For a very long time, I saw Japan remained for me quite a mysterious land on the other side of the world, and I didn’t know much about this country until I decided to travel there for the first time during spring 2018. I had some clichés in mind (read also “Right or wrong? 10 clichés about Japan”) but I also had a lot to learn because everything seemed so different to what I was used to. Here’s the list of the 9 things that surprised me most during my first visit of Japan.
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1/ Capsule hotels
You might have already heard of this very typical kind of accommodation that you’ll find in every big city in Japan. The aim of these capsule hotels is simple: providing a bed for a decent prize to business men living too far away from their office to go home in the evening. The fact that they’re cheap makes them also a good option for low-budget travelers like me, but I have to say that I felt quite uncomfortable in the two places of this kind where I stayed.
After check-in, I had to drop my luggage at the reception (there was only a small locker for my personal belongings, barely enough for a bag). I then settled down in my capsule: a simple bed, around 2m long, 80cm to 1m wide and high, where I could only sit or lay down. In the most “luxurious” one there was a small TV and air conditioning, in the simplest one only a pillow and sheets. It’s impossible to lock yourself in and a simple curtain gives you minimal privacy from your dozens of neighbours. Not a very cosy atmosphere…
What surprised me most was the bathroom: a unique room where all the guests showered sitting on a stool next to each other, without any privacy at all. The only separation was between men and women… and that’s it. I definitely prefer staying in a hostel!
2/ Inextricable power lines
In many places in Tokyo or Kyoto, you will see above your head a lot of power lines crossing each other in an inextricable muddle; a vision quite common in places like Bangkok but much more surprising in a country so clean and organised. The explication is simple: as Japan is very often hit by earthquakes, it has been decided to hang up power lines instead of burying them, making it easier to fix them and restart power in case of a severe earthquake.
3/ The cherry blossom season is a really big thing
This might not seem so surprising to you at first glance. Who never saw gorgeous pictures of cherry blossoms blooming during spring in Japan? But wait until you’re in Tokyo at that time of the year, and you’ll realise how everybody and not only tourists get completely crazy about them!
The Sakura season (the Japanese name for cherry blossoms) is the occasion of many celebrations. During the one or 2 weeks when the flowers look the most beautiful, a lot of Japanese gather in parks to perform the “hanami” (literally “flower viewing”): an outdoor party where people eat and drink beneath the trees. In the suburb of Naka-Meguro in Tokyo, thousands of men and women from every age group come to the banks of the river flowing there to admire the sight and enjoy a cup of “strawberry sparkling”. Japanese people love their cherry blossoms and I can totally see why!
4/ Plastic food in display in front of every restaurant
It’s quite easy to get around in Japan: everything is translated in English in the underground or train stations and made as simple as possible for foreigners. But it’s a different story when it comes to food… Apart from the most touristic places, it’s very hard to find a translated menu and if you don’t want to gamble on what you order, there’s only one thing that will help you: plastic dishes in display.
In front of every restaurant, you’ll find a display case with the dishes that you can order there… recreated in plastic! It looks more or less realistic, but to be honest not often very appetising. Be careful though: I once ordered a dish with what looked like chicken, only to realise later that it was fish…
5/ The most sophisticated toilets I’ve ever seen (and used)
In Japan, you almost need a diploma to know how to use the toilets correctly. Forget about the traditional toilets with a simple flush, be prepared for dozens of buttons activating different functions like a seat heater, a water jet pointing directly at your private parts or many different types of flush. In the most sophisticated toilets you can even play music to cover the unwanted noises!
6/ Baseball is the most popular sport
Which sport would you have thought was the most popular in Japan? Sumo wrestling, judo, karate? None of them. The answer is completely different: baseball! If you don’t believe me, zap between TV channels, you’ll always find one broadcasting a game. Or walk around the streets of Hiroshima on a game day: almost everyone wears a shirt, a cap or a scarf to the glory of the Hiroshima Carps, the local team. Even the employees of shops are dressed in red and you can find goodies everywhere around town. That’s what I call supporting!
7/ Surprising smoking habits
On our first evening in Japan, the friend I was travelling with and I went to a little restaurant in Tokyo. It was empty when we arrived, but the room got quickly filled with locals, and most of them started to smoke. We asked a waiter who spoke English and he told us that smoking was permitted in restaurants in Japan. Even more surprising, it is forbidden to smoke on the street apart from some little spots every now and then marked with painting on the ground (a rule perfectly observed by everybody). Definitely not what we were expecting!
8/ Huge gaming rooms everywhere
Whether it was in Tokyo, Kyoto or Hiroshima, our eyes often got attracted by many giant gaming rooms. We went inside a few times and the sight that awaited us was indescribable: the loud noise of the hundreds of gaming machines, the darkness, the smoke and strong tobacco smell as almost everyone had a cigarette… Apparently a lot of people (mostly men) come here very regularly to play video games for hours. I still can’t understand how they manage to stay more than 5 minutes inside!
It’s impossible to compete with Japanese people on the topic of dressing. Have a look around you during a subway ride: men in suits, women in skirts, nobody wearing a short or a t-shirt. But nothing can beat the class of women wearing kimonos: they are literally gorgeous! Here are a few pictures to let you appreciate by yourselves…
Have you ever been in Japan? What surprised you the most during your first visit? Share it in the comments!
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Read also the first part of this article: “Right or wrong? 10 clichés about Japan“