Written by Sweksha Sharma.
Japan is a remarkable country that despite facing so many problems has emerged as a superpower. It is also considered as one of the world’s most culturally rich and intriguing societies, thanks to its rich heritage, culture, beliefs etc.
A significant number of its old practices, conventions, and customs are still impeccably unblemished even after being hit by modernization and advancements and thus assisting with moulding Japan’s one of a kind culture and overall perception.
If you are preparing to visit the Land of the Rising Sun, for a holiday or heading there for business purposes here are 9 customs and traditions that you have to know so as to mix in with local people and not capitulate to an intense instance of culture shock.
You can plan out your visit during these festivities and celebrations that promise an experience of a lifetime.
1. Toro Nagashi- Floating Lanterns
This utterly beautiful celebration is locally known as “Toro Nagashi” which means floating lanterns. According to Japanese beliefs, during Obon, the spirits of deceased loved ones come back to their homes for a brief period to see their families.
A “Mukaebi” (also known as welcome fire) is lit so that the spirits of the ancestors can easily find their way home to their loved ones. During this time people visit the graves of their loved ones so as to tell them about all the happenings of the year.
Toro Nagashi begins at night as the spirits start their journey back to the spirit world subsequent to seeing their families. All relatives meet up in order to light conventional lamps called “toro” that are said to direct the spirits on their way back.
2. Hina Nagashi- Doll Floating
Hina Nagashi, or doll floating, is a typical practice done on Girls’ Day in Japan. People write their wishes and desires on these dolls, place the dolls on wooden boats, and let them float out into the spring sea.
It’s believed that any potential misfortune is pushed out into the ocean with the dolls, guaranteeing the wellbeing and success of the young ladies who gave the dolls.
3. Hanami- Cherry Blossoms
Hanami is the custom of Japan that includes valuing the transient magnificence of the flowers, and particularly of blooming cherry trees.
Cherry blossoms of Japan are very famous and are said to bloom only for seven days, but they are so beautiful that all the people of Japan wait for the whole year to experience the beauty of these flowers.
In ancient Japan, these beautiful Cherry Blossom trees were very sacred and were restricted to be enjoyed only by the rich people of Japanese society. Many sonnets were expounded about the brief bloom of these fragile blossoms.
Today, the Hanami custom consists of organizing outdoor meetups and picnics underneath blooming trees. These can appear as family picnics and work excursions or evening time parties with companions.
With every one of these trees in blossom and conventional celebrations in full swing, this time is considered to be the best time to visit Japan.
4. Dondo Yaki- Burning Lucky Items
In Japan, it’s considered unlucky to save lucky items or lucky charms for over a year. Dondo Yaki or the burning of lucky items is a traditional Japanese practice done at Shinto shrines around January.
This involves encouraging the lucky charm holders to burn the lucky items they’ve kept with them for the whole year. They believe that it is bad luck to throw your lucky charms in the trash and thus, burning these items drives that bad luck away.
5. Setsubun- Mamemaki Bean Throwing
Setsubun or Mamemaki Bean Throwing Festival is a Japanese holiday that takes place on February 3rd marking the beginning of spring as per the Japanese lunar calendar. On this occasion, the Japanese believe that the soul world or the spirit world is nearest to our real world and there are chances of demons visiting our world.
This is celebrated across Japan and is one of the favourite traditions of children. One of the interesting activities that people indulge into during this time is called “Mamemaki”, this is where a parent puts on an “Oni Mask” that represents the demons and they try to scare their children.
The children in return throw soybeans on them to scare the demon away from their homes.
6. Traditional Tea Ceremonies
The famous tea ceremonies of Japan, locally known as “Sado” or “Cha no yu” has a history of over 1000 years. Ordinarily, Japanese tea service or ceremony is done with both matcha or sencha green tea and are of two types “Omote senke”, and the other is called “Ura senke”.
There are a few differences in the two styles, the most significant being the style of holding the teacup (“Chawan” in Japanese) and how to drink the tea. It’s a wonderful custom to see and one that lets you experience the Japanese food culture too.
7. Keeping Resolutions With Daruma
Daruma dolls are typically wooden dolls modelled after the priest who established Zen Buddhism. They are made usually at the start of a new year with a resolution, you have to paint one eye of the wooden doll as you make your wish, and have to paint the second when it works out as expected and your wish comes true.
It is always good to have a physical reminder of your resolutions; it urges you to work harder so as to convert your dreams and wishes into reality.
8. Inviting Luck To A Business With Fukusasa
Fukusasa is parts of verdant bamboo embellished with fortunate knickknacks and decorations made by Milo, the shrine maidens.
They are normally sold in the month of January by the shrines and are dedicated to “Ebassen”, the Shinto god of business and success. Entrepreneurs get them with expectations of welcoming good luck to their work for the rest of the year.
