Japan dos and don'ts for travellers

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The Japanese are a warm and welcoming people whose unique culture can be both frustrating and enlightening in its complexity and contradictions. It can take many years to get a good grasp of the Japanese language and psyche. Even then, some say it’s impossible for a non-Japanese to be fully embraced by this homogenous society as one of their own.

This doesn’t mean that you won’t experience the art of hospitality, consideration for others and respectfulness that is intrinsic to being Japanese. It does mean that the better prepared you are for cultural exchange, the more rewarding your time in this inspiring country will be.

Taking a moment to absorb the points below and becoming mindful of key socio-cultural differences between Japan and wherever you call home, will enrich your experience and help avoid any mutually awkward moments.

Do…

- Expect to be surprised! Japan is many things simultaneously: jam packed, non-stop mega-cities give way to mountain vistas, rural serenity, ancient temples and generations of fascinating history, culture and tradition.

- Always remove your footwear when entering a house, inn, restaurant or office. In general, if a building has a genkan (sunken foyer), you must exchange your shoes for house slippers before stepping up into the building. You’ll know this is expected when you notice perfect rows of footwear by the door, or your host ushers you anxiously toward a pair of unfashionable plastic flats.

Related article: Sushi & Sashimi for beginners

Genkan at Murano Sumiyoshi-ya Inn, Nozawa Onsen. Photo by Benedict Walker / Lonely Planet.

- Bow politely when you meet someone, thank them, or say goodbye. The art of ojigi (bowing) is a complex custom non-Japanese aren’t expected to understand. As a general rule, men should place your hands by your hips as you tilt your upper body slowly forward to not more than 45 degrees. Your back should remain perfectly straight. Women should place your hands in the fig leaf posture (hands folded, covering your privates, as in the “Statue of David”), as you bow. One bow is sufficient. For Japanese, the depth, duration and number of bows offered is a complex equation depending on who’s who – but as a visitor, your humble attempt will be appreciated.

- Bring small gifts from your home country. Gift exchanging is another complex Japanese custom. Giving a gift inappropriate to the occasion - or not giving one at all - can be a source of embarrassment. As a visitor, the simple gesture of sharing a small aspect of your home culture will bring your hosts delight. It’s also a great way to break the ice when language is not on your side. Think clip-on koalas, Hershey bars, tower of London key-rings and mini-flags: anything from your country unavailable in Japan will be a big hit. Avoid expensive or flamboyant offerings –simple gestures often carry the most weight.

- Have gratitude and humility in the face of kindness and generosity. You’re bound to meet someone, somewhere who’ll want to buy you a meal or to drink with you. Even if you can’t stomach the food, do your best to try! Japanese manners dictate you match your hosts in terms of alcohol consumption, especially if you’re a guy. Say ‘kanpai!’ (cheers!), before you sip your beer or sake, and never pour your own glass!

Stop for tea with Mr Suzuki, Tsumago-Magome Nakasendō. Photo by Benedict Walker / Lonely Planet.

- Visit temples frequently: there are many, and each has a history. Even if you’re not a religious or spiritual person, be open to experiencing a different way of thinking about life that most Japanese don’t even question. Learn to tell the difference between a Buddhist temple (o-tera) and a Shintō shrine (jinja). Generally, if the name of the complex ends in “-dera”, “-tera”, or “-ji”, it’s a Buddhist temple. Shintō shrines will often have the suffix, “-jingu” in their name. Purify yourself as you enter by dousing your hands using the ladles provided at the flowing water source found in front of all shrines. Both temples and shrines usually have a wooden box before the altar in which to throw a coin as an offering. At shrines only, the correct method of approaching the altar is to bow twice, clap your hands in front of your body twice, bow a third time, and then make your prayer in silence. If there’s a gong, you’re allowed to bang it once or twice to attract the god’s attention.

Stupa at Murodō plateau, Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route. Photo by Benedict Walker / Lonely Planet.

- Learn some phrases and try to use them – the locals will love you for it:

Yes / hai / はい

No / iie / いいえ

Please / o-negai-shimasu / お願いします

Thank you / arigatō gozaimasu / ありがとうございます

Excuse me / sumimasen / すみません

I’m sorry (lit: I’m being rude) / shitsurei-shimasu / 失礼します

I don’t speak Japanese / nihongo ga hanasemasen / 日本語が話せません

I don’t understand / wakarimasen / 分かりません

One more time (please) / mō ichi-do (kudasai) / もう一度下さい

Wonderful / subarashii / 素晴らしい

What a view! / keshiki ga ii ne! / 景色がいいね

It was really delicious / totemo oishi-katta desu / とても美味しかったです

Where is … (the toilet) ? / (toire) wa doko desu ka ? / (トイレ)はどこですか?

See you again / mata ne / またね

Goodbye / sayōnara / さようなら

Don’t…

- Be offended by seemingly standoffish behaviour. Although many Japanese will be excited to engage with you, eager to test their English, openly friendly and bend-over-backwards accommodating, some may not. It’s more about the Japanese being embarrassed by what they perceive as their poor English than rudeness or intolerance. If you’re stuck somehow and need help – persevere: there’s usually a kind soul waiting around a corner to change your day completely.

- Wear your slippers in a tatami (straw mat) room: remove them before stepping on the tatami and place them neatly at the entrance.

- Blow your nose in public. It’s considered more polite (and hygienic) to sniff! Preferable still is to wear a surgical mask, which you’ll be able to find just about everywhere.

- Be loud and obnoxious in public, even after a night on the sake. The Japanese are a respectful people and whilst they like to drink and have fun, they don’t like making other people uncomfortable. The same logic applies to talking loudly or on the phone, when riding the train or subway.

A feast of local flavours to sample on a tour from Satoyama Cycling Tours (in Hida Furukawa). Photo by Benedict Walker / Lonely Planet.

- Spear food with chopsticks or leave your chopsticks standing in a bowl of rice: this is the way a bowl of rice is presented as an offering to someone who has died. Both actions are considered offensive.

- Be afraid to slurp when eating noodles! It’s almost impossible to enjoy a bowl of ramen without making any noise. Slurping shows the chef you’re appreciating the food.

- Eat or drink while you walk or are in transit. Nobody is really sure why this is so, but the Japanese just don’t do it. When in Rome…

From Newcastle, Australia, Benedict Walker now calls Canada home. He speaks fluent Japanese and gets back to Japan whenever possible. When not writing for Lonely Planet or photographing the world, he’s wrestling with his first novel. Stay tuned! Follow Ben on Twitter @benedictwalker and on the web at www.wordsandjourneys.com.