Review of "Customs (Japan)"
Welcome to the second part of my top ten tips for visitors to Japan. As this follows on from Part 1 (surprisingly enough), I'll be kicking off with number 6. By the way, in case you haven't read Part 1 I'll just mention that gaijin is Japanese for foreigner.◄Eating in Japan►
Japan is home to one of the one of the world's great cuisines and the Japanese are passionate about food; indeed it is a bigger topic of conversation in Japan than the weather is in Britain. Japanese food is a huge subject and as I'm only offering a few tips for travellers here I can only scratch the surface. I should perhaps mention that my Japanese friends have persuaded me to try just about every weird and wonderful culinary concoction imaginable and I've never suffered any ill effects. Often the things I could barely bring myself to put in my mouth have turned out to be delicious. Of course, if you're not an adventurous eater it's no great problem as like most other countries Japan is awash with McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks and so forth.**How it's served**
Presentation is very important in Japanese dining and the food is often arranged delicately and artistically on the plate. Of course, this doesn't apply if you're eating in somewhere like a noodle bar or fast food establishment. Traditionally the Japanese eat a healthy and well-balanced diet and it's usual to have several small portions of food prepared in different ways; something boiled, something fried, something pickled, something raw etc., all as part of the same meal. There are no courses as such - the dishes can come in any order or even all together and they very rarely have anything sweet to finish.
Those who are unadventurous but who would rather avoid American-style fast food might prefer to stick to something like these.
Tempura - fish, seafood and vegetables deep-fried in thin, crispy batter. Almost everyone loves this.
Yakitori - grilled chicken on skewers.
Tonkatsu - fried, breaded pork cutlets
Kare-raisu - mild Japanese curry with rice
Everyone knows this, it's raw fish, right? Wrong, or at least not necessarily. The essential ingredient of sushi is vinegared rice. It can be served in many different ways. The sushi we see in British supermarkets and delicatessens is usually in the style of what is called nigirizushi in Japan - a small block of rice topped with fish, which can be raw or cooked, or with egg or vegetable toppings. Other types include chirashizushi (fish and vegetables on a bowl of rice), makizushi (rice and fish or vegetables wrapped in dried seaweed and rolled into a cylinder shape) and temakizushi (a handmade cone of seaweed filled with rice and other ingredients). Sushi in Japan is fresh, delicious and a world away from the stuff sold in the UK. There is a huge variety and it's worth trying the more unusual toppings such as tobiko (flying fish roe) and uni (sea urchin). Sushi is served with soy sauce and wasabi, a green paste made from Japanese horseradish. Wasabi is extremely strong and hot, so don't make the gaijin's classic mistake of eating a large piece of it. It may be comical to watch the unsuspecting foreigner gasping and choking but try to avoid being the one everybody is laughing at!
This is simply sliced raw fish, again served with soy sauce and wasabi. Most people are surprised to discover that it is truly delicious. You may also come across the sashimi known as sakura (Japanese for cherry blossom), which is not fish but raw horse meat. It's also possible to find restaurants in Japan that serve their sashimi rawer than raw - yes, the fish is so fresh that it's still moving when it reaches your plate.
Japanese beef, or wagyu, is reputed to be the best in the world and Kobe beef is the finest wagyu, the best of the best. The secret lies in the way the cattle are reared and it really is a secret, a closely guarded one. What is known is that the cattle lead a pampered life and they are said to be fed with beer and regularly massaged with sake (rice wine) as part of the rearing process. The happy and contented cattle end up as the most succulent, tender and delicious beef in the world, not to mention the most expensive.
The first time I ate this in an izakaya (a kind of Japanese pub where you always eat as well as drink) I asked what it was and was told it is crab's brains. I gather that in fact it is made from any of the crab's internal organs, including the brains, which of course do not amount to very much of a meal unless a few dozen crabs have died for the cause. What I had was a small amount of brownish paste, served hot and it tasted much like ordinary brown crab meat. I have also seen it presented as a greenish grey sludge full of lumps and have to admit I passed on that occasion.
