In this article, you will read about the 31 unusual and surprising things about Japan.
If you have not been there and would like to know, please keep reading.
Reading time: 39 minutes (130 wpm).
This is one the article from the Unusual and surprising things series.
1. Strict routine entering the country
After you landed and on the way to go through immigration, you need to scan yourself.
Japan is very strict in letting people in.
They need to know more about who you are.
Only a passport does not suffice.
The also take fingerprints of both your hands’ fingers.
And a photograph of you without wearing glasses and no cap or hat.
They really can trace you down if necessary with all this information.
2. Sophisticated toilets
You might wonder, how come there are advertisements for toilet seats?
No country in the world would show these at an airport.
There are plenty of other products to sell which is worth showing in an airport.
Well, Japan has the most sophisticated toilets in the world.
There are many buttons connected to the toilet.
Some play sound or music so that you and/or others will not hear you do your business.
Some wash your bottom, variations of the position for washing controlled by different buttons.
Some of them have seat heating.
This is very nice for in the winter 🙂
These advanced toilets already come in houses nowadays.
There are “simple” toilets, which can be found for instance in some public spaces.
3. Plenty of clean toilets everywhere
What I really appreciate and surprised me is to not worry about going to the toilet in Japan.
Usually, when we are outside and need a toilet, we need to think about where to go.
In Japan, toilets are very easy to find.
Think of train- and subway stations, but also in the parks.
An example is Yoyogi-Koen park, with multiple toilet building blocks, spread over the park.
This is the only country I know, I don’t have to worry to find a toilet in a cafeteria or so.
The bonus is: the toilets are free and they are clean!
4. Super tidy on the streets
What I enjoyed a lot and is quite unusual is to see are clean streets.
There is no rubbish on the ground.
No empty cups, plastic, paper, chewing gum, whatsoever.
This is amazing for a busy city with 126.8 million people to have it this clean.
This attitude of keeping the environment clean is carried out abroad.
During the World Cup matches, Japanese fans cleaned up the stadium.
Is this not amazing?
5. No trash bins outside
Ironically, there are no trash bins outside to put trash you hold in your hands.
You can use trash bins in convenient stores like 7-Eleven and in the stations.
What people do is keep their trash with them in their bags.
And throw it away once they are home or somewhere where there are trash bins.
In The Netherlands, you will see large containers on the streets.
People use these to put the big trash bags used in the bins in their homes.
These containers are nowhere to be found in Japan.
This is really surprising.
You put the big trash bags under a big net cover on the street.
6. Public transportation (almost) always on time
It is the most precise, punctual country I have seen so far.
The trains in Japan are on time.
If they are not, which happens sometimes, they apologize relentlessly.
Even just for one minute delay.
This also means that when we arrived a bit later, we miss it and need to wait for the next one.
It forces us to not be late, in case we need to catch a certain train.
7. Very organized waiting in queues
What is very surprising to see is that queuing is also organized.
Waiting on the train is like waiting in line at the supermarket check-out.
There are signs drawn on the floor where to stand for getting in and getting out of the train.
With so many people, it is necessary to have some organization.
Especially with the requirement that the train leaves on time.
No time for messing around! 🙂
8. Products of good quality
Japanese products have superb quality.
Precision, punctuality, accuracy and high quality is in the Japanese culture.
You can see this also in the food industry.
When buying a pack of eggs, you can see that they have the same size.
Surprisingly very detailed and precise, isn’t it?
I went to the “OK” supermarket to buy cheap eggs.
“OK” supermarket is a budget supermarket.
The eggs there are cheaper because of the difference in their sizes.
In a pack, you will see some of them are a little bit bigger than the other.
For me and maybe many of you would not even be bothered about the sizes.
For the Japanese, this is very important.
Because of the good quality the Japanese products possess, also the cheaper things are good.
The 100 yen stores, the budget stores, in Japan, have surprisingly good quality, enduring products.
No wonder so many people visit the 100 yen stores!
9. Special and unusual products
Not only do the Japanese produce good quality products.
They also have lots of funny inventions.
There are many stores selling these things.
These special products you cannot easily find anywhere else in the world.
As a gift, I got this Frixion ball pen from my partner.
The great thing about it is that it is really a pen.
A random eraser cannot erase the ink of this pen.
However, at the end of the pen is a special eraser which erases the ink.
Only the ink from this pen is erasable.
This is so surprising for me, I did not know pen’s ink can be erased!
Another example is a sticker that removes the smell from the trash bin.
You put the sticker on top of the lid (on the inside of the trash bin).
