Travelers and tourists are often taught to look to historical sites for cultural insight, but Japan evinces plenty of culture in the seemingly everyday. It’s clear that the country has a long and deep history — complex, with nooks and crannies, cultural twists and turns, and sweeping evolutions. However, while I’m tempted to share my first impressions of Japan’s Buddhist and Shinto shrines, I’ll instead first share fifteen impressions of the cultural bits in the current, the white spaces of travel.
Japan, 15 First Impressions
1. The world’s most advanced toilets.
When I first set off on the road many years ago, I did so to countries whose toilets were mere holes in the ground. I’ve come a long way – this time to Japan, a country whose toilets are virtual thrones of electronic feature-laden splendor, including some which make music, many which feature remote controls, and most whose seats are heated.
But I digress. (Why I am here on the topic of Japan, talking about toilets? After all, toilet talk is rather un-Japanese.)
Ah, my first remote controlled toilet. My first heated toilet seat. And specially placed water jets to clean places you never thought to clean with a specially placed water jet. That’s a first, too.
Audrey muses that the Japanese invest so much money in their toilets because it’s their only alone time. OK, that and hygiene, and an appreciation for all things French, including the bidet. Or maybe this focus satisfies a Japanese inclination to innovate and perfect — in this case — all imaginable bathroom experiences into one unit.
When you gotta’ go, there’s never a dull moment in a Japanese toilet.
2. Salarymen: work hard, play hard.
In Japan’s cities, at any hour of the day or night, you’ll find men in dark suits and ties making their way. They are the Japanese version of businessmen, they are salarymen.
You’ll see them at pace making their way to work. You’ll see them consuming anime pornography on the train platform. Maybe you’ll even see them stumbling red-faced out of an izakaya (beer restaurant), giggling, on their way to the last train home that evening.
Japan: Work hard, play hard?
3. The konbini, the Japanese convenience store.
The konbini is the Japanese incarnation of the convenience store. From the outside, one might appear ordinary, but in Japan there’s something different.
Portable food, hand-packed and replenished multiple times a day. Onigiri, triangular rice parcels, bento boxes and an entire wall devoted to energy drinks. There’s even a section for plastic-wrapped white button down shirts for the salaryman who didn’t make it home from last night’s business-and-beer bender.
Japanese people spend a lot of time at work and on the go. Konbinis, their stores of convenience, fuel them.
4. Create space where there is none.
One of the prevailing images of Japan: a lot of people, and little space — particularly in the Tokyo subway. But even inside a Japanese train full of humanity, the atmosphere never quite felt claustrophobic. Nothing like in so many other places the world over, where noise pervades and people bounce off each other like pinballs.
In Japan, all those people seem to create space where there should be none. But how?
Quiet, respect and order. Mobile phones are turned to silent; no one talks on the phone in enclosed spaces. People speak in soft tones. There exists a respect for the space of others, and a willingness to do what it takes to maintain that order.
Just witness the disgorging of a packed train at rush hour and the hum of all those shuffling feet.
You just have to be in it to fully appreciate it.
5. Politeness and consideration first.
While bicycling in Takayama, Audrey almost ran into a young schoolgirl crossing the street. In response, the Japanese student bowed and smiled rather than becoming upset.
Even the elevators are trained. In one, after a crowd of people piled on, the LED display read “Sorry! This elevator is crowded!”
There’s a lot of “sorry” in Japanese discourse. No need to get angry where there is no need. No need to blame.
To some, this politeness and courtesy may seem robotic. To us, it was deliberate. In one instance, Audrey and I took the remaining seats on a train, on opposite sides. A Japanese woman next to me looked up from her book, said “change” and pointed to Audrey, indicating that she would move so we could sit together. In a flash, the woman moved and was immediately reabsorbed into her book, while Audrey and I were reunited yet again.
We witnessed this level of courtesy repeatedly. It was the rule, in no way the exception.
Some might find all this respect and consideration boring. We found it refreshing. And after a couple of weeks amidst it all, we felt spoiled. There’s only one catch: in order to feel like you fit, you must show it, too.
Fortunately, that's not very difficult.
6. Pachinko: gambling with steel pellets.
The Pachinko parlor, where the pinball machine and slot machine collide. You’ll know you’ve found a Pachinko parlor when you open the door to find rows of people seated at vertical pinball machines, boxes of metal balls at their side, loading them amidst a deafening roar.
We went inside a Pachinko parlor to try it out. We were confounded. You purchase silver balls (reminiscent of large BB pellets) and insert them via a tube slot into the top of a machine with arcade controls. It’s supposed to be fun, we hear. And money supposedly flows if you figure out how to work the machines. We never did.
