25 things to know about Japan:

It’s been over a month since I was released from jail (or restriction of movement…same thing, really), and I’ve spent the last month getting used to Japan, and I’m really not quite there yet. I’m not nearly as overwhelmed as I was the very first day I was able to leave base and John took me around town – it was crazy! I didn’t expect that none of the signs would be in English, the stores would be a crazy maze of noises and it was just completely different from when I first showed up in Germany.

To be fair, when I showed up in Germany I at least had a small (minuscule) ability to speak the language and whatever I didn’t know, I could at least get to a small understanding of what was going on. Japan is a totally different animal – however, what hasn’t changed is the excitement to explore and learn more about a culture completely opposite from what I am used to. I honestly had few expectations, so here are a few things to know about Japan (in no particular order…just from the notes I jotted down every time something new and unexpected happened):

  1. Japan isn’t as English friendly as I expected. To be fair, every time we say Japan isn’t English-friendly, John and I follow it up with, well, America isn’t Japanese-friendly. We know we are in their country and expecting English to be common isn’t totally fair. The thing is, in Germany, many folks would say they couldn’t speak English when they actually could – they were just worried about embarrassing themselves even though most Germans could speak better English than some Americans. In Japan, they really can’t or don’t speak English. It can definitely be intimidating, but we just keep our Google translate app on and we figure it out.
A street in downtown Tokyo – this is a hyper version of an otherwise normal street in Japan. No English in sight, so it makes it harder to know what’s a store, what’s a restaurant, etc.

2. Have cash. This was normal to us in Germany, as it is also a cash economy, but I wasn’t expecting that in Japan. However, a lot of touristy stores and food places only take cash, so its important to always have it on hand. Even Costco here – you have to have cash, because it only takes that or a Japanese credit card (which was also a surprise – a lot of places don’t take international cards. To include Disneyland here).

It is fun taking out 10,000 yen (or $100)

3. Get a Suica Card. This is an extension from the cash thing. I love the concept of the Suica card. You buy it at the train station, and then can add it to your SmartPhone wallet and add money to it as needed. The best is at the train station – for the local trains, you don’t even have to buy tickets. You just put the Suica card to the reader and go on in. It’s like it’s own debit card and is accepted in a majority of stores and restaurants. It takes out the need for cash in most instances, and is just so easy. I love it.

Probably one of my favorite things about Japan.

4. Japan efficiency is real. I know a lot of people talk about German efficiency, but I’ll be honest, after living there…it’s actually more of a myth. Especially compared to Japan. For example, checking out of a grocery store in Germany is cause to have an anxiety attack. You bag your own groceries, which is fine, but you have to do it by the time the cashier is done ringing up your items, while paying, while trying not to hold up the line. It’s so stressful! In Japan, however, the cashier loads your items into a new bin and then you just take it to a stand set up after the check-out and load your items at a leisurely pace. Or, in restaurants, in Germany, you’re really at the mercy of the waitress and speed isn’t always a priority. However in Japan, there is a button on your table, and you just ring it whenever you are ready to order, or when you need something, and then they bring you your check right away and you pay at the front when you are ready to go. It really does mean you can eat at your preferred pace. It’s really nice. I love getting change from machines here, because it’s hard to explain, but it’s just a much better process.

This is the stand where you bring your items to bag at your own pace. It’s so nice.
The restaurant call button.
Even the food is efficient – to avoid waste, you can buy bread in different size packs depending on how much you need.

5. Conbini is king! Conbini is the Japanese word for convenience store, and they are everywhere in Japan! Not only that, they are awesome! 7-11 is one of the most popular, but the competition is Lawson Station and Family Mart. I’m partial to 7-11, mainly because it reminds me of home but also because there is one literally less than 100 feet from our house. You can get fresh meals, bento boxes, and so much more from these stores. They are definitely different from what you’d find in the states, so don’t avoid them when you come to Japan!

This is our 7-11, taken from the corner right next to our house. It’s so nice having a place to run for a quick meal!
The selection of ready-made meals (this is just part of it!)
They have healthy selections too!

6. Do not tip. We heard this a lot in Germany, or Europe in general, but usually what you did was just round the bill up and that was considered acceptable. In Japan, you really don’t tip. Most of the time, you’re paying up at the cashier anyway, and don’t handle payment with the waiter or waitress, but either way, there isn’t an opportunity to tip. Even if there was, don’t. It’s considered rude.

7. Take off your shoes. It’s literally written into our lease that we won’t wear our shoes in our house. Our landlord went as far as to provide slippers for us to wear to make sure our shoes stay off until we’re either about to leave or about to enter the house. We got used to this in Germany and rarely wore our shoes in the house, but here it is a huge no-no. Some places go as far as to have slippers for the house and slippers for the toilet. So, when you come to Japan, and if you visit someone’s house or a traditional hotel, take your shoes off at the front door!

