I spent three months in Japan last year and I learned so much about the country and its culture. Japanese culture is incredibly different to western culture and in many ways this is for the better. So I thought I’d share a few of the more unusual and wonderful things about Japan that you might not know.
1. Everyone owns a bike
I’m not kidding, everyone of every age owns a bike and they ride them all the time. For people in Japan, it’s a way of life. It’s common for adults to ride to work and children to ride to school, and you’ll often see a parent riding with one child in front and one behind on the same bike. It’s wonderful to see four or five bikes locked outside a family home and I think the UK could really take a leaf out of Japan’s book in getting more people involved in cycling.
2. Strawberries are surprisingly expensive
Although they’re not my favourite fruit (mangoes, before you ask), I love strawberries as much as the next person. But it’s just not feasible to buy them in Japan, unless you want to burn a hole straight through your wallet. If you can actually find them in your local supermarket, they usually cost at least 1000 Yen, which is approximately £8 (or $10/€9.30), and that’s only for a small punnet (I’m talking 7 strawberries). The cheapest I’ve seen them is 650 Yen (£4.70/€5.50/$5.86), and the most expensive 1400 Yen (£10.14/€11.86/$12.64). I’ll be sticking to bananas, I think.
3. Omiyage is more than just a gift
Omiyage is a type of souvenir or gift that Japanese people give their coworkers after coming back from a trip. Usually, it’s a box of small, often sweet, foods that are individually wrapped and can be given out to each colleague or left on their desk. The food is normally a local delicacy or famous treat from the place they visited, and boxes vary hugely from region to region. What’s important to note, thought, is that omiyage isn’t just a present. It’s a display of care and respect for coworkers, and can be a serious social faux-pass if you don’t turn up with something. Japanese people will often spend hours in shops selecting the perfect omiyage for their colleagues and will gain a lot of satisfaction from giving them out come Monday.
4. You have to take your shoes off when you come indoors
It’s considered polite in Japanese culture to take your shoes off whenever you enter someone else’s home. There will usually be a shoe rack or large space at the front of the house where all the shoes are kept, and if you try to go further with your shoes on, you’ll be asked kindly to remove them. The same goes for temples and shrines, and to some extend hostels and hotels. If you’re a foreigner or a tourist, you’ll be granted some leniency for not knowing this, but Japanese people grow up learning this as a social norm.
5. Eating and drinking while walking or on the train is considered rude
While most countries have no problem with you snacking and drinking on the train, it’s considered impolite in Japan. Most people will normally eat at home before or after travelling, or if they need a snack, they’ll eat it standing outside a 7/11 convenience store and then go to catch their train. As a result, Japan has very little litter.
6. You can get matcha-flavoured everything
You name it, and there’s probably a matcha (green tea) version of it. Coffee shops all offer matcha lattes, there are matcha swiss rolls, matcha chocolate cakes, matcha kit-kats, sushi, ice cream, tempura, milkshakes, and more. You can get it in virtually everything, and it tastes wonderful.
7. It can be difficult to eat out if you’re a vegetarian
Although most people know that Japan is a very fish-heavy country, it’s also a surprisingly meat-heavy country. If you go out to a restaurant, most of the dishes on offer will be beef, pork, or chicken, and it’s rare to be able to find one with just vegetables. Even then, the broth will often be meat-based, as my friend and I found out when she asked in Japanese: ‘Do you have anything vegetarian?’ And the server responded ‘Yes this one’, pointing to a dish that had a pork broth. Japan is definitely becoming more open to vegetarianism and veganism, with more of these types of restaurants opening up, but it can still be a little tricky if you’re eating out. It’s easier, as it often is, when cooking things for yourself.
8. Slurping your noodles is totally normal
A lot of people think that slurping ramen (noodles) is a positive gesture to the chef; a show that you’re enjoying the meal. This isn’t really the case. In Japan, ramen is made up of noodles (and often veg/meat/extras) cooked and served in a broth. The broth often holds the rich flavours, so to make sure they’re getting the full flavour of the dish, Japanese people often slurp the broth to get a good helping of it with the noodles. Remember they eat with chopsticks too, so it’s not like they ladle it up those.
9. You usually have to pay for museums
In the UK, we’re used to museums being free, but in Japan (and many other countries) it’s normally to pay for entry. Usually entrance fees aren’t too expensive, ranging from 300/400Yen (£1.50/£2, or $2/$2.65 or €1.70/2.25) to 1000Yen (£8/$10.55/€8.95), and sometimes even more for larger museums that hold rare exhibitions. The good news is, most museums offer discounts for children, school groups, and students, and the museums are always well worth the cost.
10. Japan is a very safe country
The crime rate in Japan is incredibly low. Crime has been falling for 13 years and in 2015 there was only one fatal gun shooting. The country’s homicide and robbery rates are some of the lowest in the world, and only 45 adults for every 100,000 are sent to prison, compared to 146 per 100,000 in the UK, and 666 in the US. Many argue that this is due to the large police force – in Toyko there are more uniformed police officers than in New York – and also the fact that people police themselves. As a result, you can walk the streets and feel safe no matter the time of day.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of the wonderful and unique aspects of Japanese culture, but just a few things that I found fascinating while I was there. Japanese culture is so nuanced that, as someone who is not Japanese, I can’t begin to do justice to the details in one post, but wanted to celebrate and raise awareness of just a few aspects of it.
Have you ever visited Japan or made plans to go? Which parts of the culture do you find most interesting? Would you like to see more posts like this? Let me know!