Tokyo: Ten Good Things to Know Before You Go

Japanese tea service in Hama Rikya Garden, Tokyo. Elizabeth von Pier photos.

Here are some of the things I wish I knew before I went to Japan..Now You know!

By Elizabeth von Pier

Washing hands before entering a holy temple in Japan
Washing hands before entering a holy temple in Japan.

I had a lot to learn about proper etiquette in Tokyo, a corner of the world that felt very “foreign” to me. Here are some of the local customs I learned and they served me well.

How to bow upon greeting…

Rather than shaking hands, everyone bows but there are small subtleties in how you do it and the wrong type of bow can be insulting. With your arms down by your side, bend about 25 degrees from the hip, and at the same time bow your head.

How to purify yourself upon entering a shrine…

Typically there is a purifying fountain at the entrance with many long handled dipping spoons.

Fill a spoon with water and pour it over your hands to clean them.

Cup one of your clean hands and pour water into it. Take a sip and clean your mouth, then spit the water out into the trough below.

What traditional wedding garments look like…

Strolling around a temple complex on a Saturday afternoon, you may encounter a wedding party led by a priest. The bride will be in a traditional white gown and a hooded headdress, the groom in a long pleated skirt and black kimono, and the female guests in colorful kimonos.

A Japanese wedding ceremony.
A Japanese wedding ceremony.

The hooded headdress the bride wears is intended to cover her “horns”, symbolizing submission and therefore a happy marriage.

How to make an offering in a shrine…

On your way out of a shrine, make an offering to the deities enshrined there by tossing a five-yen coin into the box, bowing twice, clapping your hands twice, and then bowing again.

How to eat ramen…

Hold the bowl under your chin, put your face close to the bowl, lift the noodles to your mouth with chopsticks and suck as much as possible into your mouth. Do the same with the vegetables and meat, biting the slices of meat into small pieces if necessary.

Finally, lift the bowl to your mouth with both hands and drink the rest of the broth. Slurping noises are appropriate and, in fact, appreciated by the chef.

Vending machines dispense just about anything on Japan's streets.
Vending machines dispense just about anything on Japan’s streets.

How to place an order in a ramen shop…

At the entrance to the shop are “vending machines” which have photographs of the offerings. Various options next to the photos are in Japanese characters and are related to the size of the portion and whether or not you want your meal hot or cold.

Put money into the slot, make your selection, take the printed receipt, and hand it to the chef who then prepares your meal. The wait staff can show you how to use the “vending machines.”

What to expect when buying a gift at the grand old Mitsukoshi department store…

A hard-working Japanese chef in the basement of a train station.
A hard-working Japanese chef in the basement of a train station.

It’s an art, to be sure. There are plenty of attendants available to help you select your gift and then to choose the type of paper, ribbon and box to be used in the wrapping.

You will be seated in a comfortable chair at a little table set up for this purpose.

After a few minutes, the beautifully wrapped gift is delivered in a lovely shopping bag and the clerk escorts you to the elevator, where he will put you into the capable hands of the uniformed elevator operator. There will be lots of bows and “arigatou’s” (“thank you’s”) as you take your leave.

How to drink tea at the tea pavilion in Hama-Rikyu garden…

Remove your shoes at the entrance. You may choose between taking your tea sitting on the tatami mats on the floor inside the pavilion or at the tables on the outside deck. If you go out to the deck, slip on a pair of slippers set out for that purpose.

The entrance to a temple.
The entrance to a temple.

A kimono-clad server will give you a sheet explaining the process. You cut the confection into pieces and eat all of them before drinking the tea because their sweetness enhances the flavor of the tea.

A pagoda in Tokyo.
A pagoda in Tokyo.

Pick up the tea bowl using your right hand, place the bowl in the palm of your left hand, and turn it counterclockwise twice so that the section of the bowl you should drink from is in front of you.

Drink the tea in four or five sips (although the instructions say it is OK if you have to take more than five sips).Use your thumb and forefinger to clean the rim of the cup.

How to ensure good health at a Japanese temple…

Just before you reach the main hall of a temple, there is a large incense cauldron where you stop and fan the smoke and its scent over your body and head.This will ensure good health.

How to navigate the Tokyo subway system when your companion is in a wheelchair…

Sometimes my companion and I had to change trains several times before we reached our destination.

An attendant at the first entrance, finely dressed in a uniform and white gloves, came out of the office where we bought our ticket and, with great authority, paved the way for us through the crowd to the platform where he stopped those about to get on or off the train to make way for us.

A shrine in Japan.
A shrine in Japan.

He then placed a folding ramp between the train and the platform so that I could easily wheel my companion onto the train.

Apparently he also called ahead to the next stations because when we arrived, there was a similarly uniformed attendant who met us at the door of our train, held back the crowds and placed the ramp over the gap for us. It was clear that the entire Tokyo subway system knew that we were on our way!

Elizabeth von PIer

Elizabeth von Pier is a retired banker who loves exploring the world. Articles on her travels have been published in travelmag.co.uk, WAVE Journey, Travel Thru History and hackwriters.com. She lives in Hingham, Massachusetts.

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