Warning: Neanderthal in a Japanese Mall


Directly handling money — YIKES!

Directly handling money — YIKES!

Japan: November, 2015

It probably wasn’t until my third or maybe even fourth purchase at a retail store in Tokyo that I finally used the Tray. Evidently, Japanese salespeople wanted money deposited right on the Pay Tray — even if it was a credit card. No touching of bills, cards or coins is necessary. My brazen blunder with money handling became clear when one giftshop employee somewhat frantically grabbed the Tray, located right next to the cash register, after I directly handed her 1,500 yen. The employee carefully laid my money on the Pay Tray, and then she calmly continued the transaction.

The Tray, which can vary in color and size, is generally a black plastic rectangle with slightly raised sides — like a butter dish — and to the best of my knowledge, it is used the same way everywhere. The customer places money for the purchase on the Pay Tray and gives it to the sales clerk who ultimately returns the same Transaction Tray with the change and receipt, often presenting it to the customer with both hands and a bow.

Every store and salesperson I encountered in Tokyo used the Tray. Even the bored, sullen looking sales clerk with fushia hair streaks and multiple piercings at H&M gave me my change on the Tray along with an artful and deliberate bow. According to an article by Alice Gordenker in the Japan Times, change trays, which have many names including, Tsurisen torei, Kaikei-bon, Koin torei and the French term, Karuton, have been used by merchants in Japan since at least 1918.

The Gratitude Attitude

I always tried to make up for any flagrant or potential faux pas by saying, arigatou gozaimasu (thank you very much), and it wasn’t long before I was delivering a deep bow to salespeople. Despite this show of gratitude, I was still blissfully and ignorantly blundering away. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I delivered an overabundance of bows and appreciation with each visit to a store. My gratitude attitude was in overdrive. This, in turn, set off a chain reaction of reciprocation. Often, in the final stage of the transaction, after I had carefully re-accepted the Tray with both hands (as if I was handed a newborn), I then bowed, said thank you and turned away to leave. Meanwhile, however, as I began to swivel, the sales clerk would launch into yet another round of thank-you’s.

Leaving shoes in the foyer of our hotel room

Leaving shoes in the foyer of our hotel room

Yes, I was a foreigner (gaijin) and unfamiliar with some of the customs, and no one reprimanded me or revealed any outrage at my gaijin gaffes, but I’ve always tried to be respectful and aware of cultural etiquette. I knew, for example, that in Japan, I shouldn’t stare at people or double dip food in the soy sauce. I wasn’t supposed to wear shoes on tatami mats, nor was I to place chopsticks upright in a “V” formation in a bowl of rice. It’s best to avoid symbols of death anywhere you go although I messed up that advice as well. Read on.

Consequently, it was hard to accept that my manners were downright deplorable when it came to shopping, a pursuit with which I always feel in my element. But not so in Japan — I was unrefined. An oaf. Uncouth. Clueless or awkward at best. Essentially, I was a Nippon Neanderthal when it came to the mall.

I know I need to drink this before I venture out in Kyoto.

Now I know I need to drink this before I venture out in Kyoto.

For example, finishing a Starbucks latte before entering a store is imperative. Drinking a beverage even with a tightly fastened lid that offers only the tiniest hole for consumption is a no-no. Not only is bringing a beverage into a store a bad idea, but also that means a sales clerk must confront you to confiscate the receptacle and its contents — a task no Japanese customer service rep. really wants to accept.  When an employee approached, asking to take our lattes after my sister, Suzanne, and I entered the Harajuku’s Oriental Bazaar, his mortification at having to make the request was extremely apparent.

Once the worry of spilling coffee at Oriental Bazaar was removed, Suz and I delighted in trying on yukutas (less formal, cotton kimonos). An OB Apparel Attendant materialized after she saw us trying on the Japanese garments. Smiling, she gestured that she would help us find the right sizes and secure the sashes for us. Like a designer who doesn’t want anyone to mar her aesthetic, the Apparel Attendant reopened and repositioned the direction in which we had overlaid the fabric sides of the yukatas.

Unknowingly, I'm flashing a death wish around the store.

Unknowingly, I’m flashing a death wish around the store.

As a right-handed person, I had brought the right side of the robe over the left side. The AA changed that up immediately. Guessing that left-over-right was her personal preference, I didn’t think anything of the AA’s modification. Later after returning to the US and reading a reference book on kimonos, I discovered that putting the right side of the traditional garb over the left signifies death — at least right-over-left is the order one uses in Japan when dressing a corpse for viewing and burial.

Dressing room dilemmas

It wasn’t just dressing in kimonos that required a set of rules in Japan. Trying on casual clothes could be tricky, too. Suz and I frequented The ROX, a department store in Asakusa, the older section of Tokyo. On one visit, I spotted some attractive tops, but wondered about the sizing since Japanese women are generally much slighter than American women.

Our favorite Asakusa department store, the ROX.

Our favorite Asakusa department store, the ROX.

