Dress code in Japan
For most tourists, dressing for daily sightseeing in Japan is a disadvantage: You will most likely stand out no matter how you dress, alongside the throngs of salarymen (male office workers) and primary school students in uniforms. Japan is known for being very fashionable, whether in a kimono, a tailored suit or the latest trends from Harajuku.
First of all, wear shoes that you can easily put on and take off and have a pair of socks ready if needed. Sports shoes are acceptable, but keep them loosely tied so you can take them off and put them on. Suit shoes are also acceptable, as are good walking sandals (not flip-flops), although sandals are not common outdoor wear for locals. Japanese culture sees shoes as dirty, and before entering someone’s home, certain restaurants, changing rooms and temples (to name a few), you must remove your shoes. The older generation of Japanese tend to divide steps into two types: Wood (“clean”) and concrete or stone (“dirty”). When you step on a wooden staircase, take off your shoes and put them on the side; there may even be a small hole where you can put your shoes.
And don’t forget socks, as it is common practice to wear socks in temples and houses if you don’t have slippers available. Japanese are known for their love of socks, and most cities have sock shops that sell high-quality and colourful socks. Many of the socks sold in Japan are made there. So take a pair of socks in your bag if you don’t wear socks when sightseeing. Pantyhose are acceptable for women. Footies and socks below the ankle are practical, especially if you go for the “no socks” look.
Shorts are uncommon and generally only worn by children and teenagers. Although this is a common part of summer dress for tourists, choose stylish jeans or trousers or capri trousers instead to stay cool in warm weather. Women wear sundresses from trendy shops and breathable trousers made of fabrics like linen in summer. Keep it stylish and comfortable.
In business situations, suits are standard; companies will let you know if you can or should wear casual clothes. Suits are worn for drinks after work and for entertainment.
For clubbing and going out, dress casually cool. Japanese women do not usually wear skin-tight, super-short dresses and cleavage is rarely shown, except on the beach. Women in tight, short dresses and with very sexy looks are often stereotyped as sex workers or escorts. If you visit Tokyo, for example, you will see young women and men dressed in subculture styles such as Harajuku, Lolita and Punk. Japanese avoid making a scene to those who dress like one, but casual glances are often enough to make you feel you are being scrutinised.
If you plan to visit a hot spring or public bath, they are almost always used naked (except in the rare mixed-sex baths). Although you may get some questioning looks, a swimming costume works. For men, Speedos, trunks or board shorts. For women, a plain swimming costume is better than a skimpy bikini if you are visiting a hot spring or bath; for the beach, bikinis are fine. In public or private swimming pools you may need to wear a bathing cap; these may be provided or you can bring your own.
Japan in summer can be extremely hot and humid. Japanese don’t like visible sweat and often wipe sweat from their faces with a colourful handkerchief, use a fan (collapsible or flat) to keep cool, or (for women) use umbrellas to shade themselves in sunny weather. Acquiring one or all of these items is not only a smart way to stay cool, but can also be a lasting memento of your visit. In historic and tourist areas, you will find shops selling beautiful fans and umbrellas. Both are affordable investments, although they can be expensive if you want a real work of art. However, most Japanese use cheap but beautiful fans – many made in China – in their daily lives, only to replace them when they become difficult to close or worn out. Cheap flat paper fans are often given away for free at festivals and events.
Traditional umbrellas can be bought in gift shops, and stylish umbrellas for rain and shine can be purchased in women’s accessory and clothing shops across the country. Handkerchiefs are popular with both men and women. Some look like traditional cotton handkerchiefs you would blow your nose with, others are small towels. Japan’s fabulous depāto (department stores) stock all colours, brands and models of these necessities. It’s an affordable luxury – for both men and women, high-end designers like Yves Saint Laurent and Burberry make handkerchiefs and you can find them for ¥1,500 or less. You can also find locally made versions in gift shops and shops across the country. Keep them in your purse or pocket and wipe your brow when needed.
