keirei” bow and the “saikeirei” bow. The “keirei” is usually said to be bowing at a 30-degree angle bending from your waist. Both are usually used in work situations - the “keirei” bow could be used when greeting customers, so you may see that the shop or restaurant staff will be doing this to you when you leave the store as they say “arigatou gozaimasu (thank you),” while the “saikeirei” bow is a more polite version of this and it is used to express deeply sincere gratitude or apologies.

Remember, the longer you hold the bow, the deeper the respect!


Address people by their names instead of “you”!

In Japan, it’s considered rude when you address someone by “you” and at often times it’ll come off as though you don’t respect them enough to call them by their names. When you’re speaking with a Japanese person, always address them by their names! Add a “-san” to the end of it if you’re not too familiar with the other person. When in Japan, show the respect. It will most likely be reciprocated!



What’s this phrase - “Irasshaimase!” - that the staff keep saying when you walk into stores? You’ll hear this in practically every establishment you walk into - sometimes you might not even pick up on it because they’re saying it too quickly! “Irasshaimase” is simply a greeting to welcome you into the store. No need to say anything in return - if you meet eyes with the staff, just offer a smile.


Be On Time!

When a Japanese person says “Let’s meet at 5:00pm,” he or she means it! It can also mean that the person will probably be there around 5-10 minutes earlier, just in case. Punctuality is a way of life in Japan - if only everyone was the same!



Take off your shoes!

When you enter a Japanese home, the first thing that pops into view are the neatly lined shoes at the “genkan,” or entrance. Yes, this does imply you take those shoes off before you come in!

In Japan, it’s customary for you to take off your shoes at the entrance. This comes from Japan’s traditional lifestyle. Japanese people used to (and still do!) eat while seated on tatami straw mats and also slept on the floor - everything was done on the floor, so you can tell you wouldn’t want any germs lying around, especially while you’re trying to enjoy your yummy white rice. Although many people now eat at dining tables and sleep on beds, they’ve kept this custom alive and it’s not changing anytime soon, so get comfortable with those shoeless feet!


Bathroom slippers

Bathrooms are considered separate from the household in Japan. When in a Japanese household, (and sometimes even restaurants) they usually have slippers placed inside the bathroom. If you see them, slip out of your shoes, leave them at the door and put the slippers on. Also remember to take them off when you leave the bathroom!


Don’t wear your slippers on a tatami mat!

In traditional Japanese households, teahouses, and other traditional Japanese structures, they’ll have tatami mat flooring - like you’ve seen it in the samurai dramas! The Japanese like to keep the house clean and offer slippers upon entrance, but tatami mats are an exception. Only bare feet or socks are allowed on the tatami.



Again, the shoes!

Some restaurants have tatami floor seating, which is elevated at about 50cm above the floor, so if you’re guided to this type of seating layout, be sure to take your shoes off.

Some restaurants may even require you to take off your shoes upon entering the restaurant, just like in Japanese homes. They will either have an open shoe rack or individual shoeboxes where you can place your shoes and lock it up. Keep the key with you for taking the shoes out once again upon leaving.


Ways to sit

In formal situations, you can try and be polite and sit in the “seiza” position, or kneeling with your butt on your heels. Some (fewer and fewer) restaurants in Japan won’t have chairs so be prepared for a little ache! If you become uncomfortable, then no worries - the staff will understand if you get a cramp and need to sit directly on the floor.



Although knives and forks are very much the norm in many restaurants in Japan, the vast majority of places that serve Japanese cuisine will require the use of chopsticks. Of course people will understand if you cannot use them, however learning a little about them will go a long way!

Here are a few pointers:
- If you’re not sure, then watch how other people use them and give it a go. It takes time, but you can do it. - Use the chopstick holder to rest the chopsticks when you’re not using them. If there isn’t one, then try folding one using the chopstick wrapper!
- Always place food from a common dish onto your own smaller plate before eating.
- Never share food from chopstick to chopstick - it’s taboo!
- Never stick your chopsticks upright into a bowl of rice. It’s another taboo since this is how the rice is offered to the dead at Buddhist funerals. It’s better to know!


Eat & drink together

You’ve heard it before - Japanese people have been brought up with a very group-oriented mindset and this is just one situation where it comes into play. So which is correct? Do you start drinking as soon as your drink gets to the table? Or do you wait until the last person’s drink arrives?

