First Time in Japan: 11 Things That Surprised Me

FIRST TIME IN JAPAN: 11 THINGS THAT SURPRISED ME

I admittedly knew very little about Japan before I stumbled upon extremely cheap tickets to Tokyo last year and impulsively booked my flight; I was aware that Japan had excellent cuisine and countless temples but this is pretty much as far as I could get. I didn’t really know what to expect, besides the clichés we see on TV: electronic everything, dense hordes of commuters and incredible fashion.

Some of these stereotypes turned out to be veridic.

But in other aspects, Japan and Japanese people are nothing like I imagined them to be. I’ve been pleasantly (and not so) surprised, after two weeks of criss-crossing the country. Here are, in no particular order, my impressions on Japan. These are purely personal and I don’t necessarily think of them as generalities, just mere interpretations of the complex Nippon culture.

There are relatively few cars in Japan

There are many more bicycles, pedestrians, trains and buses than there are cars in Japan – despite the country being home to over 125 million people and being one of the world’s leading automotive forces. But after renting a car to tour the Japanese Alps, I can see why there are so few cars in the country: tolls can cost as much as $25 each way for a 50 kilometre stretch and petrol prices are completely prohibitive. This is not only good news for the environment, but also for noise pollution; Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto are surprisingly quiet (pair that with extreme politeness of Japanese drivers, and it’s possible you won’t hear a honking sound for the entire duration of your trip).

Few places accept card payments

For a country so notoriously technologic and forward-thinking, Japan has serious lacks as far as electronic payments are concerned. I’ve only been able to pay with my credit card ONCE since I’ve been here (two full weeks!). It’s a good thing Japanese people aren’t into stealing stuff because I’ve never carried this much money in my wallet. Pickpockets in Europe would have a field day following me around town!

Japan is incredibly safe

first time in japan

Twilight in Gion

Case in point in the previous statement. I’ve rarely felt unsafe in my travels but Japan has got to be the least worrying place I’ve been to. My biggest concern is usually to make sure I don’t board the wrong train, not if I should avoid that alley or cross the park by myself. I am always street smart but I feel like I don’t have to be super conscious of my surroundings here – stealing, aggressing, mugging or taking advantage of another person just aren’t part of the Japanese culture (I’m not saying tragedies don’t ever happen, but that they are much less frequent here than in other countries). With just two (!!!) gun-related homicides last year, suffice to say that Japan is an ideal country for a solo female traveller.

English is seldom spoken

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled in Europe where English is quite common, but English isn’t widely spread in Japan. Not that this is a bad thing per se; it simply makes interactions more difficult than I’m accustomed to. There doesn’t seem to be English-speaking TV channels available and local popular music is notoriously Japanese-oriented (ever heard of the J-pop phenomenon?).

Mind you – I’m not one of those “let’s have the ENTIRE WORLD speak English” advisers. English isn’t even my first language, remember? But I do think of it as the universal language, one a whole lot of people on the planet speak at least a little bit of, and the key to most communications for visitors in foreign countries.

Basic notions in Japanese are required to travel in Japan, even in Tokyo.

Japanese people are extremely well-mannered

This didn’t come so much as a surprise, but more like a confirmation of my expectation. Everyone I’ve met so far has been perfectly polite and proper. It’s really quite endearing! I’ve said and heard Arigatou gozaimasu more times than I can count, and have been met with a sincere smile every time.

Every station has a different jingle

first time in japan

Kyoto Station

Subway and train stations in Japan use musical jingles to announce the imminent arrival of a train or closing doors. But these aren’t just your run-of-the-mill “to-do-doom” jingles, it’s a full on symphony at times, lasting as long as 10 seconds (I counted). I’ve never heard the same jingle twice as of yet.

I actually did a bit of research on the subject since I suspected this wasn’t simply due to creativity on the train operator’s part, and indeed, there’s science behind it: jingles were initially created to encourage timely but unhurried boarding and disembarking. Departing train melodies are arranged to invoke a feeling of relief for passengers having just boarded the train; in contrast, arriving train melodies are configured to cause alertness in travellers and commuters who might have dozed off during the ride.

