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35 Things to Know About Travelling in Japan

Five weeks in Japan. It’s quite a lot, at least in the scheme of a 3-month trip. Still not nearly enough time to hit all the highlights of such an incredibly diverse country, of course, but enough time to hit a bunch of them. And during that time we discovered a long list of things you should know before your trip to Japan.

Obviously, there are a lot of things about Japan that are quite well-known, such as Mount Fuji, sushi, geishas, karaoke, samurais, etc. Incidentally, we didn’t really do that well at checking off those particular Japanese stereotypes.

Woman walking into sunrays under tori gates in Kyoto

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Yes, we did spend some time near Mount Fuji, taking photo after photo after photo, in just the way it was foretold by the ancient gods.

However, as much as I love me some grilled fish, sushi pretty much grosses me out, so that was off the list. Geishas are intriguing, obviously, but didn’t quite seem worth the marital strife likely to follow. And subjecting Japanese karaoke enthusiasts to our horrendous singing seemed like it would be rude, while getting a private booth to torture only each other brings us right back to the aforementioned marital strife.

Now, of course, there was our epic sword battle against an ancient samurai battalion with the fate of the world on the line, but this is a travel blog so you probably aren’t interested in that whole story.

Man standing in front of tori gate on Miyajima Island

Nonetheless, 5 weeks was most certainly enough time to notice many, many cultural differences and societal oddities. Odd to Canadians, of course, as I’m sure none of them seem odd if you’re Japanese. Regardless, here is our list of notes and observations from Japan – basically stuff that we found interesting, unusual, surprising or, in a few cases, completely whack.

35 Things to Know About Travelling in Japan

1. Not Many People Smoke

Although officially around 20% of Japanese people smoke, that number has gone way down this century and I suspect it is now much lower than when that survey was taken. Because we saw very few smokers. Maybe because they don’t like being relegated to sad little “smoking rooms” (even outdoors) with glass walls that look very much like zoos. Something from the 90’s you might bring your kids to see on a Sunday afternoon. Of course, the walls don’t reach the ground and stop about 2 metres off the ground, so maybe don’t get too close.

2. Convenience Stores Are Very Convenient

Convenience stores – adorably called “convenis” – are king in Japan. There are basically 3 and they all have distinctly Western names (Family Mart, Lawson, 7-11). Names that are displayed in the Latin alphabet, which always caught our attention amid a sea of indecipherable Japanese characters.

Conveni food and beer

Anyway, they sell a much wider range of food than we’re used to, including a full rack of hot food like an extensive Costco sample section. Laynni’s favourite was the “FamiChiki” spicy breaded chunk of chicken, and there is a whole aisle of quick takeaway meals that staff are more than happy to warm up for you. We got almost all our breakfast food from the convenis and quite a few of our meals. Cheap, fast, recognizable – three things I love when it comes to food, beer and public toilets.

3. Ramen Noodles Are Hot

We really enjoyed the ramen noodles, even though I always burned my tongue. Always.

4. Japan Is a Very Calm Place

Pedestrians walking among neon skyscrapers in Tokyo

One of the most iconic images of Japan is a fluorescent-lit street heaving with people and cars. And you could certainly find that in Tokyo in certain places. But, for the most part, we were shocked at just how polite, orderly and quiet the streets are.

Yes, there are lots of people and a normal amount of traffic but both the streets and sidewalks are wide and sufficient. The big difference seems to be the people, who are exceptionally considerate and absolutely determined not to intrude on anybody else. No loud conversations in public, no talking at all on public transportation, no talking on cell phones in public, orderly walking, queuing for literally everything, and never, ever cutting a line.

5. Driving in Japan is Easy

Rental car on beach in front of Mount Fuji

Driving was similar to everything else. Extremely measured, predictable and just, well, civilized. We had a rental car for three days at Lake Shoji and there was literally one time (one!) I had to slow down – just a little bit – because a car pulled out onto the road a little too close to us. For comparison sake, once we get home next month, I guarantee I’ll be badly cut off at least three times my first day of Christmas shopping. Either way, driving in Japan was pretty easy, kind of like being dropped into the world’s most boring version of Grand Theft Auto.

