Japan had been on my wanderlust wish list for so long, and not just for the food, I was curious to experience a whole different world. A culture that just seemed so ‘other’ to my European upbringing…while I knew certain aspects of the country would be familiar, I was sure most would seem foreign and unexpected. From films I’d watched and people I talked to, I already imagined the language barrier being an issue, that I would find myself getting Lost in Translation, feeling disorientated and alienated.
Actually that wasn’t the case at all, Mr S and I found ourselves fitting easily into life in Japan, and I was surprised that I wasn’t more surprised…if you see what I mean…With that in mind and having just returned from nearly two weeks in Japan I thought I’d share my thoughts as part of this month’s travel link up. How Japan surprised me and how it didn’t surprise, but most of all how it was an unexpected place.
Five Ways Japan Surprised Me
1. The Language Thing – The language issue was the thing I thought about the most before going to Japan. People warned me that not many people speak English, there were no signs in English, it’s a struggle to communicate and often you’ll find yourself expressing yourself through pictures and images.
Now if you were following my adventure on Twitter and Instagram you’ll know that I stayed in mostly Westernised hotels in the major cities and tourist hotspots. I’m fully aware that in these places you’ll find more English speakers and international signs, but this post is about my experience in Japan and I know people’s experience in more far-flung areas of the country may be different.
In our hotels the staff spoke excellent English, in the restaurants it was never impossible to communicate and when we took taxis and ubers, they could generally get the gist of where we wanted to go…there were also ‘foreigner friendly’ taxis who spoke English. If there was a struggle in communication, these days of smart phones meant we could easily find a picture or get a Japanese translation. There was plenty of English signage on the streets, in the train station and in restaurants. To be honest….I wanted to get more Lost in Translation…but communication generally wasn’t a problem.
2. I expected more weirdness – seeing Japan in films and on TV and reading blog posts, I expected things to be more ‘weird’. Apologies for the stereotype but I expected crazy Hello Kitty Cafes on every corner, strangely dressed people and a kind of whacky pop culture. Yes, there are these things and we did experience them but generally walking around Tokyo felt no different to walking around other major cities. But I wanted more weirdness…but don’t worry, it’s there, you just need to know where to look!
3. The ATMs and the WiFi – Before going to Japan I was warned many ATMs didn’t take European cash cards and lots of restaurants expected you to pay in cash. I was warned to withdraw lots of cash at the airport before heading into the city. Actually we found it wasn’t difficult to withdraw cash if you have a VISA card and lots of restaurants (though not all) would take credit card…once again that’s my experience and I’m aware maybe not everyone’s. Apparently 7-Eleven is your friend and will take most foreign credit cards in the ATM.
I was told despite being a place of advance technology free WiFi wasn’t readily available in the city. Of course, in our hotels it was but also we hired a cheap WiFi dongle at the airport which allowed us easy access to the internet at all times. It’s also available in Starbucks…
One thing that didn’t come up in my research and I hadn’t quite realised was the low-voltage. Electronics run on 100 VOLTs so my hair dryer and straightening irons didn’t work. GAH!
4. Though the food was some of the best I’d ever had it’s also possible to get bad sushi – I naively thought bad sushi didn’t exist in Japan and one day suggested we try a kaiten-zushi or conveyor belt sushi restaurant. I thought it would be fun and chance to gratify our hunger quickly, I realised I was wrong as we sat eating cold claggy tempura, mushy rice and chewy tuna…
5. I totally fell in love with the kawaii culture
Kawaii basically means ‘cute’ and there are aspects of the cultural aesthetic everywhere you look, particularly in the country’s fondness for Hello Kitty!
Other things that may surprise you…(I read about all of these before I went so I wasn’t too surprised!)
1. Japanese people don’t tip…something that feels alien to a Westerner
2. The train system is very easy to use, clean, efficient and always on time.
3. Taxi doors open automatically, super hygenic!
4. KitKats come in all sorts of flavours including wasabi, green tea and strawberry cheesecake.
5. Department store basements are gold mines for amazing food.
6. In many restaurants, ryokans, houses and temples, it’s customary to remove your shoes.
7. It’s one of the world’s safest cities, street crime is minimal and we never felt at risk when wandering around.
8. Despite being a super clean place, it’s difficult to find rubbish bins!
9. Japanese robot toilets are very cool, the lid lifts up automatically, it flushes when you stand up, they play bird sounds into the cubicle and it can do all manner of other um…interesting things!
10. There are vending machines selling all different things everywhere!
Five Ways Japan was exactly how I thought it would be
1. The food was some of the best I’ve ever had in my life – One reason why I wanted to visit so much was to try real, authentic sushi made by world-class sushi masters. Our first taste of ‘proper’ Japanese sushi was utterly heavenly! Yet, actually rather different to what we get at home, nigri sushi is the most common here and it’s not overloaded with soy sauce and other flavours.
While ‘Westernised’ sushi is available, such as California rolls, spicy tuna and spider rolls but you won’t find them in the high-end restaurants. As well is the incredibly fresh fish that we sampled in the Japan, the beef was some of the best we’d ever had…Wagyu beef is quite simply melt in the mouth! Also soft serve ice cream is fantastic and comes in all sorts of flavours such as matcha, sesame and even jellyfish. I’m boring and vanilla is my favourite!
2. The people were so lovely – One way Tokyo really differed from cities such as London is the kindness of the people. Londoners are always in a rush to get somewhere and rarely take the time to help someone out or be polite. By contrast we found people in Japan wouldn’t just give us directions, they’d take us there, manners were always 100% and best of all, they are punctual to the second!
3. It’s expensive – Yes, the rumours are true, Japan is expensive, particularly Tokyo, but really no more expensive than London or other major European cities. Plus I do believe it’s possible to enjoy on a budget, there are so many beautiful parks to stroll through, and you can admire local colour just by walking through the narrow streets of Kyoto. Though there are many expensive Michelin star restaurants, there are also izakayas, noodle places and cafes which won’t damage your wallet so badly.
4. Booking restaurants is difficult – If you want to visit some of the high-end, Michelin star restaurants, they are not necessarily easy to book. Many of the websites are in Japanese, don’t take online bookings and some don’t accept foreigners. It was fairly straightforward, however to get our hotel concierge to do the booking for us, though one sushi restaurant turned down our booking because we didn’t have a thorough enough knowledge of the culture and cuisine.
5. I wasn’t surprised how much I loved it – A contrast of modern and traditional, at once ‘other’ yet familiar, bright dazzling lights compared to simple beauty. Nature nestled in the big city, food so refined yet perfect in its simplicity…a place of contrast, and a place of beauty…it was no wonder that we fell in love with this unexpected place.
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