5 Things in Japan I’ll Never Get Used To

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During my first few weeks in Japan, I went to the convenience store looking for some familiar food — to aid the homesickness a little. Finding something familiar, I bit into some bread, only to be assaulted by an unexpected sugary, creamy concoction — one that Willy Wonka would consider a health hazard.

I love Japan. From the people to the mochi filled with marshmallows and chocolates, it’s an amazing place to be. But there are some things that — even though they are far different than back home in the U.K.— I’ve come to readily accept. While others — like the sugary, cream filling-stuffed bread — that are still hard to get used to.

My first day in Japan, I walked into a store and was unaware of the greeting I’m sure you’ve all heard. I admit that my instant reaction to the loud chorus of “Irasshaimase!” was to say, “Sorry, I don’t speak Japanese.” The staff all looked at me with a rather perplexed gaze, and we all agreed to never speak of it again. Now, I embrace it — imagining it as a royal announcement.

Although there are many aspects of Japanese culture that have been easy to get used to, there are others that I don’t think I’ll ever understand. I’m sure every foreigner forging a life here has a similar list. From how certain foods are consumed, to the way people sneeze — there are certain quirky characteristics of Japan that still perplex me to this day.

1. Noodle time

Once I entered into the adult world — and I was able to cook for myself — I learned two very important things about food: to always chew with your mouth closed and that Brussels sprouts are evil and should be purged with fire.

So, for me, eating was a quiet experience. Proclaiming my enjoyment for my food — by loudly exclaiming it to other patrons — was limited to a few muted nods and maybe a slightly passive-aggressive review on Google Maps. However, when I came to Japan, I was told it’s quite the opposite… in fact, it’s encouraged. When eating ramen, for example, you’re supposed to slurp while you eat. I heard that it shows your compliments to the chef and your enjoyment of the food.

Or maybe it’s to make them taste better by sucking in cooler air in with the piping hot noodles and broth. Mixing in the air helps keep you from scalding your tongue while creating a melange of tastes. Or keeping the straggling ends of the noodles  (if it’s done properly) from creating that “whiplash” effect and spraying soup all over your shirt and tie — a talent many of us foreigners have yet to grasp. I still don’t get it and wonder why not just get a bib and let the bowl cool.

2. Forms, Forms, Forms

You know what I love? Stamping my name for the 55th time that day, and filling out the 98th form. Japan is the land where bureaucrats come to retire.

For the most mundane things, I have to prepare both my mind and my hand, for the incoming paper mountain. Then again, maybe I am just missing out on the fun of it all. The crisp crease of the paper, and fresh ink of my inkan (personal seal) as it’s pressed to the page. Yet another skill that seems easy enough yet has its own way, like many things here.

I really wonder if Japanese people have super steady hands because of how intentional one has to be when stamping your name for your whole life.

3. What is a ‘tall nose’ anyway?

Have you ever heard someone tell you, “Oh, your nose is so tall,” and got super offended? It kind of sounds like an odd thing to comment on, but foreigners will hear a lot of comments that actually end up being compliments, despite how awkward or misplaced it feels at the time.

It’s just a way for many Japanese to make conversation. But, it’s never something you’ll really get used to, either. At times, having people comment on your looks is a bit like self-esteem roulette. I’ve been told my eyes are blue (a fact I was 54 percent aware of) and that a child would like me to give him my eyes after he informed me that he knew where I lived. I was also recently informed that the bridge of my nose is like a river bank.

While I don’t fully understand any of it, the best way to power through the awkwardness is to just come to accept it.

4. Those heady beers

In the West, it’s an unspoken and generally agreed upon rule that you do anything and everything to get as little “head” (You know, the foamy stuff) on your beer as possible.

Yet, in Japan, it seems to be the exact opposite. Sometimes the white foam is added on top just to make it look pretty. I get it, it looks nice, Japan, but it’s just uncomfortable to work through a few inches of white bubbly pain, even if it does provide me ample opportunity to have a mustache.

While most Westerners might agree with what I’m getting at, it must be shocking to see the beers so starkly naked when Japanese people head overseas.

5. The lack of nose blowing

Sniffing your nose is a necessity. We all do it. Especially during the hay fever months…and the winter months…and the summer months…and the dusty months…

In the U.K., standard procedure — as dictated by the Queen — is to go out of the room and blow your nose, or, if you can’t, quietly sniff while being silently judged by everyone in the room. However, in Japan, it seems to be the opposite. Even thinking of blowing your nose into a tissue gets you 10 slaps on the wrist, and a morning ticket out of the country. Instead, many choose to loudly sniff, as to use a tissue is, in most situations, considered rude. Or, maybe, I just got entered a nose-sniffing contest I haven’t been made aware of, yet? Can anyone relate?

What surprising cultural elements have you become used to while living in Japan? Let us know in the comments below! 😇

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British teacher, Japan explorer and writer. I will exchange witty jokes for Marmite.
  • Aisma says:

    I see most comments here are about beer. XD
    Well, I don’t really care about the foamy part, good with, good without, as long as the beer itself is good!!!!

  • T Greenwood says:

    You’re sooooo FAT. Not sure if that’s supposed to be a compliment. Once at a business meeting, we had a Japanese man whose belly was bulging over his belt, and the person running the meeting asked me if I needed a bigger chair because, you know, you’re so fat. In the US, people call me skinny. I’m average weight.
    I don’t buy shirts in Japan because they don’t fit my shoulders. Japanese men are very slender in the shoulders. Salespeople try to explain the size difference with, “We don’t have shirts for somebody as FAT as you.”
    So while I’m not a fan of the American obsession with micro-aggression and safe spaces, I’m even less of a fan of the Japanese refusal to realize that they are incredibly inappropriate at times.

  • The glasses are filled correctly and you are supposed to drink the beer through the foam. Maybe no one told people in the UK how to appreciate beer.

  • Marc says:

    When you talk about the head in the beer in the west means UK? Because in Spain the beer has to be with it if you want happy customers.

  • Jan Burgel says:

    The article seems to have been written by someone who left home for the first time in his life. If one takes the decision to go to and live in a foreign country one should be prepared for many things to be different and accept them. They will widen the horizon. Telling yourself you’ll never understand certain aspects of life in – in this case Japan – means you lack the will to make the effort and you will always be seen as an outsider.

  • Ralf Temme says:

    Should you ever get a chance to travel to Germany, you’d be surprised at the many “heady” beers, because that’s what is supposed to make a good Pilsner – a foamy head.

  • D Hunter Sanchez says:

    Yeah. Friggin hate that.

  • Modern Luddite says:

    I would add Pachinko to the list. Don’t see the attraction at all, and it’s made worse by the jet engine like sounds roaring in your ears. In most other parts of the world noise like that would drive customers away.

  • kragthang says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 1, 2 and 5 also bothered me a lot (especially 5!!!). As for 4, while I’m not into beer myself I think a lot of my fellow Germans might disagree with you on that. The foam is supposed to tell you something about the quality of the beer.

  • Aldonna says:

    Actually, beer head is not something Japanese per se. We normally have about two fingers thick head in our beer in Poland (as popularized with one of the ads some while ago), and I read that good beer should have a ‘natural head’ (e.g. here: https://everythingontap.com/2014/04/08/beer-head/ or here: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2014/03/17/how-to-properly-pour-beer/). It traps the aroma and—provided it’s adequate to the type of beer you’re having—it serves as proof of the quality of the beer and… cleaniness of the glass ;).

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