If you’ve never been to Japan, it can seem incredibly foreign; a destination so exotic that it’s beyond your usual level of daring. But chances are you’re more familiar with it than you think – consider all that you know about Japan from popular culture and multiculturalism experienced at home.
There is so much that the Japanese have introduced to the rest of the world, and we’re all richer for it. Some things are obvious (sushi), others a little less so (the art of gifting). Some are uber-cool (anime), and others are simply time-honoured (the tea ceremony).
With this in mind, here’s a guide to our favourite things about Japan that are now famous worldwide. Sure, some have become clichés, but whether they are ancient and rooted in tradition, or ultra-hip and totally offbeat, they all contribute to the richness of a place that is full of contradictions, mysteries and delights.
1. Make time for tea
There is no better way to immerse yourself in Japanese tradition than by starting with a tea ceremony. This ancient, sacred ritual, known as chanoyu, is a microcosm of Japan’s greater ethos. Participating as a guest at a tea ceremony is the perfect way to learn about all those things that make Japanese culture so refined, tranquil and steeped in protocols.
Apart from the all-important matcha tea itself, other key aspects of the tea ceremony include those quintessentially Japanese features such as traditional calligraphy on a hanging scroll, flower arranging, and clothing. The many rules and steps involved in chanoyu are far too detailed to explain here, but the overall effect embodies what today is known as “slow living”: an intensely aesthetic, artful experience where food and drink are savoured slowly, objects and interiors are admired thoughtfully, and people behave respectfully and reverently.
If you are lucky enough to witness a tea ceremony for yourself, the most important thing to remember is to show appreciation. For instance, take time to express admiration for the beauty of the tea bowl in front of you. Yes, it’s a theatrical performance, and can feel a little orchestrated for those unfamiliar with the ritual, but it’s such a rewarding and enlightening experience that you won’t forget it.
2. Crazy toilets
Japanese toilets have been bewildering visitors for generations. These uniquely Japanese “washlets” feature a complicated system of controls for cleaning via bidet-style water jets, often with an astonishing degree of accuracy. Different buttons activate seat-warmers, posterior rinses, air-dryers – some newer models even play music.
Other public toilets throughout the country will have both Western-style washlets and Japanese-style squat toilets. But in some locations, you’ll only have one choice: the squat toilet. This is usually a ceramic bowl fitted into the ground which is designed to be squatted over, facing forwards. Squatting that low takes practice, and certainly isn’t easy for everyone, but remember that this style of toilet is much more sanitary and easier to clean. You’ll get the hang of it!
3. Japanese inns and bath houses
There’s no better way to experience classic Japan than by staying in one of the country’s thousands of traditional Japanese inns (ryokan). This is where you’ll find that clichéd Japanese aesthetic portrayed in films and photographs: traditional houses set in idyllic surrounds with a lovely Japanese garden. The best inns in Japan are regulated by the Japan Ryokan and Hotel Association, which offers detailed information on its website about what to expect when staying at an inn.
Along with a private bath for each guest room, many inns will have their own communal hot spring (onsen). Overseas visitors are often reluctant to strip down in front of a bunch of strangers and join them in a communal bath, but the practice is so commonplace and highly regarded in Japan that you’ll soon overcome your shyness.
The protocol is this: enter the dressing room where you’ll stow your robe, slippers and other belongings. Then enter the bathing area naked (if you have tattoos, you will need to cover them with stick-on bandages). Here, you are expected to scrub yourself clean before entering the bath to soak.
Japanese baths are never used for washing yourself – not even in Japanese homes. They are purely therapeutic or restorative, and it’s likely that after experiencing your first Japanese onsen, you’ll forever see bathing in a new light.
4. The cult of cute
Cute is definitely cool in contemporary Japan. The word ‘kawaii’ has become definitive for all that is adorable, cutesy, sweet and cartoon-like in Japanese culture. Think Hello Kitty, all things miniature, tea cakes shaped like baby animals, stuffed toys hanging from keyrings on designer handbags, Pokémon, and even those large stylised chibi heads, often synonymous with Japanese cartoons (anime) and comics (manga).
Anime eyes are everywhere in Toyko – including young women who emulate the look using contact lenses and dramatic makeup. There are even photo booths (purikura) found in gaming arcades, which will digitally remaster your selfies to add anime eyes.
One extreme version of the cute trend is ‘fairy kei’, a form of Japanese street fashion distinguishable by its outrageous use of pink, tulle, bows and 1980s-inspired stuffed toys. If you’re interested in viewing fairy kei for yourself, try hanging out around the Nile Perch boutique in Shibuya. The boutique is a sea of childlike pastel clothing and nostalgic toys, including vintage My Little Pony dolls that sell for a small fortune.