6. They Take Weird Stuff in Stride

Couple dressed as Pikachu driving go-karts in Tokyo

It seemed like people on the street should have been far more surprised to see us dressed as Pikachu and driving go-karts around Tokyo. Don’t get me wrong, they usually did look surprised. Just not surprised enough.

7. No Jaywalking

On a related note – there is no jaywalking in Japan. Or I should say, if you see someone jaywalking in Japan, there is a 99% chance that person is not Japanese.

8. The Traffic Lights are Really Long

However, that does bring us to one semi-complaint. The traffic lights in Japan are waaaayy too long. It is quite possible they’ve done some studies that show that making cars (and people) stop fewer times but longer each time actually makes traffic more efficient. I can’t say for sure.

What I do know, however, is that I estimate we spent 40% of our time in Japan standing on street corners waiting for walk lights (fidgeting and sighing the entire time). Which makes it the number one activity of our time in Japan – ahead of sleeping (30%), using the Google Translate camera app to scan food packaging in convenis (20%) and chilling out on the fancy toilets (15%).

9. The Toilets are Next Level

Japanese toilet

Still wondering about that last one? Well, practically every toilet in Japan, even those in the most basic hotels, offers a full range of services and perks. Want to be greeted by a heated seat in the morning? You got it. Interested in saving both time and water by washing your hands in a little mini-sink on top of the tank? They’ve got you covered. Looking for a gentle squirt of water to tidy things up in the front? Have at it. Craving an intense pressure wash further back? Buckle up, Bobby.

10. Coiffe It Up

Hairdryers - one of the things to know about travelling in Japan

My main takeaway from the several times we had shared bathrooms was that a surprising number of Japanese men blow-dry their hair. Like, most of them.

11. Japan Is Surprisingly Affordable

One of the most pleasant surprises of our trip to Japan was that Japan isn’t actually very expensive. Cheaper than home, for sure, and most parts of Europe. The colder parts, anyway. Now, some of that is probably because the exchange rate had moved in our favour recently (the $C was up over 15% since the beginning of year) but, overall, most things just weren’t as pricey as we expected. Obviously, conveni food was cheap (for a reason), but so were local ramen shops and other street food, and the hotel rooms were small but reasonably affordable. Entrance fees were usually under $C5.

The one exception was transportation. Trains and buses had already been expensive, then they implemented a 50% increase right before we arrived. Saw us coming a mile away, clearly. Ha ha, those guys are definitely going to want to go places, I can tell already. Watch them fall right into our trap! And we did. They were right. We did want to go places.

Fall colours and snow-capped mountains in Japan

12. They Do Numbers Weird

If a Japanese person wants to use their fingers to display a number and that number happens to be larger than 5, they hold the extra fingers of one hand against the palm of the other. I know, right?

13. Japanese Is Hard

Now, here is an “oddity” that we didn’t actually find odd. It is really just confirmation of a preconceived notion. The Japanese language is very difficult. Difficult to speak (I mangled 4 phrases all across Japan like a modern-day pioneer), difficult to understand (I still have no idea what anyone said to us, ever) and very difficult to read (I memorized exactly one Japanese character that showed up in men’s toilet signs, which ended up being completely unnecessary because of their clever use of, you know, images).

More surprisingly, because of what we learned binge watching Tokyo Vice, is that not every Japanese man speaks in a shockingly aggressive, guttural tone. In fact, from what we could tell, none of them do. Maybe we just weren’t spending enough time with ronin and the mafia.

14. There Will Be a Lot of Bowing

The Japanese are big on bowing. In pretty much every circumstance where we might simply smile or say thank you, they bow. And always when passing me a freshly warmed bag of deep-fried chicken balls in a 7-11.

15. The Vending Machines Suck

Japanese vending machine

We were hugely disappointed in Japanese vending machines. Contrary to Western stereotypes and obviously out-of-date stories, most Japanese vending machines only sell drinks. A lot of brightly coloured, unrecognizable drinks, but still. No fried bugs, no origami keepsakes, no canned fish and, sadly, we didn’t see a single machine selling roughly used panties.

