How to Bow: Degrees of Japanese Bowing

How to Bow: Degrees of Japanese Bowing

I don’t think I ever bowed before coming to Japan, but it’s such a huge thing in Japan. I mean, it’s one of the biggest aspects of the Japanese culture. Because there’s so much emphasis on respect, bowing is one of the main ways to convey that. 

Now, I bow practically every day, whether it’s a slight nod to the staff member or an apologetic one to a passerby. There are a few types of bows in Japanese culture and they’re used for various purposes. For travellers and those planning to live in Japan alike, it’s best to know what they are and understand the nuances behind them.

In this article, we’re going to look at what to note when it comes to bowing in Japanese culture, and the three types of bows you can encounter!

Bowing in Japan

Japanese lady bowing in front of her house with beautiful kimono. traditional lifestyle in jp. attractive woman with colorful kimono clothing in summer.

Bowing, known as ojigi (お辞儀) in Japanese, is not only a Japanese body language but it’s a crucial part of Japanese etiquette. Regardless of the occasion, both formal and informal settings, you have to bow and prepare to be bowed to. Depending on the situation, bowing can represent a couple of different things – greetings, gratitude and apologies are just to name a few.

There are a couple of things you should note about bowing. The first of them all is that this simple ritual should not be rushed. You can’t just walk and bow – it’s not really something you can do on-the-go. It’s considered rude if you do that and it’s best to stop before bowing. 

When you do bow, be careful of your posture. A relaxed and casual one can be misunderstood as disrespectful or lack in interest. Try not to put more weight on one foot than the other or try to look forward at the person when you bow. Keep your arms in your pockets, behind your back, on your lap or with palms at the heart level together. Never have your arms hang lifelessly or crossed in front of your chest. Clenching of fists is also a strict no-no – you’re kind of telling the other person that you’re suppressing anger if you do that.

The last thing to note is that, when you are bowing, don’t talk. Conversation is not particularly acceptable when you bow. Surely, you can wait till your back is straightened up to continue your conversation.

As we briefly mentioned, there are three types of bowing and the varying degrees have different meanings. Let’s take a look at them.

3d rendering. black flat color business men take a bow as apologize level of Japanese culture concept.

15º Bow

A 15º bow, also known as eshaku (会釈), is when you’re slightly bowing. It’s kind of like a nod but rather than just doing with your head, you’re also moving your upper body. This kind of bowing translates to a casual greeting or salutation, and is used more informally than others like when you’re passing by someone at work or school as a casual greeting. 

Eshaku can sometimes be used as an apology, too. The whole idea of this type of bow is that it’s extremely casual. You don’t use this as a normal type of greeting bow. You do see this being used in formal and business settings, but it usually follows a proper greeting as repetition. 

To do this bow, you tilt forward of about 15º from your normal posture. I know we mentioned previously that it’s not okay to look at a person when you bow, but in eshaku, you maintain visual contact with the person you’re greeting. It’s better to have your hands together in front of you but it’s also fine if you don’t. 

30º Bow

This next type of bow requires you to tilt your upper body and head to a 30º angle. Also known as keirei (敬礼), this bow translates to a respectful salutation and is used in formal settings to greet, thank or apologise to someone. When you need to communicate with someone respectfully, like a client, customer or boss, this is a gesture of respect in Japanese body language.

Unlike the previous type of bow, you don’t look at the person you’re bowing to – you look at the floor. Your arms should be kept at the sides of your body, front or back of the body in a respectful manner of covering one hand over the other. Make sure your back is straight and you’re not just tilting your head. 

Keirei is used by staff members when they greet and bid farewell to customers at a shop or hotel. You’ll commonly see this type of bow when businessmen are thanking or apologising to their clients or higher-ups.

45º Bow

The most extreme bow of them all is the saikeirei (最敬礼): the 45º bow. On some occasions, it can be up to 60º! This type of bow is the most respectful salutation which can also be used to project deepest regrets in an apology. 

If you’ve done something extremely bad at work, quickly stand up straight and then tilt your upper body to a 45º angle while keeping your head down. Make sure your hands are at your sides when you do this. Saikeirei is a formal style of bowing you most often see and do in a business setting. 

I have to admit – I do see some people bow all the way down to a 90º angle. And a lot of the time, they’re on the phone on the streets and still bowing even though the other person couldn’t see them. They must be sincerely sorry for what they have done.

Bowing is such an important custom in Japan, and practicing it while in the country is the best way to understand this tradition. You’re not only visually showing your respect for the person you’re bowing to, but you’re also deepening your comprehension of this characteristic of the Japanese culture. So, the next time you messed up at work, go all out with the saiekeirei to your boss!

16 Weird and Strange Japanese Culture Facts

16 Weird and Strange Japanese Culture Facts

Interesting is an underrated way to describe Japanese culture. We all know it’s a rich culture full of customs and beliefs far different from ours. No matter how much we read up on it, there’s always going to be another fact popping up that we didn’t know about before.

And among these cultural facts, there’s a fair share of them that can be considered weird and strange. If you’ve visited Japan, you would’ve experienced some things that are just uniquely Japanese. Here, we’re going to look at 16 weird and strange cultural facts of the Japanese culture.

1. Vending machines in Japan sell adult toys 

Vending machines are big in Japan. There are about 5 million of them in Japan alone! While the most common product offered at these vending machines is beverages, don’t be surprised if you come across ones offering unusual products…like adult toys. 

When the first adult toy vending machine opened in Sapporo City in Hokkaido, the news went viral. Nowadays, it’s not as uncommon as when it first popped up. There are even gachapons (ガチャポン) similar to these vending machines. Walk down the streets of Shibuya and you’ll see a few amongst the cartoon keychains and souvenir ones.

2. Kids had epileptic seizures from a Pokemon episode

Pokemon was big in a lot of people’s childhoods. This well-loved anime series is not only popular in Japan but also internationally. Before the show made it to the US, back in 1997, an episode of Pokemon induced epileptic seizures in 685 children. They were rushed to hospitals all around Japan. 

The episode is called Dennō Senshi Porygon. It had intense flashing red and blue strobe lights that went at a rate of 12 flashes per second. These lighting effects are more common in older anime. However, it went on for almost 6 seconds, long enough to trigger photosensitive epilepsy in some children. There were reports of other kids experiencing milder symptoms like temporary blindness, seizures and nausea. 

3. Phones made in Japan are waterproof

Credit: Crystal Jo on Unsplash

If you’ve bought a phone in Japan before, the first thing you’d notice is that the shutter sound for taking photos can’t be turned off. That’s a unique feature only in Japan. Another one is that almost all phones sold here are waterproof. This has been the case for over a decade now.

Some people link this to the bathing culture in Japan. It’s common for Japanese people to soak in bathtubs after a long day’s work and use their phones while at it. The waterproof function might be just in case phones slip into the water.

