10 Things to Expect for a First-Time Visitor to Japan
Japan is truly unlike any other country, and as a first-time visitor, you will find its idiosyncrasies and peculiarities both amusing and endearing. Your first experience of a big Japanese city can be overwhelming, particularly after a long journey. Yet the food, culture, the politeness of the people, and Japan's uniqueness will have you eager to discover more.
To make that adjustment a little bit easier for you, here are 10 things you will see and hear when you go to Japan.
1. You'll be greeted (loudly) in every shop.
One of the first things you will hear is the shrieking sound of "irrashaimase". This rings in your ears the first time you hear it, and, rest assured—you will hear it a lot. This is a greeting from an employee of a store or restaurant welcoming you or encouraging you to come inside. The last syllable is elongated or stretched out so much that it is unmistakable. The sound definitely grows on you; I enjoy hearing it again whenever I come back to Japan.
2. Noisy pachinko halls are extremely popular.
You may find yourself wandering down the street when suddenly you're met with the blaring sound and bright lights of a pachinko hall—a Japanese gaming centre and gambling hub. As the doors open and the cacophony of sound hits you, you will get a glimpse of an alternate reality where people often go after work to decompress.
3. People don't jaywalk.
I find the difference between the Japanese and I is at its most stark when enduring the interminable wait at a pedestrian crossing. My instinct, and many others', is to cross the street when there are no oncoming cars, even if the red man stands firm.
But in Japan, even if it is only a one-lane road, people will stand and wait until the green man appears, despite there not being a car in sight. This is evidently ingrained in the Japanese, whereas for me it is a case of 'old habits die hard'.
There have been countless times when I have tried to resist the urge to cross. But sometimes I can't manage to wait it out like the locals. When I do take the plunge (after some deliberation) I feel like hundreds of eyes are burning into the back of my head, so if you can, resist the urge to jaywalk!
4. Love hotels are everywhere.
A common misconception about Japan is that it is sexless. I have read that intimacy is falling by the wayside in pursuit of careers and independence and that the herbivore men are said to be content and have forgone physical relationships. With this in mind, the plethora of love hotels confounded me at first.
However, they, too, are very much in keeping with Japan's unassuming nature: they offer anonymity. You can book and pay for a room on a touchscreen at the reception and then pick up your key at the desk without having to be in contact with anyone. This can feel oddly superfluous when you are just staying there with your partner and you are not doing anything improper, but the ones I have encountered are actually rather nice and affordable, so it is best not to rule them out as a lodging option.
5. It is considered polite to slurp your noodles.
When I first visited Japan, I was shamefully unaware of its wonderful food culture. However, nothing could have prepared me for the first time I sat beside a man slurping his udon. Even if I tried to imitate him, I'm not sure I could reach that volume—he remains the loudest eater I've ever heard. This, I came to appreciate, is standard when eating a noodle dish in Japan. While you would get some serious glares and shakes of disapproval if you reached them decibels where I am from, in Japan, slurping is encouraged and is a sign that you are enjoying the meal.
6. People dispose of their trash at home.
Do you want to know the great contradiction of Japan? The streets are immaculate, yet there is a real shortage of rubbish bins. I've walked around with a piece of rubbish for hours before I found a bin to put it in. (I discovered later that convenience stores often have bins inside.) When I asked my Japanese friends about this, they said it's entirely normal for them to take their rubbish home and dispose of it there.
7. Social etiquette is very important.
Japan has many social customs, and keeping track of them all for a first-time visitor can be an ordeal in itself. Some etiquette is evident purely through observation, but others you are often oblivious to.
There were a number of things I picked up on after a few days: People don't tend to eat whilst walking, train seats should be given up to the elderly, chopsticks shouldn't be left standing vertically in a bowl and you should keep to one side of the elevator.
Other times, I unwittingly made a cultural faux pas. My earliest one was waltzing into a guesthouse with my shoes on. The shocked host quickly ushered me to a pair of guest slippers and a shoe rack. This also applies to a person's home and the occasional restaurant.
After walking around a city all day, it can be quite uncomfortable having to take your shoes off in a restaurant, especially if you are cursed with sweaty feet like me. I always hope for a recessed floor to stretch my legs out, as I am also prone to pins and needles when sitting cross-legged. When going to the toilet, there will be toilet slippers at the door, which you should hop into for the duration.
Sitting on a tatami floor, eating a delicious meal and drinking a cold beer feels quintessentially Japanese. I didn't experience this as a solo traveller on my first visit; It wasn't until I was with Japanese people that I felt I had an intimate and traditional dining experience.
8. Sometimes people are almost too polite.
People watching is a favourite pastime of mine. A situation I always see is one where a group of work colleagues is standing outside an izakaya. I see it as a waiting-out period, all in the name of proper etiquette. There is often persistent bowing and hesitant expressions all around. They look reluctant to make the first move to head home in case it's seen as impolite. After a lengthy stand-off, they finally go their separate ways. I often wonder who breaks first.
9. Contrasts and contradictions abound.
You see contrast and contradictions everywhere. Japan balances tradition and modernity as well as anyone. The Shinkansen rolling effortlessly through rural Japan encapsulates this perfectly. Kimono-clad women click-clack down the street past people sporting the latest fashion trends. You can stay at a ryokan or sleep in a capsule.
I see Japanese cities as organised chaos. Train stations can be teeming with people and the streets can be crowded, but it remains relatively quiet. There is always order, and things seem to remain on an even keel. Many things about Japan surprised me, but none more so than when I heard that it is quite normal to eat KFC for Christmas dinner.
10. Sleeping on the subway is quite normal.
We've all heard about the Japanese overworking and going above and beyond, so don't be startled when you have someone's head on your shoulder on the train. It is a common sight to behold: People's eyes are fighting a losing battle, their heads nodding uncontrollably and their feet twitching until they finally succumb to sleep.
What else should you expect?
There are vending machines at every turn, heated toilet seats, yakitori with beer, intimate ramen shops, wearing a yukata at the onsen, the kawaii culture and the unforgettable texture of nattō. This isn't an exhaustive list; where would the fun be in that? Visit Japan and see for yourself!