Checking with the male sales clerk, I gestured the idea of entering the dressing room. He nodded and hurried over with a large round piece of crinkly tissue paper, which he handed to me. I acknowledged the paper as if I knew exactly what to do with it. Then I pulled the curtain of the changing room to the side, and as I was about to step in, the clerk gently tapped my shoulder. As I looked over, he pointed down to my shoes and then, demonstrating with his own, slid a loafer off.

Finally shoeless in the enclosed dressing room, I examined the tissue paper. I had no clue what to do with it other than stick it in a gift bag. Guessing that the paper was to protect the clothes from touching my skin — like the contact avoidance concept of the Tray – I ripped a small hole in the center and put it over my head, poncho style. Since I liked the appearance of the shirts, even with a layer of tissue poking out at the necklines, I purchased both.

You break it — I will fix it, and you don’t have to buy it.

Suz with some unconsolidated bags

Suz with some unconsolidated bags in Harajuku.

I consolidated my items.

The bored sullen salesperson with multiple piercings (not pictured) consolidated my H&M items.

Carrying multiple shopping bags also seems to be an affront to the Japanese aesthetic. Suz and I often schlepped several bags while gallivanting around the shopping circuits. When they saw two American bag ladies perusing the merchandise, salespeople in major cities, such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, insisted they consolidate our goods into one huge bag. It didn’t matter whether we bought anything or not. Whatever the motive, this action was quite helpful and considerate.

The Shinto gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha

The real Shinto gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha

Perhaps the shopkeepers were ultimately worried that, with all that bulk, one of us would knock something over or off a shelf. Their concern was justified, indeed. At a gift shop near the heavily visited, striking Shinto gates of Fushimi Inari-taisha, I clonked into a table full of small orange wooden gate replicas. I bumped one souvenir gate off, and as I frantically bent down to pick it up, I knocked another gate down. The storeowner hurried over to prevent any more casualties. His silence, furrowed brow and frown replaced any kind of scolding. Needless to say, I bought one of the gates.

Then at a department store in Tokyo, I turned to look at a selection of scarves and inadvertently backed into a shelf, displaying several primate knick-knacks in honor of the upcoming Year of the Monkey. A small glass tree featuring tiny origami cranes, fortunately and conveniently, fell on the carpeted floor. As the young saleswoman rushed over to reassemble the trinket, I profusely apologized in English. She assured me all was well by showing me how nothing had broken or splintered into tiny shards.

Again, I tried to make up for my behavior with yen. I bought a scarf, monkey knick-knack and T-shirt. I must have said arigatou gozaimasu at least four times. However, my gratitude was premature because she had yet to initiate the most precise and careful packaging process that I have ever witnessed. Practically an art form, packaging and wrapping purchased products in Japan is a well-documented phenomenon. It is a topic most travel guidebooks, blogs and books on Japanese culture have covered thoroughly.

Japanese “Ritual of the Wrap”

Our very friendly and accommodating "fix-it" saleswoman in Tokyo. She was the queen of wrap, by far.

Our very friendly and accommodating “fix-it” saleswoman in Tokyo and Suz. She was the queen of wrap, by far.

My saleswoman’s method involved individually wrapping each item in this postmodern, geometric patterned paper that either revealed a series of gray and yellow flowers or a galaxy of stars and moons, depending, I supposed, upon your view of the world. Even the T-shirt, which was already flatly encased in cellophane, received special treatment. After wrapping each of the goods, the precision-minded saleswoman secured tiny origami fans to small sparkly cords, which she then attached to each package. All of the items went into a sturdy shopping bag that the woman affixed with a single piece of transparent tape. By the time she finished, the number of bows and arigatou gozaimasu’s, on my part, had risen to an obnoxious level —around eight or nine. The experience, while way overdone, was impressive to watch and left me feeling special, actually.

Stores line the walkway leading to Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo.

Stores line the walkway leading to Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo.

For this very reason — experiencing the “ritual of the wrap” or the “performance of the package” — I would not recommend engaging, at all, in the misguided behavior of being even the slightest bit impatient or in a rush when buying items in Japan. While never truly impatient with employees, Suz and I wanted to include as many activities in a day as we could. Since Buddhist and Shinto holy sites never seemed to be far away, even from such a shopping juggernaut like Harajuku, in theory, temple hopping and shopping coincided well — but only if you built in time for the presentation celebration of your purchased goods.

The Tokyo shopping juggernaut, Harajuku,

The Tokyo shopping juggernaut, Harajuku,

Again, I refer to an incident at the Oriental Bazaar. A line of tourists formed at the checkout counter, and ever prepared, OB had stationed four clerks at the counter. In front of me, a man from the UK was about to purchase a traditional pottery tea set. The female clerk began taking the six teacups out of the box and inspected each one of them. Turning one of them over and over, she identified an imperfection.

Immediately leaving her post behind the counter, she took the teacup and headed to the back of the store. After few minutes, while I think many of us still in line believed, perhaps, the salesclerk was firing up a kiln to make a replacement cup or perhaps re-glazing the defected one, the clerk returned without a word. A new and improved cup in hand, she plucked several pieces of newspaper from a large pile behind her and continued wrapping every single piece of the tea set.