Japan can be hard to navigate when you are not riding a Shinkansen

I came to that conclusion the hard way: it’s not because a train says it’s going to X that it’s the fastest train to that destination (for example, visitors in Tokyo should board the Osaka-bound Shinkansen for Kyoto, and not a Kyoto-bound train). It takes a while to become familiar with train lines and to know the difference between local, express, super express and limited express trains. One shouldn’t automatically assume that all trains are lightning fast in Japan, because they are not.

Japanese culture is so incredibly alive

first time to japan

Matsumoto Castle

Perhaps due to blatantly low immigration (roughly 90% of the Japanese population is of Japanese descent) and a somewhat closed-off attitude, Japanese traditions have remained fiercely strong over the past centuries. That is not saying that Japan is permeable to outside influences, but its culture and its history are constantly showcased throughout various events around the country, significantly more so than other places I’ve been to. It seemed to me that instead of being uninterested in what their home country has to offer like most Westerners, Japanese are fundamentally intrigued and fascinated by their own heritage. National tourism is extremely high around here, and although that could partly be explained by the fact that most Japanese workers get short holidays, making it difficult for them to travel overseas, I think they are simply genuinely interested in celebrating their customs. As they should!

Japanese people are incredibly helpful

The Japanese’s level of customer service certainly goes hand in hand with their naturally courteous manners – I’ve rarely felt more cared for as a customer than I did in this country. It seems that it would be unthinkable for them to leave a visitor, especially a foreigner, hang high. Some people have literally gone out of their way to show me to my destination (an elderly lady in a udon shop even offered to take me to the train station, which turned out to be a 30 minute walk!) and I genuinely appreciate their efforts despite our mutual lingual difficulties.

But on the other hand, I think this obsession with being helpful sometime leads to complicated yet totally avoidable situations. I’ve sometimes been led in the wrong direction or given incorrect information (and I could tell the person helping me had no idea what they were doing, and I’m pretty sure they knew I was aware of that, making our interaction even more uncomfortable), all for the sake of avoiding to utter the words “I’m sorry, I don’t know”. A wrong answer is better than no answer at all, from what I gather? I realize it’s irrational to hold their obsession with impeccable customer service against them, but sometimes an honest answer is all a girl needs.

There are vending machines everywhere

first time in japan

Just a sample of the vending machines inside the Hiroshima Tourist Office

I was sort of expecting this to be a myth but it really isn’t: I suspect there are more vending machines in Japan than humans. Outside apartment buildings, on railway platforms, inside subway stations, on street corners, these machines offer all kinds of drinks from warm green tea to coffee shots and regular OJ for roughly $1. Japan has your hydration levels at heart.

WiFi in Japan SUCKS

Let’s get this out of the way: Japan has failed in everything pertaining to WiFi. The access, the reliability, the speed, everything about it sucks. My theory is that Japanese mobile phone plans are extremely generous as far as data is concerned and that nobody in this country actually needs public WiFi. But it does make it hard for visitors to make an impromptu status update or to look up something on their phone. I mean, even freakin’ Starbucks doesn’t even have free WiFi, for heaven’s sake! Save yourself the trouble and get a MiFi, seriously.

Have you been to Japan? What were your first impressions of the country?

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100 Comments on First Time in Japan: 11 Things That Surprised Me

  1. Charlie
    April 4, 2015 at 9:02 am (3 years ago)

    Every time I read a blog post on Japan it makes me want to go even more. The country sounds absolutely fascinating.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      April 20, 2015 at 3:23 am (3 years ago)

      It really is fascinating, so different than what we’re used to.

      Reply
    • Eddie Silva
      January 26, 2016 at 9:02 am (3 years ago)

      I was stationed in Atsugi Japan for 3 1/2 years when I was in the Navy. I loved every minute of it! The Japanese people are so friendly and are the most respectful people I have ever encountered in my 20 year Naval career. I was more concerned with offending them than I was anything else. You definitely need to go visit. You will love it!

