Bowing is considered a unique form of acknowledgement in Japanese culture. The Japanese bow upon meeting, departing, and to express gratitude. Since the head is believed to be the most important part of the body, bowing is a way to show respect and honor to another person. Although bowing may seem pretty straightforward, it’s actually quite complicated. Everything including the depth of the bow, the number of bows, and the duration of the bow are determined by the people involved and their status in relation to each other. The proper form for the bow is to bend from the waist, keeping a straight back and arms held stiffly to the side of the body. For foreigners, a simple nod of the head is sufficient. Japanese who have traveled abroad or have experience dealing with foreigners may extend their hand for a handshake, though they probably won’t be able to stop from giving a slight bow as well.
The Japanese are some of the most avid gift-givers in the world, and guests invited to a private home should always bring a gift. Wise visitors to Japan come prepared with their own small gifts which can range from memorabilia from their own hometown to crafts and specialty foods. Otherwise, items readily available in Japan that make good gifts include flowers, candy, fruit, or alcohol. While you are visiting Japan, if someone does something special for you, you should be prepared to give them something in return for their thoughtfulness and kindness. They will certainly appreciate it. Gifts should be wrapped or presented in an attractive bag.
Public bathing has been a tradition in Japan and part of the Japanese culture for over a thousand years. It is as much about socializing as it is cleanliness. Even though most Japanese homes today have private bathrooms, neighborhood public baths still play an important role in local neighborhoods, especially for the older generation. Even more popular are Japan’s many hot-spring spas (onsens), which can range from simple outdoor baths to huge, state-of-the-art complexes with numerous baths boasting various kinds of water and thermal treatments.
Whether large or small, humble or grand, the procedure for bathing in a public bath is the same all over Japan. After completely disrobing and placing clothes in a locker or basket, bathers enter the bath area and proceed to the faucets lined with basins and stools where they soap down and wash off all traces of soap. Only then are they ready to enter the bath, as the baths are for soaking, not washing. The bath may be so hot that it takes some time to get used to, especially for novice bathers. The hot water fades away all cares and tension, making the ritual of bathing the perfect end to a day of travel.
Upon entering a restaurant, guests are greeted with a hearty Irasshaimase! (Welcome!) You should indicate the number of people in the party using your fingers (that’s how the Japanese do it). Guests are then led to a table, a place at the counter, or a tatami room. As soon as everyone is seated they are handed a wet towel (oshibori). Once finished, you should roll it up and leaves it next to their place setting.
Diners in Japanese restaurants are also given chopsticks. There are some rules of etiquette involving chopsticks. When given wooden chopsticks in the US, it is normal to rub the two together to scrape off any slivers before using them, however this is considered impolite in Japan. You should also never insert chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice, or pass anything from chopstick to chopstick. Both of these practices have associations with death.
You will be recognized as a foreigner, and will be given an English menu if one exists. To ask for one say, “eigo no menu ga arimasu ka?” (Is there an English menu?) If they don’t have an English menu, or if the menu does not have photos, you can look around at what other people are eating and point at what you want, or you can ask “osusume wa nan desu ka?” (What do you recommend?). If the restaurant has a display in the front window (as many restaurants in Japan have), you can take the waitperson outside and point. By asking for a teishoku or seto (set meal), you will get the main course with miso soup, rice, and pickles for usually just a little bit more (it is definitely worth the little extra they charge). Tea will be automatically served for free, and water (mizu) will be served if you ask.
When you are finished eating, you can signal for the bill by crossing one index finger over the other to form an X. This is the standard sign for “check please”. You can also say, “okanjo kudasai” (check please). Remember, there is no tipping. When leaving, it is polite to say to the restaurant staff, “gochiso-sama deshita” (It was a feast).
Here are some other things to keep in mind while dining out in Japan:
Individual tipping is not common in Japan (not even to waitresses, taxi drivers, or bellboys). Rather, in lieu of tipping, a 10 to 15 percent service charge is added to bills. Many times when a tip is offered, it will be returned.
Giving a gift of a gratuity to your guides, on the other hand, is accepted and appreciated. Of course the amount is up to you depending on service, but an approximate amount would be around 500¥ to 1000¥ (about $5 to $10USD) per person per guided day on an escorted tour.
Shoes are never worn inside private homes and some ryokans. Some restaurants, temples, and shrines also require patrons to remove shoes. Shoes will normally be taken off where a step-up is provided. The shoes should remain on the concrete, and you should only step on the wooden platforms provided with your socks or bare feet. Stepping on the concrete with your socks will track dirt inside. Typically there will be a place provided to store your shoes.
Slippers are provided in most ryokans, but even these should be removed for walking on tatami (straw mats), so travelers should be sure to pack warm socks in winter. In establishments that do not allow shoes special restroom slippers are provided. These slippers are to remain in the restroom, and not to be worn anywhere else in the establishment.
One of the most enduring Western notions about Japan is that of Japanese courtesy and rigid social etiquette. However, with a little sensitivity, there is almost no chance of offending anyone, and the visitor to Japan should rest easy in the knowledge that the Japanese are very forgiving when it comes to the little slip-ups of foreign visitors. However, here are a few things to remember during your travels through Japan:
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