The Oxford English dictionary defines Konnichiwa as “absolutely nothing you lazy sod, this is an English dictionary and think of a better way to open your blog.”
Konnichiwa many of you will recognise as a traditional Japanese greeting. Did you know, however, that it is only appropriate to use it after 10.30am, and not during the evening? Prior to 10.30am, the appropriate greeting when bowing to your line manager and swearing eternal fealty to his agile working philosophy is “Ohayou Gozaimasu” (the “u” is silent in both words). What a lovely greeting! Try saying it without it sounding like a sing-song Japanese game show hostess. This just in: you can’t. Ohayo Gozaimasu. Lovely.For later in the day, for what you might even go so far as to call the evening, Konban-wa is the appropriate greeting. Konban-wa, Miyagi-san (deep bow) would you like your wax on or off today? Of course, Westerners say good morning, afternoon, or evening, depending on the time of day, but I love the arbitrary cut-off at 10.30 rather than midday, and the delicate way Konnichiwa trips off your tongue.
Japan is full of funny little cultural quirks. Bowing is a good example. Bowing is a sign of deference and respect, but to a Westerner it can be as confusing as Boris Johnson’s ramblings and create even greater danger of faux-pas. Bowing is the handshake of Japan, but it is much more important than our paltry hand-to-hand combat and to get it wrong is to gravely slight your opposite number. Put simply, the person of lesser station bows longer and deeper. It’s that easy. If you are going to meet your Japanese girlfriend’s grandparents, one of whom actually is Mr Miyagi, then you’re pretty much going to have to lie prostrate on the floor until it’s time to leave. If on the other hand you’re meeting your friends down the pub, something more akin to a nod will suffice.
I will never forget first wandering into a Japanese shopping mall, intent on buying some cheap electronics and maybe a bottle of Suntory whiskey (because I’ve seen Lost in Translation and also marketing) and being bowed to by every store owner that I passed. Better still, upon entering each and every store, every clerk, counter-server, till-person, would stop what they were doing, bow and greet me with the joyfully melodic Ohayou Gozaimasu. How refreshing! How reassuring, how utterly wonderful to be greeted with smiling respect and polite torsal inclination. You might think it’s all a ploy to get gaijin like me to spend more yen, but you’d be wrong.
It should be clear by now that a.) I have watched Karate Kid, and b.) I love Japan and Japanese culture. Apart from its quirks and whimsy, what truly sets it apart from other far flung places I’ve visited is the polite, kind, respectful attitude of its people, which fosters a feeling of friendship and trust almost instantaneously. Traveling solo, it was a wonderful thing to feel not only accepted, but adored by the people I met, who found this Westerner just as quirky and interesting as I found them. Ultimately when you travel solo, you want to make friends, not least because before the selfie was invented c.2013 it was the only way you could document your adventures, and obviously what’s the point in doing anything unless you can brag about it on social media. Fun fact: the pair-of-cherries emoji is the most popular in Japan. Never know, could get you out of a tight spot.
Armed with extensive emoji knowledge, a rudimentary grasp of the language, and a healthy dose of public school bravado, I was able to navigate my way around Tokyo with little to no success. It soon became clear that the man on the street in Japan, with all the smiling and nodding will in the world, has absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. What he does understand however is the cupped-hand-to-face drinking gesture, and so I learned that the best way to ask for directions is by gesticulating energetically as though you’re in a downing contest with Mako Vunipola, and being pointed toward the nearest watering hole.
Hospitality is at the centre of Japanese culture, and nowhere more so than the relaxed, convivial surroundings of the Izakaya - a type of informal bar for after work drinks, akin to a British pub. While there are notable differences in aesthetic and menu - think tatami mats instead of threadbare carpets, sake not Stella - the most striking contrast is in the way they interact with their customers. The Izakaya, while informal, is far more attentive of customers’ needs and “high-touch” than the pub. For example, upon entry Izakaya patrons are given an oshibori (wet towel) to clean their hands; the towels are cold in summer and hot in winter. Next, a tiny snack or appetiser, called an otoshi will be served. It is local custom and usually charged onto the bill in lieu of an entry fee.
Common formats for Izakaya dining in Japan are known as nomi-hodai ("all you can drink") and tabe-hodai ("all you can eat"). For a set price per person, customers can continue ordering as much food and/or drink as they wish, usually with a time limit of two or three hours. No wonder it is so easy to make friends, when this is how the wheels of social interaction are greased. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see some of London’s pubs adopting a few of these practices to show their customers the same care and attention that leaves a warm fuzzy feeling and five star reviews on Tripadvisor. I can think of one soon-to-be establishment that could take a few notes from these Eastern Masters, but I would bring dishonour on my family (literally..) if I said who.
Speaking of Easter Masters, my abiding memory of Japan is of being chased by an old man as I left a restaurant (stay with me). He ran down the street and caught me at the lights, to offer me an impromptu lesson in chopstick etiquette. Taking my sweaty paw in his wizened hand, he bent and contorted my fingers around the sticks in such a way as to maximise accuracy and minimise effort. I could have caught a gnat by its knickers I swear to Miyagi. He proceeded to make a gift of his lovely lacquered chopsticks, no doubt valuable and a prized personal possession, to me, shaking my hand warmly with both of his before sidling off down the sardine-packed street. His toothless grin and contagious enthusiasm created an instant bond, and if he was on Facebook, or wasn’t almost certainly in his incense-covered grave by now, I’m certain we would still be friends. This is what it looks like when someone really goes out of their way to make you feel welcome. Nota bene aspiring publicans!