16. You’ll Definitely Want a Transit Card

Prepaid transit cards are big business in Japan. There are several different ones in each city or region, most of which can be used all across Japan on buses, trams, subways, trains and ferries. Which is very handy. At least until you forget that your SUICA cards expired after 30 days and proceed to spend 2 baffling and awkward days getting rejected by scanners all across Hiroshima. Then they kind of suck.

17. But You’ll Need a Lot of Cash, Too

Speaking of which, you think Japan, you think technology, right? We do, anyway. Which was why it was quite shocking to see how few places let you pay with card. Cash is, somehow, still very essential in Japan. Especially at tourist site entrance booths, ramen shops and temples (apparently, bribing Buddha to put in a good word with the reincarnation committee is an under-the-table sort of business).

Couple with snowy background in Japan

18. You Don’t Need to Tip

The Japanese don’t tip. I mean, you can, of course, but be sure to make it very clear what you’re doing and that you’re doing it on purpose or you may end up with a super-friendly waitress chasing you down the street trying to return the 100 yen coin you forgot. And doing so very quietly, of course.

19. Take Japanese Restaurant Reviews with a Grain of Salt

The Japanese are harsh restaurant critics. While we never had a single truly bad restaurant experience, the average restaurant review scores were the lowest we’ve seen. In Greece, if you are capable of shoving a wooden stick through some meat you’re almost guaranteed a 4.7. Yet, in Japan, 3.6 will get you a delicious ramen bowl in 4-6 minutes, plus free water, for about $5, tax and tip included.

20. Japan is Exceptionally Clean

Litter is extremely rare. One day, while waiting for a train, I saw a cigarette and piece of tape on the ground. And that, I felt, made it worthy of a photo. That rare. And, in fairness, the cigarette didn’t really look smoked so it probably just fell there by accident.

Cigarette and a piece of tape on the sidewalk

21. Even Though There is Nowhere to Put Your Trash

And the litter thing is even more amazing because there are almost no trash cans anywhere. Which makes it a bit daunting to buy any street food, knowing you and that plastic package are committing to spending the whole day together.

22. Japan Has a Plastic Problem

Couple eating bento boxes on a bus in Japan

So, no litter, that’s great, obviously. What isn’t quite so great is their obsession with plastic packaging. Everything comes wrapped in plastic. Bananas. Napkins. Utensils. Plastic food containers come wrapped in plastic. With plastic utensils. Which are also wrapped in plastic, obviously. Slippers. Towels. Yet, bafflingly, most places only have two options for trash. And when I say “places”, I just mean our apartment or hotel room because, you know, there aren’t any public bins.

The first option: for recyclable containers like bottles, cans or jars. The second – and final – option: “burnable”. Maybe this is simply a blanket term that doesn’t translate well or isn’t meant to be taken literally. Or maybe they follow the same philosophy my dad does when it comes to his 30-year-old, multipurpose burning barrel. Either way, we didn’t ask because, to be honest, we didn’t really want to know.

23. The Alleys Aren’t Gross

One night while wandering we found ourselves walking down a quiet, dark, tiny, secluded, narrow alley. The type of alley that, by all rights, should also have been “dank” and “full of piss”. But it wasn’t either of those things because, somehow, there wasn’t any piss. It seems that, apparently, Japanese men don’t just pull out their dicks and let loose every time they stumble across a mildly shadowed location. The way I do.

24. You Can Always Find a Bathroom

Of course, an important factor in that is that there are public bathrooms all over the place. Usually several at tourist sites. It’s almost like Japan prefers not to have people pissing all over the country. What a novel idea.

25. They Love Their Slippers

Toilet slippers

The Japanese are obsessed with slippers. Which isn’t, in itself, a negative. Unless, of course, the slippers provided at entrances to hotel lobbies, hotel rooms, bathrooms and showers are never  nearly big enough and continuously “slip” off your feet. Hey, I finally get the name.

