Daffodils are always a welcome addition to Britain's landscape as the splash of colour is a sign that spring is on its way. But there are few places in the world as renowned for capturing the essence of nature's spring beauty as Japan.
Here the season is practically an institution as the country celebrates its sakura (cherry blossoms), which sees parks, streets and gardens awash with marvellous pale pink blooms and their sweet scent perfumes the air.
For the many western visitors intent on seeing this natural wonder, it's an added bonus to experience a culture so unlike our own; Japan's unique history, rituals and habits are front and centre in any trip there. And by being responsible tourists, the more we know how to blend in, the more enjoyable the experience will be for hosts and visitors alike.
So, in readiness for sakura season, the Flexicover team offers five etiquette tips to help you navigate the tricky paths of Japanese culture.
Greetings are taken more seriously than here, where we specialise in awkwardly combining handshakes, air kisses and hugs; none of which are common in Japan. Instead, bowing is the main form of greeting, though when dealing with non-Japanese, handshakes or shake/bow combinations may be employed. The general rule is that the deeper the bow, the more respectful it is or the greater disparity in status. In most cases, it's appropriate to just match your counterpart. The exception is with retail or restaurant staff who'll often greet you with "Irasshaimase" (a respectful welcome) to which you should respond with an acknowledging nod.Take Off Your Shoes
Seasoned travellers know to take off shoes before entering houses and temples but that's the easy bit. Things get more complicated when it comes to hostels, restaurants and even some toilets. A rule of thumb is to wear slippers if they're provided. Though hygiene standards are high, if you're not keen on wearing communal slippers make sure you have socks on or carry around insoles. If slippers aren't provided, observe the locals - some establishments expect you to go barefoot, particularly if the flooring is tatami (woven mats). If you're planning a busy day, it'd be a good idea to have footwear that slips on and off easily, so you're not spending valuable time fiddling with laces.Eating
In many cultures, dining and culinary etiquette ranks pretty highly when it comes to creating a good impression and Japan has a few particular stumbling blocks for the unwary traveller when eating out or in company. Key points to remember are to only pour drinks for people around you and not yourself (rely on someone else for that) and to make sure you know how to use chopsticks politely (such as not sticking them upright and not pointing with them). And don't forget at the end that tipping is a concept they generally find insulting, so keep your change - just don't count it, as that's considered rude too!
It should become readily apparent when travelling that there is a very ingrained sense of demureness and politeness in Japanese society. The public convention is to keep themselves to themselves, without much in the way of eye contact or raucous behaviour. In part this may be attributed to how crowded transport often is, particularly in Tokyo or Kyoto. The key to blending in is making sure that you're aware of your surroundings at all times, don't board the wrong train carriage (at times, some may be women only) and we’d suggest not playing your favourite music across your mobile phone, telling your neighbour how much of a tune it is and then encouraging the train carriage to join in.
Temples in Japan are stunning and you'll find it difficult to pass one without wanting to peer in. But here, more than anywhere, it's important to follow custom. You'll have to remove your shoes before entering and it's a nice idea to buy the available incense and light it - remembering to wave the flame out rather than blow on it. There may also be a fountain where worshippers wash their hands and mouth before entering; follow suit if you like but tourists are often allowed to skip this. Once you're inside, act discreetly and if you're allowed to take photographs, turn the flash off. Respectful behaviour is the name of the game here.
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