In Japanese onsen, we practice the sanctity of the ofuro (bath) in sento — communal bathhouses where we relax with others in natural hot springs. Even though we’d shudder at going topless on a nude beach, mom and I think nothing of soaking naked in a public bath. My favorite one I went to with my mom is at the Takayama Yamaku ryoken, high in the Japanese Alps.
2. The importance of never polluting with toilet paper
The environment is sacred, don’t pollute it — with toilet paper or anything else. Shintoism, and mom, taught me to keep everything clean, including my arse. So our high-tech TOTO toilets have as many bells and whistles as the bullet trains that whoosh us from city to city. Poop disposal? Sure, they do that, but they also spray, blow dry, and massage our rear ends. Top-of-the-line models have automated seat warming, lid opening and flushing, and even deodorizing — all activated via a wireless control panel attached to the seat or mounted on the wall.
3. When and how to slurp
Mother always taught me that it’s polite to make noises while eating. To eat rice or noodles with chopsticks, we raise our bowls to our mouths, then slurp our food to show we like it. We would go to Tokyo Ramen Street in Tokyo Station, where businessmen in dark suits slurp away thick, chewy noodles served tsukemen-style (separate from the hot broth), with dipping sauce alongside.
4. How and when to properly bow
Mother taught me to show respect by lowering my upper body when I met someone. This applies to everyone from casual friends to authority figures. For a superior like a teacher, us Japanese lower ourselves slowly to a 70° angle, whereas a school chum might get a quick 30° bow.
5. To remove my shoes
When you enter a Japanese home, business, hotel or temple, it’s common courtesy to remove your shoes. Mom taught me to always put them in the shoe rack that’s usually near the entrance.
6. To not tip
This applies to waiters, taxi drivers, hairdressers, barbers and anyone else who serves you in Japan, where tipping is considered insulting. After all, the requested services are covered by the price, so why should we offer more?
7. Vending machines are your friend
Who knew you could buy canned bread, cigarettes, eggs, underwear, toiletries, and other necessities from a vending machine? Mom knew.
8. 7-Eleven is a go-to source
If you can’t find it in a vending machine, 7-Eleven is a one-stop shop for everything, with the possible exception of prescription medicine. Need to pay bills, charge your train card, buy a lottery ticket, or replace that empty tube of toothpaste? Mom taught me that 7-Eleven is the place. With more outlets here than in any other country in the world, and nearly 2,000 in Tokyo alone, you’re never far from a 7-Eleven in Japan.
9. Wear a mask
SARS may be long gone, but in Japan it’s still normal to wear a sterilized mask over our mouths and noses wherever we go. Never mind that we look like escapees from a hospital emergency room… the face masks protect us from disease while keeping our germs away from others.
10. It’s okay to walk alone
From childhood, we learn from our Japanese mothers not to steal from or violate others. Our crime rate is among the lowest in the world, making it safe for us to walk to school (or anywhere) without our moms, or even to sleep on a park bench when we get older.
11. Take one for the team
According to an old Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” In our country, Japanese mothers teach us to value community over individuality, making teamwork paramount and showboating unacceptable. Drawing attention to yourself is a big no-no: Don’t blow your nose in public, avoid eating on-the-run, and stay off your cell phone in crowded trains or buses.
12. No public displays of affection
PDAs are frowned upon in Japan. Unlike Westerners, we save our affection for private places. No matter how much I care about someone, mom taught me to never kiss or hug loved ones in public.
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