Or rather: top things I didn’t know about Japan before I came here.
I’m now more than halfway through my time in Japan; although I am still bewildered daily, I have picked up a few things. I thought I would share some of my new-found wisdom, since a few lovely people I know are coming to Japan in the next month (including the loveliest person of all) and might appreciate the heads up! Mostly this is for mum, who hasn’t heard of manga, doesn’t know what matcha is, and didn’t realise that Japan is a predominantly cash economy. Oh dear 🙂
Warning: this list does not include anything gross or bizarre. It’s mostly just travel tips and banal observations. Sorry.
Everyone knows that you have to take your shoes off when you go into a Japanese home, and actually also when you go into temples, shrines, castles and even some gardens. Usually, as I’m sure you know, you are given a pair of slippers to wear to keep your feet warm and your socks clean. Special castle slippers are quite fun! But did you know that there are separate slippers to wear into the loo? Yup. You have to change your slippers to go into the toilet. DO NOT walk into the loo in your normal slippers and don’t forget to change back. It is not polite to forget to change back and go off walking around in the toilet slippers. NOT POLITE.
It’s Oh So Quiet
It didn’t take me very long to notice a strange noise whilst I was on public transport and in public places in Japan: silence! I LOVE it. Public transport is so much more pleasant here. Despite being an incredibly densely populated country (or perhaps because of it), there is much less noise in public places that there is in the UK. It is completely unacceptable to use your mobile phone on public transport (amazing! Someone start a petition in the UK please!) and people speak very quietly in general. In contrast, you can hear loud non-Japanese people (Americans, Australians and Chinese usually) from really far away! So, to avoid being considered a loud, brash foreigner: keep your voice down.
The Grass is Dead
This was a serious visual shock! All of the lawns in Japan look like dry straw in winter, because they are made of a different species of grass. I think it’s predominantly Zoysia japonica or cultivars, but it often has bits of Imperata in it (and occasionally a flash of green Poa annua or similar). It’s not really dead, it goes green again in spring/summer but is brown from October-ish to… Well, it’s still brown now. When I first arrived I felt an overwhelming sense of deadness everywhere, but I’ve become used to it now. When I go to the US and see green all over the place, I think I’ll suffer another serious visual shock 🙂
All the brands. There is Lush, Body Shop, HMV, Zara, L’Occitaine and I’ve even seen Claire’s Accessories. What is Claire’s Accessories doing in Japan, eh?
It’s Impossible to Get Lost
Well, not impossible. But very hard because there are maps everywhere in all the cities and anywhere a tourist might go. If you are ever slightly confused, walk 100m down a main road or go to an intersection: there you will find a big map with YOU ARE HERE written on it. For this I am always grateful.
[N.B. The maps are always orientated to the direction you are facing, not north-south. I suppose you could get lost if you didn’t realise that!]
Another one about the toilet! But we all need to go to the loo and there are toilets everywhere in Japan. In fact, wherever you go, there will always be a toilet: subway stations, train stations, bus, tourist attractions, shops, the street. Japan is an amazing place to be on holiday for small-bladdered people. It’s basically the opposite of Bodnant. Plus, even the lowliest of public toilets in a subway station are cleaner and better looked after than any public toilet in the UK. However, I already knew this! What I didn’t know is that there are no hand towels and no hand driers. Only really posh places provide anything for you to dry your hands with. Instead, everyone carries a small hand towel around with them. It’s great! Saves loads of paper and electricity and you get to wipe your hands on a proper towel. This is a habit I am taking home with me, now that I’ve finally learnt it. Yes, it did take me about 6 weeks to get around to buy a tengui 手拭い, after my hands started cracking from being wet all the time. Idiot.
Burn the Planet
Ok, that’s a little bit over the top. But Japan is a strongly consumerist and really wasteful society. This was a massive surprise to me, because I always assumed that everything in Japan would be so super smart that they would have solved the problems of the environment. Not so. Disposable convenience is the mode of living and everything (I mean everything) you buy comes in the most ridiculous amounts of packaging. For example, I bought a box of cakes as a gift for the office on Sunday. It had a decorative wrapping around the outside of the box and inside the box was another box and inside that box was a plastic bag and inside the plastic bag were 12 plastic bags, each with an individual cake and a little sachet of silica gel inside. That’s quite standard. Other obvious examples are that, even quite fancy restaurants give you disposable chopsticks, all vegetables are wrapped within an inch of their lives in plastic and everything you buy gets put in a plastic bag before you’ve blinked. Of all this rubbish, only a small amount of waste gets recycled, most gets burnt. If you’re really into waste management, then check out this article. Otherwise we are brought neatly onto my next point…
There are NO BINS
There are no bins on the street, and rarely in any public places. (Side note: there’s hardly any litter either. I have no idea if there is a correlation.) If, like me, you are unwilling to cart your sticky bento box from lunch around with you all afternoon, you will reliably be able to find a bin at 7/11, Lawson Station, Family Mart or any other convenience stores; additionally at most vendos there is a recycling bin for PET plastic bottles and one for cans. If you have packaging waste from food that you’ve bought from a street vendor, then give it back to them, they will happily take it for you.
Just for mum: Japan is a cash economy! You can very rarely pay for things by credit card, unless you’re in Tokyo or another big city. You can use cards in big shops, international chains, the train station or very expensive places, but hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions and many shops don’t accept cards. Most places I go! Additionally, only certain cash machines will accept foreign cards of any kind. 7/11 and the Japan Post ATMS are two that you can use. Be aware that where credit cards are accepted in shops/ATMs, debit cards may not be! More info here and here.
All the Rest
The importance of cleanliness & how to wash correctly, the most coffee obsessed nation ever, correct manners whilst eating, why KFC is for Christmas, heated toilet seats, squat toilets, washlets, love hotels, manga, maid cafes, owl cafes, cat cafes, bunny cafes, sexual inequality, surgical masks, which side of the escalator to stand on when you’re in Tokyo vs. Kyoto, what is acceptable levels of flesh to put on show…
There are so many things that are different and amazing in Japan. Although asking a an actual Japanese person is preferable, I’ve found that YouTube is a great way to learn about etiquette and how things work. My favourite channels are Life Where I’m From, Rachel & Jun and Sharla in Japan. For those about to visit Japan (Mum 🙂 ), I recommend watching these two videos as a very basic introduction: