Some people may think that Japan has many “rules,” but I think it creates order and a sense of calm. I love rules and I love when people respect and follow rules. I was a Kindergarten teacher after all 😛. These were some of my observations from my one week vacationing in Japan last week:
1) Stay quiet in tight spaces like subways, buses, or elevators so as not to distract the sound space we all share. I remember boarding our first bus after getting off the plane and it was crowded. Like really crowded, standing-room only. And it was completely silent. I was in awe in the best way. Welcome to Japan!
2) Carry your own trash and dispose of it at home. Most people carry plastic bags to carry bigger trash like food containers. There are very few garbage cans. Definitely none are on the streets or in every corner like we are used to. This was my second realization because I was holding an empty water bottle from the airplane all around as we got our luggage, figured out the subway, and got to our hotel. The whole time I was thinking, “Why can’t I find a trash or recycling bin?”
3) Eat in designated areas like benches, tables, or picnic blankets, not while walking around and definitely not in indoor spaces like department stores. I am so used to eating on the go, especially if I buy a hot snack or something. Nope. Resist eating it right away and walk to the side of the road to find a more private spot. Goes along with probably why there is no trash (or crumbs) on the floor.
4) Line up in the order you arrive. Seems like a straightforward rule right? But where else in the world do you see clear, distinguished straight lines for getting on to the subway? Less than a handful of other places I would think. I personally LOVE this unspoken rule because it makes me so anxious in other Asian countries where a huge crowd just forms in front of the subway door and it’s a pushing game. Ugh.
5) Walk on the left, yield on the right. This is the opposite direction for me, but you get used to it. Even on the escalators, everyone lines up on the left side, generously leaving space on the right for anyone who is in a rush and wants to walk up the steps. No need to say “Excuse Me” to pass by. People are just always thinking about each other.
6) Keep your body to yourself. How does such a crowded city like Tokyo manage to walk by each other without pushing or shoving shoulders? Yes, during rush hour the subways will be completely jammed and you will be squished like never before (when this happened for the first time, I started getting a laugh attack because I had never been so tightly packed before, ever, but I kept it a silent laugh because, well, it’s silent on the subway, which made me start to cry and sweat profusely). Even so, it wasn’t creepy. Everyone just looked away, stood still and quiet, and stayed respectful.
7) Respect your elders, and each other. I saw 2 geishas walk by each other, and although they both bowed, the “younger” one clearly bowed deeper. And when you start to observe two people saying goodbye, one bows, the other bows, then they continue bowing back and forth as they walk away. It was so interesting to watch. Ok more about bowing next.
8) Body attention. You know when you talk to someone and then you see their eyes looking somewhere else, or they look down at their phone, or they fidget, or they interrupt, or you generally feel like their attention is just not fully there? Well in Japan, when you greet someone, it is a full on eye contact and physical bow to acknowledge the other person. Somehow the “arigato gozaimasu” or thank you, combined with a full attention bow is much more powerful. For our last night we ate at Kikunoi, a 3 Michelin Star restaurant in Kyoto. At the end of dinner, we had a special tour by the chef. He brought us to the kitchen where all the workers were eating after a long night, and they all immediately stopped eating, stood up and froze looking at us. Complete stillness, complete respect, complete attention. Wow.
9) Bring hand sanitizer and a handkerchief – one thing I wish I had brought. To go along with the no trash rule in number 2, bathrooms have no paper towels to dry your hands with and many do not have soap either. Just a sink with water. I would keep Kleenex too just in case because some public tourist spots did not have toilet paper. Generally however, Japanese toilets are the best. They have warm seats and a million buttons to play with, like even a “music” button if you need more privacy going poop. Ha! And babies? Many bathrooms have built in booster seats for babies so you can go potty without figuring out to hold your baby at the same time! They think of everything!
10) Be prepared to walk. I averaged 12 miles a day just walking around Japan, and that includes a ton of stairs! What I noticed is that elderly Japanese people also walk. I mean, their food is already pretty healthy, so you combine that with the amount of walking they must do??? Easy recipe for a naturally healthy long life!
11) Be on time. My best example is the train system. It is so efficient and the trains are so precise, like 10:52 is your time? You can be sure your train will not wait until 10:53! Even if half of your party is on the train and the other half are trying to get on – those doors will close. Yes we learned that the hard way – I was left behind.
12) Finally, just be observant. When I visit another place, I am an ultra sensitive person to trying to fit in. Probably too much so. You don’t need to completely conform to that culture, however, we just have to remember to be respectful. To open up our eyes and our ears and be willing to change some of our old habits while we are visitors.
Of course there are exceptions to what I wrote above, and these were just my experiences. Yours may be different. But I do hope that you find the Japanese culture as one to admire. I really felt safe. I felt clean. I felt like they were doing something right. Want to know the unemployment rate? It is 2%. That’s something right.