Nicholas Coldicott offers advice on fitting in.
Japan deserves its reputation as a country wrapped in rules, customs and superstitions. There are proper and improper ways to walk, open sliding doors, hold a bowl of tea, exchange a business card and pretty much everything else. The good news for the nervous traveller is that ever fewer Japanese know much beyond the basics, so follow these simple dos and don'ts and you shouldn't ruffle any feathers.
Do ... shower before you take a bath. When visiting the time-worn public tubs known as sento (literally, "penny baths") or the mineral-rich, piping-hot onsen (natural hot springs), you must shower and scrub thoroughly before entering the water. If you think a two-minute rinse is enough, icy glares from your fellow bathers will tell you otherwise. In Japan, bathing is to calm, not to cleanse.
Do ... slip on the slippers. If you follow only one rule, make it this one. At homes, bathhouses, Japanese restaurants, sports clubs and traditional inns, outdoor shoes are a strict no-no. A raised step, shoe lockers and a line of slippers tell you it's time to swap footwear. And when you visit the toilet, you'll likely find another set of slippers to wear while you powder your nose.
Do ... choose your loo with care. Japan is justly famous for its high-tech toilets. The latest versions lift their seat to greet visitors, then wash, deodorise, massage and dry you. But right next door will often be an old-school potty that's little more than an elevated trough. Squatting over these no-frills lavs is said to be healthier but it demands balance, concentration and pelvic strength. Wouldn't you rather just be pampered?
Do ... remember a few simple chopstick rules. Never push dishes around the table with chopsticks, never suck the ends, don't pick up food by stabbing it and never stand your sticks upright in a bowl of rice.
Do ... leave your dishware outside your front door at night. Ramen delivery shops bring soups in ceramic bowls on lacquer trays. When you're done, wash up and leave the empties outside your door. The shop staff will come and pick them up. Don't ... give gifts in packs of four. The Japanese word for ''four'' is a homonym of the word for ''death'', so the number is seen as inauspicious. For this reason, retailers rarely offer items in packs of four and there are no seats with this number on planes operated by Japan Airlines or All Nippon Airways.
Don't ... tip. It's not customary, not expected and, in most cases, will make people feel awkward.
Don't ... pour your own drinks. Whether you're sipping tea in a business meeting or sharing beers with friends in the izakaya (Japanese pub), topping up your own glass will make your host look inept. Wait for someone to offer, then hold your glass as they pour. And be sure to return the gesture.
Don't ... expect an apology when someone bumps into you. Especially in the congested streets of Tokyo and Osaka, a little bumping and shoving is par for the course. No matter who is at fault, both parties will pretend it didn't happen.
Don't ... take a compliment. The proper way to respond to a flattering comment is to gently beg to differ. Someone tells you you're beautiful? Inform them you're not.