Japan was my 50th visited country and I must admit it totally surprised me. It looked completely different from everything I’ve ever seen until then and this made it so special. Beside, the fact that I reached the top of Mount Fuji for my 30th anniversary will make it a memory for a lifetime. Now, let’s see what makes this country so special and why you should visit Japan!
Japan is known as the land of the rising sun. It’s an insular country, formed by four big islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu) and 47 prefectures, spread from the border with Russia – Siberia in the North until going down South towards Taiwan. Within its almost 3000 km length there is a lot to see and do while being there!
I was thinking how to describe Japan in two or three words but it’s impossible. There are so many things we all known about Japan that makes it so famous around the world. I bet everybody knows about martial arts, sumo, samurai, ninja, Mario Kart, Pokemon, Sailor Moon, ikebana flower arrangement, sushi, karaoke, kimono, geisha, Nissan, Toyota or the cherry blossom trees!
So, after spending 7 weeks in Japan, mainly working but also travelling around, I summarized the things everybody should know before reaching this far away land.
The land of contrasts
During your visit in Japan you’ll notice the discrepancy between the new versus old and the way are coexisting is fascinating. From walking on the streets and seeing rich people wearing luxury brands to people wearing kimonos, from KFC to traditional restaurants or from skyscrapers to traditional homes, everything is living around in harmony.
Japanese language is using three different alphabets simultaneously Kanji (Chinese characters) , Hiragana and Katakana.
As a tourist you just need to know that English is not widely spoken. People are more scared to speak in English even if they learned in school because of the lack of practice. Showing an address or something written helps them guiding you or answer a question easily.
An another advice will be to use basic English words while communicating and speaking slowly and clear.
There is a mix of religions in Japan: Shintoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianity. The first two are the preponderant ones, sustained by the wide number of Temples and the Shrines all over the country.
Japan has all the four seasons but what makes it “special” are the typhoons and the earthquakes which are happening quite often. So, during your visit in Japan if you’re “lucky” enough, you may experience some cool sensations as it happen to me.
If you see somebody running for a bus or to catch a train this is for real. Everything comes literally on time, so don’t expect any delays.
A visit in Japan is not completed without a bullet train experience. In the image above you can see the Japanese speed train, called Shinkansen, which has an operating speed up to 320 km/h. So, if you’re planning to go from Tokyo to Hiroshima (approx. 800 km) you can be there in about 4 hours.
Linked to this, living in a society where everything comes when is supposed to come, Japanese don’t like delays in general. So if you have to meet somebody at a specific hour, be sure you made it on time or you’ll make a bad impression instead.
Japanese people are extremely committed to their work. They often work long hours and reduce their holiday to contribute more for the company prosperity. In the Japanese culture, work stays on the first place, then comes the family.
Before, Japanese people used to work for life in the same company and changing it would have been seen very bad. Now, things started to change, and switching the companies during the career is more often among young people. Anyway, they are still more conservative comparing to the Europeans where we may end up changing jobs and companies every 2-3 years!
If you only visit Japan you cannot experience this by yourself but if you’re a resident from Europe or America, it can be a hot topic. We are used to take the decisions quick and we do concentrate our work on efficiency. While we learn on the way, especially from our mistakes, Japanese don’t do that. They do invest the time to do ‘nemawashi’, the process where the topic is discussed with everybody, until a common decision will be made. It is less efficient in terms of time, but a more secured way from failure.
Things slowly started to change now, but in the traditional Japanese mindset you could reach a senior level in the company only with age. Which means, it doesn’t actually matter how smart you are because the level of decision should come based on age and experience.
If you went to visit other countries in Asia you may assume Japan is as cheaper as Thailand or Vietnam. Well, this is totally wrong. Your visit in Japan will be costly! The prices are as much as the European prices, for example like France.
While everything is expensive, when you need to buy a souvenir expect to pay like 4 euro for a magnet. There are some shops like Daiso where you may get some good deals for the equivalent of 1 euro.
Expect to queue for everything. I was so shocked and amazed about all those queues people do make from entering into a shop or waiting for the train. There are no clear lines to show you how to queue but they do succeed to make a perfect line, with everybody waiting politely and not trying to skip or obey any rule.
When you work so hard and for long hours, you may end up getting married just to be aligned with the society rules. As a consequence, if you start spending too much time with your partner and the family, you will maybe realize you don’t actually know each other. This is why the divorce rate in Japan is one of the highest in the world!
If you are used to contribute to the society in every step of your life and with so much devotion, when this stops can be catastrophic. Many people end up their life by committing suicide while reaching the retirement age or because of the stress level which goes above the limits.
Japanese people are willing to work and feel useful to the society. Because of that the unemployment rate is very low comparing to many other countries and you’ll be surprised, but are not many homeless people on the streets asking food or money.
If in Romania as an example we used to have uniforms during the communism, just for everybody to look the same and show no differences, in Japan is part of the daily life. You will see the kids or the teenagers going to school by proudly wearing their uniforms. During the weekends, in Akihabara quarter in Tokyo people do wear crazy uniforms while going out for drinks or parties. Don’t miss a visit to see Sailor Moon in flash and bones!
Well, in such a technological country don’t be surprised to have some very high-tech toilets. With so many buttons for heating, washing and playing music, it may look very confusing for somebody not used to one before.
Wow, I may say it has been a shock for me. After seeing the Japanese people so shy and polite, I couldn’t even imagine them naked.
But, I went with two Japanese friends to the onsen – the traditional Japanese baths – and I figure it out that we need to get naked. Initially I thought it is kind of a joke until I notice the other women walking around… yes, naked.
