Many countries have things they are widely recognized for, such as tulips in the Netherlands, the Eiffel Tower in France, and Carnival in Brazil. But there are also cultural intangibles that might not be as obvious but can be equally interesting. By way of greetings, Americans exchange hugs while Europeans prefer to kiss on the cheek. On the culinary front, Scots are crazy for Haggis while Australians can’t get enough Vegemite. Openly blowing your nose into a tissue is considered rude in China but spitting on the ground is okay. Discovering these idiosyncrasies is partly why I travel, to explore and revel in what makes different cultures unique.
While traveling around Asia, I was fascinated that countries so close geographically could often be so varied culturally. Thais are renowned for their hospitable and friendly manner while mainland Chinese have a reputation for being a little brusque. The Japanese, meanwhile, are more reserved and have turned politeness into an art form. Service personnel will bow to you in thanks and young people will quickly give up their seat to their elders.
Japanese society is steeped in centuries-old traditions that remain resilient today. Surprisingly graceful sumo wrestlers delight crowds at sold-out tournaments, while elaborately made-up geishas entertain guests with traditional song and dance performances. The customary tea ceremony continues to thrive, with many people taking classes to learn the ancient rituals of preparing and pouring tea. There are thousands of steps involved, many which change with the seasons and the formality of the occasion.
In everyday life, tradition is preserved by the women who don beautiful kimono for special occasions, the school children who diligently practice writing the intricate Japanese characters and the sushi chefs who take pride in every precise knife cut. Food is regarded very seriously in Japan, and great care goes into presentation. Meals often consist of multiple components, each expertly prepared and served on individual dishes.
Even the sandwiches sold at convenience stores are meticulously packaged, although some of the ingredients can be baffling. Why does corn always seem to find its way into foreign versions of Western food? It’s unclear if the white substance in the photos below is cream or mayonnaise, the latter which the Japanese use liberally.
Japan is also at the forefront of advanced technology and architecture, with its buildings designed to withstand the impact of earthquakes which plague the region. But what really sets Japan apart is its whimsy. Everything from buses and lampposts to advertisements and public service announcements are given a dash of cuteness. Even the Asahi Brewery has been shaped like a beer glass and topped with a golden flame, affectionately known around town as the “golden poo.”
What are the cultural quirks you’ve discovered while traveling?