Your Questions About Japan, Answered

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From Toto toilets to going shoeless, experts weigh in on all you wanted to know but were afraid to ask.

What exactly is a tea ceremony?
“The ‘Way of Tea’ is a long, contemplative ritual that originated in Zen Buddhism,” says Kimiko Barber, author of Cook Japanese at Home (Kyle Books UK, out May 2017). Tea masters study for a decade to perfect how to boil and pour water, what type and how much matcha tea to use, and details like flower arranging. The ceremony can last two to four hours and is a deeply philosophical experience.

What is the Harajuku phenomenon?
“Dressing up in outlandish outfits and hanging out in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood is the ultimate escapism for young people,” says Ashley Isaacs Ganz, founder of tour operator Artisans of Leisure. A popular stop for travelers is Maison de Julietta (B1.5F Laforet Harajuku, 1-11-6 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku), where women can dress up in Lolita-style fashion—smock dresses, ruffled blouses, giant pastel hair bows—that’s seen as romantic.

What are pachinko parlors and gachapon?
Pachinko parlors are huge, smoky gaming centers for a Japanese version of pinball. “Although ostensibly for recreation, under-the-table illegal gambling is often involved,” says Scott Gilman, cofounder of tour operator JapanQuest Journeys. Gachapon are more benign: vending machines that dispense everything from toys to underwear. Find them all over Japan, but especially in Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood.

Why shouldn’t you step on the borders of a tatami mat?
Historically, tatami mats, which date back to at least 710, were lined with fabric that displayed the owner’s family crest, and it was considered rude to step on these images. The practice continues today, even though family crests aren’t common. Always remove your shoes before stepping on one.

What’s the difference between Shinto and Buddhist shrines?
Shrines are Shinto, and temples are Buddhist. Shintoism posits that everything in nature is an integral part of life, so shrines tend to be simple. Buddhism is based on the Buddha’s teachings, so temples are ornate, with images and statues. The simplest way to distinguish? Shinto shrine entrances are usually marked by red gateways called torii.

Why is canceling a dinner reservation so frowned upon?
Most restaurants have a very limited number of tables and just one or two seatings per night. Chefs shop for the amount of food needed for the night’s house, so canceling at the last minute or up to 48 hours before is considered extremely rude and can lead to fees.

Why aren’t you given napkins at restaurants?
You are given an oshibori, or wet towel, before the meal to clean your hands in lieu of a cloth or paper napkin, the latter of which is considered wasteful. This is also the reason why many people carry handkerchiefs in Japan, as bathrooms rarely have paper towels.

Do I take my shoes off or not?
You will take your shoes off frequently—at temples, shrines, ryokan, teahouses, some restaurants and galleries, and in homes. Pack socks: “It’s considered impolite to go barefoot in public places or the homes of all but close friends and family,” says Lauren Scharf, executive director of tour company The Art of Travel. Most places will provide slippers and a cubbyhole—the best indicator to remove your shoes.

Why are Japanese convenience stores amazing?
Konbini, such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart, and Lawson, are ubiquitous— there are more than 7,000 in Tokyo alone—and carry everything from (surprisingly good) bento boxes to shirts and ties for office workers, says Gilman. Imagine a UPS, Kinko’s, and general store rolled into one that’s open 24-7.

Why does Tokyo have so many helipads?
Since 1990, most buildings taller than 148 feet have had a helipad for emergencies. (The law doesn’t require it but strongly urges one.) Noise restrictions mean they are seldom used.

Why are there no trash cans?
Most were removed because of concerns over chemical terrorism, following the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, in which five members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult punctured bags of liquid sarin. Today, “the obsession with recycling prohibits the use of catchall options,” Scharf says. People recycle at convenience stores, on train platforms, and at home.

Can I request silverware?
Most places will bring you a fork or spoon upon request. Another option: your hands. “After all, sushi was developed as a popular street snack,” Barber says.

Why are the Japanese obsessed with Toto toilets?
Their popularity stems from Japan’s love of cleanliness and its maxim, Toire wa sono ikka no kao (“The restroom is the face of the household”). Not only are most restaurants, hotels, and stadiums filled with these toilets, but millions of homes as well. The latest models have multiple bidet functions, hot air dryers, and music to mask noises.

Why do I hear slurping in soba and ramen shops?
Slurping noodles is a time-honored tradition used to cool the noodles and intensify the flavors of the broth. It also communicates that you are enjoying your meal. What else can you slurp? The very last sip of matcha tea also gets a loud quaff, indicating that you are finished.

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Why are the Japanese called Edokko?
Edo was the original name for Tokyo (which got its current name in 1868), and the suffix -ko means “child,” so the term refers to a person from a multi-generational Tokyo family.

How do I tell my cab driver where my hotel is?
Bring a hotel card with the address written in Japanese or show your driver the route on your phone’s maps app, suggests Catherine Heald, cofounder of tour company Remote Lands. Uber is also available in Tokyo but hasn’t really taken off, as cabs are plentiful and clean.

Why do people say Japanese culture is impenetrable?
The country developed with limited outside influence, partly because of an isolationist policy imposed from 1641 to 1853 prohibiting contact and trade with most countries. It has since maintained a strong national identity and culture that is complex, subtle, and structured. The country takes pride in its uniqueness and traditions.

