Home » Travel » Asia » 22 Things That Surprised Me About Japan (as an American)

22 Things That Surprised Me About Japan (as an American)

I know I’ve said this a million times, but Japan is an absolutely amazing country. If you ever have the opportunity to visit, DO NOT hesitate. Living in Tokyo has been one of the best experiences of my life, and I would move back in a heartbeat and stay there forever. It is my absolute favorite place I have been to, hands down. (And my husband seconds this!)

I know there are many preconceived notions about what Japan is like, especially Tokyo…I had many of them before I moved there. So, hopefully, this post will shed a little light on the actual differences between Japan and America. And I think you’ll find that nearly all of these differences are positive differences…or at the very least, they’re very interesting!

A public square in Tokyo, Japan filled with people. There's a large red and black shrine in the forefront of the image, along with trees and mountains in the background. Text across the bottom of the image says "22 things that surprised me about Japan"

(Note: These are not in any particular order, just a list of what surprised me!)

Visiting Japan as an American: 22 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know!

1.) How quiet it is…even in Tokyo!

I know that sounds crazy…especially because Tokyo is the biggest city in the world, with more than 13 million people living there, but you could seriously hear a pin drop at times! This is for a couple of reasons: 1.) The Japanese culture is very quiet…you won’t hear people talking loudly or on their cell phones in public (especially not on public transport). 2.) There aren’t that many vehicles (because of how awesome the public transport is), and the ones that people do have are generally electric and very quiet. Also, no one hardly ever honks their horn.

2.) How clean Japan is.

You would not see litter anywhere…you also wouldn’t see trash cans anywhere. You are expected to carry your trash with you and then throw it away at home.

3.) The toilets.

You could seriously fly to space with how high-tech some of the toilets are here. Many have heated seats, bidets, and dryers..some play music or make the sound of running water – it’s crazy, haha. But most parks and train stations won’t have these lovely toilets…be prepared to use a squat toilet!

4.) The dogs.

Holy smokes, are there some tiny, well-cared-for dogs here! Generally, if you saw a stroller or an over-sized purse…there would be a tiny dog’s head sticking out of it. And chances are that dog is better dressed than you, haha. And most dogs couldn’t have weighed much more than a pound, they were so small (and adorable)! Also, dog groomers were out of this world luxurious, haha. I’m pretty sure most of the dogs also had better hair than me.

5.) Seeing ancient shrines & temples mixed in with a modern city was surprising as well.

It was absolutely beautiful, though…and very calming to have these spaces mixed in with the bustle of the city.

An image shows a large stone shrine in front of an ancient Japanese temple. The temple is bright red and surrounded by green trees under a blue sky.
A stunning ancient shrine and temple in the heart of Tokyo.

6.) How extremely polite everyone is all the time.

It’s absolutely amazing! Even when police cars were coming through with their rather quiet sirens, I was told they were announcing, “Please move. Please move.”

7.) Purse holders and boxes were at just about every single restaurant or bar.

Your purse is never going to have to touch the ground or anything dirty while in Japan. And if the restaurant had an open chair near you, they would offer it to your purse. It made me want to invest in a nicer purse if it was going to be so well cared for! Haha.

8.) Vending machines. They are everywhere!

And you can get a wide variety of things from them. I was very amused by the beer vending machines and ramen vending machines. (Pictured below.) And no, you can’t buy used underwear from vending machines (anymore)…it’s against the law.

A Japanese food vending machine features small images of different dishes, from rice to means, ramen, and more.
In Japan, you can order ramen out of a vending machine!

9.) There is virtually no crime in Japan.

As a woman, I was never once was afraid of walking alone at night. And many people would leave their bikes unlocked, with personal belongings in their baskets…or even leave their dogs tied up outside as they quickly popped in a shop. These were all acceptable because no one would steal the bikes or take the dogs. It’s beautiful, really.

10.) Japan is not as technologically advanced as you might think.

Everyone seems to think Japan is living in a space age…and while there are some neat technologies available, there are many, many outdated ones. DVDs are still booming, as are fax machines. Many people still use flip phones. Credit cards are not widely accepted. Have cash handy!

A busy city street in Japan at night, lined with brightly-lit storefront signs advertising shops and DVD stores.
The bright lights of a city street in Japan… advertising DVD stores everywhere!

11.) The earthquakes!

Not that earthquakes are specific to Japan…but having earthquakes on roughly a monthly basis was shocking for someone like me, who has never experienced any seismic activity. Haha. Most were just enough to make some rattling noises, but not do any damage whatsoever.

12.) Japan, specifically Tokyo, has the best food and restaurants in the world, seriously.

Tokyo has 226 Michelin-star restaurants…and the second-best city, Paris, has just 96. I firmly believe it is impossible to have a bad dining experience in Japan…I ate at an obscene amount of restaurants while I was in Japan and only one was not remarkable in the food department. (And that was the evening with a Geisha dinner in Kyoto.) And while restaurants and bars are nice and all…the street food is also mind-blowingly good! I honestly almost liked eating street food better. There were so many delicious options…and it was a really nice option for all those Pokemon GO players. Haha. (Street food pictured below.)

