Going to Japan I had a clear picture in mind of what I expected to find there. Some of those expectations were based on the glimpses of Japanese culture I encountered abroad, others were influenced by the Media representation of this country. As usual, the reality turned out to be very different, and in many ways better, from what I had in mind. Here’s a summary of the ten things that surprised me the most during my visit to Japan.
When people used to ask me about my favourite cuisine, I had usually replied “Italian and Japanese”, with the latter referring mostly to noodles in various forms and sushi. Coming to Japan, I had expected to find sushi on every corner, and it came as a bit of a shock to me when for the first few days in Tokyo, my husband and I did not encounter a single place resembling Yo!Sushi. Instead, it seemed that the culinary scene predominantly featured ramen and a whole variety of restaurants specialising in food I had never heard of before. Instead of raw fish we kept on running into restaurants serving raw beef and had a chance to try monjayaki, a kind of omelette one fried themselves at their table, and octopus balls called takoyaki. While we eventually managed to find some good gyoza and sushi places, I was quite surprised at the variety that Japanese cuisine offered.
2. Goodbye shoes
While I knew about the Japanese tradition of removing shoes before entering the house, the request to remove our flip flops when we entered a restaurant came as a bit of a shock. In Kyoto, many cafes and restaurants had the dining area situated at the slightly raised platform and a genkan at the entrance, where the guests were asked to remove their shoes. A waitress would put your footwear away into a cupboard, and you would enter the eating area barefoot. Sitting in an elegant restaurant, wearing socks and slightly oversized slippers was a slightly odd experience.
3. Matcha everything
While I knew of green tea’s popularity in Japan, I had massively underestimated the presence of matcha in Japanese people’s lives. Not only can one order matcha tea in most cafes, but the matcha powder is used to flavour anything from chocolates to bread. Within a single day I would have a matcha flavoured sweet bun with my matcha latte, followed by the green sweet bean paste bun and matcha ice-cream. Even the chocolate kit-kat in Japan had the characteristic bitter taste of matcha green tea.
The image of porcelain faced women clad in elegant kimonos is probably one of the first things that come to mind when we think of Japan. While Geishas, or Geikos as they are known in Japan, still exist, they are a much rarer sight that one might expect. You can still encounter them as some tea ceremonies and performances of classical dance and music, but the pleasure of seeing a real geisha is likely to be a pricey one. During first days in Japan, many tourists wrongly assume they have sighted a geisha, while in reality they saw an ordinary Japanese girl dressed in kimono for a religious ceremony, or even more likely, a Chinese tourist in a rental costume.
Speaking of religion, it seems to play a much bigger part in the lives of the Japanese than I had expected. Buddhist temples and shinto shrines can be found at every corner and provide an interesting contrast to the hyper-modern side of the Japanese life. What is interesting as well is the fluidity of the religion. Shinto and Buddhist rituals often go hand in hand, both occupying the same public space and co-existing in peace. It would appear that the Japanese spiritual life is big enough for everyone.
6. The unassuming style
While the western Media jumps at any opportunity to report the latest Japanese fashion quirks, the over-sexualised, manga-like dresses are actually a rare sight in Japan. The majority of the public seems to choose a more conformist, down to earth style. Most of the Japanese people we’ve encountered wore comfortable and practical clothes in unassuming colours and patters. The simplicity seemed to be in fashion, showing a very different side to the Japanese culture than the media portrayal we’ve been fed.
7. Public courtesy
The chances are that you have seen the pictures of people wearing white surgical masks in public. While many of us outside of Asia may have assumed that the masks are worn to protect the individual wearing them from pollution or germs, most members of the Japanese public actually wear it as a common curtesy to prevent others getting sick when they themselves are going down with a cold. Throughout our stay in Japan I couldn’t help but feel like amazed at how socially conscious and respectful of others the Japanese are.
8. The art of omotenashi
We have all probably heard by now about the long hours and hard work the Japanese employees are known for, but it wasn’t until I visited the country that I had a chance to witness the pride people draw from their work. While the customer service in UK is often considered fairly important, it is the Japanese who take it to the next level. The kindness and attentiveness that characterise their customer care and hospitality sector are so unique that the Japanese have a term to describe their approach to quality service – omotenashi. From hotels through shops and even at McDonald’s, the individuals in customer serving roles were incredibly respectful, polite and appeared to draw a sense of satisfaction from the work well done, regardless of what that work was.
9. Vending machines
Japan is brilliant at applying practical solutions that make the life of the public just a little bit easier. One of such simple yet well thought out initiatives includes the vending machines that can be found everywhere, to help keep people hydrated. In a country that gets really hot and humid in the summer, the machines dispensing affordable soft drinks and bottles of water, were a true saving grace us while exploring the country. Aside from supporting our hydration however, these machines can tell us quite a lot about Japan. In a country fascinated with automation which also happens to have low migration rates and an ageing population, the vending machines selling drinks and food, have become a convenient and economically savvy alternative to convenience stores. According to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association, there is now one vending machine per every 23 people in the country.
While the West is in the midst of discovering minimalism and the art of simple living, Japan has seemed to have had embraced the concept a long time ago. Alongside the thriving consumerism, many of the Japanese interiors still remain minimalist in style. In most restaurants and traditional establishments the interiors remain spacious and kept in the sparse aesthetic of zen minimalism. Many private houses, due to the limited storage and the frequent earthquakes, also often remain uncluttered, with the gadgets and items of common use designed to make the most of the available space.
I enjoyed the surprises I encountered during my trip and the sense of wonder they installed in me. One of the best things about traveling is the realisation that our way is not the only one, that there are places out there that have different approaches than ours, and perhaps can offer us new perspectives to learn from. For me one of the biggest lessons from Japan was the reminder of how biased our perceptions of others can often be. It is easy to pigeon-hole someone and stereotype until we’ve come to get to know them better. Next time, rather than relying on the Media portrayal and the voices of public opinion, I will make sure to seek an understanding first hand.