26. They Respect Your Privacy… a Lot

Privacy is obviously very important in Japan. Nobody ever wants to seem nosy, especially when it comes to your PIN. Clerks and tellers across the country virtually give themselves whiplash looking down/away/anywhere else after they hand you the card machine. One guy at the train station even held up a large binder as a barrier, ducking behind it like he was evading enemy fire. Which is all to say, the Japanese seem very polite and trustworthy.

27. But They Still Have Creeps

Yet… this is also the same country that has women-only subway cars because there is an ongoing problem with men “upskirting”. If you don’t know what that is, well, take a guess and you’ll probably come pretty close. I’ll even give you a hint: it sometimes involves vulva.

28. The Traditional Hotels are Fine, I Guess

Now, “ryokans”. I discussed these traditional Japanese hotels in detail in our last post about the Nakasendo Trail. However, to recap, the walls are mostly paper, the floors are “tatami”, which is essentially a dusty straw mat, the beds are futons, which are just mattresses on the floor, the bathrooms are “onsen”, which apparently means “showering next to strangers while some rando watches you from the tub”, and the pillows are either full of rice (traditional) or tiny plastic balls (modern). I think. So… basically, ryokans fall into the “kind of fun but the novelty wears off quick” category for us.

29. Some Names are Worse Than Others

Carp Castle in Hiroshima
Carp Castle

In Hiroshima, both their ancient castle and their baseball team are named after the “carp”. Yeah, the fish.

30. The Japanese are Very Patient

The Japanese have immense patience. Besides the endless waiting for traffic lights to change – or maybe because of it – they will also wait in line for just about anything. In a very orderly and polite fashion, of course. But not just in short lines, either.

People lined up at Starbucks in Kyoto
Starbucks at 8 am

The most popular restaurants and ramen shops often had 15-20 people waiting outside at lunch. The Starbucks located in a really old Kyoto building is very popular, for some reason, and there must have been 40 people already waiting at 8 am (although those were mainly tourists). And that is before we even get to ATMs, train ticket machines or bus stops. There was even a line of people waiting to rent kimonos.

31. They Love to Dress Up

Women dressed in kimonos near the 5-tier pagoda in Kyoto

Oh yeah, did I mention that tourists in Kyoto, both foreign and domestic, love to rent kimonos and other traditional clothing to wear as they walk around the old streets and classic temples? Well, they do. They also carry flowery umbrellas, wear uncomfortable wooden shoes and get their hair done in intricate, traditional styles. The iPhones and Insta-poses only partially ruin the vibe.

32. It Doesn’t Just Taste Like Chicken

We saw far less sushi than we expected. But far more fried chicken.

33. They Might Worry Too Much

The Japanese threshold for issuing weather warnings may be lower than we’re used to, at least if the “Dry Air Advisory” is anything to go by.

Screenshot of a "dry air advisory" in Japan

34. Japanese People are Awesome

We really enjoyed the Japanese people. They aren’t absurdly excited to see you (India) or suspiciously happy all the time (Thailand) and they pretty much ignore you most of the time. But whenever you need something they are incredibly nice and helpful. So, kind of the perfect balance. And, yes, that “friendly” bit even included bus drivers.

35. Gender Stereotypes and Gravity

In the elevator, the recorded voice of the British woman tasked with keeping us in the loop had a high voice “going up” but a much lower voice “going dooowwn”. And we really didn’t know what to make of that.

5-tiered pagoda in Kyoto

Summary of Our Time in Japan

We’ll definitely be back.

Weekly Japanese Headlines

Time-Travelling 15th Century Feudal Lord Extremely Disappointed to See People Still Sleeping on Tatami Mats

Foreigner’s Awkward Bow Actually Quite Off-Putting

Japanese Transit Authority Confirms: Bike Helmets are for Pussies

I Didn’t Think I’d Like Japanese Food This Much, Declares Man Eating Breakfast of Packaged Pancake and a Banana

Jaywalker Forced to Wear Amputated Foot on Chain Around Neck as a Warning to Others

Foreigner Wearing Traditional Pyjamas Looks Just as Dumb as You Would Expect

Man posing in a traditional Japanese robe

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