And it will neutralize the smells from the trash for a certain period of time.
Is this not amazing?
10. Vending machines with food and drinks
The first thing you will notice is the vending machines everywhere.
You don’t need to walk long or in almost every two streets you can find a vending machine.
I was surprised why Japanese people love to drink unhealthy soda drinks.
Then I understand that it is not the usual vending machines we encounter in Europe.
Those are really in the category of junk food; with lots of sugar and are unhealthy.
I tried a few of these cans and bottles and was surprised how good they were.
Now I have an appreciation for the vending machines.
Vending machines are loaded with drinks that are relatively healthy.
They do have a coke and similar soda drinks like in Europe, but not a lot.
They are not very sweet too, I’m sure half or less sugary than those in Europe.
Also, they can contain pieces of fruit.
I bought a can of pear drink.
It was not very sweet and contained pieces of pear I can chew on it.
And you can also buy corn soup, tea, and coffee from the vending machine.
Some of them are even heated!
Is this not amazing?
Some vending machines you can also buy food.
Not limited to chocolate bars and potato chips, but sandwiches, seaweed crackers, etc.
And it is not boring, the products are renewed every week or two or so.
So you will have new selections to try out.
In the summer, it can be really, really hot and humid in Japan.
Feeling temperatures over 40 degrees is a possibility.
So having those vending machines, there is no reason to die from thirst. 🙂
11. Fast renewal of products in supermarkets
It was a surprise to know that my favorite chocolate Meltykiss Rum & Raisin was not available anymore.
The speed of renewing products in the supermarket is very quick.
At least half a year or more, this product was not produced anymore, until recently.
As of writing, I found the chocolate in the supermarket again.
I must be lucky. 🙂
Remind you, the prices of products everywhere are excluding tax.
Also, this was a surprise for me seeing it the first time.
On the price label are two prices, one is smaller displayed with a bigger value.
The smaller displayed price with a higher value is the price including tax.
So, if a product is 100 yen, you will see 108 yen underneath in a smaller size.
This is the price you will pay at the counter.
12. Ice water and ice tea
The first time I visited Japan was in the month of June.
It was so shocking to see them serving cold tea with ice blocks in it!
I’m used to drinking hot tea, as well as the people in the rest of Europe.
Cold water with ice blocks is more common in Europe however.
It is the default to have drinks served cold unless you say you want it warm.
And this all year round.
Also in the winter, they serve ice water and ice tea water.
I don’t know how Japanese people survive this, health-wise.
In Chinese medicine, cold harms the spleen.
This leads to fatigue, loose stools, low appetite, edema, sallow complexion, to name a few.
13. Master in sushi
Did you know to become a sushi master you need to have at least 10 years of training?
It does pay off.
I have eaten sushi in Japan and cannot compare sushi to any other country anymore.
You need to experience this yourself.
For this, I would recommend Katsumidori, a budget-friendly, and delicious sushi place.
I had been there already for three (or even more times) and I am still delightful to go again.
14. Living costs in Japan can be cheap
Not too high rent
Thinking about living in Japan or specifically Tokyo, the word “expensive” comes up a lot.
I don’t really agree with this.
When we look at the amount of space in Tokyo and the price paid for rent for that space, it is.
But then it is Tokyo, there are more people than space, not like The Netherlands.
Rent per month for 1 bedroom in the city center, it is actually cheaper in Tokyo than Rotterdam.
1.085.17 yen (998.79 USD, 899.65 EUR, 773.63 pounds) in Rotterdam per month.
1.046.96 yen (963.62 USD, 867.93 EUR, 750.46 pounds) in Tokyo per month.
Eating out cheaply
I was very surprised to know some good food places you can eat for 500-600 yen.
This is super cheap:
4.14 – 4.97 euros.
4.60 – 5.52 USD.
3.58 – 4.30 pounds.
And what you can get is a bowl of rice with fish or other meat and veggies.
After I eat it, I feel pretty full.
Since Japanese people are used to eating alone, they made the price affordable.
I heard that groceries are more expensive than going out and eat at those places.
100 yen stores
Last, but not least are the dollar stores, also called the 100 yen stores.
I was so surprised to see the variety of stuff you can buy there.
Not just the fancy, impractical kinds of stuff just for decoration.
Like the euro-budget stores sell in The Netherlands.
In the 100 yen stores, they really have good quality products for daily usage.
I have to say it is more a warehouse than just a store.
Except for missing the clothes.
They do sell some underwear and socks, but not really other clothes.
