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15 Things That Surprised Me About Japan

Your first trip to Japan is always going to be a unique experience. Here's 15 things my friends noticed when they first came here.

By 5 min read 73

Two of my American friends from college visited me in Japan a few years ago. It was their first time visiting Japan and I wanted to write about their impressions of Japan. They were both really impressed with everything that they saw in Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nara and Okayama.

1. Japan has an extremely efficient transportation network.

Since we live in California and rely mainly on our cars to go anywhere, my friends were surprised to see such an advanced public transportation system. Trains that arrive and depart on time, clear and quiet rides, a electronic pass system the works on trains, buses, taxis, and even can be used to buy things at the convenience store.

2. Sophisticated customer service

Japanese business treats their customers as God. My friends were very surprised with how polite the cashier at the convenient store was. We went to many different restaurants, and service was good, the food came out quickly and they were happy they didn’t have to tip the waitress! They were pretty impressed with Japan’s efficient customer service in almost every business.

3. “Kawaii”

I wrote about this in my previous article but modern Japan is overloaded with cuteness. My friends also love hello kitty and sanrio so they were delighted to see all these girly shops. We bought lots of cute notebooks, pens, and other Japanese “omiyage” to take back to our family in the US.

4. Streets in Japan are so narrow.

My American friends (and myself) were worried because the street was so narrow that we thought that we were going to hit the oncoming car. In America, we have a luxury of driving 3 or 4 lanes on each side of the road so it was a huge cultural shock for them.

5. Everything is expensive.

As broke college students it was a little hard for us to eat out all three meals a day so we tried to just get a few snacks once a day to cut down the costs. But even a small cup of coffee in Tokyo can cost over ¥550! It was all too easy to spend ¥1000 notes like dollars bills.

6. Japan is very green

My friends arrived at Narita International Airport and on our way from the airport to the hotel, they were impressed with all these mountains and greenery they saw. I guess that they didn’t know that there is a lot of nature still left in Japan. They thought it was so beautiful but they seem a little overwhelmed with the contrast between the suburb and the crowded Tokyo.

7. Japanese people are sleeping on the train

I didn’t really pay attention to this but my friends noticed that a lot of people were sleeping on the train. Even the ones standing up! Japanese people seem to have an amazing ability to sleep on the train and yet wake up at their exact stop.

8. Earthquakes and Typhoons

Unfortunately earthquakes and typhoons are part of life in Japan and foreign tourists often experience both. We were eating at a restaurant and suddenly we felt it start to shake. My friends dove under the table even though all the Japanese people around us didn’t even react to the mini earthquake.

9. Japanese children were waving to my American friends

They thought that Japanese children are the cutest thing because when we were walking to Kinkakuji in Kyoto, a group of Japanese elementary school students started to wave at us..of course they were waiving hands at my American friends but anyways, Japanese people generally like “Gaikokujin.”

10. Japanese people slurp noodles

We went to traditional ramen restaurant because I wanted my friends to know that Japan has much better ramen than the instant cup noodles sold in America! We were all excited and got seated when they heard this older Japanese man really enjoying his ramen. He was shamelessly slurping the noodles and so I had to explain that in Japan slurping your noodles is a show of how good it tastes.

11. Japanese people are so skinny

One of my friend is from the Midwest and at that time she was overweight and both of them realized how petite average Japanese people are. They were disappointed that they weren’t able to do much clothes shopping and that a XL here is medium in America!

12. Karaoke

I took my friends to Karaoke because we’ve never been to Karaoke in America. They were really impressed with the equipment, food service and we actually ended up going back there one more time before leaving Japan.

13. Young children taking the train by themselves.

It was a little shock for my friends. Even though American culture preaches the importance of being independent, parents are usually very protective of their children. Japan is a relatively safe country so parents feel safe about letting their children be alone, but in America someone would call child protective service if they saw a child taking the subway by themselves.

14. Japanese people trying to practice English

One of my friend used to study Japanese so she was able to order food in Japanese but everywhere she went, when she tried to start the conversation in Japanese, she would always get a response in English. My friend was a little stressed about this until I explain that Japanese people generally don’t have many opportunities to practice speaking English. So when they talk to a foreigner they usually will try to practice their English.