      Reply
      • Marie-Eve
        January 26, 2016 at 2:17 pm (3 years ago)

        What a great story Eddie! Thanks for sharing :-)

      • Liz Decker
        February 23, 2017 at 2:39 am (1 year ago)

        I was fortunate to live in Japan for 3 years and loved all the new and unique experiences….like taking a public bath when its Mens Night only!!!
        I would love to go bback for a visit. Such gracious people. I also worked at NASA Atsugi as a secretary and loved my time in this lovely ancient world. Im Homesick for Japan.

      • Marie-Eve
        March 14, 2017 at 1:41 pm (1 year ago)

        Wow, three years in Japan! What an experience.

  2. Aleksandra
    April 4, 2015 at 10:52 am (3 years ago)

    Japan is my biggest dream I really hope to make true one day :) Great post, very useful!

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      April 20, 2015 at 3:23 am (3 years ago)

      Glad I could help Aleksandra! :-)

      Reply
  3. Mailee Yang
    April 12, 2015 at 2:04 am (3 years ago)

    I am going to Tokyo for a week this Summer and am so excited. I am definitely going to keep updated on your blog so post all of the advice you have!

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      April 20, 2015 at 3:20 am (3 years ago)

      Tokyo is immense, it was so hard to see everything. I hope you enjoy your trip!

      Reply
      • Annerose Sedran
        March 9, 2016 at 9:51 am (2 years ago)

        A good way to get around metropolitan Tokyo is to get a one or two day ticket for the hop on hop off Skybus. The Ciry Tour Bus is great for Hiroshima too. In Kyoto these facilities are not as good. The K’loop Bus to most of the world heritage listed spots only runs on weekends and public holidays but there are other ways to get around. Go to the Tourist Information Office at the station when you arrive. They speak good English and can give you all the advice and maps you need to catch local trains and buses.

  4. Brett
    September 9, 2015 at 8:34 am (3 years ago)

    I’m afraid I can’t agree with most of the list. Perhaps it’s because I’m married to a Japanese which makes my visits “home” much easier. She’s right about safety and the food is great. I’ve never had a problem with WIFI though and people try to speak English as much as possible.

    I highly recommend going.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      September 9, 2015 at 11:03 am (3 years ago)

      I don’t recall telling people not to go to Japan :-) These are just observations from my trip, and they are highly subjective. Sorry to hear you don’t agree!

      Reply
    • Mrs H
      April 6, 2016 at 5:06 pm (2 years ago)

      Visited March 16: no problems at all with WiFi.

      We found the lady st the ticket desk in Tokyo station incredibly efficient and knowledgeable about our train journey plans – she did it all & it all went like clockwork. As a local said to us “of course …this is Japan”.

      We miss it every day!

      Reply
      • Marie-Eve
        April 10, 2016 at 5:19 pm (2 years ago)

        I think I may just have been unlucky with WiFi because my experience was awful! Loved the trains though.

  5. Raymond D. Sweet
    November 22, 2015 at 4:16 pm (3 years ago)

    Japan is cleaner than clean. People don’t litter there. Well not i Gifu or Kyoto. Not even cigarette butts. I did have an issue with police in Tokyo. I asked him for directions, but that turned into him wanting to see my passport. He however didn’t want to see anyone else’s passport. And I fussed about 15 minutes. Tokyo was too overwhelming and I just went back to China early.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      November 23, 2015 at 4:42 pm (3 years ago)

      Oh my, you thought China was less overwhelming than Tokyo? I would’ve never guessed that!

      Reply
  6. Natalia
    November 29, 2015 at 9:17 am (3 years ago)

    I spent two weeks there too with a very basic japanese I learned in Spain. I loved it there and it makes me really said to not be able to go back soon.

    WIFI DOES suck. Not only you have to register your email and therefore access the internet to confirm so you can use the wifi. But they also have things like only 30 minutes access twice a day etc. And even then the free wifi is not that great. I stayed in an old hotel and they had no wifi, the only place that had free wifi was 7-eleven. I would stand outside and use wifi – not for long because it was weird to be doing that haha! But if you accessed one 7-eleven’s wifi, you would be automatically able to access on any other. No matter the city.

