You won’t be lost in translation if you fol­low these guide­lines in Ja­pan

Sunday Herald Sun - Escape - - DESTINATION JAPAN - JANE LAWSON

Slip­ping seam­lessly into the flow of ev­ery­day Ja­pan re­quires a lit­tle prepa­ra­tion. There’s no need to fold your­self into an origami pret­zel but re­spect, pa­tience and a smat­ter­ing of the lo­cal body lan­guage will dy­nam­i­cally en­rich your travel ex­pe­ri­ence in this deeply cul­tural, of­ten quirky and end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing land.


Pay it back. The lo­cals are ex­tremely po­lite and you should be too. Say­ing “konichiwa” (g’day), “kon­banwa” (good evening), “sum­i­masen” (ex­cuse me) and “ari­gato” (thank you) will be much ap­pre­ci­ated.

Hands by your sides. Tra­di­tion­ally, peo­ple gen­tly bow on greet­ing. It’s po­lite to re­turn the ges­ture but be­ing overzeal­ous can cause in­sult so mir­ror the an­gle to keep you in the safe zone.

Back seat driver. Taxi driv­ers have two ba­sic rules – sit in the back un­less there’s no room and don’t touch the door han­dles – back doors open au­to­mat­i­cally.

Shoes off. In Ja­panese homes, cer­tain tem­ple precincts and more tra­di­tional restau­rants and busi­nesses you’ll be re­quired to re­move footwear be­fore en­ter­ing – leav­ing im­pu­ri­ties at the door. Theft is rare – your shoes are safe. Fur­ther elude fashion crimes by wear­ing clean, hole-free socks.

Hush now. Switch your mo­bile phone’s sound off and avoid tak­ing calls when in restau­rants, shops and on pub­lic trans­port. If you must pick up, whis­per. Cover up. Be re­spect­ful when vis­it­ing sa­cred sites, tem­ples and shrines – avoid skimpy clothes, flash pho­tog­ra­phy and speak­ing too loudly.

Don’t go empty-handed. When in­vited to some­one’s home take a gift, prefer­ably food or drink, which has been lov­ingly pack­aged – it doesn’t need to be ex­pen­sive but avoid some­thing eas­ily sourced from a su­per­mar­ket. De­part­ment store food halls are your best bet.

Subtlety is a virtue. Never, ever grab a geisha to gain her at­ten­tion for a photo. If the sit­u­a­tion feels right you can po­litely ges­ture and you may be granted per­mis­sion. A gen­tle “sum­i­masen” can work a treat.

The snif­fles. Blow­ing your nose and sneez­ing are con­sid­ered im­po­lite so hold it if you can un­til you are in pri­vate. Those wear­ing masks around town are help­ing you avoid the flu.

Per­se­vere. Many lo­cals speak more English than they let on. Be friendly, buy your neigh­bour a drink and you never know where the con­ver­sa­tion will lead.

Beg to dif­fer. There is no culture of bar­gain­ing in Ja­pan, but flea mar­kets are oc­ca­sion­ally open to po­lite lower of­fers.

Off-side. If some­one makes a cross with their wrists in front of their chest it means – you can’t do that! Or stop!

Don’t be tardy for the party. Don’t be early ei­ther – es­pe­cially when din­ing. Right on time is the name of the game. If the lo­cal trains can do it, then so can you.


Only chants. “Irasshaimase” is that word you hear, of­ten loudly upon en­ter­ing restau­rants – there’s no need to re­spond to this wel­come but it’s po­lite to smile.


There’s a chair in there. Be aware that some tra­di­tional restau­rants (and most homes) re­quire you to sit on the floor to eat. If you can’t han­dle it then speak up im­me­di­ately – of­ten there’s an emer­gency seat on hand.

First things first. Shortly af­ter you are seated, drink (nomi­mono) or­ders will be taken. It’s not a push to get you out in a hurry – they sim­ply want to en­sure you are com­fort­able for pon­der­ing the menu.

I’ll have what they’re hav­ing. If col­leagues copy the boss’s or­der be sure to fol­low suit.

Dirty habits. Al­ways use the pro­vided os­hi­bori (wet towel) to wipe your hands be­fore eat­ing.

No smoke with­out fire. Some restau­rants and bars still per­mit smok­ing. Smok­ers should note that puff­ing any­thing other than cig­a­rettes comes with a side of jail time. Just ask Paul Mc­Cart­ney.

Wax on. Some restau­rants dis­play wax mod­els of menu items – if no English is spo­ken sim­ply point to what­ever floats your boat!

Gen­tly does it. It’s tempt­ing to or­der ev­ery de­li­cious iza­kaya share plate at once but take it slowly. Re­quest just a few dishes at a time, eat and re­peat for a gold star.

Early ap­pre­ci­a­tion. Say “itadaki­masu” be­fore you com­mence im­bib­ing and you’ll earn brownie points. If the word looks too hard – faintly mum­bling “eat a duck you must” will get you a pass.

Wooden you know it. Point­ing, pok­ing, wav­ing about, im­pal­ing tasty morsels and styling hair are chop­stick (ohashi) no-nos. Chop­sticks should sit on the pro­vided “rest” or the side of your bowl. Only at

Gotcha some at­ten­tion. Say­ing “ari­gato” to your hosts is a given – but a gen­uine “gochisosamadeshita” as you leave will se­ri­ously ac­knowl­edge the team’s ef­forts and put you in good stead for re­turn vis­its.

Fond farewells. In fancy joints it’s not un­com­mon for the chef to exit their restau­rant and bow in thanks as you leave. They of­ten hold their stance un­til you are out of sight so don’t linger – but do turn to nod re­turn­ing thanks.

Do the right thing. It’s con­sid­ered poor form to eat, even an ice cream, while walk­ing un­less in the park or at a mar­ket. Most “holes in walls” will pro­vide a bench seat – use it and re­turn any rub­bish to the shop­keeper if there are no bins.

Top Tip. It’s sim­ple – don’t tip! Know­ing they’ve done their best is re­ward enough for the Ja­panese.


Seek per­mis­sion be­fore tak­ing pic­tures of geishas; and the Ja­panese tra­di­tion­ally dine seated on the floor (be­low).

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