There are always good reasons to visit Japan: on this season, during the peak of the Autumn, the leaves of the maple trees and ginkgo trees turn red and yellow giving you a beautiful scenery at every turn. But before you leave for Japan, how should you behave in the most common occasions? Swide has a list of do’s that might help you out while traveling. Enjoy!
There are many reasons to visit Japan in autumn, from Fall landscapes to special events. Autumn months are considered to be September, October, and November and people stroll to watch the beautiful colors of nature: fall foliage is called “kouyou” in Japanese which means “red leaves”. It is believed that Japan’s earliest fall foliage happens in the Daisetsuzan mountains, Hokkaido. Other popular fall foliage destinations include Nikko, Hakone, Kamakura, Kyoto and Nara (these last three cities being Japan’s ancient capitals).
There are also many holidays in the fall. The second Monday in October is a Japanese national holiday called taiiku-no-hi (Health and Sports Day) and various sports events take place on this day.
November 3 is a national holiday, bunkano-hi (Culture Day): on this day all around the Country are organized celebrations of artand tradition. November 15 is called shichi-go-san, a traditional Japanese festival for children when families with children of different ages visit shrines to pray for their healthy growth.
Many autumn festivals are organized, too, all over Japan, to give thanks for the harvest. It’s also interesting to visit many food vendors who sell local specialty food, crafts, and more.
If you are planning a trip to Japan, how should you behave in a Country that has – that’s the fun part of travelling – so many differences of the one’s you are coming from? Swide has a list that will help you out when doing, for a foodie, the most important thing when travelling: eating.
I have had the luck to travel Japan with someone who’s been loving the Country for quite a while, so thankfully I was spared of all the faux-pas that I would have probably stumbled on if I were alone in the Country. Because trust me, no matter how you much you read about traditions (and culture, and customs), expect the unexpected, always.
One of the things I didn’t know the same night I arrived, for example, was that when drinking sake you should always wait for someone to pour it for you and when they do so, do the same for them. Always hold your little cup with both hands when receiving sake, and bow to thank your friend for pouring.
Also, when sharing a dish – something I did a lot in order to try as many dishes as possible – I had to use the opposite end of my chopsticks (the side I was not using to eat, basically) to grab the food and place it on my plate. What you don’t have to do while eating is to point at people when using chopstick or wave them. Don’t ever, for any reason, stick the two chopstick vertical in a bowl of rice because it resembles to the ritual used for funerals when burning incense to “feed” the dead. Place your chopstick on top of the bowl only if you are done eating.
One thing I saw a lot among tourists was using the hot towel usually provided before the beginning of the meal to freshen up their face. . Don’t do that: use it for your hands only and once done with it place it on the side (or even better, wait for someone to come collecting it).
If you are lost among the many Japanese characters on the menu, that’s actually a good sign: it means you are not in a touristy place where restaurants usually display outside the entrance fake food in plastic to show almost exactly the appearance of the dishes served. There is a whole industry around plastic food, and actually buying a faithful reproduction of dishes in plastic can cost quite a lot – if you are interested, head to the stands outside the fish market in Tokyo, Tsukiji, or the Omotesando neighborhood. If you can’t figure out a single word on the menu (it always happened to me) try asking for the recommendations (osusume) or the chef’s choice (omakase). Be aware, you might get something really weird, but go with the flow: it’s the best way to discover new dishes…
When your order arrives, to eat it properly hold the bowl of food in one and use your other hand to hold the chopsticks and bring food to your mouth. It is considered polite form to finish up what you have in the plate generally, and even more when it’s about your bowl of rice. Slurping soup is fine, but you are not obliged to do it, like many believe.
Drink the miso soup from the bowl – yes, that’s why usually they serve it without a spoon – and then with chopsticks pick up the solid ingredients like tofu or the spring onions.
Most people now know it, but it’s always useful to remind that for sushi dishes you don’t have to dip the rice part in the soy sauce, but the fish part, quickly, and most of the time there is no need to use wasabi as it’s included in the sushi-making process (if you are not crazy about its type of spicy taste like I am, although fresh wasabi in Japan is another world compared to the one served in most restaurants in Italy), just make a gesture with your head that says “NO” adding the word wasabi when ordering. It worked for me…
One other important thing, as an Italian, was for me to notice that the usual tone of voice in a Japanese restaurant is very low, almost whispered. Shouting – even to call attention – is considered incredibly unpolite so do keep it in mind when you call the attention of the waters (a quick eye contact, in a high end restaurant, would do it, or use a humble gesture followed by “sumimasen”, excuse me) or when you talk.
Paying moment it’s another key one: pay at the table is not that common, and usually it’s preferable to bring your bill to the cashier when leaving. Remember: you don’t tip in Japan, therefore any attempt to do so will be refused. Usually in Japan cash is preferred for payment, but if you are paying by credit card, offer it using both hands like you will do when offering your business card.
Most of all, enjoy your time there: because you are a foreigner Japanese people will be very forgiving of you. Just be humble and respectful, and show joy when at the table trying new foods: there are few Country as serious as Japan when talking about high end cuisine, and there is no better way to take food seriously than really, really enjoying it and let the people know you are doing so.
Photos inside: Elisa della Barba