First time in Japan - 9 things that surprised me

For a very long time, Japan remained for me quite a mysterious land on the other side of the world. 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.

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 concept of these hotels is simple: instead of a room, you sleep in a narrow capsule, just big enough to fit a bed. It gives a place to stay for the business men living too far away from their office to go home in the evening. The fact that they’re cheap make 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.

Japan, Tokyo, capsule hotel

First surprise: I had to leave my luggage at the reception. There was only a small locker for my personal belongings, barely enough for my bag. The capsule itself was really tiny: around 2m long, 80cm to 1m wide and high. Not recommended for claustrophobic people! In the most “luxurious” one there was a small TV and air conditioning, in the simplest one only a pillow and sheets. It was impossible to lock myself in and a simple curtain gave me a minimal privacy from my 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, naked, 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, I was astonished to see above me 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/ Cherry blossoms

This was one of the things I mostly anticipated about this trip. Who never saw gorgeous pictures of cherry blossoms blooming during spring in Japan? But it’s only when I arrived in Tokyo that I realised how everybody (and not only tourists) was completely crazy about them!

The Sakura season (the Japanese name for cherry blossoms) is the occasion of many celebrations. During the one or two weeks when the flowers look the most beautiful, hugh crowds gather in parks to perform the “hanami” (literally “flower viewing”, what a pretty word!): 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 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

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

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

I naively thought that the most popular sport in Japan was judo, or maybe sumo wrestling. But not at all: it’s baseball! The easiest way to realise it is to turn on the television and zap between channels: there will always be one broadcasting a game. Other option, walk around Hiroshima on a game day. It was absolutely amazing to see how many people were wearing a shirt, a cap or a scarf to the glory of the Hiroshima Carps, the local team!

7/ Surprising smoking habits

On our first evening in Japan, me and my friend Jeff who I was travelling with 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/ Gaming rooms

Whether it was in Tokyo, Kyoto or Hiroshima, our eyes often got attracted by many huge gaming rooms. We went inside a few times by curiosity and the sight that awaited us was indescribable: the loud noise of 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!

9/ Elegance

It’s impossible to compete with Japanese people on the topic of dressing. Every time I took the subway, it felt like there were only men in suits or women in skirts, nobody wearing a short or a t-shirt apart from tourists. But nothing can beat the class of women wearing kimonos: they are literally gorgeous!

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