The biggest problem when visiting Japan, at least to me, was not knowing what to expect. After having been to 90 countries and being on the road 40% of the time, I thought I had seen it all but Japan still managed to leave me speechless, turned me into a fool and at times, made me let out a heartfelt and sincere “wtf…”. So here are a few things you should know about Japan, hilarious moments I experienced in the country and other things you should know before planning a trip to Japan, unless you like making a fool of yourself, then by all means, stop reading on.
*Warning – the following article may be full of silly, incorrect and plain wrong stereotypes but these are sometimes necessary to have at least an expectation and a first response to a new and challenging environment.
1. In Japanese, even if they speak English
Everyone has heard the myth that Japanese people don’t speak English and, whereas this may be more true that in other large cities, I was also surprised by how many people did actually speak English and also, by the willingness to communicate in sign language of a lot of the taxi drivers and store staff we came across. But more than anything, what stroke me was the constant talk in Japanese to us, which was clearly wasted effort as it was obvious we did not speak a word. Every time we would walk into a (touristy) place, leave a place, buy something, do something or say something, we would be met with a long sentence in Japanese the words of which escaped me. Are they saying “Thank you very much for coming, please come again” or “Sorry we are about to close” or “We don’t accept returns”? It was hard to guess but the constant rhythmic sound of their words was quite fascinating. Moreover, in a lot of cases, as soon as we indicated that we did not speak Japanese (wasn’t it hyper obvious after asking for the menu in English?), we would receive either a polite nod or, more often than expected, the translation into perfect English. Surely it would have been more efficient to just talk to us straight in English from the start? I found this very confusing though the sweet voices repeating all those rhetorical messages were rather comforting. Many countries I travel to are non-English speaking and many of them are also countries where the language is not widely spoken but in Japan, this strange approach to foreigners was really strange.
2. If you want to role-play, you will have to go full in
One of the most famously wacky things to do in Japan is visit one of the many themed, cosplay or animal cafes of which the maid cafes probably take the main prize for being the weirdest and hardest to understand by foreigners. Picture lots of waitresses dressed like Kawaii (cute) little girls, with matching make up, pig tails, white aprons and black mini skirt with frills and you get the gist. But if you want to make all your dreams come true and visit the pioneer one, Cure Cafe, you are going to have to go full in, and by that, we mean becoming a member. You can’t just book, you will have to surrender your details and buy a year’s membership, then you can make a booking.
The price is pretty low but it is certainly the best way to ensure you have the perfect excuse to become a member of the maid cafes society. Talk about Otaru subculture and making all your manga fantasies come true.
3. When in Rome…
Perhaps the most intriguingly shocking feeling I had in Japan was the constant fear of committing a faux-pas. I consider myself quite a citizen of the world. I know the basics of most cultures and the manners that I am expected to have on most tables. After all, common sense, politeness, caution and simply observing others will get you around pretty much anywhere. Not in Japan where your common sense is just useless. Think it is rude to slurp the soup and make noise? Nope. Thought soup should always be eaten with a spoon? Nope, drinking from the bowl is totally fine. Find it gross to sniff your mucus infested nose back up? Better that than blowing your nose in public. The list goes on and the saying is more valid than ever before.
4. Google translate just doesn’t work
…And I say this from the point of view of someone who loves Google and actually works for Google.
I was trying to make bookings for one of these funny cafes when I realised that they were not getting back to me. After a follow up email, I got a response in Japanese to which I replied stating that I didn’t speak the language and whether they had a standard translation 9after all this was an eminently touristy place). Their response? They copied the email onto Google Translate and sent this back to me:
“Contact us for coming, thank you very much.
Is ‘Alice in Wonderland‘s magic”.
This article has English translation.
13:30 would like that and time information, reservations and do not accept.
From our visitors in the order in which guests are.
Appreciated appreciated study visit on the day.”
Real human translation: “We do not accept reservations and we serve customers on a first come first serve basis. Alice in Wonderland is a magical place where even Japanese translations are available”. Intrigued, we decided to simply show up and enjoy the Cheshire Cat pudding.
5. The talking toilet
So yes, it is true, toilets in Japan are hyper-modern but that is not news. We have those automatic toilets in Singapore too. In fact, the toilets in my office building flush themselves. But Japan is at a whole new level. I knew and had seen the automatic toilets which have bidet functionalities and which spray water and air to wash your private parts but Japanese toilets have taken this experience to a whole new level. They are heated, they play music to hide the sound of the sakura inspired Kit Kat you are trying to unwrap because you are too ashamed to eat the whole box and they can even give your butt a massage. That is right, you get a full service. Wash, blow dry and massage. I am totally getting one.
6. If you are old and British, the metro will bring nostalgia back
One of the most talked about challenges of Japan and Tokyo in particular, is the very complicated and cumbersome metro system which runs for over 300 km and crisscrosses the city transporting over 8 million passengers to their destination every day. What makes it extra complex is the several providers, each needing a different type of ticket, and the fact that some signs are in Japanese (ta!). But oh surprise, if you are British and were born decades ago the metro will bring back nostalgic memories of your youth as it is organised and designed just like the metro in London used to be and its carriages look just like that. My “old” friend Edwin felt just at home.
7. Temperatures rise and fall, all the time
“Oh you are going to Tokyo in July? It will be really hot”. I always find such comments funny because, well, I live in the tropics and have for the last decade so I am habituated (like the mountain gorillas to humans) to the blaring heat. I survive Singapore, I enjoy it even, no matter the time of the day, despite I sometimes feel like my feet will melt against the pavement. Never wear flip flops when it is that hot and you are in a city, the plastic base does nothing to isolate you from the overheated pavement. Anyway, back to Tokyo.
It was indeed hot. For about three days, then temperatures dropped and I found myself piling layers of clothing just to keep warm in the evenings. We went from 34 to 19 Celsius and stayed there for the remainder of the week. What happened to the hot summer? Pack layers and do not leave the fleece at home, even in the summer.
8. Smoking indoors its allowed
That really was the worst part of Japan, it was like going back in time to when I was a teenager and we were going out (I mean when I was 16 and smoking indoors was still allowed in Europe!). I would come back home and smell like, you guessed it, a bar. But for a couple of decades smoking is no longer allowed in most places. Smoking is forbidden even outside in Singapore, you can’t just walk around smoking. But in Japan, you can relive your teenage years again. I went into a Pachinko game room (see next) only to have to run away after 5min because, with my cold, I was not even able to breathe! Be sure to check before taking a seat at a bar or restaurant to make sure you are in the non-smoking area.
9. Gamification of E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G
Life is a game in Japan. Everything, from the signage to the road signs is a game and Japanese love playing. Want to buy something? Why not try to pick it from one of these game machines? Why buy something straightaway when you can spend half an house trying to grab it? And why buy something off the shelf when you can get it off a roulette machine? But perhaps the most extreme of the examples were the pinball Pachinko machines. I had never seen that before but I saw plenty in japan and learned that they used to be available in the West too. Only now they are more of a collectors piece yet they are pretty much included in Japanese life. In fact, some of them even had children daycare services so you could gamble to your heart’s maximum child-free. Pachinko were also the epitome of smoking indoors. I stepped into one interested in playing and seeing what it was all about and, aside from getting an incomprehensible brochure that attempted to explain what the game was about in English, I could not stand the thick smoke and the blaring music. It was crazy.