Japan is known the world over for its conventions of etiquette and intricate customs. Respecting these basic social graces goes a long way in ensuring you are warmly welcomed.
Bowing – Instead of a handshake, bows are exchanged upon meeting someone. This greeting is the most important moment in Japanese etiquette because it sets the tone in an interaction and defines the nature of your relationship to your hosts. With the back straight, you bow at the waist. Many westerners fold their hands in front of their chests as they bow; this is incorrect in Japan. In the proper bow, men keep their hands at their sides and women clasp their hands in the lap. A 30-degree angle in your bow is appropriate with the people you will meet. Bows are deeper among more formal colleagues or shallower among families and friends.
Payment – Many businesses in Japan have a small tray at the cash register so you can place your payment on it. If you see one, then it is improper to hand your money directly to the cashier; use it instead.
Mealtime – Leaving food on your plate is a signal to the host that would like another serving. If you would not like more, you must finish your meal completely. Always chew with your mouth closed. If soup is on the menu, it is okay to lift the bowl and sip it, though it is acceptable to use a spoon for soups with fixings in the broth. When using chopsticks, the tapered ends are for bringing food to your mouth; the thicker ends are for taking a serving from a shared plate.
Blowing your nose – It is considered rude to blow your nose in public, especially at a restaurant. It is preferable and perfectly acceptable to sniffle instead.
Visiting – As most Japanese consider their homes too humble to entertain guests, it is a great privilege to be invited. Guests do not wear shoes inside; rather, they are removed in the genkan (a kind of mudroom) and replaced with uwabaki, or slippers. If uwabaki are not available, it is okay to wear socks. Bare feet, however, are only acceptable if you are visiting a close friend.
Seating – In Japan, there is a “top seat,” or kamiza, reserved in every house for the person at the top of the social hierarchy. Traditionally, it is the seat farthest from the door, because in feudal times it provided both warmth and safety from attack.
Tea ceremony – The elaborate Japanese tea ceremony, also called the “Way of Tea,” produces much more than great-tasting tea. With close ties to Zen Buddhism, the careful steps of making tea are meant to foster harmony, discipline the mind, quiet the heart and help the preparer attain purity. A vast culture exists around making tea in Japan, so much so that gardens and houses are built for the sole purpose; there are even tea schools that elect Grand Masters of Tea. A ceremony might include carefully timed bows, charcoal fires, ringing of gongs, and precise arrangement of tools and bowls.
Zen meditation – Just as prayer is central to western religions, zazen – or meditation – is the heart of Zen Buddhism, the nation’s major religion. The practice involves, quite simply, sitting. While focusing only on your breath, you suspend all judgment and let your thoughts and ideas just pass through you without pondering or elaborating on them.
Maiko dance – The face-painted maiko is an apprentice geiko, a Japanese female hostess or entertainer well-versed in classical music, dancing and conversation. Typically, maiko are older teenagers devoted to their craft. They spend their time learning to dance, playing the shamisen, a three-stringed instrument, and learning to speak the local Kyoto dialect. Their jet-black hairstyle with flower accessories dates back to the Edo period (the 17th to the 19th centuries) and their kimono usually features a train.
Ryokan – Japanese inns – ryokan – are similar to bed-and-breakfasts, yet more basic in accommodation. The concept began in the Edo period to serve traveling traders. Today, most are located in the country, often with easy access to onsite onsen, or hot springs. Basic amenities with few distractions help you truly enjoy the surroundings. As guests, Discovery Tours travelers are provided a kimono and yukata, or bathrobes, that can be worn to the onsen. Rooms are simple, with tatami mats as flooring and a futon mattress.