Friday, February 8, 2008

Japanese Bathroom

Japanese Bathrooms
basic information

In Japan, the main purpose of taking a bath besides cleaning your body, is relaxation at the end of the day.

The typical Japanese bathroom consists of two rooms, an entrance room where you undress and which is equipped with a sink, and the actual bathroom which is equipped with a shower and a deep bath tub. The toilet is almost always located in a completely separate room.

When bathing Japanese style, you are supposed to first rinse your body outside the bath tub with some water from the tub, using a washbowl. Afterwards, you enter the tub, which is used for soaking only. The bath water tends to be relatively hot for Western bathing standards. If you can barely enter, try not to move much, since moving around makes the water appear even hotter.

After soaking for a while, leave the tub and clean your body with soap. Make sure that no soap gets into the bathing water. Once you finished cleaning yourself and rinsed all the soap off your body, enter the bath tub once more for some more soaking. After leaving the tub, do not drain the water, since all household members will use the same water.

Modern bath tubs can be programmed to be automatically filled with water of a given temperature at a given time, or to heat up the water to a preferred temperature.


basic information
The Japanese greet each other by bowing. Bowing techniques range from a small nod of the head to a long, 90 degree bow. If the greeting takes place on tatami floor, people get on their knees in order to bow.

If your opposite is of higher social status than yourself, you are supposed to bow deeper and longer than him or her. But since most Japanese do not expect foreigners to know proper bowing rules, a nod of the head is usually sufficient.

It is also common to bow to express thanks or an apology or when making a request or asking somebody for a favor.

Shaking hands is uncommon among the Japanese, but foreigners are sometimes greeted with a hand shake.


basic information

Wasabi is Japanese horseradish. It is most famous in form of a green paste used as condiment for sashimi (raw seafood) and sushi. However, wasabi is also used for many other Japanese dishes.

Wasabi is a root vegetable that is grated into a green paste. In supermarkets, wasabi is widely available as a paste or in powder form. Wasabi powder has to be mixed with water to become a paste. Wasabi has a strong, hot flavour which dissipates within a few seconds and leaves no burning aftertaste in one's mouth.

wasabi paste

Many "wasabi" powder and paste products that are available in supermarkets (and even some restaurants) contain only very little or no real wasabi at all and are made of coloured horseradish instead. This is due to the fact that cultivation of real wasabi is relatively difficult and expensive.


basic information

When entering a Japanese house, you should take off your shoes at the entrance (genkan) and change into slippers which are usually provided by the host.

When entering a room with tatami floor, you are supposed to take off your slippers, since one should step onto tatami mats only in socks or barefoot.

Finally, you will find special toilet slippers for exclusive usage inside the washroom. Leave your usual slippers outside the door while using the washroom.

Please consult also our special pages about sitting techniques and rules, table manners, toilets and bathrooms.

Sitting Techniques

Sitting techniques and rules
basic information

Sitting techniques

Many Western people are not used to sit on the floor anymore. In Japan, however, sitting upright on the floor is common in various situations. For example, meals are traditionally held sitting on the tatami floor around a low table. Also during the tea ceremony and other traditional events, one sits on the floor.

The formal way of sitting for both genders is kneeling (seiza) as shown on the picture below. People who are not used to sit in seiza style, may feel uncomfortable after a few minutes, and their legs may get numb. However, foreigners are not usually expected to be able to sit in seiza style for a long time, and an increasing number of Japanese people themselves aren't able to do so due to a westernized lifestyle.

In casual situations, men usually sit cross-legged, while women sit on their knees laying both legs to one side. The former sitting style is considered exclusively male, while the latter is considered exclusively female.

women only


men only

Seating order

The most important guest sits on the honored seat (kamiza) which is located farthest from the entrance. If there is a tokonoma in the room, the guest should be seated in front of it. The host or least important person is supposed to sit next to the entrance (shimoza). Of course, there are more factors to be considered in every specific case.


basic information

Some of the most important chopstick rules are:

  • Hold your chopsticks towards their end, and not in the middle or the front third.
  • When you are not using your chopsticks and when you are finished eating, lay them down in front of you with the tip to left.
  • Do not stick chopsticks into your food, especially not into rice. Only at funerals are chopsticks stuck into the rice that is put onto the altar.
  • Do not pass food with your chopsticks directly to somebody else's chopsticks. Only at funerals are the bones of the cremated body given in that way from person to person.
  • Do not spear food with your chopsticks.
  • Do not point with your chopsticks to something or somebody.
  • Do not move your chopsticks around in the air too much, nor play with them.
  • Do not move around plates or bowls with chopsticks.
  • To separate a piece of food into two pieces, exert controlled pressure on the chopsticks while moving them apart from each other. This needs much exercise.
  • If you have already used your chopsticks, use the opposite end of your chopsticks in order to move food from a shared plate to your own plate.

