15 JAPANESE CULTURAL NOTES YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU TRAVEL

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If you follow me on Instagram here, you’ll know I am off to Japan in a couple of weeks for business slash pleasure. Visiting Japan has long been on my list of countries to visit, so when I wrote my 2014 goals for Mr Weekender back in November, Japan was high on this list. I’ve spent the last few weeks researching Japan, studying maps and learning about the Japanese culture. We’ve mapped out a busy schedule with each day packed full of sight seeing and exploring.

I literally cannot wait to get lost in busy streets of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima. I want to be bowled over by the sakura (blossom) trees, eat lots of bento boxes, go vintage shopping, meet the friendly locals, experience the shinkansen (bullet train), see a geisha, walk across Shibuya crossing at night, walk through the Arashiyama bamboo groves and visit the many shrines and temples. And this doesn’t even scratch the surface of what we have planned…

Last weekend I went to a bookstore in Sydney’s CBD to do some more research, and instead of buying a Lonely Planet, I chose a pocket sized book of phrases and cultural notes by DK Books called Eyewitness Travel Guide. Soaked in tradition, here are some of the customs I already know and a few which I found out reading the guide that are newer to me:

• When meeting a Japanese for the first time, both bowing and shaking hands are common

• If you are invited to a Japanese home, removal of shoes is a must. Slippers will be offered at the genkan, or entrance.

• When you use the toilet, you will usually find another pair of slippers awaiting you. Remember to change back out of your toilet slippers before reentering the other room!

• When entering a room you can say ojama-shi-mass, which literally means “I’m disturbing you,” or shitsurei-shi-mass, which means literally “I’m being impolite”. The latter phrase can also be used when parting company.

• When arriving at a Japanese home, you may be invited to take a bath. Remember: the bath is for relaxing; the shower is for washing. The bathroom floor is tiled and it is on the floor that you wash yourself with soap and rinse before stepping into the water. The cardinal rule: don’t get soap into the bathwater.

• Before eating, thank your host with itadaki-mass, literally “I receive”, and when finished you again show your appreciation with gochisō-sama deshta, literally “it was a feast”

• If you use chopsticks, never stand them upright in a bowl of rice, which is reminiscent of offerings to the dead

• Slurping noodles is quite acceptable

• The way to eat soup is to hold the bowl to your mouth and drink

• Don’t pour soy sauce over your rice – pour it over your meat instead or into your side dish

• Don’t pour your own sake – pour someone else’s, who will then reciprocate by filling your cup, which you should ideally hold while the drink is being poured

• Toilets are usually separate from bathrooms, so beware of asking for the bathroom if that’s not exactly what you mean

• To blow your nose, always use a tissue – never a handkerchief

• If you see Japanese wearing face masks, this does not mean they are concerned about breathing in polluted air, but rather that they have a cold and are anxious not to breathe out germs

• If you are a female in Japan on business, Japanese wives will be noticeably absent from a company’s social activities. If you are lucky enough to be invited home, the wife will probably retire to the kitchen after serving dinner

With that in mind, if you know of any other customs or cultural nuances important for an international traveller to be aware of whilst visiting Japan, please feel free to leave a comment below or shoot me an email at jaharn@misterweekender.com. I’d love to hear your advice!