I am traveling and working remotely on my startup from Japan. As I travel, I keep making notes of things that surprise me that I share with my friends and family. In no particular order, below is a summary of 20 oddities.
Riding a taxi is a luxurious experience
Taxi cars in Japan are gangster: they are spacious, interiors are clean, drivers are wearing suits, and the doors open and close automatically. This goes for all the taxis in any of the cities that we have visited. Every ride is comparable to what you would expect from Uber Lux. The downside is that they are pricey. A two mile trip will offset you about USD 10. Because of the price we stopped using taxies pretty quickly and switched to public transport.
Public transport is reliable and cheap
Public transport is reliable and cheap, but sometimes confusing, e.g. some train journeys require you to figure out the distance you will travel and to buy a ticket equal to that distance (as opposed to a ticket based on the final destination). Some buses are alighted from the back and you pay upon leaving the bus. Other buses you enter from the front and pay upon entry.
Streets are quiet even when they are full of cars
I cannot tell confidently if this is because of the city architecture, how cars are made or how people drive, but even when crossing the busy streets of Kyoto and Osaka, you are not threatened by the sea of cars. Even the sounds of bicycles were more noticeable than the cars.
Speaking of crossing the streets — people do not jaywalk. This one is bizarre to me (in the UK everyone jaywalks). Even if it is late at night, you are in a narrow side street, and there are no cars in sight — people stand and wait for the traffic light to turn green. The only couple of people I saw cross the red light seemed to be in a rush and apologetic about it. As far as my search goes, there isn’t even a law against jaywalking in Japan.
Articles about Japan’s ageing population is a common sight on Reddit /r/worldnews subreddit. However, it is hard to comprehend what it actually looks like before you see it with your own eyes. Walking in the streets of Kyoto and Osaka, one gets an impression that 10 out of every 20 people are past their 60s, 5 past their 30s, with the rest a mix of 20ish looking people, and a rare sight of kids/ teenagers. That being said, despite the old age, people look healthy and energetic.
Sparkling water is not popular
An odd thing to single out perhaps, but sparkling water does not exist in convenience stores. There are hundreds of sugary tea & coffee drinks, many still water brands, there is one soda brand, but there just isn’t sparkling water anywhere.
A pleasant surprise, though is hot drinks section. Most of the convenience stores have a heated shelf with hot drinks.
Perhaps it only surprises me because I have been living in the UK the past decade (cash payments more or less do not exist in everyday expenses), but in Japan everyone expects you to pay cash. This includes vending machines, ticket machines, restaurants and public transport. Similarly surprising, Japan must be the only country that I have been to where coins are actually useful and often enough to pay for transport and groceries, e.g. there is a coin equal to ~5 USD (500 JPY).
A lot of people (including cashiers, waitresses, receptionists) do not speak a single word of English. We haven’t met anyone outside of our hotel reception who speaks enough English to make a conversation. Simple everyday tasks like ordering food at a restaurant (this includes most of the high-end restaurants) are cumbersome, and not all locals enjoy the experience of trying to understand you. We have seen couple of restaurants with signs on doors along the lines of “No Japanese — No service. Sorry.” Lucky for me, I am traveling with my girlfriend who knows enough Japanese to get us around.
Lack of English can be fun though. On our first night in Osaka, I was tasked to go buy ice cream. My girlfriend asked to buy either vanilla or chocolate. This shouldn’t require much English. However, in the store I found hundreds of different types of ice cream. None of the labels are English. They are all using some form of anime illustrations, and none of them look like what I would expect to be on a vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Long story short, I bought two that had the most similar colour. Upon returning I found out that I bought light mayo and red bean ice cream. For what it is worth, light mayo ice cream is pretty good (reminds of mascarpone ice cream, with a slight aftertaste of mayo).
Toilets are great 🚽
There is something extremely satisfying about the usual waking up middle of the night and stumbling to the toilet routine, replaced with a toilet that greats you by automatically opening the lid after detecting your presence, turning on the lights, and playing calming sounds (e.g., sounds of waterfalls). As you take a seat, you feel that the seat is preheated to the body temperature. When you are done, an oscillating stream of water washes your butt. With your butthole as clean as it has ever been, you just walk away and the toilet cleans itself. Some toilets even have a butt dryer (although I have not experienced that). And there is a remote control.
