15 Surprising Things I Learned While Living in Japan

Before I studied abroad in Japan, I read several advice articles and blogs, as well as talked with many people whom I knew had been to Japan before, in order to prepare myself. While much of what I had read and heard was helpful, there were still many things that surprised or confused me when I was in Japan.

Therefore, I would like to share my own experiences and observations with those who are interested in either traveling to or living in Japan. In no particular order, here are 15 things that surprised me while I was living in Japan:

1) It rains A LOT in Japan

In Japan, and in most of East Asia I imagine, they have something called “rainy season”—a cute, unsuspecting euphemism used to describe the time of year when typhoons and rainstorms are most prevalent.

I’m not sure why it’s described as being limited to only one “season,” seeing as every  season is more or less a rainy season. And not just a mild drizzle here and there either—I’m talking about downpouring, unrelenting rain that falls in sheets. The raindrops fall on you like a barrage of bullets, coming at you from all angles, creating rivers and channels out of streets and pathways, which not even the largest umbrella can effectively shield you from.

As a result, I became conditioned to always bring an umbrella with me every day, regardless of what the weather prediction said—on cloudy days and sunny days alike since most rainfalls in Japan are spontaneous and erratic; sometimes stopping as quickly as they start, and other times continuing for hours or even days on end.

2) Most earthquakes in Japan are really minor

Before living in Japan, I heard startling statistics about how Japan endures thousands  of earthquakes every year, and only the worst of the worst make it on TV. As a result, I felt a little wary before going to Japan as I tried to mentally prepare myself for potential natural disasters while I was there.

However, after living there for a whole year, I was surprised that the worst earthquake I experienced was a mere magnitude 3. The earthquake barely shook the building and wasn’t even enough to distract my Japanese teacher from her grammar lecture.

However, in actuality, while I probably did  experience thousands of earthquakes like I had read, most of them were so minor that I was able to sleep through them or couldn’t feel them at all in my day-to-day life. In fact, I was shocked whenever my classmates and teachers would periodically ask, “Did you feel the earthquake last night?”

3) There’s nothing “Zen” about temples and shrines

I’ve read several travel articles, blogs, and books about various tourist attractions in Japan, many of which boast of Japan’s “tranquil” and “Zen” temples, shrines, castles, gardens and the like.

However, anyone who has ever actually visited a temple or shrine in Japan—especially the famous ones—knows that couldn’t be further from the truth. While the word “Zen” in Japan refers to a sect of Buddhism, it is often misused by English-speakers as a synonym for “peaceful” and “calm.” As a result, is has become a lazy default adjective for describing Japan and is grossly overused in the lexicon of travel writers and bloggers in order to mislead readers.

Let me say this: there is nothing  “Zen” about getting shoved and hit in the face with selfie-sticks as you shuffle through huddled masses of loud tourists who are intent on photobombing every picture you take of that “Zen” temple hovering over that “Zen” pond in that “Zen” Japanese garden you’re visiting.

While the original purpose of temples and shrines may have been to offer a place for peaceful meditation and prayer, nowadays many of them have become popular tourist attractions which bring in millions of visitors each year. I almost cried with laughter when I saw a viral video about Japan’s “forest bathing” trend, featuring Kyoto’s Arashiyama Bamboo Grove as an example—a “tranquil,” “stress-reducing” forest that was only two miles away from the dorm I was living in and teeming with tourists, as I very well knew considering I saw them every day on my daily commute.

4) Separating garbage into “burnable” and “non-burnable” bins

Every country has its own unique way of sorting garbage and recycling, and while I’ve encountered many sorting categories in the US and other countries—plastics, cans, bottles, paper, compostable items, etc.—Japan has two sorting categories I had never encountered before: “burnable” and “non-burnable” garbage.

As to what either of those categories effectively entails, no one really knows, but since garbage sorting is strictly enforced in Japan (especially in Kyoto), it became a source of anxiety for me when I first started living there. Every day I had to make several judgement-calls on what constituted “burnable” and “non-burnable” garbage, and these constant internal debates led to me hoarding garbage in my dorm room for weeks because I was uncertain as to which bins I was supposed to sort my trash into.

Then, like a thief in the night, I would dispose of the items in question anonymously in the “non-burnable” bin once everyone was asleep so that, in case I had guessed wrong, no one would know it was me. Fortunately, since I lived in a dorm, the full burden of proper garbage sorting didn’t fall solely on me but on the dorm managers. However, I had heard several stories of garbage and sanitation workers refusing to take trash that hadn’t been properly sorted.

