Category Archives: Japan

How to Visit a Shinto Shrine (Japanese Shrine)

How to Visit a Shinto Shrine (Japanese Shrine)
See all 3 photos
A Shinto shrine in Nikko I visited

What to do at a Japanese Shinto Shrine (Jinja)

Even to many Japanese people, the proper way to go about paying your respects at a shrine is shrouded in mystery. What do you do at this weird water fountain? Why are people clapping and ringing a loud bell at this otherwise serene location?  My goal in this guide is to guide you through, step by step, the most enjoyable and important parts of a Shinto shrine visit.

Example of a temizuya

See all 3 photos
A temizuya at a shrine in Nagano, Japan

The water fountain contraption

At the entrance of Japanese Shinto shrines, you’ll find a water fountain like thing that has ladles made out of bamboo or wood laid out on it (picture to the right). It’s called a temizuya, and the whole point of it is to clean and purify your body by washing your hands and your mouth. Here’s the process:

Step 1: Pick up the ladle with your right hand and scoop up some water from the top portion.  

Step 2: Pour a third of the water into your left hand and wash it first. Swap the ladle into your left hand, and then pour another third of the water into your right hand and proceed to wash it.  All of this should be occurring in the bottom part of the temizuya, not where you initially scooped the water.

Step 3: Now that your hands are clean, you’ll need to wash your mouth. Pass the ladle back into your right hand, and then (hopefully you have some water left) pour some water into your left hand. With the water in your left hand, bring your hand to your mouth and rinse with the water, finally spitting into the little area on the ground. Whatever you do, just don’t put your mouth directly to the ladle, or spit back into the top area where you drew the water.

Step 4: Finally, you need to wash the ladle for the next person. To do this, draw some more water into the ladle, and now holding it with both hands, tilt the ladle scoop side up so that water falls down the handle and onto your hands. This essentially cleans the ladle, your hands, and the handle. You’re now all set to make your way to the shrine itself.

This can be pretty troublesome, and difficult if you’re bad at portioning water, but all in all it’s a pretty fun experience. In winter, most shrines have this water heated, so it can be a nice place to warm the body (until the water starts evaporating), and in the summer it’s a good cool down spot. Now that you have the water fountain part down, on to the more meaty shrine visitation process.

Example of the bell and the box

See all 3 photos

What to do at the actual shrine

Normally you’ll see stairs leading up to the shrine, with a box with a grated opening in front of it, and a bell and a rope attached to it hanging down from the ceiling. You’ll get to use all of the above, so don’t fret.

Step 1: Walk up the steps so that you’re in front of the box and the rope, and bow deeply once (go down so you’re making a 90 degree angle at the waist). After you bow once, you’ll want to ring the bell (It’s more like a dull thud than a ring though). The purpose of this is to purify yourself of evil spirits. Although I describe the money giving process below, some people prefer to put money in before they ring the bell.

Step 2: Now that you’re purified via the water fountain and the thudding bell, you’re ready to pray. Gently place, not 3 pointer launch, some money into the box (normally a 5 yen coin will do). After this, you’ll have to bow twice more, nice and deeply like you’re trying to make a 90 degree angle at your waist. Upon coming up from your second bow, put your hands together in front of you like you’re trying to kill a fly, and then separate them and clap twice. When you’re done with your second clap, keep your hands together, and then pray.

Step 3: After you’re done praying, separate your hands and do one more bow (some people like to do two at the end, with the first one right after your prayer being deep, and the last one being a less intense bow). You’re all set at this point, and you can apply this basic technique at any shrine in Japan.

The Essence of Shinto: Japan’s Spiritual Heart
Amazon Price: $125.78
List Price: $22.00

Sum Up

Here I outlined the basics of Shinto shrine visitation, from when you first walk up to the gates and see the temizuya (water fountain/cleaning station), to the more complicated ordeal in front of the main shrine (where you’re on display). Depending on the region however, the process may vary, but if you use these steps you should never stray too far from what the people around you are doing. If there are any questions regarding why certain things are done the way they are, or the history behind any of the processes, I’d be happy to answer them in the comments section (didn’t want to make a 4 page long history-culture lesson Hub)! Mata ne!  