4. Indoor smoking is made illegal only recently

Credit: Julian Lozano on Unsplash

Not too long ago, smoking indoors was quite the norm. Whether it was in a cafe, bar or restaurant, there were designated areas for smokers (kitsuen, 喫煙). This was a huge part of Japanese culture.

In April 2020, there was a ban on smoking indoors going around in Japan, starting with a city-wide ban in Tokyo. The response has been 50-50. Some are against it as they claim it’s part of their culture, and others strongly support this decision to increase non-smoking areas.

5. Before 2015, late-night dancing was illegal

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Japan’s capital city Tokyo is known for its entertaining late-night nightlife in bars, pubs and clubs. Little did you know that, not too long ago, late-night dancing was made illegal. Before 2015, you’re not allowed to dance in areas that didn’t have a dance license past midnight. 

This was imposed after World War II to regular prostitution since dance halls were popular destinations for that. In the early 21st century, there was a spike in celebrity-related drug busts. There was a reinforcement of the ban then.  
Now, you’re allowed to dance till the sun comes up. There’s new legislation which allows clubs to operate 24 hours. Clubss are able to do that as long as they have brighter lighting than 10 lux. 

6. There are more adult diapers sold than baby diapers

Credit: DLKR Life on Unsplash

Japan’s facing a rapidly ageing population. More than a quarter of the country’s population is over the age of 65. Birth rates are at an ultimate low. Research shows that the production of adult diapers is more than baby diapers. The ageing population is likely the cause for this. 

7. There’s a festival dedicated to the phallus

Credit: Takanori on Flickr Creative Commons

Japanese people will never say no to a festival. There’s probably a festival every other weekend throughout the year. There’s even a festival for the phallus, called Kanamara Matsuri (かなまら祭り). This literally translates to “Festival of the Steel Phallus”. Everything in the festival is shaped as the phallus, from floats to snacks. This Shinto festival is celebrated in Kawasaki City on the first Sunday of April every year. 

An old Shinto legend has it that a demon hid in the private parts of a goddess. The demon bit off two of her suitor’s phallus on their wedding night. Because of those incidents, a blacksmith created an iron phallus that broke the demon’s teeth. 

The shrine associated with this festival is a haven for prostitutes and those suffering from STDs. They seek protection and pray here. Others also pray for marriage and fertility. Nowadays, this festival is an LGBTQ-friendly event that promotes inclusiveness. Money that’s raised from this festival is donated to HIV research. 

8. Sumos compete to make the other baby cry first

Credit: Maria del Carmen Calatrava on Flickr Creative Commons

Most of us know about sumo wrestling. But do you know about sumos carrying babies and trying to make their opponent’s baby cry first? This festival is called Naki Sumo Baby Crying Festival. This 400-year-old occasion takes place every April in Sensoji Temple, Tokyo. 

Parents bring their children to the festival and sumos will carry them on stage and make them cry by making scary faces, yelling or wearing a scary mask. It’s believed that making a baby wail can chase off demons lurking around. Some believe that the best crier is blessed with a healthy, long life. 

9. A lot more paper is used to print manga than make toilet paper

Credit: Miika Laaksonen on Unsplash

The Japanese comic (manga, 漫画) is, without a doubt, extremely popular in Japan. It’s used as comic strips in magazines back in the Meiji Era to encourage literacy in the youngsters. Because of the extreme use, they’re printed more than toilet papers are made. The hi-tech, futuristic bidet toilets also play a part in the lack of toilet paper usage. 

10. The original geishas were men

Credit: Jie on Unsplash

Whether you’ve been to the ancient capital city Kyoto or seen pictures of it, you’ve definitely heard of geisha (芸者). A geisha is a refined woman with skilled in the traditional Japanese performing arts. They’re usually pictures of dolled-up Japanese ladies dressed in luxurious kimono (着物).

But did you know that the original geishas weren’t women; they were men. Taikomochi (太鼓持) were male entertainers who performed for feudal lords in the 1730s. They’re like the jesters of the West. 8 years later women would emerge as “odoriko” (踊り子) and shamisen players. It wasn’t until 1751 that female geishas became the talk of the people. 

11. Crooked teeth are cute

Credit: Alli Stancil on Flickr Creative Commons

Some of us have spent thousands of dollars on braces and dental care to get our teeth straightened. For the Japanese, they wouldn’t do that. Because crooked teeth are considered cute among people. While it’s always been the case, it’s becoming a big trend recently.

In fact, some dental clinics in Japan are offering their customers a crooked smile. This involves glueing artificial (or permanent) canines to the customer’s real teeth.

12. Adult adoption

It’s the norm to adopt kids when they’re young, but in Japan, it’s the opposite. Adopting adults is a bigger practice than adopting kids, and it’s common in families with no children. This usually happens when a Japanese family needs an heir for their business or fortune. 

Sometimes, this is also used as an alternative to the illegalisation of same-sex marriage. 

13. Japanese students clean their own classrooms

Credit: Sara on Fickr Creative Commons

Having janitors and cleaners at school is common in most countries. In Japan, these aren’t jobs offered in high school and universities. The school students are the ones that take on the role. Japanese students clean their own classrooms as part of their school day. This also includes bathrooms, hallways and other public facilities.

14. Social withdrawal is common among Japanese

Credit: Annie Spratt on Unsplash

There are approximately 700,000 Japanese people that live in social isolation. This is known as hikikomori (引きこもり) in Japanese. Adults are still living in their parent’s house or their own houses, but don’t go to work or hang out with friends. 

It’s said that some people can be socially withdrawn for up to 20 years. The most common cause of hikikomori is the high expectations of Japanese society. 

15. The number 4 is unlucky

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In Japanese, the number 4 is pronounced as “shi” which is the same as the Japanese word for “death” (死). It’s considered as an unlucky number. Some other countries in Asia also have similar beliefs. If you can’t find floor number 4 in apartment buildings, hotels and malls, don’t be surprised. This is probably the reason why.

16. Black cats are lucky

Credit: Mark Richards on Flickr Creative Commons

Contrary to popular belief, black cats are lucky according to the Japanese. In Japanese culture, instead of bringing bad luck, black cats bring good luck. You’ll see them in the shape of the beckoning cat, or known as maneki neko (招き猫). They’re believed to bring wealth and prosperity. 

Which fact is the weirdest? 

Just as how it is enriching, Japanese culture can also be pretty strange. Which one of these 16 cultural facts did you find the weirdest? There’s always something new you can learn about a culture, whether it’s an enlightening one or one that makes you think twice. 

8 Body Gestures You Should Know When in Japan!

8 Body Gestures You Should Know When in Japan!

If you don’t know it yet, Japan is a high context culture. This means the people rely on unspoken words and mutual understanding when communicating. If you’re just starting your life in Japan or just learning about Japanese culture, it can get quite confusing. Don’t worry, there area few common body gestures to start you off.

They’re not your average body gestures that we know. Sometimes, Japanese body gestures can be quite foreign to the rest of us. So save yourself the miscommunication and learn about the top 8 most common ones you should know while learning Japanese!

