21 Things to Know Before Going to Japan | THIS MAY SHOCK YOU!

Last Updated on July 19, 2021 by Christine Kaaloa

THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO TO JAPAN, JAPAN TRAVEL GUIDE

THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO TO JAPAN

 

Traveling to Japan for the first time? With youth pushing for hyper-progression and older generations still preserving tradition, Japan is  a country of extremes.  As a city full of worker drones and black business suits, there’s a youthful  and rebellious side of Tokyo youth, which gravitates towards breaking free from a limiting tradition. It makes for interesting quirks. Here’s things to know about going to Japan.

asakusa
japan asakusa, visit asakusa, tokyo attrctions

 

21 Things to know before going to Japan

At first I thought Japan was going to be so clean and orderly, that I might actually find it… ahem, boring. I know, I know, …shame on me for thinking that, but I’ve gotten to love traveling developing countries, with their colorful unpredictability.  Japan, I knew was safe, well-mannered, orderly, clean. Well where’s the fun in that?!

As conservative and traditional Japanese culture can be, it also has a wild streak.

Crazy and quirky things about Japan

1. Never trust blondes

When it comes to hair color, the Japanese will surprise you. Tokyo folk struggling to find and create their own individual expression. Just when you think you’ve spotted a foreigner on the street, have a closer look. Often, the hair color will deceive you.  It’s popular to dye your hair to any color other than your own.. black.

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blond-japanese

2. The Japanese love “cute”

Kirei desu nee? (Translation: Cute isn’t it?)

Maybe  the love for all things “cute” is an affliction throughout Asia , but sometimes, it feels like the Japanese started that trend. As the home of Hello Kitty, the Japanese place innocence and virtue on an extremely high pedestal, such that even pop stars sign contracts, which bind them to uphold clean and virginal images regarding sex and relations.

This brings me to…

cute

Hello Kitty dolls at Kiddie Land in Omoetaesando

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Souvenir trinkets in Asakusa, Tokyo

3. When “cute” just gets ugly or just plain, perverse

Japanese are masters at creating cute products. But you can’t be perfect all the time…

If you’re a society that worships cute things so steadily, then from time to time, you might slip and assume something is cute when it’s really… fugly.  Check out the dolls below. I found them at Kiddy land in Tokyo.  My Japanese girlfriend told me they were popular because they were cute.  I realize in this large world, we can’t all agree on the same image of beauty.

If I were a child, this would give me nightmares, like a Chucky doll.

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Then there’s that other kind of “cute” that crosses that grey zone between fetishized fantasy and then … hyper-warps into over-the-top bit disturbing.  For instance, why would you want to look like an anime  (comic book) character?

photo makeover booths, asian photo makeovers, ulzzang culture, uljjang culture, otaku culture

Pikura Photo makeover booths in Tokyo. You can retouch your eyes, skin, a lot… so you look like an anime character

jrock cards, japan rock collectibles

J-rock collectible trading cards, where the look of innocence must be preserved. And okay, what are these outfits they’re wearing?

 

Japan has a such a fixation on innocent cute-ness, celebrities must appear clean-cut and in girl bands, girls are under written contract to always be appear and act demure, so as to preserve the  fantasy of innocence for fans.

From the adult fantasy fun of having maid cafes, where girls dress as maids serve you, to blow job bars and the anime fantasy and popularity of “school girl fashion”. it’s all cute until it gets kinda uh, pervy.

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School girl uniform fashion

5. Manga Craze

Who ever thought that comic books (manga) would be popular even with adults?

Although westerners enjoy it through events like Comicon, Japanese culture is consumed by it. You’ve got films and TV dramas based off of them,… manga cafes, an internet cafe/library where you can read and watch anime (and sleep overnight in the cafes). There’s also areas like Akihabara -otaku central- dedicated to shopping for manga and anime. There’s even popular street fashion in Harajuku, where teens like to emulates or dress like their favorite characters- wanna see a grown girl dress up as Sailor Moon?

manga figurines, anime figurine collectables, manga characters in japan

Manga exhibition ad in the subway

akhihabara district tokyo, anime shops tokyo, manga shops tokyo

Anime and Manga shops in Akihabara Tokyo

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Akihabara: The Tokyo district dedicated to otaku culture and manga/anime fixation.

media cafe popeye manga cafe fukuoka

Manga cafes: 24 hour internet and manga libraries.

 

6. Vending machines to Vending machine restaurants

The Japanese love vending machines. From cigarettes, drinks, bike rentals and food, you can buy anything from a vending machines (even used girl’s panties… but that’s a different category)!  Maybe the Japanese believe in a automated approach to sales, as saving time and efficiency.

