9 not so obvious things I miss about Japan

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After having lived in Osaka for nearly three years, last January (2017) I moved back to the UK. I’ve been so busy with my new job in England that it hadn’t really hit me that my time in Japan was over – in my mind, I somehow assumed that I was again in England only temporarily (as I had been back to England a number of times during the last three years for short periods of time). But I am finally starting to realize that I will now only go to Japan on holiday and that what I got used to in Japan is no longer my everyday life.

Like most expats, I miss things from place(s) where I have previously lived. The things that I miss from Japan is long, and contains some obvious things, like my friends and my students, Japanese hotprings, amazingly well functioning public transport, and great food, but also some things that may not be so obvious. Here’s the list of those non-obvious things:

 

1. The endearing naivety, quirkiness or downright craziness of many people

Japanese people (or maybe just people in Osaka) are really quirky. It’s worth pointing out that I now live in Brighton, a city on the south coast of England known for its non-orthodox ideas and non-judgemental, tolerant approach to life, but even by Brightonian standards Osaka people’s behaviour is sometimes a little unusual (in an interesting and endearing way). See for example a photo below in which people are taking a photo at Osaka station of a Hankyu train that has a cartoon character on it.

 

This kind of behaviour is completely normal. No-one in Osaka would look twice at an adult having their photo taken with a tourist attraction mascot, a promotional Moomin character or a cute poster of a toy character – activities which I would think are just for children.

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In addition, the man in the video below dancing at an arcade like no-one’s watching is just another arcade in Osaka (note that alcohol might have a part to play in Japanese people letting their hair down in this way, but still, this is nothing unusual).

 

 

 

2. Japanese ‘Poundland’

Seria is a shop where everything costs 100 Yen (£0.70 or €0.70) but it’s not like Poundland in England (where everything costs £1). Seria is much better quality! For example, many of the sushi dishes or onigiri (rice ball) containers are made in Japan! If ever in Japan, go and stock up on all Japanese products on the cheap! You might even be able to palm off some of their Japanese crockery on your friends (or mother-in-laws) as top-class Japanese products.

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3. Fast-food restaurants

Inexpensive good quality ‘fast-food’ restaurants are everywhere in Japan. I’m not talking about McDonalds or even the Japanese version of a fast-food burger place: Mos Burger. Instead, I’m talking about proper Asian fast-food places. These are ideal for busy working mums (and dads) to take their kids for dinner when they don’t have time to cook – or if they just want some absolutely delicious dishes so cheaply that it is just not worth going through the hassle of cooking. A tray of Chinese dishes or a bowl of udon (noodles) and 6 pieces of karaage (fried chicken) will set you back about 1000 JPY (€7.50, £6.80). In many places like these, be prepared to place the order at a vending machine either outside or immediately inside the front doors of the restaurant. You just hand the ticket you get to the chef behind the counter, sit down and wait for your tray to arrive.

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A bowl of noodles, fried chicken and salad, prawns in a chilli sauce, a selection of dumplings and a Chinese jelly+fruit dessert all for approx. 1000 JPY (7.50 EUR)

 

4. Konbini – corner shops

7-Eleven, Family Mart and other small convenience stores are everywhere in Japan and they are amazing! In addition to the obvious snacks and things that you’d get from corner shops, konbinis in Japan are a life saviour in more than one way. For example:

If you splash some udon or ramen on you shirt and tie during lunch, or have a scary business meeting, you can just go to a konbini and get a new shirt and tie or clean underwear if needed.

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If you forgot to check the weather forecast and to take your umbrella with you in the morning to work, you can just pop in the nearest konbini on your way home and you don’t have to get singled out in the crowd as the only disorganised person walking in the rain without an umbrella.

Or if you cannot be bothered to cook and want an even less expensive dinner than what the fast-food restaurants have got to offer (see above), you can get fantastic foods in konbini. They have good quality ready-made dishes of noodles, rice and pasta, salads, sushi, dumplings, sandwiches, onigiri, etc.

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Furthermore, they have microwaves in which the staff or you can heat your dishes up, and kettles where you get hot water for your pot noodles.

