What I didn’t know about Japan

I wasn’t really excited about going to Japan, I like my bed and I didn’t want to be too far from it. I was actually quite frightened about travelling to a country with a population of over 127 million people, I’m not a fan of people and I particularly hate crowds.

But everyone I spoke to and everything I read convinced me that Japan was an incredible destination. And they were right. It’s hard to describe how peaceful I felt. I don’t know if it was because I don’t understand the language and so I was sheltered from the news and reality for two weeks or if t’s because the people are so gentle and kind that I genuinely felt really safe.

The reputation of the Japanese people being gentle and orderly is legendary but there are other things about travelling to Japan nobody told me about before, these are the things I wanted to share with you, not the stuff you can read on countless other websites and blogs, but the stuff that surprised me.


ramen soupThey eat their noodles cold. It’s a huge shock to tuck into a hot bowl of noodles (when you have eventually found a vegetarian base) and find the noodles have been stored in the fridge and then rinsed through iced water before being served. In fact the food is nothing like the Japanese food we eat outside of Japan, and with hindsight it’s obvious what I’m eating in Australia has been adapted to our Western taste, but I was still surprised at most meal times. I don’t think I was well prepared for the preponderance of macha. Or eel.

The streets of Tokyo are blissfully quiet (mostly because all the people are in buildings or the stations underground which are also quiet because the Japanese are a discreet and lovely people). But lord, they are slow walkers. Maybe that’s part of what creates the really laid back feel, but for people used to getting places, you really notice the slow walking.

vending machineThey don’t really do diet drinks. Perhaps people don’t mention this because they are not Coke Zero addicts but I am, so I noticed it. There are a few convenience stores where you can buy it (there are 7/11 stores every block but not all of them stock diet drinks) but I didn’t see it on a single restaurant menu and I ate in a huge range of places from Michelin starred to hole in the wall. There are vending machines almost everywhere and you can buy hot and cold drinks but finding a diet coke is like finding the golden ticket. (You can find Coke Plus which they claim will help suppress fat absorption and help moderate the levels of triglycerides in the blood after eating)

They work in cash. I think I expected everything about Japan to be very high tech and a little futuristic but it wasn’t that way at all. Cash was king and there were a number of places that wouldn’t even take a credit card. While the IC card for transport (like the Opal or Myki cards) is very smart and you can fill it up with cash and use it not just for the bus and train but for vending machines as well – there didn’t seem to be an equivalent card for cash. I think it’s my long way of saying I don’t think they have EFTPOS. But they might – they just don’t advertise it in English.

The trope of Japanese toilets is legendary and well deserved. The toilets are impeccably clean and very technologically advanced – seriously you can get water to squirt at bits of your body that never ever get to see the light of day. You can even push a button to disguise any noises you make but the thing that I never expected is that every toilet seat is heated. From the hotel room to the station to the public toilet at a shrine.

Japanese streetTheir day starts late. On the first couple of mornings, my husband and I were diligently consulting our maps and guide books at 10am and thinking we were hideously lost because we were the only people about. Two hours later and we couldn’t move for the number of people. The truth is that while work may start early, the streets only come alive (and some of the shops only open) at around 11. While the sun set really early (we were there over the Winter solstice) the people keep on going till really late.

Everyone tells you about the fashion but I didn’t expect to see so many high end and very expensive boutiques I have fallen in love with some aspects of Japanese fashion. In fact I have spent way too much time since I got home trying to buy the bags I didn’t buy while I was there. It was interesting to note in the two weeks we were there I didn’t see one person in active wear. Not one.

They don’t allow talking on the mobile phone in public and it makes the most audible and refreshing difference to day-to-day life. It’s quiet and peaceful, and while everyone is on their phones, the sound is off. You can be in a packed train (and you often are) and you can a pin drop. It’s eerily awesome. Especially for people like me who find noises overwhelming.

Screen Shot 2017-12-28 at 6.08.53 pmEverything is high up. I know that land is at a premium and we literally travelled across Japan and out of the windows of the magnificent bullet train we did not see any countryside, but that idea really comes to roost when you are in the city and the shops, the restaurants, the bars, the everything is on level 6 or level 50 or some level in between. We found some of the best bars and restaurants hiding behind unmarked doors on some level of an unmarked building. Thanks TripAdvisor.

Japanese beauty products. OMG. Someone should have told me about this before I left so I didn’t spend all my sitting on train time researching beauty products and finding out which companies don’t test on animals and which products I couldn’t live without. I had to be very careful and keep reminding myself that genetics is one thing and marketing is another but seriously, the Japanese people have magnificent skin (and are hyper vigilant about sun protection). I learned that they spend as much time cleaning their skin as applying their make up. I became a brilliant face cleaner and I am hoping that trend lasts more than four days because my skin DOES look better (or maybe my eyes are just very fuzzy from researching Japanese make up brands). The drug stores are a place of beauty for a cosmetics junkie like me.

Kawaii menu

I had heard about the Japanese obsession with cuteness, it’s called Kawaii and refers to things that are “charming, vulnerable, shy and childlike”. It’s huge in big cities like Tokyo and while I was charmed by the food and the obsession with Snoopy, I found the grown man’s obsession with schoolgirl cuteness very unsettling and the business around pets heartbreaking. The dogs in the pet shops are way too young to be away from their mothers (tiny is cute) and the put down rate at animal shelters is around 80% which is just staggering but goes to show that bigger and older is not as attractive. I fear the same thing is found in the human population – hence the schoolgirl obsession. Again, hugely unsettling.

But mostly I felt safe. Safe and happy and relaxed.

For a person who felt unenthusiastic about the trip it was quite a turn around when, after two weeks in Japan, I felt a bit of a pit in my stomach about the prospect of returning to Australia.  And now that I’m home I’m still humming along to Alphaville’s Big In Japan, and wondering when is too soon to return.

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  1. I’m glad you had a good time Lana. Weird about the cold noodles! I would not have expected that.

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