Tokyo Do’s and Don’ts: 10 Unwritten Rules That Every Tokyoite Knows
With 13 million people (and 38 million total in the Greater Tokyo Area), Tokyo is a massive city with amazing infrastructure that runs incredibly smoothly most of the time. A big part of that is the social contract: with so many people all living in such close quarters, Tokyoites have a lot of customs that keep things humming. Harmony is the name of the game, and being mindful of others in public spaces is paramount. Everyone does, eventually, let loose, but save the antics for private spaces or intimate friend groups, and you’ll blend right in.
Don’t skip convenience stores
They’re worth more than a second glance.
Though convenience stores, or conbini, might be the realm of overpriced candy and tired sandwiches back home—depending where you’re from, that is—conbini in Japan are actually convenient. You’ll find loads of fresh, cheap food, ATMs, copy machines, freshly ground coffee, package delivery service, and much more. 7-11, Lawson, Family Mart, Mini Stop: each chain has its devotees. With so many treats to discover, you’ll soon find your favorite.
Do wear good socks and slip-on shoes
Tokyo is an often shoeless city.
There’s a decent chance you’ll need to remove your shoes when you’re out and about. Shoes are always removed when entering someone’s home, but also in some restaurants, shrines, temples, and attractions. Japanese people have perfected the art of slipping into and out of shoes while barely even crouching down, so if you have low-maintenance shoes and clean, hole-free socks, you’ll be ahead of the game. This is definitely the time to break out your snazziest socks, if you’ve got ‘em.
Don’t eat on the train
Keep public transport clean.
Tokyo’s train and subway systems are a marvel. They’re clean, fast, and punctual down to the second. To keep it that way, there are a whole host of “train manners” that riders are expected to adhere to, to the extent that Tokyo Metro runs constant poster campaigns reminding people of how to behave. Some of the major ones: refrain from eating, loud phone calls or talking, and put your backpack on your front or the overhead rack when it gets crowded.
Do wear a mask
It’s just good manners.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, masks were a common sight in Japan, especially during flu and hay fever seasons. Now, government guidance is that masks are recommended indoors and even outdoors if it’s crowded. Masks are seen as a public necessity to keep everyone safe, and adherence is extremely high. Go with the flow and slip one on, and you’ll escape any mask-related side-eye.
Don’t rely on credit cards alone
Make sure you have cash on hand.
Japan has come a long way in recent years toward a cashless society. Credit cards, stored value cards, and apps like PayPay are growing in popularity–but aren’t yet the norm. Plenty of small shops and restaurants are still cash-based, or don’t take international cards. Be sure to keep some cash on hand–you wouldn’t want to miss a meal at the charming 6-seat izakaya because you only have an AmEx.
Do be ready to take your trash home
You can throw it away in private.
Tokyo is pretty clean for a city of its size, yet there are very few public trash cans. If you buy something from a convenience store and eat it on the spot, you can use their bins for the wrappers, and vending machines almost always have an accompanying receptacle for plastic bottles, but for the rest, you’re on your own. Be prepared to take your garbage back to your hotel for disposal.
Don’t take pictures of strangers
It’s frowned upon in Japan.
Living in such close quarters, Tokyoites prize what little privacy they have. There’s even a law that phone cameras in Japan must have a shutter sound, to prevent surreptitious picture taking. It’s especially important to be respectful at shrines and temples; it’s usually OK to take pictures of the grounds, but check before photographing temple personnel or sacred objects indoors.
Do stand on the left on escalators
Like London, Tokyo enjoys public order.
You’ll notice people stand on the left and walk on the right when it comes to escalators and moving walkways. Though some stations try to encourage otherwise (supposedly it’s faster if everyone stands still), this habit is so ingrained that it’s hard to break. Woe is the person who messes up the flow during rush hour. In general, it’s good to be mindful of flow in Japan–people often walk on one side of the sidewalk as well.
Don’t smoke and walk in public
Stop for a cigarette instead.
While Tokyo used to be a smoker’s paradise, it’s gotten decidedly stricter in recent years. Smoking while walking is now prohibited in most areas, and there is a small fine if you’re caught. Look for designated smoking areas, often near train stations and parks, where you can grab a puff. And though many restaurants have gone smoke-free, some have a smoking section.
Do get lost
You won’t regret it.
Yes, there are plenty of big-ticket tourist attractions with crowds of people and mass appeal, but Tokyo is an excellent city to get lost in. Make sure to find some time to wander in smaller neighborhoods: you’ll find local shopping streets, delicious restaurants, and pocket shrines that you won’t have to share with throngs of tourists. The little serendipities of Tokyo reveal themselves when you have good walking shoes and the urge to explore.