11 things I don’t miss about Japan

 

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In my last blog post I listed some not so obvious things that I miss having returned back to England after 3 years of life in Japan. In this blog post I will list some things that I don’t miss – or in some cases, I’m actually quite happy are no longer part of my everyday life.

Instead of dwelling on some relatively well-known (negative) qualities of Japan many of which I have written previously (such as earthquakes, unbearable heat, and xenophobia) below I will list some less obvious things.

(1) Dentists

I don’t have a problem with dentists overall. For example, if I had to choose between 30 minutes in a kids’ crowded and noisy indoor play area or a quiet 30 mins in a dentist’s chair I’d probably choose the latter (which, since parenthood, sadly, I’ve started to perceive as ‘me-time’!).

But the thing that I don’t like about dentists in Japan is that there is no personal space much like kids’ indoor playgrounds where you are forced to experience the next person (and their kids screaming and crying) and witness blood gushing out of their mouth when they’ve lost a tooth. You see, in Japan, dentist appointments do not take place in a private room. Instead, there are several dentists, dental nurses, dental hygienist and orthodontist providing service to their patients in one big room. Thus you might be having your cavity filled about 1.5 metres from the next person who’s having a tooth pulled out. Talk about jaw-dropping.

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(2) Height of surfaces

What I found problematic in Japan was the difference in physical characteristics between relatively average sized European persons (me and my husband) and average Japanese persons (female: 158cm, male: 171cm, link). This was evident for example in the vertical positioning of bathroom sinks and from airline seat heights (see photos below). Being back in England has given me a chance to recover from the hunchback I started to develop in Japan.

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(3) Shopping for clothes

Related to the above, the fact that an average Japanese woman is 158cm tall and weighs, even at the age of 40, on average about 52kg, it wasn’t fun for shopping for clothes in Japan, especially in select shops (little boutiques with trendy clothes). And even though they did have H&M and Zara and other international shops there, the measurements they had for their Asian market were not ideal for a 169cm Godzilla like me. They would have been more appropriate for Godzuki.

 

(4) Shopping for food

This was problematic for me for several reasons

  • the choice of foods in supermarkets was very different to Europe – we often didn’t know what we were buying, and we couldn’t find some of our favourites like hummus, halloumi, sugar-free squash, cider or lean meat.

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  • We didn’t know which supermarkets to use to avoid becoming social outcasts. I don’t care as much about the presentation/flawless appearance of groceries as an average Japanese person and was happy to shop at least for some of our everyday groceries in Tamade. But it seemed to be the case that Tamade (which to me felt like a pretty average supermarket) was perceived to be too poor quality (maybe comparable to something like Lidl in Europe). In fact one of my Korean friends disclosed to my Japanese friends that I had bought some of the ingredients in Tamade for a party (yes, fresh basil which we weren’t able to find in any other shops in the neighbourhood) and this seemed to be acceptable only because I had bought some of the other ingredients in Foodium and Daimaru (maybe comparable to Waitrose and Harrods (respectively) in England or Stockmann’s food court in Finland).
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Typical interior of a Tamade supermarket

 

(5) Confusing terminology

In England the street level of a building is usually referred to as the ‘ground floor’ and the first floor above the ground level is referred to as ‘first floor’. When I moved to Japan I realised that they have adopted the American system where the street level (i.e. British ground floor) is referred to as first floor and the British first floor is referred to as the second floor – it is pretty confusing! I mean, figuring out these cultural differences in reference to building floors is not that difficult right – but when you interact with Brits and Americans and Japanese people some of whom have been educated in England, and some in America, all of whom potentially are using their own system or accommodating to their interlocutor you can imagine the confusions that arise, and numerous times there was miscommunication when I am standing on the British 1st floor of a building and my friend is waiting for me on the Japanese 1st floor of the same building or vice versa.