This is sometimes called "Japanese pizza" but it is more like a pancake. You cook it yourself on a special hotplate at the table. It consists of flour, eggs and white cabbage, into which you mix your choice of meat, fish and seafood. It's great fun, especially as most people make a complete mess of it at their first attempt, and I highly recommend it.
The Japanese set great store by the health-giving properties of nattou and as a visitor you will probably be encouraged to try it in Japan. It's definitely an acquired taste and one I've never managed to acquire! Nattou is made from fermented soy beans and the best way I can find to describe it is hard baked beans in stringy glue with a slightly salty taste and the odour of old cheese. Some people claim they actually like this!
Noodles come in many varieties, such as soba (thin buckwheat noodles), udon (thick, soft noodles) and ramen (Chinese style noodles in soup) and are immensely popular in Japan. Japanese people will often stop off for noodles after a night's drinking, much as some British people might go for a kebab. Prepare yourself for some strange sounds when you go into a noodle shop for the first time as Japanese men consider that the correct way to eat noodles is to suck them down their throats without chewing, accompanied by very loud slurping noises; quite alarming the first time you encounter it!
If you like to live dangerously and can afford the sky-high price you have to try fugu. This is the Japanese name for the blowfish or puffer fish, the liver and ovaries of which contain a deadly poison. I am reliably informed by a Japanese friend that fugu poisoning causes paralysis, followed by a lingering death over a period of about 24 hours, during which time the victim remains fully conscious. There is no known antidote. Under Japanese law fugu can only be prepared and sold by government-licensed chefs, who have to undergo rigorous training over a period of some years. The most celebrated fugu chefs are able to prepare the fish in such a way that traces of the poison remain in the flesh of the fish, causing a tingling sensation on the lips and tongue of the diner. Fugu can be enjoyed raw as sashimi or cooked in a variety of ways and with a bit of luck you'll even emerge from this experience still breathing.
The Japanese for bath is furo and it is usually afforded the honorific prefix "o", which approximates to "honourable", an indication of the importance of the bath in Japanese culture. Bathing in Japan traditionally took place in the sentou, a public bath house, and these still exist but are more in the nature of leisure centres these days. Taking a bath in the sentou meant sharing a huge bath with many other people at the same time and this entailed a particular bathing etiquette that to a large extent lives on today in the bathrooms of modern Japanese homes. The Japanese bathroom is generally divided into an inner and outer room. The outer part will usually have a washbasin and is used as a place for a quick wash and as a changing room. The bath is in the inner room and is small and deep, so that you sit in it up to your shoulders in water. There will also be a shower and a seat in the inner room.
Japan is a volcanic country and there are numerous natural hot springs in many areas. Like the sentou, the onsen is a type of public bath but there the similarity ends. Onsen can be indoors or outdoors, natural or artificial, but the best ones are the outdoor onsen fed by natural hot spring water. These are generally found in the countryside in beautiful, natural settings. They may be beside a tree-lined river, on the cliffs overlooking the ocean or high in the mountains. They are often like spa resorts with hotel accommodation, high quality restaurants and massage treatments available. "At one with nature" may sound a little corny but you may well feel that way sitting in a naturally hot outdoor pool surveying beautiful scenery, especially in the winter and even more so if it is actually snowing. There are even one or two onsen where nature will come and join you in the shape of macaque monkeys, who also love to soak in the hot springs and are not averse to sharing with humans.
◄Gifts►**The Gift Culture in Japan**
The business of giving and receiving is not just important to the Japanese, it's part of the fabric of society in Japan, something that occupies a great deal of time and attention for any Japanese person. The concepts of giri, on and kari in Japanese relate to moral obligation and debts of gratitude that don't have exact equivalents in British culture and this really isn't the place to conduct an analysis of them. In simplistic terms, a gift generates an obligation to return the favour with something of similar value and so gifts need to be chosen very carefully so as not to place the recipient in an embarrassing position. Gifts are exchanged much more frequently in Japan than in Britain. Families, friends and work colleagues will buy gifts for each other not just on the occasions we do, such as birthdays and weddings, but when paying someone a visit, returning from a trip, as a thank you, as a welcome, as an apology and many other occasions. On Valentine's Day it is traditional for women to buy their husbands, boyfriends and male work colleagues a gift of chocolate, sometimes known as giri-choko, meaning obligation chocolate. The favour is usually returned by the men on White Day in March. In addition to these it is usual to exchange gifts twice a year, in summer and in winter.
