Hi friends! As most of you know, we’ve been settling into our new life in Japan and over the last few weeks it has been fascinating to see a side of Japan you don’t often see as a tourist. Renting an apartment, working in downtown Tokyo and spending an extended amount of time in Japan has exposed me to some really unusual, cool and sometimes bizarre aspects of Japan that I thought it would be fun to share with you! Some of these are fun, cool little quirks, others are very real sources of challenge and frustration – nowhere is perfect (as much as I love this country, it is flawed!).
So here are some weird things I’ve noticed about Japan (and specifically Tokyo) in no particular order:
There are no bins on the street anywhere, and this means you may have to carry around a whole day’s worth of rubbish before you can throw it away. What’s more annoying is this quirk combined with (1) super excessive packaging on most products and (2) really strict rules about how you separate and throw away trash. I guess how you deal with this is up to you, but I tend to just keep it in my handbag then sort and throw it away when I get home.
There is quite a different attitude to personal space that came as a surprise to me. I don’t mean the infamously crowded metro trains in which bodies are often tightly squeezed against each other in a sweaty chaos, out of which you have to strategically slither in order to make your exit (although that is a lot of fun..!). I mean while you’re in a shop and a person who is blocking the aisle will not move out of your way without being asked (and many may continue to block your route even after a polite ‘sumimasen‘ from you indicating you wish to pass). Also, cyclists and cars can get a little close to you as you’re crossing the street (unless the pedestrian sign is green, pedestrians do not have right of way – even on zebra crossings!) and in public spaces people will sometimes do nothing to avoid walking straight into you (I don’t want to go to Tokyo Game Show again!). This isn’t everyone, of course, but it is enough people to be noticeably different to the UK where we will often go out of our way to dodge each other!
The fruit and vegetables here are generally really expensive. Some are cheaper or a similar price to those back home, but by and large grocery shopping costs quite a lot more than it did in the UK. I think it’s because of a lack of farmable land and higher wages for farmers, amongst other things. £2/$3 per bell pepper, £4/$3 for a bit of spinach, £1.50/$2 for a small punnet of cherry tomatoes and sometimes up to £3/$4 for a single apple (yes, really…). I’ve checked several stores and local grocers and unfortunately some fresh foods are just inescapably expensive. Here’s a photo of some grapes we found that were ¥5,000 per bunch – that’s about £37/$46! Granted these might have been in a fancy store, but it’s not far from the average price of grapes here. On the plus side, meat is fairly cheap (or at least, similar to the UK), some vegetables such as onions are cheaper than back home and it is far cheaper to eat at restaurants in Tokyo than anywhere in England. Usually cooking at home costs more than it does to eat out, so we’re frequenting a lot of the local restaurants! It goes a way to integrate with the community anyway, right?
Most people dress similarly to each other, and really different from British people (especially women). For some foreigners the general ‘style’ of Japanese clothing can be a little too conservative or boring, but I really dig it! Midi dresses, pretty socks, “cool biz”, comfy culottes and cute scrunchies – it’s a shame so few shops offer my size or I’d buy clothes all the time! This is something Japan ought to improve – there seems to be a real lack of plus size options! I’ve discovered Punyus, a fantastic ‘street’ fashion brand, and there’s a a shop in Sunshine City, Ikebukuro which specialises in L – 3XL clothes. They’re far more expensive than the straight sizes offered at places like H&M and Uniqlo however, but it’s a start.
There are lots of strange and unusual things that are unique to Japan when finding an apartment – it’s a very different experience to house-hunting in the UK and I would encourage anyone to read my previous blog post before you try it for yourself!
I mentioned excessive packaging earlier in relation to the lack of bins, and the amount of plastic packaging is as wild as other foreigners living in Japan would have you believe! You buy a box of butter cookies in 7/11 for a cheeky snack but when you get home you have to open a plastic bag in the box (which was given to you in a plastic bag, even if you indicated you didn’t want one), in which each cookie is individually wrapped in its own plastic bag. Individually sold bananas, a fruit well known for its bright yellow protective outer layer, is given a plastic protective outer layer. Truly puzzling indeed – I can only assume it’s for hygiene?
It is a rare luxury to find a hand dryer or paper towels in a public bathroom, a restaurant, a train station or a bar in Japan – often there is nowhere to dry your hands after washing them which can be super confusing and strange. The results are either grim wet hands after a toilet visit or wiping them on your clothes. I understand you’re supposed to carry a personal towel around with which you can dry your hands, but I’m usually too busy using mine to mop up sweat…
You’ve probably heard that slurping food is common in Japan, and that is true. It’s a myth that Japanese people do it to ‘compliment the chef’ or that it “means that you’re enjoying the food” – actually it’s just the most efficient way of getting lava-hot food (especially ramen) into your mouth, so Japanese people are not doing it consciously (and it’s not rude to slurp here). I think some visitors to Japan may dislike this aspect of Japanese eating (I once read a blog post in which the author described the way Japanese people eat ramen as “disgusting”), but I don’t find it that gross and I’ve actually got pretty good at it myself! The old phrase “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” comes to mind. In fact, I recall that one morning during my homestay, my host father slurped up an entire fried egg in one go. I was genuinely impressed.
No one uses debit cards here – it’s cash only (or an IC card if you’re at a conbini). You might find some international brands that accept credit cards but generally you don’t use card here. I found this bewildering at first, as in the UK I never carried cash, but in Japan it is really safe to do so and you’ve not much choice. They are implementing more ways to pay cashless, but I would ensure you’ve got an IC card or cash on you, just to be safe.
On that subject, people often say Japan is a really safe, crime-free country, and it mostly is – I’ve never felt safer in a place in all my life! Japan’s crime rate is extremely low (I read once that the most common crime in Japan is bike theft) and this is because of two things: (1) Japanese people are generally very law abiding, honest people and (2) Japanese law is very strict, often with extreme consequences for even petty crime. For example, in our JET Programme training we were assured that possession of any drug is dealt with extremely seriously – for something like possession of cannabis, the sentence is usually a prison term. Despite how safe it is, women visiting Tokyo should be vigilant and sensible when they’re alone – I have never witnessed or experienced harassment from men personally, but I hear that this is sometimes the experience of some foreign and local women in Tokyo (especially on the metro).
So there are 10 strange things about Japan – the list could certainly go on! It’s an extremely different place to my home country (the UK) but so far I’ve loved living here and all the strange and wonderful quirks this country has. I’m sure in 6 months time I’ll be able to write another 10 weird things about life in Japan. To ensure you don’t miss it, subscribe for emails to receive my updates directly to your inbox. Any suggestions or requests? Pop them in the comments or come find me on social media!