So, if you want, you can really live cheaply in Tokyo. 🙂
15. Not such a modern life (as you might think)
You might have heard about the advanced robotics developments in Japan.
It is true they are well far ahead than the rest of the world in this matter.
But if you come and live in Japan for a while, you might see other areas that are behind.
For instance, banking systems are not quite what you think.
If you like to do a payment, it is NOT done by online banking.
There are a few banks that adopt this option, but the majority of banks do not.
You will just use a paper cheque and go to a convenience store to pay.
Can you imagine this now in the 21st century and especially here in Japan?
This was very surprising for me to see.
16. Not so good in English
Compared to some other Asian countries, Japan is not so good in English.
I would say, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan can speak English.
The young generation barely speaks English in Japan.
I would have expected that they are the ones who can speak English and the older ones not.
Ironically, in my experience, this is the opposite.
The older generation over 60 can speak English pretty well.
I have met a few of those elderlies and they spoke English to me.
We had a conversation.
Not only did they understand me, but they were also able to talk in English to me.
If we look at the job market, heaps of English teachers are needed.
Not for no reason.
The Japanese government wants to improve people’s English.
It is hard, being on an island, and in Asia and not too connected with the English speaking world.
The motivation to learn English is thus not really strong.
17. Super polite and friendly
Japanese are very polite and friendly.
I am sure you will notice this the first thing after entering the country.
Be warned though, this friendliness and politeness are just on the surface.
How they really feel inside is a question mark for many.
They have learned to hide their feelings and show a happy attitude in public.
Let me give a personal example.
I took my bottle of water out and drank it inside a shop.
The lady working there smiles at me very friendly.
Once I saw her smiling, I smiled back and thought that she was friendly.
Then she started to talk, still the same smiling face.
Since her English was not clear and good, I thought she was complimenting me.
Then I came to know, she said do not drink here.
I was so puzzled and surprised, how the message does not match with the face.
I’d rather see a more serious face or at least not smiling for this message…
18. For foreigners is an “unfriendly” place to live
There are a few things which make it harder for foreigners to live in Japan.
Not so good in English
First, it is a Japanese speaking country.
If you don’t know Japanese, you might encounter some problems.
Do not expect them to speak English.
Even if they know a bit, they are reluctant to speak.
Of course, there are always exceptions, but the majority do not speak English.
Few international schools
Teachings in schools are conducted in Japanese.
There are not too many international schools either.
Although they are changing this, and more are opening in recent years.
For families with kids or couples starting to have kids, a lot move out of Japan.
They would rather move to Hong Kong, Singapore or Taiwan.
The conditions for education is better there.
Japan is really a country of favoring its own people.
If you are a foreigner, Japanese people will know this and make a distinction.
Not only foreigners have fewer benefits, but it might also cost them more money as well.
An example is the costs of moving house.
Since foreigners cannot speak Japanese, they will look for English speaking companies.
And they are run by Japanese who speaks some English.
They charge triple or even more for doing movement services for foreigners.
I heard that moving can be done around 50.000 yen (459 USD, 414 EUR, 358 pounds).
This also depends on how much stuff you have.
Companies who speak English charge around 300.000 yen (2758 USD, 2487 EUR, 2148 pounds).
19. A huge hierarchical system in place
It is based on age and position.
It is especially noticeable in the corporate world.
A CEO, a manager, and a team leader are “higher up” than other staff.
This is so different than the Netherlands, where everyone is of equal importance.
Note that it is not about how skillful you are to be at the top.
It is about how many years you have been working in a company to be in management.
During Japanese companies’ meetings, certain seats are only meant for leaders to sit in.
They are not marked, so you have to know your place.
When eating on a long table, the higher status people sit in the middle and can see the door.
That is the best place to have a good view of the room, and who is coming and going.
Outside the corporate world, in daily life, we also have hierarchy running.
Teachers, elderly people, senior students are higher ranked and therefore well-respected.
We can see this reflected in the language as well.
For example, when we see a teacher, we say Ohayo gozaimasu.
This is more polite than just saying Ohayo, that is a no-go.
The same applies to elderly people and people you don’t know.
To friends or people younger than you, you can just say Ohayo.
As you can see, age is of importance here.
People younger than you is immediately placed lower than you.
Two things create workaholics in Japan.
The first thing is very little paid holidays and the second is long working hours.
Few paid holidays
Japanese companies have only 10 paid holidays a year.
Even the 10 holidays a year, many keep working and do not take off…
Some companies now even turn off the lights to stop people from working.
Compared to The Netherlands with a minimum of 20 paid holidays a year, this is too few…
However, Japan has 16 national holidays a year.
