Japan is one of those countries you can’t really prepare for – the famously impenetrable etiquette, complex traditions and bitingly modern pop culture combine to make a place which could wrongfoot the most experienced traveller. Here are just a few of the things which any gaijin (foreigner) can expect to find out on their first trip.
It’s always a good idea to learn some of the language when you travel, if only out of courtesy. In Japan, even managing a hesitant “arigatō” when you buy something or a tentative “sumimasen” when you need to get past someone will have a marked effect. Many Japanese people see a Westerner and worry that they’re going to have to dust off their high-school English, and their relief when they find out you’re making an effort is pretty gratifying.
There is a bizarrely persistent myth in Japan that Westerners can’t use chopsticks, even though most can quite happily do so. If you’re not confident then it’s best to brush up on your skills before arriving, as some traditional restaurants won’t have any forks. If you’re irredeemably chopstick-averse, stick to international foods, things on skewers, and Japanese curry (which is always eaten with a spoon). Just be prepared to look longingly over at your friends’ delicious plates of sushi, bowls of udon or steaming festival yakisoba.
Many people think of Japan as a herbivore’s heaven, but actually if you don’t eat fish you may find yourself with an unwelcome fishy surprise in the most innocuous-sounding dish. The main culprit is dashi, the umami-rich fish stock which forms the basis of most Japanese soups, broths and sauces. Many people in Japan don’t quite understand vegetarianism, but if you’re careful about how you explain it – “I don’t eat any meat or any fish, including dashi” – then you can find plenty of delicious tofu- and vegetable-based meals. Plus, you have a perfect excuse to treat yourself to shōjin-ryōri, Japan’s delicious vegetarian temple cuisine.
In most countries, being naked is a private matter. You’ll find that Japan is generally the same – most people dress fairly conservatively, and even at the beach it’s usual to carry a cover-up. The exception to all of this is the onsen. If you head to one of these hot springs (or to a sentō, a humbler neighbourhood bath) you’ll have to check in your modesty on entry. Wearing a bathing suit is a huge faux pas, even if you’re at one of the (far less common) mixed-gender baths. Take a deep breath and go for it – after about five seconds you’ll realise that, honestly, no one cares. It may be a cliché, but the experience really is liberating.
Matsuri (Japanese festivals) are great, as you’ll discover the moment you come across one. Time your visit right and you could see thousands of drunk, mostly-naked men brawling over some sacred sticks (Saidai-ji Eyo Matsuri), a whole mountain set on fire (Yakakusa Yamayaki Matsuri), or a festival entirely about penises (Kanamara Matsuri). Slightly less terrifying festivals feature dancing and singing in the streets, traditional dress, beautiful mikoshi or nebuta and stall after stall of delicious treats. One thing’s for sure: you’ll miss them when you’re home again.
Once you’ve learned the word, you start to hear it everywhere: gaijin. Technically it just means “foreigner”, but the nuances are complex. It might be meant affectionately, patronisingly, with a hint of xenophobia, or purely practically – and trying to figure out which it is might drive you crazy. The best response if someone calls you “gaijin” is, as usual, to smile, be friendly and hopefully demonstrate that, not only are foreigners not that scary, some are even quite nice.
Going into a Japanese house? Shoes off. Traditional restaurant? Socks, at most. Changing room? You guessed it. No matter how lovely your lace-up boots may be, you’ll very rapidly start resenting them – much better to leave them at home. Oh, and while we’re on the topic of footwear: lavatory slippers really are a thing, and you really will be embarrassed if you wear them outside the loo.
Japanese people tend to espouse a fair few myths about their country, from the idea that Japanese cuisine is irreconcilable with a Western palate to the often-repeated “Japan’s such a small country”. Really, this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny: north to south, Japan is about 3000km long; it’s bigger than Germany, and half as big again as the UK; just Japan’s northern island, Hokkaidō, is larger than Austria. None of this would matter, apart from the fact that you may be misled and think you can definitely fit in a side trip to Aomori on your way to Ōsaka...
Don’t wear shoes inside; purify yourself on the way into a shrine; never pass food from one set of chopsticks to another, or gesture with them, or stick them upright in rice; don’t leave a tip; do slurp your noodles; don’t apply make up on the train; never blow your nose in public; always bring a gift when you’re staying with someone. Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg: there is no way you’re going to get everything right.
One of the many good things about being a gaijin in Japan is that, when you do mess up, you’ll probably be forgiven. If it’s something that absolutely has to be pointed out (like wearing toilet slippers around the house) it’ll be done politely, and if not then most Japanese people will just let it slide. So long as you’re trying your best and learning as you go, you’ll be accepted with good grace.
Crazy festivals, complex etiquette, incredible food, stunning landscapes, beguiling history… there are so many amazing experiences in Japan that you’ll never even scratch the surface with one trip. Whether it’s the genuinely warm, hospitable people, or the desire to visit that one famous temple you missed (oh, and that mountain you didn’t climb, and of course that restaurant your friend recommended, and that day-trip you couldn’t squeeze in), you’ll leave with some inarguable reason to come back to this bizarre, beautiful country and learn everything all over again.
If you want to do some research before you go, try checking your nearest JNTO office, and explore more of Japan with The Rough Guide to Japan.
Top image: Himeji Castle in spring with visitors for the cherry blossom season © Sean Pavone/Shutterstock