11 weird things about Japan, not even Buzzfeed would tell you.
Now, that we have the clickbaity headline out of the way, did we mention Japan can be a wonderfully weird place? This is not at all intended to blame or look down on Japan. We had an amazing time on this wonderful set of islands. But to the eyes of a gaijin (foreigners), there are some things about Japan, that are… curious.
If you come to visit Japan for the first time, we highly recommend watching “Lost in Translation” on the flight. Not only is it a great movie, it also serves as a little preparation for what you are about to experience. The first time, Japan will thoroughly confuse you (which will happen, it’s only a question of when), some scene of the movie will play in your head and you will be reminded, that you are not alone in your confusion.
With that being said, here is our list of 11 weird things, that were remarkable (or just funny) in Japan. Some left us puzzled, most left us smiling, all left us with a profound feeling, that we are in a slightly different world. One with “more intensity”…
Signs, be it warning signs, informational signs or just signs telling you what to do (or not to do). The signs are kind of a manifestation of the weirdness. We could easily just fill this post entirely with pictures of signs and it would end up funny. Most of the “weird” signs are obviously a result of “lost in translation”. It appears to be quite hard to translate Japanese to English (as further evidence, look up some restaurant reviews that are machine translated from Japanese to English – many are pure poetry! In a kind of random way).
Nonetheless, there are even signs with perfectly fine English, that just left us smiling. But see for yourself…
2. Operating Hours
I guess we should just be happy, that there are English signs, to begin with. Otherwise, you might even miss the operating hours being on display. And most things in Japan have operating hours. Japan has a very unique and quirky way of putting operating hours on display. It is not uncommon, to see something like “16 – 25” on a sign. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place opens at 16:00 (aka 4 pm) and closes at 01:00 in the night (aka 1 am). But somehow, the Japanese don’t like to roll over their operating hours, so they just keep incrementing after 24 (which is midnight, obviously). Clever, kind of cute and also ultimately pointless (since the rest of the world manages just fine without).
3. Public Wifi
Did I mention, nearly everything in Japan has operating hours? Of course, this also includes public Wi-Fi. Because why would you even expect the Wi-Fi to work 24/7? It would be simpler to not turn it off at night, yes. But what a world would we live in when people can use the internet at 25:00?
That is if you even manage to use the public Wi-Fi. Every single public Wi-Fi we tried to connect with was a horrible pain to get started. They all require you to click through pages of Terms and Conditions. Most require you to register. And they make that process as painful as possible.
Let me run you through the typical joy of using a WiFi in Japan. To use a typical public WiFi, you need to connect to it first – this is usually without password on the network itself (which is a terrible idea from a security perspective). Then you need to open a web-page without https (which is increasingly hard to find these days) to see the registration page. Normally, Apple devices have a detection mechanism to conveniently present those “captive portals”. But most Japanese WiFi’s managed to somehow circumvent this feature (and as a result destroy you browser states and generate many errors in your apps).
Anyway, I digress, you get to the registration page. If you are lucky, you just need to enter an email address and click through two to three separate pages of legal texts. At that point, you get to a page that informs you, that you can use the internet for 10 minutes now to complete your registration. Use those 10 minutes wisely, open your emails and find the registration email. It will contain a confirmation link to complete the registration.
Of course, all of this is incredibly slow and makes you want to throw your phone in the general direction of the people responsible for this mess.
And to top it all of, most places require you to go through a version of this every 30 to 60 minutes. Just to use a crappy, slow internet connection. It is infuriating! Especially when you come from South Korea, where public free wifi is public and free and fast. And every shop has the wifi password printed right on the receipt, granting you access to a fully pressurized fire-hose of wireless bits and bytes.
4. Vending Machines
So you managed to check your Instagram after 50 minutes of trying to connect to the damn wifi. Naturally, you are exhausted. You look up from your phone and when you look around, chances are high that you will see many vending machines for soft drinks.
For whatever reason, drink vending machines are everywhere in Japan. And I literally mean everywhere. In the streets, in parks, in temples. If you look around and you don’t see at least a few vending machines, you should get concerned. Chances are high, you are not in Japan anymore.
Of course, many of those vending machines sell not only cold soft drinks (in weird flavors), tea and coffee. Many also sell hot tea and coffee. In cans…
Of course, there are not only drink vending machines. There are many more. From daily produce, like eggs, to electronics to alcohol.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Japan seems obsessed with vending machines. Many restaurants (even fancy ones with Michelin recommendation) have vending machines for food tickets. You select your food, pay, get a ticket and later hand those tickets to the waiter. This is a weird process, but at least it get’s rid of any chance for miscommunication while placing your order. Also, the waiters don’t have to deal with money at all.
