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Contiki culture hubs: Japanese culture edition

Japanese women in kimonos walking to Fushimi Inari Shrine in Japan

Welcome to Contiki’s culture hub for all the divine and historical details of Japanese culture. Planning a trip and need some pre-cursory courses to navigate this deeply traditional country? You’re in the right place.

Did you know that Japan is crawling with cats? Or that each year, after the famous and delicate cherry blossom season there is a national penis festival rooted in Shinto mythology? What if we told you that Japan was a master of both spirituality and party at the same time? An absolute treasure box of a country, Japan is bursting with interesting, and sometimes very strange, fun facts and customs – covering all of them in just one article would be quite a feat, but for now here are a few of our favourites! 

Our expert Trip Managers and travellers have come together to compile the perfect blend of historical, helpful, and sublime facts about Japanese culture.

Japan, home of…

In the mood for love this Christmas?

Even though Japan doesn’t follow a Christian faith, they still celebrate Christmas in December – but the festivities are slightly different. Whereas Christmas in the West is generally about spending time with your family and appreciating each other’s presence, Christmas in Japan is more of a couples celebration!

On Christmas Eve (which is more widely celebrated than the actual Christmas Day) couples unite and spend the entire day together in wintery bliss. It’s a romantic day in which gifts are exchanged and followed by an intimate dinner together. That is, if you consider KFC an intimate venue. That’s right, the most common meal to eat for Christmas Eve in Japan is fried chicken, and this is often the busiest day of the year for KFCs and similar chains country-wide!

It gets more date-like towards the end of the evening as the traditional Christmas cake in Japan is a two-layered sponge cake decorated with whipped cream and strawberries. Yum! It’s the perfect sweet treat to end the day on. 

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Foodie Facts

The expectation here is to talk about Sushi, and to be fair there is sooooo much we could say about Sushi. The history of the dish is deep and complex, the training to become a sushi chef is long and arduous, and the results are simply delicious! But when it comes to dining in Japan, there are many, many, rules to adhere to. Here are a few to keep in mind on your next trip! 

Tatami floors

Many Japanese households and restaurants have floor seating around low tables and cushions. These dining setups are arranged on tatami floors and shoes and slippers must be removed before stepping onto them. It’s also important to avoid stepping onto someone else’s pillow, so make sure to watch where you’re walking!


Before starting a meal you must wait for everyone to be served and then you all say the phrase “itadakimasu” which means “I gratefully receive”. However, if you are being served a dish that is better eaten straight away – for example something hot – you can use the phrase “osaki ni itadakimasu” which means “allow me to start before you”. When cheersing your drink, everyone says “kanpai” and raises their glasses together.

At the end of the meal it is proper to say “gochisōsama deshita” which means “thank you for the feast” and it is considered good manners to finish every last crumb of your meal off a plate! With that in mind, only help yourself to small portions at a time that you know you’ll be able to finish so you don’t leave anything behind…

Soy Sauce

It’s considered very bad manners to waste soy sauce, so when eating sushi you should only pour a little bit at a time into the provided dish. You should also never pour soy sauce directly over cooked white rice.


Pieces of sushi are meant to be consumed in one bite and generally cutting a piece in half is frowned upon. Many sushi rolls are carefully constructed and they are regarded as a highly delicate food akin to artistry, so to cut one into pieces would be to ruin the beautiful composition.


Rice will always be served to you in a small separate bowl. To eat it, you must hold the bowl in one hand and your chopsticks in the other. The rice that is prepared in Japan is generally quite sticky so you’ll have no trouble picking it up with chopsticks. When you eat you will bring both the chopsticks and the bowl towards your mouth. 

young woman enjoying traditional Japanese dinner

Image source:Contiki


You may have heard that Japanese culture and etiquette is especially rich and sometimes quite strict. As with any country it’s important to respect the local customs, but none are quite as complicated as Japan’s so here are a few helpful tips…


Relax and take in the Zen Garden

If you’ve ever seen one of those intricate gardens that feature large rocks and bonsai trees surrounded by swirling patterns on the ground then you’ve seen a traditional Japanese Zen Garden!

Zen Gardens, also known as Dry Gardens, have been part of Japanese culture for hundreds of years. They originated as a representation of the Buddhist ideal that anyone can achieve enlightenment through meditation and deep relaxation, and as such, the gardens are designed by raking fine gravel or sand into various artistic patterns. There’s a certain level of skill needed for this activity, but at its core it’s meant to be a meditative experience. 

The beauty of these gardens is that the patterns can be interpreted differently by everyone, and therefore anyone can find meaning within them. Generally, though, it’s believed that the gravel and sand base represents water, and the large rocks placed throughout represent islands. These historic gardens attract tourists from all over the world, and some have even claimed that the sense of relaxation they have achieved here hasn’t been possible anywhere else in the world!

Get colourful and crazy at Harajuku

If you’re into wacky anime shows and manga, if you’re a fan of vibrant and larger-than-life cosplay, then you better get yourself to Harajuku ASAP! The home of “Kawaii” (meaning cute) fashion, Harajuku is easily one of the most unique and eclectic places you’ll ever visit. 

Filled with neon signs, trendy bars and restaurants, and lots of fantastic retail stores, Harajuku is a great place to visit for any Tokyo tourist, but it has become a world famous rendez-vous for fans of all franchises. 

Pop in for a visit at the micro-pig café, snack on a giant rainbow coloured cotton candy, and gawk in awe at all the frilly skirts, the stripy socks, the fishnet gloves, the pastels and the neons and even some “kawaii goths”. This is a place for people to go and indulge in their love of eccentricity, and really the only way to experience it is to join in yourself!

Sumo wrestling

Japan’s national sport, Sumo, is an old and deeply respected tradition throughout the nation. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s iconic, and unlike other sports which are all similar and melt into one, it’s easily recognizable and there’s just nothing quite like it.

Sumo originated in ancient times and it was originally a performance put on to entertain Shinto deities. Certain rituals performed along with the entertainment back then are still performed now, such as the symbolic purification of the wrestling ring with salt. 

There are no weight classes or groups in Sumo, but there is a ranking hierarchy: if a wrestler has a positive score (meaning more wins than losses) then he will be moved up the hierarchy, whereas a wrestler with a negative score will be demoted. If you reach the top of the top you are named “yokozuna” – the pinnacle of the sport! Once you are named yokozuna you cannot be demoted, however retirement is expected as soon as your performance starts to slip. Your Sumo fame can be quite short lived if you don’t stay at the top of your game…

It’s an honour to meet you!

Respect runs thicker than blood in Japan – it’s the most important principle by which Japanese people live by, and this is expected to be followed by everyone. A big marker of respect, and one that can be very confusing for non-locals, are honorifics. You’ll have heard some honorifics before across popular media even if you may not realise it. 

You can look at them as nicknames which denote the specific characteristics of a person: age, familiarity, and social status. For example, the honorific you use for your school friend is not the same you’d use for your teacher or boss, which is not the same you’d use for a grandparent. Honorifics are generally suffixes which you attach to a person’s last name, and as such first names are rarely used unless a familiar relationship has been established.

The most common honorifics are:

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