5) Japan isn’t really that “traditional” or “hyper-modern”

One of the clichés that is often repeated about Japan, by both by foreigners and Japanese alike, is how Japan is the “perfect blend of old and new”—depicting Japan as a futuristic paradise that is simultaneously steeped in history and tradition.

However, the truth is that Japan isn’t really all that traditional nor is it super modern. Due to the fact that many of the older structures in Japan were constructed out of wood, which isn’t very durable, not to mention all of the damage that Japan has experienced due to natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as war, many of the so-called “traditional” and “old” temples, shrines, castles, houses, etc. in Japan have been destroyed and rebuilt many times throughout its history.

In fact, many of Japan’s famous tourist attractions have either been renovated or rebuilt entirely within the past 60-70 years.

Likewise, while the image of Japan being a technologically advanced country may have been true in the 1970s and 1980s, like all countries, Japan can be very high-tech when it comes to some things (i.e., electric toilets, robots, bullet trains, conveyor-belt sushi, etc.), and it can also be very low-tech when it comes to other things (i.e., limited internet access/utilization, no central heating/cooling, no credit card machines, persistent use of fax machines and video rental stores, etc.).

6) Lack of space

It’s easy to feel claustrophobic in Japan, not just on the packed buses and trains during your daily commute or while traveling, but even in your own dorm, apartment, or hotel room. Since 70% of Japan consists of mountains, meaning that most of Japan’s population in concentrated in only 30% of its land, space is expensive; therefore, everything is much more condensed in Japan.

Hotel rooms and apartments are easily half the size of their American counterparts of the same price. Pedestrian-only sidewalks are practically nonexistent in Japan except for in city centers, forcing pedestrians, bikers, and two-way car traffic to be confined to narrow streets that are sometimes a third of the width of streets in America.

There were many times when I thought I would be hit by a car or a biker while walking along the streets in Japan, and I would often have to quickly jump to the side of the road to avoid being hit.

While Japan is good at making use of what little space is available, it can be difficult to get used to, especially in bigger cities that are crowded with daily commuters and tourists, which causes buses, trains, and walkways to be perpetually overcrowded. No matter where you go, it seems, you’re always forced to stand in close proximity to other people and your personal space is severely limited in comparison to other countries. This, coupled with oftentimes cramped rooms, apartments, restaurants, bars, cafes, stores, etc., can be both mentally and physically exhausting.

7) Japan is not that “homogeneous” or “xenophobic”

One of the things I read and heard about a lot from people who had been to Japan before is how “homogeneous” the population in Japan is, and, as a result, how Japanese people have “xenophobic” attitudes towards foreigners in Japan.

I had heard countless stories of foreigners getting stared at by Japanese people, or of Japanese people avoiding them or refusing to sit next to them on buses/trains while they were in Japan, as well as stories of foreigners being treated like they were strange aliens that the local population couldn’t take their eyes off, nor leave alone.

While it is true that most people in Japan are ethnically Japanese, and, as a result, many people in Japan aren’t the most culturally competent/sensitive when it comes to interacting with foreigners, Japan is by no means “homogeneous” and most Japanese people aren’t “xenophobic.”

Japan is a really touristy country, and there are also a lot of foreigners who go there to study or work, so even though the native  population is overwhelmingly Japanese, the everyday population in Japan is a lot more diverse than most people think. As a result, especially in bigger cities in Japan, most Japanese pretty much don’t pay any attention to foreigners.

I rarely got stared at while I was in Japan, and if I did get stared at, it was usually when my friends and I were being loud, not simply because we were foreign. Of the foreigners I knew who did  mention getting stared at by Japanese people, all of them were tall and/or attractive, which may have contributed to it.

But no one in Japan seemed to hesitate to sit next to us or stand in close proximity to us while we were on buses and trains. It also wasn’t uncommon for Japanese people to randomly initiate talking to me and other foreigners, asking us where we’re from, or if we’re lost, and wishing us well during our stay in Japan.

8) Smoking is allowed indoors

I had read that smoking was a lot less regulated and more common in Japan than in America, but I had no idea about the frequency, the intensity, and the range that it entailed. Basically, it’s okay to smoke pretty much wherever you want, whenever you want in Japan—on the streets, in restaurants, cafés, bars, clubs, karaoke boxes, train stations, trains, in front of school buildings, convenience stores, inside apartments, dorms, Airbnbs, hotel rooms—the sky’s the limit.

And the number of smokers in Japan is astonishing as well—everyone and their grandfather smokes, it seems, which means that you’re bound to be subjected to second-hand smoke no matter where you go, and there’s not really much you can do about it.

