Justine’s 14 Do’s and Don’ts in Tokyo

May 20, 2010

For those of you planning to visit the land of the rising sun here are some tips to keep in mind:

(For those of you not planning a visit to Japan, try following these practices at home to thoroughly confuse your friends and family)

1. Do wear a mask, a surgical mask, as a courtesy to those around you if you ever get the sniffles in Tokyo.  It is common to wear masks here– you wear one if you are sneezing or coughing or have bad allergies.  Germophobes wear them all the time, whether or not they have symptoms.  As many as 1 in 6 people wear masks on the subway during high pollen periods.  I often feel like I am in the middle of some bizarre zombie horror movie as I travel through the Tokyo underground.

I recently got a nasty cough, but I haven’t bothered to buy a mask yet.  I was riding the subway last week when I felt a cough attack coming on in between stops.  In true Japanese fashion, I held my breath so that I wouldn’t cough on anyone (coughing into your hand just signals that you intend to manually spread the very same germs), and then raced off the car as soon as the train stopped.  I felt like a pariah.

As far as an ordinary everyday sneeze, it’s also better to abort.  And don’t expect anyone to say “God bless you” or otherwise cheer you on—expect only a weird silence in response.

2. Don’t try to push open a sliding door. To enter a restaurant or store in Japan, you will commonly need to go through a sliding door.  Not realizing this, I looked super crazy the first time I tried to walk into a restaurant– I walked straight into the door, expecting it to open with a push.  After the loud bang I made, everyone in the restaurant stared at me as I struggled with the door, trying to figure out how it opened.   I now can empathize with those poor birds who collide with picture windows.

Then there are many places with sliding automatic doors that open with a swipe of the hand or the push of a discrete button.   However, these are so well integrated into the ultramodern metal and glass structure of the buildings facade, that it is impossible to discriminate the door from the wall.

My first day in Japan, I paced back and forth in front of my hotel, feeling the metal and glass walls looking for a way to enter.  After a few minutes in this perplexed state (which amused everyone inside) I found a long vertical slit in one of the metal frames, and with a touch of my hand, the wall before me transformed into door.

3. Don’t ever rest your chopsticks in your food (except at funerals). Also, please don’t use them as pointers.

4. Don’t jaywalk in Tokyo. Traffic cops are everywhere and they will eagerly give you a hefty fine for crossing the street when it’s not your turn.  On many busy streets, barriers in the middle of the street or along the curb prevent you from crossing between intersections.

5. Do leave your US wallet at home. I felt rather stupid when I discovered that the new wallet I bought in the US before leaving for Tokyo was not wide enough to hold the Japanese currency.  Plan to buy a wallet when you arrive in Japan—one with a good coin holder to hold the excess change you will certainly accumulate.  With 100 yen and 500 yen denominations (roughly equal to $1 and $5), coins are in heavy use and pile up quickly.

6. Don’t talk on your cell phone on a subway car or bus. Aside from being prohibited, talking on your cell will attract some hostile glares from those nearby.

7. Don’t be an early riser.  Thanks to jet-lag, I woke up at 6AM for the first two weeks I was in Tokyo.  NOTHING (other than a few 24hr places) was open that early in downtown Tokyo—in fact, I had to wait until 10am for most stores to open.  Tokyo is definitely a late-night city: most stores stay open until 8pm or later, and restaurants serve into the wee hours.

8. No hugging. But prepare for lots of floppy hand shakes.

9. Don’t expect to walk at your usual pace.  Everyone walks slower than you would expect in a big city.   Leave extra time to walk places—at first you will find this annoying, but you will soon discover that it allows you to really explore the city.  There are so many alleyways and nooks hiding gems of tiny stores and restaurants.

10. Do carry lots of cash. Credit cards are not commonly used, and ATMs that accept US debit cards are few and far between (only the ATMs at Citibanks and at the post offices worked for me).  No need to worry about getting robbed—Tokyo is an amazingly safe city.

11. Don’t expect to pay at the table at restaurants. When you are ready to pay at a restaurant you must go to the cash register near the exit and pay there.  You will pay only the prices on the menu (plus a cover charge in some places).  No tipping, please!  Oh, and if you want a refill on that glass of water, you must ask for it, or it won’t happen.

12.  Be prepared to carry your trash around with you in Tokyo. Things you buy in Tokyo—including food– are often very well wrapped (sometimes in several layers), yet trash cans are impossible to find on the street. Despite this, the city is incredibly clean and free of litter.  I guess the entire population of Tokyo is into toting their trash.

13. Do be sure to take off your shoes when you enter a house! Yes—even if you are wearing stinky socks.  This rule also applies to temples, some restaurants and museums, and to tarps laid out for hanamis (cherry blossom viewings) and hanabis (firework viewings).   In the guest house where I lived, we had to leave our shoes in a shoe cubby on the entry floor before going upstairs to the bedrooms.

14. Don’t eat on the street.  It is considered rude and dirty.  And in the metro, it’s forbidden.

About Justine Underhill

A native of DC, Justine attended Sophia University in Tokyo, where the spring semester starts in April and ends in August. As an Economics and Theater & Performing Arts major she took econ classes by day and went to shows by night. Playing with origami, sushi making, kabuki, puppetry, calligraphy, comics and robots all indulge her own uncommonly divergent passions for theater, design, economics and mathematics. Justine’s prior experience as an exchange student in HS took her to Bavois, Switzerland, where cows outnumbered people and there was no internet access in the home. In Tokyo, she faced life at the other extreme, in a dense urban center bustling with technology.
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