13.) Public transport is amazing in the major cities.

There is no need for a car when you can literally take the subway or train anywhere (in a major city). The subways and subway stations are also incredibly clean. You won’t feel the need to bathe in bleach or burn your clothes after using public transport in Japan!

14.) There weren’t that many cars on the roads, the ones that were, were insanely expensive.

This one is a bit specific to the area I was living in (Azabu-jūban), but wowzers… It was not uncommon for me to walk out and see Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bugattis, Porsches, you name it. I honestly don’t think I had even seen half of those kinds of cars in person before arriving in Azabu-jūban, haha.

15.) Baseball games!

Japan loves baseball! And I can see why…baseball games are incredible, with an amazing amount of fan participation. (I wrote a lengthier post on Japanese baseball games here if you’re interested.)

A giant crowd of Japanese baseball fans at a Swallows game on a gorgeous, sunny day.
Fans cheering with umbrellas at a Swallows baseball game.

16.) Sushi is not as common as you would think in Japan.

It honestly seems as though America has a bigger obsession with sushi in comparison to Japan. And if you are going out for sushi in Japan, you can expect to get Sashimi (thinly sliced raw fish) and Nigiri sushi..which is just rice, a thin layer of wasabi, and raw fish (and delicious). There are no spicy tuna rolls, California rolls, or any of the specialty rolls that are common in America. But my goodness is sushi in Japan yummy! I really got used to having the wasabi applied for me…as I always tend to overdo that when left to my own devices. Haha.

A variety of sashimi and nigiri sushi arranged on a white plate. The sushi is made with pieces of raw fish on top of a ball of sushi rice.
Fresh nigiri sushi in Japan.

17.) Kawaii – everywhere!

Everything in Japan is very “kawaii” (cute). From manhole covers to toilet paper…I was blown away by the cuteness everywhere!

18.) You get a wet napkin or towel with every meal.

If it’s a fast-food restaurant, it will be a disposable wipe..but otherwise, you will get a damp towel that is cold in the summer and warm in the winter.

19.) Face masks.

Ok, when people see photos of folks in Japan wearing face masks..everyone thinks there must be an outbreak of the plague or bird flu, or maybe it’s to protect from pollution. Here’s the scoop…people in Japan wear these as a common courtesy to their fellow city dwellers when they have a cold. This is so they do not spread the cold by getting their germs on others. Some women also wear these masks if they do not have time to put all of their makeup on…(to hide their unmade face). 

 

20.) A lot of people smoke in Japan.

Here’s probably the only negative surprise, in my opinion….Cigarettes are relatively cheap and many restaurants and bars allow you to smoke in them. It was really weird to be in smoky places again. (Most of the states in America have made it illegal to smoke in businesses.)

21.) Women’s fashion.

This could use its own post, but I’ll try to condense it. For the most part, nearly every woman was dressed incredibly cute and dressy. No one would be caught dead wearing their pajamas in public. I was surprised by how many ladies wore heels…and how many also wore socks with their heels in the heat of summer. Also, scrunchies…these are widely popular, but they aren’t the hideous ones from your childhood! Many are lacy and delicate and very kawaii! (It made me wish I still had long hair, haha.)

A small McDonalds delivery car, uniquely seen in the streets of Japan.
McDonald’s delivers, and they have their own cute branded vehicles!

22.) McDonald’s delivers!

I didn’t find this out until nearly my last day in Tokyo. But it surprised and amused me to no end, haha.

Which one surprised you the most? Let me know in the comments!

*If you like this post, it is now available as a self-guided walking tour! Click here to download it.

23 Comments

  1. I just found this article now. As I have lived in Japan for 13 years I will say as allot of it is true some of it is completely wrong. As for crime it depends on where you are. there actually is allot of crime in Japan but allot of it is not reported and allot is also swept under the rug! As for public transportation it is most of the time so full of people that you are standing back to back and front to front with many many people as they jam people inside no matter if there is not any room. As for being polite they are mostly polite but most are women. Many Japanese men tend to be very arrogant, rude and pushy. Maybe the culture/upbringing makes them feel like they are God and everyone should listen to them. Now as for smoking I do agree that most restaurants and places allow smoking and some people can be rude and just blow smoke everywhere even in your direction and not think its impolite. I have actually left places before just because of how much smoke was in the air! I also do very much agree about the people who go to eat Sushi and try and order California rolls or spicy rolls only to have their dreams shot down because that is not Sushi, that is whats called American Sushi and not served in a traditional Sushi restaurant in Japan. It never ceases to amaze me the look on some peoples face when they order that and they say we don’t serve that or they ask what is that?

  2. Interesting Post! All of these things surprise me a lot, thank for sharing your experience.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.