Some more modern/“westernized” restaurants and cafés will occasionally ban smoking or have “smoking” and “non-smoking” sections—though oftentimes they’re in the same room, which makes the effort somewhat redundant. Many hotels will give you the option to specify what kind of room you want to stay in (“smoking” or “non-smoking”), but sometimes even the “non-smoking” rooms can be smoky, or smoke from neighboring rooms can drift into the hallway, and so on.

9) Japan’s drinking culture

Japan’s drinking culture is pretty interesting. First of all, you can drink on the streets and pretty much wherever you want. Alcohol is sold pretty much anywhere you can imagine, and it’s generally fairly cheap.

Second of all, while 20 is technically the legal drinking age in Japan, it doesn’t seem to be very strictly enforced. There are also some vending machines that sell beer and cigarettes as well, so neither seem to be heavily regulated in Japan.

Thirdly, a lot of bars, izakaya, and karaoke places have “nomihoudai” (all-you-can-drink) deals where you pay a certain amount to drink as much as you want within an allotted period of time. Nightclubs in Japan will also often have deals like “ladies drink free” or “all-you-can-drink until 11pm” and have separate all-you-can-drink menus (with a limited selection), or give you drink coupons for up to a certain amount upon entry. However, oftentimes the drinks at bars, clubs, and karaoke places are low-alcohol or watered-down alcoholic beverages, which force you to spend more money in order to drink more, so it’s not always a good deal.

And lastly, while most people probably assume that sake (Japanese rice wine) is the most common drink in Japan, that’s actually not true—Japan is actually better known for its beer and whisky, which are probably the most common and the most advertised alcoholic beverages in Japan, along with other kinds of drinks that aren’t as common outside of Japan, such as umeshu (plum liqueur) and other nontraditional, low-alcohol “cocktails” like “chuhai” and “cassis orange.”

10) Lack of predictability when it comes to Japanese toilets

Countless articles and blogs have been written about the mysteries of Japanese toilets, but what surprised me about them wasn’t so much the innumerable buttons and various bizarre functions (i.e., front and back bidets, toilets singing songs/making noises, heated toilet seats, etc.)—though it does take some getting used to at first—but the lack of uniformity when it comes to toilets in Japan.

First of all, I was surprised that many Japanese still prefer to use squat-toilets (basic toilets wherein the toilet bowl is built into the floor, which you need to squat down to use rather than sitting down) and many bathrooms in Japan will mainly, or sometimes exclusively, have squat-toilets and then occasionally one or two “western-style” toilets.

Secondly, no toilet in Japan is the same—especially when it comes to figuring out how to flush. The method of flushing toilets in Japan sometimes isn’t very intuitive, and the location of the flush button/handle/lever also never seems to be in the same place.

Sometimes it’s simply a lever on the back of the toilet, sometimes there’s a handle on the side of the toilet, sometimes there’s an exclusive flush button on the wall, sometimes there’s a button or a couple of buttons on the remote control panel, sometimes the flush button doesn’t look like a button or doesn’t say “flush,” and sometimes it’s in random places, like a lever or button at the base of the toilet or lower down on the side of the toilet.

In any case, toilets in Japan are surprisingly not very user-friendly, and the potential for confusion is doubled if you can’t read Japanese and there are no English translations.

11) Drastic difference in bathroom quality

I had the image of Japanese bathrooms being really clean before I went to Japan, seeing as Japan is often described as being really “clean” and “high-tech,” so I was surprised by the drastic range of quality when it comes to bathrooms in Japan.

Some bathrooms in Japan really do  seem like something from the future with rows of electric, “western-style” toilets, scented air-purifiers, and automated faucets and hand-dryers, and so on. And other bathrooms in Japan can be nauseatingly filthy, with unclean toilets and no hand-soap or hand-dryers/hand-towels, and sometimes they don’t even have real sinks. The lack of hand-soap and hand-dryers in public bathrooms in Japan is also incredibly common, even in semi-decent bathrooms.

12) Huge bugs, poisonous bugs, and killer bugs

Bugs in Japan are enough to cause even non-phobic people to develop an insect-phobia in no time. It’s not just the kinds of bugs you can encounter there that’s so disturbing, but the frequency in which you can encounter them, even in big cities in Japan.

The dorm I lived in in Kyoto was subject to several  bug-related disturbances; I would hear horror stories of people finding giant spiders and centipedes in their beds, rooms, even in their shoes, and everywhere else inside and outside of the dorm, and of people being bit in the middle of the night by mukade (poisonous centipedes).

