Japan is truly another world. Not only did it offer us wonderful landscapes, magnificent temples and delicious food, it also gave us a chance to get to know its people. We tried to make the most of that chance, and in the end we were able to learn a little bit about the culture, but only superficially. We already knew that a few days of travel would not give us enough information.
Put aside what you have read in books, forget about promotional videos. The people you will meet in Japan will always surprise you. What you see is the tip of the iceberg. Even those who have been working on this subject for many years admit that they cannot understand the Japanese people and the complex structure of the society.
Some of the people we met while traveling in Japan and their behaviors were quite interesting and surprised us. Most of them were positive, but in some cases we thought “I’m glad we don’t live here”. We were determined to write down all these surprises on the first day of the trip. We knew that we would forget everything without writing it down, that we would not remember it when we returned home… And so it was…
In this article, I have tried to list some of the events that have stuck in my mind when I look back. These are personal observations, completely free from prejudices and open to interpretation.
Don’t change your seat
On the first day we took an empty train from Osaka airport to the city center. There were less than 10 passengers in our carriage of about a hundred people. The other cars were not busy either. We found our seats and sat down. Ten minutes after the train departed, the ticket agent entered the car. He checked the passengers on the tablet in his hand and passed by us. He stopped in front of the passenger sitting across from me. A short conversation took place between them. The passenger moved from the aisle seat to the window seat. The car was almost empty, we were approaching the last stop, so there would be no more passengers, but the attendant was obliged to warn the passenger who was not in his seat but in the seat next to him.
The donut that can’t be cut in half
We are on a tourist street in Kyoto, in a cafe famous for its snacks. A tourist bought one of their round cakes and an interesting dialog started between him and the attendant. The tourist didn’t want the cake to be wrapped because he was going to share it with his friend waiting outside. The attendant said with a sad face that he could not cut the cake. The more the tourist made a cutting gesture with his hand, the more surprised the attendant became. I think she was saying that there was no way she could cut the muffin. At one point I couldn’t stand it and even thought of handing him one of the unused plastic knives on my table. The tourist gave up, took the cake in one piece, paid for it and left the café. I don’t understand why that cake wasn’t cut in half. My guess: A – The attendant has never encountered such a request and could not take the initiative. B – Those who have been selling the same cake in the same place for centuries wanted to explain to tourists that it should be eaten in one piece.
The first striking feature of the Japanese is their calmness. There is a rush in big cities, but everyone is calm when getting on and off public transportation. This calmness is also noticeable when shopping. The attendant hands over your package with respect after turning it over to the finest detail. Even in the most crowded restaurants, the ritual of paying money is like a mystical rite.
Our closest contacts with Japanese people were at train stations and subways. Even when I was sitting in the seat next to me, I met people who bowed and greeted me. Even if we didn’t make eye contact, they would sit down after bowing. On intercity journeys, ticket checkers would turn to passengers and greet them as they left the carriage. Bus drivers thanked the passengers who got off, warned them before applying the brakes, and even made announcements on their microphones when slowing down for a red light.
We learned to get on the buses at the middle door and get off at the front door. We swiped our card when we got on and showed it to the machine next to the driver when we got off, so we knew how far we had traveled and how much we would pay. Like the bus version of a taximeter.
After visiting the Philosopher’s path in Kyoto, we found two seats in the back of the bus and sat down. It was rush hour and the bus was packed until it reached the city center. We approached the stop where we were going to get off, but it didn’t seem possible to break through the crowd and reach the front door. If we got up one stop earlier and moved forward, we could have had a compulsory dance with the other passengers on the moving bus. Anyway, we didn’t see any passengers getting up and walking to the door before the bus stopped. While I was brooding, the woman in the seat in front of me moved and pressed the get off button. The moment we were waiting for had arrived. The bus stopped. The woman got up. We started to follow her, she in the front and we in the back, until we reached the front door. The crowd in the middle was giving us as much space as we could pass. When we reached the front door and swiped the card, the bus driver thanked us. We thanked him back and then he thanked us again. A mutual thank you at the front door of a crowded bus at the busiest time of the day was a unique gesture here.
Is it that hard to say no?
In the early days, we often got lost trying to find our way on the subway. At such moments, we looked for an attendant to help us. We never met an attendant who said “no” to us. It was also difficult to get a negative answer to our questions. One time we couldn’t get our reserved subway tickets from the ticket machines on the Shinkansen platform. We later learned that we had to buy those tickets from the subway line two floors below the platform. When I asked the attendant, “Can’t we buy this ticket from this machine?” he didn’t say “no you can’t”. He said “this is the intercity train line”, he said “you can get it from different machines”, but he did not say “no, you cannot buy that ticket here”. We were going to buy a new suitcase, so we went to the floor of a big department store where they sell travel equipment, but there was no suitcase. We explained the situation to the clerk. He signaled us to wait and went to another attendant. A conversation started between them. Together they went to the phone near the cash register. We followed them. The phone was answered, conversations were had. Finally, the officer to whom we had first asked the question came to us. He told us that there was another store in the mall where we could buy a suitcase. We realized that this store didn’t have a suitcase, but they couldn’t say no. It was the first time a restaurant attendant said no to us. We had no reservation, the tables were full. I said, “We can wait.” He said, “It’ll take a long time.” I said, “We could walk around,” and he said, “All the tables are reserved tonight.” When I asked him, “Is it possible to get a table here tonight or not?” he put his left wrist on top of his right wrist and made that sign with a sincere smile. This friendly and polite staff member, who made the X sign with his hands, told us no for the first time with a body gesture, if not verbally.
