Hey hey! I’m back from Japan and can’t wait to tell you all the fun, weird, and wonderful things that surprised me while I was there – from tiny rooms to trench coats, delicious souvenirs and cute mascots – check it out here!
It’s 9PM and we’ve just spent the last hour awkwardly steering our suitcases from Narita airport, onto the bullet train, and past the crowds of Shinjuku station. We survived the 3 km walk –technically it should have been 2 km, but Google Maps betrayed us — and finally made it to the hotel. Time to stretch out and relax, right?
The first time I entered the room, I legitimately WTF’d out loud. Our entire room was smaller than half the size of my dorm back in college and couldn’t have been larger than 50 square feet (12 meters sq). Although this was the first in a series of culture shocks for me, I got used to it pretty quickly and ended up enjoying being able to reach for everything in arm’s distance. :)
Here’s a photo for reference:
- If I had to, I could write an entire blog post about the Convenience of Bullet Trains (also known as shinkansen 新幹線). They arrive on time! They’re spotlessly clean! They even sell bento boxes on board! I’m secretly jealous that we don’t have such a developed network of high-speed trains in the United States – imagine visiting New York one day, then speeding off to Los Angeles the next.
- On that same note, I thought it was very handy to have an overhead storage above each row on the bullet trains. Instead of awkwardly cuddling my huge backpack on the 4 hour ride up north, I could simply store it and voila.
- Taxi doors open by themselves – On the one occasion that we took the taxi, this was what surprised me the most. The second? Our driver was wearing white gloves, so it felt very fancy cruising through the streets of Utsonomiya.
- Speaking of taxis … Vacant cabs have a red light, and occupied cabs have a green light! Confusing, huh?
- I wouldn’t usually put the two words together, but transportation can be cute in Japan. When we visited Nagano, the tourist bus (pictured above) was printed with cute characters. It’s not just the busses- subway trains, bullet trains, and even airplanes get the cute treatment :)
- I thought San Francisco had a ton of cyclists, but Japan blew them out of the water – there were bikes everywhere! To be honest, they look like a really useful form of transportation in Japan. Sometimes to get from point A to B, walking might be too far and there aren’t any direct trains. Bikes are super useful, and you could literally park it anywhere without worrying about it being stolen. The closest place I’ve been to that had this amount of bikes was Amsterdam.
- This is common in other countries as well, but smoking in restaurants is allowed in Japan. If someone tried this in the United States, they’d probably get a swift kick out the door for violating the law.
- One cool and convenient thing in restaurants was a button to call the waiter. You press the button, there’s a little ding-dong sound on the overhead, and they go straight to your table. No more awkward hand waving or staring at the waitress to get their attention!
- If you Google, “Why are fruits so expensive in ____,” Japan is the second most searched query ,right after Korea. Are fruits in Japan expensive? Yes. Was I happy paying $10 for a box of imported strawberries? Not really :(
- Sushi isn’t as common as I thought Sure, there were plenty of little sushi spots here and there, but it’s not as popular as it is in San Francisco (where everybody’s favorite line seems to be “wanna grab sushi?”)
- Similarly, 7-Eleven is extremely popular in Japan. In the States it’s a just a place to grab a slushy or a sandwich, but in Japan it’s almost on every corner. Fun fact: There are more 7-Eleven stores in Japan than anywhere else in the world – that’s over 18,000 stores!
- Finally, and probably my favorite part… vending machines are everywhere! In the middle of a crowded Tokyo Subway platform, on a narrow side street, heck, even in the middle of nowhere… you will find a vending machine. I guarantee it. Some might not even be working anymore, but they’re there!
- Apart from delicious soda and juice, vending machines sell a lot of different things. I saw some that sold everything from ice cream, beer, cigarettes, and even little Buddhist charms.
- And finally, a vending machine might sell hot and cold things in the same machine – like iced coffee and hot soup :)
- On the first night in Tokyo, we were walking around when I saw a girl leave her bike outside the local convenience store with her purse in the basket. Still not completely used to to my new location, I was so surprised that she just left it there! Japan is such a safe country that people aren’t afraid to leave their personal things unattended. Even the bikes outside our hotel didn’t have locks on them.
- The Japanese are very polite Whenever I would walk into a store, the storekeeper(s) would stop what they were doing and say irasshaimase (“welcome”). The most over-the-top example of this was when we went to sushi on our last day, and the entire sushi restaurant — sushi chefs, busboys, waiters — all yelled “welcome” to us!
- Other than that, it’s very quiet in public. Nobody talks loudly into their cellphone, yells at their friend across the street, or has an obnoxiously loud conversation in the metro.
- One small problem we often had was that there were barely any trashcans. Guys, where do
- you put your trash? I later asked and was surprised to learn that many Japanese people have a small plastic bag in their purse/briefcase where they put their trash, and then empty it into their own trashcan when they get home. Apparently this started as an anti-terrorism measurement back in 1995, and still goes on today.
- Finally, Japan is a very safe country. We were in a small section of Utsonomiya, trying to find an izakaya (pub-style restaurant) and it was pitch black at night. Not once did I feel scared or like someone was going to jump out of the bushes :P
- Almost everyone in Japan dresses up – There were a ton of fashionable people walking in the street, wearing the latest fashion from Shibuya 109. A lot of the ladies wore heels, and men had nice suits on.
- No matter where you go, you’ll see a lot of businessmen walking around – they’re everywhere at every single hour of the day! This really made me curious: what are they doing at 3PM? Usually office workers in the States are in their office from 9am to 5pm (with a short lunch break around noon).
- Face masks are everywhere – It’s so common that you stop noticing them after the second day. You can also pop into a 7-Eleven or Lawsons and grab a pack for $3 if you’re feeling under the weather ;)
- Speaking of the weather, trench coats are very popular. Most people wore trench coats that are similar to the Burberry style- tan/caramel colored and knee-lenth.
(by the way – how many trench coats can you count in the photo above?)
- Since we had a JR East pass that let us use the bullet train for 5 days, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check out other cities! The first thing I noticed was that there are cute mascots for each region. These are called yuru-chara and are created to promote or popularize a region or city. You might have seen one of the more popular characters, Kumamon – a large black bear with red cheeks that was made to promote the Kumamoto prefecture!
(Fun fact: there’s even a prison-inspired yuru-chara called Katakkuri-chan)
- Likewise, souvenirs are really important to the Japanese. Each city had its own style of souvenir (called omiyage) that showed off what was local to that area. Aomori is popular for producing apples, so naturally we saw (and bought!) a lot of Apple Kit-Kats, apple pastries, and apple juice.
- No matter which souvenir store we went to, there were so many Kit Kat flavors. Apple, cheesecake, vanilla, green tea, even sake and wasabi! I guess my
new goal in lifebucket list item is to try every single flavor of Kit Kat.
What surprised me most of all is how much I already miss Japan. It’s been only one week since I’m back in the states, and can’t wait to go back already :)