WHERE MANNERS MATTER
You won’t be lost in translation if you follow these guidelines in Japan
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.
SIMPLY GOOD MANNERS
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.
DINING’S CRYPTIC CODE
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.
KNOWING THEY’VE DONE THEIR BEST IS REWARD ENOUGH FOR THE JAPANESE
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).