First Impressions of Japan

First Impressions of Japan

Below are some observations of what I found unusual or interesting about Japan from my visit there. I hope they entertain you and give you a glimpse of my experience in this wacky and wonderful country! If you’ve been to Japan and want to add anything to this list or share your own stories, please do in the comments section, I’d love to hear about it.

 
• People are really polite and go out of their way to be helpful, to the point where it can even become inconvenient, such as showing you how to get on a train you don’t want or directing you how to take the best photograph.
• If you ask for directions, you will probably be led in person right to your destination.
• Most people are very petite and it is rare to see someone slightly overweight, making it impossible to fit in as large westerners!
• There are vending machines absolutely everywhere, selling every kind of soft drink imaginable as well as beer, cigarettes, chocolate and even cooked food.
• The main train stations are massive, and we got lost more than once whilst trying to find the right exit.
• Each train station has its own little jingle which plays when a train arrives. Lots of these are from well known songs, and some can be quite majestic.
• In rural areas especially, there are lots of cyclists who never use the bike paths and choose to disturb pedestrian walkways. Instead of ringing the bell to ask you to move, they artfully weave in and out of the people who are walking.
• There is matcha tea flavoured everything!
• The toilets range from being very high tech (with self-opening, self-flushing, music playing and rinsing capabilities) to basic squat toilets. Sometimes in one bathroom there is a choice of both to suit what people are most comfortable with.
• Every street is lined with loads of cables and power lines, which make quite impressive silhouettes in the evening.
• Most things, such as shrines, shops and museums, close early around 4 or 5pm outside the city centre, making lazy lay-ins impossible.
• Except for in certain night-life areas, in the evenings the streets are completely silent and barely anyone is around.
• Women dress very fashionably – mostly in loose, plain clothing – and have immaculately clear skin.
• People can smoke in bars and drink on the street, which takes a while getting used to.
• People rarely talk on the train, but often have a nap instead. I also didn’t see anyone eat or drink at the station or on the trains.
• Of all the Japanese manners I learnt before arriving, very few were followed by modern Japanese people, such as not displaying public affection or ordering the same drink in the first round.
• If in doubt, nodding and smiling gets positive feedback in all social interactions even if you can’t say anything other than “sorry”, “please” and “thank you”.
• Despite there being no rubbish bins to be found, the streets are very clean and tidy. Our hosts were strict on waste disposal and it seems to be taken very seriously here.
• The rural landscape consists mainly of forested areas instead of the meadows, farmland and shrubbery of the UK countryside. It is very beautiful.
• People are obsessed with cute animals here since pet ownership isn’t as commonplace – meaning cat, hedgehog and owl cafes are common! However animal welfare for both pets and livestock is questionable…
• Every single temple and castle we visited had been burnt down due to lightning or war and rebuilt.
• Food is either soft, sticky or slimy. Finding hard food in a meal is a rare treasure!
• The Japanese diet relies heavily on rice, which constitutes for the bulk of both savoury and sweet food.
• Zebra crossings alert you that you may walk by playing various bird noises.
• Ponds often have thriving communities of terrapin and koi fish who beg for food by gathering under bridges and opening their mouths.
• You can buy a decent meal out for £7.
• As a hobby or treat, Japanese people hire traditional kimonos and accompanying outfits, and walk around pretty parks and temples in them taking selfies.
• Animals are huge, especially butterflies, wasps, fish, crows and ants. Strangely the cats are still skinny though.
• People seem to be quite pious and often visit shrines and temples to pray. There are all sorts of good luck charms you can buy from shrines to help with love, study, wealth, family and health.
• Nothing is done by halves in Japan, and everything from adverts to shop signs to themed cafes are taken to the extreme by being loud, bold and obvious at all times!

 

Read more about my travel experiences such as what you come to appreciate living in Cambodia, or Misa’s story of starting a business as a young Cambodian woman in rural Battambang.

 

Thanks for reading!

A Guide to Modern British Manners

A Guide to Modern British Manners

British etiquette is often difficult to understand and put into practise for people who have not spent long in Britain (and for a good portion of the British population too). However, being polite is important in any culture to communicate properly and to be able to get what you want without hassle. Although these manners are flexible and do not apply in more informal situations, they are still worth knowing for this reason.

I have written what I consider to be the important rules of politeness below. Hope you enjoy and feel free to give me your take on what British manners are in the comments below!

The Three Golden Rules

• Say the magic words. If you ask for anything, say “please”. If anyone gives you anything at all, whether it is your change, a cup of tea or a car, you must always say “thank you”. In British culture, you cannot say thank you too many times. Ideally you should be saying it before, during and after someone gives you something in order for the message to fully get across.
• Apologise. British people will apologise for the smallest thing, including for apologising too much. Sometimes, you say sorry not to acknowledge your own mistakes, but to acknowledge that someone else’s mistake is okay. For example if someone treads on your foot, you should say “sorry” to communicate “I acknowledge that you didn’t mean to hurt my toe, and I’m fine with that”.
• Don’t make a scene. Staying respectful and calm is an important part of fitting into British culture. People often comment that British people are more reserved than other cultures, and that’s mainly because talking loudly, squealing with laughter or arguing in public is seen as inconsiderate in the UK since it can bother other people around you.

