Tourist's guide to Japan

Tourist's guide to Japan

Travelling in Japan is a little different to travelling elsewhere in the world. Some cultural differences are inevitable. This article gives some ideas of things to be aware of in Japan.

Entering Buildings

Shoes must removed before entering (or stepping up) into a Japanese building. There will always be a place to put your shoes just outside the entry to a building. If your shoes are placed on a step, it is Japanese tradition that they are turned to face outwards.

Some places of interest, such as Himeji Castle, have different entry and exit points. In such cases, plastic bags are supplied and you must carry your shoes for the entire tour.

Removing shoes has several practical reasons:


Mud and damp are kept out of the building


Traditional tatami matted floors can be damaged by hard soles.


It is extremely rude to wear shoes inside a Japanese building.

Cafés and Eating Out

Many Japanese, particularly in cities, eat out for most of their meals. As a consequence of this there is a very high ratio of restaurants to population in Japan.

Food is generally of a good quality and always well presented. Since even "fast food" franchises cook food to order, buying food in Japan is not necessarily quick.

As soon as you sit down to eat in a restaurant in Japan, you will be given a glass of water and a hot towel to clean your hands.

If you have any dietary issues then letting the waiter or waitress know will result in being helped through the menu. As some Japanese people do not understand English well, it is a good idea to use a phrase book or get a Japanese speaker to write down important requirements. E.g. For somebody who eats neither meat nor fish, show the Japanese waiter this:


Japanese restaurant bills include service charges. Tips are not expected or polite.

It is not uncommon to find that there are no locks on toilet doors in small cafés.


Japan is a non-tipping society. In some circumstances, it can be considered insulting to the Japanese if you attempt to tip, so please do not offer tips to any Japanese people, however helpful.

Please allow taxi drivers to give you all of your change, even if the change is only a very small amount.


Public toilets are very common in Japan. Some are only marked with Japanese characters. To distinguish the male and female toilets, look for the following characters.


Design of some public toilets in Japan sometimes allows anyone to see into urinals or for women to see other women. This may be culturally difficult for some westerners.

Normally toilets are very clean in Japan although highly frequented facilities, such as those in railway stations may not be.

Frequency of Toilets in Japan

In Japanese cities and particularly in or near tourist spots public toilets are very common. It seems that public toilets are only a couple of hundred metres apart.

Types of Toilet in Japan

There are two different types o toilet in Japan. There are western style sit down toilets, which are often specifically marked as western. Some public toilets are Asian squat toilets with a hood, that both men and women are expected to point towards.

In upmarket hotels and similar establishments, western style toilet seats are heated, of ten with a temperature control. Upmarket toilets often have a button that adds background noises so that other people cannot hear what you are doing. Many have variable control bidets integrated into them.

Unlocked Toilet Doors

Some toilets, such as those in small cafés, do not have a lock on the door. The convention for dealing with these is to knock on the door. If there is an answering knock, then the cubicle is occupied. Obviously, this means that if you are occupying a toilet without a locked door then you should knock back if someone else knocks on your door.

Toilet Paper and Drying Hands

Take your own toilet paper! Many toilets in Japan, particularly Asian squat toilets do not come with toilet paper, you are expected to wash yourself.

When you have finished at the toilet and have washed your hands, you may find that there are no towels or hand driers. The Japanese normally carry a handkerchief specifically for drying their hands afterwards.


The bullet trains are very fast and make it possible to travel distances in Japan that would only be feasible by aircraft elsewhere in the world. Trains are very frequent, for example, between Kyoto and Tokyo there are bullet trains every three minutes at peak times. Each of these bullet trains has sixteen carriages.

JR pass

If you intend to travel very much in Japan and are not a resident of Japan, you can get a Japan Rail pass. You need to buy it in advance of your travel to Japan, as it is not available for purchase within Japan. It allows free travel and seat booking on all the long distance trains except the fastest Nozomi Bullet trains. It also allows free travel on most of the shorter distance trains but not on the underground systems.

Free passes

In certain tourist locations, such as the Hakone Park or Mount Koya, it is possible to buy "free passes" which allow you to travel freely on the local tourist transport, such as cable cars and funicular railways.