Etiquette guide: Travel

After almost three years of Covid- enforced restrictions, Japan is finally opening up again to travelers. As with most things, the country has its own set of customs for polite travel by plane, train or automobile. Here’s how to ensure smooth travels wherever you go
By Karolina Höglind
and Marcus Webb

By taxi
Do Wait for the door to open

Riding a taxi, like many other everyday activities in Japan, is bound by social rules. After flagging down a cab, you should not open the car door yourself. Drivers have buttons that open the back door automatically (the door also closes automatically when you exit). Always sit in the back; the front passenger seat is only used when the back seats are filled.

Don’t Tip the driver

If you don’t tip in New York, a taxi driver will chase you down the street asking what the problem is. In Tokyo they’ll chase you if you do, thinking you’ve forgotten your change: the fare along with pride in doing a good job is reward enough.

By metro
Do Board the right carriage

A number of subways and local trains in Japan have women-only carriages—often only in effect for the rush hour. These are usually marked by pink-painted markers on the platform. The choice of color might not be very politically correct, but it will match the shade male passengers turn if they board the wrong car.

The choice of color will match the shade male passengers turn if they board the wrong car

Don’t: Take a phone call

You’re on the train and your phone rings. Anywhere else, the worst that might happen is that you go into a tunnel and your conversation cuts off. In Japan, however, submitting innocent bystanders to your cell phone chitchat is deeply frowned upon. Instead, ignore the impulse to answer and send a quick text to say you’re on the train. And whatever you do, be sure to put your phone on silent (‘manner mode’) before boarding so your novelty ringtone doesn’t shatter the sacrosanct peace and quiet of rush hour.

By shinkansen
Do Bring your meal on board

While eating on local trains is very much frowned upon, when it comes to the shinkansen, or bullet train, it’s positively encouraged. Ekiben—from the words eki (railway station) and bento (boxed lunch)—are boxes filled with local specialties designed to be eaten on the go. You can pick one up at most shinkansen stations.

Don’t Forget to book your luggage on board

If you’re the kind of person that likes to pack the kitchen sink, then you’ll need to think ahead. Since 2020 those traveling on the shinkansen with ‘oversized’ luggage (with a total length, height and depth measurement of more than 160cm) have to reserve a special seat, which includes storage space for their baggage behind the seat.

By plane
Do Keep your mask on

While most flights in Europe and the U.S. have done away with mask mandates, if you’re traveling to Japan you’ll need to keep things covered. All passengers, regardless of vaccination status, need to have a mask that covers their nose and mouth at the airport and in the cabin. Although you are allowed to remove your mask while eating or drinking.

All passengers, regardless of vaccination status, need to have a mask that covers their nose and mouth

Don’t Forget to look back

One of the most touching aspects of flying with a Japanese airline is that if you look to the terminal as the plane taxis to the runway, you’ll see all the ground staff bowing back at you—wishing you a safe journey in the skies.