We get it, you’re on a ski or snowboard holiday, high on powder life and the sheer novelty of all things in ‘planet Japan’ brings on a hysteria driven by wild sensory overload – vending machines, robot waiters, Hello Kitty airports, ‘Janglish‘, toilets that sing. Your voice gets louder, you point at all the crazy things you see, you get drunk on cans of alcoholic soda and sake.
Life is good. For you. But not so much the locals.
Japan is a conservative and formal country, a place where humility goes a long way and respect and manners are key. Yep, the exact opposite of our current attention seeking instagram making western worlds.
It’s hard to know when you’re breaking etiquette if you don’t understand the culture. So we’ve listed some basic ‘rules’ to adhere to when skiing in Japan to keep locals happy and looking forward to your return. Trust us, we learned the hard way, no doubt offending our hosts with what we thought was hilarious behavior. But what we think is funny back home does not always translate well. Because, culture.
So, don’t be like the gaijin (outsiders) in ski towns who have caused havoc for many locals from trashing property on drunken Australia Days to pissing in the street on any day. Loud, boisterous, over the top bogan behavior is unattractive at home, let alone in a country big on centuries old etiquette.
Of course we know the majority of travelers don’t behave in this trashy manner, it’s the loud ones that everyone sees. But, still.
Say thank you
You cannot say thank you (arigatou) enough in Japan. It’s about acknowledging another person’s kindness and service. So say it, a lot, more than you do at home.
The Japanese are like the Canadians of Asia. They say sorry, almost as much as they say thank you.
This may be hard for some but it’s time to swallow your ego and embrace humility. Gomen Nasai are the words for sorry in Japan. If you feel you have offended, say sorry, if you have arrived late (not good) say sorry, if you have dropped something in a restaurant, say sorry.
When someone says sorry to you, say Daijobu Desu. This is the Japanese version of ‘it’s ok’. Always make your hosts feel good, not bad, so if they say sorry you say it’s ok.
Onsens (Japanese hot mineral public and private baths) are a big part of Japanese ski town life. There is a ritual and culture to the onsen experience, so please, follow it.
Wearing your swimmers is not ok in an onsen, you must go in naked and entering the onsen without cleaning yourself with the hand held shower and soap on a small stool in the onsen is also highly offensive. Read our Onsen Etiquette guide and if you have tattoos then cover them with bandaids or ask for a private onsen.
Japan is a cash society. You will deal more in cash than in plastic. If a business sets down a small tray in front of you then put your cash on this tray. Do not hold all your money in your hand and wave it around hoping they will take it with their hands. Use the tray.
When you receive your change in the tray at the restaurant, do not count it. Trust is a big part of Japanese culture, to count is to imply the business owner is untrustworthy.
Tipping is not required and is frowned upon.
If you’re using chopsticks then don’t stand them up in a bowl of rice (this is how they are presented in funerals) or leave them pointing at someone (threatening) or use them to pass food from your set of chopsticks to another person’s set of chopsticks (don’t ask).
You can raise your bowl toward your mouth when using chopsticks. Always dip the fish side of your sushi nigiri into the soy sauce, not the rice side, and take the nigiri in one bite.
Don’t rub the wooden chopsticks together if they splinter (again, rude) and place your chopsticks part back in their wrapper when finishing meal. This way the server doesn’t have to touch dirty sticks (because, cleanliness is next to Japan godliness).
If you need to serve yourself from shared plates then do so with the fatter end of the chopsticks (the ends not put in your mouth) so as not to ‘double dip’.
Slurping noodles is good. So make noises.
Ok, it’s not grace really but think of it as a blessing or a food greeting. Start each meal with the word ‘itadakimasu’ which is akin to bon appetit. “Irrashaimasse” means “welcome” or “you have arrived” – you may have heard this called out when you enter a sushi train.
No eating or drinking (or smoking) while walking
It is considered the height of rudeness to eat or drink while walking in the street, even from a vending machine. Most vending machines will have an area in which to eat and also a bin specifically for vending machine rubbish (not other rubbish). If you have to smoke then find a designated outdoor smoking area as smoking and walking randomly in the street is frowned upon and is illegal in some areas.
Keep your rubbish
Japanese streets are not lined with rubbish bins found in other western cities. Take your rubbish with you and dispose of it at your accommodation. Littering is not on.
Yes, these are a thing. When entering a Japanese establishment you will be asked to remove your shoes. You may be given house slippers to wear, otherwise socks. When you then enter the toilet there will most likely be more slippers. These are toilet slippers and to be worn while in the toilet. Do not wear them back into the establishment of whence you came. It is considered rude and dirty. Leave them where you found them.
Tatami mats and socks
Remove your shoes before entering a Japan establishment. There will be slippers there for you to wear. If you are stepping on a tatami mat (traditional Japanese straw mat flooring) then you will need to remove the slippers and wear socks or go bare foot.