Posters with titles such as “Coping With Centipedes” were scattered around the dorm with step-by-step instructions on what to do if bitten by a centipede (i.e., crushing the head, squeezing out the poison, going to the doctor, etc.).

Like a mad person, this led me to ritually checking my bed and sheets every night before going to sleep, to taping cardboard over the bottom of my door to make it harder for bugs to crawl underneath, and keeping my window bolted shut for most of the year.

Despite my best efforts, I still had many bug-encounters, such as finding a giant cockroach in the kitchen, giant spiders in my room, in the hallways, and in front of my dorm, and even having a cockroach fly into my face when I was walking outside at night.

What’s more, colorful (potentially poisonous) spiders would nonchalantly weave webs above the entrance way to my dorm and all around my university’s campus, and pretty much everywhere I went. Poisonous, foot-long centipedes would casually sit at the bus stop that I would take to and from school.

And it wasn’t until I was already living in Japan that I heard of the potentially lethal bugs there, such as giant, venomous hornets and mosquito-borne diseases that cause severe brain damage—which I wasn’t remotely immunized for. Though I knew that getting stung by/contracting them was incredibly rare, it still didn’t keep me from worrying about the possibilities.

13) Excessive bureaucracy and paperwork

This is probably most emblematic for how there is a certain way in which things must be done in Japan—and that way is unnegotiable. The bureaucracy and copious amounts of paperwork that living in Japan entails is inescapable and never-ending.

In other words, nothing is done simply in Japan. You have to fill out paperwork and go through several layers of bureaucracy for seemingly everything: getting a referral to go to a doctor, going to the doctor, getting prescription drugs, buying several kinds of insurance (that you are forced to buy, not because you need it), setting up a bank account, buying train tickets and bus passes, going through mandatory annual health examinations, mailing a package, dealing with the ward office, doing anything that has to do with school—even to do karaoke  you need to fill out paperwork.

What’s more, there often isn’t an option to order things or do things online in Japan, so you have to go in person to deal with pretty much everything, which can be problematic seeing as many places (i.e., banks, post offices, doctor’s offices, school offices, pharmacies, information desks at the train station, etc.) are only open for selective intervals of time. Most places open late and close early and are closed during lunchtime—and they are oftentimes closed on the weekends and on public holidays as well (which is often).

The level of bureaucracy is magnified if you take into account how everything must be done exactly  according to procedure, regardless of whether or not you understand why. There were many foreigners I knew in Japan who were forced to fill out the same  documents multiple times, only to have them continuously sent back to them to be redone for tedious reasons such as they “weren’t signing their names the exact same way they had on previous documents” or because they were writing the number 4 “wrong,” and therefore the documents couldn’t be processed.

14) Japanese pillows are hard and uncomfortable

Whatever you imagine a pillow looking and feeling like, that’s not the case when it comes to Japanese pillows. While pillows in America are oftentimes filled with down or feathers, pillows in Japan are filled with what can only be described as hard-plastic macaroni noodles.

If you need a visual, imagine filling a sack with tiny pebbles or gravel, and then laying on it every night—that’s essentially what “pillows” are in Japan. They’re so uncomfortable that sleeping on your arm or the bare mattress is even preferable.

I’m not exactly sure why these kinds of “pillows” are preferred in Japan, but, with the exception of “western-style” hotel rooms and Airbnbs, which occasionally provide regular pillows, this seems to be the norm in Japan.

15) Japan is not vegetarian-friendly

The idea of vegetarianism is surprisingly foreign to many Japanese people for some reason, and this lack of awareness to special diets is conveyed through Japan’s very limited selection of vegetarian, vegan, and allergy-sensitive food options.

While this wasn’t an issue for me, personally, I hung out with many foreigners who had special diets or dietary restrictions and effectively couldn’t eat at most Japanese restaurants because there weren’t any options for them.

While Japan does have more variety when it comes to food options than I had anticipated, most of the food in Japan has meat, fish, eggs, or gluten incorporated into it somewhere—even if there are no visible traces of such, more times than not they’re infused into broths, seasonings/coatings, or sauces/dressings in Japan.

That being said, however, many foreign food restaurants (i.e., Indian/Nepalese restaurants, “western”/“American”-style restaurants, etc.) offer at least some sort of vegetarian/vegan-friendly food options—you just sometimes have to do some investigating beforehand in order to find them.

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I am a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a B.A. in Global Studies and minors in German and Asian Languages and Literatures (Japanese). I have two years of experience studying abroad in Germany and Japan, and am proficient in both German and Japanese. My interests are reading, writing, traveling, languages, politics, and following current events.

