How To Experience Japan for the First Time

By: andrewbowman

February 28, 2011

The ancient and the modern, the polite and the perverse – the contrasts and extremes of Japan make any visit something of an adventure. If you’re planning your first trip there, you’ve surely been given stacks of advice already, so this is our alternative, (sort of) educational guide to four essential experiences and how to look like a pro…

Eating: The most important thing

If you can’t read Japanese and there’s no English/Romanised menu, don’t worry as you may be able to pick your choice dish from the incredibly lifelike plastic models in the restaurant window. It’s fun and only mildly embarrassing.

Dining etiquette

Lots of people will be keen to tell you that you shouldn’t stand your chopsticks up in your bowl as it symbolises death. This is true and is well worth noting, but there are other subtleties in the etiquette of public dining in Japan. However, it will usually be abundantly obvious to staff that foreign visitors aren’t Japanese and therefore not expected to know all the ins and outs, so relax. But don’t tip – chances are you’ll need to pay at the front desk anyway. If you really rated the service and are tempted to leave a little something on the table just don’t be surprised if a member of staff chases you down the street to return you your ‘forgotten’ change; this does happen.

Restaurant window in Tokyo, by Maxine Sheppard

Restaurant window in Tokyo © Maxine Sheppard

The traditional experience – Onsen and Sento

For those who like to take the plunge, a visit to a public bath house is one of the best ways to enjoy the ‘real Japan’. Of course, like anywhere else in Japan, there’s etiquette involved and here, for hygiene reasons, it really is important. Also, most Japanese people aren’t used to seeing too many foreigners at the baths, so you’ll want to look like a pro.

Be prepared

First of all you’ll want to take two towels, a small one for modesty and washing, and a larger one for drying. If you’re visiting an ordinary neighbourhood bath (sento), you’ll probably need soap too. Natural hot spring onsen will usually be well equipped with soap and shampoo. Once you’ve got your shoes off and paid the ticket machine or smiley lady (onsen) or the grumpy old person (sento), you’ll want the blue door/curtain if you’re a boy and the red if you’re a girl.


As you enter the bathing area, don’t even think about going near that steaming, ever-so inviting bath. Instead sit yourself on a stool at one of the washing stations, lather up and scrub vigorously everywhere before showering everything off. Then – especially if anyone is in an adjacent bay – repeat the entire ritual, ensuring everyone knows you’re spotless. Now, you can ease yourself into the bath, confidently nodding acknowledgement to other patrons who look your way. Yes it may have seemed like a hassle, but you’ll know they know that you know ‘the way’. And believe me, those baths are good.

Note: if you’re a decorated body art enthusiast, check signs at the entrance as many public baths won’t allow tattooed patrons due to associations with yakuza (Japanese mafia).

Traditional onsen hot spring bath by Mish Haddad

Traditional onsen hot spring bath © Mish Haddad

A memento of modern Japan – Purikura

Ever posed and pulled silly faces in a passport photo booth with your friends or significant other? Purikura, which can be found in most games arcades and shopping centres across Japan, is like that, except it’s Japanese and therefore more advanced and more fun. Here you can choose from an almost infinite number of dazzling and daft backgrounds with the added option of drawing and decoration afterwards. Plus, the photos themselves are stickers!

(The name purikura is an abbreviation of Purinto Kurabu, which is in turn a transliterated/mangled version of ‘Print Club’ – one of several examples of where Japanese has ‘borrowed’ a phrase from English that actually means nothing in English.)

How it works

First, find and choose a booth (pictures on the side will offer some clue as to what kind of backdrops it offers). Step inside, put your money in, chose backgrounds from the touch screen in front of you. If you’re not sure how many backdrops you’re allowed, just press until it won’t let you select any more. Strike your pose before the young lady inside the speakers shouts “San! Ni! Ichi!” and the camera flashes. Rearrange yourselves quickly before she shouts again. Repeat until she seems to have stopped and your pictures appear in front of you on the screen. Touch the ones you like to select them and do everything quickly, the machines are a quite impatient.

Decorating Purikura photos by Kate Gresham

Decorating Purikura photos © Kate Gresham


When you’re out of the booth, the real fun begins. Go to the screen round the side and pick up one of the touch screen pen thingies. When your pics appear and the countdown starts, frantically scribble away over the top of them with bling, bowties, bunnies or whatever you can find on the menu tabs. Act like you’re playing a martial arts video game and just bash away until it’s over. If you want to work on a different picture, just select it from the middle of the screen. When the photos appear, find the scissors that should be hanging nearby, divide up the photos with your compatriots and go and find somewhere that sells green tea ice cream.

And finally, the nitty gritty…

If you’re staying in a modern hotel, your toilet seat is likely to greet you warmly. Literally. It may even take the trouble to clean itself, so don’t be alarmed if it starts whirring and moving when you’re done.


In the likely event that your facility has a built-in bidet function you may be curious as to how that works. To save you getting a jet of water in the face (and on the bathroom ceiling), we can tell you from experience that said jet comes from a small retractable pipe inside the bowl.

Jump over to for info and great deals on direct flights to Japan.

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