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‘How do I eat this properly?’: Seven lessons from living in Japan

As ungrateful as it sounds, I didn’t want to come to Japan. An exploratory trip at the end of 2016 did not live up to my fanciful, and in retrospect rather ignorant, expectations. Tokyo was all low-slung concrete office blocks and wind tunnels; trudging through the winter weather in Kyoto left me with cold feet.

Most of all, I was seized by the suspicion that I wasn’t doing things the right way, a sensation which was particularly acute at meals. “How do I eat this properly?” I would ask while gesturing at the array of delicacies – rolled omelette, orange cubes, river fish, seaweed salad, steamed squash and rice – in a typical lunchbox, or bento.

‘The bento is like Japan itself, a landscape of extraordinary beauty born out of limited natural and spatial resources. The only imperative is to appreciate it.’ Illustration by Simon LetchCredit:

The response from my hosts tended to be that it didn’t matter, that I could eat in whatever order and manner I liked. Rather than accept this graciousness at face value, I took it to mean that the etiquette was too complicated to explain to a foreigner and continued to feel oafish and out of it.

Despite the crossed wires of that initial visit, I wound up moving here anyhow. My husband is with the US Navy; they needed him in Okinawa, where thousands of other Americans are stationed; that was that. After a couple of years of observation, and as I prepare to leave Japan to return to the US this month, I have come to the conclusion that there really is no right way to consume the various components of a Japanese lunchbox. The bento is like Japan itself, a landscape of extraordinary beauty born out of limited natural and spatial resources. The only imperative is to appreciate it.

The Japanese certainly do. Their attention to aesthetics is unparalleled. Once, when roaming the house of Kawai Kanjiro, a legendary 20th-century ceramicist, I heard gasps from other museum-goers as they caught a glimpse of a particularly lovely earthenware bowl on display. Another time, in the midst of a kaiseki or tasting menu, diners around me literally applauded when a waiter presented a vat of perfectly steamed rice.

If something can be made more beautiful, it is. Think of the way a Zen garden can be created in the most limited or uninspiring space. At Daiso shops, otherwise known as 100 yen stores, there are tools designed to cut tomatoes in a uniform fashion, as well as to pluck the stems from the cherry variety without butchering their tops. In Japan, produce is to be treated with respect – and even plastic junk is classy.

If Kyoto didn’t live up to expectations – whether it was raining or not – that’s my problem. I’ve been back since, many times, and between the narrow canals and traditional machiya townhouses and camphor-covered hills, I now think of it as the most romantic city in the world. There is beauty everywhere, if you look for it. That’s one lesson I’ve learnt in Japan. Here are six others.


You’ll find yourself thinking about your feet a lot in Japan. Wearing shoes on tatami – rice straw mats – is forbidden. Leases typically include a clause which states you’ll lose your rental deposit if there’s evidence you wore shoes inside.

In the beginning there were more than a few instances when, at someone’s house, I’d discover a toe peeking out of my ancient socks when it was, of course, too late to do anything about it. In my defence, most of the socks I own were received as Christmas presents from distant relatives. But this kind of carelessness is unacceptable in Japan, where there are more novelty sock shops than anywhere else.

I have come to appreciate the way taking your shoes off divides public and private. Removing the dust of the street is a shedding of the mundane. The associated customs are also appealing, like the use of “bathroom slippers” – a communal pair of scuffs left by the toilet door so the rest of the house remains unsullied by the business of ablutions.

Don’t assume, by the way, that bare feet are okay. That Japanese capacity to appreciate beauty ends at toes, which we can all agree are uniformly grotesque. A related point is that modesty – and its close cousin, humility – are valued traits in Japan. That must be why culottes and other loose, flowing clothes are favoured.

But the Japanese might also love socks because they’re a reliable layer, a recognition that in this flower chain of an archipelago at the top of Asia, the weather can change quickly. Preparation for all outcomes is a good idea. That said, there’s one place where complete nudity is not only tolerated, but expected …


A soak in the bath an hour or so before bed can improve your sleep. Illustration by Simon LetchCredit:

Before living in Japan, I thought baths were a luxury for the Gwyneth Paltrows of the world. Now I’ve become convinced that they’re an economical, essential respite from our phones. The mental benefits of a bath are myriad: recent research has shown a soak an hour or so before bed can improve sleep, while the minerals in onsens (hot spring baths) throughout volcanic Japan are claimed to cure everything from arthritis to acne.

Although this habit is changing, the Japanese have traditionally made a trip to the communal bathhouse once a week. Here’s how to make the most of a soak, from the experts. Ideally, you’d have access to the aisle upon aisle of bath salts and powders at the chain store Tokyu Hands. (My favourite is a honey and almond scented kind which features a picture of hugging teddy bears. Aaaah, I feel better already.) But lacking this, you can still follow the rules: shower beforehand, particularly if using a communal facility, to ensure cleanliness; use a deep cedar tub which comes up to your shoulders; and take at least 15 minutes out to reap the benefits.

In these environmentally conscious times, you should recycle the water for family members, as the Japanese have done for centuries. The country’s poor natural resources and high population density – not to mention mountainous terrain and few fertile plains – mean there’s always been an awareness of conserving resources. Which brings us to the next lesson …


Slicing a piece of fruit is treated with the respect that every type of work deserves. Illustration by Simon LetchCredit:

In Japanese kitchens, every part of an ingredient is put to good use. At a slip of a restaurant in Kyoto’s historic geisha district of Gion, I watched a sous chef spend the evening cutting pears for the dessert course. The process for each pear was the same: first he bisected it, swiftly, as though wanting to minimise its pain. Then he divided its soft, fleshy halves into slivers, each thinner than a finger. The whole process took a good 10 minutes, because after each incision, he’d step back from the counter at which he was working, tip his head on its side, and assess his progress. There are probably surgeons – I’ve certainly had hairdressers – who show less care.