5. The art of presentation and gifting
The Japanese obsession with exquisitely packaged or wrapped gifts can be traced back to the country’s history, where gift-giving was a highly regimented custom and seen as fundamental to the functioning of a civil society.
Even today, most Japanese people would not dream of presenting a gift of any kind – even money – unless it was beautifully and carefully wrapped. This shows respect and fondness for the recipient and proves the giver to be considerate, generous and polite.
A gift from a high-end store or artisan boutique is always presented wrapped in the store’s branded signature packaging, because most Japanese people believe this adds to the gift’s status appeal. This even includes edible gifts, such as elegantly wrapped sweets from an exclusive patisserie. Try it for yourself – buy anything from any shop as a souvenir, tell the sales assistant that it’s a gift and watch the wrapping ritual unfold.
Even fruit gets its own special treatment. Fruit is a very popular gift in Japan as it’s considered a luxury. One of the most prestigious fruit purveyors in Tokyo is Nihonbashi Sembikiya. A single perfectly formed, perfectly ripe muskmelon, farmed locally and encased in a wooden box ready for gifting, will set you back more than $100 (just don’t try bringing it home with you!).
6. (Intensely) urban living
Tokyo really is a city that takes urban living to a whole new level. This is the home of the mega-complex, and the best example is the prestigious Roppongi Hills development south of Shinjuku in the Roppongi district of Minato. Along with many corporate offices, the 54-storey main skyscraper features a gallery, arts centre, observation deck, cinema, shopping mall, hotel and restaurants. It’s virtually an entire city within a city.
Most accommodation in Tokyo is notoriously compact, but none more so than the rooms in the city’s various capsule hotels. These stacked sleeping pods have been likened to sleeping in MRI machines (or even caskets!), but they remain popular because they’re affordable and convenient.
On arrival, you are required to change into a robe and slippers, then shower and bathe before entering your sleeping quarters. Be warned – you’ll need to leave your luggage, clothes and other belongings in a secure locker located away from your capsule, so if you think you’ll need anything in the middle of the night, you might want to bring it to bed with you (that goes for your valuables, too).
7. Nature in the heart of the city
All this compact, high-rise living can have an impact on your relationship with nature, something that the Japanese regard very seriously. That’s where Japan’s gorgeous urban parks come in.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, escape to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, one of the largest and most beautiful parks in the city. Bring along a picnic, sit beneath the cherry blossoms, take in the tranquil surroundings and stop by the traditional teahouse for a refreshment before you leave.
The towering skyscrapers that loom over the trees are a huge contrast to the peacefulness of the gardens. You’ll be surprised to find that the busiest train station in the world, Shinjuku Station, is just minutes away from this woody retreat.
Like any major metropolis, city parks are substitute backyards for local residents. In Japan, however, they go one step further with pet cafés. There’s a cat café in Shinjuku, a rabbit café in Shibuya, bird cafés, dog cafes, even reptile cafés! These are most popular with people who can’t have pets at home, but still want to spend time among nature’s furry friends.
Most cafés don’t allow you to pick up the animals, and have lots of other rules around handling and feeding, so familiarise yourself with the house rules before attempting a cuddle.
8. Politeness and bowing
Japanese people are extremely proud of their international image as being polite, and see it as critical for a smooth functioning society. In urbanised areas, such as Tokyo and Yokohama, people are often living right on top of each other, so treating one another with respect and politeness is considered a necessity for survival.
It’s likely you’ll have heard of the Japanese tradition of bowing as a greeting, which dates back to ancient Japanese history. Back then, if you met a person of higher social ranking than yourself, you would perform a bow in order to put yourself in a more vulnerable position and prove you meant no harm to them.
This tradition has carried through to modern day Japan, where bowing is performed when you’re saying hello and goodbye, thanking someone, apologising, congratulating and asking for a favour, amongst other things. It is considered impolite not to return a bow to the person that has bowed to you.
If you would like to earn some brownie points on your trip to Japan, perform a bow when you are engaging with a local, such as restaurant staff. Bend forward from the waist and keep your back straight rather than curved. A general bow can be used to greet someone or say thank you, and is performed at a 30-degree angle. Men commonly keep their hand by their sides and women join them low in front of their body. Remember to keep your eyes down so that you do not make any eye contact.
On that note…
Modern-day philosopher and author Alain de Botton suggests that, “what we find exotic abroad may be what we hunger for in vain at home.”
He might just have a point. If we’re enamoured with Japan, maybe it’s because we’re looking for more politeness in our social dealings, creativity in our expression, quirkiness in our street culture, richness in our traditions and meaning in our daily rituals – and indeed – lives.
Or maybe we’re just looking to escape the familiar and immerse ourselves in somewhere truly different, exquisitely beautiful and utterly memorable. You’ll find it all in Japan.