(6) Traffic lights

As with dentists, I don’t have a problem with traffic lights per se, but maybe I am a little impatient for Japanese traffic lights. The amount of time one needs to stand and wait for the red light to turn green is often much (MUCH!) longer than in places like England or Finland. I’m not quite as pedantic as my husband might think given that I never timed this but I’m guessing the change of lights in Japan could take a minute or even two.

(7) Washing machines

It seems to be the case that (most) Japanese washing machines wash clothes with cold water. This is of course an environmentally-friendly way to wash one’s clothes (albeit I’m not sure if this is the core reason for the cold washes…), but (a) when you have two young children whose clothes after a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese look like they are auditioning for Nightmare on Elm Street and (b) when your husband runs marathons even in the ridiculously hot and humid summer of Osaka, you kind of start missing machines that put some muscle into stain and odour removal.

(8) Eco-unfriendliness

Having said above that washing machines in Japan usually use cold water only, in many other ways, Japanese appliances and overall lifestyle can be environmentally rather unfriendly. For example, dishwashers are usually tiny! So small that crockery, cutlery and glasses used in a single meal in our 4 strong family filled the dishwasher up. Running a 2h cycle for those dishes kind of felt like a huge waste and we often just washed everything by hand. I’ve mentioned over-packing in my previous blog post, but having a single egg, a single mushroom or a single strawberry packed in a plastic box I’m happy to be back in Brighton where if not for one’s own initiative, then by peer pressure, you try to think about the wellbeing of this planet and future generations.

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Individually packed mushrooms

 

(9) Oven-less kitchen

A kitchen with no oven limits my life and eating habits a lot. The fact that Japanese homes rarely have an oven means that baking, pasta bakes or even the simple (but oh so delicious) curly fries were off the menu for three years.

(10) Raw eggs

Raw eggs are consumed in Japan in bucket-loads. I don’t miss going to a restaurant for a quick bowl of rice, to find that there is a cold raw egg eyeballing me on top of my dish (known as tamago kake gohan). Or us going to a canteen-y type place for lunch one time and assuming the egg we bought for our daughter from a buffet type selection was boiled… only to realize it was a raw as soon as my husband had cracked it open (with some force) on our daughter’s plate. Well, we learned our lesson, never again did we hold the expectation that whole eggs in a shell were boiled.

(11) Mysterious eateries

Eating out in Japan can be a bit risky for people who can’t read Japanese. The reason being that many restaurants/izakayas/bars (a) have no windows or if there are windows, they have been obscured and/or (b) the eatery is not on the ground floor. One risk I’m referring to here is that maybe you were looking for a margarita pizza but ended up with chicken ovaries. More worryingly, if you can’t read Japanese or have a quick look through the window, you don’t know whether an eatery is a pizzeria, members only club or a strip joint. I mean, it might take some courage to take the lift to the 7th floor to find that you’ve walked into a hostess club. We got better over the years and often found a nice restaurant at the end of a nerve-wracking entrance to an izakaya, but I am happy to be back in the UK where you can usually look through the restaurant window to see whether the restaurant, its food and clientele looks like our cup of tea and whether there is hostess or a stripper mingling with punters. That said, if you fancy rolling the dice and see what you end up with by all means just walk in and see what you get.

 

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Having said all the above, by just writing this post I’ve realised that I actually really miss Japan and will probably have to book a holiday there soon. It is fair to say that the positives outweigh the negatives by some margin in Japan.

9 not so obvious things I miss about Japan

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After having lived in Osaka for nearly three years, last January (2017) I moved back to the UK. I’ve been so busy with my new job in England that it hadn’t really hit me that my time in Japan was over – in my mind, I somehow assumed that I was again in England only temporarily (as I had been back to England a number of times during the last three years for short periods of time). But I am finally starting to realize that I will now only go to Japan on holiday and that what I got used to in Japan is no longer my everyday life.

