Arrows on painted on sidewalks or floors of tourist attractions or crowded train stations steer walkers in the right direction, and prevent unnecessary jostling on stairs or other crowded areas.
Baskets tucked under chairs in coffee shops and restaurants provide a tidy spot for patrons to stow bags, purses, and coats. Belongings don’t spill sloppily over chairs or touch the floor.
Color Hunting, the Japanese expression for leaf peeping, is a national sport. Judging from the many shrines and temples with trees arrayed so their leaves compose an autumn rainbow of reds, oranges, and yellows, Japan earns the gold medal in color hunting.
Dust doesn’t stand a chance in germaphobe Japan. Each night at closing time, store clerks at little shops and big department stores drape cloth over merchandise to guard against dust.
Eggs, hard-boiled, come pre-seasoned and seemingly, almost buttered through the shell. This Japanese recipe involves soaking boiled eggs in a salty brine for 24 hours or more. It takes loads more salt to flavors eggs this way, but taste a Japanese egg, and you may find it’s worth the sodium. Eggs-cellent idea!
Fortune, good luck talismans dangle from purses and backpacks and adorn doorways and corners. Smiling Buddhas, waving cats, owls and frogs are some of the many engimono, lucky charms, marshalled to herald good fortune. Superstitions pop up often: Odd numbers are good; even numbers are unlucky because they can be divided. Not much is left to chance.
Gardens are as precisely designed as every other treasured art form. Trees, grasses, moss, sand, and stone are arranged to create harmonious landscapes. Japan’s respect for nature shows in its many descriptive words which English lacks: Kogarashi, leaf-wilting wind; shinrinyoku, forest bath; komorebi, sunlight filtering through trees; and mono no aware, the fleeting nature of beauty.
Hello Kitty looms larger than Godzilla in Japan. Sanrio’s cute cartoons should nibble on caviar cat-chow, considering that the franchise nabs nearly a billion dollars in worldwide sales each year. Need a toaster to imprint Hello Kitty on your morning toast? How about individually wrapped Hello Kitty prunes? Flip pancakes with a heart-shaped Hello Kitty spatula!
Inemuri, to be asleep while present, is socially acceptable napping in trains, classrooms and other public places. A Japanese friend insists that people never sleep on trains. Instead, she says, they’re simply closing their eyes to meditate and seek solitude in crowded spaces. Ohmm.
japan, a lowercase word meaning lacquerware. What other country can boast its name is also an artform? japanning, a 17th century term first used in Europe, describes the art of varnishing metal, wood and other surfaces in the renowned Japanese way.
Kawaii, the Japanese word for cuteness and the appetite for that cuteness, sums up a national obsession that’s gone global. In Japan, kawaii is ubiquitous, from adorable baked goods shaped like bears, cotton-candy soft sweaters with fuzzy pockets and 12th century Scrolls of Frolicking Animals featuring manga-like rabbits, frogs and monkeys. A museum exhibit in Tokyo, the Untamed Mind, explains kawaii as Japan’s love of things natural, spiritual, and playful.
Leaf cleaning doesn’t require a rake in Japan. A young guy at a Tokyo car-wash used a pair of tongs, the kind Americans use to BBQ, to patiently remove one leaf at a time from a narrow channel along the sidewalk where water from the car wash would flow. At public gardens, workers rhythmically swept leaves with rustic twig brooms, as if they were doing tai chi. A custodian outside a popular shrine ignored the set of twig brooms in his cart in favor of a loud leaf blower. Piles of ways to remove leaves so gardens, doorways, and even car wash sidewalks look meticulous.
Manners matter, at the table, on the street, really, every part of Japanese life. At restaurants, the first items servers offer are hot towels for guests to clean their hands. Before the first bite, even at a snack stand, it’s polite to give thanks for the food by quietly saying, “Itadakimasu,” “I humbly receive.” After eating, it’s custom to say “Gochisousama” — thank you for the delicious meal. One more etiquette tidbit: It’s rude to offer tips to a server, bellhop, or taxi driver.
“No tattoos” Don’t try to go to a public hot bath if you’ve got tattoos. Inked skin is considered a sign of the Yakuza, Japanese mafia, so tattoos convey an unsavory reputation. Hot spas’ websites and walls include numerous “No tattoo” warnings.
Onsen, Google onson, Japan’s hot spa baths, and you may see this prompt, “How do you take a bath in Japan?” Japanese people rinse their bodies before they enter baths. Immerse yourself in the Official Tokyo Travel Guide’s pool of facts about the correct way to bathe
Punctuality appears to be a national past-time. Omnipresent clocks in parks, malls, and other public places help people stay fashionably on schedule. Even young kids wear watches. Note, punctuality does not mean being early. When a Tokyo train left 20 seconds ahead of schedule, it made national news. The company apologized for “the tremendous nuisance.”