1. X Signs

x with arms

This first one is most commonly used to avoid misunderstandings between locals and foreigners. There are a few X signs in Japanese body language. The first one is when the X figure is created using arms. Usually, the arms are crossed in front of the body to get a big giant X. This means “no” and letting you know that something is not allowed. If a guard walks up to you and gives you this X sign with his arms, he’s probably letting you know that you can’t go in somewhere.

x with fingers

The second type of X sign is a small X figure using the fingers. This isn’t a subtle way to say no. In fact, this has a whole new meaning. This small X sign is actually asking for the bill. So if you’re trying to get your waiter’s attention for the check, give them this small X sign.

2. O Signs

arms overhead

This next one is the O sign. Similar to the X sign, there are two types of O signs. The first one is using the arms. The arms are shaped in the O figure over the head, linking to each other. This translates to approval. If that guard gives you this O sign instead of the X sign, he’s saying you’re allowed in somewhere.

circle with one hand

The second O sign is using the fingers. You guessed it – it’s not a subtle way to say okay. If you join your thumb with other fingers to make the O figure, you’re gesturing the word “money”.

3. Arms Folded

older woman folding arms at table

This next body gesture is one more familiar to us, but with a different meaning. Sometimes, during work meetings, you might see your clients or higher ups having their arms folded. Don’t worry, they’re not disinterested. It’s the opposite meaning. They’re so interested that they’re thinking long and hard about something. So if you see someone crossing their arms when you’re talking to them, they’re not being rude. They’re just thinking.  

4. Hand Behind the Head

Portrait of funny puzzled perplexed man holding hand behind head

The hand behind the head has a few different interpretations. You’ve probably seen it if you’ve watched anime or Japanese drama. Some understand it as a way to say no, some understand it as a reaction to embarrassment. If you’ve done something embarrassing and someone caught you doing it, it’s a natural reaction to have one hand behind the head. Like, “oops, I tripped”.

In another situation where this body language is used is if someone wants to say no, but is too polite to. If your friend isn’t free on the day you ask them out, they might have this body gesture while saying “um” or “chotto…”

5. Nose-pointing

touching nose

In Japanese culture, pointing is considered rude. You shouldn’t point at others, but you can point at places and objects. You can point to yourself, but this is where the Japanese body gesture comes in. To point to yourself, you point to your nose. Kick that habit of pointing to your chest when referring to yourself and point to your nose when you’re in Japan!

6. Palms Together

praying hands with dirt under nails

If you’ve been to temples and shrines in Japan, you’ve probably seen this body gesture. This is a common one: palms pressed together in front of the chest. It’s kind of like a praying position. When Japanese people are praying at temples and shrines, they’ll do this gesture. But it also has another meaning: asking for help. If someone wants to ask for your help, they would do this gesture along with saying “please” or “onegaishimasu” (お願いします).

One some occasions, this can be used together with an apology to express your sincerity.

7. The Waving Hand

Manekineko

One hand gesture that’s pretty unique to Japanese culture is a wave with the palm faced downwards and moving back and forth. It’s kind of like the beckoning cat (maneki neko, 招き猫). If someone does this gesture to you, it’s not to shoo you away. Rather, it’s beckoning you to come closer.

If someone’s doing the same waving motion but with their hand moving up and down in front of their face, like as if they’ve smelt something bad, the meaning changes. This is another way of saying no, but more for declining a compliment. If you compliment your Japanese pal and she goes “sonna koto nai” (そんなことない), this gesture will usually accompany it.

8. The Chopping Hand

Woman with her hand up

Don’t be surprised if a stranger starts chopping the air with their hands. This is a way of saying “excuse me, I’m coming through”. The most common example is when you’re in a crowded train, and someone wants to get off. They’ll place their chopping hand (the palm facing the side) in front of them to make their way through the crowd.

Sometimes, the chopping hand can be used to interrupt a conversation.

I have friends who would interrupt a conversation with this exact motion – I’ll be talking with another person and someone would come in between us, chopping the air and pause, before continuing to join the conversation. 

Now you’re 8 gestures closer to fully understanding the high context culture of Japan. The thing is, if you really don’t know what your Japanese friend is trying to say, just ask! There’s definitely no harm in asking for an explanation, but it might be riskier to assume what they’re trying to say.

10 Japanese Culture Facts That Will Blow Your Mind

10 Japanese Culture Facts That Will Blow Your Mind

Japan has such a unique culture. Even after over a century of opening the country up to the rest of the world, there are still some aspects of Japanese culture that are still intriguing to the rest of the world. Culture holds a strong significance in Japan’s identity, and that’s what makes the country so great.

Whether you’ve travelled to this island nation or not, there are always a few culture facts you’ve missed out. Here are 10 Japanese culture facts that will blow your mind! 

1. Gambling is illegal

Sorry, gamblers, but gambling is illegal here in Japan! Or at least most forms of gambling are. There are a few exceptions to this law and that includes betting on horse racing and specific motorsports. Public sports, lottery and football betting are possible, but they are under a different set of special laws. 

But there’s a bright side: pachinko. This game is similar to gambling, but it’s not officially gambling. Pachinko is a type of pinball-like slot machine. You buy the balls, slot them into the machine, and the balls you win can be exchanged for tokens and prizes. Those can be exchanged for money.  Pachinko itself has a very shady feel in popular media that makes it equated to playing the slot machines and other things that feed addicition.

However, since 2018, casino operators have been bidding for legal licenses to operate in some of Japan’s resorts. So, gambling could be expanding in Japan in the near future.

2. People are paid to push others into trains

Credit: Marcus Shenn on Flickr Creative Commons

This is one Japanese culture fact that I had the (dis)pleasure of experiencing. During rush hours, the train platforms (電車ホーム)get jam-packed with commuters. More than half of Tokyo’s population uses public transportation, and this city is the most populated in the world! Trains operate more than 100% overcapacity.

So instead of increasing the frequency of trains, the city hires people to push other people into the trains! You’re packed like sardines in a can.

3. Slurping is polite

I’ve been taught that making any noise when eating is rude. In Japan, it’s the opposite when it comes to slurping your noodles. In fact, you’re actually encouraged. When you slurp your noodles in Japan, it’s a sign that you’re enjoying your dish. This is seen as a way to compliment the cook. 

Back in the day, Japanese people slurp their noodles so that they can eat their noodles while it’s still hot. You can still savour the flavours without wasting any time. Over time, it’s become a crucial dining etiquette in Japanese culture.

4. Eating alone is common

In a lot of countries, eating alone inside or outside might get you some strange looks. In Japan, it’s completely normal. It’s common to eat alone. In fact, it’s so common that a number of restaurants in Japan offer single-seating areas like at the counter or just a table for one. I think I’ve benefited from this Japanese culture fact. Now, I don’t mind eating alone. I actually enjoy it!

