Cultural etiquette guide to Tokyo

Learn how to live like a local in Tokyo and get to grips with key Japanese customs. Discover how to handle your chopsticks and the best way to show your foodie appreciation.

These handy hints from Japanese locals cover everything from slurping your noodles as a sign of appreciation to making sure your special socks are prepared for an outing. Make sure you read up before your trip to eat, drink and live like a local. 

How to tip in Tokyo

Tipping is almost never done in Japan. You can show your appreciation by ordering a lot, thanking the server/chef as you leave by saying "gochisosama deshita" (“it was a feast”) and by being a return customer. 

Don’t burp, do slurp

When you’re eating hot noodles, it’s acceptable and even recommended to slurp. You’ll want to eat them while they’re still piping hot and slurping helps you do that without burning your mouth. Pop into any quick ramen joint and a line of office workers will be slurping noodles and soup at record speeds. It’s also perfectly acceptable to drink the remaining soup straight from the bowl. Avoid finishing the meal with a celebratory belch, however, unless you’re sure of your audience. 

Mind your chopsticks

Ramen noodles with egg and vegetables and chopsticks in bowl
It's considered bad luck to stick your chopsticks straight up in your food as it mimics a ritual carried out at funerals with the offerings placed at the altar. Also, be careful not to pass items from chopsticks to chopsticks as this is part of a ceremony done post cremation, where bone fragments are passed between family members and placed in an urn. Speaking of chopsticks, it’s good manners to not stick the mouth end of your chopsticks in a shared food dish – if there’s no serving spoon, use the blunt end to transfer your desired morsel to your personal plate, then flip them around to eat it. 

Wear nice socks

Striped socks on matting
While it may sound like strange advice – what has my footwear got to do with my dinner? – you'll find yourself removing your shoes more often than you'd expect, both in upscale Japanese restaurants and even some cheap and cheerful izakaya (dining bars). After leaving your shoes at the entrance (some places have shoe lockers), you’ll pad sock-footed onto tatami mats and floor cushions to enjoy your meal. This is a chance to snazz up your sock game – don’t get caught with your big toe poking through! Wearing a shoe that’s easy to slip in and out of will mark you as a pro.

Pour unto others

During a night on the town with friends,  sharing a bottle of beer or a flagon of sake is commonplace. Rather than filling your own cup, grab the bottle and fill the glasses of those around you first. Someone will likely return the favor (if they don’t, it’s fine to then fill yours). If you notice someone’s glass is empty, fill it, unless they indicate that they’re done for the night. 

Cash is king

Despite the country’s reputation as tech-forward (which it is in many ways), there are still loads of places that do not accept credit cards, especially the small/independent (read: more interesting) shops and restaurants. Keep cash on hand to pay your tab. Breaking ¥10,000 notes is no problem. And remember that tipping is not customary in Japan. 

Check out our travel hub for more foodie travel guides.

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See what other Tokyo foodie tips Selena suggests on her Instagram page

What's your top tip for living like a local in Tokyo? Leave a comment below...

Comments, questions and tips

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1st May, 2018
When the pedestrian light shows red, obey it, and stay put, until the 'green man' shows. Sounds obvious, but if there is no traffic, and the road is clear, or there's a decent gap between one car passing and the next, don't be tempted to grab the opportunity. Granted, it's commonplace nearly everywhere to cross if you get the chance (even against the red sign) but in Japan, it's not good social/public etiquette. Stay put, wait until the green pedestrian light shows, then cross. With everyone else. You'll look - and feel foolish, if you don't.
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