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15 Surprising Things I Learned While Living in Japan

Before I studied abroad in Japan, I read several advice articles and blogs, as well as talked with many people whom I knew had been to Japan before, in order to prepare myself. While much of what I had read and heard was helpful, there were still many things that surprised or confused me when I was in Japan.

Therefore, I would like to share my own experiences and observations with those who are interested in either traveling to or living in Japan. In no particular order, here are 15 things that surprised me while I was living in Japan:

1) It rains A LOT in Japan

In Japan, and in most of East Asia I imagine, they have something called “rainy season”—a cute, unsuspecting euphemism used to describe the time of year when typhoons and rainstorms are most prevalent.

I’m not sure why it’s described as being limited to only one “season,” seeing as every  season is more or less a rainy season. And not just a mild drizzle here and there either—I’m talking about downpouring, unrelenting rain that falls in sheets. The raindrops fall on you like a barrage of bullets, coming at you from all angles, creating rivers and channels out of streets and pathways, which not even the largest umbrella can effectively shield you from.

As a result, I became conditioned to always bring an umbrella with me every day, regardless of what the weather prediction said—on cloudy days and sunny days alike since most rainfalls in Japan are spontaneous and erratic; sometimes stopping as quickly as they start, and other times continuing for hours or even days on end.

2) Most earthquakes in Japan are really minor

Before living in Japan, I heard startling statistics about how Japan endures thousands  of earthquakes every year, and only the worst of the worst make it on TV. As a result, I felt a little wary before going to Japan as I tried to mentally prepare myself for potential natural disasters while I was there.

However, after living there for a whole year, I was surprised that the worst earthquake I experienced was a mere magnitude 3. The earthquake barely shook the building and wasn’t even enough to distract my Japanese teacher from her grammar lecture.

However, in actuality, while I probably did  experience thousands of earthquakes like I had read, most of them were so minor that I was able to sleep through them or couldn’t feel them at all in my day-to-day life. In fact, I was shocked whenever my classmates and teachers would periodically ask, “Did you feel the earthquake last night?”

3) There’s nothing “Zen” about temples and shrines

I’ve read several travel articles, blogs, and books about various tourist attractions in Japan, many of which boast of Japan’s “tranquil” and “Zen” temples, shrines, castles, gardens and the like.

However, anyone who has ever actually visited a temple or shrine in Japan—especially the famous ones—knows that couldn’t be further from the truth. While the word “Zen” in Japan refers to a sect of Buddhism, it is often misused by English-speakers as a synonym for “peaceful” and “calm.” As a result, is has become a lazy default adjective for describing Japan and is grossly overused in the lexicon of travel writers and bloggers in order to mislead readers.

Let me say this: there is nothing  “Zen” about getting shoved and hit in the face with selfie-sticks as you shuffle through huddled masses of loud tourists who are intent on photobombing every picture you take of that “Zen” temple hovering over that “Zen” pond in that “Zen” Japanese garden you’re visiting.

While the original purpose of temples and shrines may have been to offer a place for peaceful meditation and prayer, nowadays many of them have become popular tourist attractions which bring in millions of visitors each year. I almost cried with laughter when I saw a viral video about Japan’s “forest bathing” trend, featuring Kyoto’s Arashiyama Bamboo Grove as an example—a “tranquil,” “stress-reducing” forest that was only two miles away from the dorm I was living in and teeming with tourists, as I very well knew considering I saw them every day on my daily commute.

4) Separating garbage into “burnable” and “non-burnable” bins

Every country has its own unique way of sorting garbage and recycling, and while I’ve encountered many sorting categories in the US and other countries—plastics, cans, bottles, paper, compostable items, etc.—Japan has two sorting categories I had never encountered before: “burnable” and “non-burnable” garbage.

As to what either of those categories effectively entails, no one really knows, but since garbage sorting is strictly enforced in Japan (especially in Kyoto), it became a source of anxiety for me when I first started living there. Every day I had to make several judgement-calls on what constituted “burnable” and “non-burnable” garbage, and these constant internal debates led to me hoarding garbage in my dorm room for weeks because I was uncertain as to which bins I was supposed to sort my trash into.

Then, like a thief in the night, I would dispose of the items in question anonymously in the “non-burnable” bin once everyone was asleep so that, in case I had guessed wrong, no one would know it was me. Fortunately, since I lived in a dorm, the full burden of proper garbage sorting didn’t fall solely on me but on the dorm managers. However, I had heard several stories of garbage and sanitation workers refusing to take trash that hadn’t been properly sorted.

