As a Venetian living in Kyoto, when I first moved here, things were… well, not hard, but weird for sure. Even though I had been studying Japan’s history, language and society at university for more than three years, as always, reading about something and actually seeing it with your own eyes are quite different. So I thought, why not tell you about some cultural practices, traditions and manners that I’ve encountered during my time here, to help you out with the local and etiquette and make your first trip to Kyoto a little easier!
Hashi a.k.a chopsticks
Chopsticks are tricky, but in Japan they are what you will eat 90% of your meals with. So, patience and practice. Let me give you just some pieces of advice: whether you’re eating at a starred restaurant, or outside the convenience store unwrapping the thousands of layers of plastic film of your 300 Yen Obento (lunch box), never, ever stick the chopsticks in the rice. When a person dies, family members prepare the person’s favourite bowl, fill it with rice, and then stick the person’s chopstick into it. This is part of the funeral rituals, so when a Japanese person sees you doing that, imagine what scene pops up into their head. For the same reason, avoid taking the food from the plate by sticking the chopsticks in it.
Another thing that is considered quite rude among Japanese people is leaving food on the plate. Japanese dinners are usually set in big bowls placed in the middle of the table, from which everybody takes their part. So, taking something for yourself and then leaving it uneaten is a sign of greed, and disrespect to others. If you want to make a good impression on your freshly met Japanese friends, make sure to eat everything you take. Gochisōsamadeshita! (the expression to thank the host for the food).
Japanese culture sees the group as more important than the individual, so always try to remember this. Don’t be noisy, especially in train or buses, switch your phones to silent and don’t accept calls inside public transport. You will not be fined if you do it, but every Japanese person around you will look at you. And judge you. You will feel it, trust me.
Walking pieces of art, geishas are one of the symbols of Kyoto. Gion, the ancient pleasure district, is still packed with old tea houses that offer geisha shows. I was always fascinated by them; so pure, elegant, moving around like they don’t really belong to these times, small fragments of a Japan almost lost forever. If you happen to see one of them walking, avoid talking to them, because they do not speak English, nor are really talkative at all. Absolutely do not touch them; grabbing a geisha (also blocking her way to take a picture together) can cost you several hundreds of dollars in fines, since they are under protection of Kyoto laws. You can of course take a picture, and admire their beauty as they pass by, they will even kindly smile at you, but that’s it. If you want to talk to them, or see them performing, you’ll have to go to one of the shows in the teahouses.
Blowing your nose
I think in my two years of living here, I’ve seen two, maybe three people blowing their noses. In Japan, when you get ill, you are supposed to wear a mask in order to “protect” others from your germs. This mentality applies also for normal days: blowing your nose means to “take out” your germs, potentially exposing others to your bacteria. So, they sniff instead. Even when they can barely breathe, locals still try to keep everything inside. So go to the bathroom if you need to blow your nose.
If you don’t want to creep out your new Japanese friends, avoid touching them, in most cases. Hugs are not the most popular here, let alone kisses - couples here don’t even kiss in public. Wave your hand, or just bend a bit in sign of respect.
Shoes off in the house!
Japanese culture has a very strong distinction between “inside” and “outside”, which applies at a variety of levels, but for now let’s focus on the simplest one. The house is the inner space, the place where family and loved ones live, so it is a place that must be “protected” from the outside. This is why you always have to take off your shoes before entering a house.
One of the things I love most about Japan is the cleanliness of the environment. But, there are almost no garbage bins around. Whenever you have some stuff to throw away, keep it until you find a bin, which most of the time means when you go back home. Everyone does this, everywhere stays clean. Something we all should learn to do.
Photo credit: kusuyama.jp
Remember, “bathing” is not washing. In onsens (public bath houses) everybody shares the same water in the pool, so you need to be clean first, and then enter. Use the showers at the entrance to properly clean yourself. Oh, and inside you’ll also be naked. Yes, completely. Japanese people have a very unique relationship with nakedness; they don’t see the shame western people do. So, don’t be shy, it is actually quite relaxing after the first awkward moments.
Tatemae, a.k.a I say yes but I mean no
The average Japanese will never openly confront you, telling you a straight “no”. They just don’t really refuse anything, but instead make a worried face and say “oh, maybe, it’s a bit difficult, I’m not sure”. When somebody tells you “Oh, sore wa chotto…”, which literally means only “Oh, this is a bit…” they are kindly, but definitely, saying “no, forget about it.”.
No, no, no. Although in western culture tipping is appreciated, and is sometimes mandatory thing, if you do it in Japan you will most probably be unable to leave the place without taking the tip back from a very embarrassed worker. Just don’t do it, and save yourself some time!
ありがとうございました、Arigatōgozaimashita, Thank you!