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Tokyo Travel – 10 Practical Things You Need to Know

Don’t be surprised to find that some things a just a little bit different than you are used to when you visit Tokyo for the first time.  The city is very welcoming to visitors but some of the differences that you find may surprise you, frustrate you, or amuse you but one thing is for certain, there are some differences!

Bring an open mind with you when you come and you are sure to have a great time while collecting fun travel stories to share with your friends and family when you return home.  Here are 10 practical things that you need to know before you visit Tokyo:

Tip # 10 – Don’t assume that you can use your credit card everywhere.  Many establishments in Tokyo do not accept credit/debit cards!  Also, your ATM/debit card will only work international ATM’s so don’t expect to be able to pop your card in any old machine and punch a few numbers to get some cash.  If you do run out of cash in Tokyo you will need to find an international ATM.  Japan Post Bank, or “Yucho” as it is commonly referred to, operates over 20,000 International ATM’s which are located outside of most post offices with some exceptions.   Beware though, many of these ATM’s are not open 24 hours so you will want to do some advance planning to ensure that you don’t run out of cash.

Large department stores, hotels, and shops that cater to tourists usually accept credit cards as a form of payment but these are the exception rather than the rule in Tokyo, so be prepared.

Tip # 9 – Tipping is not required or expected.  Service staff in hotels, restaurants, hair salons and other businesses that you may consider tipping at home do not expect tips in Tokyo as tipping is generally discouraged in Japan.  If you request something extra-special or out of the ordinary a tip may be offered but it will often be refused.  Some higher-end establishments may add a 10-15% service charge to your bill in lieu of tipping but this practice is not common.

Tip # 8 – Learn how to use chopsticks.  While finding a knife and fork in Japan is not unheard of you may not find one as readily as you would like at some restaurants.  One a recent trip to Hanamaru Udon, one of my chopstick challenged guests had to settle for a child sized fork because he couldn’t handle chopsticks – it was challenging for him but very entertaining for the rest of us!   If you are able to able chopsticks with ease, you will want to review some chopstick etiquette before you come to ensure that you don’t commit a social faux pas that leave neighboring diners shaking their heads or worse.

Read tips #1 through #7 and some bonus etiquette tips after the jump.

Tip #7 Get used to bowing – it’s equivalent to the western handshake.  While foreigners aren’t expected to bow, in formal situations it is respectful.  The angle of the bow depends on the importance of the person who you are greeting or thanking and what you are thanking them for.  The more important the person, the lower the bow.  In general follow the lead of those around you.  Often shopkeepers and clerks will bow when you enter or leave their establishment and while it is not required the you return the bow it’s a nice gesture to acknowledge them with a nod of the head or “arigato-gozaimasu (thank you)” as you leave.

Tip #6 Keep to the left.  In Japan, cars drive on the left side of the road and pass on the right.  This is important to remember for a number of reasons, not the least of which is crossing the street as a pedestrian.  Many westerners look left then right before crossing a street as the traffic approaches from the right.  In Japan look right then left, else risk being hit by an oncoming car!  Also, keep to the left when walking on sidewalks and when standing still on escalators to allow room for on the right those who want to move faster than you.

Tip #5 Don’t touch the taxi door!  When you hail a taxi in Tokyo don’t reach for the door or you will get a puzzled or annoyed look from the white gloved driver.  The rear left door on taxis in Tokyo, and throughout Japan, are opened and closed automatically by the driver.  Even if you are sitting on the right side of the car it is recommended that you slide across the seat and exit on the left in busy areas so you won’t be stepping out into oncoming traffic.

Tip #4 Don’t expect your server to bring you the bill when you dine out.  It is normal to pay a restaurant or bar bill at the register rather than taking care of the transaction at your table.  You may also find that Japanese wait-staff tend to be elusive and need to be hailed to provide service – this is not considered rude in Japan, quite the opposite, they want to ensure that you have a good dining experience and don’t want to bother you.  So don’t be shy when dining out – a polite “sumimasen (excuse me)” will usually be enough to get your servers attention and when you are finished your meal simply look to see if the bill has been left on your table (or in a slot under it) and take it with you to the register and pay for your meal before leaving.  Otherwise just head for the register where your bill will be waiting for you.

Tip #3 Accept Free Tissues!  You may notice that when you are out exploring the city that at many major intersections and train stations there are often people handing out free tissues as part of an advertising campaign.  Don’t be shy, take them!  Stash some in your handbag or backpack as many public restroom facilities do not offer towels or air dryers for you hands and toilet paper can sometimes be elusive in older areas of the city.   Speaking of restrooms, western toilets are fairly commonplace but there may be instances where your only option is a squat toilet which may come as a bit of a surprise but won’t hurt you – I promise!

Tip #2 – Wear clean socks (with no holes).  You mother always told you to be sure to wear clean underwear in case you were in an accident but I’ll bet she never reminded you about your socks.  If you visit someone’s home in Japan local etiquette is to remove your footwear upon entering and don slippers that are provided.  Many restaurants and even some museums in Tokyo also request that you remove your shoes before entering certain areas, so unless you want to show the world your toes, be sure to bring some clean and hole free socks with you when you visit Tokyo.

Tip #1 Vending machines are everywhere.  If you are scared of machines Tokyo is not the place for you!  Vending machines are used to purchase train tickets, tickets to museums and even food at some restaurants!  Need to quench your thirst?  You don’t need to go far to find a vending machine in Tokyo, many offer hot and cold drinks, including beer and sake, some offer food while others offer magazines. There are even vending machines that clean your shoes!  Check out this video about vending machines in Tokyo from Geobeats:

Lastly, here are a few etiquette tips to keep in mind as you explore Tokyo.  These six things are considered impolite in Japan:

  • Blowing your nose in public,
  • Eating or drinking while walking (even ice-cream or other snacks),
  • Smoking while walking or in an area not designated for smokers,
  • Yelling to get the attention of your friends in a public space,
  • Pointing, and,
  • Counting your change

I hope that you found theses 10 practical things that you need to know when you visit Tokyo handy.

Do you have any additional tips to share?  If so please leave them in the comments.

Image Credit:  Flickr, ATM sticker #000, No Tipping, personal collection, Keep left…, Big green taxi, We support your socks life