As pithy and practical as it is, the timeless travel maxim ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ also needs some unpacking.
In Japan, social rules, norms and customs — as well as the law of the land — exert a strong control. Japanese culture places a huge emphasis on being able to ‘read the air’, and sense what’s appropriate behaviour and what’s not.
That’s not to say the Japanese don’t like to have the craic — they do — it’s just that they do it a little differently.
1. Keep it clean
Japanese soccer fans are famous for their clean-up efforts after games. Japan is for the most part spotless. If you can’t find a bin (there are hardly any in Tokyo) hold onto your rubbish until you find one at a station or accommodation.
A futon is laid out for the evening at a ryokan, or traditional Japanese Inn. Omotenashi no Yado Keizankaku, outside Kyoto.
Chatting on your phone on any form of public transport is a big no-no. Keep it on silent mode — or ‘manner mode’ as they say in Japan. Also, bar the bullet trains, people generally refrain from eating and drinking on public transport.
Unlike in Ireland, you can smoke in most bars, restaurants and cafes in Japan. However, smoking while walking is frowned on, and even banned in some areas. Find a designated spot.
4. Tips on tipping
When eating out you don’t need to tip, but taxi drivers won’t mind if you round up by 100 or 200 yen (€1-2).
They can be fun and frustrating. Don’t stick them upright in your food, or pass food with your chopsticks to another person’s chopsticks. Both actions have parallels in funeral rituals. Best also to keep chopsticks out of your hair. And your neighbour’s.
6. Temper tantrums
Don’t lose your temper. Just as you’ll rarely see public displays of affection in Japan, so it goes with public displays of anger. Lose the head, and you’ll be regarded the same way as a petulant child throwing a tantrum.
7. Tiny white towels
Onsens (hot springs or baths) are an etiquette minefield unto themselves. Wash before you bathe, and watch out for that tiny white towel – it’s used for modesty when walking, but should never be submerged or wrung out in the water. Instead, place it on your head. No, really. - Pól Ó Conghaile
8. About those shoes...
It’s easy to forget, but Japanese homes and ryokans (above) are not places for outdoor shoes. These should be taken off at the door, where you’ll find slippers that are – almost always – comically small and dainty. - Pól Ó Conghaile
9. Learn some lingo
Try out a cúpla focal, or in this case ‘konichiwa’ (hello), “arigato” (thank you) and “ohayo gozaimasu” (good morning). If you do buy a drink or a round in Japan, you’ll receive gratitude. But don’t expect a drink in return.
10. And finally
A smile goes a long, long way in Japan. Above all, as an Irish friend of mine living here suggested, do act like a normal person. You’ll have a blast.
- JJ O’Donoghue is an Irish journalist living in Kyoto
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