Japan is an extraordinary country and, if you are European like me, sometimes you will probably feel as if you were visiting another planet. In fact, there are so many peculiar things in Japan that it can be extremely difficult to write down a list such as this one. There are plenty of fun and interesting facts about Japan and its culture, I just picked up the 10 that struck me most. Some of these have been part of my day to day during the 15 days I spent there.
- Konbini are the typical convenience stores in Japan; FamilyMart, Lawson and 7-Eleven are the most well-known chains. They are open 24/7 and therefore can save your life if you are hungry at night, if you realize you forgot your toothbrush, but also if you need any type of service, such as booking an hotel, sending a parcel, withdrawing cash at an ATM machine, or accessing the internet. The Japanese can also pay their bills here. If you are walking around in big cities, you will literally find a Konbini at every corner, but they are also present in rural areas.
- There is only one thing in Japan that can save your life more than a Konbini: the drink vending machines that you will find everywhere, in subways, train stations, bus stations, schools, offices, public parks, next to any type of shop. Here you will find a varied selection of bottled and canned drinks: among them, water, sodas, teas, and sport drinks. This can be handy if you are walking around the city on a very hot day!
- While visiting Okunoin cemetery in Koyasan, but also in other temples, I noticed that several Buddha statues wore red bibs. These represent offers to dead children: their mother leave them on the statues to bring them luck in the afterlife.
- During my trip I took a lot of trains, on long distances but also to move around in big cities. Well, I was fascinated and shocked at the same time by the number of people who fall asleep on the train. First of all, because they fall asleep and completely leave their personal belongings in thrall to pickpockets (but apparently no one would steal your phone in Japan, while this behavior would not be safe at all in European or US cities, hence my reaction). Then, because I realized that this is often the consequence to a very simple thing: the average Japanese who lives in the outskirts of the city and commutes every day lives a very tiring life. The Japanese have a long working hours culture; if you add another 2 hours of commuting (or more) per day, you would quickly realize that surrendering to sleepiness while on the train is a necessary hack in order to gain more sleeping time.
- Another peculiarity, on Japanese metro trains, is the existence of the so-called “Women Only” passenger cars. These were created in order to protect women from random gropers that would take advantage of full train passenger cars to let their hands slip here and there. During peak hours, only women can access these carriages. You can recognize them from the pink signs on the platforms and on the car.
- While walking around, you will be seeing some weird places who look like the slot machine rooms in Vegas. These places are very noisy (some kind of video-game music is played inside, and the volume is pumped up) and full of flashing lights: they are Pachinko parlors. Pachinko is the typical mechanical arcade game in Japan, and it is also a gambling device (hence the parallel with slot machines). In Pachinko parlors, you will see rows of humans sitting in front of machines, as if they were hypnotized by the game (and, partly, by the music and the lights).
- People often use surgical masks to walk in the street, but also when they are inside. You will see this everywhere, starting from the airport to the shopping areas, or inside the metro or any office. This is mainly due to hygienic reasons: Japanese people do not want to breathe their germs all over the place when they are sick. But surgical masks are also a protection against hay fever, and this is the reason why they are even more common during the spring.
- On a sad note, I recently read scaring stats about karoshi: this word indicates suicide for too much work. As previously mentioned, the Japanese tend to work very long hours, and the corporate life is very strict and full of hierarchical rules. This is why karoshi has become a reality: as people drown in work, their life becomes mix of stress and anxiety, and they end up seeking the extreme relief in suicide. More than 200 people loose their life this way in Japan, every year. As work-life balance is more and more valued in the Western culture nowadays, these stats are very scaring.
- Most of the restaurants in Japan display plastic replicas of their available dishes. The replicas are generally exposed in a window near their entrance. This will help you getting an idea of what is on the menu: it is indeed helpful for tourists who don’t speak Japanese. In case you don’t find the replicas, don’t freak out: it is very likely that the menu will have pictures. You just need to point your finger at the dish that inspires you most!
- One of the things I noticed while walking around in Japan is that girls tend to walk with their feet pointed inwards, which I found weird. In Japan, this is considered a nice way to walk for women, as this is how you should normally walk while you are wearing a kimono or yukata (which is basically the home version of a kimono). Besides that, the pigeon toe (the common way to describe this way of walking) can also be a consequence of sitting in seiza since the childhood. In fact, this position requires folding one’s legs underneath one’s thighs, while resting the buttocks on the heels, constantly weighting on them and pushing the toes inwards.
I am sure you will notice these things if you are traveling to Japan. If you have already been, I am would like to know which curious things surprised you most!