XPERIENCE: Embarrassing travel moments, Japan
by Maxine Sheppard in Travel
“Before I arrived in Japan I’d prepared by reading copious amounts on Japanese culture and etiquette, and having just spent a week in Tokyo without making a major faux-pas, I was feeling relatively relaxed and confident by the time I got to Kyoto. I woke up early on my first morning in the city, made for the bus stop and waited for the 206 to Gion.
An old lady stood beside me. I had my head in a map but could sense she was slightly agitated. I turned around to see what she was doing, and she bowed to me. Well, I was thrilled. No-one had bowed to me in Tokyo. This was a chance to put what I’d learned into practice. Here’s what I thought I knew: old people are revered. If someone bows, then as the younger party, you must show your respect by bowing back, and bowing lower. So I did, with all the deference I could muster.
There was a slight look that passed between us that I couldn’t read. She bowed again, lower th
is time, and for longer. Have I got this right, I wondered? I was sure I had. Once more, I bowed in return, lower still. Another fleeting, inscrutable meeting of the eyes. Was I supposed to attempt to say something? She bowed once more, so low that her head was nearly touching her knees, and then crouched down on the ground. I admit I was confused. How to respond? All I could do was to bow yet again in return; my longest, lowest, most obsequious bow yet.
I returned to an upright position with a slightly spinning head. She was smiling sympathetically at me. I smiled back. She pointed to the ground and made some kind of excited exclamation, which I can only assume was something along the lines of “Look, you idiotic tourist!” – and once more she ‘bowed’, and picked up three shiny coins on the pavement behind my shoe…
The photo above is of paper lanterns at the Chion-In temple where I went and hid for the rest of the day.”