Don’t worry too much, women and man are separated and no photos are allowed inside but if you’re a shy person in general it may be tricky experience. This is a must do experience during your visit in Japan, you will remember it forever!
Something I truly appreciate in this culture is the community spirit. In such a contrast with the European mindset, where everybody has a very developed sense of individualist, Japan is on the opposite side. There you feel the collectivism, where each individual is trying to contribute to something everybody can take advantage from. There is not about me, but about us, not about you as an individual but you as a community.
If I should pick one single word to describe Japan would probably be harmony. People and nature do live in harmony and to do this they collectively obey to some rules – as nothing comes for free, with zero sacrifices.
Maybe one of the reasons Japanese people don’t actually like tourists too much it is linked to this. When a stranger comes to their country there is a new conception of life coming in, different expectations, different mindset, which of course leads to a disequilibrium. So, instead of starting to judge how the things are going inside Japan and having some wrong expectations, expect less and accept more, it’s part of the travel challenge! In the end you are a visitor so have a look without judging something you may not truly understand.
Not so direct…
Maybe like the British, Japanese people will never tell you straight in your face what they do think about you. Part of the education, part of not sharing every single thought they may have, even if you do or say something wrong you will be treated in a very polite way. If you’ll live there it will be a lot more easier to understand this non verbal language and when you’re wrong or you need to stop.
For sure, during you visit in Japan you will notice the high level of politeness. Japanese are the most polite people you will ever meet in your life. They will always put a smile on their face and try to help even if they are not so keen to do it or coming from the heart. Is just because the society which requires you to be like this, nice and polite.
As an advice, use the Japanese thank you words while travelling to put a smile on their face: Arigatou Gozaimasu!
While sitting on the table with the family or friends, there are some unspoken rules. For example, the oldest one should be the first one eating, followed by the others. If at the end at the meal there is a last bit of something, the oldest one has the privilege to take it. So, totally different when we think about the European society, where we leave the kids and the young ones to enjoy more than the older ones.
Also, there is another rule, don’t eat and walk! People will do consider you as being crazy doing this. For example, while I was in Tokyo visiting, I bought some sweets, something similar with some donuts let’s say. The seller put me to read and acknowledge that I won’t eat the sweets on the street if he will sell them to me. So this is really serious!
Japanese youths started to go more often abroad for an experience. But the big majority wants to come back home sooner or later. Because of that, Japan is one of the top countries in the world with such a high percentage of nationalists inside the mother country.
Women in Japan
There are always discussions about how women are perceived in the Japanese society. By speaking to locals, to Japanese women, I understood things started to change – but too slowly maybe.
At home and at work, women are expected to be the ones bringing the coffee to the table, preparing the dinner or doing the “secretary” work. And this, only because of pure sexual difference. Society is considering the man as being the pillar, having the power of decision and some privileges, while women don’t.
Some companies are even more strict hiring women, specially if they are approaching the marriage age, when are expected to leave the company and take care of the kids. Not mentioning the salary difference for the same job, in the same company, also based on sexual difference.
Let’s hope are other compensations women can take advantage from, to balance a bit this unfair situation.
Even if the man is the boss outside, at home the woman is the queen. She takes care of the money and the expenses, decides over the kids educations and gives pocket money to the husband (called kozukai) – from his own salary!
This country is a very high plastic consumer. Everything you buy comes with a dozens of wrapping and packing that goes straight into the bin. It looks like the external aspect is so important that nothing else matters, not even the fact we destroy the planet.
Initially I just thought I am stupid and I cannot see where are the bins on the streets, that should be somehow hidden or covered to keep a high hygiene. But no, there are literally no bins on the streets.
Everybody is carrying its own trash in the bag and takes it back home. If you really want to leave it on the way, you need to enter a supermarket or convenience store to leave it there.
Once reaching the bin, expect to have a PHD in recycling to know where to put each part of your trash: paper, clean plastic, dirty plastic, soft plastic, hard plastic and so on. And as you can imagine, with such a selective recycling the country is the cleanest one you’ll ever see!
It doesn’t actually matter what you are buying because the packaging will have a wow effect. Even for a very small souvenir or a chocolate box, the wrapping will be absolutely amazing in order to grab everybody’s attention and excitement while opening it.
Also, if you are visiting somebody in Japan buy some sweets or a small gift – it is somehow expected and polite to do so.
Eat & Drink
If you expect the sweets to be as sweet and tasty as in France, forget about it. In Japan you need to get used to sweets even filled with beans! And yes, it is considered a sweet!
Japanese people don’t actually cook much, they do prefer to eat outside. And with more than 80.000 restaurants only in Tokyo, there are plenty of choices to be made. Rice is the base of the Japanese food. You can find rice bowls in supermarkets to eat it as it is, in a nice sushi or in more sophisticated food.
During your visit to Japan you need to try some local beverages too! Sake is the traditional Japanese drink basically a rice wine, delicious but quite strong and expensive! You need to taste the local beers like Asahi, Kirin or Ebisu and of course, the well known green tea!
If you’re not used to eat with the chopsticks just ask for a fork. But if you do, take into account you cannot leave the chopsticks into the bowl while eating. This is linked to a funeral celebration so don’t do it. Just put them on the bowl or down, near the plate.
If you like fruits expect to pay a lot of money for eating them in Japan. This should be linked with the perfection of everything around. If a fruit has a spot or an imperfect shape, it doesn’t go for sale. So, with such a rigorous selection to get the best of the best, the prices go really up.
I do hope you liked the article and your interest in visiting Japan went high! Meanwhile, if you want to know more about this amazing country continue reading here.