5) Japan isn’t really that “traditional” or “hyper-modern”

One of the clichés that is often repeated about Japan, by both by foreigners and Japanese alike, is how Japan is the “perfect blend of old and new”—depicting Japan as a futuristic paradise that is simultaneously steeped in history and tradition.

However, the truth is that Japan isn’t really all that traditional nor is it super modern. Due to the fact that many of the older structures in Japan were constructed out of wood, which isn’t very durable, not to mention all of the damage that Japan has experienced due to natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as war, many of the so-called “traditional” and “old” temples, shrines, castles, houses, etc. in Japan have been destroyed and rebuilt many times throughout its history.

In fact, many of Japan’s famous tourist attractions have either been renovated or rebuilt entirely within the past 60-70 years.

Likewise, while the image of Japan being a technologically advanced country may have been true in the 1970s and 1980s, like all countries, Japan can be very high-tech when it comes to some things (i.e., electric toilets, robots, bullet trains, conveyor-belt sushi, etc.), and it can also be very low-tech when it comes to other things (i.e., limited internet access/utilization, no central heating/cooling, no credit card machines, persistent use of fax machines and video rental stores, etc.).

6) Lack of space

It’s easy to feel claustrophobic in Japan, not just on the packed buses and trains during your daily commute or while traveling, but even in your own dorm, apartment, or hotel room. Since 70% of Japan consists of mountains, meaning that most of Japan’s population in concentrated in only 30% of its land, space is expensive; therefore, everything is much more condensed in Japan.

Hotel rooms and apartments are easily half the size of their American counterparts of the same price. Pedestrian-only sidewalks are practically nonexistent in Japan except for in city centers, forcing pedestrians, bikers, and two-way car traffic to be confined to narrow streets that are sometimes a third of the width of streets in America.

There were many times when I thought I would be hit by a car or a biker while walking along the streets in Japan, and I would often have to quickly jump to the side of the road to avoid being hit.

While Japan is good at making use of what little space is available, it can be difficult to get used to, especially in bigger cities that are crowded with daily commuters and tourists, which causes buses, trains, and walkways to be perpetually overcrowded. No matter where you go, it seems, you’re always forced to stand in close proximity to other people and your personal space is severely limited in comparison to other countries. This, coupled with oftentimes cramped rooms, apartments, restaurants, bars, cafes, stores, etc., can be both mentally and physically exhausting.

7) Japan is not that “homogeneous” or “xenophobic”

One of the things I read and heard about a lot from people who had been to Japan before is how “homogeneous” the population in Japan is, and, as a result, how Japanese people have “xenophobic” attitudes towards foreigners in Japan.

I had heard countless stories of foreigners getting stared at by Japanese people, or of Japanese people avoiding them or refusing to sit next to them on buses/trains while they were in Japan, as well as stories of foreigners being treated like they were strange aliens that the local population couldn’t take their eyes off, nor leave alone.

While it is true that most people in Japan are ethnically Japanese, and, as a result, many people in Japan aren’t the most culturally competent/sensitive when it comes to interacting with foreigners, Japan is by no means “homogeneous” and most Japanese people aren’t “xenophobic.”

Japan is a really touristy country, and there are also a lot of foreigners who go there to study or work, so even though the native  population is overwhelmingly Japanese, the everyday population in Japan is a lot more diverse than most people think. As a result, especially in bigger cities in Japan, most Japanese pretty much don’t pay any attention to foreigners.

I rarely got stared at while I was in Japan, and if I did get stared at, it was usually when my friends and I were being loud, not simply because we were foreign. Of the foreigners I knew who did  mention getting stared at by Japanese people, all of them were tall and/or attractive, which may have contributed to it.

But no one in Japan seemed to hesitate to sit next to us or stand in close proximity to us while we were on buses and trains. It also wasn’t uncommon for Japanese people to randomly initiate talking to me and other foreigners, asking us where we’re from, or if we’re lost, and wishing us well during our stay in Japan.

8) Smoking is allowed indoors

I had read that smoking was a lot less regulated and more common in Japan than in America, but I had no idea about the frequency, the intensity, and the range that it entailed. Basically, it’s okay to smoke pretty much wherever you want, whenever you want in Japan—on the streets, in restaurants, cafés, bars, clubs, karaoke boxes, train stations, trains, in front of school buildings, convenience stores, inside apartments, dorms, Airbnbs, hotel rooms—the sky’s the limit.

