American tourists are often somewhat unsettled by Japan’s almost totally tip-free culture. One doesn’t tip cab drivers, doormen, hairdressers, the list goes on and on. An attempt to tip your server at dinner or a bartender at a bar could be offensive and puzzling to the recipient. Needless to say, this should be bliss but cases angst and guilt for Americans coming from a must-always tip environment.
One also doesn’t usually tip maids but there is one exception, at a higher-end ryokan (Japanese style inns often found in hot spring resorts.) In that situation, the tip is more of a “thank you for letting me stay here” than a tip’s “thank you for excellent service” meaning. For one thing, the tip is given at the beginning of a stay, not the end, and must be a clean, crisp bill in a nice envelope. I took it a step further and added little thank you cards in japanese with my envelopes.
We will present one of these card and envelope sets with a clean 10-2000 yen bill inside to the maid who shows us to our room. The amount depends on length of stay and the current currency exchange; we’re only staying one or two nights.
If you’re visiting through a tour, you might give a tour guide a thank your envelope at the end.
I made extra because we can always pull out a card (no envelope) and leave it the table after a super nice meal when the server couldn’t understand my mangled Japanese.
While tips are unwelcome, gifts for hosts are required. More about that later.