Functional umbrellas – to keep you dry and nothing else – are often made of cheap plastic and available in any supermarket for around ¥500. Because they all look the same, they are sometimes treated interchangeably. When you go into a shop, you leave yours at the door, and when you leave, you just grab an identical one, whether it was the one you brought or not.
Bathing in Japan
Bathing is a big deal in Japan, and whether it’s a picturesque hot onsen spring, a neighbourhood sentō bath or just an ordinary bathtub in the home, bathing the Japanese way is a pleasure. Japanese rave about the pleasures of hot water (湯 yu), dubbing even the ordinary tub with an honorific syllable (お風呂 o-furo), and a visit to a Japanese hot spring
While a Western “bath” is used for washing, “baths” in Japan are for soaking and relaxing. (Think of it more like a hot tub than a bath.) Washing is first done outside the tub, usually sitting on a stool in front of a tap, but showers are also available.
The difference that may strike you is that unlike a hot tub, baths in Japan are usually used in the nude. This sounds shocking to Western minds at first, but it is simply the norm in Japan; friends, colleagues, parents and children of all ages think nothing of it. The Japanese even use the term “naked communication” (裸の付き合い hadaka no tsukiai) to describe the way bathing together breaks down social barriers. You should really consider trying it, but if you refuse, then there are other options:
- Foot baths (足湯 ashiyu) are a popular way to relax. Only the bare feet go into these baths, while one sits comfortably and clothed against the wall of the pool.
- In mixed-gender (混浴 kon’yoku) baths, swimming costumes are sometimes allowed (but not required), and sometimes they are only allowed for women. Commercial establishments (i.e. public baths that are not part of a ryokan) with kon’yoku baths usually require swimming costumes for both sexes.
- Some ryokan have “family baths” that you can reserve just for you and your group; these are designed for mum, dad and the kids to bathe together. Some of these allow swimming costumes, or you can use them to guarantee that you have the bath to yourself. Similarly, some ryokan offer high-end rooms with private bathrooms; swimming costumes may still not be allowed, but even if not, at least it means you don’t have to share the bathroom with strangers, or you can take turns solo bathing with your friends.
Onsen (温泉), literally “hot springs“, are the highlight of the Japanese bathing experience. Groups of onsen appear wherever there is a suitable source of hot water – and in volcanic Japan they are everywhere. The most memorable onsen experience is often rotenburo (露天風呂): outdoor baths overlooking the surrounding natural landscape. While the baths are usually large and shared, some swankier accommodations offer, often for an additional fee, reservable baths for you and yours truly, known as family baths, racier “romance baths” or simply reserved baths (貸切風呂 kashikiri-furo). Onsen baths can either be in detached buildings accessible to everyone (外湯 sotoyu), or private baths only for guests within your accommodation (内湯 uchiyu).
While most onsen are commercially operated and charge fees for entry (¥500-1000 is typical), there are free, publicly maintained baths, especially in remote areas, that offer minimal facilities but usually stunning views. Many of these baths are mixed (混浴 kon’yoku), but while men still like to enter them naked with a towel in front of their dangling legs, it is a rare woman who enters one without a swimming costume these days.
To find the truly remote hot springs, visit the Japanese Hidden Hot Spring Protection Association (日本秘湯を守る会 Nihon hitō wo mamoru kai), which consists of 185 independent shelters across the country.
Many onsen ban visitors with tattoos from entering. This rule is meant to keep out yakuza gangsters (who often have tattoos on their backs) and is usually applied with a common sense approach, but heavily tattooed visitors will at least earn curious looks and may be asked to leave.
Sentō and spas
Sentō (銭湯) are public bathhouses that can be found in every major city. They are meant for people who do not have their own bathtub at home. They are typically quite utilitarian and are slowly dying out as Japan continues its breakneck modernisation. Some, however, have morphed into spas (スパ supa), which in Japan doesn’t mean Balinese huts offering Ayurvedic massages while dotted with orchids, but public baths for stressed-out salarymen, often with a capsule hotel on the side. As you might expect, these baths vary in seriousness – beware in particular of places advertising “aesthetics”, “health” or “soap” – but most are surprisingly decent.