Like most expats, I miss things from place(s) where I have previously lived. The things that I miss from Japan is long, and contains some obvious things, like my friends and my students, Japanese hotprings, amazingly well functioning public transport, and great food, but also some things that may not be so obvious. Here’s the list of those non-obvious things:

 

1. The endearing naivety, quirkiness or downright craziness of many people

Japanese people (or maybe just people in Osaka) are really quirky. It’s worth pointing out that I now live in Brighton, a city on the south coast of England known for its non-orthodox ideas and non-judgemental, tolerant approach to life, but even by Brightonian standards Osaka people’s behaviour is sometimes a little unusual (in an interesting and endearing way). See for example a photo below in which people are taking a photo at Osaka station of a Hankyu train that has a cartoon character on it.

 

This kind of behaviour is completely normal. No-one in Osaka would look twice at an adult having their photo taken with a tourist attraction mascot, a promotional Moomin character or a cute poster of a toy character – activities which I would think are just for children.

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In addition, the man in the video below dancing at an arcade like no-one’s watching is just another arcade in Osaka (note that alcohol might have a part to play in Japanese people letting their hair down in this way, but still, this is nothing unusual).

 

 

 

2. Japanese ‘Poundland’

Seria is a shop where everything costs 100 Yen (£0.70 or €0.70) but it’s not like Poundland in England (where everything costs £1). Seria is much better quality! For example, many of the sushi dishes or onigiri (rice ball) containers are made in Japan! If ever in Japan, go and stock up on all Japanese products on the cheap! You might even be able to palm off some of their Japanese crockery on your friends (or mother-in-laws) as top-class Japanese products.

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3. Fast-food restaurants

Inexpensive good quality ‘fast-food’ restaurants are everywhere in Japan. I’m not talking about McDonalds or even the Japanese version of a fast-food burger place: Mos Burger. Instead, I’m talking about proper Asian fast-food places. These are ideal for busy working mums (and dads) to take their kids for dinner when they don’t have time to cook – or if they just want some absolutely delicious dishes so cheaply that it is just not worth going through the hassle of cooking. A tray of Chinese dishes or a bowl of udon (noodles) and 6 pieces of karaage (fried chicken) will set you back about 1000 JPY (€7.50, £6.80). In many places like these, be prepared to place the order at a vending machine either outside or immediately inside the front doors of the restaurant. You just hand the ticket you get to the chef behind the counter, sit down and wait for your tray to arrive.

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A bowl of noodles, fried chicken and salad, prawns in a chilli sauce, a selection of dumplings and a Chinese jelly+fruit dessert all for approx. 1000 JPY (7.50 EUR)

 

4. Konbini – corner shops

7-Eleven, Family Mart and other small convenience stores are everywhere in Japan and they are amazing! In addition to the obvious snacks and things that you’d get from corner shops, konbinis in Japan are a life saviour in more than one way. For example:

If you splash some udon or ramen on you shirt and tie during lunch, or have a scary business meeting, you can just go to a konbini and get a new shirt and tie or clean underwear if needed.

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If you forgot to check the weather forecast and to take your umbrella with you in the morning to work, you can just pop in the nearest konbini on your way home and you don’t have to get singled out in the crowd as the only disorganised person walking in the rain without an umbrella.

Or if you cannot be bothered to cook and want an even less expensive dinner than what the fast-food restaurants have got to offer (see above), you can get fantastic foods in konbini. They have good quality ready-made dishes of noodles, rice and pasta, salads, sushi, dumplings, sandwiches, onigiri, etc.

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Furthermore, they have microwaves in which the staff or you can heat your dishes up, and kettles where you get hot water for your pot noodles.

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And many of them have confortable and clean areas to eat you food – or even rather spectacular areas like the konbini next to the pharmacy on the 16th floor of the Harukas building in Osaka. The view was pretty impressive when we on a regular basis had our konbini coffee, noodle salad and strawberry and cream sandwiches while waiting for our daughter’s insulin prescription to be ready for collection. So, don’t be put off by the brand 7-Eleven based on what your image of it might be in England or the States. In Japan these types of shops are gold dust!

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Harukas

 

It might also be worth mentioning that a common way to pay your electricity/gas bills is to take the bill to a konbini and pay for it there – not quite as easy as internet banking or direct debit, but given that you are likely to go to a konbini pretty much daily anyway (if not for clean underwear or umbrellas, then for some food/drink), it’s not really that much hassle to pay your bills while you are there.

