Culture and traditions in Japan – and more!

Japan – Land of the Rising Sun, diverse cultural background, and a mixture of ancient and modern. From high technology to Geishas, Sumo Wrestlers, Tea Ceremonies and Kabuki, Japan is certainly an exquisite land of extremes. But what does the novice tourist think about it, and what should they be aware of? Following is a guide to making your trip to Japan as interesting and trouble-free as possible, seeking out the best vistas and areas of historical and natural, colourful beauty.

The most important thing to remember is that the people are extremely respectful and expect their customs and way of life to be respected in return. We will highlight later in this article the main things to adhere to in order to enjoy your trip.

In short – how history has affected the development of Japan

To understand Japanese culture and the people of Japan, a quick check through their history will enlighten travellers enough to make the most of their time in Japan.

In the early days, the inhabitants mainly occupied themselves as fishermen and gatherers, but rice, for which Japan is known, was not cultivated until around the third century B.C. Totally self-sufficient, the rice industry has made Japan not just able to feed themselves, but also as a major export to most of the world where climatic conditions prevent rice cultivation.

Today, the manufacture of cars is a huge industry, with Japan ranking around the third largest producer in the world. With the development of smart technology and every-increasing skilful automation, the country has become a major player in all things that technology can provide.

Probably the most momentous period in Japanese history and one that many of us will recognise through films and other media, is the advent of the Samurai warriors period, between the late 12th century and the middle of the 19th century. Samurai were considered to be military nobility and war was frequent between the overlords, constantly jostling for power. There are many places to visit and view memorabilia from this era which will give a fascinating insight into pre-modern Japan. There are also numerous festivals throughout Japan with traditional Samurai parades in full costume – a sight to behold.

On a more gentle note, Geishas are very much part of Japanese history, but how long they have been in existence is questionable. Some historians date Geishas back to the 11th Century from original female performers, but others believe that it was more likely to have been the 18th Century. Whichever is correct, the tradition of these beautiful women is certainly worth taking time to explore.

Both natural and man-made disasters are also significant in the development of Japan. Prone to earthquakes and typhoons, many large towns and parts of cities have been devastated by these weather phenomena, causing the loss of thousands of lives and complete rebuilds of certain areas. But there is one very significant event that many people remember, that of the dropping of an atom bomb on Hiroshima, which changed people’s lives forever. This event is remembered annually with great reverence, not just in Japan, but throughout the world.

Japan today is certainly a vibrant and thriving nation, and any tourist lucky enough to visit will find it a memorable experience – try it.

Religion

Shinto is the indigenous religion in Japan, and around three-quarters of the population follow this worship. Shinto beliefs are based on ‘goodness and respect’ for this world, although there is a close connection to form a link between ancestors and those living in the current world. It also comprises of a belief in spirits and a hidden secret power – there is no ‘one’ god, many are worshipped.

Buddhism is the second largest religion, but there are a mix of others, with Christianity being one of the smallest contingents. Those following Shinto will visit shrines, although they are not attributed to actual worship, and are used to contain sacred artefacts. A shrine will have a coloured gateway before its entrance. Those worshipping Buddha will go to temples, which often house many statues, and you will be hit by the aroma of burning incense! It is not uncommon to see Buddhist monks in brightly coloured robes, riding around towns and cities!

If you would enjoy visiting a shrine, it is important to follow the rules carefully – outside you can take photographs, but inside it is forbidden. There is a ‘ritual’ to go through before entering that you must follow to attract the ‘kami’ (spirit), to let them know your presence. You must show respect at all times, and this includes not visiting the shrine if you have any impurities (this is everything from the common cold, to mourning, and even a cut or open wound). Near the entrance of the shrine you will see a fountain, which you must use to wash your hands. Once washed, cup your hand and rinse out your mouth – do not swallow the water under any circumstances.

At the entrance hall you must leave an offering of a coin (there is a box for this) then bow as deeply as possible, twice in a row. Clap your hands twice, then bow one more time, again deeply. Bang the gong (if there is one) then say a short prayer. This may seem like a rigmarole, but it must be done, otherwise it will demonstrate disrespect to the spirits or ‘kami’.