5. Entrance slippers are a sign to take off your shoes

Credit: Magalie L’Abbe on Flickr Creative Commons

In some countries, wearing your shoes into the house is acceptable. In Japan, it’s a big no-no. Never wear your outdoor shoes into homes, regardless of whose home you’re entering. In some public areas, you’re required to take off your shoes, too.

In that case, keep a lookout for slippers at the entrance. If you’re going to places like temples, shrines, restaurants and ryokans (旅館), there’s a chance you have to take them off. Leave your outdoor shoes at the entryway, which is usually the space before the step above to the grounds of the building. 

6. You are a year older based on the traditional Japanese age system

A Japanese culture fact that I found interesting is that everyone is a year older when they’re born. This is known as kazoedoshi (数え年), which means “counted years”. You age a year older on New Year’s Day. This traditional system was still commonly used until the 1950s, when the modern age system (manenrei, 満年齢) was adopted by more people.

The manenrei law was actually passed in 1902, but the traditional age system was so common for decades past that!

7. You can’t be fat

Credit: Adrian Clark on Flickr Creative Commons

Some say it’s a myth, but it’s actually a Japanese culture fact. Despite having overweight sumo wrestlers in Japan, it’s not encouraged for others to be fat. In 2008, there was a law that passed called the Metabo Law, which is aimed to reduce the obesity rate and other metabolic disorders in the country.

People between the ages of 40 and 74 have their waist sizes measured annually. But contrary to that, there’s no legal punishment for being overweight, just suggestions from their physical to seek medical attention about potential obesity.

If your measurements are not below 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women (between the ages of 40 and 74), then you’ll be referred on for “lifestyle intervention”. This is where you’ll get advice from professionals regarding nutritional diet and exercise. So you won’t be fined for being fat. You’ll just have to live a healthier lifestyle. 

Even though it’s a very restrictive and appearance based judgement, celebrities and others have combated fat shaming and promoted healthy body acceptance in recent years and progress is being made.

8. Eating, drinking and smoking while walking is rude

I admit I’m one to go against this culture fact every now and then. It’s quite normal to be sipping coffee while walking, or munching on a bag of nuts. In Japan, walking while eating or drinking is considered rude and discouraged.

It’s seen as low-class behavior. If you buy a drink from a vending machine or a snack from the konbini (コンビニ), you’re expected to stand nearby the machine or store and finish your food. 

It’s the same with smoking. Nowadays, there are designated smoking areas in public spaces, so if you’re in need of a puff, look out for markings on the floor for them.

9. Christmas is a romantic holiday

Tow people's feet with Christmas socks.

Christmas isn’t as huge in Japan as it is in other Western countries. In Japan, only 2% of the population are Christians. However, the Japanese do celebrate this holiday with decorations and events, but it’s more of a romantic holiday. 

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are reserved for couples to have a date night, fancy dinner and giving special gifts to each other. It’s kind of like Valentine’s Day.

10. Taking power naps on the job is encouraged

A man napping at this desk at work.
Credit: Ron Reiring on Flickr Creative Commons

I know for many that if they were to fall asleep at their jobs, they’d get fired. In Japan, it’s okay to take a power nap or two in between work. This is a Japanese culture fact that’s new to a lot of us, isn’t it? Naps are encouraged because the Japanese believe that this can improve your work performance and speed. It’s also a sign that you’ve been working hard!

Which Japanese culture fact is most surprising? 

So, which of these Japanese culture facts surprised you the most? Which ones are you most excited to witness or experience for yourself? Japanese culture defines Japan. It’s amazing to see a few of them from centuries or decades past still being practiced to this day. As you learn the language your understanding of Japanese culture will come naturally. Get a subscription for Nihongo Master and start your journey to Japanese fluency today!

Learn Japanese Now! Here are 7 Awesome Reasons.

Learn Japanese Now! Here are 7 Awesome Reasons.

Have you ever found yourself wanting to learn Japanese? You’re not alone. By learning a new language you can also get a glimpse at the culture behind the language. Without the ability to communicate, you can never understand a culture on its own terms. Discovering and learning about Japanese language and culture is easier now than ever thanks to Nihongo Master. Learning a new language is a logical step to expand our own horizons. There are lots of reasons to learn Japanese. Let’s find out why.

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The Art of Washoku

The Art of Washoku

Introduction

Who doesn’t love food? We all love food — whether it’s a specific type of cuisine or you just love to eat. The Japanese cuisine has boomed internationally and is now one of the most popular types in the world! Ramen and sushi, anyone?

Washoku (Japanese cuisine) is not just the noodles and seaweed rolls that we all know — there are principles that make them what they are. And if you don’t already know, there are various traditional Japanese cuisine that uphold these principles strongly to this very day.

So what are these principles and traditional washoku types? Read on to find out!

What is “washoku”?

So, what exactly is washoku (和食)? Well, let’s break down the kanji, shall we? The “wa” () has the meaning of “harmony” and also “Japan” — you would already know this if you have read our article “The Various Names of Japan”. The “shoku” () refers to “food”. So, both kanjis combined literally means “Japanese food”.

A brief background on how the word came about: Japanese cuisine wasn’t always called “washoku”, as the term only came about in the Meiji Period (1868-1912). Before the time, there wasn’t any other types of cuisine, so Japanese cuisine was the norm. The Meiji Period was the time the Westernisation happened, so the introduction to Western cuisines (洋食, youshoku) required the people to identify their own local cuisine — and thus washoku was born.

Principles of Washoku 

Washoku isn’t just a classification for any food that is created in Japan — although, most of them are. There are a few fundamentals that a washoku meal has to abide by. These principles are constant throughout them all, just like how rice is basically the heart of any washoku (or Japanese) meal — it’s a staple piece.

The four main principles of washoku are seasonality, regionality, balance and aesthetics. Let’s take a look at each of them individually.

Seasonality 

The Japanese are very particular about seasons. They pay attention to the changing weather and nature — I mean, they even have holidays based on the mountain and sea (read our Japanese Holidays write-up about them!).

With four very distinct seasons in Japan, they are clearly reflected in the washoku dishes that are served during the time. You’ll generally get root veggies in winter and wild plants in spring. Summer sees the pickled veggies and autumn calls for chestnuts. 

Special washoku dishes like osechi ryori (おせち料理) greets a coming new year and is the special New Year’s meal, complete with various symbolised ingredients. 

 

Regionality

Japan is huge. There are a few islands that make up the mainland, and a few thousands of other islands surrounding it! If you’re curious about all the various types of islands, give our Nihongo Master Podcast a listen — one of the episodes cover the Island Life of Japan!

Anyway, with so many various parts, they each have their own unique way of making a specific dish or using specific ingredients that you can only get from there. So, on top of a general washoku of the nation’s cuisine, regionality plays quite a role. 

You’ll get wonderful crab dishes up north in Hokkaido, because the seafood there is nothing but the best or go down south to the subtropical Okinawa to get your fair share of umibudo (海ぶど), seagrapes that the Okinawa prefecture is known for. And because of that, the ingredient is included in quite a number of other dishes to make their own regional washoku.

