Konnichwa (“Good day”) to all visiting Japan this month to enjoy the first Rugby World Cup ever to be held in Asia! It’s going to be great – but let’s make sure you’re don’t stay 23 days longer than you had planned.
While the Japanese are welcoming, most fear that you are an offshoot of the fearsome horde of football hooligans who were perceived as virtual terrorist threats during the 2002 World Cup.
Should your behavior get out of hand, local constables will gently nudge you into compliance. Let matters go no further! Japanese jails are not enjoyable places to vacation as Carlos Ghosn, the former CEO of Nissan will tell you, so let’s avoid that, shall we?
Speaking on behalf of my Japanese friends, we are going to assume – quite possibly wrongly – that you are male. That you drink to excess. And are more interested in pole dancers than geisha girls.
Sound like you? Good. Read on as we offer some general tips on how best to enjoy the pleasures of this fine nation.
Avoid ‘chin chin’
Japanese people love to drink. There’s even a ‘Jap-lish’ word for the social benefits of chatting over drinks: nomi-nikeshon (“drinking” – nomi – plus “communication”).
“Cheers” in Japanese is “kanpai!” This literally means, “Drain the glass” though another word which sounds exactly the same means “total defeat.” Drink enough, and you will understand the link. When toasting, avoid the Anglicism “chin chin,” as in Japanese, you are saying “penis penis.”
Many Japanese bars have a table charge that is levied in addition to whatever you ordered. Sometimes this comes in the form of some unwanted delicacy that you didn’t order. This creates trouble when gaijin (“foreigners”) think they’re being ripped off. You’re not – you’re just ignorant. Pay up. It’s the Japanese way.
And in Japan, you don’t tip, which makes partying in Tokyo a hell of a lot cheaper than in New York. Since after-rugby drinking and probably your Number Two reason for being in Japan, put up with the small charge and enjoy the greater fun.
Many bars, especially izakaya (Japan’s cozy traditional pubs), have an unwritten rule that everyone present must order one drink and one food item. If you only want a drink, a classic bar may be a better bet. And never, ever, follow a tout into a “really great bar I know” anywhere in Japan, unless you like being ripped off. Especially if he addresses you as “My friend”.
Japanese beers, mainly lagers, are decent. Order it nama (“raw”) and you get draft beer. The low-end dives I prefer just give you a bottle and a glass. But there are more interesting local tipples available. Follow me…
Try High Ball
Japan has many fine drinking establishments including some of the best cocktail bars in the world. If you want the perfect old-fashioned, it’s here. But try the ubiquitous Japanese favorite, the High Ball – which sounds like a rugby term – but is, in fact, a simple mixture of soda water and whisky.
The beverage is pronounced like “high” (rhymes with pie), “bow” (as in “…and arrow”) and “roo,” (as in “kangaroo,” a staple of Australian diets). Try saying it: “High-Bow-Roo.” Add a kudasai (“please”) at the end and you will look the business at any bar in Japan.
So here’s your first Japanese sentence: Haiboru Kudasai!
While the High Ball is a beer substitute, Japan makes some of the best whiskies in the world and at high-end establishments, High Balls are prepared with exquisite attention to detail. They are actually hard to make — so order one and save yourself the hassle. Yen running low? No problems. You can buy canned High Balls at convenience stores.
Drink like a local
Japan’s famed “rice wine” – sake – is superb. In general, the fresher the sake, the better the taste. It does not age well once open, so imbibe at one sitting. It is sold everywhere, from cheap ramen (“noodle”) restaurants to imperial-level dining establishments.
If dry is your taste, go for Otokoyama (“Man Mountain”) or Suigei (“Drunken Whale”). A mildly sweet but hard-to-find sake is Toyobijin (“Beautiful Eastern Woman”). For ladies, there’s Bishonen (“Handsome Young Man”), a prize-winning sake that is best enjoyed heated with a light meal.
Shochu is essentially, potato hooch: A hard liquor, distilled from grains and vegetables which can include sweet potato, barley, rice, buckwheat and sugar. It has an alcohol ratio of 22-37%. One website says “Because of its higher alcohol content [than sake], shochu can be enjoyed in variety of ways.” Indeed, such as for getting totally and utterly hammered.
Shochu is best enjoyed in izakaya. Like British pubs, izakayas serve fish and chips – except the fish might be raw and you order chips separately. Chips – French fries, or furenchi furai in ‘Japlish’ – are available at many pubs.
Dine like a local
For obvious reasons, our section on dining is shorter than our section on drinking, but Japan is much more than sushi. You probably already know sashimi, raw sliced seafood, and tempura, the delicately fried vegetables and fish that Japan does so well, but you should also sample Japanese beef.
