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Living in KyotoShopping in Japan


By May 18, 20152 Comments

Japanese are noted worldwide for their politeness to each other and to their guests as well.  If you’re not prepared for this tradition, it can catch you a bit off guard and make you feel as if you’re just a step above a barbarian, in terms of manners.

It took very little for me to fall in love with Japan.   On my first visit there, in 1983, I didn’t travel far beyond a covered shopping arcade in the large business- oriented city of Osaka. The visual explosion of color, pattern, and sights in that commercial tunnel immediately beguiled me. I slowly snaked my way through the long arcade because I felt compelled to look at absolutely everything.  It was a new and exotic world.

shopping arcade

japanese anime


The arcade terminated at the spotless glass doors of a Japanese department store. A friend and I arrived a few minutes before opening.  We watched dozens of clerks, in immaculately tailored uniforms, bustling around in preparation for this event. At precisely 10 AM, with a great sense of importance, the manager of the store unlocked the doors, warmly greeting all the waiting customers.

My friend and I were the first to enter. We were not quite ready for our experience as Exceptionally Honored Customers.  Being the first in line, we began to make our own way past the gauntlet of welcoming sales people .  It seemed as if suddenly, we had become royalty.

A clerk stood silently in front of every single counter. To our great surprise, as we passed them, each salesperson bowed and wished us welcome.  It seemed as if suddenly, we had become royalty.

woman bowingsalesclerks bowing

As a foreigner, I try not to offend.  Unprepared for this show of politeness, my friend and I made a split second decision that the right thing to do was to bow back.  We slowly inched our way through the large first floor main aisle of the store, bowing  in response to each clerk on our right and then our left.  When at last we reached the escalators where there was no more bowing possible, we turned around to note that the Japanese customers who had entered behind us performed no such exchange of bows, they’d just strolled on in!

japanese types of bows

Our bowing performance had  probably held up the rows of other customers behind us, because no one had passed us.  They were probably having too much fun watching us.  All I could think of was that we were like the toy drinking birds of my childhood, who would bow formally and incessantly at the waist towards a glass of water.  All we were missing were the bowler hat and tail feathers!

drinking birdAs I looked over my shoulder, I expected to see everyone in the store erupting in laughter, but I think everyone was far too polite to show their amusement. My friend and I quickly were overtaken by our own laughter and embarrassment.

I did suspect that our foolishness must have made a great tale around many supper tables that evening!  Sometimes, the eager – to – please and uninformed can be TOO polite!  Lesson learned.

Dianne Vapnek

In an attempt to slow life's quickening pace, I'm writing to share my personal perspective on the aging process, its dilemmas, the humorous self-deception, the insights and the adventure of it all. I spent the bulk of my time in beautiful Santa Barbara, CA, but manage to get to NYC a few times times a year. I've been a dancer/dance teacher and dance supporter almost all my life. For the past20years, I help create and produce a month-long creative residency in Santa Barbara for contemporary American choreographers and their dancers. It's been incredibly gratifying. This year, I decided it's time to retire! Big change. I also now spend several weeks a year in Kyoto Japan, residing for several weeks in the spring and the fall. I've been magnetically attracted to Japan for many years. Now I live out a dream to live there part-time.


  • devapnek says:

    If you open the link to bow, it will tell you everything you need to know. Almost any other time other than shopping, is the quick answer! Glad you enjoyed it.

  • Irene says:

    Too funny! When is it appropriate to bow?