And the number of smokers in Japan is astonishing as well—everyone and their grandfather smokes, it seems, which means that you’re bound to be subjected to second-hand smoke no matter where you go, and there’s not really much you can do about it.

Some more modern/“westernized” restaurants and cafés will occasionally ban smoking or have “smoking” and “non-smoking” sections—though oftentimes they’re in the same room, which makes the effort somewhat redundant. Many hotels will give you the option to specify what kind of room you want to stay in (“smoking” or “non-smoking”), but sometimes even the “non-smoking” rooms can be smoky, or smoke from neighboring rooms can drift into the hallway, and so on.

9) Japan’s drinking culture

Japan’s drinking culture is pretty interesting. First of all, you can drink on the streets and pretty much wherever you want. Alcohol is sold pretty much anywhere you can imagine, and it’s generally fairly cheap.

Second of all, while 20 is technically the legal drinking age in Japan, it doesn’t seem to be very strictly enforced. There are also some vending machines that sell beer and cigarettes as well, so neither seem to be heavily regulated in Japan.

Thirdly, a lot of bars, izakaya, and karaoke places have “nomihoudai” (all-you-can-drink) deals where you pay a certain amount to drink as much as you want within an allotted period of time. Nightclubs in Japan will also often have deals like “ladies drink free” or “all-you-can-drink until 11pm” and have separate all-you-can-drink menus (with a limited selection), or give you drink coupons for up to a certain amount upon entry. However, oftentimes the drinks at bars, clubs, and karaoke places are low-alcohol or watered-down alcoholic beverages, which force you to spend more money in order to drink more, so it’s not always a good deal.

And lastly, while most people probably assume that sake (Japanese rice wine) is the most common drink in Japan, that’s actually not true—Japan is actually better known for its beer and whisky, which are probably the most common and the most advertised alcoholic beverages in Japan, along with other kinds of drinks that aren’t as common outside of Japan, such as umeshu (plum liqueur) and other nontraditional, low-alcohol “cocktails” like “chuhai” and “cassis orange.”

10) Lack of predictability when it comes to Japanese toilets

Countless articles and blogs have been written about the mysteries of Japanese toilets, but what surprised me about them wasn’t so much the innumerable buttons and various bizarre functions (i.e., front and back bidets, toilets singing songs/making noises, heated toilet seats, etc.)—though it does take some getting used to at first—but the lack of uniformity when it comes to toilets in Japan.

First of all, I was surprised that many Japanese still prefer to use squat-toilets (basic toilets wherein the toilet bowl is built into the floor, which you need to squat down to use rather than sitting down) and many bathrooms in Japan will mainly, or sometimes exclusively, have squat-toilets and then occasionally one or two “western-style” toilets.

Secondly, no toilet in Japan is the same—especially when it comes to figuring out how to flush. The method of flushing toilets in Japan sometimes isn’t very intuitive, and the location of the flush button/handle/lever also never seems to be in the same place.

Sometimes it’s simply a lever on the back of the toilet, sometimes there’s a handle on the side of the toilet, sometimes there’s an exclusive flush button on the wall, sometimes there’s a button or a couple of buttons on the remote control panel, sometimes the flush button doesn’t look like a button or doesn’t say “flush,” and sometimes it’s in random places, like a lever or button at the base of the toilet or lower down on the side of the toilet.

In any case, toilets in Japan are surprisingly not very user-friendly, and the potential for confusion is doubled if you can’t read Japanese and there are no English translations.

11) Drastic difference in bathroom quality

I had the image of Japanese bathrooms being really clean before I went to Japan, seeing as Japan is often described as being really “clean” and “high-tech,” so I was surprised by the drastic range of quality when it comes to bathrooms in Japan.

Some bathrooms in Japan really do  seem like something from the future with rows of electric, “western-style” toilets, scented air-purifiers, and automated faucets and hand-dryers, and so on. And other bathrooms in Japan can be nauseatingly filthy, with unclean toilets and no hand-soap or hand-dryers/hand-towels, and sometimes they don’t even have real sinks. The lack of hand-soap and hand-dryers in public bathrooms in Japan is also incredibly common, even in semi-decent bathrooms.

12) Huge bugs, poisonous bugs, and killer bugs

Bugs in Japan are enough to cause even non-phobic people to develop an insect-phobia in no time. It’s not just the kinds of bugs you can encounter there that’s so disturbing, but the frequency in which you can encounter them, even in big cities in Japan.

