Japan is such an interesting place to a foreigner like me. No matter what you hear about Japan in the media, it doesn’t prepare you for what the reality is. Here are some photos and observations I took note of during my trip.
I had already been advised that sushi is not the mainstay food in Japan. In fact, I only ate sushi 3 times while I was there. The food we came across the most were:
• donburi (beef rice bowls, think Yoshinoya)
• “curry” (which is like a brown gravy with a little bit of spice)
• tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet)
• yakitori (chicken skewers)
We tried just about everything – my favourite new dish is called Omurice, which is rice wrapped in an omelette with gravy. So simple, but so delicious!
While the majority of restaurants we saw were local Japanese food, we also came across lots of Starbucks, KFCs and McDonalds. We did go to Starbucks and McDonalds – they taste the same as at home.
And we came across Red Lobster, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Denny’s and even a Sizzlers. We didn’t eat at those places so I can’t compare their menu to the Western counterparts.
At some fast food places, you place your order at a machine outside the restaurant and it spits out a ticket. You go inside and sit at the counter and your number gets called out when your food is ready.
We did not find food to be very expensive, it’s very comparable to how much we’d pay to eat out. So for a casual meal, it would be around $15 per person.
Many fast food places have a menu placemat at the counters, which show all of their menu items in pictorial form, along with the prices. All you need to do is point at the item you want to order!
Restaurants are often found at the top level of a shopping mall or a department store. The restaurants are laid out side by side and all you need to do is walk around on the floor and decide where you want to eat – very convenient. There are also massive food halls where you can buy food to take away:
Alternatively, there are buildings just devoted to food:
I also loved all the fake food displays:
At every place you go to, whether Starbucks or sit down restaurants, they provide you with an individually wrapped disposable wet napkin to wipe your hands before you eat. I fully support this practice coming here!
And yes, there really are vending machines everywhere: along the sidewalk, in the malls, in the train stations, in parks, etc.
The most prevalent product they sold were drinks: sodas, water, canned coffee, energy and sports drinks. I also saw vending machines selling ice cream, and cigarettes (separately 😛 ) I never did see any machines selling used women’s undies, sorry, I think that’s a myth.
We tried out a variety of Japanese snacks. We noted that their flavours aren’t as strong as what we’re used to in Canada. Their savoury stuff weren’t as salty, and their sweets weren’t as sugary. And it wasn’t a bad thing – it allowed the flavours to come through better, if that makes sense. Here are some pictures I took of stuff we snacked on.
The first thing that hit me about Tokyo was the density of the population. I’ve visited populated cities like NYC, Hong Kong, and New Delhi but nothing prepared me for the sheer volume of people just hanging out on the streets (especially in Shinjuku). We arrived in Tokyo on a Sunday evening and it was just wall to wall people on the streets. Don’t they have homes to go to? I just couldn’t comprehend it. Even on a random Tuesday afternoon, the streets would be filled with people.
Of course it wasn’t like that everywhere – even in Shibuya it wasn’t as densely packed. I’d say if you’re not a fan of crowds, do not visit Japan. To put it into perspective, there are 13.5M people in Tokyo, New Delhi is 9.8M, New York City is 8.4M, Hong Kong is 7.2M and… Toronto is a measly 2.6M! 😛
Most of the younger generation understand English, and speak it fine. A lot of the older generation can understand English, but do not speak it. I tried speaking some Japanese but the only thing I really got fluent in was saying “thank you!” (“arigatou gozaimas!”) Many signs and announcements (especially in the subways) were in both Japanese and English.
This is likely a huge over-generalization, but my observation about Japanese culture is that they value efficiency and politeness above all else. Common occurrences:
• The bill for your food arrives when your food is served to you. It’s not viewed as rude, it’s viewed as efficient – as soon as you’re finished eating, you can pay your bill without having to wave down the waitress.
• Smoking is confined to special smoking rooms or designated areas (restaurants still allow smoking, so there are smoking sections) – people don’t walk and smoke on the street. I love that!
• Bowing. Yes, what you see on TV is true. The Japanese bow a LOT. I found myself starting to bow back in response.
• There’s no tipping for restaurants or hotels. They’re paid a fair wage and customers don’t have to figure out how much to tip.
• There are arrows on the floors to help guide flow of pedestrian traffic – rule of thumb is stay on the left hand side. On escalators, stand on left and allow people to walk on the right side (this was confusing for me since it’s opposite of here!)
• Many people sport surgical face masks to either protect themselves or prevent the spread of illness in public spaces if they’re not feeling well. It doesn’t matter if you’re young, old, a nerd, a fashionista – people wear the masks without any qualms.
• It was quite warm during our visit on some days (28 C plus humidity) but we noticed that they don’t blast the AC like most other places we’ve visited (I love the blast of AC in Hong Kong subways and malls!) I suspect this is an effort to save energy / money.
This roughly translates to “awesome” or “cool”. And was uttered everywhere we went to…
Zoo: sugoi! (along with kawwaii! “cute”)
Tokyo Skytree: Sugoi!
Everything is SUGOI! 😛
It’s all about the train in Japan. The Tokyo subway is famous for how complex and wide reaching it is – you really can get everywhere on the subway. We also took the regional rails which took us to the various cities outside of Tokyo. And yes, trains are punctual.
Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t anyone standing at the platform pushing people and packing them into the subway trains – it does get crowded and personal space is nonexistent, but all of the pushing is done by the passengers themselves. There are agents who stand along the subway platforms to keep everything flowing but the automatic gates / barriers do all of the work.
Also, it’s not completely silent or orderly in the train stations. In fact, it was quite chaotic in the stations, there’s no neat flow of walking traffic – everyone walks wherever they want but everyone is polite and will move out of your way. People talk quite loudly on the trains but there are announcements that remind people to keep their mobile phones on silent and to refrain from talking on their phones inside the trains.
I enjoyed taking pictures of various signs on the subway. 😛
Bicycles are also a common mode of transportation. But they’re rather annoying because they’re allowed to be on the sidewalks. They’re supposed to stick to their own bike lanes but they don’t. So imagine walking down a crowded sidewalk and a bike is heading straight toward you. They also don’t wear helmets and some of the cyclists don’t look too steady on the bikes!
There are police stations dotted throughout Tokyo – they look like tiny one room offices usually at a street corner, with the word “Koban”
The sun rose at 4:30am! We learned this the hard way the first night when we left the curtains open when we slept. It was so bright at 4:30am we thought it was around 8am. Nope! The sun set at around 7pm.
Toilets with built-in bidets are the standard. They’re called Washlets. The toilets typically feature a bum washing mode and a female parts washing mode. And heated seats! Some also play a flushing sound to mask poopy noises. 😛 Some offer a deodorizing option. Both the SO and I finally tried using a bidet, and we’re both wondering why the trend hasn’t caught on in other countries!
Public washrooms are abundant and very clean. And you don’t need to pay to use them. And a lot of the women’s washrooms featured a separate powder room just for checking your makeup!
I was surprised to hear mostly Western music played in public places. I heard lots of Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, even The Weeknd… pretty much just whatever popular music is on the radio these days in the West, they played it there.
TV shows don’t have commercial breaks. At the end of the show, they show an infomercial that’s about 10 minutes long. Typical infomercial products include weight loss pills, weight loss gadgets, supplements to make you look more youthful, and kitchen appliances. I even saw an ad for Proactiv!
So, those are my random, general observations about Japan (with my very limited exposure, obviously! A 2 week visit does not make me an expert! 😛 ) If you have any questions, please feel free to ask in the comments!