Japan also has vending machine restaurants, where you pay outside through the vending machine, collect your ticket and go inside to get your meal served up. I guess it saves time and confusion when you have to order from a normal human being.

vending machines japan, japanese vending machines

Vending machines are common in Japan.

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Watch my tour of how to eat at a vending machine restaurant

 

7.  Limited Edition Kit Kats (and Coca colas)

Matcha green tea and sakura kit kats? Whah, we certainly don’t have those in the U.S. Upon a visit to Osaka, I even discovered the city has their own city stamp on bottles of Coca Cola!

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limited edition japan kit kats

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limited edition japan coca colas


Ways Japan will blow you away

8.  Metro:  A Sleep Capsule on Wheels

It’s easy to feel drowsy when riding a Tokyo metro. It’s not that it lulls you to sleep with a rocking lullaby, but the fact you’ll find practically Tokyo person falling into Sleepland, in their seats or hanging on a strap.   Japan is one of the most overworked countries and the subway rides home show this.

9. The world’s most expensive bottled water is cheap

Japan is the only country I know of where Evian water is cheap . You can easily find them in the 100 yen stores,  priced below Japanese brands.  Japan is said to have really good drinking water; apparently, better than Evian. Knowing Evian is expensive in the U.S.,  I decided to stock up my Evian supply.

10. Massive Crowds

I thought Hong Kong was overpopulated and at this point, I’d hate to see China, because whoa, Tokyo! Tokyo wasn’t a city I imagined to be overpopulated and crowded. It is. The sidewalks of every main shopping or entertainment area look like a rock concert.

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Crowd at Harajuku Square, crossing the streets

sensoji temple asakusa, tokyo attractions

Visiting Asakusa’s Senso-ji temple, along with Japanese high schoolers, Buddhists and tourists.

tokyo marketplace

Marketplace

 

11. Metro Station Confusion

If you have to be somewhere at a specific time, factor in time for getting lost. You will likely get lost trying to find the right exit at a metro station. Although the Japanese put great effort in posting direction signs, some of the stations are so enormous that all the signs might actually confuse you and you will need to find a station master to direct you out.

12. Multi crosswalks

Shibuya Scramble is known to be one of the world’s wildest crossings with 5 icrosswalks intersecting. But the multicrosswalk idea is not a new idea to Tokyo. They have more than one.

13. Bicycle parking lots

For a technology-driven country, it’s refreshing to see bike transportation as popular as automobiles. In fact, the Japanese love their bikes and the little exercise it takes to get somewhere isn’t a problem. You’ll find bicycle parking lots on sidewalks, racks suspended in apartment garages and occasionally, in bike parks in underground metros.

bike rentals tokyo

Bicycle parks can be outside, in metro stations, at paid lots. Japan has a lot of bicycles

14. Craftsmanship

Japan is the place to go when it comes to quality craftsman ship.   Japanese take great pride in producing things of good quality. From woodwork to food to art, architecture and religious icons. Everything in Japan is a well-balanced art and strong craftsmanship.  One place to certainly see this is Asakusa’s Nakamise Dori, which has an old world charm to it.

Japanese cuisine is another area where you’ll find excellent craftsmanship as the Japanese prepare food with hospitality, respect and reputation in mind. Craftsmanship in Japan runs very deep.

senbei maker in japan, sokoji vendor, japanese senbei cracker maker

Walking through the market leading to Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, you’ll see food vendors creating food on the spot, as if it were an art handed down through generations. In many ways, it is.

japanese sash weaver, japanese textiles

Textile weaver makes fine Japanese sashes

Hakata Machya Doll, Hakata Machya Folk Museum in Fukuoka

Hakata Machya Doll at the Hakata Machya Folk Museum in Fukuoka

hakata machya museum fukuoka, fukuoka folk museum, japanese dolls

Display of miniature dolls at Fukuoka folk museum

japanese slippers, traditional japanese clothes

How much would you pay for Japanese flip-flops ?

 

15. Japanese Capsule Hotels 

Japanese Capsule hotels were once historically for salarymen who worked late or missed the last train home. Today you’ll find many are co-ed. Even all-female capsule hotels in Tokyo are popping up.  I stayed at five Tokyo capsule hotels during my Tokyo trip and each one was Instagram worthy. One of my favorite Tokyo capsule hotels is Nine Hours Capsule Hotel Shinjuku , a chain of capsule hotels in Japan with a unique twist towards space themed pods.  See more recommendations at the bottom of this post!

staying in a japanese capsule hotel grrrltraveler

Sharing my first impressions and challenges with traveling Tokyo on Patreon

16. Robot Hotels

A culture, once top ranked for technology, the Japanese have got robotics down. Henn-na “Strange” Hotel is the first robotic hotel to hit the hotel scene with robotic staff.