Currency

Cash is very much ‘king’ in Japan, although most major hotels, restaurants etc will take credit cards. For small amounts, it is expected for you to pay in cash, in the local currency, the yen. Foreign currency is not a usual option, other than at airport terminals. There are plenty of banks and ATM machines, and a few licenced exchange bureaux. Try to remember to take sufficient cash with you on a day or night out.

Transport

Japan has a very efficient transport system, which in general is clean and comfortable. However, you may be a little phased to begin with by the sheer volume of passengers on almost every method of transport! Choosing the right transport is dependent on three factors – if you are on a short trip, how quickly you want to get somewhere, and of course, how much your budget is for your holiday. After a few days in the bigger cities, you will become accustomed to just how many people are on the streets, let alone the transport!

The main methods of transport are:

  • Bullet train or ‘Shinkansen’. An extremely high speed and sleek train that connects major cities throughout Japan. However, a single ticket between cities can have a starting cost of around 13,000 yen, or £100 (approximately $120). If you are visiting multi-cities, a 7 day pass will cost around 29,100 yen, or £220 (approximately $272). These rates are calculated as at October 2019, but best to check when you are actually travelling. As an alternative, you can use express trains, known as ‘tokkyu’, but they are not as fast. They are however cheaper, and costs vary depending on the distance travelled. Take the time to research the various passes available in Japan, to work out economies of time and budget.
  • Buses – an excellent service in Japan in terms of connections, drop off and pick up points. Japan Railways operates one of the best systems, but there are others. You will pay less than train fares, but it is still relatively expensive.
  • Taxis – again, costs vary depending on distance based on kilometres. You get charged more per kilometre, the longer the distance. Uber are now present in Japan, but the service is scant, mainly used for airport runs.
  • Limousine – some hotels operate a limousine service at your convenience, but it comes at a hefty price!

If you want something a little more ‘quirky’, there is a rickshaw service and a water bus service. Another fun thing to do is take one of the tours on ‘the red bus’, which is a guided tour by the driver, who points out interesting sites and venues as well as explaining the history and traditions – accompanied by photos!

Considering there are the three main islands to explore, the transport system is ultra-efficient, as you would expect Japan to be.

Please observe that ‘loud behaviour’ on Japanese transport is not appreciated. Most people speak quietly or bury themselves in mobile phones or smart pads!

Accommodation

You are seriously spoilt for choice – from basic inns to luxury hotels, business hotels and even ‘love’ hotels – yes, you read that right! It is really a decision of ‘economies of choice’!

If you are on a tight budget, there are dormitory rooms and economy hotels. Bear in mind these descriptions are exactly what you get – you could be in any city in the world, as they are not traditionally Japanese, but easy on the pocket. For dormitories, think youth hostels. £25 or $30 would be around the average rate, but we are literally talking about a bed and little or no furniture, so basic but clean.

Standard hotels/business hotels are very much used by Japanese workers as an economical way to travel. You are not offered much more than a bed, maybe a desk and a wardrobe, but yet again, very clean. Price range is around £45-£50 (approximately $58-$65).

‘Western’ Hotels – as the Japanese call them – are hotel groups such as Marriott or Hyatt. Rates vary enormously according to season and location, so best to check the various ones available for when you want to travel.

Capsule Hotels – just what it says on the tin. A small enclosed space, which if you suffer from claustrophobia, it just won’t suit! Clean, but expect tiny space and if you have a morbid fear of taking your clothes off in front of others, then the communal baths aren’t for you either! Most will have some kind of eaterie in situ, but the only saving grace is the price. Several nights in one of these will save you money, but whether you get any sleep or not is another matter!

If you want peace, and particularly outside the major cities, then a ‘Ryokan’ is the perfect choice. Basic, but traditional in the fact that these can date back many years and were used as one of the only means of accommodation for travellers before modernisation took place. Similar to a B & B in a country inn, but without the fripperies and facilities. This is an example of true Japanese hospitality, where you are treated with reverence. Once again, communal baths, but usually using fresh spring water. However, it could be time to turn off your mobile or laptop, as connections are hard to come by in these rural areas. Forget about calling the office – you will simply have to go ‘AWOL’ for a few days! Oh, and by the way – dinner is often included and cooked at the table (it is usually something ‘live’!). Cost can be slightly prohibitive, so most guests take a few days break away from the hustle and bustle of major cities – more like a retreat.