15. Store clerk’s “irasshaimase” creeped them out

Especially women clerks at the restaurants or the stores we went to said “irasshaimase” in very high pitched tone so my girlfriends were like “What the..” They were asking me why these women would say that in such a high pitched inhumane sound over and over..I told them..remember? The customer is God for business.

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  • ✨マシュマロキャシー✨ says:

    “Japanese like gaikokujin!” hhhhh oookay yeah if you’re the typical white blonde foreigner they’re like “oooh nice!” But if you don’t meet their stereotypical good-gaijin type then you won’t always get friendly waves. You’ll get glares, and jeers, and obaa-sans hiding their purses from you. ESPECIALLY if you have tattoos.

  • Sheela Grant says:

    If the service is so great, why be glad that you don’t have to tip the waitress? I can’t stand it when someone wants excellent service then they don’t want to tip the waiter. They want service for free which = slavery. It’s crazy because these same people will do nothing for anyone for free. Otherwise it’s an interesting article. I’d like to learn Japanese & go there one day.

    • RoseTech says:

      The service is not free, but built into pricing, and in turn, their pay (which is actually a better, more stable system for waiters and waitresses). Tipping is very uncommon in Japan, unless it’s in some sort of properly-wrapped gift.

    • Bougainvillia says:

      Japanese people don’t tip for services because they find it’s a little bit insulting.

  • Marco says:

    Eyyy very interesting post! I have one question! I’m looking for some info about a usb wifi pen for rent if you want internet during the holidays in Japan (I’m not sure but I see something on internet but now I can’t find info). Do you know something about this?
    Thank you so much in advance!

  • Kazuki Uchino says:

    Hi, I am a Japanese. as for 5: Everything is expensive, it’s not necessarily true,because maybe the writer only stayed in Tokyo where many things are expensive. In local areas, the general price is less expensive,and I even found it cheaper than things in Europe or North America.
    14: Japanese people are trying to practice English is also wrong, because most people cannot even speak in English. Maybe in Tokyo there could be more people who are energetic about English, but definitely not all of us.
    Whereas 15:irasshaimase thingy is very understandable, because after my stay in canada for 9 months, I felt the same way, and one of my friends who’s been abroad almost for a year said the same thing. But yes, that’s the way the customer expects and appreciates, so they inevitably have to say irasshaimase with ‘beautiful’ voice. I don’t think many of them like to say it though. Agh.. . ‘hospitality’…

  • Ayako Nguyen says:

    Really nice article.

    Thank you for sharing so many things about Japan. I haven’t been there before but I am planning to get there soon. Keep your great work, Ms.

  • Vasim Vebster says:

    I really want to Visit Japan and experience all the things you’ve quoted so nicely. 🙂

  • nawic says:

    Funny how expereriences can be different.
    Japan expensive? Fast food is so cheap, so are the restaurants, gas, cigarettes, etc.
    I see my collegues duck under the desk or panicking when they feel an earthquake and I just think it ‘s part of every day life. They look more affected than they want to show.
    Japanese are skinny… compared to Americans 😉 But they certainly are short! I feel like an average woman here but when I go back to Europe I feel like every one is a giant.
    Japanese people are afraid to talk English. They only answer in English (when they do answer) because they think Japanese is much too difficult for foreigners

  • Patrick Mitchell says:

    One thing I cannot get over is the noisy eating and slurping. It drives me absolutely insane, I actually think although its a sign showing you enjoyment, its still kinda rude.

  • Ami No says:

    I would say that sophisticated, polite customer service will jump out at most Americans as a striking difference between cultures. Service at a some convenience stores is similar to a high-end department store in the US, there’s just no comparison.