17. Conveyor belt sushi

You’ve not experienced sushi until you’ve had it served to you on a conveyor belt. The sushi chef prepares the sushi and puts the plate on a conveyor belt for hungry customers to snatch up. Plates are priced according to the dish. Beats hiring wait staff!

 


Ways Japan is wound a too tight

18.  Toilets make music

As your bum nears the toilet seat you’ll hear the sound of water running. It’s relaxing, calming and it help you untighten so you can do your business. But the real intent is to mask any natural body noises you’ll make.

Ironically, belching loudly in public during dinner is acceptable. It means the meal was delicious and enjoyable or at least, this is what my grandmother told me when our Japan relatives visited and would belch at the dinner table. (Anyone Japanese want to confirm or deny this?)

japanese noise making toilet

19.  Designated Smoking Areas

Before you light up, better check if you’re in the right place. It’s illegal to smoke in Tokyo, outside the designated smoking areas.

No wonder I always sense a sly grin on the faces of Japanese tourists abroad, as they walk down the streets with a cigarette in their mouths. Finding the freedom to smoke anywhere you please must feel pretty nice.

Japan's No smoking areas

No smoking areas

20. Neat, Safe, Clean and Orderly

Being half Japanese there are many aspects about my heritage to which I’m proud. There’s a high standard Japanese have in many things. The Japanese are flawlessly tidy and a bit anal. Their attention to craftwork detail and ambition towards discipline are impeccable. But I have no words for this umbrella holder.

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Umbrella holder outside a Tokyo museum

21. Sick Masks: Does everyone have a cold in Japan?

SARS may have been dominant in China, but the Japanese wear Asian sick masks more than Koreans and I’m assuming, Chinese.  I’m not sure if it’s considered bad manners to pass around colds, bad breath or if it’s just a strong aversion to pollution, but I’ve never seen a culture who wears so many sick masks.

One day, I decided to put one of my hypotheses to a test. A Japanese girl rudely cut in front of me in line (the sassy little thing), so to get even, I coughed loud and hard. Hearing that, her body went into an immediate alert. Invisible prickles came out of her and she started to walk hurriedly to escape me. So I coughed again and she almost started running.  Maybe the Japanese are just paranoid about catching colds.

face mask ubiquity in japan, asian sick masks in Japan

What would you recommend are things to know before you go to Japan?


Traveling to Japan for the first time? What would you add to this list of things to know before going to Japan?

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44 Comments. Leave new

  • Lockable umbrella holders – what a great idea!!

  • Wow, they should bring dedicated smoking zones to the UK!

  • I think you know I love Japan. Probably going back again after #TBEXBangkok. I just got back in January. Can’t get enough of it.

  • Love Japan. Was there winter of 60/61, total three months. Never got to see as much as I wanted too.

  • Sitting in a ramen shop now in Kyoto. This article has so much truth!

  • Though I’m not a fan of Hello Kitty, I would love Japan.I’ve watched videos of a few Visual Kei bands, the temples look beautiful, and I would love to find a samurai museum if one exists.

  • I think the amount of face masks I saw in Japan was the thing that surprised me the most. I’d expected that in Hong Kong (and I would in China if I went there), but didn’t realise they’d caught on so much in Japan too!

    I thought vending machine restaurants were a great idea though – Personally at least they made it a lot easier to be adventurous when ordering food ha!

    A very different culture that’s for sure, but I loved it 🙂

  • Japan was never high up on my list, but I’ve been 5 times now and next weekend will make 6… September will make 7… haha

    • Christine Kaaloa
      August 5, 2013 12:27 am

      @Meagan: Wow, ha ha…why do you keep going if it’s not on your list? And always the same city?

  • I love reading people’s reactions to Japan. For example the umbrella holder is something that I’ve seen since I was little and wouldn’t think twice about. 🙂

    Japanese culture drives me crazy but I love it all the same. I feel like this is a battle I’ll have my whole life.

    I saw that someone already covered the masks on girls not wearing make up and wanted to add a couple points. Many people also wear them because they’re just around so many people (ex: those sardine trains) and they don’t want other people’s germs. I personally used to wear them in Japan when my throat was acting up from being so dry, especially in the winter. Being from a western country, I was embarrassed and only wore them inside, though 😉

    • @Erica: Welcome to being Japanese & thanks again for sharing your insight! Enjoyed your blog- seems like your Japanese-ness is more intense than mine. 😉

      Sick masks: But see, that goes back Japan being germophobic (btw- my Japanese side is totally germophobic). lol. In Korea, people wear them when they have colds, during yellow dust season and when the girls get plastic surgery. Koreans wear them a lot; not nearly as much as Japanese.

      • “..and when the girls get plastic surgery” hahahahaha that.was.amazing.

