Nobody likes looking rude but when you don’t know the culture, sometimes you can’t help it. It’s been a bitter lesson I’ve had to learn going to school in Japan. I hate looking stupid, and yet, I spent my first week feeling and probably looking stupid, like 9 out of 10 times.
I’ve been in Tokyo for almost a month and a half now, and I’ve since brought that number down to 5 out of 10, and on good days, 4 out of 10. Here are a few tricks I’ve learned to being a good visitor.
Walk to the left. Cars drive on the left side of the road and people walk on the left side of the sidewalk. In America it is the opposite. This isn’t a big deal, but it is smoother than trying to pass everyone on the right and walking against the flow of traffic. On escalators, stand on the left, so that people who want to walk up them can pass by. Everything is left.
English is on road and subway signs, but hearing it spoken isn’t common. Most people understand only a few key words of English, so if you need directions or you have a question, please be patient, speak clearly, use hand motions, and use as much Japanese as you know. Having a smartphone is handy as well to pull up translations, pictures, or maps to help get your question across.
Google Translate is great, but it makes big mistakes. It can help you find a key word, but don’t assume that you can type in your question, hit translate, and that it will make any sense to a Japanese speaker.
Key Phrases: Sumimasen (sue-mee-mah-sehn) and Arigato Gozaimasu (ah-ree-gah-toe goh-zye-mahs). If you don’t know any other Japanese, know these. Even if you don’t know these right off the plane, you’ll probably know them by the time you get to your hotel. Sumimasen means “Excuse me” in every sense of the phrase. You can use it if you bump into someone, if you need to get past someone, or if you need to get someone’s attention. For example, asking directions. Always lead with “Sumimasen.”
Arigato gozaimasu means “Thank you.” Pretty self-explanatory. I do have a tip, though: if you asked someone for directions or help, or they offered it without you asking, make sure to say this, and make sure to bow. Eyes down, hands on thighs, bend about 25 degrees. The bow and “Arigato gozaimasu” happen at the same time. It sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. Again, by the time you get to your hotel, you’ll probably already have picked it up.
A few more important phrases are:
- Doko (doh-koh): Where?
- Hai (pronounced like “high”): Yes.
- iie (ee-yeh): No.
- Onegaishimasu (oh-neh-guy-shee-mahs): Means “Please.” Can be used for most requests. It’s common just to say what you want and then add “onegaishimasu.” For example, say you want to order a coffee. You can say “Kouhi onegaishimasu.” Simple as that.
- ii desu ka? (ee dehs kah): Literally means “Is this good?” but it can be used in lots of different situations such as asking permission to sit beside someone in a cafe or asking someone’s opinion on something. In turn, to express that something is good/fine, you can say “ii desu.”
- Gomennasai. Nihongo o sukoshi dake hanashimasu (Goh-mehn-nah-sigh. Nee-hohn-goh oh sue-koh-shee dah-kay hah-nah-shee-mahs): Means “Sorry, I only speak a little Japanese.” That’s a big sentence, though, so don’t worry if you can’t remember it. The important words are “Nihongo” (Japanese) and “Sukoshi” (little). If you say those two words, the person you’re talking to will get the idea.
Absolutely no shoes inside the house. This is becoming more common in America and other places, so it’s not as much of a shock as it used to be. Every house (and some buildings like schools, temples, and traditional restaurants) has an entryway where you must remove your shoes before stepping up into the house. There are usually slippers you can borrow while in the house. It’s extremely rude to wear shoes in the house and you’ll likely give someone a heart attack if you try it.
If you’re not sure whether a building requires you to remove your shoes, just look around the entryway. If there are shoe cupboards and slippers sitting around, remove them.
Money goes in the tray or on the counter. When paying for things in shops or restaurants, place your money in the tray provided or on the counter. Don’t hand it to the cashier.
Another note about money: you may have heard Japan is a cash-based society. That is 100% correct. Some shops accept credit cards, but many don’t. The best thing to do is get cash out of the ATM for the week, month, etc. 7-Eleven Convenience Stores are a foreigner’s best friend. They are everywhere and are one of the few places I’ve heard of that you can withdraw cash from an international bank account.
Carry your passport at all times. This is true whenever and wherever you travel. In Japan, police are allowed to stop you and ask to see your passport. They probably won’t, but they might. So keep it with you.
The most important advice I have, though, is be polite and don’t expect everyone to accommodate you. If you remember this and only this, you are golden.
The people on the street aren’t your tour guides. They’re just on their way to work, on their own vacation, or shopping for groceries for their own families. They don’t owe anything to you so if they help you, be appreciative. Even if it wasn’t exactly what you were hoping for, even if they don’t have an answer for you.
Just be kind and respectful. If you do that, you’re already a good tourist.