TEN WAYS TRAVELING JAPAN SURPRISED ME
Recently I spent three weeks traveling Japan with my wife Lee, capturing the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) season in spring. On the itinerary were jaunts through Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Rural Nara (A small town called Saitani in Shimoichi), and Mount Fuji.
Thanks to Youtube channels like Abroad In Japan and teaching myself some basic Japanese with Memrise and ‘Learn Japanese’ on my phone, I felt I was both moderately equipped for the oddities of Japanese culture, as well as having enough language to stumble (or trip and fall) through situations when combined with mime.
I’d heard about the weird stuff, about the costumes of Shinjuku, Love Hotels, and dancing robot restaurants… so what else was there left to surprise me? Plenty it turns out…
Hello PSY mask on weird fetish fitness thing. I’ve been expecting you…
1: Multi-use buildings
Tokyo, Osaka, and inner city areas of other major centers are all a very jumbled mix of multi-use buildings. Our accommodation in Tokyo was a residential space above three levels of restaurants, the surrounding area full of a mix of office space, restaurants and retail, and residential. Builders in Tokyo are also good at sneaking narrow buildings in between other buildings too and maximising the use of space.
Having once worked on a neighborhood planning project, I learned a lot in that process about the benefits of having work, shopping and living areas intermixed and how it can help prevent stress on public infrastructure, create community togetherness, and generally help people live more efficiently and happier.
In a funny way we will miss our little home base in Jinbōchō, it served us well, and was easy to find thanks to the adjacent shop ‘SHOES MATE’.
Stuff your face, then catch the elevator to your place upstairs before collapse.
2: So many grave yards
So once you’re finished stuffing your face full of ramen or yakatori at the Chicken Crew, you might wander into a graveyard without really trying to. In suburban Tokyo there are graveyards snuck in to many unsuspecting places, sometimes accompanied by temples.
Graveyard and a small temple wedged between other buildings. No one appears to be concerned about zombies.
Traveling to Tokyo I knew that some of their graveyards were well known for their cat populations, so this wasn’t a surprise to me. But why pass up an opportunity to share a couple of our furry friends?
Just chillin… This cat got a lot of pats from us.
Wise neko 猫 imparts wisdom in a language I cannot understand.
Fortunately with all the cats that live around graveyards and temples, there are some kind Japanese people that make a point of ensuring they are fed and healthy.
Good on you sir. Note, please do not feed the cats Crepes for goodness sake.
3: Grandma is getting tipsy in the afterlife.
Speaking of graves… on many graves in Japan you will notice opened bottles of Sake and other goodies. Those close to the departed will come and leave things enjoyed by them, during their life, on their graves.
This person was obviously a bad ass in life. Sake, Smokes, Money, Dried Fruit and a Bib… My kinda person.
It’s easy to wonder what the heck is going on here when you see so many sake bottles around. It’s the Japanese equivalent of pouring one out for your homies. Urban Dictionary defines this as “The act of pouring liquid (usually an alcoholic beverage) on the ground as a sign of reverence for friends or relatives that have passed away.” Never before have I seemed more ‘street’ to my humble readers I am sure.
4: What is up with your playgrounds Japan?
Most of the Japanese playgrounds we saw were bizarrely depressing. Part of it surely comes from the lack of padding on the ground, with the ground mostly being hard soil, gravel, or even bits of concrete. In a country that has such vibrancy in their gardens and public spaces, it seems funny that playgrounds seem so barren.
5: Shopping in Japan is awesome… except Strawberries…
In Japan you can get a 500ml Coca-Cola for the equivalent of about 70 Australian cents in some supermarkets. In Australia a 600ml Coca-Cola runs around $3-4, or basically 4-5 times as much. Food you should actually consume is also cheaper, and the quality of beef available in the supermarket is far and beyond what is in our meat sections here in Australia for the same or lesser price.
The shops really care about your well being…
Major shopping is clustered around train stations, especially in the major cities. It’s super convenient and there are food courts and restaurants which both offer bento boxes so people can take dinner home with them. Which is just as well because Japanese kitchens in city homes are atom-sized unless you are super wealthy. If you’re Australian and missing the tastes of home, you can always pick yourself up a pack of ‘Asia only’ Tim Tams, strawberry flavored.
What are you playing at Arnotts? I want the truth!
Department chains like Yodobashi camera are insanely big. One day in a board room meeting at Yodobashi camera, someone obviously said ‘why sell every single camera and camera related item, when we can also sell every other thing?’. This person was applauded and walked out the door triumphantly. The stores are so jammed full of interesting things that you may even experience Yodobashi fatigue, and need to leave just to relax your senses.
OMG Hi Canon!
As for Strawberries?
1,500 Yen is around 17 Australian dollars… GASP.
The only thing I can really say about Strawberries in Japan is FUKUYOU Starberries.
Now that I’ve debased myself and potentially insulted the fine Japanese culture and language by making a swearing joke… I promise I will not do that again for the remainder of this article.
Never change Japan… Never change.
6: Selective stickering
Japan seems to have some kind of unknown etiquette for the stickering of public property and monuments. It seems obvious why this box would have stickers but not the nearby Tori gates.
Although in Australia those gates would have genitals carved into them within a day.
But what’s more confusing is this situation…
They just really liked stickers during their life.
I do not know why this stone is the only one in one of the oldest and holiest places in Japan (Okunoin, Koya-san) to be plastered with stickers, but there you have it… Not a single stone or tree is otherwise out of place.