When dining with Japanese then always pour for others but don’t pour for yourself. You allow others to pour for you first and then you pour for your Japanese host. If your glass is empty hosts will fill your glass so if you don’t want to drink then just keep it half full. Wait until someone says ‘kampai’ (cheers) before drinking.
Hand ”not behind the ear’ towels
When you dine you will be given a hand towel or towelette. Usually before the meal. This is a hand towel. It’s not a face towel, a neck towel, a behind the ears towel. Do not rub the inside of your gums with it, or remove your mascara or check your sweat pits or blow your nose. Just wipe your hands and fold it and leave it next to your place setting.
Speaking of nose blowing, better not to do this in public or in front of Japanese hosts either, especially loudly. Turn your head away, walk away, go to the bathroom, head indoors, just don’t blow your honker in public.
The number four in Japan is considered unlucky. It conquers up all thoughts and juju around death. So avoid it.
Silence is golden
You don’t have to fill the silence with incessant chatter. The meditation happens in the gaps between conversation. Raising your voice is not going to make the Japanese person understand you better. It will just give you a bad name. Stay calm, breathe go, with the flow. So what if they gave you the wrong baked dessert, will it ruin your life, no, and maybe this one is better.
When a Japanese person is talking with you, remember to nod. It’s polite and shows you are listening. They love nodding, so nod a lot.
No touching or staring
Japanese are private people they are not a naturally affectionate race like the Italians who love nothing more than a hug, a back slap and gesticulations. Do not touch other than shake hands and high fives where appropriate.
Do not overpower with your handshake though, one must remain limp handed and head bowed down. If domination is your default, this country is not for you. Oh and don’t stare, even if they are staring at the gaijin.
Pash on your own time
Public displays of affection are considered wrong.com. If you must pash and grope each other do it in the privacy of your accommodation when no one else is around. No one needs to see your sake fueled tongue exploring the cashms of your partner’s dental orifice.
No cell phones
Chatting on your phone on a train or a bus or in a restaurant is impolite. Especially if you are chatting loudly. You can text and go on social media and be online but keep your sounds on silent.
Learn some greetings
Good morning – ohayo gozaimasu. Good day – konnichiwa. Good evening – Konbanwa.
Want more? Check out our Japanese phrases blog post here.
Don’t point or beckon. Keep your fingers to yourselves. If gesturing for someone to follow you or go before you do so with an open palm and your arm out.
When meeting a Japanese person refer to them by their last name then say ‘san‘ after their name. Otherwise ‘sensei‘ replaces ‘san‘ if dealing with teachers, professors, doctors and authority figures.
You know all those beautifully packaged cookies, tarts, lollies, fruit and the like? Take a box with you if you are invited to a local’s home. It is rude to arrive without a gift. They may, however not accept it, as that is also part of the ritual.
Have a shower
We get it, you partied all night, smashed some warm sake, left your spittle all over the karaoke microphone and woke up half an hour later to get the bluebird powder. Please, for the love of nasal gods, wake up fifteen minutes earlier and take a shower.
Because chances are you probably did the same thing the night before that and the night before that and now we’re talking three days of stick to the floor sweat into the pits of your merino and wafting under the nose of your Japanese hosts. Worse, if you’re in a six seater gondola on a powder day.
Take your piss…in the toilet
To be fair, if I had an appendage I’d probably piss behind a tree too. See those four words “piss behind a tree”. Not on the side of the chairlift line, not on the helicopter pad where the chopper blades will blow up all that yellow snow into the faces of those waiting for it to land, not outside an izakaya under a street light in a polite street of Japan, not out of a gondola door from up high. Behind a tree.
Better yet, here’s an idea, how about in a toilet. A Japanese toilet. The ones with warm seats and music so no one can hear you tinkle, with spouts of water that massage your nether regions so you’re clean where you think the sun shines.
Understanding Japanese toilets
Entire therapy sessions have been dedicated to understanding the Japanese toilet. Just know that somewhere amongst those buttons is a seat warmer and music or white noise so no one can hear you scream. You can adjust the pressure of the water and choose whether it shoots at your back side or your front side when cleaning after your ablutions or you can just use it like a normal toilet and hit the self cleaning button at the end so that it cleans the toilet bowl, similar to a flush.
Don’t shut the door
Catching a taxi in Japan? They will be the cleanest cabs you’ve ever sat in. But beware the doors. They are automatic and will open and close for you. Please try to remember and don’t try to shut the door when you get out as it can break the doors and taxi drivers can also get upset.
Skis or board in the lift line
We’ve left this one to last because we know it will be contentious. It’s just not cool to ‘bags or shotgun’ your place in a lift line on a powder day, leave your skis or snowboard then go and get a coffee and a pastry. Fine if you’re clicked into them and attached to them, but not so fun to dump and run.
Would you do that lining up for Justin Bieber tickets? No, because the beliebers would eat you alive and rightly so. Stand in line, chat to others get social in the powder excitement, get one of your crew to go get the coffees, share them around, buy everyone a donut, hand them out. I could go on. Lean in. We’re better together.
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