Japan has one of the most unique cultures in the world with elaborate social etiquette and extremes from time-honored tea ceremonies and women quietly running households to erotic manga comics and hostess clubs where drinks inspire honesty among male colleagues. This small country, comprised of five main islands (Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and Okinawa), has also been an economic tiger in Asia for more than a century.
During the Meiji era (1868-1912), Japan became the first non-Western powerhouse, rising steadily until its defeat in World War II. Then it rose again to become the world’s second largest economy after the United States and in 2010, the third largest after China. The global economic recession of the late 2000s, set off by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, which occurred during my trip to Japan (Sept. 15, 2008), chopped off the tiger’s tail. This was compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which put the nation in its worst economic crisis since the end of World War II. I was fortunate to visit Japan when the tiger was still fully intact.
My adventure began in Yokohama, the second largest city by population (4 million) in Japan after the capital of Tokyo (14 million), where I had the good fortune of being sent for work. As unbelievable luck would have it, my American friend, Lauren, was living in Japan at the time and working at an organization next door to my hotel! So, she introduced me to the culture after my work was done.
My cultural indoctrination began with tofu, tuna and karaoke. Lauren and I did our best to compete with drunk Japanese men singing American tunes. She impressively belted out “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra.
“Mama-san good,” they cheered. (“San” is a formal article meaning Mr. or Mrs.)
I paled in comparison with my go-to karaoke song “Piano Man” by Billy Joel. But being tall and blonde made up for my voice in terms of entertainment.
Lauren also took me to seaside Kamakura, a former capital of Japan, which is home to a giant, bronze buddha and beautiful Buddhist Zen temples and Shinto shrines. The Great Buddha in Kōtoku-in Temple is the second largest in Japan. It’s also great because it withstood two typhoons and a severe earthquake in the 14th and 15th centuries.
That evening, I met my then boyfriend Brad at a hotel in central Tokyo. We got up at 4 am the next morning to see the tuna auction at the former Tsukiji Market (as of 2018, it moved and was renamed Toyosu), the world’s largest wholesale fish market. Buyers poked and prodded fresh tunas with instruments and flashlights. A fast-talking auctioneer, who was better than coffee waking us up, drove up the yens for the prized fish worth an average of $40-200 per pound. (In 2019, a giant Bluefin tuna sold for a record $3 million+ equivalent to $5,000 per pound!) We followed a tuna on a cart from the auction room through the gritty, grimy market to a stand where it was carved up into pieces purchased by restaurateurs. For the next five hours, we gawked at “fruits of the sea” (some of which we didn’t know existed) and shocking prices of imported produce (think $10 per cantaloupe – no wonder it is often given as a gift).
Later, we checked out Shinjuku underground market and met my sister’s Japanese colleagues at that time at a restaurant near busy Shinagawa Station. Led by office manager Hotchi-san (Mr. Hotchi), we ate teppanyaki cooked at the table, fish pancakes and tofu three ways. We drank shōchū (Japanese vodka typically made from rice) and got socked by sake (rice wine). Every five minutes, Hotchi-san would say “Kanpai!” meaning “bottoms up” with a shot of sake.
No surprise, we all found ourselves in a karaoke booth after dinner. Brad aptly sang “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses. In this case, it was a concrete jungle drenched in sake.
For the next two days, sake turned to tea as we stayed at the home of a Japanese friend of Brad’s in Tokyo. Like many Japanese working for corporations, Shinya had a company apartment, where he lived in tight quarters with his wife and son. In traditional fashion, they slept on tatami mats. Brad and I slept on thin mattresses in a small storage room. Given the expense of property and lack of space in Tokyo, this seemingly spartan home was indicative of a middle-class family. Shinya’s wife, Kato, was a stay-at-home mom who taught Japanese cooking to housewives and took care of their son Yamoto. I remember sitting on their floor eating dinner while Yamoto laughed at the size of Brad’s and my noses (big by Japanese standards).