UPDATE: I’ve created a Hub that provides a cursory overview of Shintoism here.  It’s no thesis paper, but should give you enough to get by.

Easy Japanese Greetings

Easy Japanese Greetings

Zenkouji Temple, Nagano, Japan

Zenkouji temple, located in Nagano prefeture. This was taken by me on New Years day, clearly the most chaotic of Japanese temple visiting holidays.

Sasuga Nihon: A Brief Lesson on Japan From a Half Native

Here you will find the first of many entries to a collection of Hubs outlining, explaining, and decrypting the many questions surrounding every aspect of Japanese life. There will be humor, there will be polite apologies for ignorance, and, above all, there will be things you simply will never understand, no matter how much you try.

My target audience is those who belong in the group that goes under Japan’s coveted title of “gaikoku-jin (gaijin)”, or, foreigner. My hopes are that upon reading any of the numerous Hubs I will be posting, you may find yourself slightly better equipped to traverse the treacherous terrain that is Japanese culture.

Brief Lesson #1: Greetings In Japanese (and what do do with your body)

No matter what point you are at in your stay in Japan, you’ll find that strangers will always assume that you speak little to no Japanese. However, that will not stop them from trying to communicate with you, especially in rural areas, and it’s handy to have a few greetings on hand to not seem completely ignorant.

Basic Greeting #1: Kon-nichi-wa — This translates to “good day”, but is seen more as a “hello”. The one rule though is that you can only use this from around 11 AM to about when it gets dark. However, there are numerous Japanese people who will still say Konnichiwa even after it’s dark out. This may lead you to wonder, “Well, this seems to imply that there’s something said after it gets dark out”, and you’re absolutely correct.

Basic Greeting #2: Kon-ban-wa — This translates to “good evening”, and is the dark counterpart to konnichiwa. Regarding the appropriateness of when to use this word, you’ll more or less be safe to use it when the sun has gone down, or is just about to.

Basic Greeting #3: Ohayou-gozaimasu — Considering “good afternoon” and “good evening” have been covered, this leaves us with “good morning” left. Ohayou gozaimasu is “good morning”, but spoken politely. If you want to be more casual, swing out with a simple Ohayou, which would be the equivalent of “mornin'”. If you ever find work in a Japanese speaking environment, this will get used a lot, and its shelf life is only until 11 AM, if you want to get technical.

Japanese Body Language #1

Almost as hard as learning the Japanese language is learning the appropriate body language that goes along with each phrase.  Here, I will explain the various things you can do with your heady, hands, arms, waist, eyes, ears, ponytail etc.   

Body Language Lesson #1: For all of the above greetings, here is a concise set of instructions on what to do WHILE saying whatever greeting is appropriate at the time.  First, make eye contact with whoever you’re going to greet.  Next, put your hands kind of near your sides, palms inwards to your thighs.  Finally, as you’re saying your greeting, you must bow at the waist and bow your head as well.  To determine how far to bow at the waist, simply slouch foward and notice where your shoulders are.  Now, instead of slouching, bow so that your shoulders are at the same height, or even a little lower.  For your head, just have it follow naturally in a straight line with the rest of your upper body when you bow.  At this point, it’s OK to break eye contact.  

After all’s said and done, come back out of your bow, and then go on being your usual incompetent gaijin self.

Amazon Price: $0.00
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Japan
Amazon Price: $15.63
List Price: $28.00
Amazon Price: $39.92
List Price: $59.95

Next Hub Topic

The next Hub will be about how to contact the police in Japanese if your cat has been missing for over 5 hours…just kidding! (although maybe one day, if I get enough requests).  In all seriousness, next time’s Hub will be how to introduce yourself in Japanese, beyond the simple hellos and good evenings.  ?????????! See you next week!