    Several differences missed on this list:

    1. How well dressed people are, particularly in Tokyo. Impeccable.
    2. Cleanliness, of the people, streets, bathrooms, even taxis
    3. Modernity / technology juxtaposed with history and tradition

  • Laura Dex ☆ says:

    Japanese kindness !!
    I made a video about it if you’re interested (^^)

  • James says:

    What myth? Public transport in Tokyo will get you anywhere you need to go, on time, frequently and at off peak hours, comfortably. Not to mention, it’s saturated as you quite correctly say and thus always easily at hand. I consider that highly efficient. 15 miles in 15 minutes in California? Yeah, maybe if you live in Fresno… Certainly not in LA. And DEFINITELY not on the American public transpo system.

    Too much Japan-bashing on this thread. If you don’t like it, go home.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      oh my god..in LA, 2 miles..was 45 minutes for me..it took 45 minutes taking a bus from my apartment to university. I lived literally within 2-3 miles.

      • Brandon A English says:

        Don’t let it bother you. He quotes “15 miles in 15 minutes” but that’s 60 mph–a speed only attained by having light traffic on a highway setting with no lights. It cannot be compared to a place like Tokyo. It would be like comparing a handful of fish in a pond to a fish farm.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      it is true though..it’s expensive. 🙁 that’s the only thing about Japan..it is VERY expensive and we go broke by taking public transportation..here it is convenient that I can drive everywhere but anyways it’s how we see things.

    • Ted says:

      I live in Hong Kong now. By far the city I’ve lived in with the best transportation. Phenomenal. I’m not Japan bashing, the 6 years I lived there, it was by far the most inconvenient part of what otherwise is an awesome city(to which I will return shortly). It’s not all or nothing dude.

      Yes, barring strong wind, strong rain, and ‘accidents’, the trains are indeed on time.
      But I think efficiency in transportation can be described as a function of:

      distance to destination
      time, cost, or ease

      for me, buses were too slow and expensive, taxis, well, I once spent 20k in a taxi once, and changing trains and subways in the heat of summer does not appeal to me when I’m only going 20 miles away.

      Nakano –> Shibakoen ~40min
      LA Museum of Art to Downtown(same distance traveled as above) ~20min
      *according to Google

      LA traffic is bad, but Tokyo public transit can be less than enjoyable too.

      When possible ride a motorcycle in Tokyo, best way to get around by most measures.

      • Brandon A English says:

        Hong Kong is much to expensive, in not only transportation but in living costs overall. You failed to mention these things. I think that the transportation is okay, but even if you use the subway, you are paying through the nose. I’ve been working in Guangzhou for the past 1.5 years and I can say honestly that it’s by far better than Hong Kong, in every way: price, speed/efficiency, ease of use, even English (my Chinese sucks). A kid can navigate this subway, and not only that, every station has glass dividers so that people can fall onto the track. Overall, it is the best subway I have ever seen, with most stops costing 1.5 to 3 yuan. Only when you go much further do you incur a larger charge, but I believe I have never paid more than 5 yuan. In Hong Kong, when I get charged with my Octopus card, I am always amazed at how high the price is. There is seriously no comparison between the two. As for Tokyo, it is a bit more difficult to navigate that Hong Kong, that’s for sure, but I view the difference in price as minor.

      • Yumitolesson says:

        another thing is the geography of Japan..Tokyo is nothing like LA.

      • Yumitolesson says:

        That’s great that you live in Hong Kong! I have also heard about their amazing transportation system..”accidents”..I do remember the train stopped frequently in Tokyo because some passenger was blocking..I don’t know. Transportation system is advanced but I do like driving everywhere..

  • Brandon A English says:

    My favorite moment in Japan was during my stay in Tokyo when I was waiting to cross the street in order to get some wifi and figure out where the heck I was! As I was standing there with the traffic passing by, I noticed the muffled sounds of some girls yelling. Slowly, I began to look around and tried to figure out what the heck was going on. Then, as I looked back over my shoulder, I saw about ten girls inside of a building behind us, standing by a second-floor window, jumping and waving at me. When I made eye contact with them, they screamed and went crazy. It was hilarious and like nothing I’ve experienced anywhere. Good ‘ol Japan.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      really?! maybe they thought you were Bratt Pitt? 🙂 I went to Kyoto with my American friend who has blond hair. Elementary school children were visiting..and they were waiving their hands..they were so cute 🙂

      • Brandon A English says:

        lol. Maybe. My Japanese friend Maya says that I resemble Jason Statham. Perhaps they thought so, too! rofl

  • Joshua Lundquist says:

    Yeah Tokyo is cheap in a lot of ways, actually! The rent in Tokyo is comparable to downtown Minneapolis, a relatively small city in the Midwest of the U.S. and if you don’t mind a small place, you could get by here paying 700 USD a month.