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And many of them have confortable and clean areas to eat you food – or even rather spectacular areas like the konbini next to the pharmacy on the 16th floor of the Harukas building in Osaka. The view was pretty impressive when we on a regular basis had our konbini coffee, noodle salad and strawberry and cream sandwiches while waiting for our daughter’s insulin prescription to be ready for collection. So, don’t be put off by the brand 7-Eleven based on what your image of it might be in England or the States. In Japan these types of shops are gold dust!

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Harukas

 

It might also be worth mentioning that a common way to pay your electricity/gas bills is to take the bill to a konbini and pay for it there – not quite as easy as internet banking or direct debit, but given that you are likely to go to a konbini pretty much daily anyway (if not for clean underwear or umbrellas, then for some food/drink), it’s not really that much hassle to pay your bills while you are there.

 

5. Vending machines

On the one hand, you might find it insane that there appears to be a vending machine every 10 metres, but when the weather is really hot, it is great that you can get an ice-cold drink anywhere and when it’s cold, you can defrost your fingers on a nice hot can of coffee every 10 meters. Also, my husband was particularly taken with being able to buy one-cup sake from a vending machine! (Link to my previous post on vending machines here).

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6. Over-enthusiastic izakaya/restaurant staff

When you go to small yakitori places or izakayas (Japanese pubs), the staff will often greet you with synchronised loud shouts of ‘welcome’ (irrasshaimase!) and when you order drinks the cheering can continue (especially if your husband orders a bottle of wine AND two glasses of sake for the two of you!). The staff are also often keen to have a chat with you and hear your view of Japan (if you are a foreigner). When you leave and are walking away from the restaurant the staff usually follow you outside expressing their gratitude, bowing and sometimes even holding a flag saying ‘Thank you. Please come again’. Even though pub staff in England is often friendly and chatty, the extreme enthusiasm of Japanese pub staff in my opinion trumps this in entertainment value.

Erm, in the name of honesty, you do occasionally find slightly less enthusiastic bar staff even in Japan (see picture below).

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7. Wonderful mix of old and new

Japan has a lot of history and people quite like to do things as they have always been done. For example, the below picture shows a restaurant cashier using an abacus to calculate the total of one’s bill.

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But at the same time Japan has some pretty futuristic ideas, for example robots standing in for shop assistants

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or girlfriends for busy or shy Japanese men (link).

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8. High heels

In Japan most women wear high heels at work, university or when out and about. I accommodated, and in the three years that I lived in Japan went from trainer/boot wearing high heel hater to someone who chose to wear high heels out of choice when on a date night with my husband. As a result, the balls of my feet are now made of steel and I’ve come to appreciate the elongating effect high heels do to a middle age lady’s stocky calves. Given that back home in Brighton only (a) Love Island wannabes, and (b) Brighton gentlemen wear high heels, I feel I cannot elongate my stocky calves any longer.

 

9. The adventure

I miss going to a pub or a restaurant and not being to able to understand what is written on the menu, and so having to ask the waiter to read out the menu so that I could understand what it roughly says. And using the term: What would you recommend? -A lot.

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Our favourite sake bar menu

 

I also miss the general feeling of adventure when living in a new country whose culture and language are relatively unfamiliar to you (even after having lived there for 3 years!).

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An example of a Japanese (or maybe Chinese!?) tradition whose function and symbolism are still unknown to me.

 

Are there any expats out there reading this blog post? What non-obvious things do you miss from places you’ve lived?

Be prepared to tell your blood type to Japanese school children

If you a Westerner, when visiting big tourist attractions like the Golden Pavilion (Kyoto)

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Kyomizudera (Kyoto)