 

5. Vending machines

On the one hand, you might find it insane that there appears to be a vending machine every 10 metres, but when the weather is really hot, it is great that you can get an ice-cold drink anywhere and when it’s cold, you can defrost your fingers on a nice hot can of coffee every 10 meters. Also, my husband was particularly taken with being able to buy one-cup sake from a vending machine! (Link to my previous post on vending machines here).

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6. Over-enthusiastic izakaya/restaurant staff

When you go to small yakitori places or izakayas (Japanese pubs), the staff will often greet you with synchronised loud shouts of ‘welcome’ (irrasshaimase!) and when you order drinks the cheering can continue (especially if your husband orders a bottle of wine AND two glasses of sake for the two of you!). The staff are also often keen to have a chat with you and hear your view of Japan (if you are a foreigner). When you leave and are walking away from the restaurant the staff usually follow you outside expressing their gratitude, bowing and sometimes even holding a flag saying ‘Thank you. Please come again’. Even though pub staff in England is often friendly and chatty, the extreme enthusiasm of Japanese pub staff in my opinion trumps this in entertainment value.

Erm, in the name of honesty, you do occasionally find slightly less enthusiastic bar staff even in Japan (see picture below).

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7. Wonderful mix of old and new

Japan has a lot of history and people quite like to do things as they have always been done. For example, the below picture shows a restaurant cashier using an abacus to calculate the total of one’s bill.

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But at the same time Japan has some pretty futuristic ideas, for example robots standing in for shop assistants

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or girlfriends for busy or shy Japanese men (link).

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8. High heels

In Japan most women wear high heels at work, university or when out and about. I accommodated, and in the three years that I lived in Japan went from trainer/boot wearing high heel hater to someone who chose to wear high heels out of choice when on a date night with my husband. As a result, the balls of my feet are now made of steel and I’ve come to appreciate the elongating effect high heels do to a middle age lady’s stocky calves. Given that back home in Brighton only (a) Love Island wannabes, and (b) Brighton gentlemen wear high heels, I feel I cannot elongate my stocky calves any longer.

 

9. The adventure

I miss going to a pub or a restaurant and not being to able to understand what is written on the menu, and so having to ask the waiter to read out the menu so that I could understand what it roughly says. And using the term: What would you recommend? -A lot.

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Our favourite sake bar menu

 

I also miss the general feeling of adventure when living in a new country whose culture and language are relatively unfamiliar to you (even after having lived there for 3 years!).

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An example of a Japanese (or maybe Chinese!?) tradition whose function and symbolism are still unknown to me.

 

Are there any expats out there reading this blog post? What non-obvious things do you miss from places you’ve lived?

Be prepared to tell your blood type to Japanese school children

If you a Westerner, when visiting big tourist attractions like the Golden Pavilion (Kyoto)

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Kyomizudera (Kyoto)

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Nara’s wooden temple

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or Himeji castle

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you can be sure to see big groups of Japanese school children. The pupils are there because their schools want them to learn about the history of Japan, in the same way as, for example, Finnish school children visit historical sites in Finland, although, visiting a Russian tzar’s summer house from the 1880s in my home town (Kotka, Finland) as a primary school pupil may not have been quite as spectacular a setting as many of the school trips Japanese kids get to go on. In any case, when the Finnish kids go on school trips, the purpose of those trips is usually increased cultural/historical understanding, but Japanese school children often multi-task. Namely, their school excursions double as an English lesson. Thus, when spotting Westerners they will, usually in groups of 2-6, approach you in a shy manner and ask if they could have a conversation with you. If you agree, what’s coming is however not really a ‘conversation’. You see, their ‘conversation’ consists of a pre-written questionnaire which they will execute in a rehearsed interrogatory manner, asking you several questions one after another and expecting one-word answers. For example:

What’s you favourite sport? (expected answer e.g. Soccer)

What’s your favourite food? (expected answer e.g. Pizza)

What’s your blood type? (expected answer e.g. A) (note that pretty much all Japanese people know their blood type and many of them believe that blood type is one important factor determining your personality. You can read my earlier blog post on the topic here.)

