Visiting Japan is like visiting another planet. That’s what people kept telling me before my first trip there and they were right. It’s a place where the ancient contrasts with the ultra-modern; it’s crazy, it’s confusing and it’s strikingly beautiful too. Imagine having your fortune told at an historic temple in the morning, then being entertained by giant battling robots in the evening. You never know what to expect and it’s impossible to get bored. To get a glimpse of this - here’s a video montage with some snapshots of my memories taken along the way:
From unexpected cultural norms to unusual sights and attractions: here are 60 things that surprised me about Japan:
1) You’ll find really strange flavours of brands you’re familiar with
Prime example – Burger King’s black ‘Kuro’ Burger made with bamboo charcoal and squid ink.
2) It’s difficult to find free Wi-Fi hotspots
Most hotels have Wi-Fi facilities, but if you’re ‘on the go’ and need an internet connection – you’ll struggle. Unlocked, free public Wi-Fi is really hard to track down. Top Tip: Starbucks is your friend.
3) There’s plastic food everywhere for display purposes
What a good idea! Nearly every restaurant has a window display of plastic versions of the food you can order. This definitely helps eliminate any language barriers- you can simply point at what you fancy.
4) There aren’t any luggage racks on Shinkansen bullet trains
The Japanese are known for being minimalist and are clearly skilled at packing light too! We’ve got a lot to learn from them. If you go on a bullet train, you’ll have to pack your bags overhead, in the space in front of your legs or if you’re lucky, in the limited space (for around three suitcases) behind the back row of seats in each carriage. There are no storage areas on trains reserved for baggage.
5) You won’t be able to guess what the mysterious items at food markets are
Animal? Vegetable? Mineral?
6) Pastries and crepes in Japan are surprisingly good
You’ll find lots of Japanese crepe street stands with about 50 different flavour options and they taste incredible. Also be sure to try the delicious cakes and buns in bakeries.
7) If you go to a temple – you’ll be able to have your fortune told
Omikuji are the fortune telling paper strips that you’ll find at temples and shrines. Don’t worry if your fortune is bad – you can tie it to a pine tree and leave the bad luck behind.
8) The flavours of crisps are really strange
Christmas tree shaped cream corn soup flavoured Doritos anyone?
9) The ultra-modern toilets have buttons and remote controls
I’ve never been to a place where it’s the norm for a toilet to come with a remote control and a variety of functions. Music, massage, heated seats…
10) There are strict rules when it comes to taking shoes off
It’s the norm to take your shoes off before entering someone’s house or certain buildings (eg temples, some restaurants and ryokans). You also have special toilet slippers – never wear these outside the toilet.
11) Coffee art is a thing
Hot drinks have never looked so cool. Cat-uccino anyone?
12) Slurping is normal at meal times
If you like your noodles, you slurp. Simple as that.
13) You don’t tip in Japan
This was a pleasant surprise. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a taxi or a restaurant – tipping is frowned upon in Japan.
14) There’s a goat cafe in Tokyo
Yes really. Two goats live at the front of the cafe and the menu is covered with goat photos. A mecca for goat fans.
15) The hotel rooms are tiny
Some of the Japanese hotel rooms were the smallest I’ve ever seen with hardly any room between the bed, the desk and the bathroom. If you pack lightly – you’ll be absolutely fine, but don’t expect to have a lot of room to spread out your things. If you want to experience the smallest room possible – head to a capsule hotel!
16) You shouldn’t count your change if someone hands it back to you at a shop
You’re dealing with honest people in Japan, so don’t insult them.
18) Japan is one of the safest places in the world
I never once felt in danger, even when on my own, late at night. Japan is one of the safest places in the world and the people are so trustworthy.
19) Desserts not common at the end of a meal in a restaurant
Those with a sweet tooth may have to search for a crepe stand or bakery for your sweet fix. It’s not the norm to have a dessert at the end of an average meal.
20) There’s a robot restaurant in Tokyo
Wow. That is all.