Rules are more important than solutions
The Japanese adherence to rules is striking to anyone who visits this country. Every step of life is dictated by rules, and to violate one of them is worse than throwing a spanner in the works. Order is paramount and shortcuts are not accepted.
We completed our trip to Mount Fuji earlier than expected. Our ticket was a round trip and we had made our reservations in advance. When the trip ended two hours early, we wanted to go back to Tokyo and spend some time there. When we arrived at the station, we saw that there was a train to Tokyo a few minutes later. We were not sure if we could get on that train with the ticket we had. We hurried to an official and asked. His English was poor and it was difficult to explain. He was confused by the information on the ticket we showed him and our request to travel early. The departure time on the ticket was 17:35 and he told us that our train time was 17:35. We already knew this and reiterated that we did not want to take that train but another train of the same company that was currently on the platform. He kept saying “don’t rush, you have 2 hours before the train”, that is, he saw the ticket information and repeated the information that should have been given to us. While we were explaining with body language movements that we were in a hurry and wanted to get on the train on the platform, another attendant approached us and tried to understand the issue, of course, this took some time and the train on the platform moved. Later, when we researched the issue on the internet, we learned that we had the right to change our reservation and get on the early train. That attendant had probably never encountered such a request. In other words, no one with a ticket with the departure time in their hand wanted to take the earlier train or we didn’t meet the right person at the right time that day.
The first impression of visitors to Japan is cleanliness. Everywhere is spotlessly clean, but there are almost no garbage bins and no street cleaners. One inevitably wonders the secret behind this contradiction. You can give the answer yourself with a few days of travel. Japanese people do not distinguish the cleanliness of the streets from their personal hygiene. It is considered part of the daily cleaning program of students during their 12 years of school life from primary school to high school.
The garbage bin is an event in itself. All the streets and sidewalks of the country, especially in Tokyo and Osaka, are spotless. There is no garbage on the ground. We have not seen the opposite for 17 days, so where is the garbage? Not in bins because there are no bins on the streets. When you are walking, waiting at a bus stop or traveling on the subway, nobody is eating or drinking, nobody is producing anything that could be garbage. Therefore, there are no garbage bins. This is the same in the busiest tourist areas and in remote villages… There are many restaurants selling food on the streets. Everywhere there is a trash bin, either on the facade facing the street or inside. For example, you bought tempura. At that point, you have to finish the meal and throw the plastic plate into the trash can belonging to the café. If you say “I can eat and leave”, it is not possible because if you leave the trash in the trash can of another cafe, there may be tense moments. Anyway, according to them, it is rude to eat while walking. While we were eating the fries we bought from a cafe selling local Japanese delicacies in Osaka, a group of 7-8 students passing by us were looking for a trash can to throw the remaining Coke cans in their hands. They headed towards the trash can in front of the cafe. When they read the writing on the box, they walked away without throwing their garbage. It was not difficult to guess what it said: “This trash can is for our customers only.” Long live the Google translation app.
Your trash can be returned to you
The deer park in Nara was busy, almost overrun with tourists. We went into a store and looked for souvenirs. As we were walking on the main road of the temple, the clerk who had just answered our questions in the store rushed past me and handed a small bag to an Asian tourist in front of me. Then he bowed and went back to his shop. Inside the bag he gave to the tourist were two empty Coke cans and napkins. The tourist, probably not finding a trash can around, had entered the store and left the bag in the trash can instead of entering the temple with this bag. Realizing the situation, the clerk took the bag out of the bin, found the man, stuck the trash in his hand, greeted him and returned to the store.
The country is so clean that banknotes come out of ATMs like a freshly starched shirt and the money is not shoved haphazardly into anyone’s hand. In shops, hotels and even taxis, there is a small tray to put the money on. The money is first placed on this tray and then the other person gets their money.
The habit of cleaning is actually driven by practical concerns. In a hot, humid, crowded country like Japan, food can spoil quickly, insects and bacteria multiply. So good hygiene means a healthy life. Examples of ritual purification can also be found in daily life. Before entering a Shinto shrine, they wash their hands in the water basin at the entrance. Many Japanese take their new cars to the temple to be purified by a priest who waves a wand called an onusa around the car. This tool is even used to purify the land where new construction is to begin. Cleaning construction sites is an event in itself. The bodywork, windows and even the tires of the trucks carrying cement and the construction vehicles carrying iron are spotlessly clean.