Quiet.That’s the sound you’ll hear in Japan’s airports, trains, busy streets and cafes. People talk softly and are far less likely to gab on cell phones in public. TVs and radios don’t blare at every airport terminal, restaurant and mall. Intentional sounds of silence.
Rules, tacit and written, structure life in Japan. A cute sign at a local Tokyo playground warns children about ten potential hazards of the swings and slide. “Never play with your jacket flapping.” “Don’t play on equipment wearing a backpack. Never use the play structure when it is wet. Never tie any rope or string to the play structure….” Remember to play by the rules!
Synchronized cleaning, epitomized by Japanese Railway crews whose coordinated cleaning routines keeps bullet trains rolling on schedule. The crews perform in team colors, women in peach, men in light blue, wrist watches pinned to their smocks. Once passengers step off a JR train, crews sweep in, each worker intent on his or her task: remove fabric headrest covers, flip seats forward, smooth fresh headrest covers in place, sweep and bag debris. When the train car passes inspection, the crew gathers and bows. As they leave, each worker methodically touches the right, then left, then right, frame of the train’s door. Once the synchronized show ends, the next set of passengers, in an orderly queue on the platform, quickly boards and the train departs, spruced up and on time.
Toilets, Japanese style, include more buttons and settings than some microwaves I’ve used. Most toilets feature at least three options: a gush of warm water, with choices for temperature and flow, to rinse the front and back of a person’s seat; air, again with controls for temperature and flow, to blow-dry wetness; and chimes, burbling water or gentle melodies, to muffle any unpleasant noises that might occur while going to the bathroom. The water and air wash and dry bodies better than toilet paper, but it’s another element of Japanese toilets that wowed me. Heated seats. As I write this, clenched in a sub-zero Minnesota winter, I long for the warmth of those seats. I need to go back to Japan. Soon.
Uniforms So many matching outfits! Students, starting in kindergarten, are easy to spot in identical shirts, shorts, pants or skirts, sweaters, coats, hats, and backpacks. School kids aren’t the only whose clothes signal their role. Trains full of ordinary workers dress almost in unison: Men in white shirts and dark trousers, often with jackets and ties; even cab drivers wear suits. Women dress in dark skirts with muted tops. Casual Fridays are a foreign concept. On Saturdays, many students don school uniforms headed to cram schools. In three weeks, I saw just one Japanese woman in a revealing outfit. Modesty is the uniform for all.
Vending machines dispense cold and hot coffee, soft drinks, cigarettes, candy and even batteries in Japan. Yet despite the convenience of 5.5 million sidewalk vending machines, few Japanese eat or drink as they walk. Noshing or sipping on the go is considered poor manners. Japanese people bring their tasty and cheap can of vending machine coffee where they can sit and drink properly then bring the empty can home. Trash cans are rare on Japanese streets. People are expected to be responsible for their own trash, instead of ditching it in public.
Washi, the craft of Japan’s handmade paper traces back at least 1,300 years and makes UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This ultra thin paper has been used for ledgers and stationery, lanterns, umbrellas, window panels and paper mache dolls. Washi is resistant to bugs, water and rips. Crafting handmade paper one sheet at a time is a painstaking process, truly. Papermakers’ hands are plunged in chilly water for hours. No wonder one craftsman says it’s hard to find young people who want to make washi. They’d rather work with computers than have chronically cold, wet hands.
X doesn’t exist in any of Japan’s three alphabets: Kanji, pictographs of characters, originally from Chinese; Romaji, the Romanized version of Japanese; and Kana, the combination of two phonetic alphabets, Hiragana, for Japanese words, and Katakana, mostly words borrowed from other languages. X-tra credit if you can keep that straight.
Yellow sidewalk strips snake along entire blocks of Japanese city sidewalks and through train stations, offering a tactile guide for people who are blind or have vision problems. The bright bumpy paths are another harbinger of Japan’s intentional efforts to shepherd all who live or visit here.
Zoto, Japanese gift giving, isn’t just for holidays, birthdays, and weddings. Presents are also given in mid-July, in mid-December (to co-workers or bosses); after New Year’s (to children). Japanese people are expected to bring back souvenirs, omiyage, anytime they take even a short trip. Those who receive gifts are expected to reciprocate, giving a smaller gift, okaeshi, to show their thanks. All gifts should be nicely wrapped, except for money, which is folded three times and placed in special envelopes, noshibukuro. Decorum requires specific kinds of envelopes for different gift-giving occasions, just as there are different kinds of wrapping, and different numbers and colors of wrapping strings for presents based on the various kinds of gifts one is giving. Did I mention there are different kinds of knots for the strings around presents, also based on what kind of gift? Just remember, if you’re going to Japan, bring gifts. And expect to get gifts in return. You’re welcome!