These rather one-directional conversations in which each student in the group asks you one pen-pal type question are quite fun, and the students are very polite, sweet and giggle a lot but needless to say, with pre-written questions and an expectation of one word answers, they come completely unprepared for Western-style conversations. After all, in a naturalistic situation in Europe/North America, whether it is a pub or a school playground, someone walking over to you and firing a series of questions at you would (or should) never happen. Moreover, if you responded to those questions with single-word answers, you would be sending a pretty clear passive aggressive message that you wanted that person to bugger off, right? Thus, the question is: What do these strange ‘conversations’ teach Japanese students about the use of English in conversational settings? An answer might be: not much.

I think students going and chatting with foreigners is a great idea, but for them to be better prepared for oral communication with native English speakers, the manner in which the practise is done should better correspond to real life, non-staged situations.

So, here is an example of a conversation where I’ve tried to provide a more authentic Western-style conversation in which answers are rarely one word long and in which both parties ask questions/give answers.

Student 1: What’s your favourite sport?

Me: Do you mean to watch or to actually do it myself?

Student 1: (doesn’t understand my question)

Me: (decide to go with the sport I like doing most and say) Downhill skiing.

Student 1: (looks perplexed as they don’t understand what ‘downhill skiing’ means)

Me: (act as if I’m downhill skiing)

Student 1: Ahh!

Me: Do you do downhill skiing?

Student 1: (thought that their turn was already over and is looking at the person whose turn it is to talk to me, thus my question goes unanswered)

Me: (persisting, I point at the student and repeat my question) Do you do downhill skiing?

Student 1: No.

Student 2: What’s your favourite food?

Me: Hmm, there are so many… maybe pizza or tempura or pasta with wild mushroom sauce. I don’t know. What’s yours?

Student 2: (panics and turns to their friends for help. After a 20 second silence the student manages to utter) Udon.

Me: I love udon too.

Student 3: What’s your favourite Anime character?

Me: I don’t know any.

Student 3: (is confused presumably because they cannot understand that there are people who do not know anything about Anime)

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I assume that at least one reason for Japanese school children preying on tourists for an English conversation is due to old-fashioned methods in language teaching. Namely, many Japanese schools use the grammar-translation method which focuses, well, on grammar and translation. In addition, English in/outputs are done solely or predominantly in writing with minimal spoken interaction (as a linguist whose research areas include first and second language acquisition, I am eager to see Japan adopt more modern approaches to language teaching). Due to the bulk of teaching being translations of texts, most students never really hear English in the classroom. Furthermore, in Japan, foreign TV/films are dubbed and many Japanese youths prefer Japanese and/or Korean music to English music. Thus, Japanese students get minimal exposure to spoken English also outside the classroom. The lack of exposure to English (combined with other factors) has resulted in widespread poor oral competence in English, even in people who have extremely good written skills of English, e.g. doctors, and even English teachers! I am not kidding. I have encountered several native-Japanese English language teachers in Japan who needed a translator to interact with me in English, and my understanding is that many (or most) Japanese students never hear their native-Japanese English teacher use English. I have also had appointments with Japanese doctors who advertised themselves as providing consultations in English,  but when sitting opposite them in the consultation room, they’ve shown me a laminated card asking me to write my question(s) on a piece of paper, show the piece of paper to them, after which they would write a reply.

I will not go into any detail in relation to the language teaching in Japan or what pedagogical steps might be helpful for the Japanese educational system to improve their students’ oral communication skills in English. But what I would say is that if you are in Japan and encounter groups of pupils in tourist attractions, please have a chat with them, if not to provide the students with an opportunity to practice their English (whether you go along with the interrogatory style or make it more interactive is up to you) then maybe for the little gifts/messages they usually give you for your time. Below there are a couple of sweet hand-written messages that I have received for participating (regardless of the fact that the pupils got a slightly more Western chat than what they were after).