How to Visit Someones House in Japan: The Manners (2 of 2)

How to Visit Someone's House in Japan: The Manners (2 of 2)


This is a continuation of my previous hub on Japanese house visit manners found here.  Just a quick disclaimer, the translations you’ll see here might come off as a little funny, but that’s only because there’s no way to get a pure translation from certain Japanese phrases to English.  This is especially true in formal Japanese, but go ahead and have a laugh as you read my feeble attempts to make them sound not ridiculous. 

Step 4 Once you’ve been guided to the room

Nowadays, you’re more likely to be guided to a table and a chair, as every Japanese house I’ve visited in the past 3 years has done away with the Zabuton (floor cushion) system.  Of course lots of houses still have zabutons (mine included), but chances are you won’t have to worry about sitting seiza (with your calves folded under you).  If you aren’t told where to sit, choose the seat that’s closest to the door.  After sitting, you’ll want to say your thanks for having been invited by saying ” Honjitsu wa Omaneki itadaki arigatou gozaimasu” (Thank you for inviting me today).  At this point, you can move on to what some consider the most difficult part of visiting a house: gift giving.

Step 5 Giving the gift

Seeing as how this is a tedious process, I’m going to break it down into its various components and list them.

1. Take out your gift from whatever you used to carry it and place it on the table.

2. Have the gift with its front facing you on the table, and then spin it clockwise towards your hosts, ending with the front facing them.

3. Push it towards them while saying either “Tsumaranai mono desu ga, douzo” (This isn’t anything special, but please…) OR, if you want to be even more polite “Kokoro bakari no mono desuga, douzo omeshiagari kudasai” (This is nothing special, but please enjoy this).

4. That’s it!

Step 6 Getting fed (the best part)

Chances are if you’ve been invited to someone’s house, they have the intention of feeding you.  If it isn’t a delicious meal, then it will at least be great tea and tasty treats.  There are rules, however, that guide the best part of the visiting process, and certain phrases that will help you along the way.  

1. When the food first comes out and you’re prompted to eat, you must say “Arigatou gozaimasu, itadakimasu” (Thank you, I will eat it).  Itadakimasu is a funny word, and it’s considered standard protocol to say it at the beginning of every meal, and a darn near necessity if that meal is prepared by someone else for your sake.  

2.  Now here’s the tricky part.  If you eat the entirety of your portion, you may come off as being underfed, but if you leave too much, it may seem as if you didn’t enjoy your meal.  However, if you have to choose a path to take, I’d recommend finishing your portion, and then when asked if you want more, say “Mou jyuubun itadakimashita.  Oishikatta desu” (I’ve had quite enough.  It was very tasty).  Finish that off with a “gochisousama deshita” (Kind of means “I’ve feasted!”) and you’re home free.  

Manners and Mischief: Gender, Power, and Etiquette in Japan
Amazon Price: $19.89
List Price: $24.95
Barney – Best Manners (Invitation To Fun)
Amazon Price: $1.65
List Price: $7.97

Step 7 Going home

The general rule of thumb for leaving is to make sure you keep track of the time, and start to consider packing up around the 1 hour mark. If you’re being fed, however, the hour mark is no longer valid, and just use your best judgment on when to leave after the meal is over. You’d probably be safe leaving about 1 hour after the meal.

After you’ve decided what time you need to take your leave, there are certain rules and phrases you must abide by and say before you head out. Here’s the order of operations:

1. Take a look at the clock during a lull in the conversation and say “Soro soro oitomasasete itadakimasu”, meaning, “It’s about time I should be heading out”. This is a very polite phrase though, and if you’re visiting a closer friends house you can simply say “Soredewa, sorosoro shiturei shimasu” (Well then, It’s about time I went home). Start getting your stuff together and head to the genkan.

2. After getting on your shoes, you’ll be guided outside the genkan (the genkan saki) and here is where you’ll say your goodbyes. First, you’ll thank your hosts by saying “Honjitsu wa gochisou ni narimashita, arigatou gozaimashita”, meaning, “today I was feasted, thank you”. Even if you only had one biscuit and a single cup of coffee, it’s polite to say “gochisou ni narimashita”. Now, as you bow (explanation here), say “Kongo mo douzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (I hope we can continue to have a good acquaintance from here on out). After this, you’re free to walk away, and consider yourself a champion at visiting houses politely and enjoyably. Expect many re-invites when using this guide, and consider looking at some of my other hubs as a thanks for your new source of delicious food.