Out and About

• Do not stare at people…unless you are having a conversation with them, in which case you should make eye contact when they are speaking.
• It is considered extremely rude to spit on the street, cough up phlegm, cough or sneeze on someone, and otherwise do something which could create mess or spread germs in public. Overall, personal hygiene is considered very important in Britain and being clean and presentable in public is essential to fit in.
• When on public transport with few seats left, it is polite to offer your seat to elderly people, or people with wheelchairs or babies, who would benefit from the seat more.
• It is polite to make room for other people. Being aware of your surroundings, and allowing for people to get passed you, is key to being the perfectly mannered person. For example, it is considered kind to hold the door for someone, to let other cars waiting at a junction onto the road, and to allow people to queue in front of you if their needs are greater than yours. Even the most subtle of movements to give other people more room will be noticed and appreciated by most British people!

How to treat strangers differs in different places in Britain – for example in the south strangers will rarely strike up a conversation with each other, whereas in the north chatting to people you don’t know on public transport is quite common. People in the countryside are also much friendlier than in cities. If you’re unsure, smile at someone and say hello, and allow them to make the next move.

Eating

Often these rules aren’t followed, especially when eating with peers. However if you’re in a fancy restaurant or with people you want to impress, sticking to these guidelines means you can’t go wrong:
• Use a knife in your right hand and a fork in your left for main meals, and a spoon in your right hand for pudding.
• Make as little noise as possible whilst eating, because is extremely annoying to British people when they can hear someone chew!
• Eat with your mouth closed. No-one wants to see your food after it has left your plate.
• Keep your elbows off the table (quite an old fashioned rule, but some people still follow it).
• When eating out, always try and pay for your meal. If someone offers to pay for your food, it is customary to have some back and forth conversation saying “I’ll pay”, “no don’t be silly”, “no I insist”, “well I am happy to contribute” etc. before someone submits. This is because often British people will offer to pay for someone else’s meal out of instinct when they don’t actually want to – this dialogue is essential for figuring out whether they are making a genuine offer or not.
• Get the waiters’ attention my making eye contact – not by waving your hand around. In Britain it is polite and expected to treat restaurant staff as equals, not as servants.
• Tipping. It is not essential to tip in the UK, although if you’re eating in a nice restaurant it is polite to give the waiter / waitress 10% of your meal price, which is usually a pound or two per person. If you are eating out around the Christmas period, it is nice to tip more, since these people are giving up their holidays to earn money.

Visiting Someone’s Home

Adults in Britain will often socialise by going to each others’ houses during an evening and having a meal there. I’m pretty sure that this kind of thing will apply to most cultures, but here’s a few tips for what to do in this situation in Britain:
• Bring something to the table. It is customary to bring a small gift for the host when visiting someone’s house. A good gift is food or drink that you can share around during the event, for example a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates. Note: the host will probably have cooked a dinner, so don’t bring something which would affect the main course.
• Take your shoes off when you’ve entered the house.
• Compliment their home – this is a natural kind thing to do when entering someone’s home, although the compliment obviously has to be genuine.
• Engage in conversation (don’t look at your phone for long periods of time).
• Help to clear the table, and if you’re feeling particularly polite offer to do the dishes.
• Don’t overstay your welcome. You have to realise that the host can’t go to bed before you leave! Don’t stay too late, and look out for clues that the host is tired or is hinting for you to leave.

General last pointers

• Never insult anyone. It is extremely rude and inconsiderate to point out someone’s flaws both to their face or behind their back in Britain. For example, you should never call someone fat, ugly, annoying or boring. British people are quite sensitive and will take these things very personally. Of course people still do insult others, but it is generally considered petty.
• Don’t ask personal questions. If you don’t know someone very well, don’t ask things such as what their age is, how much they weigh, how much they earn, or their opinions on politics. When you’re friends with someone, naturally the closer you are the more you share this kind of information.
• Listen during conversations. Don’t interrupt what someone’s saying, and ask the person you’re talking to questions, or as some people call it “passing the ball in conversation”. To talk about yourself for long periods of time if considered bad etiquette in British culture.

British manners, like in most cultures, comes from a combination of tradition, old superstitions and consideration for other people around you. They are not set in stone and are adapting all the time.

Please comment below if you think of any more manners to add to the list!

If you like learning about my take on manners, read the article I made on Cambodian Table Manners! If you want to read more about my thoughts on culture, I have written a few articles including one discussing selfie culture and its roots in Are Selfies Bad? and about cultural stereotyping in Susceptibility to Single Stories.