John forgoes the provided slippers and wears his own indoor sandals, I just go barefoot. (But we keep one set by the door – they are the white ones on the ledge and have about 5 more pairs in a cabinet from the landlord).

8. Tattoos are taboo. Interestingly, tattoos are associated with the Japanese mafia and therefore are off limits in a lot of places – namely some beaches and in a majority of “onsets” or hot springs, which are super popular here. We haven’t been to one yet, but when we do, John will either have to use tattoo bandaids to cover his up, or we’ll just have to rent a private hot spring (which is probably what we would do anyway). Some places, even covered up, tattooed people are not welcome. So pack bandaids just in case!

9. Garbage cans are hard to find. This one is almost maddening – there aren’t even garbage cans in parks or in some public bathrooms. Like, it’s a scavenger hunt to find a garbage. And what’s crazier, Japan is crazy clean! People don’t just throw their trash on the ground in the absence of a garbage can – they just hold on to it until they can find one. (We’ve done this many times already). Just know you’ll probably have to hang on to your trash for a little while until you find a bin to throw your stuff away.

10. The toilets are crazy! Even in our house, our toilet has its own remote control of sorts, but isn’t nearly as in-depth as ones in public restrooms where the options are plentiful (you can even choose to have privacy where music will play as you go – it’s actually quite thoughtful). The toilet seats in our house are heated, which is something I didn’t know I would love, but I really do. 🙂

This was from a restroom at a shrine. So may choices. 🙂

11. You have to factor in time when driving anywhere. This is a big one, and one I didn’t expect. It’s actually surprisingly something not a lot of people talk about in regards to Japan. But driving anywhere is going to basically take double the time you would expect it to take. This is for a couple of reasons (that we can tell): 1. The speed limit is between 40-50 km in town, which is 25-30 mph, and 2. There are traffic lights on basically every corner. For example, Tokyo is 22 miles from our house but driving there takes 90 minutes. If you’re taking day trips, you’ll always want to take the toll roads to cut the time down, but even those are expensive. The driving is probably something we won’t get used to.

Note the time at the bottom – it takes 35 minutes to go 10 miles. Without traffic jams or anything…this is just the normal amount of time it would take.

12. It is incredibly bike-friendly. Again, in Germany and Europe you hear this all the time. But Japan is so much better for bike riding! We’re a 1-car family right now, but it’s totally fine because I love riding my bike. Drivers give bikers the right of way, and there are bike lanes marked everywhere – whether it be on the road or the sidewalk. And Japan takes it a step further and marks the lanes on sidewalks so you know where you should be riding or walking. I’ve never biked this much as an adult and I really am enjoying it. It makes exploring a lot more fun – especially in light of how long it takes to driving everywhere!

One of the well-marked sidewalks – this one even had a divider. And it was like this one both sides of the road.
Even if the sidewalks aren’t as nice and divided as the ones above, you’ll still find these markings to let you know where walkers should stand and where bikers go.

13. You will bow a lot. This isn’t just something you see in the movies or on TV. Bowing is a real thing and it’s mainly done as a show of respect. More often than not, I bow after saying thank you but it can be done as a show of understanding or when someone does something nice.

14. Driving is on the left side. We’d driven in the UK and Ireland, so we’ve done this before. But there’s something additionally uncomfortable when driving somewhere without being able to read anything. And also, there are SO MANY road signs – it’s actually almost comical. Oh, and a stop sign is in the same shape as a yield sign, so that makes it even more fun. 🙂 The one bonus, however, is that being a passenger in Japan isn’t nearly as terrifying as it is in the UK. I don’t know what it is – neither John nor I can figure out why it’s not scary here. But it’s just not. Driving on roads in Scotland or the UK – nightmare! I’m actually pretty comfortable driving here now, although I still get my windshield wipers and blinkers mixed up.

This was the first time I drove in Japan alone – I parked far away from everyone just in case! 🙂

15. Going along with driving – everyone backs in to parking spaces. Learn to back into parking spaces, or plan on sticking out. We even back into our garage now (although that usually takes me two or three tries!) 🙂

A normal parking lot in Japan.

16. Don’t eat while walking. The one exception I’ve seen is people eating ice cream (which is wonderful here, and there are lots of crazy flavors!) But normally, even in areas with lots of street foods, people will buy their food and then stand off to the side. I looked up the reasons why for this, and it mainly goes along with their respectful culture.