How to Introduce Yourself in Japanese

How to Introduce Yourself in Japanese

Introducing Yourself in Japanese

Introducing yourself in Japanese is quite easy and once you’ve mastered a few set phrases, you can basically expand however you’d like from there.  I’ll be teaching you not a complex Jikoshoukai (Self introduction), but simply the start of one.  Step one is as follows:

Step 1 (Formal)

Make eye contact like you would with an angry bear, because Japanese people are inherently scary. Then, do a bow like explained in my previous hub here. While bowing, say “Hajimemashite”, which translates roughly to “I’ve never seen you before, and nor you me”. At the end of your Hajimemashite your head should be coming back up, and right before it returns to its normal position start saying “(Your last name here, followed by your first name) to moushimasu”. So for example, I would say “Hajimemashite, Abe Akiya to moushimasu”. Just to clarify a pronunciation point, the “to” is not pronounced like “going to the store” but, rather, “my favorite movie dog is toto”. So, to sum it all up:

#1 Make eye contact

#2 Start bowing and while going down say “Hajimemashite”

#3 Return from your bow but before coming fully back start to say “_______ to moushimasu”.

Now, on to step #2.

Japanese Hiragana & Katakana for Beginners: First Steps to Mastering the Japanese Writing System
Amazon Price: $8.48
List Price: $14.95
Japanese Demystified: A Self-Teaching Guide
Amazon Price: $27.86
List Price: $23.00
Japanese from Zero! 1: Proven Techniques to Learn Japanese for Students and Professionals (Japanese Edition)
Amazon Price: $20.37
List Price: $27.95

Step 2

At this point,if you have above a big goose egg 0 Japanese level, you could go into a Jikoshoukai here, or self introduction. However, if you aren’t expected to make a Jikoshoukai, like if you are simply meeting an acquaintance of a friend in a coffee shop, then starting a big speech about what foods you like and where you’re from will be both odd and a nuisance. So, here’s what you do to keep things nice and simple:

#1 After finishing your bow while finishing your statement “…to moushimasu”, snap back up and make eye contact once more.

#2 Now I know you just did a bow and may be getting sick of it by this point, but expect to be doing one soon after your first one is finished. You’ll need to say “Douzo yoroshiku onegaitashimasu” and as soon as you start your “Douzo” you should already be starting another bow.

#3 Come back up right as you’re finishing the entire phrase, and you’re home free with a cherry on top if you shoot your new buddy a smile.

P.S Don’t touch anyone physically at all during this interaction. Handshakes more or less do not occur, and the general lack of physical contact among the Japanese populace leads to frequent, spontaneous drive-by hugs.

Sum Up (plus a way to do the whole thing more casually)

All together, this is the gist of what you’ll be saying:

“Hajimemashite(while bowing), (last name) (first name) to moushimasu. Douzo yoroshiku onegaitashimasu(while bowing).”

The English translation is this:

“Nice to meet you, Abe Akiya I am.  I profess my desire to be good acquaintances and not hate each other.”

How to Casual-ise the encounter

This is very easy, and you’ll just be replacing one word and shortening another.  The casual version I’m giving you will not be overly slangy though, as we should all attempt to use “pretty” Japanese.

Following the exact same pattern, simply do this:

“Hajimemashite(while bowing), _________ to iimasu (changed from moushimasu).  Yoroshiku onegaishimasu(while bowing).

Here you’re essentially saying the same thing but in a more casual way, by changing the moushimasu to iimasu, and dropping the douzo and changing onegaitashimasu to onegaishimasu.

Now this is not the only way to introduce yourself in Japanese, and it is not the best way either.  However, it’s correct, acceptable, and widely used.  If you manage to get this down pat then you’ll undoubtedly create a good first impression, or at least further strengthen your facade of being able to truly speak Japanese.  

