It’s story time! In October of 2001, I had the privilege of travelling to Japan and stayed there for about a month. This coincided with my training for Shodan (black belt) and my Buddhist studies, and I had the opportunity to visit and stay with two Buddhist monasteries as well as dine and spend time with a number of Japanese and Okinawan dignitaries.
I was 23-years old when I travelled to Japan. It was the most exciting time of my life, since I had spent the majority of my life in Northern New Brunswick, sheltered from the majority of the outside world. I was about to get a crash course in world etiquette, and looking back on it I don’t believe I was as prepared as I could have been.
Obviously, the first and most important thing I learned right from the moment of my arrival, was that bowing was preferred over handshakes. Although many Japanese people have adopted handshakes due to the Westernization of their populace, the custom of bowing is still very much a staple of Japanese culture.
Chopsticks are still the most commonly used utensil, and tipping is frowned upon as the Japanese don’t believe in being given money they haven’t worked to earn (a custom I wish the Western world would adopt).
Despite all these customs (and there are many more), the biggest one is insulting your host by refusing refreshment. Believe it or not, I had never enjoyed a beer or any alcoholic beverage prior to 2001.
We visited a Japanese dignitary in Narita, Japan, when we first arrived from Canada. Sensei had told me that I might be offered a beer or some sake (Japanese rice wine), and that I shouldn’t refuse as it would be viewed as an insult.
When we all sat around a table within the dignitary’s household, his wife brought me a bottle of beer. Having never consumed it before, I gave the drink a couple of experimental sniffs before taking a sip. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was carbonated just like a soda would have been.
I drank the beer the same way as I would have consumed a soda. Before my empty bottle had touched the table, the wife brought me a second. I glanced at Sensei, whose eyebrows told me that refusing the second would be as grave an insult as refusing the first.
Sensei could have told me before our arrival that I could have sipped that first beer for hours and it would have been fine, but having emptied my bottle meant that my host needed to provide me with more. It ended up being a lesson in etiquette that would be learned through experience.
I was pretty intoxicated by the time we left the dignitary’s home. It would go on to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Not because I got drunk. Because I learned that it is most important to learn the customs of the people you’re visiting before going.
To this day, I can’t raise a glass to my lips without thinking of Okinawa. I have find memories and dream of a time that I can go back. I would encourage anyone who travel to foreign lands to take the time to study their culture and etiquette. Not only will it make for a more pleasant experience, but it could provide some insight into why certain things are done the way they are. ☯