If you want to be savvy when you travel to Japan, know that there’s an unwritten code that applies to everyday routines. For example, wearing the wrong slippers outside your hotel will draw shocking stares. Here are six tips to help you save face while traveling around the country.
Bars: City vs. country
Don’t plan on having a before-dinner cocktail hour when you are staying at Japanese inns in the countryside, whether traditional or modern. Bars, if they exist, probably won’t be open until 8 p.m. or later — after the dinner hour. The inns don’t take notice of the usual Western predinner cocktail, and I’m not sure why. In major cities, however, hotel bars always open before dinner.
Also, Japanese country inns usually serve a fixed multicourse dinner featuring local ingredients. Often the first group of dishes — the appetizer — is served with an aperitif, such as plum wine. This is a “welcome” drink on the house. After the meal, you may find a bar open. It will be crowded with other guests. What they are doing is called a ‘nijikai,‘ a “second-round” party after dinner. Those who want more after-dinner fun gather in these usually dark and sometimes smoky bars for drinks, chats and, sometimes, alcohol-infused singing.
Wear your yukata, or kimono-style gown
A Japanese inn offers men and women a yukata, or a kimono-style gown. You’ll find it in your room. Today some Japanese inns may offer guests a colorful and sometimes nontraditional choice: a top and loose pants. Guests at the inn are encouraged to shed their street clothes and don a yukata. You can go everywhere in the hotel wearing one, including to the dining room and even outside for a stroll. The yukata is very comfortable. But after wearing one for dinner five consecutive nights at several inns, I tired of it.
At my sixth dinner, I wore my travel dinner “uniform”: a casual dress. It was fine, and I did not feel out of place. When you put on a yukata, there is one rule that you must never ignore: After putting your arms through the sleeves, always place the right-hand side of the fabric over your body with the left side of the yukata on top. Doing the opposite — right over left — is reserved for wrapping the dead before cremation.
Women tie the yukata’s obi belt that secures it over the waist line and men place the obi a bit lower, over the hip bone. Don’t worry if the obi seems too long; arrange it so the knot is in front for women, and at the back for men. And one word of caution: Don’t try to run anywhere when you’re wearing a yukata! You’ll expose your legs (and maybe more?) and you might trip, too.
Different slippers, different functions
At Japanese inns, you may be asked to take off your shoes when you enter. The inn may store your shoes at the front door. Instead, you’ll be given a pair of slippers, and they become your “in-house” shoes. At some inns, they’ll ask you to remove shoes only when you enter your own room. In that case, take off your shoes and leave them in the entry foyer of the room. Then use the in-room slippers you’ll find there.
However, if the room floor is covered in straw tatami mats, no slippers are worn; only bare feet or socks are acceptable. Most of the time, I ignore the in-room slippers and walk in my bare feet regardless of the floor covering, since it’s always impeccably clean.
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Don’t fold those train tickets!
Hold onto your tickets after boarding without bending or mutilating them, no matter what happens or how long your journey takes. It’s the system bequeathed by the British, who built the first railways in Japan.
You need your ticket when you enter the platform and the train and you’ll need it again when leaving the platform or station. At Japan Railway stations, you can buy a card, called Suica, and load money onto it to buy tickets, similar to a MetroCard in New York City. Put it in your wallet as the Japanese do. At the station, just touch your wallet at the ticket gate and, after it reads the built-in chip, the automatic gate will open.
When you leave, do the same thing. The fare is debited from the card, and the amount of cash remaining on your card will flash briefly at the exit gate. Cards can be reloaded with more funds, and they also may be used on non-Japan Railway trains and subways. You can even use the card for purchases at station kiosks and convenience stores. It is a marvelously efficient and easy-to-use system.
Get out your hankies
When you land in Japan, one of the first things you should do is buy a couple of inexpensive handkerchiefs. You can find simple handkerchiefs at convenience stores and more expensive ones at department stores, including international designer brands. When you eat at casual restaurants, they may serve a wet cloth, oshibori, but no paper or cloth napkins. The oshibori is too wet to put on your lap. The handkerchief is perfect for such duty.
For reasons that are not at all clear, soba and udon noodle shops do not supply napkins of any kind, so your handkerchief will be quite handy after slurping a bowl of the delicious noodles. A handkerchief is also very convenient for wiping away sweat if you’re out and about during the steamy, sweltering Japanese summer. One thing a handkerchief is never used for in Japan: to blow your nose.
Stay to the left side, mostly
For the most part, Japan adopted British norms of pedestrian and vehicle traffic flow. Therefore, we drive on the left and even walk on the left. When it comes to escalators, it is not so straightforward. In Tokyo, we stand on the left side and let the hurrying people pass us on the right. In Osaka, this becomes the opposite; stand on the right. A nationwide survey found that 57% of the population follows the Tokyo way, 13% the Osaka way, 9.2% depend on the local situation, and 12.3% simply do not let other people pass. So observe and do as the locals do in each part of Japan you are visiting.
Main photo: An aerial view of the Tokyo Dome at night. Credit: Copyright Lukas/Wikimedia Commons