Japan has been getting extremely popular as a tourist destination in the recent years. The tradition, tranquility and old-style, magnificent architecture blends here with the ultra modern glass skyscrapers, world's most crowded streets and amazing technological advancement. Somewhere in the middle all of this, the Japanese culture is strongly rooted and there are lots of things at every corner that may come as a surprise for those who live in the West. This is the list of 10 things that surprised and shocked us in Japan the most. Hope you'll also enjoy the photos - Japan is extremely photogenic!
This is a controversial topic. You either hate or love Japanese food. I was excited about it before coming to Japan, however, it turned out to be... let's say disappointing. All those who adore Japanese food, don't hate me - this is only my personal opinion. Let me explain why.
We usually love to try any kinds of local delicacies. But while traveling, we tend to be extremely active and try to visit as many places as possible. As a result, we cannot stay still. But if you're on the run from dawn till dusk, you want some good and comforting food. And in Japan - we felt as if something was missing.
I can't say the Japanese food is not tasty - it usually is, but if you're not a fan of sushi or deep fried stuff, you're basically left with slimy pieces of meat or sea food served in the ratio of rice/noodles 80%, greasy meat 10% and vegetables 10%. And then, portions are small and overpriced. Lean chicken breast is virtually unavailable. After a few days, we became kind of sick of plain rice and noodles. Yes, ramen is tasty but not when you have it non stop and noodles are just not enough. Couldn't stand it anymore. We just wanted some good portion of baked fish or grilled meat.
You might say that we could have visited one of the Kobe beef grill restaurants to get amazing food quality (and quantity). We did, and I must say that I had one of the best meals of my life in one of those dinners. It was extremely tasty, we could grill the meat on our own and all the side dishes were delicious. But... yes, there are a few buts to it. First is the time. It takes a lot of time before the food is served and ready to eat - you cook it yourself. It's a great place to enjoy with your friends in the evening but if you want a quick lunch, that would not work. Second is the price. If you don't mind paying around 50 USD for one meal (but usually you can eat as much as you want), then do try it. It's amazing.
There's also another thing that might surprise you about food in Japan - and it is the way it's presented. All the restaurants have displays of plastic dishes and you can actually see what you order. There are also almost always pictures in the menu cards. That's a good thing but for us, more often than not, food served was a bit different from the food presented.
Surprisingly, although an international meal is so difficult to find (even in Tokyo - contrary to popular belief), Japan has multiple amazing bakeries at every corner. I just loved their deserts, cakes and pastries.
Japanese cities are huge. They are the most populated municipalities in the world. In Tokyo, you take metro for 30-40 minutes and you are still in the central area. This is the reason why visiting a Japanese metropolis takes longer and can be extremely exhausting. But that's understandable, considering the size.
However, what really surprised me was where the attractions such as temples or palaces were located. You won't find any historical district in Japanese cities just like in other places in the world - all the spots worth visiting, contrary to Europe, for example, are spread all around the place and it takes enormous amount of time to travel from one place to another.
3. The size of the temples
In the pictures, the temples usually look like beautiful buildings with curved roofs. However, the pictures will never show you how enormous most of them are. It's actually striking and unbelievable as they are usually made of wood. The number of detailed, carved decorations is also mind blowing.
Another thing is the fact that the palaces and temples are frequently situated in a center of a huge park, often surrounded by moats. In Europe, if you want to see a palace or a church, you just go to the old town area and you find all of them there just in front of your eyes a short walk from one another.
In Japan, you mark a palace on the map and you think you've arrived when you cross the bridge over the moat. Wrong. You will have to walk for at least another 30 minutes to reach the actual landmark.
This is all amazing, the architecture is unique and so impressive, but if you want to enjoy Japan at a reasonable pace, allow more time than you usually would in, let's say, Europe.
4. Politeness and safety
It's strange to say that the fact that someone is polite comes as a surprise. Should not all of us be polite, after all?
However, the Japanese go out of their way in their kindness. It doesn't matter if you ask for advice or directions in the street or you're a customer in a supermarket. Everyone is super kind in a very respectable way. The fact that they don't know your language doesn't get in the way at all - they will still try to help you as much as they can. It happened to us a few times that people actually walked us to the correct platform at a train station and showed us how to buy tickets although they were heading in the opposite direction.
Japan is also extremely safe. During our two week stay we did not encounter even one place that would feel dangerous or dodgy. You can walk safely at night not worrying that someone will mug you. This gives extreme comfort while traveling.
