For someone who moved to a new country but 3 months ago I feel I am quite well adjusted. I didn’t experience as much of a culture shock as lots of people do. I credit this to the fact that I spent 5 years taking lessons in Japanese language and culture prior to my move. Within the first week I had gotten used to the city, the trains, the food (and eating with chopsticks) and speaking in Japanese (though not well) on a daily basis. It may seem silly but I’m kind of proud of that. But like all new experiences I did have a few surprises along the way which I thought I would share. So here are a bunch of things, small and large, that surprised me since moving here divided into neat little categories for your convenience.
Tokyo is a very pedestrian city. There are people walking everywhere and comparatively few cars. In the suburbs you may find that you almost never see cars on certain streets, to the point where you forget they are roads at all and not just really wide footpaths. When a car does come through it can be quite surprising. This is all very new to me, particularly in such a busy city. Apart from the large amount of pedestrians, there are many cyclists on the footpaths and roads also. Often I feel I see more bikes around than people. Almost everyone seems to own a bike here. Not only this but it doesn’t seem to be a legal requirement to wear a helmet like in other countries. Many of the cars on the roads are very square in appearance, like little cardboard boxes on the roads. This is a style of car I have rarely seen in my lifetime before moving and now I see them everywhere. Another thing I have seen before is passengers in the back seats of cars not wearing seat belts. As I’m sure you can guess I was completely shocked by this. I must also add that apart from being obviously extremely dangerous it is completely illegal. I did some research on this and it wasn’t always the case, in fact, only in 2008 was it made a legal requirement for back-seat passengers to wear seat belts. Even so, as it is difficult to enforce there are many people (often children) who still don’t abide by this law.
Most people know that the Japanese eat raw food and that you can find a bunch of strange food items for sale here. I was expecting that so I wasn’t really surprised by this. There definitely were some things I was surprised by though. For starters, fresh fruit here is very expensive here and almost everyone I’ve spoken to here agrees, including the Japanese, neither my friends or I quite seem to know why though. Anther thing that really surprised me was that with most fruit, people will remove the skin before eating it. This includes everything from apples to places and even grapes. On the topic of grapes, the grapes here taste completely different from the grapes back home. In Australia we have red grapes and green grapes and they taste very similar. In Japan we have large dark coloured grapes called kyohou which taste like red wine. The other type I have seen here are small and round and taste exactly like the grape flavour used in lollies and drinks. I never knew when that flavour came from before as it tastes nothing like the grapes I had tried before. But it’s true, it’s not like strawberry flavour or orange flavour for example. Grape flavour really tastes like these grapes. Other things about food that really surprised me are the abundance of raw egg and things like offal. In Australia offal is around but it isn’t very popular and raw egg in foods is a very foreign concept. Perhaps the thing that surprised me the most is that the Japanese eat gristle. You know, the little pieces of cartilage that we would cut off our meat and avoid. I have seen that served here as its own dish and out of all the weird things I have seen this is the one in particular I cannot fathom. I have tried it but I really don’t understand it at all. Each to their own I suppose.
Health care and emergency services:
Shortly after arriving in Japan, I went to the doctor’s clinic to get a follow up prescription for a medication I was already taking he looked at me strangely and told me that not a single dose existed in the entire country. A medication that my med-student friend assured me is very commonly prescribed. This is perhaps one of the most perplexing things I have experienced as never in my life before this point has a doctor not been able to help me in any way what so ever. This is, of course, was not his fault however it did take me quite by surprise. Another thing different about the health care system is that some pharmacies only sell over-the-counter drugs. If you want to get a prescription filled you have to go to a certain ones. Another thing that surprised me is that the word for hospital (byouin) is used for everything from small clinics to actual hospitals and I honestly wonder how this doesn’t confuse people. It certainly confused me. On the topic of hospitals, I hear sirens all the time. I realise that I live in a big city with a large population but even so, the amount of emergency service vehicles I hear go past still seems to be more than it reasonably should. Despite Tokyo being a very safe city I do sometimes feel concerned about the amount of sirens I hear. Finally, Japan has 2 emergency numbers, 119 for ambulance and firefighters and 110 for police. It’s a small thing but it was still something I did not expect.
I had to bring this up because there are some things you need to know if you travel to Japan. Often public bathroom have no soap and/or hand dryers. Because of this it is good to always carry hand sanitiser and a small hand towel with you. Another thing to note, it is something I’m not sure I will ever get used to, is that there are lots of old fashioned toilets in women’s public bathrooms. The ones that are pretty much just holes in the ground. If, like me, using these is not up your alley be careful before you enter a cubicle. All of these things I actually knew about before moving to Japan but I was surprised at how frequent they actually were.
Now for everything else. Firstly, I knew Japan would be convenient but I had no idea how much so (but I’ve already written a full blog on that). Secondly, whilst I expected Japan’s drinking culture I did not expect it’s smoking or gambling culture. In Japan lots of people smoke and it’s still ok to smoke in a lot of public places, including inside buildings. I’ve probably done more passive smoking in the last few months than I have in the past few years prior to moving. If there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s cigarettes. In the case of gambling, I see pachinko (Japanese gambling machines) and slot places everywhere. Even some arcades have machines that are essentially gambling games without the name. Other things I was surprised to see, or rather not see, were common household machines such as ovens and clothes dryers. These are apparently are quite uncommon and most people live without them. The rubbish system can take some getting used to as well. Everything is separated between burnables and different types of recyclables, and there are almost no bins in public but the streets are perfectly clean. Perhaps the most surprising thing though is that for a country seemingly concerned with the state of the environment, everything is over-packaged and individually wrapped. You want a piece of fruit? That will be triple wrapped, boxed and placed in a plastic bag for you (unless you are in a super-market where you have to bag your own shopping). Which begs the question. Why? To me this all seems rather unnecessary. Other things I don’t understand include (but are not exclusive to) the amount of women exclusive deals in restaurants, cinemas etc., why the trains stop so early in the night despite the party culture and the fact that the left handed-taboo still exists here.
Un-expect the expected:
My final point is about preconceptions. For example, I was told when taking food from a shared platter it was culturally appropriate to use the reverse end of my chopsticks rather than the end you eat with. When I tried this I was laughed at and quickly corrected. It turns out that is a very strange thing to do here. Another thing I was told was to expect a lot of stares and even for people to ask for pictures because of my foreign appearance. The closest thing I have had to serious pointing or stares was when a child pointed to me and said ‘look mum, it’s kitty’ )as I was wearing a Hello Kitty t-shirt). My point is, of course there are some cultural things that you should learn if you ever wish to come to Japan. But don’t make too many assumptions about what is true and what is not. Come here, learn, and form your own conclusions. No matter how well you prepare there will be surprises along the way and that’s half the fun.