How to eat politely in Japan (and other etiquette tips)

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If you're visiting Japan soon - and the end of August is a great time, with autumn leaves starting to change colour - there are some things you should know first. In this extract from Lonely Planet Magazine (Aug 2010), we give you some starting tips for impressing the locals with your cultural know-how.

Eating:

  • Chopsticks in rice. Do not stick your hashi (chopsticks) upright in a bowl of rice. This is how rice is offered to the dead in Buddhist rituals. Similarly, do not pass food from your chopsticks to someone else's. This is another funereal ritual.
  • Polite expressions. When eating with other people, especially when you're a guest, it is polite to say 'itadakimasu' (literally, 'I will receive') before digging in. This is as close as the Japanese come to saying grace. Similarly, at the end of the meal, you should thank your host by saying 'gochiso-sama deshita', which means 'It was a real feast'.
  • Kampai. It is bad form to fill your own glass. You should fill the glass of the person next to you and wait for them to reciprocate. Raise your glass a little off the table while it is being filled. Once everyone's glass has been filled, the usual starting signal is a chorus of 'kampai', which means 'cheers!'
  • Slurp. When you eat noodles in Japan, it's perfectly OK, even expected, to slurp them. In fact, one of the best ways to find ramen (egg noodle) restaurants in Japan is to listen for the loud slurping sound that comes out of them.

Shoes:

Take your shoes off when entering a private home or anywhere with a tatami floor. Sometimes slippers are provided, with a separate set for the toilet.

Related article: Top 10 hot springs in Japan

Making a payment:

In a shop, instead of handing cash to the assistant, place your money on the small tray they keep next to the till.

Visiting a shrine:

Entering a shrine can be a bewildering experience. Just past the gate you'll find a chozuya (trough of water) with a hishaku (long-handed ladle) to purify yourself. Take a ladle, fill it with water, pour some over one hand, then transfer the spoon and pour water over the other hand. Finally, pour water into your cupped hand and rinse your mouth, spitting the water onto the ground.

Public baths:

Bathing at an onsen (hot spring) or sento (public bath) is a quintessentially Japanese experience. Baths are separated by gender, and the changing room will have baskets or lockers for storing clothes and a bath towel. Bring a washcloth and toiletries with you into the bathing area (soap and shampoo are often provided). There will be a row of taps along one wall. Find an empty spot and scrub yourself down.

Once you're clean, rinse completely before going anywhere near the baths. The communal baths are meant for soaking and shouldn't be adulterated  by soap, or - shock horror - dirt.

Onsen or sento may have a variety of baths with varying temperatures, cold pools, saunas or even an electric bath. If there's a rotenburo (outdoor bath), you should give it a try. There's nothing more satisfying than soaking in the open air with steam curling around your ears as you contemplate the night sky.

Food tips by Chris Rowthorn, coordinating author of Lonely Planet Japan

If you found this article handy, there is plenty more advice and inspiration in the Lonely Planet Magazine – subscribe and get your travel info delivered straight to your door. (Currently only available for delivery to UK addresses.)