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Nara’s wooden temple

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or Himeji castle

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you can be sure to see big groups of Japanese school children. The pupils are there because their schools want them to learn about the history of Japan, in the same way as, for example, Finnish school children visit historical sites in Finland, although, visiting a Russian tzar’s summer house from the 1880s in my home town (Kotka, Finland) as a primary school pupil may not have been quite as spectacular a setting as many of the school trips Japanese kids get to go on. In any case, when the Finnish kids go on school trips, the purpose of those trips is usually increased cultural/historical understanding, but Japanese school children often multi-task. Namely, their school excursions double as an English lesson. Thus, when spotting Westerners they will, usually in groups of 2-6, approach you in a shy manner and ask if they could have a conversation with you. If you agree, what’s coming is however not really a ‘conversation’. You see, their ‘conversation’ consists of a pre-written questionnaire which they will execute in a rehearsed interrogatory manner, asking you several questions one after another and expecting one-word answers. For example:

What’s you favourite sport? (expected answer e.g. Soccer)

What’s your favourite food? (expected answer e.g. Pizza)

What’s your blood type? (expected answer e.g. A) (note that pretty much all Japanese people know their blood type and many of them believe that blood type is one important factor determining your personality. You can read my earlier blog post on the topic here.)

These rather one-directional conversations in which each student in the group asks you one pen-pal type question are quite fun, and the students are very polite, sweet and giggle a lot but needless to say, with pre-written questions and an expectation of one word answers, they come completely unprepared for Western-style conversations. After all, in a naturalistic situation in Europe/North America, whether it is a pub or a school playground, someone walking over to you and firing a series of questions at you would (or should) never happen. Moreover, if you responded to those questions with single-word answers, you would be sending a pretty clear passive aggressive message that you wanted that person to bugger off, right? Thus, the question is: What do these strange ‘conversations’ teach Japanese students about the use of English in conversational settings? An answer might be: not much.

I think students going and chatting with foreigners is a great idea, but for them to be better prepared for oral communication with native English speakers, the manner in which the practise is done should better correspond to real life, non-staged situations.

So, here is an example of a conversation where I’ve tried to provide a more authentic Western-style conversation in which answers are rarely one word long and in which both parties ask questions/give answers.

Student 1: What’s your favourite sport?

Me: Do you mean to watch or to actually do it myself?

Student 1: (doesn’t understand my question)

Me: (decide to go with the sport I like doing most and say) Downhill skiing.

Student 1: (looks perplexed as they don’t understand what ‘downhill skiing’ means)

Me: (act as if I’m downhill skiing)

Student 1: Ahh!

Me: Do you do downhill skiing?

Student 1: (thought that their turn was already over and is looking at the person whose turn it is to talk to me, thus my question goes unanswered)

Me: (persisting, I point at the student and repeat my question) Do you do downhill skiing?

Student 1: No.

Student 2: What’s your favourite food?

Me: Hmm, there are so many… maybe pizza or tempura or pasta with wild mushroom sauce. I don’t know. What’s yours?

Student 2: (panics and turns to their friends for help. After a 20 second silence the student manages to utter) Udon.

Me: I love udon too.

Student 3: What’s your favourite Anime character?

Me: I don’t know any.

Student 3: (is confused presumably because they cannot understand that there are people who do not know anything about Anime)

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I assume that at least one reason for Japanese school children preying on tourists for an English conversation is due to old-fashioned methods in language teaching. Namely, many Japanese schools use the grammar-translation method which focuses, well, on grammar and translation. In addition, English in/outputs are done solely or predominantly in writing with minimal spoken interaction (as a linguist whose research areas include first and second language acquisition, I am eager to see Japan adopt more modern approaches to language teaching). Due to the bulk of teaching being translations of texts, most students never really hear English in the classroom. Furthermore, in Japan, foreign TV/films are dubbed and many Japanese youths prefer Japanese and/or Korean music to English music. Thus, Japanese students get minimal exposure to spoken English also outside the classroom. The lack of exposure to English (combined with other factors) has resulted in widespread poor oral competence in English, even in people who have extremely good written skills of English, e.g. doctors, and even English teachers! I am not kidding. I have encountered several native-Japanese English language teachers in Japan who needed a translator to interact with me in English, and my understanding is that many (or most) Japanese students never hear their native-Japanese English teacher use English. I have also had appointments with Japanese doctors who advertised themselves as providing consultations in English,  but when sitting opposite them in the consultation room, they’ve shown me a laminated card asking me to write my question(s) on a piece of paper, show the piece of paper to them, after which they would write a reply.