I'll mention a couple of personal examples to illustrate these points. On a trip to Japan I bought a Japanese PDA, one of those electronic gizmos for keeping a diary, contact list and so on. In the contact list section as well as all the usual spaces for address, phone numbers etc of each contact, there is a series of check boxes to record that you have given each person the appropriate birthday present, summer gift, winter gift and so forth each year. Another example that springs to mind is a time I went on a weekend trip to France with a Japanese friend. He spent almost the entire weekend frantically going in and out of shops, agonizing over what gifts he should buy to take back to his family, friends and work colleagues in Japan, leaving practically no time to do anything else.**Christmas Presents**
Christianity is very much a minority religion in Japan with Christians making up less than one per cent of the population, so I was amazed when I went to Japan in December to discover what a big deal they make of Christmas. City streets were decorated with lights that put ours to shame and shops were filled with similar gaudy tat, sorry, I mean festive merchandise, to our own. However, Christmas Day is nothing special in Japan, just an ordinary working day. December 23rd happens to be a public holiday as it is the Emperor's birthday but it is Christmas Eve that is special. December 24th is considered to be a magical and romantic day for couples, when they will go out for a special dinner and exchange gifts, often of the kawaii (cute) variety, such as cuddly toys. Parents will buy their children Christmas gifts too. None of this has any religious connotation and Jesus Christ is probably interchangeable with Father Christmas in the eyes of many Japanese people, as witnessed by the story of the Tokyo department store whose Christmas decorations proudly featured a centrepiece of Santa Claus on the cross.
**Giving and Receiving as a Visitor**
Of course, foreign visitors are not expected to know about the intricacies of Japanese gift culture and customs but it's still as well to be aware of their existence. As a visitor, you're quite likely to receive small gifts from people you are introduced to and you are not necessarily expected to give anything in return in those circumstances. Once when I went in to a bank in a small town to change some money I was served personally by the manager (probably because I was one of the few foreigners they had ever encountered in this backwater) and was taken aback to find myself presented with a gift-wrapped wind chime at the end of the transaction. Don't expect to receive that sort of treatment in Tokyo or any other big city though!
There are several taboos in Japanese gift culture but most of them needn't concern the gaijin visitor. However, I feel I must mention the Japanese words ku and shi here. These words can mean suffering and death respectively. They can also be used for the numbers nine (ku) and four (shi), so you should try to avoid giving anyone nine items and certainly do not give four items, not even as a set of four things. And if you really want to upset someone, give them a comb; this is a double whammy as the Japanese for comb is kushi, suffering and death in one convenient package!◄Blowing Your Nose►
Many Japanese people carry a cotton or linen handkerchief with them just as we do in the west. They may use the handkerchief to wipe away a tear or mop a perspiring brow. They may use it to dry their hands after washing if there is no towel available or to flick some dust off a seat. What they will never ever do is use it to blow their noses. Japanese people use paper tissues and throw them away after use. The idea of blowing your nose in a cotton handkerchief and then stuffing the snotty rag back in your pocket is abhorrent to the Japanese and your doing so will dispel any lingering doubt in the minds of many Japanese people that westerners are just a bunch of barbarians at heart.
To blow your nose in public is impolite in the eyes of most Japanese people and to some it is positively offensive, particularly if you were to do it at the dinner table. Most Japanese people do not seem to object to sniffing and snuffling but if they have a cold they will generally wear a surgical-style mask - don't be surprised to see a lot of people wearing these in the winter. If they need to blow their noses the Japanese will discreetly slip away to the toilet or somewhere else where they can't be seen to do it. I have to admit that I have seen people (usually youngsters) blowing their noses in public in Japan but the impression that blowing your nose in public will leave with the average Japanese person is much the same as if you had spat on the floor or deliberately and loudly farted. My advice on this subject is simple - don't do it!
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Listed on Ciao since: 20/07/2000