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15 tips to avoid embarrassing situations in Japan

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Further to my earlier post on etiquette in restaurants, izakayas, udonyas and bakeries in Japan, I thought it might also be useful for those of you who are planning a trip/move to Japan to list a handful of other, more general observations about expected behaviour in Japan outside of the restaurant scene – i.e. in general public areas.

(1) Escalators

In Japan, escalators are used in an extremely orderly manner. If you are in Osaka you need to stand on the right and let people in a rush walk past you by overtaking you on the left. Everywhere else in Japan the roles are reversed. That is, in places like Kyoto, Hiroshima, Tokyo and Nara you will have to stand on the left and let people overtake you on the right.

The reason for this difference between Osaka and the rest of the country seems to be that people in Osaka are proud to be from Osaka (and a little crazy, in a funny and endearing way) and like to do their own thing. Consequently, they seem to make a deliberate effort not to follow the general rules in the rest of Japan.

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This is what you should do in Osaka.

(2) Trains

Train journeys are generally very quiet in Japan. Music or loud chatting will result in people giving you the evil eye (albeit in a subtle way). Talking on your mobile phone on the train is considered extremely rude to the point that the conductor might come and tell you to zip it. However, you can text. And you can listen to music or play games on your phone as long as you wear headphones.

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Getting on and off a train is strictly orchestrated. This is how you do it:

When waiting on a platform for a train, you need to form two lines at designated spots on the platform (which indicate the train carriage and door in which you’ll enter if you queue there). When the train arrives, the two-by-two queue separates and forms one queue on each side of the train doors. Don’t rush in (no Japanese person would jump the queue so you don’t need to either)! Let the people on the train get out first in the space in-between the two queues. Once the people on the train have got off, the two queues can start entering the train in an orderly fashion.

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(3) Buses

If you use the bus, you do so in the opposite way from how you might in many other countries. That is, you go in through the doors at the back of the bus, leave the bus via the front door and pay for your journey on exit.

(4) Taxis

Most taxi drivers (at least outside Tokyo) do not speak English, so it’s useful to have the address of your destination written down in Japanese. The easiest way to do this is to print out your hotel’s address and telephone number (many sat-navs use the destination landline number to locate the place) and show the print-out to the taxi driver.

You should sit at the back, but when you get in/out of the taxi, don’t touch the door – the driver won’t like it. He opens the door by using a button/lever on the dashboard so wait for him to do it.

(5) Temples/Shrines

If there is a Torii (a gate at the entrance of the temple/shrine), you should bow before you walk through it. Also, you should not walk through the middle of the gate as that’s reserved for the gods. Instead, walk through the gate but slightly off the centre.

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When visiting a temple, you will see one of these:

These are used to wash your hands before you enter the temple area. You should go, scoop some water and pour it on to your hands. However, because the function of this is to clean yourself, make sure that you do not wash your hands over the clean water container. The dirty water from your hands should fall on the ground (or usually there is a drainage system that will get rid of the dirty water).

If you are at the temple to pray, you should donate some money. The procedure for that is: when you are at the altar:

1) bow

2) throw money in a box you see in front of you

3) ring bell hanging from the ceiling

4) clap hands twice to wake up the gods

5) pray

6) bow again

7) leave.

(6) Hand towels

Many Japanese toilets do not have hand dryers or paper towels, so you should buy a small hand towel (sold in all department stores and corner shops e.g. 7-Elevens) and carry it with you. If want to read more about how to use Japanese toilets click here.

(7) Illness

Given that Japan is a collective society, the Japanese frown upon you inflicting your illness on others. So, when ill, using surgical-masks is a must especially if you are planning to go into heavily populated public areas (e.g. the train). It’s also worth knowing that blowing your nose in public is considered rude (while e.g. in Finland it is completely normal).