Knife and fork are used for Western food only. Spoons are sometimes used to eat Japanese dishes that are difficult to eat with chopsticks, for example some donburi dishes or Japanese style curry rice. A Chinese style ceramic spoon is sometimes used to eat soups.


Alcoholic Beverages
basic information

Drinking plays an important role in Japanese society. Drinking parties, typically held at restaurants and izakaya, are a common activity that are used to strengthen both social and business ties. A large variety of alcoholic beverages can be found in Japan. Some of the most popular ones are:

Beer is the most popular alcoholic drink in Japan. The leading breweries are Asahi, Kirin, Suntory and Sapporo. The art of brewing beer was imported in the early Meiji Period from Germany as a development project for the northern island of Hokkaido.
Happoshu (lit. "sparkling alcohol", also known as low-malt beer) is a relatively recent invention by Japanese brewing companies. It has a similar flavor and alcohol content as beer, but it is made with less malt, which gives it a different, lighter taste. Also due to the lower malt content, happoshu is taxed differently than beer and is consequently sold at a lower price.
Third beer
"Third beer" (also known as "Shin Janru" or "New Genre") is the most recent development in the Japanese beer industry. In order to counter tax changes that reclassified the malt content of beer and subsequently raised the price of happoshu, this beer-like beverage contains no malt, instead using pea, soya, or wheat spirits.
Rice Wine (nihonshu or sake)
Commonly called sake outside of Japan, nihonshu or sake (note that "sake" is also the general Japanese term for alcohol) is brewed using rice, water and white koji mold as the main ingredients. Besides major brands, there are countless local rice wines (jizake). The alcohol content of nihonshu is typically about 10-20%. It is drunk either hot or cold, and it is usually filtered although unfiltered nihonshu (nigorizake) is also popular.
Shochu, Awamori
Shochu is a distilled spirit with an alcohol content usually between 20-40 percent. It is commonly made from rice, sweet potatoes, wheat and/or sugar cane. It is usually served mixed with water and ice, fruit juice and sparkling water, or oolong tea. Awamori is the Okinawan version of shochu. It differs in that it is made from long-grained thai-style rice instead of short-grained Japanese-style rice and uses a black koji mold indigenous to Okinawa.
Chuhai (the name is derived from "shochu highball") are fruit-flavored alcoholic drinks with an alcohol content that ranges between 5-8 percent. Common flavors include lemon, ume, peach, grapefruit, lime, and mikan (mandarin orange). In addition there are many seasonal flavors that come and go. Recent ones include winter pear, pineapple, and nashi (Japanese pear). They are usually shochu based, and are available in cans anywhere alcohol is sold.
Plum wine (umeshu)
Umeshu is made of Japanese plums (ume), sugar, and shochu or nihonshu. Its sweet, fruity, juice-like flavor and aroma can appeal to those who normally dislike alcohol. Commonly made at home, it is also easily found anywhere alcohol can be purchased. It is usually served on the rocks, mixed with soda, or as an umeshu sawa (umeshu sour).
Wine is gaining popularity in Japan, especially among women. While imported red, white, and sparkling wines from France, Italy, the United States and Australia are widely available, there also exists a sizable and increasing domestic wine industry. The most famous wine producing region within Japan is Yamanashi Prefecture.
Other liquors
Whisky is perhaps the most popular other western liquor in Japan and is often served on the rocks or mixed with water and ice. Gin and vodka based drinks are also commonly available at bars, restaurants, and izakaya.

Alcoholic beverages are sold in supermarkets, department stores, convenience stores, liquor stores (sakaya) and at vending machines (although machines in public shut off after 11PM). The legal drinking age is 20 years old, the same as for purchasing tobacco products.

Drinking Manners

When drinking alcoholic beverages, it is customary to serve one another, rather than serving yourself. You should periodically check your friends' glasses, and replenish them before they are empty. Likewise, if someone wants to serve you, you should drink to make room in your glass if it is full, hold it up for the person while they pour, and then take at least one drink before putting the glass down. These customs apply to everyone in your party even if they are not drinking alcohol.

At the beginning of a meal or drinking party you should not start drinking until everybody at the table is served and the glasses are raised for a toast, which is usually "kampai". Other toasts are acceptable, but avoid using "chin chin" when making a toast, since in Japanese this expression refers to the male genitalia.

While it is considered bad manners to become obviously drunk in some formal restaurants, for example in restaurants that serve kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine), the same is not true for other types of restaurants such as izakaya, as long as you do not bother other guests.