        That’s true. I think they’re a weird kind of germophobic, though, as they simply wipe their hands with a warm and damp towel before eating at restaurants. But it’s ok! The masks have protected them from germs… or not. We need to give them the soap and warm water talk 😉

        Thanks for checking out Kizzling Around!
        I’m sure that you can relate that being brought up multicultural is a serious internal battle. Even when you think you’ve finally figured it out, the universe throws you a cultural curveball. More recently I’ve just given up and have just labeled everything I do “Kizzly (derived from a nickname)” or “Erica like” so when people say “oh that’s so Japanese of you” I reply “no, that’s very Erica of me.” Screw labels. I’ll never fit one perfectly anyway 😉 You’re right in the sense that my life has been very steeped in Japanese culture from a young age. I totally still read the same manga I read when I was in junior high!
        Speaking of which, I haven’t gotten the chance to finish the newest volume yet…

  • […] you’d love Japan? Find out if you’d love it or think it’s just plain crazy – […]

  • The youth aren’t pushing for shit. They’re just living rebelliously before society smacks them down and they become worker drones like everybody else.

    Go drinking with any one of those old dudes and they’ll tell you awesome stories about all the cool stuff they did before they had to get a job.

  • I really want to go to Japan. I like very much the design, the otaku culture and the freaky stuff out there. And don’t forget the japanese heavy metal, crazy mixture.
    Nice post Christine!

  • Hey! A few comments…

    1. “kirei” is pretty, “kawaii” is cute 😉 Cute when it comes to “sexual” isn’t kawaii any more, it’s “moe” (moh-eh). Although there are a lot of things that I disagree with (like photo books of 12 year old girls in bikinis) at the end of the day, Britney Spears was 16 when she did her catholic school girl music video – that’s a great example of western moe.

    2. I think some of your “crazy” things are just different, not crazy. The machine restaurants are pretty neat, they aren’t particularly crazy. Manga is also very popular in other countries too – like France!

    3. No, burping is always rude in Japan. Loud music is pumped into restaurants in Europe, too; it’s not a Japan thing.

    4. With the masks, it’s actually not always because they are scared of germs. Most of the time it’s because THEY are sick and they don’t want to give you the germs, but also it’s because (often girls) have some kind of anxiety about showing their face. Some girls wear them because they couldn’t be bothered to wear makeup that day. Here’s a good post about this kind of thing – http://www.tofugu.com/2012/06/14/why-do-japanese-people-wear-surgical-masks/

    5. Actually, Japan isn’t that technically advanced. They just make some robots. A lot of Japanese companies are actually very technophobic and don’t want to take on new ideas – like the internet. if you compare Seoul and Tokyo in terms of wifi access, Seoul comes out on top every time.

    I get a bit defensive when people resort to the whole “oh Japan, it’s so crazy” because there is so much more to it than that. I’m glad you went into more detail at the end. I hope that Japan loses some of its pervy connotations and attracts more worldly people like yourself in the future.

    • @Sherbert & Sparkles: Thank you for you insightful comment! I really appreciate that as I noticed from your blog, you’re very into Japanese culture. =-)

      I took Japanese from elementary to high school. I totally suck. Not very worldly if you ask me. lol. And I agree with the technology part. There was a time that Japan was considered to be on top of technology, but something changed and Korea seems to be in the lead.

      Loud music pumped into restaurants is one thing, but a heat-activated motion sensor that triggers the sound of “running water” as your bum nears the toilet is another thing completely. lol. They should do what the Europeans do!

      I think your compliment is too generous to me though. I’ve always been very proud of my Japanese heritage and it’s craziness (minus the pervy part). I think Japan-Japanese are intense in a way I’m both, proud of and not. Being Jap-Am, I’m watered down. But my Japanese grandparents watched a lot of Japanese game shows and dramas when I was young, and even back then I realized that of all the Asian countries, Japan probably had the strongest wild streak. I see them as being one of the craziest of the Asian countries, because the values and philosophies are hardcore, strict and unforgiving. My grandfather was of the lineage of samurai; maybe had he been from a farming line, it would’ve been different. lol. When countries or individuals live in extremes (in an attempt to control human nature), there’s always a polar opposite to balance that system and Japan shows it through its rebellious youth. For me, it was both, a homecoming and like visiting an alien rocket ship! It’s something I’m still trying to understand.

  • I live in NYC and we have the surgical mask epidemic going on over here as well. I can’t help it, it makes me fake cough whenever I see someone on the train wearing one. I always get the same horrified reaction you did.

  • I don’t think burping in public is polite in Japan.

    • @Wondernuts: When I was a child and the Japan relatives would visit, the head of the family would always belch out loud after every meal at the dinner table. My grandmother said it was to show the meal was delicious. But maybe she was just covering for that relative’s rudeness? =-) Ever since then, it stuck with me.

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