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(8) No eating while walking

Having your lunch/snack so to speak on the go is considered bad manners, as is smoking while walking (as you may burn your fellow pedestrians with your cigarette butt). You need to stop, stand by the side of the pavement and have your sandwich or cigarette.

(9) Don’t drop rubbish on the floor

I assume you wouldn’t deliberately throw rubbish on the ground anyway, but if you accidentally drop something (indoors or outdoors), pick it up. Slightly inconveniently, there aren’t many public dustbins around and you might need to put whatever it is you want to throw in the rubbish in your pocket until you get back home or find the closest bin some three miles away (even if it is a half-eaten Chinese pork bun or some slimy and rather stinky fermented beans known as natto that you accidentally bought in your 7-Eleven maki roll).

(10) Parking

If you hire a car in Japan it is useful to remember that the convention is that you need to reverse into a parking space. If you drive head first into a supermarket car park space instead of reversing in it, you can be sure that while you are doing your shopping, everyone walking past your car will know it was parked by a foreigner. So, depending on your preferences (blend in or send an overt message that there’s a Westerner here) you can choose a style of parking that best suits your personality.

(11) Paying

Most little shops, restaurants or izakayas do not accept credit/debit cards. Not only do little shops not accept cards, but not all cashpoints accept all cards either. So make sure you always have cash on you.  Luckily, Japan is one of the safest countries in the world in terms of crime stats, so I used to frequently carry quite a lot of cash on me (something I would never do in England).

When paying, take your time. In Japan is it acceptable to rummage through your purse or pocket to find the change even if it means that the shop assistant or the people in the queue had to wait for a few seconds longer. I guess this is to do with the fact that in Japan precision and doing things thoroughly are desirable values.

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(12) Bowing

Bowing is a big part of the culture of Japan. The depth and length of a bow depends on the context and how polite you want to be. The basic rule seems to be that if you are apologising you need to bow deeper. Greeting bows are generally quite light and brief even if addressing a person who is your superior. I can reveal that after 3 years of expat life in Japan I am still oblivious to the nuances of bowing, that is, I’m not quite sure when, for how long or how deep I need to bow in most contexts. Luckily, the Japanese forgive foreigners for these types of cultural mistakes (which to them are as clear as it is to British house party thrower that ‘I’ll try to make it to your party’ means that you can cross out the speaker’s name of the list of people attending the party).

The main point I think is that as long as you try to do the right thing re bowing, you should be ok.

(13) Onsen i.e. hot springs

If in Japan you should go to an onsen. You can read about my experiences of hot springs and my advice on behaviour in those here. But in short,

  • you go into the hot spring naked
  • no tattoos are allowed
  • you need to wash yourself in the shower area before going in the hot spring
  • no swimming or splashing in the hot spring.

(14) Umbrellas

If it is raining, pretty much all Japanese people will have an umbrella (they don’t understand the British just-put-your-hood-up-approach). Not having an umbrella when it rains would send a message to your fellow pedestrians that you are a sloppy, forgetful type of person with zero planning skills.

If you did remember to check the weather forecast and bring your umbrella, if it is wet and you go into a shop/restaurant, you need to leave the umbrella outside in an umbrella-park. Alternatively, some bigger shops or organisations provide you with a plastic bag outside the shop so that you can put you umbrella in it so that you won’t drop rainwater indoors.

(15) No shoes

No outdoor shoes are allowed in homes, schools, ryokans (guest houses), hospital examination rooms or – importantly for tourists – clothes shop changing rooms. Sometimes you are asked to leave your shoes outside the changing room and sometimes they ask you to leave your shoes on a hard floor bit of the changing rooms, and not step on the carpet or wooden bit of the changing room with outdoor shoes on. In most places where you are asked to take your shoes off they will provide you with slippers so that you don’t have to walk around in your socks. But it would be advisable to always wear clean and hole-free socks in Japan as they might not stay hidden in your boots for the duration of your day.

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Ok, that’s my 15 tips. I am sure there are loads of others observations that I have forgotten to mention (and tons I don’t even know) so feel free to write any of you own in the comments section below.