Vending Machine

Vending machines
basic information

With one vending machine per an estimated 23 people (according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association), Japan has one of the world's highest vending machine densities. Machines can be found all over the cities, smaller towns and even in the countryside. Almost none of them are vandalized or otherwise non-functional.

A majority of machines sell non-alcoholic beverages such as soft drinks, juice, vitamin drinks, tea and coffee for reasonable 110 to 120 Yen. Cold and hot beverages are available.

These vending machines sell 10 kg bags of various kinds of rice.

Vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages and cigarettes are also numerous. Many more varieties of vending machines can be found in smaller numbers. They sell goods such as ice cream, rice, instant cameras, cup noodles and even omikuji, the small fortune telling slips of paper sold at shrines and temples.

Omikuji vending machines at
Kamakura's Hachimangu
Alcoholic (left) and other beverages
and cigarettes are available here

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Soba Noodles

Soba Noodles
basic information

Soba noodles are native Japanese noodles made of buckwheat flour (soba-ko) and wheat flour (komugi-ko). They are roughly as thick as spaghetti, and prepared in various hot and cold dishes. The most basic soba dish is zaru soba in which boiled, cold soba noodles are eaten with a soya based dipping sauce (tsuyu).

Like pasta, soba noodles are available in dried form in supermarkets, but they taste best if freshly made by hand from flour and water. Soba making has also become a popular tourist attraction for domestic and international travelers. The activity is offered by many community centers and travel tour companies. Below you will find an illustrated description of the soba making process.

1st step: Mixing the flour

The first step, mixing the flour with water into a dough, is considered the most important and difficult part of making soba noodles. The correct amount of water is added step by step to the flower and mixed for several minutes until the flour becomes moist enough to be formed into a dough. The dough is then pressed until it becomes very smooth and contains no more air.

2nd step: Rolling the dough

The dough is then rolled into a thin square by repeatedly rolling it around a wooden rolling stick.

3rd step: Cutting the dough

At last, the dough is folded and cut into the noodles.

For zaru soba, the noodles are then boiled and cooled down with cold water, before served with a soya based dipping sauce (tsuyu), wasabi, nori seaweed and negi (Japanese leek). The water used to boil the noodles (soba-yu) is often added to the remaining tsuyu and drunken at the end of the meal.

Other popular soba dishes are noodle soups with various toppings, such as Kitsune Soba, Tanuki Soba and Tsukimi Soba. Despite the name, the popular dish Yakisoba is not made with soba noodles, but rather with Chinese style noodles (chukamen).


basic information

Seaweeds (kaiso) have been an important part of the Japanese diet for many centuries. Today, various types of seaweed are used extensively as soup stock, seasonings and other forms in daily Japanese cooking. The following are the three most commonly used types of seaweed:


Kombu is a large type of seaweed that is often used as a soup stock or in nabe (hot pot) dishes.


Wakame is often used in soups such as the miso soup or in sunomono salads. Wakame is usually sold in dried form, and is soaked in water before usage. The picture on the left shows wakame in dried and soaked form.


Nori are thin, dried seaweed sheets. Nori sheets are used in many sushi dishes, for rice balls and as a topping or condiment for various noodle and other dishes.


basic information

Sushi is the most famous Japanese dish outside of Japan, and one of the most popular dishes among the Japanese themselves who usually enjoy sushi on special occasions.

During the Edo period, "sushi" refered to pickled fish conserved in vinegar. Nowadays sushi can be defined as a dish containing rice which has been prepared with sushi vinegar. There are many different types of sushi. Some popular ones are:

Small rice balls with fish, etc. on top. There are countless varieties of nigirizushi, some of the most common ones being tuna, shrimp, eel, squid, octopus and fried egg.
Small cups made of sushi rice and dried seaweed filled with seafood, etc. There are countless varieties of gunkanzushi, some of the most common ones being sea urchin and various kinds of fish eggs.
Sushi rice and seafood, etc. rolled in dried seaweed sheets. There are countless varieties of sushi rolls differing in ingredients and thickness. Sushi rolls prepared "inside out" are very popular outside of Japan, but rarely found in Japan.
Temakizushi (literally: hand rolls) are cones made of nori seaweed and filled with sushi rice, seafood and vegetables.
Oshizushi is pressed sushi, in which the fish is pressed onto the sushi rice in a wooden box. The picture shows trout oshizushi in form of a popular ekiben (train station lunch box).
Inarizushi is a simple and inexpensive type of sushi, in which sushi rice is filled into aburaage (deep fried tofu) bags.
Chirashizushi is a dish in which seafood, mushroom and vegetables are spread over sushi rice.

Note that "sushi" becomes "zushi" in word combinations in which "sushi" is the second word, e.g. nigirizushi.