The dorm I lived in in Kyoto was subject to several  bug-related disturbances; I would hear horror stories of people finding giant spiders and centipedes in their beds, rooms, even in their shoes, and everywhere else inside and outside of the dorm, and of people being bit in the middle of the night by mukade (poisonous centipedes).

Posters with titles such as “Coping With Centipedes” were scattered around the dorm with step-by-step instructions on what to do if bitten by a centipede (i.e., crushing the head, squeezing out the poison, going to the doctor, etc.).

Like a mad person, this led me to ritually checking my bed and sheets every night before going to sleep, to taping cardboard over the bottom of my door to make it harder for bugs to crawl underneath, and keeping my window bolted shut for most of the year.

Despite my best efforts, I still had many bug-encounters, such as finding a giant cockroach in the kitchen, giant spiders in my room, in the hallways, and in front of my dorm, and even having a cockroach fly into my face when I was walking outside at night.

What’s more, colorful (potentially poisonous) spiders would nonchalantly weave webs above the entrance way to my dorm and all around my university’s campus, and pretty much everywhere I went. Poisonous, foot-long centipedes would casually sit at the bus stop that I would take to and from school.

And it wasn’t until I was already living in Japan that I heard of the potentially lethal bugs there, such as giant, venomous hornets and mosquito-borne diseases that cause severe brain damage—which I wasn’t remotely immunized for. Though I knew that getting stung by/contracting them was incredibly rare, it still didn’t keep me from worrying about the possibilities.

13) Excessive bureaucracy and paperwork

This is probably most emblematic for how there is a certain way in which things must be done in Japan—and that way is unnegotiable. The bureaucracy and copious amounts of paperwork that living in Japan entails is inescapable and never-ending.

In other words, nothing is done simply in Japan. You have to fill out paperwork and go through several layers of bureaucracy for seemingly everything: getting a referral to go to a doctor, going to the doctor, getting prescription drugs, buying several kinds of insurance (that you are forced to buy, not because you need it), setting up a bank account, buying train tickets and bus passes, going through mandatory annual health examinations, mailing a package, dealing with the ward office, doing anything that has to do with school—even to do karaoke  you need to fill out paperwork.

What’s more, there often isn’t an option to order things or do things online in Japan, so you have to go in person to deal with pretty much everything, which can be problematic seeing as many places (i.e., banks, post offices, doctor’s offices, school offices, pharmacies, information desks at the train station, etc.) are only open for selective intervals of time. Most places open late and close early and are closed during lunchtime—and they are oftentimes closed on the weekends and on public holidays as well (which is often).

The level of bureaucracy is magnified if you take into account how everything must be done exactly  according to procedure, regardless of whether or not you understand why. There were many foreigners I knew in Japan who were forced to fill out the same  documents multiple times, only to have them continuously sent back to them to be redone for tedious reasons such as they “weren’t signing their names the exact same way they had on previous documents” or because they were writing the number 4 “wrong,” and therefore the documents couldn’t be processed.

14) Japanese pillows are hard and uncomfortable

Whatever you imagine a pillow looking and feeling like, that’s not the case when it comes to Japanese pillows. While pillows in America are oftentimes filled with down or feathers, pillows in Japan are filled with what can only be described as hard-plastic macaroni noodles.

If you need a visual, imagine filling a sack with tiny pebbles or gravel, and then laying on it every night—that’s essentially what “pillows” are in Japan. They’re so uncomfortable that sleeping on your arm or the bare mattress is even preferable.

I’m not exactly sure why these kinds of “pillows” are preferred in Japan, but, with the exception of “western-style” hotel rooms and Airbnbs, which occasionally provide regular pillows, this seems to be the norm in Japan.

15) Japan is not vegetarian-friendly

The idea of vegetarianism is surprisingly foreign to many Japanese people for some reason, and this lack of awareness to special diets is conveyed through Japan’s very limited selection of vegetarian, vegan, and allergy-sensitive food options.

While this wasn’t an issue for me, personally, I hung out with many foreigners who had special diets or dietary restrictions and effectively couldn’t eat at most Japanese restaurants because there weren’t any options for them.

While Japan does have more variety when it comes to food options than I had anticipated, most of the food in Japan has meat, fish, eggs, or gluten incorporated into it somewhere—even if there are no visible traces of such, more times than not they’re infused into broths, seasonings/coatings, or sauces/dressings in Japan.

That being said, however, many foreign food restaurants (i.e., Indian/Nepalese restaurants, “western”/“American”-style restaurants, etc.) offer at least some sort of vegetarian/vegan-friendly food options—you just sometimes have to do some investigating beforehand in order to find them.

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