I will not go into any detail in relation to the language teaching in Japan or what pedagogical steps might be helpful for the Japanese educational system to improve their students’ oral communication skills in English. But what I would say is that if you are in Japan and encounter groups of pupils in tourist attractions, please have a chat with them, if not to provide the students with an opportunity to practice their English (whether you go along with the interrogatory style or make it more interactive is up to you) then maybe for the little gifts/messages they usually give you for your time. Below there are a couple of sweet hand-written messages that I have received for participating (regardless of the fact that the pupils got a slightly more Western chat than what they were after).

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15 tips to avoid embarrassing situations in Japan

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Further to my earlier post on etiquette in restaurants, izakayas, udonyas and bakeries in Japan, I thought it might also be useful for those of you who are planning a trip/move to Japan to list a handful of other, more general observations about expected behaviour in Japan outside of the restaurant scene – i.e. in general public areas.

(1) Escalators

In Japan, escalators are used in an extremely orderly manner. If you are in Osaka you need to stand on the right and let people in a rush walk past you by overtaking you on the left. Everywhere else in Japan the roles are reversed. That is, in places like Kyoto, Hiroshima, Tokyo and Nara you will have to stand on the left and let people overtake you on the right.

The reason for this difference between Osaka and the rest of the country seems to be that people in Osaka are proud to be from Osaka (and a little crazy, in a funny and endearing way) and like to do their own thing. Consequently, they seem to make a deliberate effort not to follow the general rules in the rest of Japan.

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This is what you should do in Osaka.

(2) Trains

Train journeys are generally very quiet in Japan. Music or loud chatting will result in people giving you the evil eye (albeit in a subtle way). Talking on your mobile phone on the train is considered extremely rude to the point that the conductor might come and tell you to zip it. However, you can text. And you can listen to music or play games on your phone as long as you wear headphones.

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Getting on and off a train is strictly orchestrated. This is how you do it:

When waiting on a platform for a train, you need to form two lines at designated spots on the platform (which indicate the train carriage and door in which you’ll enter if you queue there). When the train arrives, the two-by-two queue separates and forms one queue on each side of the train doors. Don’t rush in (no Japanese person would jump the queue so you don’t need to either)! Let the people on the train get out first in the space in-between the two queues. Once the people on the train have got off, the two queues can start entering the train in an orderly fashion.

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(3) Buses

If you use the bus, you do so in the opposite way from how you might in many other countries. That is, you go in through the doors at the back of the bus, leave the bus via the front door and pay for your journey on exit.

(4) Taxis

Most taxi drivers (at least outside Tokyo) do not speak English, so it’s useful to have the address of your destination written down in Japanese. The easiest way to do this is to print out your hotel’s address and telephone number (many sat-navs use the destination landline number to locate the place) and show the print-out to the taxi driver.

You should sit at the back, but when you get in/out of the taxi, don’t touch the door – the driver won’t like it. He opens the door by using a button/lever on the dashboard so wait for him to do it.

(5) Temples/Shrines

If there is a Torii (a gate at the entrance of the temple/shrine), you should bow before you walk through it. Also, you should not walk through the middle of the gate as that’s reserved for the gods. Instead, walk through the gate but slightly off the centre.

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When visiting a temple, you will see one of these:

These are used to wash your hands before you enter the temple area. You should go, scoop some water and pour it on to your hands. However, because the function of this is to clean yourself, make sure that you do not wash your hands over the clean water container. The dirty water from your hands should fall on the ground (or usually there is a drainage system that will get rid of the dirty water).

If you are at the temple to pray, you should donate some money. The procedure for that is: when you are at the altar:

1) bow

2) throw money in a box you see in front of you

3) ring bell hanging from the ceiling

4) clap hands twice to wake up the gods

5) pray

6) bow again

7) leave.

(6) Hand towels

Many Japanese toilets do not have hand dryers or paper towels, so you should buy a small hand towel (sold in all department stores and corner shops e.g. 7-Elevens) and carry it with you. If want to read more about how to use Japanese toilets click here.

