10 Things You Might Find Surprising About Japan

japan surprising things

Last week I finally got the chance to visit Japan, something that had been on my bucket list since arriving in Korea a year ago. I had an absolute blast, and I noticed some super interesting and surprising things about Japan.

I went to Osaka and Kyoto for 6 days and, like every tourist, I had my preconceptions about what the country would be like. Most things met my high expectations; the food, the history, the weather. But, there were some aspects of Japanese life and culture that really surprised me (in good and bad ways.)

Here are some weird and wonderful things that I found surprising in Japan. They might surprise you too. 

1) Politeness

picture of japanese geishas

Perhaps I’ve been in Korea for too long, but in Japan I was really surprised by how polite strangers were. People would allow me to get on the bus first, cars would let me cross the road, and passersby would apologise if they bumped into me. All of which is in stark contrast to my experiences in Korea.

Older people were particularly kind and friendly (even to foreigners!!!!!). On more than one occasion on my short trip I gave up my seat on the bus for an elderly person, who proceeded to thank me profusely and beam a big smile.

2) No bins anywhere

picture of japanese bins
A rare sighting of two bins on the streets of Kyoto, met with elation.

Now for something a little less positive. Where on earth are the bins?!

I had been warned about this before my trip, but Japan has a real lack of bins on the street. They’re so rare that on multiple occasions I was forced to put rubbish back into my bag until I got home. The horror!

Considering how Japanese streets and cities are famously so damn clean, this was a real shock. It’s definitely one of the things I found most surprising about Japan. 

3) Curry everywhere

picture of japanese curry

Here’s a little something about me: I love curry. Indian curry, Thai curry, and now, apparently, Japanese curry.

When I thought about food in Japan, I pictured a tonne of sushi, ramen and tempura. I had no idea curry was so popular, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it on menus at almost all Japanese restaurants. 

If, like me, curry flows through your veins, Japan might be the place for you.

4) Block cars

picture of japanese cars

I know, “block car” isn’t the ~technical~ term for these vehicles. But that’s what they look like to me. And I’ve never seen so many before.

While I was in Osaka and Kyoto I saw these dinky squished-faced cars everywhere. Are they electric? I’m not sure, but they are definitely funny little things. I don’t quite see their charm. The Japanese clearly do!

5) Cleanliness

picture of japanese street

You’ve probably heard about this before. Japan is exceptionally clean. The streets, restaurants, even the subways are always free from rubbish and grime, even in the big cities.

Osaka was by far the cleanest city I’ve ever visited (with Kyoto not far behind). It’s a huge contrast to London’s filthy streets and underground. It’s nice to know I probably won’t be catching cholera from jumping into a muddy puddle here.

6) Lovely toilets

picture of wc

Living in Korea drastically lowered my expectations for toilets. Squatters? Normal. An overflowing loo bin? I’d expect nothing less. Toilet roll? A blessing.

By comparison, visiting the bathroom in Japan was like going to a luxury spa. Whether the toilets were in a restaurant, subway or another public space, they would always be clean (of course), nicely decorated and well equipped. Every toilet I visited also had those high-tech bidet seats, which I am too terrified to embrace even now…

As someone who really cares about where I do my business, Japan certainly exceeded my expectations.

7) Old school taxis

picture of japanese taxis

This is something I found quite interesting. Most of the taxis across the cities are super retro. I have no idea why this is the case, but seeing lines of taxis that would better fit in in 1978 than 2018 was pretty cool.

8) Smoking inside

picture of cigarettes

In the UK, smoking in restaurants and bars has been banned since 2006. The days of sitting in a nice restaurant surrounded by a cloud of smoke are a distant memory. Eating out in Japan was quite the throwback.

Smoking inside, if you ask me, is gross. It’s dirty, unhealthy, and a sure way to put me off my food. Thankfully I only encountered this relaxed smoking attitude a couple of times, but it’s definitely one things I found most surprising about Japan. Yuck.

9) Vending Machines

picture of japanese vending machines

The approximate number of vending machines per square mile in the U.K.: 0.003

The approximate number of vending machines per square mile in Korea: 2

The approximate number of vending machines per square mile in Japan: 287

Yes, these stats are made up but I’m 86% sure they’re close to accurate. In Japan, there are vending machines EVERYWHERE. Selling just drinks.

It’s quite comforting to know that you’re never more than 100 meters from a bottle of water, Fanta, or black coffee. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and I’m here for it.

10) No one crosses the road

picture of japanese crossing

And here we have the most bizarre thing I noticed in Japan. If the light is red, no one crosses the road. Ever.

In the UK, there’s no such thing as jaywalking. You can cross the road wherever and whenever you like without fear of fines/arrests/execution. I didn’t even know what the word “jaywalking” meant until I moved to Canada.

In Japan they seem to take the “no jaywalking” law to the next level. Even on the smallest roads, where there are no cars in sight, people will wait for the little man to turn green before they cross. It says a lot about how seriously the Japanese follow the rule of law, and it’s quite a ridiculous and amusing sight!

And there you have it! 10 things I found surprising about Japan. Do you agree?

Japan is a fascinating place that’s full of hidden surprises. Get over there and check out those lovely clean toilets for yourself – but don’t forget to obey the little red man!

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Charlie Semmence

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Seasoned traveller, writer and food-lover from Essex, UK. Loves city breaks, adventurous trips to distant lands, and writing all about them.

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