5. Call Assistance
There is one more type of vending machine you will likely have to interact with in Japan. The ticket machine for public transportation. This one has a nice “feature” that is good fora. surprise. The ticket machines have a button labeled “Call Assistance”. You probably won’t believe us what happens, when you press that button:
A little window in the machine opens and a human sticks their head out to assist you.
No, we are not kidding. Look for yourself…
6. Public Bus Transportation
So you got your assistance from the man inside the machine to buy a train ticket. Hopefully, you also asked how to ride the bus because there is zero chance you’ll figure this out on your own.
So let us explain how to use public buses in Japan. Of course, there are many different bus operators in Japan, all using slightly different systems (often even within a single city). But the following was true for all the busses we used.
First, you enter through the rear doors. Inside and next to the doors, you will find a little vending machine (did we mention Japan loves vending machines), that will hand you a little paper slip. Take it, it will have a number printed on it. The numbers usually go from 1 to 32.
Enjoy the bus ride. When you want to get out, use the front door. Somewhere above the exit will be a display containing a huge multi-column table. Look in that table for your number. Underneath the number will be the price you have to pay.
Yes, the bus tracks the price for every person pulling out a slip separately. Although everyone entering at the same stop will get the same number. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is.
But it doesn’t stop here. When you pay, you throw the money (along with your paper slip) into a slot next to the driver. But make sure to pay exact – the driver won’t give change.
You don’t have the exact amount of money? No problem, the Japanese have a solution for you. Can you guess it? It’s a coin vending machine (or change machine). Also next to the driver is the busses change machine. Throw some money in and it will return you the same amount in smaller coins.
So change your money first, then pay the exact amount, say thank you to the driver and exit the bus. Easy, isn’t it? Of course, this isn’t explained at all (at least in English) inside the bus or at the bus station.
Luckily, there is a simpler alternative. Get one of the many contact-free pre-paid cards, load it up and then just swipe your card when you enter and exit the bus.
7. Handling Money
This brings us nicely to the next surprising aspect of Japan. Not only are there about a dozen incompatible contact-free pre-paid cards that you can use to pay.
But the Japanese seem to have a very special relationship to their money.
In all the other countries we’ve been to, money bills usually look like people are carrying them inside their bum. The bills are either obviously fresh from the press, or they are crumbled, dirty, torn and disgusting. Not so in Japan. Every single piece of paper money, we’ve ever been handed in all of our time in Japan looked mint. No marks of excessive folding. Many didn’t even have a fold along the middle. For whatever reason, the Japanese treat their bills with a huge amount of respect.
This was creating a hard time for Mo, who wasn’t prepared for this. He felt quite embarrassed on multiple occasions, having to produce some carelessly folded bills from his pant-pockets or slim wallet.
Naturally, we wanted to learn from the Japanese and tried to observe how they do it. This made us realize, that most Japanese man carry a man-purse. A little leather bag, just big enough to store Japanese Yen bills without folding, some keys and a phone.
This was a purchase, we were not ready to make. Mo just started folding the bills more carefully. So when you ever visit Japan and you end up with a bill that has untidy folding marks, chances are high, it was in Mo’s pocket.
We have no good picture here. Therefore some random Japanese weirdness instead.
8. La Dolce Vita
Ok, your pocket is full of (neatly folded) yen and you are blessed with a beautiful and sunny day – what do you do? The European in us shouts “Find a nice cafe in the sun and enjoy la dolce vita!” However, this idea seems rather foreign to the Japanese mind. Not only is it nearly impossible to find any place, let alone a nice cafe, with outdoor seating. But it appears as if virtually every way to spend either time or money or both is indoors. Are the Japanese afraid of the sky?
However, if you are willing to say goodbye to the sky, there are some crazy ways to spend your pastime in Japan. There are some insane ice cream vendors in the basement of shopping malls (or entire shopping malls under the street). And then there are the video game arcades. If you can tolerate noise and flashy lights, there are some wacky games. Sometimes it’s already mesmerizing to just watch someone who is really good at one of those games smashing a high score.
However, the biggest drawback of all of those is, they cost money. And they all have a certain atmosphere that makes you feel like you should leave after you have consumed whatever you paid to consume. We really missed places, that are inviting. Where you buy an espresso and then spend the next four hours just enjoying life. But somehow the Japanese seem to have a very different understanding of the concept of leisure than we have.