21) Onsens (hot spring public baths) are really popular
Incredibly relaxing, but don’t go if you’re self conscious – the only thing you can wear is a flannel on your head (and perhaps a smile!)
22) Not that many people speak English
English isn’t as common as you’d imagine in Japan – so it’s a good idea to learn a few key phrases. One thing that really impressed me though was that when I got lost, three people approached me (even though they spoke very little English) and tried to help me find my way.
25) If you stay at a ryokan – there’s no bed (at first)
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn and one thing that confused me was that when I arrived, there was no bed. You have to wait for this to be made up every evening.
27) In Nara, there are thousands of friendly wild deer and some will even bow at you
Yes you read that right – some of the deer can bow at you. They’re semi-tame and are known as ‘messengers of God’.
28) Some hotels have complimentary pyjamas to wear at night
What a good idea!
30) Trains are never late
This was a new one for me. Unrivalled punctuality – to the second.
31) You can buy these strange socks
Big toe goes solo…
32) There aren’t that many vegetarian options at restaurants
If you don’t like sushi or meat – you may struggle to find a wide selection of dishes to try.
34) There are over 6000 Japanese islands and only 430 are inhabited
I never knew there were so many!
36) Everyone looks so young!
Seriously – people don’t age in Japan. They all have amazing skin and look at least 10 years younger than they are.
37) Deconstructed sandwiches are amazing
This photo does the talking.
38) Osaka is known as the food capital of Japan and is also famous for its thriving comedy scene
It’s not just a busy financial capital – it’s great for food and Japanese people always say the funniest people are from Osaka!
40) You can’t blow your nose in public
The ultimate faux-pas. Just keep sniffing…
42) The taxi doors open automatically and the drivers wear white gloves
I’ve never seen such smart taxi drivers!
43) This was a ‘quick meal’ at the train station
A far cry from a burger at Kings Cross…
44) So many things are Kawaii (cute and adorable)
You’ll even see older business men with teddy bear keyrings.
45) Gift wrapping in shops is the norm
Hope you’re not in a hurry when you’re shopping because Japanese people love to gift wrap and they do it beautifully. Ribbons, stickers, cardboard boxes, wrapping paper – I couldn’t believe my eyes!
47) You can get hot drinks from a vending machine in a can
Another brilliant idea! Fancy a quick coffee or a hot chocolate in a can? No problem!
48) You shouldn’t eat ‘on the go’
Part of Japanese etiquette is that you should show respect to the person who sourced and prepared the food you’re eating. It’s a faux-pas to eat while you’re walking and not consciously thinking about eating.
50) There’s a very high likelihood of lost items being returned to you
The Japanese are very honest people and if you leave your bag on the seat, when you return, it’ll still be there. Several people told me how they’ve lost wallets before and they’ve always been returned in tact.
52) Some restaurants have a machine on the wall where you select your food and pay before the chef gets the order
This confused me at first but it’s a highly efficient way of running a restaurant.
53) You can smoke in restaurants and bars
A smoker’s dream.
54) There are lots of funny T-Shirts in Tokyo with English slogans
Humour is not lost in Japan.
55) When couples get married, the wife looks after the money
This might explain why there are a lot of single people in Japan…
56) Monkeys like hot baths in Japan
There are lots of hot springs in Japan and snow monkeys relax in them to stay warm.
57) Christmas decorations are a thing
It may not be a country with a big Christian community, but I was surprised how many Christmas decorations there were.
58) Most Japanese ATMs don’t accept foreign ATM cards
This stumped me, but I found out that if you go to a 7-Eleven store, you will be able to draw cash out there.
59) Taxi lights are red if they’re available and green if they’re taken
Baffling at first…
60) Gambling for cash is illegal
You won’t find any casinos, but you’ll find lots of Pachinko parlours – which is an arcade game like pinball. If you win, you can claim tokens or prizes in a separate building.
Japan – I love you! I can’t wait to return and discover even more quirky things about you…
Like what you're reading? Sign up for my free monthly newsletter...