Japan is everything you can imagine, and more – rich in culture, full of history, natural beauty, epic shopping, unforgettable cuisine, gracious hospitality. But, to experience its true grandeur, there are a few tips and customs to familiarise yourself with before you go:
Bowing: The polite greeting in Japan is the bow. While you won’t be expected to know all the ins and outs of the bow (it can take decades to learn rules regarding the appropriate depth) there are a few things to remember. Bow from the waist and keep your arms straight by your side. Imitate the bows you receive – don’t over bow or ignore the greeting. Smile and nod if nothing else, you don’t want to be perceived as rude.
Hygiene: While there are plenty of western-style restrooms in the larger department stores and restaurants, you might still encounter a Japanese-style toilet (of the squat variety). It’s helpful to carry toilet tissues with you because not every restroom will have these! If you forget to take some with you, hope you get lucky and run into a promo person handing out packs of tissues with ads on them (a current marketing trend). Also bear in mind that you should blow your nose in a restroom rather than in public, and into a tissue rather than a handkerchief.
Money: It’s considered rude to count your change after you’ve received it – the Japanese culture is one that prides itself on its honesty. Plus you probably won’t be able to translate the currency quickly enough to avoid looking impolite…
Politeness: The Japanese are absolutely always polite. One of the noticeable features of the Japanese languages is that there are many different words which are used to communicate the same meaning. Some words are considered to be far more polite than others. Even if you don’t intend to speak much Japanese, this is an important concept to understand during your stay in Japan. At all times try your best to be VERY polite.
Shoes: When, where, why, and how shoes are worn in Japan can be confusing. Generally, shoes are not worn in Japanese homes, temples, ryokan, and various other public places (including some restaurants). Follow the lead of locals and don’t panic! Your shoes won’t be stolen while you’re off touring a temple.
Japanese manners and customs are vastly different from those of Western people. A strict code of behaviour and politeness is recognised and followed by almost everyone. However, Japanese people do not expect visitors to be familiar with all their customs but do expect them to behave formally and politely. A straightforward refusal traditionally does not form part of Japanese etiquette, and a vague ‘yes’ does not always mean ‘yes’. (The visitor may be comforted to know that confusion caused by non-committal replies occurs between the Japanese themselves.) When entering a Japanese home or restaurant, shoes must be removed. Bowing is the customary greeting but handshaking is becoming more common for business meetings with Westerners. The honorific suffix san should be used when addressing all men and women; for instance Mr Yamada would be addressed as Yamada-san. Table manners are very important, although the Japanese host will be very tolerant towards a visitor. However, it is best if visitors familiarise themselves with basic table etiquette and use chopsticks. Exchange of gifts is also a common business practice and may take the form of souvenir items such as company pens, ties or high-quality spirits.
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