Balance 

Another important principle of washoku is balance. Some cuisines rely on enhancing flavours using tons and tons of ingredients. For washoku, it’s all about not overdoing it, but not under-doing it either. It focuses quite a bit on natural flavours and how every dish complements the others.

It’s also not just about flavour, it’s also about the nutrition. There’s a saying of “ichi ju san sai” (一汁三菜), referring to “one soup and three side dishes” — they not only accompany a bowl of rice, but also provide a well-balanced meal with the nutrition we need.

Aesthetics 

Last but not least is the aesthetics. Have you ever noticed how every Japanese meal is served so presentably? If you’ve ever spent some time in Japan, you’ll realise that whenever a waiter serves you your food, every ingredient is displayed in a way that not only grabs your attention but also complements the rest of the stuff on the plate.

Not only that, the Japanese especially pay attention to the tableware they use — and for washoku, more often than not, lacquerware is often the go-to choice. If you want to know more about lacquerware, a traditional Japanese craft with quite a history, give our Nihongo Master Podcast a listen — specifically the episode “The Art Culture of Japan”. 

Traditional Japanese Cuisine

Ramen and sushi aside, does everyone know the traditional kinds of washoku — the ones that date back centuries and with a purpose? If you have, that’s wonderful. If not, this section will be extremely informative and educational to you!

Even though this traditional washoku originated in the early days of Japan, they are still alive to this very day — there are more kaiseki (解析) restaurants than one can count. And let’s not get started on shojin ryori (精進料理) — with such a strong religious hold, there’s no way it’ll go anywhere.

To talk about them is a whole new article on its own — which is exactly what is going to happen. Keep a look out in the next few weeks for an article all about the traditional Japanese cuisine, including the two mentioned earlier!

Conclusion

Who would have thought that a whole nation’s cuisine has a couple of rules that they abide by? I guess every country has some sort of guideline, but most of them are more about what ingredients used rather than what they symbolise. Japan is all about symbolism, aren’t they? Even the food they create means one thing or the other!

Essential Japanese Drama Keywords

Essential Japanese Drama Keywords

Introduction

Don’t lie — you love drama (ドラマ). I mean, everyone loves one specific drama at some point in their lives. For me personally, I’m into every kind of drama, so best believe that Japanese drama is one of them. In fact, Japanese drama was the reason I got into learning Japanese in the first place!

When I was starting out, there were a few Japanese words that struck out — especially the ones that you don’t really learn from the textbooks. These keywords stuck with me, because not only are they repetitive but they are also used pretty often in casual, daily conversations. 

Which brings me to writing this very article: to spread the love of these essential Japanese drama keywords — you can thank me later.

1. Mattaku (まったく)

The first one is something you’ll hear being said both on its own or in a sentence. Those two cases have different meanings. 

If “mattaku” (まったく) is being used as an exclamation or reaction, it has the nuance of a mild curse — kind of like when you say “jeez” under your breath at something your friend said. It’s used the exact same way; let’s say your friend and you agreed to meet at a certain time but she ended up being late, with a load of excuses to boot. Of course, your natural reaction would be shaking your head and letting out a small sigh — “mattaku” fits perfectly with all of that.

Another way of using “mattaku” is to emphasize something. If you want to say someone is not only wrong, but they’re completely wrong, then add “mattaku” before the verb: “mattaku machigatte iru yo!” (まったく間違っているよ!)

2. Mou ii (もういい)

This one also has two ways of using it — one a positive way, the other a negative or neutral way. The first way of using “mou ii” (もういい) is when you’re telling or describing something that is of sufficient level or suitable. For example, if your friend is pouring a cup of water for you and it’s about to reach the level you prefer, simply say “mou ii yo” (もういいよ) to her.

Another way to use this phrase is when you’ve had enough of something — kind of like saying “that’s enough” or “forget it”. Say your sister is annoying you with her whining and you just want to be done with it; use this remark “mou ii” to shut her up. I would do it to my sister, if only she speaks Japanese too.

3. Bikkurishita (びっくりした)

There’s no direct comparison to an English phrase for this one, but “bikkuri shita” (びっくりした) is used when you’re surprised or shocked by something. I guess in English we would have a reaction phrase like “oh my god!” or something of the like — maybe in Japanese, one would scream too. 

But the difference lies after the reaction; in English, it’s not really that common to say out the obvious like, “you scared me” or “I was surprised”, but in Japanese, it’s almost always natural to say “bikkuri shita” right after. While it does translate to “I was surprised”, it’s more of a matter-of-fact saying rather than letting the other person know what has happened. 

4. Jaa ne / mata ne (じゃあね / またね)

There’s more than one way to say goodbye in English — bye, see you, later, etc. So, it’s only fair that there’s also more than one way to say goodbye in Japanese. Two of the most common ones you’ll hear in Japanese drama are “jaa ne” (じゃあね) and “mata ne” (またね)

I mean, you could say “bai bai” (バイバイ) like the katakana version of a “bye bye”, but “jaa ne” and “mata ne” is kind of cooler, I’d say. It’s like “see you later!” — more casual and natural, less…structured?

5. Dame (ダメ)

One word you’ll hear quite often in dramas is “dame” (ダメ). The translation’s pretty simple: no. Well, it doesn’t exactly translate to “no” but it gives off a similar nuance. It’s kind of like saying something’s a no-go, or it’s not good, or you can’t do that. 

If you’re trying to walk down a prohibited path, expect a “dame dame!” from people around you. In my personal opinion, “dame” carries such a strict vibe that if I hear it, I feel like I’m being reprimanded — but it’s just my sensitive self talking, it’s not really like that! 

6. Yabai (やばい)

This one is where it can get quite confusing — the older generation has a different definition from the youngins, but both are correct. 

See, yabai (やばい) actually means “horrible” or “bad”, so the expression “yabai” implies that the thing you’re referring to is not good at all. That is how the older generation looks at this word — they’re not wrong, in fact, they’re technically right.

In the modern generation however, and also when used in dramas, the meaning is completely opposite. When someone exclaims “yabai”, more often than not, it implies that something is so cool! Kind of like when we say something is “the shit” — it’s not shit, it’s so good that it’s the shit.

7. Urusai (うるさい)

Need a phrase that can be a direct or indirect way to tell someone to shut up? “Urusai” (うるさい) is your guy — it translates to “noisy”, but you can use it to tell someone that they’re too noisy they need to tone it down.

If your friend is shouting too loudly in an izakaya while you’re having a few drinks, just say to him “urusai!” to be extremely direct that he needs to be quieter. If a group of people next to you is making a huge ruckus and you just want to say  “they’re noisy”, “urusai” also works for that without actually telling them they are.

8. Ossu (オッス)

You know how you can say bye a few different ways? You can say hello a few different ways too — in fact, if you want to know more ways of saying hello and bye, there are other articles where I’ve listed down the top ways to do so!