(7) Illness

Given that Japan is a collective society, the Japanese frown upon you inflicting your illness on others. So, when ill, using surgical-masks is a must especially if you are planning to go into heavily populated public areas (e.g. the train). It’s also worth knowing that blowing your nose in public is considered rude (while e.g. in Finland it is completely normal).

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(8) No eating while walking

Having your lunch/snack so to speak on the go is considered bad manners, as is smoking while walking (as you may burn your fellow pedestrians with your cigarette butt). You need to stop, stand by the side of the pavement and have your sandwich or cigarette.

(9) Don’t drop rubbish on the floor

I assume you wouldn’t deliberately throw rubbish on the ground anyway, but if you accidentally drop something (indoors or outdoors), pick it up. Slightly inconveniently, there aren’t many public dustbins around and you might need to put whatever it is you want to throw in the rubbish in your pocket until you get back home or find the closest bin some three miles away (even if it is a half-eaten Chinese pork bun or some slimy and rather stinky fermented beans known as natto that you accidentally bought in your 7-Eleven maki roll).

(10) Parking

If you hire a car in Japan it is useful to remember that the convention is that you need to reverse into a parking space. If you drive head first into a supermarket car park space instead of reversing in it, you can be sure that while you are doing your shopping, everyone walking past your car will know it was parked by a foreigner. So, depending on your preferences (blend in or send an overt message that there’s a Westerner here) you can choose a style of parking that best suits your personality.

(11) Paying

Most little shops, restaurants or izakayas do not accept credit/debit cards. Not only do little shops not accept cards, but not all cashpoints accept all cards either. So make sure you always have cash on you.  Luckily, Japan is one of the safest countries in the world in terms of crime stats, so I used to frequently carry quite a lot of cash on me (something I would never do in England).

When paying, take your time. In Japan is it acceptable to rummage through your purse or pocket to find the change even if it means that the shop assistant or the people in the queue had to wait for a few seconds longer. I guess this is to do with the fact that in Japan precision and doing things thoroughly are desirable values.

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(12) Bowing

Bowing is a big part of the culture of Japan. The depth and length of a bow depends on the context and how polite you want to be. The basic rule seems to be that if you are apologising you need to bow deeper. Greeting bows are generally quite light and brief even if addressing a person who is your superior. I can reveal that after 3 years of expat life in Japan I am still oblivious to the nuances of bowing, that is, I’m not quite sure when, for how long or how deep I need to bow in most contexts. Luckily, the Japanese forgive foreigners for these types of cultural mistakes (which to them are as clear as it is to British house party thrower that ‘I’ll try to make it to your party’ means that you can cross out the speaker’s name of the list of people attending the party).

The main point I think is that as long as you try to do the right thing re bowing, you should be ok.

(13) Onsen i.e. hot springs

If in Japan you should go to an onsen. You can read about my experiences of hot springs and my advice on behaviour in those here. But in short,

  • you go into the hot spring naked
  • no tattoos are allowed
  • you need to wash yourself in the shower area before going in the hot spring
  • no swimming or splashing in the hot spring.

(14) Umbrellas

If it is raining, pretty much all Japanese people will have an umbrella (they don’t understand the British just-put-your-hood-up-approach). Not having an umbrella when it rains would send a message to your fellow pedestrians that you are a sloppy, forgetful type of person with zero planning skills.

If you did remember to check the weather forecast and bring your umbrella, if it is wet and you go into a shop/restaurant, you need to leave the umbrella outside in an umbrella-park. Alternatively, some bigger shops or organisations provide you with a plastic bag outside the shop so that you can put you umbrella in it so that you won’t drop rainwater indoors.

(15) No shoes

No outdoor shoes are allowed in homes, schools, ryokans (guest houses), hospital examination rooms or – importantly for tourists – clothes shop changing rooms. Sometimes you are asked to leave your shoes outside the changing room and sometimes they ask you to leave your shoes on a hard floor bit of the changing rooms, and not step on the carpet or wooden bit of the changing room with outdoor shoes on. In most places where you are asked to take your shoes off they will provide you with slippers so that you don’t have to walk around in your socks. But it would be advisable to always wear clean and hole-free socks in Japan as they might not stay hidden in your boots for the duration of your day.

