20 things that might surprise new visitors to Japan
Many Kiwis will celebrate Japan fully reopens to tourists.
Before the pandemic, Japan was at the height of a tourism boom, welcoming a record 31.9 million foreign visitors in 2019.
Kiwi fruit were among those flocking to the country – it was our 10th most popular destination in 2019, with just over 61,000 returning from a trip there, according to data from Stats NZ.
Lock down that long-awaited trip to the land of the rising sun? Here’s what you can expect…
Using the toilet is an experience in itself
Every first-time visitor to Japan has a “toilet story”. There are so many surprises in store – whether it’s the cheek-warming pleasure of a heated seat, the protective roar of modesty from the “Sound Princess” (a machine designed to drown out the tingles of female urination), or the throbbing jet of water that comes by pressing one of the buttons (don’t, I repeat, don’t get off the seat to look into the bowl to see what’s going on).
Whereas Japan’s futuristic facilities draw the most attention, be aware that in some places you will still find traditional squat toilets, which require a rugby player’s thighs to use successfully.
You will have to remove your shoes in some places
You may already know it’s customary to take off one’s shoes when visiting a Japanese person’s home. You may also need to do this when visiting certain traditional restaurants, izakaya or ryokan (Japanese inns).
But one unexpected place you might need to take your shoes off is before trying on clothes in stores. You will usually be asked to place your shoes in a small basket outside the locker room.
Avoid a slippery situation
In situations where you must remove your shoes, your host will usually provide you with slippers to wear inside. Many homes have specific “toilet slippers”, which you should swap your regular slippers for when using that particular room (and be sure to swap them out when you’re done to avoid contaminating the rest of the house with your feet clean).
You should also remove your slippers before entering a room with a tatami floor and just wear your socks (make sure they are fresh and without holes).
You won’t need to buy tissues
Chances are they’ll be given to you for free on the street. Instead of handing out brochures or flyers, many Japanese companies have their advertisements printed on packets of tissues, which are handed out to pedestrians. Do not hesitate to accept them.
You will still see a lot of face masks
Long before the pandemic, face masks were a staple in Japan. People wear them when they feel unwell, but also when they have hay fever, and sometimes even for other reasons, like to hide skin imperfections.
They are even considered a kind of fashion statement – at Tokyo Disneyland you can buy face masks with the mouths of popular cartoon characters.
But trash cans are hard to find
Japan is a particularly clean country, so many visitors may wonder where all the trash cans are?
Public trash cans were largely removed from Japanese cities as a safety measure following the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks in 1995. We encourage you to keep your rubbish with you, to dispose of when you return home.
You’re also not supposed to eat and walk
Grabbed a sandwich to eat on the way to your next tourist spot? You might want to reconsider. Eating and walking in public is frowned upon, because it is believed that you have to sit down to enjoy your food. The potential for waste is also a concern.
It’s so quiet
With over 37 million people, Tokyo is the largest city in the world, but when you walk through its busiest districts or travel by train during rush hour, it’s remarkable how calm.
On that note, talking or using your phone loudly on trains is considered rude. Most people remain standing or seated in silence, out of respect for other passengers.
The trains are incredibly punctual
A common claim is that you can set your watch near Japanese trains, and it’s true – they are almost always on time. Japan’s bullet train network has an average delay of less than a minute.
Expect to use a lot of cash
Despite its high-tech image, in many ways Japan is still quite paper-based. Cash is still considered king here – so it’s a good idea to always have some yen on hand.
Discount stores are the best
Speaking of yen, you can get almost everything you need for a very low price Japanese 100 yen shops – where, as the name suggests, most items are sold for 100 yen (just over $1 – although there are fears that they too will soon fall victim to the price increase).
You’ve probably heard of Daiso, but also check out Can Do and Seria. And while it’s not a 100 yen store, you can also get heaps of bargains at Don Quijote discount stores.
Vending machines are everywhere
There are believed to be four million vending machines in Japan, or one for about 31 people. They distribute cold and hot drinks, ranging from a range of fruity flavored Fantas, the oddly named Pocari Sweat, to hot canned coffee.
Kit Kats come in so many flavors
Almost all parts of Japan has its own Kit Kat flavor, and new seasonal and experimental flavors are released regularly. Think strawberry cheesecake, sakura mochi, and even wasabi.
They make great souvenirs and are even considered lucky charms – the pronunciation of “Kit Kat” in Japanese, “Kitto Katsu”, translates to “you will surely win”.
Some fruits are very expensive
Some fruits are considered a luxury item in Japan and are given as special offerings or gifts. In some designer fruit shops in Tokyo, you’ll see beautifully packaged melons, grapes and strawberries selling for the equivalent of hundreds of dollars.
Sushi looks different from our place
If you visit a sushi restaurant, don’t expect to see the rice and sea wood rolls you usually would have for lunch. While makizushi (sushi rolls) are the best-known type of sushi outside of Japan, when you’re in the country you’ll find the most common style is nigirizushi – a small bed of pressed rice topped with thin fish slices.
You can dine at convenience stores
No offense, Night ‘n Day – but you have nothing on Japanese convenience stores, known as “konbini”. Dining options like 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart are next level. For a pocket change, you can get rice balls, fried chicken, pork buns, tonkatsu sandwiches, pasta, hot meals, bento boxes, and more. And everything is delicious.
You will want to learn these phrases
Nomihoudai and tabehoudai – at will and at will. Many izakaya offer these packages where, for a set price, you can order as much food or drink as you want from a special menu. Pair it with karaoke for the perfect night out.
Love hotels are a thing
Japan has many establishments where you can rent for a “rest” or for a night, with a discreet registration process. With themed rooms and amenities like karaoke machines and sex toy vending machines, they’re a quirky accommodation option. Stroll through Shibuya’s Dogenzaka, also known as Love Hotel Hill, to get a feel for what’s on offer.
Public baths too
Public baths are a long-standing tradition in Japanese culture, and visiting a sento (public bath) or onsen (natural hot spring) is a unique experience you should try in Japan.
Sento ranges from basic facilities to swimming wonders with a variety of different pools as well as jacuzzis, saunas and restaurants. If you want to visit an onsen, you will need to go to an area that has hot springs. Hakone, Beppu and Kurokawa are excellent onsen destinations.
Whatever you visit, be sure to use the showers to give yourself a thorough scrub before entering the baths.
Tattoos are still questionable
Tattoos have long been taboo in Japan, due to their connection to the underworld. As attitudes change, you can still find places where tattoos are banned – like onsen, swimming pools or water parks.
What things surprised you on your first visit to Japan? Let us know in the comments.