17. People are so nice. I can’t stress this enough. Everyone we’ve come into contact with is incredibly helpful and friendly (even with the lack of language understanding!) In the area of Germany we lived in, the people native to that state were known throughout Germany for not being the nicest (I’ll never forget riding home from a Christmas market and telling a German man where we lived and he apologized for the German people we probably experienced daily). To be fair, we had wonderful neighbors who are still our friends to this day and who we would definitely visit anytime we go back. But we also had to move apartments once because our upstairs neighbor made our lives so unbearable. Here, however, everyone is so kind.

18. Use both hands to give/take receipts or credit cards. The cashier will normally use both hands to hand you back your card or give you a receipt. Do the same as it is a sign of respect. For cash, use the dish provided. Don’t hand it directly to the cashier.

19. Respect the lines (queues). This is a total change from Germany where the little old ladies would totally cut in lines in bakeries (and not just little old ladies, but everyone). Respecting the queue was not a thing there. In Japan, however, lines are orderly and respected. Even in the train station, there are line markings on the ground and everyone lines up in them nicely.

20. It’s so safe. I locked up my bike one time and then realized I was the only person among all the bikes outside the Japanese grocery store that did so. I haven’t done it since. I also feel completely comfortable walking around our neighborhood late at night. This isn’t a huge change from how I felt in Europe where I can only remember a couple of times I didn’t feel safe, but I googled the safety stats of Japan and it is the 9th safest country in the world.

21. Vending machines are everywhere. I’ll be honest – I was expecting to see some crazy vending machines here, but haven’t really yet. However, it seems like there are vending machines on every corner. Or in the most random places. And it’s actually really nice – especially when you decide to go on a long bike ride and run out of water in the middle of nowhere. Chances are, a vending machine is close by.

This cute one is on my run route.

22. Not all houses are in what is considered traditional Japanese style, and there aren’t chaotic apartment buildings everywhere. Again, my pre-conceived notions of living in Japan were either insane apartment complexes stacked on top of each other or the homes were all in shrine-like designs. Neither is quite true. There are really nice homes in our neighborhood in the style I was expecting, and there are some scary looking apartments that are more like capsules. But mostly, the homes are single-family…really, really close together. I would feel claustrophobic in some of them, because they are sandwiched together. (Ours is thankfully not!) In Germany, finding single-family homes was hard unless you were in the middle of nowhere. More often than not, homes were converted into apartments for three or more families. Here, the homes are single family but they use all the space.

This is one of what we call the “rich” people in our neighborhood, and the style I kind of thought all Japanese houses were in. While there are some, it’s not the norm.
These are the scary capsule apartments. The windows are in the back, but these are so small! I would feel so cramped!
This is what most neighborhoods look like – using all available spaces. These are two houses one in front of another. The black car is in the driveway for the house behind the front one.
In some cases, a house is sandwiched between two. I would not enjoy that at all!

23. Neighborhoods roads can be tiny! I thought the roads in Italy or France or Scotland were small – but the ones in our neighborhood take the cake! These two lanes roads are so small (good thing so are Japanese cars!). You habitually start to use the mirrors at the end of basically every road.

This is a two-lane road in our neighborhood – there are several like it.

24. Food looks exactly like it does in the pictures. Unfortunately, sometimes, you order food because it looks good in the picture only to be disappointed when it comes. That has yet to be the case in Japan. Everything we’ve ordered looks like the picture – it’s crazy! And nice. The expectations have yet to be dashed with reality when ordering food. Also, the pancakes are fluffy, and I am a bit obsessed. 🙂

All ice cream cones have come this perfectly.
Even Starbucks lives up to the expectations!

25. There’s so much to see and do. I don’t know what it was about Europe, but it just seemed easier to trip plan for some reason. I don’t know that I felt as overwhelmed as I do at times when it comes to figuring out what to see and where to go in Japan. Maybe it was because I knew all of the big cities I wanted to see in Europe, and then the small ones came as a pleasant surprise, or maybe it was just that the language barrier was less – but I didn’t have as much FOMO (fear of missing out) as I feel here. And I think it’s because that even though Japan is just one country – there is so much to see and do, and there are so many diverse locations! I want to see it all, and it’s hard to narrow it down. Tokyo is thankfully close, and we’ve been once and I am certain we barely scratched the surface. I’ve gone back to what I did when we first got to Europe – I have lists upon lists of things I want to do and places I want to see, with details on all of them. Japan is wonderfully different throughout its prefectures (states), which I think is what is making it hard for me to narrow down! (One good thing about COVID – it allows me to focus all my energy on exploring Japan…so by the time the rest of Asia opens, we’ll have seen a good chunk of the country!)

One thought on “25 things to know about Japan:

  1. Many fair observations in this post, it brought back memories of my time in Tokyo. One thing that is obvious, as a westerner, you are necessarily and obviously foreign, no way to blend in like in most other countries.

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