7. Everything is a process.
In a previous life, I taught statistical process control, a practice whose roots can be found in Japanese manufacturing. You’ll see the cultural manifestation of this art-meets-science everywhere in Japan, no less so than on high-speed trains. We sat in the forward car of one to get a clear view of the driver. He checked his plan, he drove his train, he checked the tracks. Then he repeated it all, sweeping his hand across his field of view to somewhere on the side of the tracks, to an end we never quite figured out. In any event, the motions were all deliberate. The checks all deliberate, too.
Little, if anything, is left to chance.
This isn’t about being robotic, but about doing things deliberately and understanding the process, as well as how that process influences the result.
8. No garbage cans. No trash, either.
How can a country with public spaces so clean feature almost no public garbage cans? This takes some getting used to. It also takes filling your pockets with a bit of rubbish or carrying your own little bags of trash.
In Japan it’s one’s personal responsibility to take care of one’s trash, meaning that you typically carry it with you until you return home or to a hotel. This is why you almost never see trash left behind on subways, trains or in other public spaces.
9. Vending machines galore.
The colors and design of Japan’s vending machines mesmerized us. Almost any drink imaginable is available: energy drinks, collagen drinks (for beauty, of course), beer, even little sake boxes.
Everything to drink, but nothing to eat. Why?
Drinking on the street is acceptable, while eating on the street is looked down upon.
10. A whole lot of words.
When it comes to their own language, the Japanese are a people of many words, especially it seems for the smallest of transactions or questions. Buy a bottle of water or ask for the location of a bus stop and you may be sitting there for several minutes listening to a sort of conversational routine that includes a summary of what is happening, what question is being asked, what the solution is, an alternative repetition of the solution, a third way, and then an offering of thanks and good day.
It confounded us at first to watch our guide have long conversations in Japanese, only to report back something as simple as, “The bus stop is across the street.”
11. Trains really do run on time.
You know the old chestnut about how you can set your watch based on when your Japanese train passes Mt. Fuji? Well, it’s true.
In two weeks of frequent train travel, only one of our trains ran late, by two minutes. Our guide, experienced in the ways of Japan, was shocked. We’re certain the employees responsible for the delay got a talking to.
12. Sidewalk braille.
Upon our arrival in Japan, one of the first features we noticed were all sorts of texture-coded yellow strips on sidewalks and inside buildings. We figured these lines were intended to draw walking lanes, to help provide order to the way people moved.
Our guide later clued us in that these were for blind people so they could walk comfortably through cities; different patterns and textures under your feet to signal stops, crossings, turns, traffic lights and the end of train platforms.
Brilliant. And considerate.
13. Presentation and design are king.
Head to the basement of any large department store to the prepared and specialty food area and you’ll know what we mean. Everything from the smallest piece of fruit to the most elaborate sushi bento box is beautifully displayed. If you’ve ever wondered whether it was form or function that came first, ask the Japanese and they might fairly tell you both.
The importance of presentation manifests itself most perhaps in Kaiseki dinners and Japanese tea ceremonies. In the Kaiseki dinner ritual, value is not only found in the beauty of what is being served, but it in the beauty, size, color and pattern of the plates and bowls in which it's all displayed. (Read more on Japanese cuisine.)
This is also echoed in the Japanese traditional tea ceremony, where the host takes an opportunity to leave the room so guests can discuss the merits of the instruments being used to serve the tea.
For those of you who’ve been Japan, the word onsen is code for something special. For those of you who've never been, this is motivation. Onsen is the word for hot springs, but also describes communal bathing facilities. You can find them not only in nature, but also in many hotels and Japanese Inns. We enjoyed onsen several times along our trip, so much so that we almost took it for granted. When our hotel no longer featured onsen, we missed our twice daily dose of bathing.
With onsen, as with all things Japanese, there’s a process, there’s etiquette. There’s also relaxation and unwinding. And there’s a whole lot of cleaning going on.
15. Shy, but not closed.
Before traveling to Japan, we held an image of Japanese culture as one that is very reserved, almost closed. What we found during our travels, however, was something different.
Language can be a barrier, as many Japanese feel uncomfortable speaking foreign languages, especially English (or perhaps they feel unnecessarily imperfect in their mastery of it). However, if you initiate engagement you will find people who might at first come off shy, but who are eager to interact and do whatever they can to help.
Perhaps there’s no better example of this than the school children we met along our journey through Japan. Some needed a little coaxing, but most would eventually smile and laugh (and sometimes jump up and down and clap) when we would interact, answer questions and join in a photo-taking session.
Admittedly, this only barely scratches the surface of Japanese culture, a culture we could easily spend a lifetime trying to comprehend. But hopefully this gives you a taste of what a couple of interlopers — whose ideas of Japan were once confined to ink stamp vending machines and Lost in Translation — believed they learned in a short time.
Have you been to Japan? What were some of your first — or lasting– impressions?
The experiences above were from the G Adventures' Discover Japan Tour. If you plan to book this or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on one of these links. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!