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Etiquette lessons learned in Japan

Tokyo is on the other side of the world and first time visitors might indeed wonder where it is that they have landed. The everyday customs that one encounters in Tokyo are unfamiliar and can be daunting, and this is a place where etiquette and proper behaviors are fundamental. So it is important for you to become familiar with the following customs so as not to offend or insult these genteel people.


How to bow upon greeting…

Rather than shaking hands, everyone bows upon greeting. There are small subtleties in how you do it and the wrong type of bow can be insulting. I studied the Japanese people to learn how to do it correctly and it appears that you keep your arms down by your side and bend about 25 to 35 degrees from the hip, while at the same time bowing your head slightly.

How to operate my hotel’s high-tech toilet…

My first night in Tokyo, I could not for the life of me figure out how to flush my high-tech toilet with its heated seat and built-in bidet. I had to ask the nice young man from room service how to do it. He just grinned and showed me the knob mounted on the vanity. I swear I had tried that earlier and concluded that it was used to open bottle caps. Upon leaving, he thanked me (“arigatou”) over and over again and bowed a few times.

How to purify myself upon entering a shrine…

The Meiji-jingo shrine is a Shinto shrine about a half mile inside a dense forest of many different species of trees donated by people from all over Japan and planted by thousands of volunteers. You would never know that you were in the middle of a city. After passing through two torii (the traditional entry gate of a shrine), we came upon it. At the entrance is a fountain with many long-handled dipping spoons which you fill with water and pour over your hands to clean them. Then you pour water into your clean hands and lift them to your mouth to clean your mouth, spitting it out into the trough below.

Tokyo shrine

How to make an offering in a shrine…

On our way out of the Meiji-jingo shrine, we made an offering to the deities enshrined here by tossing a five-yen coin into the box, bowing twice, clapping our hands twice, and then bowing again.

How to eat ramen…

Tokyo Station, the main railroad station, reminds me a bit of Grand Central Station in New York. Under the train station is an entire “city” with “streets” selling food and other products. One of the streets, “Noodle Street”, specializes in noodle, or ramen, shops. We entered one of these tiny ramen shops where we sat at the counter and watched as the cook prepared us a bowl of steaming hot broth filled with noodles, finely sliced vegetables, hard boiled egg, and roast pork. The only utensils you get are chopsticks. So you put your face close to the bowl, lift the noodles to your mouth as best you can, and try to suck as much as possible into your mouth. Then you do the same with the vegetables and meat, biting the slices of meat into small pieces if necessary. Finally, you lift the bowl to your mouth with both hands and drink the rest of the broth.


How to place my order in a ramen shop…

One slight glitch at the very beginning of our experience here: we did not know how to place our order. There is a wall of buttons at the entrance, sort of like a jukebox, with photos of the food and various options in Japanese characters that we later learned were related to the size of the portion and whether you want your meal hot or cold. You put money into the slot, make your selection, take the printed receipt, and hand it to the chef, who then prepares your meal. I was not able to figure out the role that the wait staff played, except to show us how to use the “jukebox”.

How to ensure good health at a Japanese temple…

Our destination was the Senso-ji temple, Tokyo’s oldest and most popular temple in honor of the Buddhist goddess of mercy and happiness. To reach the temple you pass through a majestic gate which houses a pair of ferocious protective deities. Before the main hall is a huge incense cauldron where we stopped and wafted the smoke and its scent over our bodies and heads to ensure good health.

Extracted from Traveling with Elizabeth – EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES AROUND  THE WORLD. Now available from Amazon.

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