For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2016.
Though most of Japan follows a certain mannerism in the way they greet, dress, eat and live, the touristy areas are more forgiving of westerners “trying” to assimilate in the culture. Once you get to the small towns, language is a huge barrier, and not knowing the customs can cause a lot of frustration even to an expert traveler. Japanese people can be very particular about proper manners and doing a little homework won’t just save you some embarrassment, it will also make your experience more enjoyable.
Here are a few things I learned during my 10-day countryside hike with Walk Japan Tours…
Know Your Hotel Etiquette
My first night in Oita offered many learning experiences. The only accommodations in the Japanese countryside are traditional hotels or inns, known as ryokan. Most ryokans charge an all-inclusive price per person, not by room. So you can get a single room and pay $100, or a shared room and pay $200, which goes to show that Japanese culture encourages inclusiveness. Many hotels are small with 5-12 rooms, therefore during peak season, sharing is common. Breakfast, dinner and gratuities are included in the price, though there is a bathing tax of 150 Yen ($2) per night per person, whether or not you use the bath during your stay.
Tip: Be prepared to share a room and pay a per head price.
When I walked into my room, I saw nothing but a table and cushions on the floor. I was confused if this was my living room or my bedroom. There was a television, phone, air conditioner, refrigerator and tea set, but no bed. At dinner that evening, I asked my guide where I was going to sleep. He informed me that the tatami section of the floor has multipurpose use as living and dining rooms during the day and at night, it is converted to a bedroom. When we returned to the rooms at night, beds were made by laying futons on the tatami floor. The pillow provided was hard and beady, something Westerners may find difficult getting used to.
Tip: Bring your own pillow if you need extra comfort.
Find the Proper Lounge Wear
Proper attire must be maintained inside a ryokan. This means wearing the appropriate pair of slippers for outdoors and indoors. Only socks or bare feet are permitted in the bathroom and sleeping areas. Most luxury hotels around the world offer bathrobes to their guests. When I saw two cotton robes in my closet, I thought they must serve the same purpose. Thankfully, my fellow travelers educated me that the light cotton kimonos, called yukata is actually supposed to be worn in the evening as lounge wear. Both men and women wear yukata (gown) with belt, and tanzen (a padded jacket to wear over). Always dress the right side over the body, and pull the left side over the right. Of course, I didn’t get this the first time. As soon as I walked into the lobby, one of the hotel attendants pointed out that I was dressed like a corpse and took me aside to fix it.
Tip: No need to pack evening attire when staying at a Ryokan.
Bathing in Public
After a long day of hiking, I was looking forward to a nice long shower at my hotel. To my surprise I found out that very few hotels in the countryside have private toilets or baths attached to the rooms. There are only onsens, common hot spring bathhouses for the guests, and sometimes even open to the locals for a charge. Bathing with a bunch of strangers is not something I look forward to on a vacation, but the only other option was to stay unbathed for the entire trip.
The bath houses are separated for men (marked with a blue flag) and women (red flag). When you enter the onsen, you need to leave your slippers at the door and clothes in bins provided (no lockers). You must go in the bathing area completely nude. No swimwear is allowed. Also, you must first clean yourself before stepping in the tub, by squatting on a low stool and bathing with a hand shower. Soap, shampoo and conditioner is provided. Hair dryers are also available. Then soak in the hot tub (still naked) along with the other guests, and try not to be conscious of it. It is believed that the water of the onsen contains healing minerals from the surrounding Kyushu mountains. When I walked out of the bath area and looked for a towel to dry myself, I only found washcloth-sized towels. Note to self: bring a bath towel to the ryokan.
Tip: Leave the bathing suit at home and go all natural.
Drinking in Company
Sake is the most common drink choice at dinners, though some places may offer limited selections of beer and wine. It is polite to serve all of your fellow diners first, and then allow them to serve you. If you did happen to serve yourself (I did several times by accident), the Japanese will feel a sense of shame.
Sushi lovers will find themselves in heaven when traveling through Kunisaki. Every night, we feasted on fresh and delicious meals of local seafood, silken soft tofu, seaweed salads, miso soup, steamed rice and more, served in an assortment of colorful little plates and bowls. Japanese chefs believe you taste the food with your eyes first, so much importance is given to presentation.
As soon as we sat down, the food would just keep coming. More than often, you will never see a menu when dining in the countryside. Only a few touristy hotels and restaurants offer menus. It is the chef’s choice to prepare platters of food served in a set of beautifully arranged plates and bowls. You can always tell them if you have any allergies or dietary preferences beforehand.
We began by saying “itadakimasu” (“I gratefully receive”) as a short grace, and concluded the meal with the phrase “gochisōsama deshita” (“thank you for the feast”) which meant we were grateful to the chef, as well as the ingredients for feeding us.
Typically, a Japanese breakfast will include miso soup, rice, salad, egg custard, tofu, fruit and tea. You will see many of the same things for dinner as rice, soup and salad are staples at practically every meal. Your host may present fresh slices of sashimi, fried shrimp and vegetable tempura, or a hot pot with meat and vegetables, known as shabu-shabu.
You must eat with chopsticks and place them on a chopstick rest between bites. When eating from small bowls, it is correct to pick up the bowl with hands and keep it close to your mouth when eating from it; however, larger types of dishes should generally not be picked up. When eating from shared dishes (as it is commonly done at some restaurants), it is polite to use the opposite end of the chopsticks or dedicated serving chopsticks for moving food.
After finishing a meal, it is generally good manners to return all the dishes to how they were at the start of the meal. This includes replacing the lids on dishes and putting chopsticks back on the chopstick rest or in its paper holder.
Tip: It is rude to waste rice in Japanese culture. Your server will probably ask you if you want rice half way through your meal, when you can decide whether you are full, or can finish an entire bowl.
Whether or not you speak any Japanese, certain etiquette must be followed while interacting with others. Never shake hands or hug someone unless you know them extremely well. Also, making direct eye contact while talking is considered rude. Instead, look at the person’s nose to avoid coming on too strong. Weather is the most common opening conversation Japanese people expect to have. They will nod all the time, many will bow as a mark of respect, and smile if they don’t understand you. Speak slowly and avoid raising your voice at all costs.
A friend of mine gave me a tip that in order to loosen up a shy Japanese person, just have a drink with them!
Note: Japanese people avoid confrontation. If you have a complaint, address it delicately.
Published in CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2016.