The world's most polite country?

The world's most polite country?
Japan's famous character Hello Kitty (C) and department store employees bow their heads to welcome their customers at Tokyo's Tobu department store on August 28, 2008.
PHOTO: AFP

It's so well mannered that even the toilet seat stands to attention when you enter the bathroom.

The sun had already begun dissolving into the reddening sea, an alarming reminder that we had dilly-dallied a little too long on our cycling jaunt round Japan's Ninoshima Island in Hiroshima Bay.

Unsure of the ferry's last departure for the mainland, we stopped at a roadside bar to ask.

This triggered worried looks all round: the final boat was about to leave.

"You can just make it if you take the shortcut," said one man, stepping outside and pointing to a narrow road up a small mountain.

With evening falling fast, we had severe misgivings, but cycled off uphill nonetheless.

Looking round, we were astonished to see our newfound friend jogging up the hill behind us at a discreet distance to ensure that we didn't get lost, only turning back when the port was safely in sight below us.

His random act of kindness got us to the ferry with minutes to spare. This was one of our first experiences with omotenashi, which is often translated as "Japanese hospitality".

In practice, it combines exquisite politeness with a desire to maintain harmony and avoid conflict.

Omotenashi is a way of life in Japan. People with colds wear surgical masks to avoid infecting others.

Neighbours deliver gift-wrapped boxes of washing powder before beginning building work - a gesture to help clean your clothes from the dust that will inevitably fly about.

Staff in shops and restaurants greet you with a bow and a hearty irasshaimase (welcome).

They put one hand under yours when giving you your change, to avoid dropping any coins.

When you leave the shop, it's not unusual for them to stand in the doorway bowing until you are out of sight.

Machines practice omotenashi, too.

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