Compared to The Netherlands, with nine days a year, this is a lot.
They are usually spread, so almost every month you can have a day or two off.
So, if you would like to have longer vacations of 2-3 weeks in a row, that would not be possible.
Unless you negotiate to take days off without being paid.
Long work hours
It is quite common to work for more than eight hours a day.
I knew a friend who worked for a Japanese company from 9 AM to 9 PM very regularly.
Twelve hours a day is quite shocking.
I think people are not necessarily productive by working long hours.
It is more to be present, being at the company “on duty”.
Like a standing guard.
You can see people are exhausted, sleeping on trains, in stations, etc.
Not only is this not healthy for the body, but it can also lead to death.
In Japanese they use the term “karoshi”, the literal translation is “overwork death”.
21. Getting in jail to enjoy free accommodation
I was super surprised to know that some of the Japanese pensioners get in jail.
They steal something small, like a notebook or pen, and they are put in jail.
With Japanese strict regime against theft and criminality, it is no wonder to get in the jail easily.
Japan is a very safe place to live in.
This also means that the pension arrangement is not good enough.
People are so poor, they can barely survive to pay the rent and the food.
This is quite sad…
22. The 5 PM bell
Every single day, at 5 PM, just before sunset, you will hear music from speakers.
The music comes from speakers that are around the city.
They broadcast the music to test the speakers for its functionality.
When a disaster occurs, they will use the same speakers to broadcast updates and instructions.
Also, it is a way to inform children to go home before it is dark.
As in Japan, all year round it gets dark after 5 PM.
The first time I heard it, I was rather surprised.
This concept is new for me, in the Netherlands we would only hear the bell of the churches.
23. Dogs are for high-class people
In Japan, dogs have the best karma, meaning they have a very pleasant life.
Talking about extremes:
Being a dog in Japan or a dog in China?
The latter becomes a meal…
The way the dogs are being treated in Japan reminds me of the dog in the movie Legally Blonde.
Some of the dogs are dressed up to match the owner’s clothes.
Some of them also wear sunglasses, can you imagine this? 🙂
And the dogs are sitting in buggies.
A lot of pugs can be found in buggies.
There are special shops to buy clothes for dogs, grooming places, etc.
This is a really big business here in Japan.
Even some restaurants have a dog’s meal.
No, this doesn’t mean we eat dogs for dinner.
It just means the owners are allowed to bring their dogs in.
The dogs can eat their dog’s meal, while you eat yours.
Of course, all these fancy things for the dogs and dog owners are not cheap.
Owning a dog in Japan is really expensive.
Puppies that are for sale in the shops in the city are terribly expensive.
100.000 yen or up is quite common (+/- 900 USD, +/- 7177 pounds +/-820 euros).
Japan is quite strict about importing dogs from outside.
If you think you want to buy a cheaper dog from Australia, you will wait for months.
Because after the dog arrives, it will be kept months for check-ups.
24. Animal cafe’s
The first time, I was very surprised to see so many animal cafes in Japan.
The origin of animal cafes comes from Taiwan.
In 1998 the first cat cafe was founded in Taiwan.
I thought this concept came from Japan since it is so popular in Japan.
In Asia, it is the country of Japan, which popularized animal cafes.
There are dog cafes, cat cafes, bird cafes, owl cafes, zoo animal cafes, pet zoo cafes, etc.
I had once been to the Dog heart cafe in Tokyo.
As we all know, Japan has small apartments.
It was in an apartment, and on the first floor, all the dogs were kept.
It was so small with so many dogs, kind of sad.
On the other hand, dogs are so expensive, that people will not buy one.
They would rather visit a dog cafe.
So the animal cafes keep existing…
25. Love hotels
Japan’s first Love hotel was founded in Osaka with the name Hotel Love.
Nowadays, you can find plenty of love hotels spread in Japan.
I did not know about this concept until I came to Japan.
A love hotel, as the name implies, is a hotel where you can rest and make love.
It is not necessarily cheap, a lot of them are quite expensive.
But then you get what is worth the price: sophisticated designed rooms with entertainment.
And most importantly: privacy!
The latter is valuable since Japanese homes are small.
And usually, the homes are shared with family or friends.
Having space and privacy is worth the money for some people.
The rooms in love hotels are big, usually bigger than the rooms in houses.
And the walls are greatly isolated.
Even entering a love hotel is discreet.
They have a system built that will not allow you to meet anyone else.
So every visitor is anonymous.
Entertainment depends on the room.
