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Five Ways That Japan Surprised Me (And Five Ways it Didn’t)

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.DSC_6074
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.IMG_7879
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!DSC_4794
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.DSC_4422
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…DSC_4680
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…
DSC_4467 DSC_4468

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!Top 10 Ways to Experience Modern TokyoTop 10 Ways to Experience Modern TokyoFive Ways Japan Surprised Me
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.Five Ways Japan Surprised Me
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!Five Ways Japan Surprised Me
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.DSC_4490
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.DSC_4350
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.

Five Ways Japan Surprised Me

  • Love this post. I was told that it would be difficult to get around too before we went to Japan. But I think things have changed a lot recently. Most train station signs are written in Latin letters and quite a few people, especially the younger generation, speak English.

    We didn’t find it particularly expensive especially compared to London. I imagine that in comparison to Thailand it is though. When it comes to ATMS we used the 7/11 cash machines and had no problem. But we did meet a British girl who had just arrived and had trouble picking up money at the station. So we pointed her in the right direction.

    Yes you can find whacked if you are looking for it. But Japan has a diverse culture and there is so much more to it.

    • Yes, I didn’t have any lost in translation problems! Mr S couldn’t use his card in all the ATMs but mine was fine. Either way it was so interesting to experience everything.

  • Ahhhh I’m so glad you loved Japan! I haven’t been back for AGES, but would love to go again (John’s off to Tokyo for work in a few weeks’ time and I’m so jealous). The food photos you shared on Instagram were absolutely drool-worthy! I think I’d easily go overboard re: kawaii products while was I there and bring back about 1,000 Hello Kittys …

  • Emma (SitS)

    Great post. Japan has been on my travel list for a looong time but the language barrier is really what scares me most. We’d want to do a lot of the tourist hot spots though so perhaps we shouldn’t worry so much. Shame some of the higher end restaurants done take foreigners bit I’m sure there’s still plenty of amazing food to eat 🙂

    • Honestly there’s so much signage in English you don’t need to worry. We only got turned away from one restaurant, most were encouraging and even fine about photos.

  • TravelWithNanoB

    Great post Angie, fits the link-up theme so well and gives some handy tips and info! I was also pretty shocked when I couldn’t find trash cans anywhere on the streets. One of my friends told me that it’s because during one of the terror attacks, the explosive was hidden inside a trash can so they banned it entirely. Yet everything is so spotless clean, it’s amazing! Oooh and wagyu beef, whether it’s from Kobe region or any other, it is equally scrumptious! ??

    • That’s so interesting about the bins. Our wagyu night was totally sublime! I loved it. 🙂

  • Definitely want to visit Japan one day and especially now that I know they have strawberry cheesecake flavour KitKat!! Sounds like you had a wonderful time 🙂

    • Lol! That alone is worth the trip! I have some left over still 🙂

  • Clare Thomson

    You’ve made me desperate to visit Japan now! The thought of the delicious food is the biggest temptation I think. Really interesting to read about the surprising and not so surprising aspects of your visit. I too had imagined there would be more of a language barrier and it’s reassuring but still a bit disappointing that it’s not so much like that as I’d thought – it’s great to go somewhere that really is truly ‘other’ like you say. Thanks for having me on this month’s Travel Link-Up.

    • I’m sure there can be a language barrier in some places but in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka there are a lot more tourists now. Thanks for reading Clare!

  • I’m not all surprised that you fell in love with the kawaii culture! I myself am not a huge fan of the saccharine and the sweet, but kawaii is so much a part of Japan and so prevalent that even the hardened cynic finds it infectious. I AM surprised though that you found less than perfect sushi, because I’ve been lucky to have had nothing but excellent fare in every prefecture I’ve travelled to. I’m so glad you had a great time, Japan is one of my favourite countries (and how hilarious is the drawing in the selfie stick warning? Inadvertent Japanese comedy at its finest!) x

    Posh, Broke, & Bored

    • I thought we’d find little lovely places for lunch, so I didn’t plan in advance…made me realise how terrible spontaneity is and I’m not suited to it at all!

  • theCuriousPixie

    Wow! It looks amazing. It’s been on my bucket list for a long, long time. This just makes me want to plan my trip for sooner.

