10 Quirky Yet Important Facts About Japan and Its Culture
Japanese culture is both fascinating and frustrating, all depending on your experiences in this vastly modernized yet strangely conservative nation. The cultural differences vary in magnitude based on your own country of origin, but nonetheless are still pretty interesting to know. Here is a small collection of facts worth knowing whether you're planning a visit, or simply need more random tidbits of information to entertain your friends with. All of these were acquired through my own personal experiences living in Tokyo.
- BATHING RITUAL:
If you are a guest at a Japanese family's house for the night, you are expected to take a bath. The traditional house usually has a room with a separate bathtub and shower, and the tub is filled with hot water each evening for all of the family members to bathe in. Yes, it's true, everyone uses the same bath water throughout the night. As a guest, you are offered to be the first to bathe, and even politely trying to refuse this offer will seem like an insult.
There is a very strict procedure to follow as well, as you can't just jump into the water and muck it up for everyone else. Before you get into the tub, you are required to shower with the separate shower head located near the tub. Once you're done shampooing and washing off you can finally take a soak in the tub. Not too long though, the water needs to be hot enough for the next person.
- DRINKING RULES: Another way to insult someone, especially a business associate or someone above you, is refusing to drink alcohol that has been poured for you. The Japanese etiquette requires that men pour alcohol for each other based on seniority, the junior pouring for the senior first, followed by the senior pouring for the junior. So if you're out at a dinner, pour for everyone just to be extra polite and drink everything you're poured. If you're not a heavy drinker, just drink slowly, this might help out depending on how drunk your Japanese companions are.
- LOSING OR FINDING SOMETHING:
Here's a great tidbit to know if you're in Japan and have lost something: chances are it's going to be at a local Police box [Koban] usually found throughout every neighbourhood. I've heard stories of friends accidentally dropping their wallets or leaving their cellphones on bank machines only to come back and find them still there hours later. If you sort of know where you might have lost something, feel free to walk to the nearest Police Box. Trying to explain in English will be difficult, so a Japanese speaking friend will help.
The rule for finding things in Japan is simple, you are required to report it to a local Police box [Koban] and provide the officers with your name, address, and number. If within six months the item isn't claimed, it becomes your property. I once found a digital camera on top of a pay phone in Shibuya and spent ten minutes trying to figure out where I was staying on a map so I could provide them with an address. The police officer even called a special translator hotline to help me out.
- CELLPHONES: Japan is great for cellphones, they're usually five years ahead of anything we have in North America and they're very cheap. But there is nothing more annoying to a Japanese person than someone yapping away while on a bus, a train or in a quiet environment. You are required to turn your ringer off anytime you enter a bus or train, and if you have to answer or make a call you should be as discreet about it as you can. This might sound like much, but trust me, after returning home from Japan, nothing grates on my nerves more than someone talking loudly on their cellphone near me.
- HAVING TO GO:
I'm sure you've been out on the town shopping or running errands and suddenly had a strong urge to pee. It happens to everyone, and unfortunately in most North American cities finding a public bathroom is nearly impossible. Most restaurants or coffee shops require that you buy something before using their facilities. It's a sad reality for us.
Thankfully, not only is finding a restroom in Japan easy, with virtually every coffee shop or restaurant freely available, but you are free to pee in public as long as you do it discreetly. There is no law barring you from using that nice looking bush on the side of the road as a makeshift urinal. In fact, it's not unusual to walk through small alleys or steets at night and see taxi drivers letting loose on some poor tree. It sounds disgusting, and it is, but at least you know that when you really have to go there isn't a law stopping you from it.
- LINING UP FOR A DRINK: When at a bar or club, especially one not frequented by a lot of foreigners, you'll find a line-up at the bar. Unlike here at home where it's a free for all, Japanese people like to line up and keep things orderly. So, if you're out at night, remember to get in line when you see one, otherwise you might hear someone say "baka gaijin" [stupid foreigner] in your general direction.
- BICYCLES: As you can imagine, bicycles are very popular and convenient in large cities with small streets and heavy traffic. So convenient, in fact, that you may feel inclined to "borrow" one of the many unlocked bicycles you can find anywhere. This is a bad move, as a foreigner on a bicycle is prime target for patrolling police. When travelling on a bicycle, you are required to have the bike licensed under your name, or carry a copy of a license with you in case you just acquired or borrowed it. Not being able to provide one will most likely land you a night in jail and some real trouble. Make sure that when you want to ride a bike, you either buy it and register it, or carry a copy of the license if it belongs to your friend. Stealing bicycles is easy, but getting out of legal trouble is not.
- SLEEPING ON THE STREET: It's not unusual during the warm seasons to see men in business suits sleeping with their briefcase as a pillow all over the bigger neighbourhoods in Tokyo. They are usually left stranded after the trains close down, and decide to sleep near the station. It's a very eerie sight, but surprisingly a normal occurence there. If you find yourself drunk and stranded with no cash for a cab, you can partake in this activity. Find a comfy spot somewhere quiet and try to get a couple of hours of shut eye. If you're not the adventurous type, you can always go for a few hours of Karaoke until the trains start up at 6 am.
- ULTRA HIGH-TECH TOILET SEATS:
Japan is famous for its Toto toilet seats. These things are basically spaceship engineered thrones meant for kings. Features include an automatically lifting cover, a heated seat, built-in bede and dryer with some models even coming equipped with an option of a flushing sound to play over your most embarassing noises. Naturally such a complicated device comes with even more complicated controls, especially since it's all labelled in Japanese. If you're at someone's house, and you see one of these monstrous things do not be afraid to ask for a quick run-down on operations. There's nothing more embarassing than accidentally splashing your butt with water instead of flushing and then having to figure out how to clean up.
Also worth noting is the slipper situation. You are usually provided with a pair of house slippers when you enter a home as wearing shoes inside is rude. When you enter a bathroom, there should be another pair of slippers near the door that should be changed into when entering.
Most of you know Ramen of the instant kind, and some of you might have eaten it at Asian restaurants in your home town. For the Japanese, food is very important, and Ramen is one of their most prized dishes. If you ever get a chance to watch a lot of Japanese television, you'll notice that there are many specials devoted to the best Ramen in the country with hosts travelling to the most famous restaurants and tasting each dish with an eloquence and in a slightly exaggarated way.
When in Japan, you should definitely find out about a good shop near you. Some of the establishments are very precise in how the Ramen is eaten. You should eat in a timely manner, avoid speaking to your companions, and most importantly show the chef your appreciation by slurping loudly. Ramen is best eaten fresh and hot, before the noodles absorb too much water and get soggy. Slurping while sucking the noodle in cools it down so that it doesn't burn your mouth. If you want to make a lasting impression, make sure to compliment the chef by looking him in the eye and exclaiming "Oishi!" [Delicious!].
In regards to food in Japan, you'll find that Western food is much more expensive than the local fare. Why spend each night at TGI Friday's, surrounded by strangely clad servers and bartenders juggling bottles when you can take advantage and eat some of the best food in your life? If you're at a restaurant and don't understand the menu, try asking for an English one. It's easy, just ask: "Ego menu arimasuka?" and if you're in a touristy enough neighbourhood you should be supplied with one promptly. Remember that you don't have to tip in Japan, and it's considered rude to do so.
That's it! I hope you've enjoyed the read and found it helpful, if not informative. Enjoy your travels and make the best with your time in Japan, a truly unique and beautiful country.