72 Random Observations About Japan image

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Japan is a wonderfully strange country. It’s the cultural differences that make travel interesting and Japan is full of them. These are some random observations that we jotted down in our moleskine as we travelled around the country.

General

1) Japan has recovered extraordinarily well from the earthquake. We didn’t see any signs of it, although we didn’t travel further north than Tokyo. We don’t see any reason to avoid travel there.

2) Expect to be confused much of the time.

3) Expect random bursts of weirdness.

Weird model outside Kyoto restaurant

This was outside a Kyoto restaurant. No idea why.

Kurama train station statue

This was in a car park at Kurama train station.

4) Japan is expensive. But totally worth it, and probably no more expensive than parts of Western Europe.

5) When we first arrived it wasn’t as super-modern or as traditional as we expected. These aspects take time to find.

6) When you find traditional Japan it is everything you expected.

Tsumago, Japan

Tsumago

7) We didn’t expect the ugliness that is found in some areas. There are many ugly concrete buildings and between Osaka and Kyoto there is a continual stretch of housing reaching right up to the train tracks.

8 ) Startling green rice paddies are squeezed among apartment buildings in urban locations.

9) Cartoons are used for official signs. This is a practice that should be adopted all over the world.

Nara deer warning sign

A sign in Nara Park warning about the dangers of deer

10) Japan is super-safe. Even in a big city like Kyoto people often don’t lock their bikes or houses. In cafés people will leave their mobile phones on the table while they go and order. It was nice not having to worry about crime.

11) Toilets range from squat (with instructions and a handrail to help you balance) to ultra-modern with multiple buttons for varying levels of spray and heated seats.

12) Video arcades abound and the taiko drumming game is particularly fun.

Taiko drum game in Japanese arcade

Taiko drum game in Japanese arcade

13) Taiko drumming in real life takes an enormous amount of energy.

Taiko drummers

Taiko drummers

Etiquette

14) You’ll change your shoes a lot. You’ll need to take off your shoes when entering a home, guesthouse and even some restaurants and museums. You often change into the provided slippers, and when you go to the bathroom you change from them to the provided bathroom slippers.

15) Eating while walking just isn’t done. This can be harder to get used to than you’d think.

16) Not blowing your nose in public is difficult when you have allergies.

17) There is no tipping at all.

18) Traditional Japanese accommodation doesn’t have private bathrooms. Instead you’ll share a large bath with strangers. That freaked us out.

19) Don’t pour your own drink – pour for others and they’ll take care of you.

Language

20) Most people don’t speak English.

21) Although many street signs and train station names are in English, mostly you’ll be floating around in a sea of Kanji. Especially at supermarkets.

22) Learning to speak basic Japanese is easier than you think. It’s not a tonal language and there are no verb conjugations.

23) Learning to decipher Kanji on the other hand…

24) Japan has three alphabets. One would be hard enough.

25) Sometimes things are lost in translation…

Hmm..

This hotel information sign was the weirdest of all. We get the “Grime Prevention” confusion, but what on earth does this mean: “The all over Japan can send out blacksheep. I make acceptance at the front desk”.

Japan hotel sign sheet

Then there are the signs on Japanese trains…

Japanese train sign

Japanese train sign 2

People

26) There are very few western tourists, but plenty of domestic tourists.

27) For the Japanese it seems essential to say “chizu” and make a peace sign when having your photo taken. When in Rome…

Simon making a peace sign at Golden Temple, Kyoto

28) The Japanese don’t stare. We particularly appreciated this when struggling to eat slippery, unidentifiable blobs with chopsticks.

29) The people are super-polite. The world-renowned British politeness? Nothing on this.

30) Japanese women have wonderfully sweet sing-song voices.

31) In shops you’ll be greeted with a chorus of enthusiastic “irashimase” (welcome). As you leave the back and forth exchange of “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you) can go on for a while.

32) You can observe train drivers in their glass booths wearing white gloves and pointing out the window, seemingly randomly every 30 seconds or so. Apparently, this helps prevent errors by associating tasks with physical movements. 

33) The Japanese are the only nationality who can pull off socks and sandals.

Socks and sandles with a kimono

34) Women really do wear kimono.

Woman in kimono at Yasaka Shrine

35) There are no fat people.

36) Everyone is stylish.

37) Every Japanese male seems to carry a man-bag.

Japanese man bags

38) The supermarket guard near our house would always bow and say “herro” to us.

39) Women wear detachable sleeves in the summer to protect them from the sun. They also wear full face visors while cycling.

40) At parks and temples you’ll find lots of older men with SLR cameras and photography vests.

41) In our local ice-cream shop we were usually served by six smiling staff who’d greet us with an overwhelming chorus of “irashimase” and all contribute a few words of English while taking our order.

42) At Disney Tokyo, people are obsessed with the different flavours of popcorn that they collect in souvenir buckets that hang around their necks. It turns out that curry popcorn is really good.