The Internet is fast
WiFi is everywhere. However, if your work requires low latency and connection to Europe, then keep in mind that the fibre optics cable connecting Japan to the UK is ~15k kilometres long. Even at the speed of light, that is a 50ms trip. In practice, this translates to a latency of ~200ms.
Foods have types
Yakiniku, Sukiyaki, Izakaya, Kaiseki, Okonomiyaki, Shabu-shabu, Yakitory, Sushi, Teppanyaki. All of them describe a rough idea of what the food is going to be, e.g. Most of the restaurants in Japan (and other parts of Asia) are explicit about what type of food they serve. It is odd to think that such categorisation does not exist in the Western World. In Europe, we mostly categorise restaurants by country of the food origin (Mexican, Greek, Italian). The only food categories we have are high-level attributes such as dumplings, pancakes or soup, and those are rarely used to describe an entire restaurant.
Public baths are odd
If you go to your hotel SPA, there are going to be 4 things: sitting showers, hot bath, cold bath, and dry sauna. You first take the sitting shower where you wash yourself with soap. This is mandatory. Standing up is rude. After that you sit in the hot bath. Afterwards, you take a shower again, dry yourself and leave. I don’t know how that is different from taking a bath in your hotel room. That said, I got into a habit of doing it daily.
Gaming arcades are odd
Everyone knows about people being insanely good at arcades. Seeing it with your own eyes can be mind boggling. People playing dancing games blindfolded, backwards, etc. However, the most surprising part was the popularity of the claw games and the prizes. They are everywhere and they have the most unexpected prizes. We saw everything from teddy bears (what you would expect) to chargers, cookies, mouth refreshments, and sausages.
People narrate what they are about to do in their jobs, e.g. a bus driver will announce every time he is slowing down, making a turn or starting to drive after a stop. A waiter at restaurant will narrate as she prepares the dish “I will now put noodles in your dish”. A masseur will tell before touching a new body part on your body, etc.
Plastic is used everywhere
Every purchase by default is put in a plastic bag. Plastic bottles and containers are used for the tinniest of merchandise (e.g. individually packages strawberries).
Rooms are tiny
I knew that that will be the case, but still — transitioning from a private house somewhere in Indonesia to a 25, 20, or 15 square meter flat takes getting used to.
Some other things that caught my eye:
- You always use both hands when handing anything, e.g. handing or receiving a bill is always done with both hands.
- Red beans is often a dessert. This is odd to me simply because I grew up eating different types of beans as the main dish.
- There are no trash bins. If you have any trash, you have to carry with yourself to your hotel/ home. Despite that, we have not seen a single piece of trash anywhere on the ground.
- It is cold. I always had an impression that Japan is an always warm country. It can get freezing cold.
- Gyms are occupied by elderly. The couple of gyms in the city that I walked past were predominantly occupied by elderly people (age 60+).
- Most door locks you turn clockwise to lock and anti-clockwise to unlock and(the inverse of how it is in Europe).
- Cashiers in supermarkets place your purchases in baskets, that you then carry away to pack away from the counter.
Culture, nightlife, food
I came here to work and to have fun, expecting to have loads of fun, and I was not disappointed. Japan cities are filled with museums that include sake tasting, learning ninja skills, etc. Afternoons can be spent visiting beautiful gardens with cute miniature bridges and rock gardens within. Spend evenings enjoying amazing foods, playing in arcades and watching very Japanese shows.
Working remotely from Japan
In terms of working while traveling around Japan, all hotels have spacious receptions with fast Internet. A lot of the times there are foreigners sitting in these guest rooms with their MacBooks and familiar IDEs on their screens. The only downside is resisting the constant urge of wanting to go and explore the city. However, hotels are pricey. If you are traveling on a budget, scout for AirBnb’s and you might get lucky, e.g. I needed a quite place with no bells and whistles (a remote place to work from undisturbed) and I found an AirBnb near Tokyo for just USD 19 night.