  • drsolly

    Next time I see you, I’ll show and tell you about my trip to Japan

  • fascinating reading – it really is a different place to visit, even the bits that are as expected

    • Yes! It’s always interesting to see interpretations of the same if you know what I mean!

  • Such an interesting post about a country that I’d love to see one day! So agree that I wouldn’t think to find any bad sushi in Japan, but I guess it happens! And I love the variety of Kit Kat flavours, my friend gave me the green tea one and I loved it.

    • It was such a disappointing place. We only had a few pieces though and went somewhere else.

  • My friend lived in Japan as a kid when her mum pursued her PhD there so I got to learn a lot about Japan through her:) great photos! I’m glad you liked it as much as you did! 🙂 just joined the linkup:)

  • Oh I loved this! The fact you wanted it to be more weird made me laugh!! I suppose you’ve got to hunt out the weird things, and they are probably quite far removed from your luxury experience of the country 😉 is it strange that I now really want to try out a Japanese toilet?!

    Polly xx

    • I genuinely thought they’d be weirdness all around! They actually have Japanese toilets in Harrods, so I’d tried them before!

  • i’ve tried a Wasabi KitKat once, it was surprisingly pleasant!

    • Lol! I didn’t try one of those but I reckon you’d strawberry cheesecake flavour

  • I loved reading this! I would love to go to Japan one day. I lived in Hawaii for two years (and am about to move back!) and there are lots of Japanese influences everywhere, but I still wouldn’t know what to expect, so this post is super helpful!

    • I didn’t know about the Japanese influence in Hawaii! How interesting.

  • I think I’d also love kawaii culture! x

  • What a beautiful post Angie!! I love how obsessed they are with Hello Kitty haha, and now I want to try jellyfish soft serve, and DESPERATE for some of those wacky kit-kats!! Lots of love, Andrea xxx

    Andrea’s Passions

    • I didn’t actually see any jelly fish soft serve, I just heard that it exists…I only tried two types of KitKat but they were great!

  • I absolutely adored following your trip around Japan – as a fellow sushi lover, it’s unsurprising that Japan is very high on my bucket list too!

  • Fabulous post Angie! I also would have expected more weirdness but sometimes I find the greatest joys in just seeing how people live and work in foreign cities.

    • Exactly, it’s the minutae of life that’s interesting isn’t it?

  • Very cool. I’ve never heard of Kawaii culture before but I think I love it too! I can’t even imagine how delicious the sushi must be. I just said to a friend the other day that Japan is a place I would travel to if only to sample all the food! Thanks so much for hosting the link party.

  • Japan is just something else isn’t it!? (I was surprised to see that a restaurant said no to you!)

    • Lol! You don’t get restaurants in London turning away people’s money!

  • I would love to go to Japan, even more after this post!! I’ve heard of the sushi conveyor belts before… Too bad it wasn’t good! I think I’d still have to try it for the “kawaii” experience 😉

  • Jaklien van Melick

    I had such an amazing time in Japan and would love to go back. It’s just that other amazing trips get in the way. 🙂

  • Am I the only person who wants an entire post on Japanese robot toilets? 😉

  • May

    that’s so interesting they can turn you away. Definitely on my go to list for sure.

    May x

  • It’s somewhere I’d love to go – heard it’s like landing on another planet!! Part of the fun of travelling I guess!

    • It wasn’t so much like that as you would think. They’re so welcoming to tourists now.

  • I love this post! Your trip looked amazing and now I can’t wait to go to Japan more! There was a show called “Oh Tokyo” that I used to watch growing up so I can relate to what you wrote here although the most surprising thing to me was how some restaurants didn’t accept foreigners! SHOCKING! x

    Honey x The Girl Next Shore

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  • Fascinating post! Can’t believe you of all people got turned away from a sushi restaurant tho :S I would love to visit and see Japan for myself.

  • That’s crazy that you wouldn’t be able to go a restaurant because you didn’t have enough cultural knowledge or are a foreigner. How strange! I’d love to go to Japan just for the food as well, every flavour imaginable!

  • Alfredo Ciano

    Final Fantasy !!!

  • Lana Gutierrez

    How funny, I went in November, and they are exactly the things that surprised me as well, especially the language thing and the weirdness lol.Didn’t expect how much I would love it though. Amazing place!