Welcome to Japan: Weird & Wonderful

“In Japan, you have no idea what they are saying, and they can’t help you either.  Nothing makes any sense.  They’re very polite, but you feel like a joke is being played on you the entire time you’re there”

Bill Murray

This was my first visit to Japan.  I wasn’t sure what to expect. So many people have asked me what I thought, and I had to think hard about how to answer that.  The only response I have been able to give is that I have never been so warmly welcomed anywhere, yet felt so alien.


Sake and temples are always side by side


Crowded in Tokyo!

It’s a fascinating country.  An ancient culture and customs almost impenetrable to outsiders sits alongside ultra-modern highrise buildings and bullet trains.  People were genuinely kind and wanted to help me.  I observed the very real care and consideration that Japanese people would have for each other.  The focus was always on another person’s needs before their own, a complete contrast to the ‘me-first’ culture in the Western world.  A sincere desire to help and to serve made me feel welcome, yet the reserved nature of the Japanese and my inability to speak the local language left me with the impression that I couldn’t get beneath the surface, that the real Japan was closed to me.


Helpfully this restaurant had a visual display to help guests decide what to order.

Even something simple, like finding somewhere for lunch became a mysterious adventure.  It was often hard to tell if it was a restaurant I was loitering outside, or a private residence.  If I had deduced it really was a restaurant, I couldn’t tell if it was open, what kind of food they served, if it were a cheap and cheerful or high-priced exclusive restaurant.  And even at the take away shops I didn’t fare much better – what food was within those meticulously packaged offerings?  However whatever I chanced when I ordered was always delicious.  No matter where I was – be it at a convenience store or a high-end restaurant – the food was fresh, flavoursome and presented like it were art.


The food was always delicious. This was one of my favourite meals.

I found it hard to engage with the quiet and reserved locals, although when I did they were incredibly kind.  At a foodhall in Tokyo Station on my way to Kyoto, by chance I sat next to a man whose daughters were on the same train as me.  He waited for me to eat, and then escorted me to the correct platform and made sure I knew where to stand and to wait before taking his daughters to their place.


Shinkansen, bullet train

On the train I noted how the ticket checkers, having moved through the carriage, turned to face the carriage and bowed in acknowledgement before moving on.  Bowing as a sign of respect was very common, among both young and old.  In fact even in a bar on New Years Eve I noticed the bartenders joined some customers with shots, then bowed deeply. As I was walking down one of the main shopping streets in Ginza, Tokyoa and marvelling at the massive shrines to consumerism I nearly stumbled across a Japanese woman leaving Dior with a recent purchase in a large bag, standing on the pavement and bowing deeply.  The shop assistant was in the store’s entrance and also bowing deeply.  I giggled to myself, thinking it’s a ‘bow-off’.


Ancient temples and modern day life in Japan

Consideration to others was evident everywhere, in little things like bars and restaurants that provided bags on the floor so your bags didn’t have to rest on the floor. I was always greeted with moist towelettes to wipe my hands at any restaurant, in hotels, on the train.  I loved crossing the street and hearing chirruping birds instead of the jarring beep that I was used to hearing.  Likewise on the trains, before the doors close there is a jaunty and uplifting tune kindly reminding me to “hurry up!”.  Taxi doors open automatically, and money was not usually handed directly to the server but placed on a tray.  I never heard a cellphone ring – phones were on silent in public places.  Many of these things I would love to bring back to Australia or New Zealand!


Winter days in Japan

Of course I can’t pass up a chance to talk about Japanese toilets.  I’ve yet to visit anywhere else with such sophisticated mechanisms!  At first I was terrified of what might happen when I started pushing buttons, but I soon grew to love the heated seats on the bitterly cold winter days.  I became used to the autoflush, and the automated sound of flushing – I guess so that others were not required to hear you.  Only once did I push the emergency button (accidentally, of course!), which to my embarrassment sounded alarms and summonsed a crowd of school children from the park nearby to the public toilet I was using.


Japanese toilets have all the bells and whistles…and everything else you can imagine!

For me, Japan was welcoming but impenetrable.  However it cast a spell nonetheless. I find myself thinking about the beauty, the simplicity, the culture, the language.  Japan creeps and seeps…… and leaves you wanting more.


Evening in Tokyo with the sun setting on Mt Fuji. Beautiful.



2 Responses to “Welcome to Japan: Weird & Wonderful”
  1. Chris Millar says:

    Hi, have just been reading this after I followed your comment on Jason from the food tour group Facebook page. I’ve just got home from Japan a week ago and found many of the same discoveries as you did. I felt like even though we were travelling around that we were only just scratching the surface of Japan and only really seeing what we were allowed to see at a tourist level even though everyone was completely lovely. I even spent some time with my exchange student and her family but they did tourist things with me so I still don’t feel like I saw ‘real’ Japan. We stayed in Airbnb’s trying to be more of a non-tourist, but there was still the barrier of cultures. I like that they are keeping their culture so private though. Such an amazing place to visit.

    • Hi Chris, I’ve talked to a few people who have had similar experiences, we loved it but didn’t think we got to the ‘real’ Japan. I’d love to go back and give it another try! Happy travels! Rachael

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