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Ok, that’s my 15 tips. I am sure there are loads of others observations that I have forgotten to mention (and tons I don’t even know) so feel free to write any of you own in the comments section below.

15 tips to stay on the right side of the etiquette in Japan – food and drink

Are you planning a trip to Japan but worried that you’ll accidentally offend the locals because you don’t know the etiquette? Or are you concerned that your lack of cultural knowledge will make you look like a fool?   I know I felt that way when I moved from England to Japan. And not only did I worry about making mistakes, I actually excelled at faux pas! I can only now think back and say: I didn’t know any better.

But slowly I learned most of the common cultural peculiarities and after having lived in Japan for nearly three years many of the everyday conventions had become so familiar to me that I didn’t even notice them anymore. It’s only now that I have been back in the UK for a couple of weeks that I am aware of the behavioural differences between Japan and the UK again (for my regular readers who didn’t know yet, yes,  I’ve now moved back to the UK, and will write about the move soon).

Since the cultural quirks of Japan are still fresh in my mind, I thought this would be a perfect time for me to write a little list of them, not only to help any Japan novices going to Japan but maybe also to remind myself of these things a year (let alone twenty!) from now.

Below I list some tips for eating/drinking out. These should help you sail through your holiday eatery experiences as effortlessly as Nigella Lawson licks a spoon.

(1) Oshibori

When you go to restaurants, cafes or bars in Japan you will be given a hot towel (in up-market places) or a cold wet-wipe (everywhere else) to wipe your hands as soon as you sit down. When you’ve wiped your hands, fold the towel and place it next to your plate. You can use it for wiping your hands during your meal, but don’t wipe your face with it.

 (2) Restaurant service

In places like England, it’s rude to shout to get the waiter’s attention (in England you need to make an eye contact with a member of staff…even if it takes you half an hour!). In Japan, don’t wait for the waiter to spontaneously come to you. The waiter is waiting for you to shout ‘sumimasen’ (Eng: ‘Excuse me’) to indicate that you are ready to order. This is not considered impolite, and if you don’t do it, you’ll be there for a long while before the waiter finally comes to ask if you’ve decided already (I know this from experience).

 (3) Sharing

When eating out with family members, colleagues or friends, it’s typical that as a group you order several dishes and share them. The waitress will bring the food dishes and place them in the middle of the table and bring everyone a small plate (if there are no small plates on the table already). Everyone can help themselves to the food, or if you want to be polite, you can dish food onto everyone else’s plates first and then onto yours. If you are concerned about hygiene, use the opposite end of your chopsticks to dish out the food rather than the end that has been in your mouth.

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(4) No shoes

In many Japanese restaurants (that have tatami floors) you need to take your shoes off in the foyer. You put your shoes in a locker, take the key with you and walk to your table. If you need to use the toilet while in the restaurant, you should see some slippers in close proximity to the toilet or the foyer. Wear the slippers to the toilet and return them to where you found them on your way back from the toilet.

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shoe locker keys (and green tea)

(5) Chopsticks

When you need to put your chopsticks down during your meal you can lean them against your plate or put them over your plate/bowl (see photos below).

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When you’ve finished eating, if the chopsticks came in a small paper envelope, put them back in there (see photo below).

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If there is a little chopstick rest on the table which is (usually) between you and your plate, place the chopsticks there (see photo below).

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Or you can even just leave them on your plate so that they are horizontally resting on two points of the dish (as in some of the photos above). However, there are two things you should not do:

a) Never leave your chopsticks sticking out of a bowl of rice i.e. standing up in the rice. The reason for this is that this resembles their use at a funeral (in relation to a person’s ashes), and should not be used in this way in any other context.

b) Also deriving from a convention practiced in funerals, you should never pass food from one person’s chopsticks directly to another person’s chopsticks. If you are giving someone food e.g. from a shared plate, you need to put the food on their plate.