    And you can expect to pay over ten USD for a meal at most restaurants in any city in the states, and yet in Tokyo you can find a cheap healthy meal for around ¥400-¥500 (ever heard of Fuji Soba?)

    I think the impression that Tokyo is expensive is based on being a tourist bringing your standards to a city that isn’t like the ones you’re used to.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      yes that’s the tourist impression since these come from my American friend whom I traveled to Japan. It was her first time and I don’t know but I think it is expensive to live in Japan, especially Tokyo, transportation..sure you can find a clean small studio apartment for $700 a month but it’s so tiny. I don’t know if I can live in such a small space anymore

  • Terrance Winckler says:

    wanna visit japan so bad

  • Yuki Taira says:

    although it’s a bit difficult to agree with the author’s perspective that some people have already pointed out, but it cannot be generalised as well! At least I can say, Japan’s really unique and a very interesting country to visit.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      Actually this isn’t my personal perspective but I went home with my American friend and she pointed some of them out to me. And I’ve lived in California for many years and these things we take for granted living in Japan..we just don’t have that here. 🙂

  • nijimasu says:

    Noodle slurping = cooling (better flavor) and eager eating enjoyment. Besides, it’s just how it’s done.

  • Ted says:

    In California, 15 miles takes me 15 min to cover. Tokyo it takes two or three times longer, and is more expensive. Please stop perpetuating the myth that Tokyo’s transportation is efficient. It’s not, its just saturated. By the same logic, Japanese bureaucracy is efficient to because because there is a form and procedure for everything.

    • Brandon A English says:

      Ted, you cannot compare a specific, dense location such as Tokyo–along with its public transportation–to your undisclosed location with 60 mph traveling velocity in an unknown vehicle located in a far-from-dense area. Come on, man. I take it you’ve never even been there.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      it is not myth..Japan has probably the most efficient transportation in the world. I live in Southern California and have to drive everywhere..it is impossible without owning a car but in Tokyo, you can go anywhere by train. Lots of walking but definitely much more advanced than here.

  • JA_JP says:

    You forgot the apartments with no central heat/air and have to have a portable heater to heat up one room. Also there’s no installation in the walls so apartments are much colder than they need to be.

    #14 was always annoying until I started speaking only Japanese and they spoke whatever they wanted to. Seem liked everyone wanted to be self centered so I joined right in and only thought of my needs to speak Japanese.

    Using the auld lang syne music as the “get out now” music during the last 10 minutes a store was open. Once New Year’s came around the music was no longer a joy to hear.

    Japan expensive? hahahahaha! I hear that same damn excuse in the states and between different cities!! Where I currently live is considered a cheap place to live but to me it’s expensive since I need a car and haven’t been able to find a full time, long term job. Compare New York City to Tokyo and you’ll see a give and take on prices depending on item.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      New York City..that is a very expensive place to live. It is my dream to live in Manhattan but it is even more expensive to rent a studio apartment there..more expensive than Tokyo? Auld Lang Syne music..that is really funny..I recently went to Mitsuwa..Japanese grocery store in California and they were playing that music.

    • Jamming James says:

      I also find number 14 to be irrating as someone who lives in Japan and is studying Japanese. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that they might not get a lot of chance to practice English with native speakers, but at the same time because so many Japanese people only speak basic English and not much more, it sets the tone for the rest of the interaction, which soon falls apart when I ask something that’s even slightly more complex than a simple yes/no question. I have started doing what you do too, where I let them speak English and I respond in Japanese. We both get to practice speaking in another language, so it’s win-win. The only time I really get annoyed though is when it’s clear they have a very low understanding of English and their insistence on using English causes me problems, like getting directions or if it’s time sensitive like if I need to catch a train.