9. Waiting in Line
One more thing, that is incredibly remarkable and weirdly satisfying about Japan is the ability of people to just wait in line. The Japanese have perfected waiting in line into an art-form. Not only can they patiently wait for their turn without shoving. But they also manage to form very long lines without being in the way of other people. On multiple occasions (like waiting for some Michelin-star ramen), we observed long lines, that were split.
To not block the entrance to the apartment building next door, the people just started to form a spirited second line on the opposite side of the street. And when new people arrived, and they accidentally missed the severed line, they were just friendly directed to the correct end.
This was a very welcomed change after the pushing and shoving we observed and suffered from in some of the other countries we visited.
The uncanny ability to just stand and wait in line is probably rooted in a very surprising level of trust that many Japanese show towards their environment and fellow humans.
This high level of trust shows itself in many ways. Patiently waiting in line to eventually get your turn is just one way. Another very obvious way is just letting your things out in the open. On multiple occasions did we observe Japanese going for the restroom (or similar) and just leaving purses, unlocked phones or laptops wide open on their table.
We also saw many expensive bikes (bikes that I wouldn’t leave on the street at all in Berlin) either completely unlocked or locked with a chain I could chew through.
Needless to mention, doors are usually unlocked and it is not too uncommon to enter a shop and having to wait a while for a shopkeeper to appear.
(Mo: This is probably my most favorite quirk about Japan. I would love to live in a society, where I don’t have to constantly mistrust my neighbor to avoid getting ripped off.)
For whatever reasons, the trust seems to end when it comes to umbrellas. Those obviously need proper locks.
Let’s all cheer towards Japan for being such a wonderful country. This brings us nicely to our last item in this list: Alcohol. The Japanese have a weird relation towards alcohol – which we haven’t grasped at all. It is weirdly contradictory.
Like so many Asian countries, alcohol is widely consumed in Japan. But unlike most other Asian countries, you don’t seem to lose your face when you get really drunk. The later the evening, the more often you see Japanese that are heavily drunk – and this seems to be ok. As long as you are drinking as part of a social event, this seems to be fine.
It is worth mentioning, that even the most horribly drunk Japanese is usually still quite polite and sticks to the rules as good as possible.
Possibly the biggest drawback of getting really drunk in Japan is that you won’t get home. The last bus or train is long gone. Taxis are incredibly expensive. This is one of the main reasons, there are so many capsule hotels in Japan. For some drunk Japanese employee to have a place to sleep before going to work the next morning.
But there are more weird aspects to alcohol in Japan. Since most Japanese don’t have a strong tolerance for this toxic, there is a strong tendency to dilute drinks. There are beers with laughably little ABVs (or laughably small container sizes – no idea what’s up with those). Even worse, whisky seems to be en vogue in Japan at the moment. But since they can’t drink a lot of this, the common way to drink this finest of the spirits is to put a shot in a huge mug and fill it up with sparkling water – completely ruining a possibly fine drink.
As a final example of Japans weird relationship towards alcohol, we want to mention the “all you can drink sake places”. All you can drink. Sake. Incredible…
We had a nice evening in such a place. You pay a flat entrance fee (I think about 30 EUR), you bring your own food (they even had plates, cutlery, table-bbq grills…) and then there were four giant glass-door fridges, filled with huge sake bottles. You just help yourself with the sake. Try as many as you like. Empty a bottle… Whatever. Feel at home… Very strange… In Germany, I would expect all-you-can-drink places to be overrun by teenagers. But in this place, it was mostly middle-aged people. A group that looked like a company event, some couples. A few friends… Just normal people, enjoying the wide variety of sake.
Congratulations! You made it through the list! This deserves a present. So here is a bonus entry just for you!
The Japanese also like to give presents. But their gifting culture is pretty weird. It is very common to take a rather cheap category of gifts and then get the most expensive item from that category as a gift. The result of this?
The Japanese like to gift fruits, like a melon. Single served, perfectly round, lovingly decorated melons. A fine melon can easily run for over 100€. It is totally insane.
But not just melons. If you go to a grocery store, you can find all kinds of single wrapped fruits in gift-boxes.
Even outside of gifts, this single wrapping of fruits and vegetables is another weird quirk of Japan. You won’t have a hard time finding single packaged, plastic-wrapped bananas or onions. As if neither of those would have a perfectly fine, bio-degradable wrapping to begin with…