(6) Finger foods

Even though in Europe it’s acceptable to use your hands to eat quite a few foods in a restaurant, a good rule of thumb in Japan is that you should eat nothing with fingers (other than maybe sushi and a burger). Even though to a novice in Japan some of these might feel quite comical and downright ‘wrong’ you should eat fries, a slice of pizza, sandwich or many types of desserts (e.g. cake) with your chopsticks (if you haven’t been provided with a fork and a knife or a spoon).

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Pizza with chopsticks

(7) Picking up your plate/bowl

In Europe the etiquette determines that (with most foods) you need to try to get the food off your plate and into your mouth by using cutlery instead of lifting the plate off the table and bringing it closer to your mouth. In Japan, people commonly hold a dish in one hand and chopsticks in the other while eating, and you can do the same.

(8) Rice

In particular in posh restaurants, rice is usually served as the last dish of the meal consisting of several courses, and it is served on its own! It does not come with a sauce like it does in Europe. However tempting it might be, try not to put soy sauce over the rice (but you can add e.g. roasted sesame seeds).

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It’s impolite if you don’t eat all your rice. This is the case in particular if you are visiting someone’s home. And when I say that it is impolite not to finish your rice, I mean you need to eat every grain in your bowl to indicate that the corner stone of the Japanese diet and agriculture, rice, is precious.

It might seem like an impossible task for an inexperienced chopstick user to pick up individual grains of rice, but you can lift your rice bowl of the table close to your mouth (see point 7 above) and with your chopsticks kind of shovel the rice from the bowl into your mouth.

Rice that is part of a dish (e.g. curry or fried rice) is usually eaten with a spoon (not chopsticks).

(9) Slurping

If you are a noisy eater, feel free to let your hair down in an udonya. However, if you can’t tolerate noisy eaters, I recommend not going to these types of noodle places where you will find everyone loudly slurping their noodles from the bowl into their mouths.

(10) Intestines (horumo)

In Japan they use a lot of intestines in cooking, especially in a Yakiniku (i.e. beef BBQ) places. If you are not a big fan of pancreas, diaphragm, womb or the large intestine you can say: Horumo irimasen which means that you will only want to eat the ‘meaty’ parts of the cow.

(11) The one drink rule

Be aware that there seems to be some kind of a one-drink-on-the-table rule in Japan. Only order another drink when you’ve finished your earlier one. When the waiter brings your new drink the chances are they will take your old drink glass away regardless of whether there is still some liquid in it.

(12) You should not pour your own drink.

If out with a Japanese person, and if you have ordered a bottle of wine, sake or beer you should not fill your own glass. The other person should notice when your glass is empty and fill it – and you should of course fill theirs. Given that Japanese society is patriarchal, Japanese men often expect the women to pour the mens’ drinks (this is one cultural feature of Japan that a feminist like myself might choose not to adopt).

(13) Sake and masu

If you order sake you often get it in a glass that is placed in a square vessel (called masu). The waiter will fill your sake glass at the table from a big bottle of sake, but surprisingly to many Westerners, when the glass if full, they will carry on pouring so that the glass overflows into the masu. Don’t panic. He’s just indicating their generosity by the overflowing ‘measure’.

When you drink the sake you’ve just been poured you need to do it without hands. That is, you need to bend over and take the first gulp so that you don’t touch the glass with your hands. After the first gulp you can lift the glass as normal but place it back in the masu in between gulps. When your glass is empty, you pour the excess sake from masu into your glass, and drink it.

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(14) Service charge

There is no tipping in Japan. If you leave a tip the waiter will run after you in order to return your change.

(15) Bakeries

There are bakeries everywhere in Japan and you should try some of the Japanese buns when visiting Japan! It’s usually self-service. Take a tray and tongs and select the buns you want from the counters. Go to the cashier and give her the tray and the tongs (they will clean them before giving them to the next person).

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I got a bit carried away!

This is not to do with etiquette, but here’s a little additional tip:

The wee hours of the morning are often represented slightly differently on the windows of izakayas than in pub windows in Europe, e.g. 26 hours corresponding to 2am.

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ps.  If you are Japanese or an expat in Japan feel free to correct any misunderstandings on my behalf or add any other restaurant/bar related tips that I have missed in the comments below.