If you guessed the latter you’re already ahead in achieving the Japanese mindset. You should always wait until the last drink arrives to the table before you start drinking. While some may start eating before others in case the people who are still plate-less offer you to eat first since the food can get cold, drinking is very much done in a group and no one will start drinking by themselves first before everybody’s drinks have arrived. That’s when you say “kanpai (cheers)” and down your drink!


Let’s share!

Say you have a shared plate and you’re moving the food from the shared plate to your own - it’s most polite to use the other end of your chopsticks rather than the end you use while you eat. Dabbing in the end you’ve used to eat into the shared food is not too sanitary, so if you want to come off as a clean and polite person, it’s better to use that other end of your chopstick!


East sushi like a pro

There are rules of etiquette that come with eating one of Japan’s most famous and loved dishes, sushi. According to sushi connoisseurs, here is the quote and quote “correct” way of eating sushi.

Rolled sushi:

1) Grab the seaweed portion with your fingers
2) Dip just one side of the rice into the soy sauce
3) Once you’re done eating, take the ginger and eat it on its own. People often get it confused and eat the ginger with the sushi, but it’s officially considered to be impolite. The ginger is also there to clear out the taste palette so you can go ahead with your next piece, so to serve its purpose it’s better to eat it on its own.

Nigiri-zushi (fish on top, rice on bottom):

1) Use your chopsticks and roll the nigiri-zushi on its side.
2) Pick it up and dip just the fish side into your soy sauce palette. (Be careful to not dip too much soy sauce, it could diminish the complex flavors you can get out of the sushi!)
3) If you want to go pro in the sushi game, put it in your mouth so the fish lays flat on your tongue. Apparently it enhances the flavors!



Like the saying goes, “When in Rome…” well, in this case, “when in Japan, do as the Japanese do.” When you cheers, raise your glass and clonk your glasses to the words “kanpai”!


Slurping is OK!

Planning on getting yourself a bowl of ramen? Slurp while you’re at it! This may come off as a surprise considering how polite and quiet Japanese people are, but slurping is considered okay in Japan since it indicates how you’re enjoying the food and they even say it tastes better when you do.



You gotta love onsen (Japanese hot springs)
Can’t quite picture what it’s like at an onsen? We’ll run you through it!

1) Naked in the onsen

Take off all your clothes! You’ll first enter a changing room where you can take off your clothes and leave them behind in the locker spaces. If you’re feeling a little uncomfortable about being naked in front of however many strangers, go ahead and use the mini-towel that’s provided by the place you’re staying at, or you can rent it out at the front desk.

Note: the arrangement may slightly differ depending on whether you’re staying over at a ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) with an onsen, or if you’re just visiting an onsen facility to relax your tired muscles in a gigantic bath. You’ll usually find towels in your room if you’re staying at a ryokan, whereas you can get them at the front desk if you’re visiting an onsen facility. Bikinis or any type of swimwear are considered a no-no, unless you’re headed to an onsen pool. So get ready to be comfortable with exposure!

2) Wash your body

Once you’re rid of those nasty clothes and have stepped into the onsen space, you’ll find rows (or a row, depending on the size of the onsen you’re at) of individual mirrors and taps and/or showerheads. Grab a mini stool from the stack you’ll most likely find placed very close to the entrance, so pull one in front of the mirror and ta-da! You’ve claimed your own washing space.

Now get clean from head to toe - it is taboo to enter the onsen or the bath until you’ve done so. Since it’s a shared space, you know it’ll set you off if the water’s gross-looking. So do everyone a favor and splash in with a clean body!

3) Jump right in!

Actually no, don’t jump - that’s considered impolite for all of the surrounding bathers.

Onsen range in size. You can usually find one indoors as well as ones outside (“roten-buro”). Why not try all of them and get the best out of your onsen experience? Different onsen usually have different health benefits - some can smoothen out your skin, others can even help with neuralgia and back pain! Be careful though, these different tubs also vary in their set temperature: some of them can be really hot so dip your feet in to make sure your whole body can handle it!

Useful tips:

*You can often find shampoo and body soap at the onsen, but bring your own if you’re worried! It could be a tad bit expensive to buy them there so you might even end up saving some money.
*If you’re a huge Instagrammer, we feel you! But this just isn’t a selfie moment. Usually cameras are not allowed inside.
*Be careful when walking inside the onsen! The floors can be really slippery. Just looking out.
*That talk about tattoos - we’re here to confirm that yes, tattoos are still largely unacceptable at onsens (because of its apparent connotations of yakuza). But keep your hopes up! All you need is to stay at a place that has a private bath (“kashikiri buro”) where you can rent out the onsen for a limited amount of time and you can have the bath all to yourselves!