How to Visit Someones House in Japan: The Manners (1 of 2)

How to Visit Someone's House in Japan: The Manners (1 of 2)
Picture of a traditional style Japanese house

You’ve been lucky enough to get invited to a Japanese friend’s house, so now what?

Visiting the house of a Japanese person, unless they’re very close to you, can be quite intimidating. Like most things in Japan, there are a lot of subtle rules and interpretations of body language that go down in house calls, but the good thing is that they at least make sense. Americans wearing shoes inside their houses, on the other hand, makes no sense at all. Now let’s talk about the manners associated with visiting someone’s house in Japan.

Step 1: Before you even walk up to the door

I could say “wear something nice”, but that’s obvious no matter what culture you live in, so I’ll move on to the next less obvious one, but still pretty obvious. You must buy some sort of gift to bring. It doesn’t have to be too fancy, and I 100% recommend bringing a food item. If it’s going to be a small dinner party with you and your boss and his family, then don’t bring ice cream or a bag of chocolate Pocky just because I said bring a food item. Instead, pick out a decent 1000-1500 yen bottle of liquor, like sake or whiskey. Being half Japanese myself, I can safely say that we’re all alcoholics. Cake is also a great way to win anyone over.

Step 2 You’re at the door, with the Cerberus of Japanese manners guarding it

You’ve made it to the door with your wrapped gift (supermarkets will wrap gifts for you if you buy them there. At the register just say “Tsutsunde moraemasuka?”) and are ready to either ring the doorbell, or knock on the door twice (In Japan you knock twice, not thrice). However, before you do this, you have to do two things.

1. Make sure your jacket or coat is already off and over your arm. My guess is so that you aren’t bustling around trying to get your shoes off and your jacket AND hand over your gift at the same time while inside their house.

2. Check your watch, and make sure you’re just about 5 minutes LATE. I know this may seem strange, but it’s a pretty standard rule when visiting houses. It’s to make sure any last minute preparations for your arrival get completed. Being any later than 5 minutes though will be considered rude.

Once both of these conditions are completed, go ahead and ring the doorbell or knock on the door.

An instructional video on how to visit a house (this is way overboard though, and should be used for basic reference only)

Step 3 Once inside the genkan (foyer)

You now must introduce yourself to whoever answered the door if you don’t know them, which is a high probability considering your boss’s husband or wife won’t often come to your work. You can find out how to do that here. Now, if you brought a gift that needs to be refrigerated, or if it’s something like flowers that need to go in a vase, you need to hand that over in the genkan, while saying “Kore, tsumaranai mono desuga, douzo” (This isn’t anything special, but please accept it). If it’s just a bottle of fine gin, wait until you’ve been shown to the room. NOW, you take off your shoes when they say something like “Douzo Oagari kudasai” (Please come in) and while stepping up say “Ojyama itashimasu” (Literally: I’m going to be in the way). Upon doing all this, you’ve made it inside safely, and you can say the hardest part is over.

Manner books

Manners and Mischief: Gender, Power, and Etiquette in Japan
Amazon Price: $19.89
List Price: $24.95
A Smart Girl’s Guide to Manners (American Girl) (American Girl Library)
Amazon Price: $4.88
List Price: $9.95

Sum Up

#1. Always buy a gift to bring, and make sure it’s wrapped. It doesn’t have to be too fancy.

#2. Arrive at just about 5 minutes later than the planned time, and have your coat off before you ring the doorbell or knock.

#3. Introduce yourself to whoever you don’t know in the genkan (foyer) with the methods here, and then hand over your gift if it’s perishable while saying “Kore, tsumaranai mono desuga, douzo” (In essence “Please accept this boring gift”). After they tell you to come in, say “Ojyama itashimasu” (I’m going to be in the way) and step up after taking off your shoes. More often than not there’ll be slippers for you to wear, and no matter how silly they are, you MUST wear them.

In part 2 (here), I will go over what to do once you’ve passed over the threshold. However, half the battle is already over, and you’ll find that when invited to a Japanese person’s house, they can really be quite hospitable. I strongly encourage any comments or questions and look forward to any critiques! Sore de wa…