Japanese beef is rich and fatty. It practically melts in your mouth. Shabu-Shabu is thinly sliced pieces of Japanese beef, that are dipped in a boiling broth until cooked, then dipped into a sesame or ponzu sauce. It is usually served with tofu and assorted vegetables. I am also a huge fan of sukiyaki, which consists of vegetables, tofu, and thinly sliced Japanese beef simmered in a savory-sweet sauce. Dip the beef in raw egg before eating it. A wonder!
Kamikaze seafood, whale
If you are bold lover of risk, try the infamous fugu (pufferfish) – especially the liver. While most fugu comes from pufferfish that have been bred to be non-toxic, the fugu of old were often deadly. Neurotoxin is concentrated in the fish’s liver. It is said that a famous Kabuki actor once took a bite of fugu liver and was stone dead before his chopsticks hit the plate. If you must eat fugu liver, save it for your last night in Japan, or you may miss some games.
If you are really hungry for seafood, try a whale specialty restaurant in Tokyo’s Shibuya called Ganso Kujiraya (“The Original Whale Merchant”). It is the best place to try a delicacy that few Japanese people eat, but Japan keeps hunting because….er, tradition? Whale meat is loaded with mercury, which comes with no extra charge.
You are a god
You’ve already learned kudasai so at least you can ask for things semi-respectfully, when you are a customer. And in Japan the customer is a god. That’s right — it’s not, “the customer is king”. Japan one-ups that, with the merchant’s motto of “The honorable customer is a god.”
Service is generally excellent. People are polite, staff are usually well-trained, (unless they’re foreigners) and they are attentive. Just don’t ask for any tiny alterations to be made to the menu.
Don’t hesitate to enjoy unusual delicacies. “Sea cucumber innards” may not sound appealing. Nor may “fish sperm.” Best to let a local order if possible, and don’t ask too many questions. You’ll love it. Probably.
Oh, and no matter how long you live in Japan, people will marvel at your ability to use chopsticks, even if your ability is dismal. They are just being polite. Do not respond by complimenting locals on their use of Western eating utensils. Sarcasm does not translate, and people will simply think you are an idiot.
Say it right, or…
You won’t be expected to learn the Japanese language, but when you learn someone’s name, always attach an honorific. You’re familiar with “-san” but “-sama” is even more polite. The most unpardonable crime is to address someone without an honorific. In 12 years working for a Japanese newspaper, the honorific was only detached from my name when I was a newbie, or when my supervisor was drunk.
Have a bath
Japanese are incredibly clean, so shower diligently – or go one better. Japan is bubbling with geothermal activity and occasional volcanic eruptions. This makes it a terrible place to build nuclear reactors, but a great place to build hot spring resorts (onsen). If you like sitting in hot water that sometimes stinks of sulfur for hours, and have a tolerance for boredom you may enjoy these places, but there are three things to bear in mind.
Firstly, many hot springs forbid tattoos, because tats are associated with yakuza, Japan’s mafia. So if you have tattoos, cover them up upon entry.
Secondly, hot baths, except for very old-school places, are separated by gender. Everyone must shower and scrub thoroughly before getting into the hot water. Ignore this tradition, and you will find yourself (metaphorical) hot water.
Thirdly, don’t be a prude – bathe nude. Nobody wears a bathing suit in the onsen, so let it all hang out.
Dens of iniquity
OK, this is what you really wanted to read. Yes, Japan has very liberal laws about varied sexual services. But in general, related establishments do not welcome foreigners due to problems of communication, and a belief in some quarters that gaijin are disease-ridden human parasites. The best advice we can give you is two things not to do.
When encountering heavily inked, rough-looking local gents in dark suits or sports leisure outfits in dubious “entertainment” zones, do not say, “Hey man, great tats! But why are you missing your finger(s)?” Even in the yakuza world, asking about missing fingers is poor form. Best avoided.
And at a strip bar do stand up and not roar, “Baby! Take it all off!” In Japan even at strip bars, full nudity is disallowed – that would be public indecency. Rather oddly, virtually every sexual activity besides vaginal penetration can be legally purchased and advertised, and there are even exceptions to the intercourse rule. But still: full frontal nudity is forbidden! So consider a strip bar or a topless bar elsewhere.
Things never to do in Japan
Japan has a strong social culture and related mores, and some things are just no-nos. So, in respect of your hosts, please: Don’t talk loudly on public transport. Don’t eat and walk at the same time. Don’t blow your nose in public. And above all, don’t get into a drunken brawl.
Alternatively: Ignore those final words of advice if you really take a shine to Japan. If you get into a ruck here, the authorities may permit you to stay 23 days, with full room and board and even some limited exercise before they even decide whether to prosecute you or not.
It’s also the best free, intensive Japanese-learning program available on earth.