A NEW WORLD
Arriving in Japan for the first time, I had the sensation of being in a completely different cosmos. Looking back today, I remember some faux-pas I was completely unaware of. Although I did prepare for my intercultural stay, there were lots of things that surprised me. As I slowly adapted to the culture, I realized most rules aim to contribute to a pleasent and harmonic life within the society. Respect, politeness and willingness to help others are extremely important. Sometimes I long for these customs here in Europe.
MEET & GREET
- Do bring gifts for your host when staying at a local’s home or visiting someone for the first time.
- Do bring business cards (Meishi) and exchange them when meeting someone new. Make sure to give and receive the cards with both hands and have an acknowledging look at the card. Grabbing it with one hand and sticking it into your pocket without a glance is considered rude. When giving your card, make sure the writing is facing the other person. Same rules apply for gifts.
- Do bow (a little goes a long way). Foreigners are not expected to understand the depth, duration and number of bows but it’s nice to make an effort. Sometimes Japanese also shake hands when meeting a foreigner.
- Do practice your Japanese. It is handy to learn a few phrases in advance to get around and impress new friends. The Japanese will respect you for it. Do not assume all Japanese know English. It is not as widely understood as we may think. Often they shy away because of fear to make a mistake and sometimes pretend to not speak English.
- Always bring one fancy outfit on your Japan adventure. The Japanese are formal. A chic outfit is a must to honor a special occasion like a sumo fight, kabuki play or visiting an exquisit kaiseki restaurant.
- Always take your shoes off in someones home, even if the host encourages you to leave them on. Secretly the host is still expecting you to take them off. Place the shoes, toes facing the door, neatly below the stair. Public places with a sunken foyer or stairs, such as temples also require that you take your shoes off before entering. Whenever you visit a restaurant with a traditional low table, always take your shoes off.
- Do get a supply of nice socks before your trip and have fun showing them off.
- Do bring your slippers to wear inside. Note that even slippers are forbidden inside tatami rooms.
- Sometimes you will find extra slippers in front of bath rooms. Do take yours off and put the ones sitting outside the bathroom on. In some cases house slippers may never touch the bathroom floor and bathroom slippers may never touch the rest of the house. Respect the rules of the establishment.
- If you have any tattoos it might be better to stay away from Onsen baths. Tattoos are still associated with Yakuza and often forbidden. Make sure you check the rules of the facility before entering.
- Do not wear flip-flops inside the bath, showers or locker room. I made this mistake in a gym and got told off by an older, angry Japanese woman. To us it’s hygienic to wear them in bare foot areas. To the Japanese however, they are dirty and disturb the cleanliness of the floor. It was a strange feeling but you get used to it. Onsens usually are very clean, so don’t worry, live on the edge.
- Do cleanse yourself BEFORE going into the water. There are showers with little pots to sit on, often even mirrors and shelves to place your products on. Every person has their little shower cell. If you want to up your game, bring a wash cloth and piece of soap, foam it up and cleanse/exfoliate throughly.
- As a foreigner, be prepared for strange looks. I am 6 ft. tall. You can imagine the faces of the ladies seeing a live giant woman for the first time, sitting next to them in the steam room. It was like they just cannot believe it. Quite a conversation starter when meeting new people.
- Do participate in onsen rituals and try new stuff. If there is a towel-waving event in the sauna, join in and clap your hands with the enthusiastic crowd. Visit the hot stone room and take a nap on the warm floor. Try out curiosities like the hand and foot massage machines, it is fun!
- Do have a beer and edamame with the locals after bathing. Usually there is a room with mats and tables to eat, drink, lounge and nap.
- Don’t smoke on the street. It is regarded as rude and dirty because of the cigarette butts. Japanese streets are extremely clean and they like them that way. Other people may be disturbed by the smoke. Only smoke in designated areas.
- Don’t litter. EVER!
- Don’t bump into other people. Even inside the crowded metro, try to avoid it and instantly appologize to others by bowing and saying “Sumimasen”.
- Don’t be loud, don’t yell or argue. It means “losing your face” and is disrespectful.
- Do always be respectful and polite to everyone, even if some may look at you funny.
- Do not blow your nose in public, it is considered uncouth.
- When visiting a temple or shrine, do rinse your hands and mouth with water by the well before entering the temple.
- Do always wait to be seated.
- Do use chop sticks. Period. Don’t stick chop sticks into food, that is associated with death.
- Do rest your chop sticks aside the food. Don’t pass food from one pair of chop sticks to another.
- Don’t pour soy sauce over the food, e.g. when eating sushi and use the designated soy sauce dish. Only pour a little at a time.
- Do slurp your noodles in a ramen/noodle shop. It is totally normal and the technique is designed to make them taste best.
- Don’t waste food, finish your plate. The Japanese do not eat until they are full, like us Europeans. They eat until hunger is satisfied, then they stop.
- Do share food with your table group. Eating is a custom of sharing, the food arrives on many small plates to be shared. There is no “my plate” and “your plate”. Just take a piece from the common plate with your chop sticks and put it on your individual plate.
- Do try Fugu IN A FUGU SPECIALIZED RESTAURANT, if you are interested. It’s delicious! Don’t be afraid of poisoning, the chefs have many years of intensive training and know what they are doing.
- Do try out new things. Japan is a culinary heaven, and there are so many dishes to try!
- Don’t pour your own drink. If there is a shared bottle do refill drinks of others when they are low. Let someone else refill yours but don’t do it yourself. Kampai!
- Don’t tip, it is not common and can be insulting. Leaving money on the table can result the waiter chasing you down the street trying to give it back.
- Japanese restaurants often have smoking sections. As opposed to some European countries and the US, smoking is not neccessarely banned indoors. Do light up only when sitting in a smoking section. The waiter will usually ask you which you prefer upon entering the restaurant.
- The metro and all other public transportation are a quiet zone. Don’t talk loudly to others and don’t talk on the phone.
- Do use the time for reading, quietly listening to music on your headphones or snoozing, like everyone else does.
- Do offer your seat to the elderly or pregnant women. Do not sit down in the designated, marked area for pregnant, injured or the elderly.
- Do get in the queue that is formed outside the train on the platform when many people are waiting and wait your turn.
- Do try to avoid rush hour. It has not yet happened to me but being shoved onto the train by professional “human shovers” and riding in “sardine-can-style” is not a desireable scenario. Leave the train for the hard working crowd and pick a more relaxed time to use the metro, if you can. The busy hours are usually 7-9 am and 5-7pm.
I am sure there are several other unwritten social rules for me to discover on my next trip. The most important thing is to relax, be open minded, open eyed and enjoy the beauty of Japan and its kind, lovely people.