      This is very anecdotal, but I know a few Europeans who have a much better grasp of Japanese than English, and it always annoys them when someone responds to their Japanese with English because they give no indication that they speak any English at all, so they can can either just continue speaking Japanese, or try and speak far worse English.

      The reason i find it strange isn’t because It’s like bumping into a Asian person in another country and responding to their English by speaking Japanese, I mean, they are Asian so they must speak Japanese, right?

      If I am in a situation where I would rather just stick to us both using Japanese, the best way I usually get out of them speaking to me in English is to respond to their English, if they use it, with “parlez-vous français?”, which usually confuses them, so you can follow up by telling them in Japanese that you don’t speak English, so you can continue in Japanese. It works like a charm, unless they say “Oui, je sais parler français” in which case just throw some confetti at them and run away in the mayhem.

  • disqus_to24Cc3igy says:

    USA (my home country) creeps me out more than Japan. Thats why many Americans live here

  • disqus_to24Cc3igy says:

    Everything is expensive? Nope they are the same as USA prices. Compare, dont go by rumor.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      sure. but I think food is more expensive in Japan and Japanese products (for instance, cosmetics) are much more expensive..especially imported goods such as Loreal etc.

    • Jake Brunton says:

      The conversion rate of USD -> YEN and vice versa usually changes often, and by a few cents. Looking at some of the prices of meals and such at fast food restaurants and inner-city apartments, Japan seems very similar to cost in the US for most things. Last I checked though, I believe yen had conversion rates of about 1 to 2 cents lower, which really doesn’t make a difference.

      So, all in all I assume the prices of things in Tokyo would be comparable to the prices of things in New York, Las Vegas, etc.

    • James says:

      Agree! Lunch in Tokyo is WAY cheaper than it is in Los Angeles. And way better too! And that’s just the start. If you’re finding Japan expensive, you’re an idiot and are not shopping smartly.

    • Elijah says:

      Yeah I agree. I travel to Japan quite often and I don’t notice any difference in prices. Unless you’re a cheap person and spend less than the average person does, there’s no difference in prices, really.

    • Miho Asada says:

      Yeah, from my experience the prices aren’t too different. I think it’s just that 1,000 sounds like a lit but it’s really the equivalent of $10.

  • QUIQUIQ says:

    “I explain that it makes the noodle tastier if you slurp your noodle so we followed how the man was eating and it was a lot of fun.” that’s wrong, It means when you slurp your food it means youre enjoying it.. it means you like the food.. it’s a table manner..

    Irasshaimase means Welcome so thats self explanatory

    • Joshua Krill says:

      Ironic that you are telling a native Japanese that they are wrong about their own culture. Yes, in the West, when we learn about the custom of slurping, we learn that it is polite to slurp, but this does not make Yumi’s explanation incorrect.

      Also, her friends were creeped out by the high-pitched voices that women tend to say “Irasshaimase” with so your simple explanation of the meaning of the word is insufficient here while Yumi’s serves to provide some clarification. Before you try to correct a native on their own culture, you may want to check your own explanations. Simply giving the meaning of “Irasshaimase” was definitely not self-explanatory in terms of the use of a higher pitch when saying it.

      • QUIQUIQ says:

        If someone who is a westerner or someone who is not from asia read that he/she will understand it wrong… The blogger/author should’ve just explained it why they do that
        and I didn’t know he/she is a “native” japanese. I thought he/she is a gaijin because of the title of the article/blog.

      • Yumitolesson says:

        Thank you Joshua ^_~ I like hearing “irasshaimase..” but my friend was just surprised..she knew what that meant but that high pitched sound..she was asking if these women practiced..

  • IndiePundit says:

    The can easily get cheaper coffee in Japan everywhere. from the vending machines. Canned coffee is usually less than ¥150.