Also Read: Japan’s Obsession with Robots and Automation
9. Bonenkai Parties
Bonenkai parties or “forget the year parties” are a route for the Japanese individuals to abandon their difficulties from the present year and look hopefully towards another one.
These are typically celebrations that is organized by all organizations and even at a personal level with friends and loved ones in the month of December and just involve everyone coming together and just celebrating without any worries or tensions.
10. Zabuton Throwing
The word “Zabuton” signifies a Japanese cushion meant to be used as a seat. In Japan, sumo stadiums offer zabuton pillows to the audience for sitting.
During the match, if a section of the audience starts to feel frustrated due to the ongoing results, they start throwing their zabutons at the losing Yokozuna. This practice has been banned now keeping in mind the safety concerns of everyone present at the stadium.
11. Eating Kentucky Chicken on Christmas Eve
Just like eating turkey for dinner is a mandatory aspect of Christmas in many parts of the world, Japan completes that aspect by eating KFC’s fried chickens. If you are visiting Japan during Christmas be ready to witness long queues before KFC outlets.
The reason behind this tradition is the non availability of a huge number of turkeys in Japan. Therefore fried and roasted chickens have become a substitute option in place of turkeys. Many Japanese families head to the American fast food chain during Christmas Eve for celebration.
12. Eating Eho-maki Sushi Rolls
Eho-Maki or fortune rolls are thick sushi rolls eaten on the night of Setsubun. This is a tradition in Japan which the locals have been following through many years especially in the Kansai area. The entire uncut sushi roll is eaten in silence while making a wish for the year ahead and facing the fortunate direction.
Eho-maki sushi rolls are made by using 7 ingredients which are tuned with 7 Gods of fortune of the Japanese mythology. Good fortune is considered to come about while rolling the sushi with all the 7 ingredients. The sushi roll is not cut in smaller pieces which are meant to symbolize the intactness of relationships.
The seven ingredients used to prepare the Eho-maki sushi rolls are cucumber, rolled omelette, simmered shiitake mushrooms, dried gourd, dried tofu, sweet fish powder and eels. These ingredients and the rolling of the ingredients symbolize good health, good fortune and prosperity.
13. Seiza- Traditional Way of Sitting
The word Seiza means “correct sitting”. Seiza is the formal and polite way to sit on tatami floors especially during important ceremonies, rituals and festivals.
To sit in the traditional Seiza posture you need to sit down with your knees together, get your back straight and then rest your buttocks on your ankles. Sitting in this posture has many benefits like improved digestion and also helps in avoiding back pain.
14. Furisode Kimono
Furisode means “swinging leaves” and it signifies long-sleeved kimonos whose length ranges between 85 to 114 centimetres. Furisode Kimonos are worn during the coming of age ceremony, weddings and other occasions by unmarried women.
It is the most formal and sophisticated form of clothing worn by young unmarried women. Furisode Kimono can be classified into three different types depending upon their lengths.
Ohfurisode is the longest sleeved Furisode Kimono, Chufurisode is medium sleeved and Shofurisode is the smallest. The longer the sleeves the more sophisticated the Kimono.
15. Pouring Drinks For Each Other
It is considered rude to pour drinks for yourself instead your drinking partner shall pour the drink for you and you should return the same gesture. People while drinking keep a lookout at each other’s glasses and ensure that others glasses are full.
Also before you start drinking, make sure that all the people accompanying you have their glasses filled and then together say Kanpai! which means cheers.
16. Practice of Giving Gifts
The practice of giving gifts to the hosts who have invited you for an occasion or during any business meetings is a very common and important tradition in Japan. It is done to show respect, politeness and gratitude. While giving gifts a lot of attention is also given to the wrapping of the presents.
In Japan never give anyone four gifts as the number four is considered to be unlucky and synonymous to death. The gifts are always received or given using both the hands to show gratitude.
17. Tipping Etiquette
In Japan, tipping for any service is absolutely not accepted in the form of giving out cash directly. It is looked upon as an insult as tipping signifies that the business is not running well and is in need for extra money. The prices displayed consist of the service charges and therefore no one expects or accepts any tip.
Tipping is only acceptable when given in a Pochi-bukuro or Kaishi. Pochi-bukuro is a small envelope while Kaishi is a multipurpose tissue. Coins are not accepted while tipping.
Bowing in Japan is a common practice and is done to greet an individual. Bowing signifies showing respect, expressing gratitude, for showing appreciation, etc. The right way to bow in Japan is by bending your waist, keeping the back straight, looking down towards your feet and lastly by keeping your hands intact by your side. All this is to be done while facing the person you are greeting.
Bowing also has many variations. A slight small bow is done while greeting a friend while a deeper bow signifies showcasing more respect.
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Sweksha Sharma is a contributor at The Strong Traveller. She is a complete food and travel enthusiast at heart she loves and enjoys writing articles about the same. She believes in following her passion and enjoying every moment of life. Currently pursuing an MBA she is curious about what the future holds!