Anyway, the one you’ll hear among friends in dramas is “ossu” (オッス). It’s basically “hey” in the most casual way possible. Keep in mind that it’s actually a greeting used by the guys due to its more masculine tone. I’ve never used it myself, but I’ve heard my male friends using them — it sounds cool.

9. Saitei (最低)

Some Japanese dramas are a little more dramatic than others, so you’ll hear them saying “you’re the best” and “you’re the worst” quite often. Even though in English it has quite a heavy tone to it, I guess it’s as bad in Japanese. “Saitei” (最低), which means “the worst” is mentioned quite a few times in the dramas I’ve watched.

So if someone did something horrible to you and it made you upset, I guess you could throw out “saitei” to them — I personally don’t recommend doing it, but it’s great to know especially when it’s always in the dramas.

10. Mukatsuku (ムカつく)

Our last drama keyword is another slang word, and it’s more often used among the younger generation and adults — not so much the oldies. While “mukatsuku” (ムカつく) has the meaning of “irritating” or “annoyed”, when someone tells you this, it’s basically implying that you’re annoying to that person — so I hope no one has said this to you before!

From the dramas that I’ve watched, “mukatsuku” is usually said under the breath, not so much face-to-face. I reckon you could still tell someone they’re irritating you with this phrase — just make sure it’s not your superior!

Conclusion

And that concludes the top 10 essential Japanese drama keywords that I personally have noticed popping up more than a few times in all of the dramas I’ve watched. All of them are extremely casual and sometimes some of them can be considered rude, so use it sparingly — or not at all if you’re too afraid to offend anyone. Regardless, it’s great to know them and make your drama time a lot more meaningful, literally!

Top 10 Japanese Musical Artists To Know

Top 10 Japanese Musical Artists To Know

Introduction

Most of us have that image of Japan as funky, out-of-the-ordinary and flat out wacky. Fair enough, the country has its fair share of unique subcultures, bizarre trends and unusually eccentric music.

But if you dig deeper, the Japanese music scene — while those standing-out-of-the-crowd ones dominating the media — is pretty diverse. There is something for everyone — from the popular J-pop and loud metalheads to the ones that are peaceful and calming for the soul. 

Japan’s music industry is huge, and having to shortlist to the top 10 was quite a painful process — picking from lists of popular as well as influential, new and old. Regardless, these Japanese musical artists are definitely ones you have to know, both familiar names and new ones. 

Let’s get right into it!

1. Utada Hikaru

First on the list is one that every Japanese person will know: Utada Hikaru. She has been on the Japanese music charts since 1997 — that’s over two decades! She’s not just on it; she basically rules it. 

This half-Japanese half-American artist’s music is on the slower-paced side that’ll tug on your heartstrings, but her music can be classified under a few categories — J-pop and R&B are just to name a few, so there’s a song for everyone

Utada Hikaru is a perfect artist for those looking to train their Japanese listening skills using music as she pronounces her lyrics clearly and slowly. Give First Love and Heart Station a listen — you’ll definitely be hooked…and maybe even in tears.

2. Shiina Ringo 

This is one of the Japanese artists you don’t want to miss out on. In fact, the West has already caught on to her musical talents. Shiina Ringo is an avant-pop queen — everything from her music and performance to her style and personality screams unusualness. You might think, “is her last name really ‘apple’ (りんご)?” Her real name is actually Shiina Yumiko but took on the stage name, Shiina Ringo, from a childhood nickname. 

Anyway, her music is not the usual ones you’d expect — there are influences from J-pop, enka (演歌) which is a genre of traditional Japanese music, jazz, rock…you name it, there’s probably a song with it. They all combine seamlessly together, though. That’s the best part.

That’s not all — Shiina Ringo’s performance hints at the traditional Japanese style. What a way to represent your own culture even after going international!

3. Perfume

If you’re looking for an artist that offers amazing techno-pop, Perfume is your girl — or girls. This girl group made waves in the Japanese music industry as soon as they first got onto the scene in 2008, and their popularity hasn’t wavered since. If you watch more than a few Japanese dramas and movies, chances are you’ve probably heard their music before.

Perfume is not only a big hit in Japan but also overseas — I mean, it’s quite obvious, what with their numerous international all-English fanbases. Even famous EDM DJs like Zedd and Madeon have acknowledged the group.

While their sound is nostalgic and refreshing at the same time, Perfume’s performances are definitely ones to keep an eye out for. There’s always something new in them, whether it’s an unconventional choreography or using new technology. 

4. ONE OK ROCK

Anyone who’s into rock and has looked into the rock scene in Japan definitely has heard of ONE OK ROCK. They’re kind of like the most essential Japanese rock artist. Influenced by bands like Nirvana and Good Charlotte, this high school-formed band entered the industry in 2005, and has continued creating milestones after milestones for the Japanese rock scene.

Since their exposure and opportunities to go international, ONE OK ROCK has been including more and more English lyrics to cater to their expanding audience — but don’t worry for those Japanese language enthusiasts, if you listen to their earlier ones, you’ll still get them in full Japanese. 

But hey, music has no boundaries — not even language, I dare say.

5. AKB48

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFf4AgBNR1E

A list of Japanese musical artists is not complete without one of the most famous and influential Japanese groups, AKB48. This group is not your average one where there’s only a handful of people — it actually has over a hundred people!

You heard me; as of this day of writing, AKB48 has 135 members — don’t let the number 48 in the group name fool you. It did start off with 48 members and expanded to include more, but their front members are ever-changing, joining in and coming out of the groups as fast as one could blink.

Those who have left actually become stars on their own, but not without grabbing a few loyal followers from being in the group. AKB48 is also great for anyone who’s looking to learn Japanese through music, as their song lyrics are repetitive and catchy.

6. Arashi

Of course, I have to include a Johnny’s group, and what better group than Arashi? We have an all-female group AKB48, so it’s only fair to have an all-male group on the list. This charming five-member collective has been around since 1999, and every generation in Japan would either be swooning over them or at least know of them. While they do fall under the category of J-pop, Arashi has a softer, slower tune. From upbeat to ballads, they have it all. 

If you haven’t heard of the group, you must have at least heard of their members — they are all very active. Hana Yori Dango is a perfect example of Arashi’s exposure through the form of one of their members. 

7. Keiji Haino

As I’ve mentioned before, Japanese music is more than just J-pop, and Keiji Haino is the definition of that — in fact, he’s the extreme other end with his avant-garde music genre, combining minimalism with power.

This is not your average music — think of normal, everyday noise with rock and percussion. It’s kind of hard to really put a pin on Keiji’s music, and any description doesn’t really do them justice. It’s the kind where you have to hear it to understand it.

Oh, and of course, some people would even argue that Keiji Haino is a fashion icon — the hair, ‘nuff said. 

8. X Japan

One of the oldest on the list, X Japan was formed in 1982. You can’t miss them — you literally can’t overlook them. Not only does their music stand out but also visuals; they are kind of the pioneers — some would say they are the leaders and creators — of the Visual Kei subculture.

