9 Observations about Tokyo, Japan
For more than two hundred years between sixteenth and mid-eighteenth century Japan was a country closed to the outside world. No foreign person was allowed to enter the country which meant that in that time the Japanese had developed the culture and traditions unique to Japan only. As a result, every year this exotic destination attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world.
Our recent visit allowed us to spend some time observing these traditions. Below you will find descriptions of 9 interesting things we observed in Tokyo, Japan.
1. There is nowhere to sit in public spaces in Tokyo
People who can’t walk or stand for a long period of time keep this in mind before planning a trip to Tokyo. The city never sleeps and it seems the locals have no time to sit around either. We found it practically impossible to find a place to sit in Tokyo unless you go into a restaurant or use public transport (the latter does not guarantee you will get a seat though, especially during rush hours).
2. There are no bins in Tokyo for rubbish but the streets are always clean
A real mystery for those used to bins orderly placed on every corner of each street (basically the whole world). We never appreciated how important this is until we arrived in Tokyo. Our disposable cups of coffee travelled with us for great distances until we found where to get rid of them.
Metro and train stations normally have bins but that is pretty much it. Even when we stayed with couch surfers we noticed people do not have bins, they simply put their rubbish into spare plastic bags (for some weird reason usually hung on door handles).
3. Toilets in Japan are the most high-tech in the world (and water efficient!)
No you don’t need to spray your rear every time you use the loo in Japan although rest assured you will almost always have this opportunity. To be honest, the whole toilet experience in Japan seems to be a little more elaborate than the rest of the world but it is not as bad as you might think.
According to my research (desktop, not field) most advanced Japanese toilets will not only allow the user to wash his or her private parts, but will also have functions such as adjustable seat temperature, automated lid, an air dryer and/or deodorizer. Most advanced bowls might even have blood sugar, blood pressure or body fat measuring capabilities.
The coolest thing though is the tap above the water tank which can be used to wash hands. It is such a great way to save water – all the toilets should have that.
4. Train stations must be the most confusing and complicated in the world
I consider myself an experienced train and metro user, however, Tokyo was more challenging than expected. A number of times we left train stations and had to re-enter, ended up in the wrong platform and missed booked trains. Luckily for us, Japan (JR) Rail pass allowed us to enter and leave train stations for an unlimited amount of times without penalties so most of our mistakes did not cost us anything.
One of the reasons train stations in Tokyo are so confusing is because underground and JR lines require different tickets which means stations are subdivided into zones. Sometimes you think you are entering another zone of the station where actually you exit the station. Patchy signage does not help either.
Also, sometimes there are different trains departing to the same destination at the same time which for a rookie makes it nearly impossible to know which one you should be taking. We missed our shinkansen train once because we waited at the wrong platform although the destination and departure time were both the same.
Note: Use JR Pass Calculator here to check if JR Pass is cheaper than individual tickets for your trip. We bought the pass and were really glad, because of the previously mentioned accidents with missed trains. Also, with JR pass you get additional benefits such as free JR buses, airport trains/shuttles, etc.
5. People speak to you in Japanese
In Japan people seemed to speak at least a little bit of English so we never struggled in shops, train stations, restaurants or hotels. Having said that, after asking for something in English we frequently received responses in Japanese. It seemed that despite knowing basic English locals were either too shy to use it or did not want to appear disrespectful. Read more about social etiquette in 6.
6. Japanese bow to each other a lot
Our understanding of Japanese social etiquette is limited but what appears to be a slightly chaotic ceremonial procedure (such as people bowing to each other several times) is frequently a strict adherence to social norms so important in Japanese culture.
How deeply people bow and for how long is determined by the situation, age, relationship and other factors. Also, if one rises too early this calls for another bow as well as a response bow from another person. This sometimes results in a sequence of bows (which is what we witnessed a couple of times).
There is a myriad of other rules related to eating, accepting guests and gift giving. Visitors are not expected to be aware of them all, but at least basic understanding and not making the most obvious mistakes are sure to be appreciated.
Note: A few simple ones – take off your shoes when entering someone else’s house, don’t gift mirrors, knives or scissors and close your mouth when eating. Slurping is only acceptable when eating ramen noodles.
7. People are crazy about Manga, Anime and all the cute characters
Anime is everywhere although the hotspot is Akihabara in Tokyo. It is such a colourful place to visit – entire buildings are covered in massive posters and there are shops where figurines and other related merchandise is sold. We noticed that people would read anime comic books in trains and in streets or watch it on their phones instead of scrolling through their Insta feeds.
Note: In Akihabara you can find restaurants/cafes where you can become a king/queen for an hour or two. In such places a number of waitresses dressed in cute costumes will dance, sing and serve food and drinks as if you were the most important person in the world. We did not try it as I thought it would just feel too foreign and weird but I am sure for some it must be a pretty unique and pleasant experience.
8. Japan is generally cheaper than we expected
I will not try to suggest visiting Japan is cheap, especially taking into account the fact JR pass for two weeks was the single most expensive item we bought in the last 9 months but in some regards it is quite affordable. We actually spent 20% less than planned in Japan.
For example, beds in hostels averaged £15 ($19) a night per person (Tokyo, Kanazawa and Kyoto) and meals in reasonable (not too expensive) restaurants were around £10 ($13) per person.
If you visit Japan I would definitely recommend the following hostels and hotels:
Tokyo (good hostel, close to Bakurocho station, only a few stops away from Tokyo station): https://www.agoda.com/partners/partnersearch.aspx?pcs=1&cid=1823134&hl=en&hid=1275515
Kanazawa (hostel with a nice café inside, easily accessible from Kanazawa train station by free JR bus for JR pass owners):
Kyoto (self-check-in, double room with private bathroom):
In terms of food our favourite ramen place in Japan was Ichiran Ramen (£6.5 or $8 for a bowl of Ramen). There is one in Shinjuku, Tokyo but since this is a chain you can find Ichiran restaurants in other cities as well. These restaurants are quite popular, so be prepared to queue if you go at lunch or dinner time.