    And the broken english drove me crazy. Sellers can sort of speak something. But regular people just walkin around? Very difficult. Although some Japanese randomly surprised me by their perfect Spanish or English. It was crazy!

    Anyway I loved it :)

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      December 22, 2015 at 10:01 am (3 years ago)

      Yes, Japan is a land of surprises :-)

      Reply
  7. Judith
    December 10, 2015 at 4:25 pm (3 years ago)

    I’ve just returned from a long-planned one month trip to Japan (not my first visit, but a wonderful one,) I agree with everything you said in your blog. The things you didn’t mention that I would give a little more airspace to are ..the wonderful food, markets etc. And I would highly recommend trying to stay in Kyoto for as long as possible, even foregoing Tokyo completely and concentrating on the Kansai region, travelling between Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima. We stayed nine days in Kyoto and STILL didn’t see everything we would have liked to! I think it is one of the best cities in the world..

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      December 22, 2015 at 9:59 am (3 years ago)

      Yes! Kyoto is such a great base, easy day trips and plenty to do in the city itself.

      Reply
  8. Annabel
    December 10, 2015 at 9:06 pm (3 years ago)

    I agarre with many things in your post. To solve the WiFi issue I rented a mobile WiFi device for 12 dollars a day and I had wonderful internet all the time (even for Skype/FaceTime calls) I totally recommend this since you can use google maps to use the correct trains (express etc). Using the Shinkansen is really helpful, one morning I was in Kyoto and that afternoon I was in Tokyo for dinner. Major stores will accept credit cards. Also I found a couple of small souvenirs stores that received them so I had no issues. I payed attention to the jingles and I think it’s the cutest thing. Also some stations play sounds of birds too. It’s a whole new experience :) everybody is really polite and the country is safe.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      December 22, 2015 at 9:58 am (3 years ago)

      I did rent a MiFi device as well and it was very helpful, especially with train schedules.

      Reply
  9. Richelle
    December 12, 2015 at 8:01 pm (3 years ago)

    I totally agree with Kyoto that someone mentioned. Definitely worth staying as long as you can. I made a trip there twice. One with my family of four (sons were 4 & 1) and my parents. We were a big crowd and it was difficult to travel around town. I’m happy that I didn’t bring a stroller though. We only stayed for two nights and was supposed to have 3 days but the first day was traveling day and turns out there was a typhoon. Our Shinkansen was canceled for the first leg. So we had to take regular JR train to Hiroshima. Even then, we had to move our time schedule back which left the first day with no sight seeing, just dinner from a block from our Hotel. The second time, I went with two friends because the first time wasn’t enough. We stayed at an apartment two blocks from the station for 3 nights 4 days. Kyoto is an amazing city, I highly recommend the Gion area because it has everything. Your shops are there and some land marks and shrines of course. I have lived in the Yamaguchi area for almost three years now and I can honestly say that Kyoto has more English speaking Japanese than where we are. I was extremely surprise that I was conversing with a lot of them. The cusine are all wonderful but not so much for those who are vegan since a lot of the food is either in meet broth or fish. There is however very few that offers Veggie option. One of my friend that came with us is vegan and we did tried a couple places in Kyoto that are Vegetarian cusine. I absolutely recommend trying it even if you aren’t vegan and open to any food. It was our best meal there.
    The Japanese culture and the people are by far my favorite. Customer service is amazing like you say. A lot of the places when you buy something, they take the bag around the corner and hands it to you then and then walk you out the door and bow and says thank you. And sometimes they will walk you out the door first and then hands you the bag then. They are very polite and I adore them so much. I do nots peak any Japanese but I have picked up some words and phrases here and there and even when elderly tries and talks to my children and I, I still don’t quite understand. There’s mostly charades and hand gestures. I will definitely miss this place once we move back to the states. I have a couple friends who moved back to the states and are always saying they can see themselves retiring in Japan.
    I’m glad you enjoyed your stay.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      December 22, 2015 at 9:58 am (3 years ago)