If I had to describe their sound, X Japan has put quite an emphasis on ballads, focusing strongly on theatricality — as you can tell by their dressing. Watch their videos and live performances and it’ll be very obvious of the passion they have for their band concept.

Recently, X Japan has been leaning towards the metal genre but without sacrificing up fully their original tunes.

9. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu

While her original name is Kiriko Takemura, she goes by her stage name, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Extremely famous and influential, I bet everyone in Japan knows of her. Some of you might already know her as her fame is not limited to just domestic fans — the West has grown a liking to her music and performance, with videos going viral and raking high view numbers.

It’s very obvious that her music genre is J-pop — the fast and upbeat tune is hard to miss. They make excellent karaoke songs, if I do say so myself. Some argue that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is kind of like the Japanese version of Lady Gaga when it comes to her fashion style.

10.  Nujabes

Last on the list is Nujabes — this one is pretty underground compared to the rest on the list. It’s the classic case of idolisation after the artist’s passing. Nujabes is without a doubt one of the pioneers of instrumental hip hop as well as a legend of bridging various music genres through his creations. 

This artist has influenced many other artists, during his life and even after. His beatmaking has been an inspiration to not only local artists but Western ones as well, including Pete Rock and  A Tribe Called Quest, both of who are American jazz rap artists.

The Wrap-up

And that sums up the top 10 Japanese musical artists who you have to know — everyone from the mainstream J-pop and sensational pop stars to pioneers of subcultures and music genre legends alike. If you’re a music enthusiast like me, you’d want to check every single one of the artists on this list out, and even do a little bit more digging on the ones I left out (because I had to). I bet your playlist is hours long now — you’re welcome!

Shopping in Japan: Essential Words & Phrases

Shopping in Japan: Essential Words & Phrases

Introduction

Who doesn’t love going shopping? I know I do! I especially love shopping when travelling because it’s like discovering a whole other universe full of never-before-seen shops and designs. What you can find in one country, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to find them in another. It’s kind of like getting a one-of-a-kind piece that no one else back home will have — only you.

Japan is one of the best countries to shop in, with various unique styles that originated from the country itself and thousands of local shops selling at affordable prices. In fact, it’s those underground, low-key ones that have the best bargains and stuff. But of course, not all good things are easy — don’t expect all the shopowners to be able to speak English. 

So why not pick up some Japanese phrases to help you snag that cute, one-of-a-kind coat? I’ve compiled a list of them along with essential words that’ll definitely help you get around Japan’s shopping universe!

~ wa arimasu ka? (〜はありますか?)

If you’ve read a couple of the other posts on the blog, you’d probably have come across this phrase before. That’s because “~wa arimasu ka?” (〜ありますか?) is extremely useful in every situation. This phrase translates to “Do you have …?” How many times have you asked a staff lady if they have something in a specific colour or size, or if they sell a specific product? I lost count for myself.

It cuts down a whole lot of time searching around by myself — I’ll just approach someone who knows the store better than I do. Don’t panic; this phrase is a yes or no question, so the replies could only be one of two ways: yes (はい) or no (いいえ).

If you want to know if they sell hats, simply add the word for “hat” at the front of the phrase: “boushi wa arimasu ka?” (帽子はありますか?). Same goes for asking for a different colour or size — just add the word for the colour or the size at the front: “aka wa arimasuka?” (赤はありますか?) means “Do you have it in red?” and “eru saizu arimasu ka?” (エルサイズありますか?) means “Do you have L size?”

Here are some words that you can use with this phrase:

Colours

Red — Aka ()

Blue — Ao ()

Green — Midori ()

Yellow —  kiiro (黄色)

Orange — orenji (オレンジ)

Purple — Murasaki ()

White — Howaito (ホワイト)

Black — Kuro ()

Pink — pinku (ピンク)

Items

Dress — Wanpisu (ワンピス)

Fancy dress — Doresu (ドレス)

Watch — Tokei (時計)

Scarf — Sukaafu (スカーフ)

Shirt — Shatsu (シャツ)

Shoes — Kutsu ()

Pants — Zubon (ズボン)

Jacket — Jaketto (ジャケット)

Sizes

S — esu (エス)

M — emu (エム)

L — eru (エル)

Big — ookii (大きい)

Small— chiisai (小さい)

Kono hen ni ~ arimasu ka? (この辺に〜ありますか?) 

Japan has a lot of stores lined up on a single street — it can get overwhelming and confusing. Where’s the nearest shopping mall? Where can I find the drugstore? I swear Google Maps said the bookstore is here…

All these questions, who to ask, and how? Easy, with this phrase: “kono hen ni … arimasu ka?” (この辺に〜ありますか?). This translates to “Is there a … around here?” I bet you noticed the phrase we used earlier — yup, I told you, it’s extremely flexible.

If you’re looking for a supermarket, simply add that in the gap: “kono hen ni suupaamaaketto arimasu ka?” (この辺にスーパーマーケットありますか?). Similarly, it’s a yes or no question, so expect a yes or no reply — with a twist; there will be directions given most of the time, but that’s a whole other article on its own.

Here are some words of places to help you with your direction-asking:

Shop — mise ()

Bookstore — honya (本屋)

Drug store — doraggusutoa (ドラッグストア)

Convenience store — konbini (コンビニ)

Department store — depaato (デパート)

~ sagashite imasu (〜探しています)

If you want a level up from asking if they have something or not, why not tell them what you’re looking for instead? To say “I’m looking for …”, say “~ sagashite imasu” (〜探しています).

For example, if you’re looking for a black shirt, combine the word for black and shirt with this phrase: “kuroi shatsu wo sagashite imasu” (黒いシャツ探しています). You can basically switch out anything you’re looking for and it’ll work just the same. You can even add “arimasu ka?” at the end to ask if they have what you’re looking for. 

Shichaku shitemo ii desu ka? (試着してもいいですか?)

When you’re in a store, it’s only natural to want to try something on to see if it’s your size and if it suits you. I mean, that’s the only difference between shopping in-store and online. So how do you ask the staff person if you can try it on? With this phrase: “shichaku shitemo ii desu ka?” (試着してもいいですか?) 

Unlike the others, this is a phrase on its on without the need to add any other words to it. It’s pretty straightforward — say it a few times and you’ll have it permanently locked in your brain.

~ sugimasu (〜すぎます)

So, after you’ve tried it on, it’s just not the right size. It may have been too big or too small — either way, you have no idea how to tell the staff person because you don’t know the words for it!

Don’t fret, this phrase is exactly that. “~ sugimasu” (〜すぎます) is like saying “it’s too…”, so to say something is too big, add the word for big before it: “ookisugimasu” (大きすぎます). If something is too small, add the word for small instead: “chisasugimasu” (小さすぎます).

And that’s all there is to it!