5. No trash cans
Not only toilets are perfectly clean. So are the streets. It's hard to find even one piece of trash on the sidewalks or in the parks. It's all pristine. But... good luck if you want to find a trash can! There are no such containers whatsoever in the streets - or they appear very rarely next to the shops, at the back. In Japan, everyone carries they're trash and throws it out at home. As a traveler, this may be annoying, but this is the way it is. Keep your trash with you.
This will be one of the first thing that will surprise you in Japan. Before visiting the cherry blossom land I had heard about the famous Japanese toilets. I thought - come on, toilet is a toilet, even if it's fancy. But no - the Japanese treat using the toilet when the need arises as a some sort of a special experience - or it just might only seem to us this way - as probably for them it's all normal. How disappointed must they be when they use the ordinary toilets in different countries then?
Japanese toilet has a manual guide stuck to the wall explaining how to use it with all the options and frills.
It's all amazing but if you don't speak Japanese, it can be a bit confusing. There is an English text, however not very detailed. In short, a Japanese toilet has a sensor that makes it open and close without touching it (that goes without saying) - but also can play music or imitate rain sounds to cover what you're doing. It has an option to wash you automatically and even to... give you a massage. I didn't try the massage option though. Then there are several modes of flushing. There's a sink on top of the toilet which gathers water running down after washing your hands so it can be reused for flushing. Not to mention that bathrooms are spotlessly clean - no matter if it's a 5 star hotel, a hostel or bus station.
7. No phones or food in public
It came as a surprise that talking on the phone in public, especially in trains, metro and buses is looked down on. Japan has absolutely amazing public transport - during our 2 week stay, no train or bus were late even one minute.
But to all those who love chatting on the phone while commuting - you won't be able to do it. There are signs "no phones" all over the place - at the station, on train and buses. And I don't think this is such a bad idea - your can travel in silence and with respect after spending all day at work.
8. Availability and prices of fruit
I really enjoy to try new fruit when I'm visiting a new country. Unfortunately, in Japan it wasn't an easy task. And it makes the whole enjoyment of food in general less pleasurable. So, basically, fruit in Japan is available only at food markets and in the huge supermarkets. You won't find them at the grocery store in the corner. The prices are ridiculous - usually around 1.5 to 2 times more expensive than in the West. The variety is also quite poor. It seems they only have one kind of apples, orange and clementines. And the quality is not that great. That's a surprise for such a green and mostly subtropical country. Strawberries maybe an exception here - they are delicious indeed (but pricey). Also, did you know that in Japan you can find completely white strawberries? - I was tempted to try them but 22 USD for 12 strawberries effectively discouraged me from doing so.
9. Capsule hotels
I was so curious about the capsule hotels before traveling to Japan. Didn't know what to expect. And as prices for normal accommodation were high, that was also the reason that pushed us even more to book the capsule "room".
So what's a capsule hotel? I would rather call it a hostel - the capsules at nothing more than beds surrounded by walls and a curtain that you can pull down to get privacy.
It was comfortable although not for those who suffer from claustrophobia. Also, it's worth to mention that most of the capsule hotels have amazing bathrooms with all kinds of skin and hair care products free to use. The whole experience was cool, the only major downside was that the area was not air conditioned properly and there was a lack of fresh air. There can be dozens of beds in one large hall. They don't have doors and keys, but instead you have to put your clothes in the lockers before entering the capsule hall. It's a bit annoying because it means everything you need to leave your stuff and shoes in the lockers before entering the room, so you keep coming back and forth - it's not allowed to wear shoes inside. Flip flops or slippers are available. I'll write a separate post about the experience of sleeping in the capsule hostels in detail.
10. Smoking in restaurants
Japanese culture is full of respect and many things that are completely normal in the West are frown upon in Japan. No phones on board a train or bus, no shorts, no loud talking, no eating in the streets... Therefore, it is hard to believe that in many restaurants and cafes smoking is completely normal! It came as a total shock as everyone tries to be as polite as possible at every step of the way. People avoid making others uncomfortable. And then... the cigarette smoke is completely imposed on those who don't smoke and therefore the overall enjoyment of a meal in a restaurant is totally diminished. It just doesn't add up and doesn't match to the perfect Japanese society.
Some other places we visited around Japan
Author: Tom @ Adventurous travels
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