Transport

43) A Japan Rail Pass will save you money and make your life easier. Make sure you buy yours in advance—read our Japan Rail Pass guide for everything you need to know. 

44) Public transport is dead on time. Always.

45) Trains have different tunes that play when they arrive at a station. The music varies depending on the direction of the train – sometimes it’s spooky, other times chirpy and Disney-esque.

46) Bullet trains are awesome. It’s the only country we have travelled in where Simon has complained that the journeys were too short.

Bullet Train Japan

47) Trains have seats that swivel around so they all face the direction of travel, or you can turn them to face each other if you’re in a group. On some scenic routes they even turn sideways to face the window for maximum views.

Scenic train to Kurama

Scenic train to Kurama

48) Tokyo has the most confusing subway map we have ever seen.

49) The Japanese can seemingly sleep anywhere. Most people on a morning train are asleep. We don’t blame them though when working until 11 pm is normal.

50) Hyperdia is the best travel planning site we have ever used. Negotiating the rail system without it would have been utter confusion. 

51) Even carparks in Japan can be attractive.

Japanese car park

Food

52) Food in Japan is an art-form. It’s fresh, healthy, perfectly balanced, delicate and beautifully presented.

Yuba tofu at Tosuiro

Yuba tofu at Tosuiro in Kyoto

53) Tofu comes in more forms than you could possibly imagine. In Japan it is delicious and beautiful.

54) We had no idea what we were eating many times.

Konnyaku at Yoshuji

We had no idea what this was when we ate it. Later we learned it is Konnyaku or Devil’s Tongue.

55) Vegetarians beware: fish broth is in everything. Luckily Kyoto has a tradition of shojin ryori, Zen Buddhist vegetarian cuisine and there are a growing number of excellent vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo

56) Drinks are expensive, and not just alcoholic drinks. A soft drink or coffee can cost 450 yen (US$5.75) in cafés and even more in restaurants.

57) Luckily vending machines are everywhere, even in rural locations. You’ll never go thirsty and soft drinks are an affordable 120 yen (US$1.50) a can.

58) Sometimes vending machine drinks surprise you. A Minutemaid grape soda had slimy chunks of aloe in it. Odd.

59) I’m not a tea-drinker but I drank a lot of tea in Japan. It’s often included with meals.

60) Green tea ice-cream is not good.

Green tea ice-cream, Kyoto

61) Pickles are awesome.

Tsukemono pickles at Nishiki Market in Kyoto

62) I LOVE rice cookers.

63) Japanese desserts are bewildering. They are beautiful but we had no idea what they were.

64) Umeshu (plum sake) is delicious and homemade in many homes.

65) Traditional restaurants can be ultra-minimalist with no chairs or tables. The tatami mat room of a temple we ate in…

Shigetsu restaurant at Tenryuji temple

Shigetsu restaurant at Tenryuji temple

66) Plastic food models outside many restaurants are amazingly realistic.

Plastic food models, Japan

Temples

Otagi Nenbutsuji, the coolest temple in Kyoto

Otagi Nenbutsuji, the coolest temple in Kyoto

67) The Japanese are more religious than we expected. In Kyoto it seems like there is a shrine on every street where people stop as they pass, ring the bell and pray.

68) Kyoto has more temples and shrines, each different in their own way, than you could possibly imagine. But we never felt templed-out.

69) Entrance tickets are beautiful.

70) You can get your fortune told from a vending machine at a temple.

Fortune vending machine Japan

71) Ema are wooden plates at temples where people write their wishes. Most are in Japanese of course but we saw this one in English…

Ema wooden wishes

72) Bright red torii gates are everywhere and we loved them.

Torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine

Torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine

You might also enjoy our recommended books to read before visiting Japan, our Japan 2 Week Itinerary and tips for planning a trip to Japan

Don’t forget to buy your Japan Rail Pass in advance before visiting Japan. It’ll save you money and make it much easier to get around.

Are you looking for Christmas gift ideas? See our 47 Useful Gift Ideas for Carry-On Travellers. They are ideal for travel lovers who want to pack light and include something for every budget.

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142 Comments (8 pingbacks)

  1. My wife and I backpacked through Japan 50 years ago – from the sound of things in your blog it hasn’t changed that much – hey, we even got to ride the bullet train back then and of course there was no English spoken at all – not being able to read the Japanese writing on the town and street signs , we knew where we were by the time on our watches because the buses and trains were always perfectly on time to the minute written on the ticket .

    Reply

  2. Thank you for an informative and enlightening blog. I sincerely read every word and cannot wait to get there!!

    Reply

  3. This is a wonderful page and site that I stumbled upon (sans that site) looking for better carry on luggage. I really want to travel this year, so I hope this inspires me to start saving and then travel to Japan. I enjoyed the comments as much as your list and the photos.

    Reply

  4. We love the love the little whistling tunes made at traffic light crossings. We have taken to singing along – the locals must think we are mad. We like to sing and dance when we hear a known song in a train station, cafe etc but i get the feeling that this is not acceptable???

    Reply

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