Japanese people are sympathetic to the strange idiosyncrasies of foreigners, but there is one rule where no exceptions are made: You have to wash and rinse off all the suds before entering the bathroom. The water in the tub is reused by the next person, and the Japanese think it’s gross to bathe in someone else’s dirt! Basically, wash yourself as well as you hope the guy next to you did.
Whether a fancy onsen or a simple sentō, the choreography of an entire visit goes something like this:
Common bathing areas are usually separated by gender. So look for the “man” (男) and “woman” (女) signs to find the right entrance. Men’s bathrooms also usually have blue curtains, while women’s bathrooms are red. Enter the changing room and leave your shoes or slippers at the door; public baths may have lockers.
In public baths (sentō), you either pay the lifeguard directly (often through the entrance of the changing room, and it is almost always a woman), or you use a vending machine at the entrance to buy tickets for entry and additional items such as towels or soap, which you then give to the lifeguard. Look for the Japanese words for “adult” (大人 otona) and “child” (子供 kodomo) in the vending machines above. (If the vending machine is too difficult to understand, you can probably go in and say sumimasen (“excuse me”) to the attendant and do the rest by gesturing).
In the changing room there are rows of clothes lockers or baskets. Choose a locker, undress completely and put all your clothes in the basket. Make sure you put your valuables in the lockers, if there are any, and take the key with you into the bathroom.
You get an itty-bitty flannel for free or sometimes for a small fee. It’s not very good for covering your private parts (it’s too small), and it’s not very useful for drying yourself either. Men should leave these in the changing room except when they are drying off and just use their flannel for privacy, but women can use their large towel to wrap themselves with outside the bathroom. If you want one, ask the lifeguard for a taoru.
After removing your clothes and entering the bathing area, take a small stool and a bucket, sit at a tap and clean yourself really, really well. Shampoo your hair, soap your whole body, repeat the process. Rinse off all the lather once you are clean. Try not to let the water run or splash other people with water.
|The shocking truth|
|Some public baths in Japan have electric baths (電気風呂 denki-buro). It’s exactly what it sounds like: metal pads on the wall of the tub make a small electric current flow through it, giving you a tingling sensation (called piri-piri in Japanese). They are especially popular with older people to relax stiff and aching muscles. The electric baths are safe for most people, but should be avoided by people with pacemakers, heart problems or certain other conditions.|
Only now can you enter the bathtub. Do this slowly as the water can often be very hot; if it is unbearable, try another tub. Once you have managed to get in, do not let your flannel come into contact with the water as it is dirty (even if you did not use it, it would leave lint in the tub); you can fold it over your head or simply put it to one side. When you are sufficiently cooked, you can wash again and repeat the process in reverse order; you can also save washing your hair for after the bath if you prefer. (In the case of natural hot springs, however, you should not rinse the bath water because it is full of minerals, which the Japanese consider a healthy folk medicine).
Note that the bath is only for soaking and light conversation; don’t scuffle, dunk your head or make a lot of noise. Japanese may be a little wary of foreigners in the bathroom, mainly because they are afraid you will try to talk to them in English and are embarrassed that they cannot communicate with you. Just nod at them, say ohayo gozaimasu, konnichiwa or konbanwa, depending on the time of day, and wait to see if they want to talk to you.
After the bath, you’ll almost always find a relaxation lounge (休憩室 kyūkeishitsu), which inevitably has a beer vending machine nearby. You can stretch out in your yukata, drink beer, talk to friends, take a nap.
Toilets in Japan
|The Sound Princess|
|In public ladies’ toilets there is often a box that makes an electronic flushing noise when you press the button. What is that good for?|
Well, many Japanese women don’t like the idea of being overheard in the toilet. To cover up their own noises, women used to flush the toilet repeatedly, wasting a lot of water. To prevent this, the electronic noisemaker was developed.