Why do I see so many lines at restaurants?
The Japanese love to be up on trends—“whether it is the most-talked-about soba restaurant in Tokyo or a matcha parfait shop in Kyoto,” Ganz says. Small cafés and restaurants also don’t take bookings, but people don’t linger, so you won’t have to wait long, says Lian Hearn, author of the Tale of Shikanoko series (Macmillan).

What are the rules of drinking sake?
If you see that someone’s glass is empty or near empty, offer to fill it. Never fill your own. If you don’t want more sake, put your hand over the top of the glass. It is more polite to use two hands to hold the bottle when pouring. Don’t clink glasses when toasting. Instead, raise your glass and say, “Kanpai!

Why do you cross a kimono’s fabric left over right?
Probably because most people are right handed: It allows them to slip their dominant hand into the robe to store things. Kimono are crossed right over left when the deceased are dressed for burial, Ganz says, so it’s considered bad luck to wear it this way in life.

What does –san after a person’s name mean?
-san is an honorific title of respect that can be used as a suffix with male and female names, surnames, and with occupations or titles.

Why is there a swastika on Japanese maps?
“Predating the Nazis by 8,000 years, the swastika originated in Neolithic Eurasia as a symbol of good fortune,” Scharf says. The symbol, called a manji, appears on tourist maps to designate temples and shrines. Although its legs run counterclock- wise, while the Nazi Hakenkreuz’s go clockwise, the two get confused. Responding to complaints, Japan is replacing manji with pagodas on tourist maps. The symbol will still be used on Japanese-language maps and in the temples themselves.

What’s the big deal over Japan’s emperor?
In August, Emperor Akihito, 82, expressed his desire to abdicate the throne, even though the country’s constitution forbids imperial abdication. He spoke about his rigorous schedule and his wish to avoid society coming to a standstill upon his death (citing the public scrutiny his father endured). At press time, a time line was uncertain. While the public supports his wishes, some worry about opening up the constitution to any interference (mainly, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire to reform Japan’s pacifist policies).

How is Japan laid out?
Japan is divided into 47 prefectures (similar to U.S. states). Of these, there are 43 ken, or proper prefectures, and four that go by special designations: to (capital) for Tokyo, do (territory) for Hokkaido, and fu (metropolis) for Osaka and Kyoto. The prefectures consist of cities, towns, and villages. Tokyo plays by its own rules—unsurprising since the metropolitan area has 37.8 million people. It consists of “special wards,” designated by the suffix -ku (such as Shibuya-ku and Chiyoda-ku), within which there are districts and neighborhoods that are frequently named after nearby train stations.

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The Glossary: Terms and Concepts Worth Knowing Before You Travel

外人 (Gaijin)
A slangy abbreviation of the word meaning “foreigner,” or racially non-Japanese. If you overhear it, it might well refer to you, but not to worry: The term usually carries a neutral connotation.

腹芸 (Haragei)
When the Japanese say, “It’s very difficult” instead of “no,” this is the principle in play. It’s a way of communicating through formalities, body language, and intonation in an effort to avoid being impolite.

本音 vs. 建前 (Honne vs. Tatemae)
A person’s true, private feelings (honne) versus what he or she says in society (tatemae).

懐石 (Kaiseki)
A multicourse seasonal meal that features small plates, including an amuse-bouche, sashimi, a grilled dish, and a steamed course. This is what you’ll most likely be served at a ryokan.

完全主義 (Kanzen-Shugi)
Attaining perfection through constant repetition, a concept that applies throughout Japanese culture but also to the many Western inventions that the Japanese have adopted and refined— e.g., American denim and French pastry.

可愛い (Kawaii)
Cuteness; an exclamation meaning “How cute!” often heard in Harajuku, the teen-teeming Tokyo neighborhood.

季節感 (Kisetsu-Kan)
A deep awareness of seasonality that informs everything from menus to decor.

抹茶 (Matcha)
A powder derived from finely milled green tea leaves, and the principal ingredient in the beverage served at tea ceremonies.

おもてなし (Omotenashi)
The Japanese sense of hospitality, which involves anticipating a guest’s every possible need. (Think of the taxi doors that open automatically, for example.)

温泉 (Onsen)
A volcanic hot spring. Some 2,500 of them exist in Japan.

オタク (Otaku)
Obsessive fans of pop culture, particularly anime, manga, and video games. The subculture is centered in Tokyo’s Akihabara neighborhood.

旅館 (Ryokan)
A traditional Japanese inn that typically serves kaiseki cuisine and offers hot-spring baths; an acquired taste among Western travelers.

桜 (Sakura)
Cherry blossoms, which symbolize renewal and ephemerality—and draw millions of tourists when they bloom across Japan in the spring.

新幹線 (Shinkansen)
The high-speed bullet trains that connect Tokyo to most major Japanese cities. Launched in 1964, the shinkansen cruises at 200 miles per hour, is freakishly on time, and has an impeccable safety record.

侘び寂び (Wabi-Sabi)
An aesthetic sensibility that finds beauty in the imperfect, fleeting, and incomplete. Cracks in a handmade vase, for example, or an unfinished book.

和紙 (Washi)
A type of paper made from fibers, including bamboo, hemp, rice, or wheat. Ideal for use in Japanese arts such as origami, calligraphy scrolls, and woodblock prints.

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