To be honest, although the wrapping of every purchased item was ultimately overkill, and one could easily argue wasteful, it was, well, kind of nice. Shopping can be such a hurried exercise — even when you enjoy it. And, really, the Pay Tray made perfect sense. The money is laid out in an orderly manner and the process is more efficient for the overall transaction. It’s much more appealing than dumping a clumsy, crumpled mass of bills and change into someone’s hand.

Los Angeles International Airport — LAX

Los Angeles International Airport — LAX

Returning to the US from Japan, I had a layover at Los Angeles International Airport and went to a busy food court to buy a sandwich. As the swamped cashier told me the price of my order, I, in a jet-lagged state, immediately looked for the Tray. The cashier thrust out her hand and I hesitated, momentarily, before putting the money directly on to her open palm. While thanking her, I realized that I was bowing my head. Without looking at me, she plonked the change back in my hand, and when my sandwich was ready, the cashier plopped it in a bag. Stupefied, I almost had to catch the wide open bag as she practically tossed it to me. She did say “thanks.” But where was the tape? What about the reciprocal bow? Origami crane napkin anyone? It seemed so wrong. So unrefined. So uncouth. Clueless, awkward at best. Possibly even primitive, Cenozoic or Paleolithic.



12 thoughts on “Warning: Neanderthal in a Japanese Mall

    • It is always interesting to come back home after a trip to Asia. Definitely get to Japan if you can. It’s an amazing place — full of tradition, technology and puzzling practices.
      Thanks for the comment!

  1. Nice writing and very interesting. It’s true that you shouldn’t bring food or drinks into a store in Japan (is it OK in other countries?)…in fact, it’s bad manners here to walk around outdoors while eating or drinking (though some people do it).

    The customer service in Japan is excellent but there’s no need to bow or thank the salespeople. No one does that.

    Please visit my blog:

    • Thank you for your comment! Yes, my sister and I figured out by observation that rarely do people eat or drink on the subways or buses. That must be why the subways are so impressively clean.

      We did walk around on the streets with our lattes in Tokyo, and we didn’t give it a second thought since it is such common practice in the US — and while eating in stores is generally frowned upon, carrying drinks with lids is usually okay. However, we definitely wanted to respect the Japanese way, so we did not continue our drinking-on-the-go. It’s funny, too, since we were baffled by the fact that despite vending machines being all over the place, the city was so clean. Moreover, we also rarely saw trash bins — another mystery of Japan.

      Thanks again for your insights!
      P.S. I really like your blog — it’s quite informative.

      • >That must be why the subways are so impressively clean.

        Well, aside from that, if someone in Japan does make a mess, they clean it up.

        >carrying drinks with lids (into stores in the U.S.) is usually okay.

        I’m American…but I’ve been living in Japan so long that that is a “culture shock” to me!

        >we were baffled by the fact that despite vending machines being all over the place, the city was so clean.

        When people buy a drink from a convenience store or a vending machine, they normally carry it (unopened) to where they’re going and then sit down to drink it. Then, throw all rubbish away.

        >we also rarely saw trash bins — another mystery of Japan.

        When I first came here, there were garbage cans on the streets, but there was a subway terrorist attack in 1995, after which public garbage cans became less common.

        Everyone just carries their garbage until a proper trash can is found.

        > I really like your blog — it’s quite informative.

        Thank you. Please comment anytime.
        I have a twitter account that I use often too:

      • Thank you so much for clarifying some of these mysteries — especially the lack garbage cans. It makes sense.

        I wish that in the US we would learn to carry our drinks and food unopened and then throw all our rubbish away. I’m afraid that would take a lot of training and probably stiff fines. If people could only see how clean Japan is…..sigh….one can hope.

        Thank you again for your comments. I really loved visiting Japan, and I want to continue to learn as much as I can about the culture!

  2. I can vividly picture all these transactions! love it! I didn’t know about the “death fold” right over left versus left over right. I thiught with the yukata one way was for men and the other for womwen but I always forget which is which.

    • I love the term “death fold”! And, yes, I read about it in Kimono, a book by anthropologist Liza Dalby, an American who was the first non-Japanese woman to serve as a geisha. It’s left-over-right for living men and women while it’s right-over-left with the white funeral kimonos on bodies. She even mentioned the phenomenon of older Japanese woman feeling the need to correct Western women who go with the DF when wearing kimonos. I was glad to hear it hadn’t only happened to me.

  3. Had a bit of giggle with this post. I’d love to experience the apparent craziness of Japan some time. Growing up in the UK, staff in shops tend to ignore you. When I moved to New Zealand I was surprised to be greeted every time I walked into anywhere. I remember visiting the UK again & being disappointed at the lack of greeting. I can only imagine the feeling of having such added attention as the Japanese give to then have to revert back to normality. Glad you had a fun trip.

    • Thanks for the comment! Yes, it is overwhelming with the attention to details at first, and then it actually is quite nice to stop and wait for your packages to be wrapped. It forces you to slow down. I liked the practice of bowing as well — again, it makes you slow down and be more deliberate. I hope you get to Japan some day. It’s an amazing place!

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