In general Japan is quite graffiti-free, but you still see quite a bit of it on random poles – once again very selectively chosen as if that were the only pole that can have stickers, and in outer industrial areas.
7: I actually like the whole face mask thing
There is a stereotypical view of Japanese people, wearing their face masks to prevent the spread of germs. Perhaps it seems over the top to outsiders but it’s something I really got on board with. I was sick for half my trip (and I took so many damn vitamins before-hand), and I didn’t want to share that with anyone else. So my wife (also sick) and I donned face masks while we were in public spaces.
Preventing the spread of respiratory illness like a BOSS.
When you really think about the practicality of it, why don’t other cultures adopt this practice? Who really wants to make other people sick or be made sick by someone else? I’m cool with it Japan.
8: Kids could totally get drunk, but don’t seem to…
Everyone knows that vending machines are EVERYWHERE in Japan.
Looking at this small religious monument was making me thirsty.
But what you might not know is how accessible and cheap alcohol is in Japan.
What is the liquor which you love?
With the opportunity to buy beer for 130 Yen ($1.50 AU) and even Sake for very cheap, it’s a wonder everyone is so generally self controlled. Bottles of spirits in retail stores are also at least half the price as in Australia.
9: Driving is actually pretty nice…
I drove in Japan for a week, first around rural Nara, then a long drive from Nara to Mount Fuji. Our first experience with driving was kind of mortifying… We were on a toll road and our GPS indicated that we should take the ETC lane (Electronic Thing Car). Not having any grasp of what any of the other signs meant, given that they were all in Japanese Kanji, we took its advice.
We soon learned, as we screeched the normally efficient lane to a halt, that we did not have an Electronic Thing Car. We had to press some assistance button because we were quickly jammed into this point in front of a gate that would not open for us. Quickly saying some bad Japanese together ‘Gomen Nasai! Wakarimasen! Gomen Nasai!!!’ (Sorry, we do not understand what the hell we are doing because we are stupid Gaijins… basically) a man ducked out of a nearby booth to help us pay our way.
Despite the fact that we had delayed people, including Japanese trades people by the looks, they were all patient and not a honk was to be heard.
That night we worked out how to use toll roads properly (thank you Youtube strangers!) and were no longer a menace to society.
Pictured: Japanese people look at potential menace to society.
We found Japanese drivers to be patient and well mannered, and while I may swear every time I drive in Australia, driving in Japan was a relaxed experience. Do keep in mind that the speed limit, and the speed Japanese drivers travel at, are two different things. It’s widely accepted that they travel around 20kmph over the speed limit and you will find this is completely normal. Still, you should travel at the speed that is safe for where you are driving, as many towns have doors and shop fronts right by the road.
This is a picture of us driving in Japan. This truck is so chrome… WITNESS ME!
10: The people are amazing and friendly
Ok so many this wasn’t such a surprise after all, but it does make for a warm and fuzzy ending to my list doesn’t it? The people of Japan are so full of life and it was lovely to meet and observe them, whether it be as a passer by or as their guest.
Isao and Kana, our lovely hosts in Kyoto.
Isao and Kana were amazing hosts in Kyoto, and you too can stay with them. They are working to bring the beautiful work of local Kyoto tradespeople and materials to the world, and form collaborative relationships. We had a great time at the local Sakura festival, sampling local festival foods and enjoying the hanami (flower watching).
I also had an experience in Kyoto where I was standing on a bus, and three senior ladies shuffled across the back seat and moved their bags before gesturing that I should take a seat with them. Rather than be scared by my large / foreign appearance they wanted to ensure I could travel comfortably. They didn’t speak English but one of them would say the names of certain temples and places while pointing out the window.
Candid of some friendly looking Japanese ladies.
In our next stop in Saitani, Schimoichi we stayed in a community guest house. Haru-San, Sala and the local community made us feel very welcome.
Saitani was an incredible little town to stay in. When we left the community members that look after the guest house genuinely wanted to take some photos with us, and Haru-San noticing our car had a little dirt on it got out a hose and started washing our car. I didn’t have the complexity of Japanese language skills to tell him that it was OK and that he needn’t stress. This is just the level of service you receive in Japan whether you’re at a random gas station, with the attendant filling up your tank and then literally stopping traffic so you can re-enter the road, or whether it’s the community of a small mountain town.
How do you like your portrait Deer-San?
Asking ‘Syashin wo tottemo iidesuka?’ (May I take photos?) is usually met with a smile and subtle nod, as people are impressed by foreign politeness and badly spoken Japanese. I really recommend travelers to Japan dive in and try to learn some phrases, as it is a great ice breaker.
Finally I’ll give a mention to an obscure little place Cafe Gallerie in Kyoto. It was on a back road near Arashiyama and lived up to it’s claim as the smallest museum in Kyoto.
You had me at cake… I mean art…
The proprietors were super friendly, and whilst their English was much better than my Japanese, we had something that resembled conversation among the replications of famous artwork.
The gentleman below took this photo. You can’t get this close to the original artwork! Nor do you get cake!
The friendly proprietor of Cafe Gallerie pictured with giant white gaijin.
Corned soup instead of Coffee… This vending machine at least dispensed miraculously hot corn soup instead of coffee for one of the coffee buttons. I insisted on paying to try the other coffee button, because getting corn soup instead of Coffee is just wrong.
Apparently both were pretty good!
Thanks again for reading this article about things that surprised me in Japan. I hope you learned something and were entertained! In the coming weeks I will publish more fancy-pants photos of each part of our journey. If you have any questions about Japan feel free to leave them in the comments!