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5 Things to Know About Experiencing Japan

You’ve made it. You’ve finally made it! You’re in Japan now! Or, you’re stuck at the airport wondering when APA is going to start boarding your flight to Narita. Or, you’re stuck at the office daydreaming about an excursion to a faraway and exotic land.

Well look no further.

These orange torii (gates) never end. And I don’t want them to.
These orange torii (gates) never end. And I don’t want them to.

Japan is a popular destination with tourists worldwide. It’s highly romanticized as a place of wonder, of history, of technology, of the strange and new. That’s what pulled me to this country, and I have loved living here ever since arriving five months ago. I currently teach English in Hamamatsu, Japan – about a two-hour Shinkansen ride from Tokyo

Tourists and expats alike experience the same initial amount of culture shock. It’s unavoidable. And not necessarily a bad thing either. If anything, it’s eye-opening. These cultural differences can help highlight what you like and dislike about your home country.

Even so, it’s an adjustment. And depending on how long you visit, culture shock can hit you in waves. I’m here to be your lifeguard, warning you of the cultural differences between Japan and the Western World you will likely encounter.

Here are five things I think you should know when traveling to Japan. This isn’t intended to be an in-depth look but rather more of an intro based on what I’ve experienced so far. I hope you find this useful!

1. Be Ready for Everything “Kawaii”

Screen shot 2015-03-18 at 9.16.23 AM
“Must. Focus. On. The. Road.”

What is kawaii you ask? What a great question. It is the Japanese word for “cute” and is the single most dominant cultural aesthetic in Japan. You will see it absolutely everywhere. From storefronts and fashion to bento meals and mascots. Even road construction signs are shaped like cute little animals! “Eyes on the road? Oh I’m sorry, I was staring at that adorable frog road barrier over there.”

Even government and emergency services have cute mascots. Do stay out of trouble though while you’re in Japan. I wouldn’t expect a cute, fluffy bear to be the one arresting you.

Cuteness and being cute are a BIG deal in Japan. You will hear a “kawaii” a few times an hour if you’re listening. It’s inescapable. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s interesting to witness the aesthetic ideals of another country. Being kawaii is not about being sexy or perfect. It’s about innocence and endearment. Embrace it and take it all in!

2. Trash Cans are Impossible to Find

What’s that? You’re looking for a receptacle where you can dispose of the trash you’ve collected since arriving here in Japan? Good luck. Trash cans are the needles in the haystack of Japan. Or it could very well be that there is only one in the entire country.

Screen shot 2015-03-18 at 9.16.51 AM
The equivalent of finding a wild Mew in Pokémon Red or Blue.

This is not widely known by foreigners (at least that I’ve found), but the lack of trash cans – primarily in Tokyo – is a response to a terrorist attack at Tokyo Station in 1995. Caught up in the aftermath and hysteria of such a horrible event, numerous security measures were installed. One of which was the removal of trash cans from all public areas in Tokyo – including streets, parks, and train/subway stations.

Since then, the Japanese have accepted this security measure and have grown accustomed to holding on to their trash.

Your best bets for finding a trash can in Japan are at private establishments. Places like convenience stores (conbini), kiosks, or fast food joints. Until then, may the odds be ever in your favor.

3. Be Open to New Foods

I don’t always have octopus, but when I do it’s fried and comes with tempura, pickled ginger, and green onion (takoyaki たこ焼き).
I don’t always have octopus, but when I do it’s fried and comes with tempura, pickled ginger, and green onion (takoyaki たこ焼き).

Japan is known for some of the freshest and most delicious seafood in the world.

I’m not big on seafood. It’s just never appealed to me. But I’ve made an effort to throw that out the window here in Japan. Since arriving, I’ve had various types of fish prepared in various difference ways (cooked, raw, and in some sort of pudding). Not all of them have been amazingly life-changing, but not all of them have spelled the end of the world (Except maybe for that raw baby squid I had. That was rough.). My point is, Japanese food – especially seafood – is some of the best in the world, so you would be missing out on a large part of the culinary world if you say “No” to all creatures of the sea.

4. No Central Heat or A/C

If you’re a tourist visiting for a few days or weeks, this won’t be too big a deal. However, still be aware

When will they finally make this a thing?
When will they finally make this a thing?

about one thing that has perplexed me about this country: the lack of a central ventilation system. With nearly $5 trillion in 2013, Japan has the third largest gross domestic product (GDP) in the world.[1] It is also one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, creating and perfecting everything from blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs)[2] to lifelike robots.

So where’s the heat? It’s frickin’ freezing in here Mr. Bigglesworth. For reasons unknown (right now at least), many buildings – even modern ones – lack a central heating or A/C system. Summers are lived with a paper fan always at the ready for those really sticky days (two fans if you’re not holding anything else). Winters may not be all that cold, but just seem cold because you never have the chance to warm up. Your best friends will be kairo カイロ (hand warmers), an electric heater, and a kotatsu こたつ (a table with a heater underneath and a blanket to keep your legs and feet nice and toasty).

5. Embrace the Public Baths

If you have heard about some aspects of Japanese culture, chances are you have heard about public

Don’t you want to go to there?
Don’t you want to go to there?

bathing. Yeah, public bathing. Coming from a culture where everyone frantically avoided that one guy at the Gold’s Gym who was always walking around naked (And trying to talk to you?? With a Shake Weight in one hand?? Get AWAY from me!), public bathing has definitely been an adjustment here.

But you know what? You just decide to take the plunge (pun intended). Else you earn the title as the “Stinkiest Person in Japan.” And it’s not that bad. After a couple times, you get used to it. The Japanese have a belief in many things, one of which is hadaka no tsukiai or “naked communion.” It is the idea that when stripped of all clothes, social pressures, and formalities, people can develop friendships in a relaxing environment.

Of course, it is not required to talk to someone in a public bath if you don’t want to, and definitely don’t let that stop you from going to one. Because public baths are physically good for you! Especially onsen (温泉 in kanji), which are public baths fed by natural hot springs. These hot springs have naturally occurring minerals and chemicals, which can have therapeutic properties to heal aches/pains, relieve stress, reduce fatigue, and more. Just be wary if you have any large tattoos as some onsen may turn you away because tattoos are usually associated with the yakuza.

[1] United Nations. GDP and its breakdown at current prices in US Dollars: All countries for all years – sorted alphabetically. “2013 Total Value Added.” http://unstats.un.org/unsd/snaama/dnllist.asp

[2] Three Japanese researchers were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on blue LEDs. One of them, Hiroshi Amano, is a graduate of Hamamatsu Nishi High School, a high school in my city.

Post by Andy Shartzer (SEAS ’09)

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