Some come with karaoke, a bath, rotating beds, unusual lighting, ceiling mirrors, etc.
26. Mario kart drivers on the streets
Another thing about Japan is the richness of quirky activities.
It is quite funny to see people dressed up and racing around in Mario karts.
And that just on the busy streets amongst cars.
It surely attracts the attention of tourists.
I was surprised that this is possible.
27. Sakura trees parties
Sakura trees (Japanese cherry blossom trees) are the source of parties.
Japanese love to sit beneath near the trees and enjoy time with friends and family.
They do hanami, which literally means flower (Hana) watching (mi).
Usually, these trees blossom between March and April in Tokyo.
In other parts of the country, these can be in May.
Some years they bloom earlier than other years.
However, they are the condition to hold sakura tree parties.
People gather together, held a picnic, play some games and enjoy spending time together.
Singing, laughing, playing music, all is very active, social and festive.
Yoyogi-Koen park is one of the places to go to see the sakura trees.
28. Rich in natural disasters
Japan is not boring in the sense of natural disasters.
Since climate change, it is noticeable way too hot and humid in the summer.
People get hospitalized or even died from the heat.
In 2020, the Olympic summer games will be a great challenge for many.
The players and the tourists need to make sure to dehydrate and not stay long in the burning sun.
The typhoons can be devastating too.
Fortunately, everybody knows when they will come.
As of writing, the last typhoon “Hagibis” was mentioned days before it actually happened.
People can and did prepare for it.
It was so surprising to see supermarkets with empty shelves.
Some smaller grocery stores even put a limit on how many people can enter.
This to give space to the employees to fill the empty racks.
According to the earthquake app Yurekuru call, every day is earthquakes in Japan.
Although most of them are of low intensity, we do notice the shakes.
Once we were picnicking in the park, we noticed the ground moving under our butts.
The experience is something very surreal, not being used to it.
Other times of earthquakes were when we were at home.
Then you feel like you are on a ship, moving forwards and backwards.
I experienced shakes of small duration from 1 second up to 4.5 to 5 seconds.
Even though it was just in seconds, it was experienced as “long” and memorable.
29. Advertisement trucks
In Japan, a lot of sounds and visuals are used in daily life.
1. Political parties with large microphones and speakers on their minibus to announce messages.
2. Vendors showing off their advertisements on a truck displayed with lights and music.
3. Also the police, fire department and ambulance drive by broadcasting messages.
This is so unusual for me.
I know from many countries, they just have sirene for their emergency services.
And that’s it.
Showing advertisements on the trucks and driving around for that purpose is something new.
I think it is a great strategy, it does attract a lot of attention.
Mainly the advertisements are about music, movies, anime, and concerts.
30. Japan’s city appearance is western-like
While walking around in the city, I had the impression to be in a western country.
If it was not for the Asian faces, I would really think it is just another western country.
The buildings are very western-like.
It is not like other Asian countries, like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.
Walking through Hong Kong or Taiwan really gives me oriental feelings.
In Japan, or at least in Tokyo, I don’t feel that at all.
Also not any Chinese herbal shops to be found.
The pharmacies sell all western medicine and of course Japanese brands.
Those are also not in any way related to Chinese medicine.
Even Thailand has a lot of Chinese herbal shops.
This was the disappointment that comes with my expectation that Japan is like the rest of Asia.
31. No big CNY celebration like in other Asian countries
As stated in point 30, Japan adopted the western style of living.
It was a disappointment for me (personally) to not see huge celebrations of Chinese New year.
I was expecting this, as being an Asian country.
Countries like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand are different.
In those countries live a lot of Chinese people, this is also true for Japan.
But in Japan, the Chinese New year is kind of ignored.
Whereas in Thailand for example, you get a day off on the first Chinese New year lunar day.
Chinese New Year is treated like any other national holiday there.
In Asian countries other than Japan, people do celebrate grandiosely.
It is very obvious for the eyes, everywhere are decorations and a festive atmosphere.
In Japan, I had been to Yokohama to see “the celebration”.
The biggest Chinatown in Japan is in Yokohama.
Instead of having it big and spread all over the streets, it was only a small square with a stage.
The stage was in a temporary set up container.
I was so surprised to see this small amount of celebration.
And it did not feel like a celebration at all.
The festive atmosphere was lacking.
Even non-Asian countries, like for instance the Netherlands have much bigger celebrations.
In The Netherlands, a few big cities will have fireworks, dragons- and lion dances on the streets.
And they will share free food, lucky red envelopes, and do other activities.
That is really a cultural festivity and enrichment.