The most commonly used brand is called Otohime. Otohime is a goddess from Japanese mythology, but here the name is a play on words, written with kanji and meaning “sound princess”.
Some features of Japanese toilets are worth mentioning. As elsewhere in Asia, you will find both Western-style porcelain thrones for sitting and floor-level units for squatting. (If you’re not familiar with these, it’s simple: pull your pants down to your knees and squat facing the curved bonnet of the toilet. Get closer to the bonnet than you need to or you might miss).
In private households and domestic accommodation you will often find toilet slippers to be worn in the toilet and only in the toilet.
Most visitors, however, are impressed by the undeniable fact that Japan is the world leader in toilet technology. More than half of Japanese households are equipped with high-tech devices known as washlets (ウォシュレット), which include all kinds of handy features like seat warmers, hot air dryers and tiny robotic arms that spray water. The device is operated via a control panel with over 30 buttons (all labelled in Japanese), which at first glance bear more resemblance to a space shuttle navigation panel than your average toilet.
Don’t panic – help is at hand. The first key to solving the puzzle is that the actual flushing mechanism is not usually operated from the control panel: Instead, there’s a normal, familiar, Western-style lever, switch or knob somewhere, and it’s therefore perfectly possible to do your business without ever using the sink functions. (In rare cases, usually on very high-end units, the flush is built in; if lifting your buttocks off the seat isn’t enough, look for buttons marked 大 or 小, meaning large or small flush respectively, on a wireless control panel on the wall). The second key to explore is that there is always a big red button with 止 written on it on the control panel – if you press this, everything stops immediately. Older models simply have a lever nearby that controls the flow of a sprayer.
Armed with this knowledge, you can now start digging deeper. Typical controls include the following:
- Oshiri (おしり) – “buttocks”, for spraying the buttocks – typically depicted in blue with a stylised buttocks symbol; this action can be unnerving, but travellers should not be afraid – on the second or third try it will appear normal
- Bidet (ビデ) – for spraying the front – typically shown in pink with a female symbol
- Kansō (乾燥) – “dry”, to dry off after finishing – typically yellow with a wavy air symbol
With further, smaller buttons, the pressure, angle, position and pulsation of the water jet can be precisely adjusted. Sometimes the seat of the toilet is heated, and this can also be regulated. One explanation for this is that, since houses are not usually centrally heated, heating the seat can make toileting a little more pleasant. To be polite and save energy, keep the lid down on heated toilet seats.
Learn in Japan
Many youth exchange programmes bring foreign teenagers to Japan, and the country also has a number of very active university exchange programmes. To obtain a student visa, you must have either one million yen or the equivalent in financial support to cover your living expenses. With a student visa, you can get additional permission from immigration to legally work up to 20 hours per week. Contact your local Japanese embassy or your home university’s exchange programme department for information on how to proceed.
The cheapest way to stay in Japan for an extended period is to study at a local school or university with a generous Monbusho (Ministry of Education) scholarship to pay for it all. A number of Japanese universities offer courses taught in English; some foreign universities also run independent programmes in Japan, the largest being the inter-faculty campus of Temple University in Tokyo.
Japan’s top universities are also highly regarded worldwide, but with the disadvantage that the courses are almost always taught exclusively in Japanese. Nevertheless, many of them have exchange agreements with other foreign universities, and you can apply for a semester or a year exchange. Japan’s most prestigious university is the University of Tokyo, which together with the University of Hong Kong is considered one of the two top universities in Asia. Other internationally renowned universities are Waseda University and Keio University in Tokyo and Kyoto University in Kyoto.
- Judo (柔道 jūdō, literally “the gentle way”) focuses on grappling and throwing and was the first martial art to become a modern Olympic sport. There are many schools around the country where you can study it.
- Karate (空手, literally “empty hand”) is a striking martial art – involving punches, kicks and open-hand techniques – that is popular around the world and has also had an influence on Western pop culture, as seen in the Hollywood film The Karate Kid (1984). There are schools all over the country where you can study different styles. It will be represented at the Olympic Games for the first time in 2020.
