As a country that has retained much of its culture from the past, as well as operating as a modern first world nation, examples of the past and present abound in everyday life in Japan. Within this context, Japan is a country of well accepted and adhered to customs, rituals and modes of behaviour in all aspects of daily life. Having an awareness of these is a key part of knowing and understanding Japan. Consequently, explaining them is an important and integral part of this publication – they are the minutiae and building blocks of daily life and form the crux of what is the real Japan.
Foremost among these customs is the practice of removing shoes before entering any private residence, and many other buildings. Every dwelling has an entrance (genkan) tiled or of some other washable surface, which is at the same level as the exterior. This means that to enter the dwelling a visitor needs to step up to floor level, and when doing so shoes must be removed. When entering any other kind of building, if the initial entrance area is lower than the rest of the building shoes must be removed. Rows of shelving (getabako) in the entrance, where shoes are placed, are also a clear sign.
The meaning behind this practice is that, despite the door clearly indicating the boundary between interior and exterior, in the minds of the Japanese the interior only fully begins at the edge of the floor level, giving the lower genkan a sense of being outside. Shoes are considered too dirty to be worn indoors, but in the genkan is acceptable and normal, which is why it is regularly washed. This also explains why a visitor, such as a postman, might actually open the door and step into the genkan, then announce his presence by calling out. The higher level barrier would not be broached uninvited.
If shoes are not stored in the getabako, they are placed together neatly, heels resting against the internal edge of the entrance area, front facing the entrance. If not left in this manner, a female member of the household will do so. Because of the need to constantly remove shoes, laceless slip-on styles are the most favoured, all except a person’s best shoes inevitably succumbing to squashed rear walls from being put on without the aid of a shoe horn.
Inside a private home (plus many other places, including more traditional style inns and guest houses) slippers will be provided for wearing in all places, except on tatami flooring where only socks or stockings may be worn. These slippers must not be worn in the toilet, but taken off before entering, and the special slippers found there worn instead. Of course the toilet slippers must be left where they’re found – wearing them through the rest of the house is bound to elicit an expression of revulsion that will perhaps be the strongest showing of emotion a visitor will ever see in Japan.
Some people also won’t wear the same slippers in the kitchen and dining areas, so a woman cooking and serving might constantly remove or change slippers moving to and fro between these areas within the same room.
In the past most footwear in Japan was made of wood with cloth straps, the thong-like geta, or the softer zori, favoured by women. They’re still occasionally worn today, usually with other traditional attire. To the untrained eye this kind of footwear might appear similar, but there are differences, depending on the wearer, their gender and level of affluence.
When staying in or visiting a private home, hot springs, traditional style accommodation, public bath or anywhere that doesn’t have a Western style bathroom, it’s essential to follow the standard Japanese bathing procedure, which comprises two ritualised activities. The first involves washing one’s body thoroughly, some people taking up to fifteen or twenty minutes to complete this task. The second involves a period of time, ranging from lengthy to inordinate, soaking in the bath.
The bathing area of a private residence comprises two adjacent but distinctly separate areas: one where the use of soap, hair shampoo and all washing takes place, the other a bath already full of hot water. Before stepping into the bath, used solely for soaking, all soap must be removed, as it’s quite likely all family members will use the same bath water. As a sign of respect, guests are always invited to have first use of the bath, followed by the father, children with eldest son first, and lastly the mother. Soaking for half an hour or more isn’t uncommon, especially in winter.
Communal bathing is common and popular in Japan, both at places of accommodation, such as hot springs (onsen), and public bathing centres (sento). The vast majority (but not all) of these are gender segregated. In places of accommodation most guests firstly change in their room into the traditional Japanese nightwear provided (hanten), and take a small towel with them (oshibori).
On passing through the entrance to the pool, bathers first enter an area for undressing and storing clothing. Naked, but strategically holding the oshibori if modesty so inclines, they then progress to the bathing area, firstly to the row of taps, showers and mirrors where soap and shampoo is provided. Here they will thoroughly wash themselves. Most lather up while sitting on one of the small stools, rinsing by use of a plastic bowl, however the wall-mounted shower handle can be placed at a higher level for those who prefer to stand. Fully washed and rinsed the bather can now enter the water, where the temperature may differ from pool to pool. Japanese men usually take the oshibori with them, some still employing it for modesty purposes, and placing it on their head as they soak.
A much-practised custom in Japan, there are two major gift-giving seasons, in mid-summer (o-chugen) and at year’s end (o-seibo), which are explicitly for the purpose of people with some kind of ongoing obligation to another, to give that person a gift. The recipients might be parents, teachers, distant relatives, and the person who officiated as the go-between at their wedding, nakōdo-san.
During the weeks prior to these occasions, department stores, supermarkets and specialist stores such as liquor outlets display selections of packaged goods used for this purpose. They might be pre-ordered and delivered, or purchased and given in person.
Visitors who come in contact with the local populace on a person-to-person basis, even for a few hours or a day, are likely to receive a gift as a memento of the occasion. In some instances this practice can be rather overwhelming for the recipient, who will probably want to reciprocate, and should do so if possible, in no matter how small a way. If visitors expect to be in this situation, they should take souvenirs or products from their own country when visiting Japan, which of necessity might be small but of use and interest, to be handed out any time an opportunity or need arises.
For the benefit of those travellers with a penchant for giving tea towels, it should be noted the Japanese don’t usually dry their dishes, instead thoroughly rinsing them after washing, then placing them to dry, either naturally on the sideboard, or inside a bench top electrical drying apparatus. Tea towels that exist in Japan are smaller and thinner than in Western countries, as are many other towels. However, this need not detract from the attractiveness of tea towels being received as a gift, because they make ideal table cloths for the small, low level tables found in most Japanese homes.
When a Japanese woman visits a friend or extended family member, the gift will be wrapped in a special kind of square cloth (furoshiki) neatly tied at the top. When people visit each other they always bear a gift, perhaps a box of Japanese cakes (okashi) a selection of or just one kind of fruit, according to the season, or one item of fruit, such as a melon, all of which can be purchased packaged for giving as a gift. This explains the high cost of the best quality fruit seen in a department store or fruit shop, as in most cases it’s purchased for giving away, not consumption. The perceived value of the item, food or otherwise, will be heightened by the status of the place where it was purchased, so it will always be given as packaged and wrapped by the store.