  • Hon Mac says:

    I cannot say that all Japanese are skinny.. I suppose it depends on diet and exercise… just as it would be in the US. People in Tokyo are usually skinny because they have to walk everywhere… other cities in Japan are different. Thankfully, McDonald’s is becoming less popular in Japan… and hopefully this will help those that have gotten fat because of it, lose weight…

    • Yumitolesson says:

      hum..I don’t know but since I live in the U.S., my perception of obesity has changed drastically and people are skinnier here in California but if you go to midwest or even east coast, you rarely see people that fat in Japan.

    • Jamming James says:

      You’re right. It really differs from person to person, but at the same time I think if you were to randomly bump into 100 people in Japan you’d meet far more skinny people than you would if you did the same thing in the US, UK our Australia. I think part of it is to do with so many people skipping meals because of the amount of work they have to do here. There’s even a very large sub-section of foods here dedicated to people who want to eat some but have to skip real meals.

      I really envy how some Japanese people can eat rice for every meal and still stay in shape. If I ate that many carbs a day I wouldn’t be able to fit into my trousers.

      However, I also think that even though there are far less fat people here, there are also a lot less muscular people in general here too.

    • James says:

      Two words: portion control. Food served in Japan is a generally of reasonable portion size, not three times what a normal person needs as in the gluttonous US. Result? People eat less in Japan (but still enough!) and thus there are way fewer fat people.

      • Yumitolesson says:

        Yes I don’t understand WHY they serve so much food in America!! Even doctors say “Do not eat the food they serve at restaurants. If you have to eat out, make sure to eat 1/3 or even 1/2 and take 1/2 to go.” 🙁

  • Nicaea says:

    Underskirts :3

  • basspig says:

    quite a different situation from what happened in Port Saint Lucie Florida. A mother was arrested and charged with felony child neglect because her 7-year-old boy walk to less than half a mile to the local park.this kind of ridiculous legal action is one of the reasons why I want to get out of America and move to Japan.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      Well, it is not safe to let a child walk half a mile in America..even in Japan. I wouldn’t let my child do that..EVER. Unfortunately there are a lot of bad people out there and even in Japan, so many kids are kidnapped yet parents let them go wherever unsupervised.

      • basspig says:

        Japan is demonstrably safer than most American towns, much less our cities. My wife and I would NEVER let our daughter walk alone to the bus stop (she’s 10),even though we live in a small rural town. You just never know when you’re that one in ten million with unfortunate luck. But in Japan, even big cities are relatively safe, based on what my friends living there tell me of their experiences. Even if you leave a valuable at a bus stop, someone will return it to you. That doesn’t happen here.
        In America, we have all sorts of foreigners who remain ‘foreign’ in that they refuse to join America and live separately and often as they did in the filthy 3rd world country they came from. Much of our crime comes from these disparate social non integrates, quite the opposite of Japan. I admire Japan for it’s monocultural purity, which creates a harmonious environment for kids to grow up in. It is also a country whose people create things of great beauty. Japan’s pop culture is wonderful and contrasts enormously with the pop culture of the US.

  • Exiled_Gundam says:

    You can avoid #5 if you eat local food instead (coffee is expensive in Japan) and not eating in big restaurant. When I went there last time, 550yen could get me a large serving of tempura-don with free flow of ocha

    • Yumitolesson says:

      Yes definitely..we can have nice food in Japan and normal portion size and tastier. 🙂

  • KosmoKarrot says:

    Haha, yes, the way they say number 15 is so odd, it’s almost as if they are are being sarcastic.

  • Bill Lewis says:

    Respond with “Irasshaimashita.”

  • Anthony Arula says:

    I went to Osaka, Japan last year to study abroad. Contrary to #14, most of the time the people spoke to me in Japanese, despite my all-European appearance. It was an excellent opportunity for me to practice Japanese.

    • Yumitolesson says:

      That is excellent! I actually saw my American friend trying to talk to this waitress in Kyoto..she badly wanted to practice English and my friend really wanted to practice her Japanese..so it was SOOOOO funny!

    • Ted says:

      Agreed. Great opportunity to learn Japanese as so little of anything else is spoken there.



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