10 Things About Japan That May Surprise You

A cute vending machine in Chinatown, Kobe

1. Cash Society

Although Japan is well known for being a world leader in new technology, the vast majority of people still use cash for almost all daily transactions. Coming from a place like New Zealand where all that I carry in my wallet are cards and I haven’t even possessed a $10 note in months, it takes some getting used to. You pay large sums of money like your monthly rent in cash and get paid your salary in cash too. It was so weird to get used to packing enough money I thought I needed for the day and sometimes my estimations were way off!

2. CD Sales

Like the cash thing, the concept of buying CDs is still very  much alive in Japan. When most of the world has moved on to buying digitally on iTunes and listening for free on Spotify, Japan’s CD sales are still pretty stable. Most Japanese music artists release their albums with bonus features like music videos and behind the scenes footage and the fans clamour to get their hands on it. However, what never fails to surprise me is how expensive these CDs and DVDs are!

3. Second Hand Shops

When you think about second hand shops, you immediately think dirty, ripped, manky old things that nobody would actually buy but when you get to Japan, prepare to think again. Japan has countless numbers of second hand shops that sell books, comics, CDs/DVDs, games etc. and all of these products are in pristine condition. Like, most of them look brand new but without the brand new price tag. Japanese people are well known for looking after their own property and this is the proof. If you buy these items and keep them in pristine condition too, you can even sell it back to these shops.

4. Vending Machines

This one may not be such a surprise but Japan has vending machines everywhere, literally on every street corner and they sell anything and everything. Of course you have your standard cold drinks but you also have hot drinks, hot soup, hot meals, ice creams, bento boxes, cigarettes and much more. There are actually more vending machines in Japan than there are people in New Zealand. Wait, what? Just let that fact sink in for a minute.

Häagen-Dazs vending machine at Kinkakuji Temple, Kyoto

5. Common Courtesy

Social etiquette while on public transport is still prevalent in Japan, especially if you’re out of the major metropolitan cities. Most people will stand up to give their seat to older people or parents with small children, they will talk quietly with each other on trains and not talk on mobile phones in buses so as not to disturb the peace. They will also diligently stand in a line on the left side of escalators to keep the right side free for people in a hurry. It can be a delight to watch.

6. Lacking Common Courtesy

But just when you’re thinking Japanese people are all considerate and lovely in public, they can also shock you. I’d always thought that holding a door open for the person coming in behind you was something anyone does automatically, a common courtesy, yet I was very much mistaken. Every time I would hold the door for someone out of pure habit, they would act so surprised and bow their head and go straight past me and through the door, with me still holding it. Like I was a doorman or something. And bad luck if there was more people behind that first person – you will be holding the door for all of them until there’s a break in the crowd and you can escape.

7. Cheap Alcohol

Buying things like fruit, veges and dairy products in Japan was expensive but alcohol was CHEAP. Oh, so cheap! Of course I’m comparing this to New Zealand prices, but I was shocked at how cheap you could buy alcohol, especially imported stuff. I was so used to spending a small fortune on drinks on a night out, but was pleasantly surprised after landing in Japan. I was also chuffed at the fact that there was no liquor ban in Kyoto like there was back home; I could walk the streets slurping whatever alcoholic beverage I liked and no one gave a damn. It was great!

8. Clubbing 

I don’t know about Westernised cities like Tokyo, but if you say you want to go clubbing to Kyoto friends, they will look at you a little weirdly. Clubbing in Kyoto seems to be reserved only for the loose or ‘charai’ people and when I did go clubbing with some foreign friends, I could see what the Kyoto people meant. It actually put me off clubbing in a way.

9. Bike Culture

If you bike regularly in New Zealand, you are usually serious about it and do it in the right cycling gear with the right bike for your purpose (road/off road/mountain etc.) but in Japan, biking was what everyone did out of necessity. It was your main transport, it was what got you from point A to Point B and you wore whatever you were wearing that day to ride it (even if you were in a suit or kimono!). With no helmet in sight, might I add. It was a stark contrast.

10. Fashion

Attending university everyday, I was always struck by how well dressed the students were – especially the ladies. So much thought and care went into their outfit everyday, whereas there I was in the T-shirt and shorts I threw on so as not to be late for class. They also wore high heels, like really high heels for classes even though our uni was on a hill, which meant slopes and uneven ground = high heel nightmare. They wore the sort of shoes I’d only consider wearing on a night out on the town. I think standards of dressing nice in Kyoto are particularly high because of its reputation of good taste and refinement.

Beautiful shoe heaven in Avanti, Kyoto

So, did you like my ten things?

What were you surprised about when you went to Japan?