It’s true that in Japan fruit is consumed a little differently from Australia, where an indelible image of summer is a child devouring a peach with the juice dribbling down his or her chin. The Japanese view fruit as a delicacy. Often it’s bought not to be eaten but instead admired; “gift fruit” reaches its apex around Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing intersection, where shiny emporiums sell utterly spherical rockmelons for more than $100, and giant strawberries for $20.

Nonetheless, the pear story is not unique. It demonstrates a prevalent attitude towards work, which is that if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. This is why train conductors on the shinkansen, or bullet train, bow to the carriage after moving through it, even if no one’s watching, or why the legions of men who are working on an invisible pothole around the corner from my house stop to do the same whenever a car passes by.


After a trip to this haunted house, Easter will never be the same again. Illustration by Simon LetchCredit:

A knock-on effect of this pride in one’s work is that all labour is deemed worthy of respect. A friend told me about a Japanese film she saw in which a teacher with a ninja background goes on a mission to save one of her students who has fallen foul of an organised crime syndicate. The film, Gokusen, was totally unlike a typical Hollywood heist flick. First: aren’t all teachers ninjas, in a way? Second: the team this teacher assembles to help her out includes a plumber, a house cleaner and a CEO. Each is treated as equally valuable to the crime-fighting mission in a way my friend – used to the American reverence for the rich – found striking.

The Japanese concept of gambare essentially means “try hard”. It’s what Japanese fans shout when they’re supporting their sports teams. (Consider how much more peaceful the world would be if soccer hooligans made a rallying cry of “Just do your best, it’s all you can do and I’m proud of you!”) Gambare underscores that it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, or how much you’re getting paid for it, as long as you perform to the best of your ability. This sounds good in theory, but I have a cautionary tale, and it’s that haunted houses in Japan are very scary.

“It’s called the ‘Abandoned Warehouse', ” I thought to myself while lining up behind a group of schoolchildren to enter one recently. “How bad can it be?” Given the national penchant for order, I imagined the horrors would extend to piles of cardboard boxes not yet flattened for recycling.

Oh, the naiveté! The young, slightly disaffected workers responsible for scaring the bejeezus out of me applied themselves to their task with frightening zeal. No half-hearted zombie masks for this lot. There were life-size rabbit suits involved and Easter will never be the same again. Gambare indeed.


Not eating every last bit of rice you’re given is seen as disrespectful to the farmer. Illustration by Simon LetchCredit:

There may not be a defined order for eating a bento, but this is one law around meals that is inviolable. Although a staple in both countries, rice is consumed very differently in Japan compared
to its neighbour, China. It’s not a base for other flavours but is instead often eaten by itself, or savoured as a climactic end to the meal. There’s a widespread assumption that sushi chefs find fame because of the way they cut fish, but a chef’s rice recipe is equally important.

His particular measurements of vinegar and sugar are closely guarded secrets. The chef at a sushi counter I visited recently is legendary for not using any sugar in his rice at all. He thinks leaving it out enhances the texture of the individual grains. The most common explanation you’ll hear for why it’s crucial to eat every last bit of rice you’re given is that it would be disrespectful to the farmer not to. But the aversion to waste runs deep. You see it everywhere, including in the bathrooms, where sinks and toilets are often combined so the water from one step can be recycled for the other.


When people have a reasonable expectation that they will be taken care of through all the stages of life, this has a positive impact on how they relate to one another. Illustration by Simon Letch.Credit:

At the shopping mall near where I live in Okinawa, there’s a food court overlooking the turquoise expanse of the South China Sea. It’s a pleasant spot. One day recently, I saw a group of 10 or so very old people sitting around a large wooden communal table enjoying their lunch.

That in itself isn’t unusual around here. Okinawa is a longevity “blue zone”, which means it boasts more centenarians than almost anywhere else in the world. But there were a few notable things about this heartwarming scene. The very old people had a couple of carers with them, dressed in bright tropical print shirts, who appeared actively engaged in conversation with the people they were caring for. Also, each person had a different lunch, which means that rather than order McDonald’s for everyone, the carers had taken into account their individual preferences and stood in lines to get a bento, and a sushi plate, and tempura set, and seven other individual orders. Finally it occurred to me how rare a sight it is in Australia to see elderly people in a large group out in public, let alone actively enjoying themselves.

All of these thoughts arose as I was cleaning the mall-issued highchair that my son had been sitting in. He had eaten his lunch on reusable baby plates provided by the takeaway noodle spot we’d chosen. They’d also given us baby cutlery. Afterwards I took my son to one of the mall’s many nursing rooms – all of which are more thoughtfully decorated than his own nursery, which is admittedly not difficult – and availed us of a sofa surrounded by a plush pink curtain. I’ve encountered similar facilities in almost every public space throughout Japan, including train stations. (Once, by contrast, I tried to change a nappy in the ladies’ room of New York’s Penn Station, and am still not ready to talk about what I went through.)

Japan is a country of 126 million people, with many problems. These include a declining population growth rate, an unwillingness to let in immigrants to help with the ensuing labour shortage, a tendency towards overwork verging on a public health crisis, and widespread institutionalised sexism. I have shared only anecdotes, and unscientific conclusions drawn from them.

The point of these lessons is not to say Japan is perfect, or better than anywhere else. But there is one thing worth affirming, based on my brief stay in this country.

It is that when people have a reasonable expectation that they will be taken care of through all stages of life, this has a tangible, positive effect on how they relate to one another. We should give it a try sometime, don’t you think?

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