      Oh yes the Japanese are very polite! I did enjoy my stay immensely :-)

      Reply
  10. Michael
    December 30, 2015 at 4:50 am (3 years ago)

    Thanks for this blog entry, I enjoyed reading it a lot.
    I am looking forward to visit Japan for 2-3 weeks in the next couple of years.
    Have you been hiking there on your trip? I wonder what it is like to climb any volcanos.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      December 30, 2015 at 2:01 pm (3 years ago)

      I haven’t done much hiking but friends of mine hiked the Takachiho No Mine and loved it!

      Reply
  11. Ellen
    January 15, 2016 at 9:50 am (3 years ago)

    I absolutely love Japan and the Japanese people. I cannot find one negative comment to say about Japan – food is excellent, people friendly and very helpful and the beauty of Japan is breathtaking!! I would go there every year if possible.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      January 15, 2016 at 1:06 pm (3 years ago)

      OMG the foooood! I know! I didn’t have a bad meal in the three weeks I spent there.

      Reply
      • Dhiren
        March 20, 2016 at 5:39 pm (2 years ago)

        How many days is the minimum to see the Japan.?And which cities,days of stay and any other suggestions,please.Thanks.

      • Marie-Eve
        March 20, 2016 at 9:06 pm (2 years ago)

        It’s hard to tell, it depends on your interests and budget! I would say three weeks is a good timeframe to see most of the ‘must dos’ but then again, these will vary according to each person.

  12. Lorraine
    January 19, 2016 at 10:17 pm (3 years ago)

    I miss Japan!! I miss the food, the vending machines and even the warm toilet seats!!! Lol. Although english is seldom spoken it is a very tourist friendly country with lots of signs and machines with english translations.

    I did alot of research before visiting Japan and I found the suica card very useful, you load cash on it and use it to make purchases almost everywhere. Purchases such as train fare, restaurants, clothing outlets, mini marts ..etc It beats carrying a whole wade of cash and when you leave you can return the card and be given the remainder of the money that you did not spend. They are very easy to obtain and to load cash on. Digital credit how awesome is that! :D

    I totally agree with you, Japanese people are very well mannered and polite. I remember seeing these directors of massive corporations thanking each other by continuously bowing lol it was like they were having a competition on who can bow the lowests and thank eachother the most.

    It was a pleasure visiting this beautiful country and its amazing people. I will definitley be returning. Great blog entry, very much enjoyed the read.

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      January 20, 2016 at 11:48 am (3 years ago)

      Oh my God I wish someone had told me about the Suica card! It would’ve made my life so much simpler.

      Thanks for your wonderful comment, Lorraine!

      Reply
  13. sandra moreno
    January 21, 2016 at 11:43 am (3 years ago)

    I am going to Japan in two months and by reading your post i’m even more excited!!! I’m not a big fan of sushi but still excited for the food!

    Reply
    • Marie-Eve
      January 22, 2016 at 12:59 pm (3 years ago)

      Yay for Japan! Japanese cuisine is so much more than sushi – I only ate sushi two or three times over the course of three weeks. My favourite foods were udon noodles, yakitoris, and katsudon.

      Reply
    • Annerose Sedran
      March 9, 2016 at 10:03 am (2 years ago)

      Ive been told the Suica and Pasmo cards are only for the Tokyo area. Other cities have their own. I found it easy to get an international travel card from my bank and load it with yen before I left home. It’s accepted in most stores, even for smaller amounts at the myriad of convenience stores all over Japan which also have ATMs where you can draw cash on the card without incurring withdrawal fees from your bank. Anything left when you retun home can be exchanged again.

      Reply
    • Annerose Sedran
      March 9, 2016 at 10:07 am (2 years ago)

      I’m in Japan right now travelling with my 21 year old grandson. Everything you say is true and travelling here is an absolute pleasure. 25 years ago when I came the first time there was absolutely no sig