The Japanese toilet, the most perfect of inventions
The toilet system in Japan is also an important issue that will surprise you. If you intend to visit this country, you may need to get detailed information about it beforehand. You have finished and are ready to flush, but there is no lever on the side or behind the toilet. No panic! There is a panel on the wall or on the side of the toilet seat with some shapes and Japanese letters on it… The flusher should probably be on top of the panel, but which one? There is no choice but to try… The Toto’s were a surprise for us too and we didn’t encounter any dirty toilets even in the most crowded streets or in the busiest subway stations. They don’t even let you feel embarrassed in these toilets. Some people flush the toilet to hide any unintentional noises, but no one thinks about wasting water when doing so. In Japanese toilets, a button to press in case of silence is designed for such times. It makes a flushing sound but no water flows. The most common brand we see in toilets also has a museum. We didn’t have enough time to visit the TOTO Museum, maybe next time…
Everyone happy in their own world
When you think of Japan, you might think of Tokyo’s flashy neon, Kyoto’s historic streets or perhaps Osaka’s cherry blossoms. These are like reflections of a dazzling charisma. But there are also plenty of magical places hidden deep in the mountains, each with a dreamlike landscape.
If you are in a subway station in Tokyo during rush hour, you will witness the world’s densest crowds. In the stations and carriages where all these people are running left and right, you are also alone with an uncomfortable silence. Businessmen in suits and elegantly dressed women travel without making a sound. Groups of friends also obey this rule. Except for the quiet whispering of a few young people and tourists, no one speaks. Passengers are holding phones, all of them reading something, and they do it with their phone screens close to their faces. A curious passenger cannot understand who is reading what. It is the same on the intercity trains. I saw a Japanese man in his 60s in the seat next to us reading a manga novel. When I got up to go to the restroom and walked down the aisle, almost all the passengers had either cartoons or comic books open on their cell phone screens.
I have heard from a few friends who have never lived in Japan, who have never been here, about their prejudices about Japanese people. However, the other side of the coin is different and social characteristics that can fit into a single mold are insufficient to get to know Japanese people.
You’re a stranger and always will be
If we accept that Japan is a traditionally conservative country, it is easy to conclude that it would be difficult for foreigners to live here. If you are a tourist traveling in Japan, you might suspect that you are not accepted by society beyond the simple niceties, and you are not wrong. Because you are not held to the same standards as the Japanese, you are a foreigner. This may be good for some and bad for others. The Japanese see themselves as individuals who can make the best decisions, who are kind in their personal relationships and who do not show their emotions. In other words, according to the Japanese hierarchy, they always control their place in society. Constantly smiling, they have no time to reflect the storms they are going through inside. To experience such moments, they have to wait until after work and be alone. It is in those moments that change slowly emerges. This rapid change is noticeable according to the rate of drinking. Streets, karaoke bars, pachinko parlors are full of people who cannot stop their repressed urges. Japan can be both an anime and a ninja country. On the one hand, there are descendants of samurai who adhere to their traditions, and on the other hand, there are individuals with strange behavior who know no boundaries in their fantasies. Those who come from abroad can easily see the difference in the system and grasp the level of interaction between people. The Japan you imagine and the Japan you see are not the same.
When we first arrived in Osaka, I noticed the narrow streets on the way to the city center by train. None of them had sidewalks. All of them were lined with electric poles and wires, destroying the cityscape. At first, I wondered how so many people could walk on streets with no sidewalks without interfering with traffic. Then, as I wandered down similar streets, I realized that it was not as difficult as I thought.
After eating our meal, we got used to all the staff thanking us loudly in unison on the way to the checkout counter. When we inevitably bowed and thanked them, we realized that this would continue. I had read that Japanese people are polite and friendly, but at the same time shy. I can’t say anything about their politeness, but I can’t say that they are warm-blooded people. Okay, they are helpful in everything. They take it upon themselves to rescue tourists from their difficult situation. They try to make people’s lives easier. They consider small details like pressing the ‘close the door’ button when leaving the elevator as ordinary behaviors, but they are also famous for their distance. They have red lines when it comes to foreigners. If you are a tourist and you are coming to the country temporarily, there is no problem, but their behavior can change during long stays and you are reminded of your foreignness at every opportunity.
There are so many surprises in Japan that we couldn’t understand how the trip ended. Over time, we began to appreciate the oddities. In this country where traditional behavior and modern life blend peacefully together, the glass towers of the country’s giant companies rise just beyond the Imperial Palace. Crazy festivals, incredible food, stunning landscapes, seductive history… Tradition and technology, religion and modern life – contrasts and harmony are evident at every turn.
We met its impenetrable etiquette, complex traditions and modern pop culture. We had the opportunity to chat with its kind people. We learned that even the frustrating moments we encountered became endearing over time. In short, Japan made us feel like we were in Japan at every opportunity. I will remember Japan fondly when I think about it. I will miss it even though I didn’t get to know it closely…