Nanji ~ aitemasu ka? (何時〜空いてますか? )

When you’re travelling, opening hours seem to be extra important — that extra hour in the morning or an extra half hour of nighttime shopping is the game we all play. Most of the time, the opening hours reflected on Google Maps are up-to-date, but some local shops won’t even be listed on Google Maps. How does one figure out the opening times then?Ask, of course. This phrase gets you the opening and closing times depending on what word you use in the gap: “Nanji ~ aitemasu ka?” (何時〜空いてますか?). This phrase basically translates to “ … what time does it open?”

To ask what time does it close, add the word “made” (まで) to mean “until” in the gap: “Nanji made aitemasu ka?” (何時まで空いてますか?) This translates to “until what time do you open?”

To ask what time does it open, use “kara” (から) to mean “from” instead: “Nanji kara aitemasu ka?” (何時から空いてますか?). This means “from what time do you open?”

Ikura desu ka? (いくらですか?)

Most of the time, the price tags are plastered on each garment and accessory, but on the off chance it’s not, you need to be able to ask, “How much is it?” This phrase is exactly that. Approach the staff lady, point to the item and ask, “ikura desu ka?” (いくらですか?)

Be sure to practice your numbers in Japanese! It can get quite confusing — hyaku (), sen () and man () do not exactly work the same way as hundreds and thousands.

~ onegaishimasu (〜お願いします )

So you figured out the price, found your size and colour, and you’re at the cash register. How are you going to pay? Cash or card? Do you want a bag? How are you going to convey all of that?

With “~ onegaishimasu” (〜お願いします) — duh! It’s like our first phrase where it’s pretty flexible and extremely useful. Want to pay by cash? Add the word for cash (現金, genkin) before that: “genkin onegaishimasu” (現金お願いします). How about card (クレジットカード, kurejitto kaado): “kurejitto kaado onegaishimasu” (クレジットカードカードお願いします).

Want a bag to put it all in? “Kaban onegaishimasu” (カバンお願いします) does the trick! 

The Wrap-up

And you’re all set for your shopping trip in Japan! You’re able to find your stuff, ask for the right colour and size, get the location and opening hours of the store you’re looking for, figure out the price and pay for it — that’s all the steps! Now get your shopping shoes on and grab that credit card, and get shopping!

The Omiyage Culture

The Omiyage Culture

Introduction

You know how when you travel, you’d spend hours and hours in souvenir shops, picking out the best takeaway for yourself as well as your friend and family back home? I know I’m guilty of that. The souvenir culture is huuuuge everywhere in the world — that explains the streets of souvenir shops full of city landscapes printed on shirts, magnets and keychains.

In Japan, even if you go to a different prefecture in the same country, it’s kind of obligatory to bring back a souvenir — or in this case, omiyage (お土産). Omiyage is actually so much more than just a souvenir; we’ll talk about that in detail later on in the article. 

This omiyage culture can be extremely foreign to…well, foreigners. So much that it can take quite a bit of getting used to. Don’t get scared off just yet — here’s a breakdown of what it is, where the culture came from and a simple guide on how to pick the perfect omiyage.

What is “omiyage”?

First off, what is omiyage actually? To know what it actually means, we’ll have to break down the kanji of the word: 土 means “earth/ground” and 産 means “product”. Combine the two, the word “omiyage” can translate to being a “local product”, given as a gift when returning from a trip.

Usually, omiyage comes in boxes that are brightly coloured, with individually wrapped snacks that are perfect for sharing amongst people at work, school and even at home. In some cultures, mine included, bringing back a piece of the place you visited isn’t really that big of a deal, but in Japan, it’s customary — it’s like a social taboo if you don’t do it!

The significance of omiyage

Why the strong emphasis on omiyage? It’s basically the idea of sharing your experience, to explain it briefly. Oftentimes, omiyage is something that’s specific to the region you visited. Whether it’s sweets or other types of food, as long as the area is known for that, it’ll make an ideal omiyage.

For example, Okinawa is known for goya and sweet potato — so pick your omiyage based on that. By bringing back the region’s specialty, you’re giving the people a chance to try a regional product that you possibly can’t get outside of the area — although nowadays, you probably can, but that doesn’t matter!

Omiyage origins

So, where did this omiyage culture come from? To be very honest, no one really knows. But it all started from sacred pilgrimages. People who visited Shinto shrines were to bring back some sort of evidence of their pilgrimage. Back then, omiyage comes in the form of charms and rice wine cups. They believed that people who have these items would be blessed just like the pilgrims themselves.

In those days, food preservation wasn’t that common. It was pretty limited and people were traveling on foot, so baggage was kept at a minimum to keep it light. When the railway system was built, it made transporting food so much easier. I guess that’s how omiyage transitioned to mostly be food — even though it’s not limited to that.

Omiyage vs souvenir

So the question remains: what’s the difference between omiyage and souvenir? Omiyage is usually translated to “souvenir” in English, but there’s a slight difference.

Souvenir is more often than not used to refer to takeaways from a country that you buy for yourself, and maybe a lucky few friends and family. Omiyage refers to things that you buy solely for others. You’re thinking about them when you buy it — that’s what makes it extra special. While souvenirs are what you keep for yourself, omiyage is not consumed or kept by the traveller. 

What’s more, souvenirs don’t have to be a specialised item from the area, but for omiyage, it has to be. It’s like bringing back matcha (抹茶) from Japan and not a bag of chips — bad comparison, but hopefully you get the idea.

How to pick the perfect omiyage?

Source: jpellgen (@1179_jp) from Flickr

It sounds like a lot of work, picking out the perfect omiyage. But there’s a simple solution to the ideal omiyage anywhere you go: food. Anything edible makes the perfect omiyage for your coworkers, friends and family.

If you’re choosing omiyage in Japan, you’ll soon realise you’ll have quite a hard time picking just one because souvenir shops in the country are full of them! I know I have a hard time every time — which do I buy for myself and which do I give out to others?

Definitely choose something that has a nice packaging — ideally with something that represents the region you went to. You might want to consider the cost as well; keep it between 500 to 1500 yen, but I’d recommend getting one with a nice label on it.

A lot of omiyage products in Japan are individually packed for this very convenience of sharing with others. They come in 6, 10, 12 and 18 most of the time. Calculate how many people are there in your workplace or family — and buy accordingly. The more food there is, the merrier, I’d say.

If you’re travelling during a special time like Christmas or Valentine’s Day, get those limited edition ones! It gives the extra umph to your omiyage cred!

Also, buy it on the last day of your trip! Even though a lot of omiyage can last quite a while, now with the modern technology of food preservation, I would advise keeping the omiyage picking activity as the last event so that the food would be fresher — and also not have to go through all the bumpy train and car rides. 

Conclusion

And there you have it — the omiyage culture is actually not that scary. It’s pretty simple once you’ve gotten the basics down. And don’t worry, we usually get the “gaijin pass”, as I’d like to call it — which is when the Japanese people understand that us foreigners aren’t used to their ways. But it’s always best to know all of the ins and outs, right? Like they say, “when in Japan, do what the Japanese do” — or did I not get that right?