They – including Shinya’s father Yoshida – took us to Hama-rikyu Gardens to visit a teahouse, where we got a mini demo of a tea ceremony, an elaborate process that takes years to master. Shinya and Yoshida also took Brad and me through horrendous Tokyo traffic to beautiful Mount Fuji, an active volcano that’s the highest mountain in Japan. It’s also the main place where grapes and limited wine are produced. We drove to the fifth stage, where all hikes to the summit begin. We only climbed up a mile but that was enough to appreciate the views.
Brad and I went on our own to the mountain town Nikkō, known for UNESCO World Heritage Shinto shrines (Tōshō-gū, Futarasan Jinja) and Rinnōji Temple, yuba (dried tofu skin) noodles and onsens (hot springs). Most memorable was going to a public spa, where Brad and I were tourist attractions on our respective sides for men and women. (For the first time in my life, I felt busty.) Also comical was the fortune I received for a small sum at a shrine that read: MARRIAGE PROPOSAL: Don’t be impatient. Your marriage will be arranged. (If only … it would have made my love life easier!)
Next we went on a treasure hunt in Kyoto for temples (Kiyomizu-dera, Chion-in, Kinkaku-ji) and palaces (Imperial, Nijōjō). At night, we toured Gion red light district, where geishas charm their clients – we only saw a maiko (geisha in training) crossing the street – and gambled in a pachinko parlor, the Japanese equivalent of a slot machine casino. We stayed in a traditional Japanese inn called a ryokan, where we slept and ate on the floor.
Nara, the oldest city in Japan, was our last stop before returning to Tokyo. It’s known for the largest Buddha in the country in UNESCO-recognized Todaiji Temple and free-roaming wild deer in Nara Park, which you can feed special crackers. I got chased by one with huge antlers because I had a cracker in my hand. I threw it at him and ran away! Later, I spotted another deer with a big rack sharpening an antler on a tree. He was tranquilized by park rangers to have his antlers trimmed so he wouldn’t gore somebody, such as an American woman with deer “crack.” On the way to Todaiji, Brad got interviewed by a group of school children who were curious about a tall, red-headed American and wanted to practice their English.
Back in Tokyo, we walked through charming old Asakusa, fashionable Harajuku and commercial Shibuya city wards (there are 23 in total), took in views atop Tokyo Tower and enjoyed nightlife in Roppongi Hills. Last but not least, we saw a sumo wrestling match at Ryōgoku Kokugikan stadium. Watching obese Japanese men in oversized diapers was a “slam dunk” to our trip. The sound of mounds of flesh hitting a mat echoed the crash of Lehman Brothers as a prelude to the fall of the global economy.
* Due to trip taking place in 2008, I could not find my own photos and therefore sourced all images from Unsplash.com.
Crash Course in Japanese Etiquette
- Give and receive business cards and gifts with two hands. Study the business card upon receipt.
- Bow from hips straight back. Always bow lower than the other person if you are younger or lower status.
- A guest of honor and the highest-ranking person in a room always sits furthest from the door for protection.
- When sharing dishes, use extra chopsticks provided to pick up food or other end of your chopsticks so as not to contaminate the food.
- Always pour drinks for others, never for yourself. Use two hands to pour and receive drinks. Pour in order of rank.
- Don’t eat or drink while walking or on public transportation.
- Belching is permitted and encouraged in noodle shops as is slurping.
- Walk like people drive … on the left.
- Take your shoes off before entering a person’s home or a temple. Use bathroom slippers provided at home or a restaurant.
- When in a bathroom to see if stall occupied, knock twice. If you are in a stall, knock back twice. Offer to pay only once, not twice.
- Never point at someone as it’s considered rude. Use your full hand to indicate or gesticulate.
- Do not cross your hands in front of you unless you mean “bad or not allowed.”
- Men always walk in front of women. They can sit cross-legged on tatami mats but not women.
- Men should minimize facial hair before traveling to Japan as it is regarded like a mask with something to hide.
- Don’t engage with school children asking questions or let them hear you speak English as you’ll never get any sightseeing done!