Shrines & temples


Usually people throw in some money into the offering box before they pray. It’s considered good luck to throw in a 5-yen, or “go en” coin since “go-en” can also mean “luck” in Japanese.


If there’s a bell, ring it by shaking the rope back and forth - it’s what calls the Gods into the shrines and temples!


Photography can be prohibited in some temples/shrines so be sure to keep an eye out for signs.


Shinto Shrines


The first thing you’ll find when you enter a shrine is a “temizuya” (water place). Wash your hands and rinse out your mouth here - this is considered an act of cleansing out the impurities before prayer.

There’s also a strict order to follow:
1) Hold the ladle with your right hand and wash your left hand first - then do the opposite.
2) Scoop some water again with the ladle in your right hand, pour it into your left, and rinse your mouth. Be sure to never rinse your mouth directly from the ladle, and spit beside the fountain, never into it.
3) With the ladle still in your right, wash your left hand to cleanse it one last time.

Bowing and clapping

Believe it or not there’s a procedure you have to follow when praying at the shrine!
1. Perform a light bow, ring the bell.
2. Throw your money into the offering box.
3. Do two deeper bows (30-45 degree angle), bring your hands right in front of your chest, pray, then clap twice.
4. Perform another light bow in the end and you’re good to go!


Buddhist Temples


Contrary to the shrine, temples don’t require any clapping but they do require the bowing. Follow the below steps to do it the right way!
1. Perform a light bow, ring the bell.
2. Throw your money into the offering box.
3. Put your hands together in front of chest and pray.
4. Perform a light bow to top it off!

How to tell between a temple and a shrine? If you passed through a “tori” (usually red and consists of two main pillars) gate, you’re at a shrine, if you passed through a “sanmon” (looks more like a mini-temple, usually complete with massive doors) gate, you’re at a temple.


Some temples offer large incense holders, where you can purchase your own bundle of “osenko” (incense) and burn them. Be sure to kill the fire with your hands and to never blow it out. Before leaving the incense area, wave some of that smoke onto yourself since it’s known to have healing powers!



Thought tipping was a pain? Well you’ve come to the right place: no need to tip anywhere in Japan! It’s also considered a bit rude to tip. And whoever you try to tip - they’re unlikely to take it up.



Women-only passenger cars

To all male travelers: If you look around the train and happen to be the only guy there, chances are that you might be in a women-only car. Swiftly make your move to a different car when this happens. They’re usually effective only on weekdays during rush hour period.


Priority seats

Usually at both ends of the car, you’ll find priority seats for the elderly, pregnant, injured and otherwise unwell passengers. Give up your seat to someone who needs it!


Talking on the phone

Talking on the phone on public transportation whether it’s on the train or the bus is a no-no in Japan. And if you’re near the priority seats, even more so. Don’t do it because it could interfere with medical devices such as pacemakers. Turn it off or stick with texting!


Rush hour madness

You’ve probably heard about rush hour in Japan - the staff pushing the people into the cart to help them fit into the offered space… You’d be surprised how many people can fit in one train car! And believe us, you will be crushed! With that said, you might want to avoid going on trains when this happens - rush hour period is usually from 7:00am - 9:00am, and 5:00pm - 8:00pm at night.




When you’re on an escalator, you’ll find how quickly people organize themselves. In Tokyo, the rule is to stand left, pass right. Beware in Kansai, it works the other way around - stand right, pass left!


Smoking in public

Cigarettes can be a lot cheaper in Japan compared to other places around the world, and you might be more inclined to smoke more here compared to back home. But one thing to keep in mind: Smoking while walking is frowned upon! In some areas, they’ve legally prohibited this act since it’s considered dangerous.

But we’ve got good news for you. Designated smoking areas are easy to find. Look for them outside of most train stations, inside malls and/or by some vending machines and you’ll easily stay out of trouble.



When in Japan, separate your trash. You’ll soon notice how bins in Japan have multiple openings where you can throw in your trash. This isn’t just to widen your options of where to throw your garbage: in Japan, you’ve got to separate burnables from plastic from cans and bottles. Usually, you’ll find what goes where in English so do as indicated!



Japanese people love keeping things tidy! When it’s raining out, you’ll most likely find a stand that offers plastic bags for your wet umbrellas right at the entrance of restaurants and stores. Snap one for your own umbrella and keep it in there to avoid getting the inside (and items inside) wet. If you’re walking around the store or restaurant with the umbrella dripping water, the staff may come up and offer you to use this plastic bag.