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The Ultimate Culture Guide to Japan


Respect and gratitude play a huge part in everyday life but nowhere more so than Japan. Below is our ultimate guide to communicating effortlessly while showing respect for Japanese culture.
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Gestures and Bowing

Use these pointers to gesture and bow with confidence.

  • Referring to yourself – use your index finger to gently touch the tip of your nose
  • Referring to others – gesture to others using an open palm
  • I don’t know – move your hand from side to side in front of your face
  • Excuse me – hold up one hand near your face, bowing your head slightly
  • Beckoning – relax your hand and do a gentle shooing motion
  • Thank you – tip your hand slightly with your thumb towards your face
  • No – make an x with your hands, make sure not to clench your fists
  • Asking for forgiveness, asking for a favour, thanking for a meal – put your hands together whilst slightly bowing your head
  • Hungry / do you want to eat? – Pretend to hold a bowl in one hand and motion eating with chopsticks in the other
  • Bowing – bowing is a versatile motion performed as a greeting, to express gratitude (e.g when receiving a gift) and also as part of an apology. The deeper the bow, the greater the respect shown. When bowing, bow with your entire body, looking towards to floor. Guys, keep your arms straight and at your sides. Ladies, cross your hands and place on your lap.
Praying boy Japan
Woman with her dinner

At the Dinner Table

Impress locals with your understanding of Japanese table manners.

It is customary to say itadakimasu before you start eating. The literal translation is ‘I humbly receive’ but think of it more as ‘bon appetit’.

Getting to grips with chopsticks shows both respect and understanding of Japanese culture. The placement and usage of chopsticks can make or break someone’s view of your during a meal. Chopsticks work as a pair, so keep them together at all times. Hold them towards the non-eating end, not in the middle or near the tips.

Chopsticks aren’t just tools to eat; they are cultural symbols. Their association with funerals mean that some actions are very much taboo, these include:

  • Sticking chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice
  • Passing food directly between chopsticks
  • Making a cross shape with your chopsticks

As a visitor to Japan, you will not be expected to be a chopstick master but making the effort will certainly go a long way. In addition, when not using your chopsticks, it is common practice to make a small chopstick rest out of your wrapper. However, it is fine to balance them on the edge of your bowl. Ensure that the tips are facing away from you and anyone else at the table for extra brownie points.

Finally, upon finishing your meal the custom is to say gochisousamadeshita, meaning thank you for the meal’. Offering gratitude at the end of a meal is standard practice in most cultures, but this phrase also shows an appreciation for the dining experience as a whole.

Visiting a shrine

When visiting a shrine, steps 1, 2 and 3 are essential. Whilst 4 and 5 are optional, they are a great way to immerse yourself in the traditional shrine visiting experience.

1 – Pass through the Torii. These are traditional gates that mark the boundaries between the human and spiritual worlds. It is respectful when walking down the pathway to keep to the left or the right. The middle of the pathway is reserved for deities.

2 – Cleanse your hands and mouth at the temizuya. Temizuya are basins used for purification, Use only one ladle (hishaku) of water to perform the following steps:

  • Scoop a ladle of water with your right hand and gently pour water over your left hand
  • Use your left hand to pour water over your right hand
  • Placing the ladle back in your right hand, pour a little water into your cupped left hand and discreetly rinse your mouth
  • Pour water over your left hand once more
  • Tip the ladle backwards vertically, so that the remaining water pours down the handle
  • Replace the ladle face down on the rack

3 – Make an offering at the altar. 

  • Quietly throw your offering into the saisenbako offering box. We recommend throwing in 5 yen coins as they are considered good luck (10 yen coins are not!)
  • Blow twice
  • Clap twice
  • Put your hands together to pray
  • Bow before leaving the alter


NB: When visiting a temple, purify yourself at the temizuya if there is one and offer your saisen but do not clap before offering a silent prayer

4 – Read your omikuji. Omikuji are paper slips that tell your fortune. This fortune can range from great blessing to great curse. Bad fortunes are tied to trees but good fortunes can either be kept for good luck or tied to a tree so that fortune has a greater effect.

5 – Find the perfect omamori for you. Omamori are lucky charms that protect and bring good luck. Prosperity, Education, Love and Happiness are just a few of the hundreds of omamori that are available. These talismans are especially popular during New Years, exam season and when travelling.

Japan hand washing station
buying tickets Japan

Getting Around

Like many cities, Tokyo has a vast tube and rail network. Unlike in the UK, owning a car is seen as a luxury, so the train system is the preferred method of transportation for the majority of Tokyo. It is the best way to get around on your trip, and is the most efficient rail network we’ve ever experienced. One invaluable tip, even if only visiting the city for a few days, is to obtain an IC card (we recommend a PASMO card). Not only does this avoid the confusing cost calculation system, but is also slightly cheaper! There are top-up points both outside and inside the gates, just in case you’re running low whilst on the train – don’t get caught out like this guy!

The card costs ¥500, however you can return it at the end of your trip for a full deposit. Furthermore, your IC card can be used at vending machines and in some stores to grab a quick snack.