Love hotels – these are not ‘dens of iniquity’ – purely a space for couples to get together for some romance. The history behind these is quite quaint – post-war, homes were crowded and people shared rooms with parents, grandparents and children, so privacy was never enjoyed. These small places sprung up, so that those that could afford a few hours away, could enjoy the much-missed ‘alone time’. They are not as popular these days, but they are still in existence.

So, aside from 5-stars, these are your options to stay in Japan. In many traditional establishments, you are expected to remove your shoes before entering the room, so try not to forget.

What to expect from your dining experiences

Eating in Japan is easy – you can find anything you want, from the major fast food chains to traditional restaurants serving Japanese cuisine, such as the inimitable sushi. There will be dishes that you may not find palatable or recognisable! Whilst not as omnipresent as in other Asian destinations, you can also get street food, particularly during festival times. Everything from crepes to fried bread snacks, Japanese gyoza (dumplings), grilled miso corn on the cob, fish on a stick, skewers or ‘yakatori’ (chicken kebab style but with a sweetish dressing) and deep fried sweet potatoes! All good fun, particularly with a festival atmosphere. Unlike Thailand, night markets are virtually non-existent.

If you go to a traditional Japanese restaurant, you may see all the local dishes made out of plastic and displayed in the windows! If all else fails, just point to what you want!

Service is particularly polite and efficient, and staff do wish to be treated in the same way, so no shouting for a waiter, or clicking fingers at them. Sometimes there may be a bell at the side of your table for them to respond to. Water or tea is customarily served right away and free of charge. Disposable chopsticks are quite normal, but you can also have regular cutlery.

At the end of your meal, the bill will be placed face down on your table. It is not customary to leave a tip, in fact the staff can find this a little offensive and end up chasing you down the road to give it back!

Just another point – take advantage of the copious amounts of vending machines on every street. You can get everything from snacks to cans of beer, light bulbs and other helpful things!

Entertainment

Everything from traditional to modern is available and both days and nights out in Japan are thoroughly enjoyable. No visit to Japan is complete without seeing ‘kabuki’, a dance-drama production with startling costumes and make up. At one point, women were banned from kabuki, and males performed all the roles. Women are now back again as performers. These performances are entrancing, and a must see as part of Japanese heritage.

A trip to Japan should include a tea ceremony. If you are based in Kyoto, you will be spoilt for choice. A tea ceremony will usually take between 1 – 2 hours, but on special occasions where food is included, it can be as long as 4 hours. Plenty of cups of thin and thick tea will be consumed!

At the other end of the scale are the whisky and karaoke bars. The Japanese population (particularly men) love their whisky and the majority of time don’t need Dutch courage to get up and sing (quite often badly!)

Nightlife is vibrant and non-stop in the major cities, particularly Tokyo. You can experience everything from a ‘robot restaurant’ with a party atmosphere, to top night clubs and bars. There are bar hopping tours available, somewhat reminiscent of a Spanish seaside resort – one bar to another! There are also night club passes available, which include visits to several clubs, with a free drink in each.

There are many live shows available in night club venues, usually themed and you can also experience ‘tapas-style’ Japanese food, a great way to go out with friends in the evening. You can also experience burlesque, comedy and cabaret at many venues – totally spoilt for choice.

Daytime entertainment is very much the same as most other large countries and cities. Apart from guided tours, there are theme parks (including Disneyland, Universal Studios and DisneySea). You can even experience a Samurai themed park with rides and attractions. So if you have the children with you, or you are just a big kid yourself, there is plenty to entertain you during the day.

Public Facilities

You can find anything and everything available in the major cities of Japan. Toilet facilities vary from the very basic public ones, to some of the most luxurious ones in the world today. But you have to get used to them, as they can be quite mind boggling when you get to the ‘classy’ side of relieving yourself!

Like most things in Japan, toilets are comparatively space age. The nation has embraced technology in a big way when it comes to public conveniences. It pays to know how to operate these devices before you arrive. Failure to do so can become a little overwhelming.