Thanks for reading.

Daily Customs in Cambodia

An introduction to the manners and etiquette that you will encounter often in Cambodia, so that you can communicate with the people easier and without sticky misunderstandings!

The Formal Hello / Goodbye

This is appropriate when meeting anyone respected, especially if it is a formal meeting, or if you are interrupting something they are doing. The correct greeting is saying “chum reap sue” for hello, accompanied with putting your hands together as though in prayer, smiling and inclining your head.

The height your hands depends on the person you’re talking to: for your equal or someone younger you put your hands in front of your chest, for someone older you press your fingertips to your chin, for your mother and father your fingers to your lips, a monk your fingers on the bridge of your nose, and to the gods the heel of your hand should rest on your forehead. The same applies for goodbye, except you say “chum reap lear” instead. If in doubt of their age, fingers to the chin is respectful.

However perfectly you greet someone however, you should prepare to be laughed at because your pronunciation will be so cute to the person you are talking to.

The Touch Barrier

You must not touch anyone of the opposite sex except in rare circumstances. This includes holding your hand out to help them up, patting them on the back, putting your arm around them in photos, and hugging. It’s a hard habit to get out of since in the UK we are used to touching our friends, but it will give the wrong impression if you do!

Same-Sex Interaction

Although the touch barrier is so strict among men and women, it is the opposite when it comes to someone of your own gender. Friends will link arms, put their arms around each other, lean on each other whilst talking and put their hands on someone’s shoulder or knee – especially men. This can be a little uncomfortable to people from the UK who aren’t used to so much contact, but after a while you understand it as a sign of friendship.

Shoes Off

Most popular in Cambodia wear flip-flops or sandals, and as well as keeping your feet cool it also makes it easier when it comes to shoe etiquette. It is impolite to wear shoes indoors and most people will expect you to take them off before you go inside, even in the outhouse. (Usually toilets will have a pair of flip-flops for everyone to use inside the room due to this rule.) The exceptions are restaurants and most shops, but be careful to check before stepping inside for shoes outside the door in case the rule still applies.

Hands

It is rude to use your left hand when giving people things as, due to washing with water after using the toilet, it is considered unclean. Some Khmer will, but you will see a noticeable difference in their response when you give people money with your right hand, and even more when using both hands, which is very polite. You should always give and receive gifts with both hands.

Thank You

People in Cambodia rarely say thank you, and at first it can be a bit surprising and offensive to people from a culture where “thank you” is given for anything from a cup of tea to receiving change. Nevertheless it is still the most useful word you will learn in any language, including Khmer. “Arkun” is what we are told means thank you, but it actually translates as an informal “cheers” kind of meaning. If you want to say it with meaning, e.g. if someone has shown you kindness, adding “juran” to the end will show your gratitude.

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The Bamboo Bridge at Kompong Cham

Invitations

If you are ever invited to eat someone’s food or join a party, you should always accept the invitation as it is very rude to say no, unlike in British culture. Unless you have a pressing engagement, you should stay and eat. This may be because it can take all day to cook a meal and no-one wants their efforts to be in vain! If you aren’t hungry, eating a little is acceptable and you are free to leave when you like after the meal.

Modesty Rules

Most Cambodian people are accustom to tourists and their tendency to not wear much clothing. However, in Khmer culture it is still very inappropriate for people to wear revealing clothes, especially women. If you want to work with people in the local community and be respected, it is important to cover your shoulders, chest and legs to below the knee. In the cities wearing skimpy clothing is more accepted, but in the rural areas people who do may be criticised and given unwanted attention. When thinking about your dress sense, you should consider whether you want to be seen as a tourist or instead be accepted into the community you are staying in at the expense of a nice tan.

Body Language

Body language and tone of voice is an important factor in politeness in Cambodia. For example, you must signal people to come with your palm facing downwards because gesturing with your palm up signals aggression. Whistling is rude, as is standing with your hands on your hips. When talking to people, speaking with a quiet, soft voice and smiling is very polite, whereas raising your voice, making quick hand gestures or having an angry expression is considered very inappropriate and even shameful. If you want co-operation, speaking softly is the key!

British Customs

As well as there being lots of manners in Cambodia that are useful to learn, it is also good to familiarise yourself with the customs that we are used to which do not apply here. One thing is that people in Cambodia often chew with their mouth open, and very loudly, which is very rude in British culture and takes a while to get used to. Men especially spit a lot, and children will sometimes wee in their yard or next to the dinner table, men outside the bathroom even if the toilet is vacant.

On the other hand, strangers will approach you and strike up conversation, which is inappropriate in parts of Britain but very comforting when faced with an alien world of new customs where you are often the center of attention.

 

If you want to learn about the basics of good Cambodian table manners, you can see my previous blog post on it here.