Daily Archives: April 11, 2017

Navigating Japan: rules vs etiquette

One word in a FaceBook thread and the penny drops.

A week down in Japan and the culture shock is subsiding a little. I can imagine many foreigners – outside person; gaijin – getting caught up in how things work, retreating to their westernised hotel room and bolting the door. I think we’re doing okay. By which I mean we’ve yet to be arrested.

It’s a country of 2 ways. The Japanese way and the wrong way?

Before setting out we took advice – cheers to the Jodester – and researched. But that’s not the same as experiencing it first hand.

Things to consider:

  • Don’t leave chopsticks vertically speared in your food.
  • Blend in.
  • Shoes off indoors.
  • Which side you tie your room wear (dressing gown).
  • Avoiding cracks in the pavement.
  • Bowing.
  • Tipping.
  • Where to stand on the station platform?
  • Exhibition grade farting/toilet noises.
  • Wearing Yukuta to dinner but not to morning service.
  • Towels and “naked communion” in onsen.
  • Eating in public: where can/can’t you do this?
  • I may have made up one of this list. But only one: Any guesses?

It’s a complex business alright.

Some stuff – including and in addition to the above – is not illegal nor downright rude, it’s just not classy. Other stuff is life imprisonment standard.

Exhibit A: Beer boys' first trip to the onsen

With a strong similarity to Iceland, it’s most certainly scrub first, then once sparkly clean, into the hot pools to soak. The difference being it’s birthday suit only and – typically – segregated. [See image below provided as a helpful guide at a public onsen.] But it’s a DIY affair unlike Istanbul, so a lot less violent.

Onsen rulesSo with a headful of rules the boy and I trip off to the baths in our “room wear”. (Japanese dressing gown/robe.) Sandals off at the tatami? Check. Boys changing room? Check. Then [insert crockery smashing sound of dropped tray here/record needle abrupt scratch] utter consternation. A room full of naked Japanese men double take at the Beers. A second passes. I look around. It’s us. We are the problem. [Freeze frame.] Bowing and panic all at once. A middle age chap offers in worried, clipped English: “MEN ONLY ONSEN.”

Eh? Ahhhh.

I tousle Morgan’s luscious blonde, curly locks in a fatherly fashion.

“It’s okay! He’s a boy!”

They remain unconvinced. What now? We expose our full resplendence in a stiff-upper-lip, workaday “nothing to see here” fashion, exhibit our external plumbing and – without further ado – normal business is resumed. [Music restarts.]

Whilst we get stared at a fair bit – we are a novelty item to the locals here in Kanazawa – the onsen experience is suitably superb.

Morgan cares not. He loved it. (He’s made of sterner stuff than I. That would have sent me scurrying under a rock at his age.)

Penny drop

This is where the aforementioned FB penny comes into focus: “How did you get on with the onsen etiquette?” 

I was seeing Japan as all about rules, whereas really it’s about etiquette. I can’t really explain the difference other than I have an urge to non-comply, resist and break the former. The latter? I suppose it’s a Britishness gene? Where one considers correct etiquette as right and proper. Gentlemanly? Mm. Polite? Certainly. When in Rome… Going with the flow.

As I have mentioned before “the nail that sticks up…” but conformity is not really what we’re talking about here.

In any event, experiencing Japan with, er, correctness is the way we’re going. Even if it is our blundering, blithering, awkward gaijin version.


Arigatou gozaimasu


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