Firstly, however, the good news. Public toilets are virtually omnipresent in Japan. You’ll rarely find a building that does not offer public conveniences. Do not assume that you can just stroll on in, though. It’s advisable to always ask before making use of the facilities in a convenience shop or small café. The lingo you’ll need for this is, “senmenjo karite ii?”

“Senmonjo”, in case you’re wondering, is the Japanese word for washroom. This is considered a more polite word than toilet (“toire”). You should avoid making references to the toilet while eating or in polite company. Just ensure that your host knows what you actually need. If you’re eating, you may be guided to a room that contains only a sink. Many buildings in Japan separate toilets from showers and other washing facilities.

There are three primary types of toilet in Japan. The first is a washiki, which is a traditional Japanese toilet. These resemble a urinal that is plumbed directly into the ground. You will be expected to squat over the washiki and do what you came to do. These toilets are considered outdated in Japan, and are comparatively rare. You certainly won’t find them in the home of a proud family. You may, however, encounter a washiki in older buildings such as small train stations and local shops.

 

The second form of toilet in Japan is the yoshiki. This toilet will be commonplace, and it’s largely identical to those that we use in the west. Use this toilet exactly as you would anywhere on home soil. Just ensure that you never place anything other than toilet paper into the basin itself. All yoshikis will contain a small bin for hygiene products or general waste.

 

Finally, we have a great advance in Japanese toilet technology – the washlet. Washlet is actually a brand name, but it has become a shorthand for technologically advanced toilets throughout Japan (similar to how, “hoovering” and “vacuuming” have become interchangeable terms in the west.) Japan takes toilet innovation as seriously as any other form of electronic advance. Washlets can be confusing if you’re unfamiliar with what to expect, but they can also provide a strangely luxurious experience.

 

Basically, a washlet is a bidet. It will provide a small shower for your genitals and your bottom. These are in lieu of toilet paper. Washlets also contain a dazzling array of buttons. You can control the direction of water flow, along with the pressure and temperature of this water. You can make use of a deodorizer, should you need to. We’ll make no further comment on that.

 A washlet will contain a built-in dryer to ensure that you’re comfortable when you’re done. You’ll even be given the option to listen to music on some particularly modern models, or warm the toilet seat while you’re answering a call of nature. Washlets also have safety features, such as self-closing seats to prevent slamming. Just make sure you push the self-clean button once you’ve finished, for the sake of the next person to use the facilities.

Naturally, you’ll need to brush up on your written Japanese before using a washlet. Pushing a random sequence of buttons may end poorly for you. Fortunately, many models also come with diagrams in case you have a brain freeze.

Do’s and don’ts in Japan

Whilst Japan is an extremely welcoming destination, certain things are frowned upon. Here is a ‘must know’ list to avoid upsetting the locals or embarrassing yourself!

  • There are many designated areas for eating or smoking – try not to wander around doing either of these, the locals don’t like it!
  • Again, whilst eating, don’t wave your chopsticks around, it is considered rude, and don’t feed other people from the same end of the implements – this is considered unhygienic. When you have finished eating, place the chopsticks back on the rest, not upright in the bowl.
  • Requesting selfies with dignataries or geishas etc., is unacceptable, however much you would like a snapshot
  • Try to learn a little Japanese before you travel. It will not only help you, but the population with admire and respect you
  • One of our favourites – do make a slurping noise when eating noodles! It’s considered to be a compliment to whoever cooked them!
  • Bow at the right opportunities, like saying hello or thank you. A short stiff bow is the most acceptable
  • Walk on the left, whether it’s on the streets or on escalators etc. It’s what everyone does.
  • Do say ‘cheers’ before drinking in company (Japanese for cheers is ‘kanpai’)
  • Loud ‘nose blowing’ is unacceptable. Be gentle and wipe your nose. Free tissue wipes are often given out free on most streets!
  • It is looked down upon to drop litter anywhere other than bins provided
  • Respect your surroundings and take your shoes off where applicable – if you aren’t sure, just see what the locals are doing

Be mindful of your hosts in Japan, and follow their etiquette and behaviour – you won’t go wrong. Above all, you will have a wonderful time in this magnificent side of the world.

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