- Kendo (剣道 kendō) is competitive sword fighting with bamboo or wooden swords, similar to fencing. While judo and karate are better known in much of the Western world, in Japan itself kendo remains an integral part of modern Japanese culture and is taught in Japanese schools.
Other Japanese martial arts are aikidō, another form of grappling, and kyūdō, Japanese archery.
Japanese arts and crafts
Traditional Japanese arts and skills include the tea ceremony (茶道 sadō or chadō), origami (折り紙 “paper folding”), flower arranging (生け花 ikebana), calligraphy (書道 shodō) and bonsai (盆栽).
Traditional performing arts include bunraku (文楽, puppet theatre), kabuki (歌舞伎, dance theatre) and noh (能 nō, music drama).
Work in Japan
The Tokyo region generally offers the widest range of jobs for foreigners, including positions for lawyers, accountants, engineers and other professionals. To work in Japan, a foreigner who is not already a permanent resident must receive a job offer from a sponsor in Japan and then apply for a work visa at an immigration office (if already in Japan) or an embassy or consulate (if abroad). It is illegal for foreigners to work in Japan on a tourist visa. Work visas are valid for a period of one to three years and can be used to find employment with any employer within the scope of work indicated on the visa (including employers other than the sponsor). Alternatively, if you have substantial financial resources, you can apply for an investor visa. This requires you to either invest a large sum of money in a local business or start your own business in Japan by contributing a large amount of start-up capital, and allows you to work for that particular company in a management capacity. Expect severe penalties if you overstay on a visa. Spouses of Japanese nationals can obtain a spouse visa, which has no restrictions on employment.
The Working Holiday Programme is open to young citizens (between 18 and 30) from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Korea, France, Germany, Ireland and the UK. Those eligible can apply for Working Holiday visas without first having a job offer.
Foreigners who have lived in Japan continuously for 10 years are eligible to apply for a permanent residence permit. You must prove that you are financially independent and have no criminal record. If you are granted the residence permit, you can live and work in Japan indefinitely.
A popular form of employment among foreigners from English-speaking countries is teaching English, especially in after-hours English conversation schools known as eikaiwa (英会話). The pay is quite good for young adults, but rather poor compared to a qualified educator already working in most Western countries. Working conditions can also be quite harsh compared to Western standards, and some companies have a very poor reputation. A Bachelor’s degree or ESL accreditation is essential for most sought-after positions. Interviews for English schools that belong to one of the larger chains usually take place in the applicant’s home country. Learning English is not quite as fashionable as it used to be and the boom years are long gone. Recently, more emphasis has been placed on the education of children. Besides English, Portuguese, French, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese are also popular foreign languages. If you are interested in this kind of work, keep in mind that North American accents are preferred, as is an unspoken preference for teachers with Caucasian looks.
The JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) programme offers young graduates the opportunity to teach in Japan. The programme is run by the Japanese government, but your employer is usually a local school board that will assign you to one or more public schools, often located deep in the countryside. No Japanese language skills or formal teaching qualifications are required and your plane ticket is provided. The pay is slightly better than at language schools and, unlike at such a school, if you have serious problems with your employer, you can turn to the people at the JET programme for help. The JET programme also has a small number of positions for international relations or sports coordinators, although these require some knowledge of Japanese.
Foreigners with postgraduate education may be able to find jobs teaching English (or other subjects) at Japanese universities, which offer better pay and working conditions than the eikaiwa industry.
Quite a few young women choose to work in the hostess industry, where they entertain Japanese men over drinks in tiny bars known as sunakku (スナック) and get paid for their time. While the pay can be good, it is difficult to impossible to get a visa for this work and most work illegally. The type of work also carries its own risks, notably poor career prospects, alcoholism, smoking, potential problems from customers such as groping and lewd questions, and even harassment or worse, as demonstrated by the kidnapping and murder of hostess Lucie Blackman in 2000.