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First Time in Japan: 11 Things That Surprised Me

first time to japan

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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CategoriesJapan
Marie-Eve

Marie is a native Montrealer trying to balance a deep love for her hometown and an unquenchable thirst for travel and discovery. She has been to more than 36 countries, lived abroad in both France and the U.K., and is always on the lookout for authentic experiences wherever she travels -- especially if it involves chocolate.