Most countries visited offer an insight into a different way of doing things – from the routine to the extraordinary. From shop signs, pedestrian crossings, the public transport system and, for me the most telling and interesting part of any venture into foreign lands, the food aisles of the supermarkets. Nowhere is this more true and more radically interesting than Japan. For an initiated westerner the most seemingly mundane things to the locals can leave you staring in wonder. From lovingly stroking the bullet train with adoration and respect (Ali) to being left slightly bewildered on how to operate the sophisticated toilets then giggling as the seat heats up, these moments make up the experience of travelling. During our 3 weeks in Japan I cannot count the amount of times I took out my camera to take a picture of something that to me was so intriguingly new, freaky or just downright quirky (well technically if I counted all such photos I probably could count the amount of times, but you get the sentiment behind the words).
Here are just some of the strangely wonderful and quirky things you will find only in Japan (I have conducted no empirical research to determine whether these are in fact ONLY found in Japan but you get the idea).
1. Umbrella Machines
The weather in Japan is predictably unpredictable – sunshine to downpours in one day is a norm in Tokyo. Never fear however, as there is quite literally nothing the Japanese have not thought of as they have these wonderful umbrella machines in many stations. These are not just normal umbrellas however – they have an overhand guaranteeing you that no water can get on your head unless it has gravity defying powers. Due to the overhang the umbrellas are clear of course allowing you to see clearly. I bought two of these umbrellas – extremely functional and so sturdy I’m actually gutted I made the rash decision to leave them behind in a hotel ahead of my flight home.
(My excitement and respect for these umbrellas is perhaps best understood in the context of me being a Londoner – where there’s more rain than Japan but not half of the rain protection amenities available).
2. Segregated Carriages
During the commuter rush hour the Tokyo underground system (maybe in other cities too though I only noticed in the capital) operates women and children only carriages. Again, is there anything they haven’t thought of? I certainly know of a few places where there is a definite need for this, which is a saddening indictment of society.
3. Placenta Cream
Maybe this is a beauty must have that I’m just not familiar with, however placenta beauty products are a big seller in Japan. From creams to clinics offering placenta facials, could this be the secret to the amazing skin of so many Japanese women?
4. Face Masks
Face masks are a norm in parts of Asia and especially in Japan. I’ve often seen Japanese tourists in London wear these masks on the London underground and with the pollution in the big smog I don’t blame them. Japan however is not extremely polluted, like for example Beijing where I hardly saw anyone wearing face masks but where the pollution is so bad I actually vomited as soon as I left the arrivals terminal. The Japanese are extremely sanitary and hygienic, and coupled with the concerns over nuclear contamination and pollution from the wider region provides some context for this phenomena.
What’s interesting is it such a way of life from observing friends chatting away with the masks still on to shop assistants at swanky department stores. Most entertaining to witness however were the couples whispering sweet nothings to each other from behind their face masks.
5. Hello Kitty
One of the most recognizable exports of Japan is of course Hello Kitty. From Hello Kitty pencil cases and notepads during childhood. I thought it was merely a craze reserved for nostalgic reminiscing of a simpler time – how mistaken I was. Hello Kitty is still current and HUGE in Japan. So huge and overwhelming in fact it is disturbingly eerie. There are whole isles dedicated to Hello Kitty and larger than life disturbing ‘cuddly’ Hello Kitty teddies. Before Japan I was indifferent to it, now I’m positively disturbed by that sly little smug kitty.
Across Tokyo, and Japan generally you will come across Pachinko’s. These are like arcades with slot machines in excess and arcade games on crack. These are incredibly popular and if you’re wondering around Shinjuku at 3am you will still find them packed – from groups of girls, guys, cute couples avidly playing, and then there’s the tourists standing at the side lines watching on. Apparently a lot of the Pachinko’s are money laundering fronts for the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) which just adds to it all really.
7. Vending Machines
In true Japanese efficiency form you are never further than a few meters away from a vending machine in Tokyo. From drinks, food, essential toiletries and even underwear you can find it all.
What’s better than a vending machine? A cowboy and a vending machine of course.
8. ‘Fusion Food’
Japanese food is legendary and Osaka is often called the food capital of the world. There’s no doubt about how much the Japanese love to eat, from Japanese food to food from all around the world. What is awesome is their localization of global staples. Take the standard much loved and loathed Turkish Kebab for example. In Japan, non content with any standard offering of the Turkish Kebab they have out their own stamp on it – the Kebab Sushi. Kebab rolled in sea weed, what else?
9. Make Up Artistry
The make up skills and general ‘dress up’ abilities of some Japanese girls is really impressive. From the Harajaku girls to the life size doll style, these girls labour over wigs, make up and outfits to achieve stunning results.
10. Manga Porn
I obviously don’t need to tell you what a big deal Manga is in Japan. With multi-storey shops in whole districts in Tokyo dedicated to Manga you really get a feel for just how big a deal it is here. Nonetheless, seeing shelves filled with more risqué Manga offerings down to actual Manga pornography really demonstrates the scope of just how ingrained Manga culture has become.
11. Imaginative Food Display
Japan is not a friend to the non Japanese speaking foodie with dietary restrictions for two reasons. Firstly you’d be very hard pressed to find someone who speaks English who can tell you what is in the food you would like to order/purchase in a language you will understand. Secondly, a LOT of food in Japan is not vegetarian friendly (either made in meat or fish stock) or Halal/Kosher friendly on the account of Pork/Pork stock being added to most things from the sauce in MARGHERITA pizza (very close call on that one) to chocolate éclairs and donuts. However, one thing that makes the process slightly less painful is the plastic food displays used so heavily in Japan.
These displays show you what you can expect from every meal option offered. That being said, those with dietary requirements still need to take care as there is no physical display portraying the pork/fish stock used.
12. Disdain of Tattoos
If you visit an Onsen in Japan (hot springs) one thing will become quickly apparent (other than all the nudity) – the Japanese disdain for Tattoos. Most traditional Onsen’s have signs stating people with tattoos will not be admitted into the facility (tattooed potential tourists fear not, private Onsen’s or those targeting tourists should not be a problem). I read up about this and the reason is apparently tattoos are quite taboo in conventional Japanese society due to their popularity amongst the feared Yakuza (Japanese mafia).
Discovering a food brand on holiday that you fall in love with and compulsively devour over the course of your stay is what travelling is all about. After all nothing is more sincere than the love of food, and what is more sincere than that spontaneous discovery on your travels. Not recommended in guide books or hyped about on travel blogs – just something you pick up, taste, and think damn that is good and shall now be my go to when in need of a snack and passing a 7 11.
For us this was Calbee – not just any crisp brand, the ultimate Japanese crisp brand. After trying numerous brands, shapes and flavours of crisps (some of them were painful experiences – I don’t think I will ever like seaweed or dried shrimp flavoured crisps) we discovered Calbee. We bought big packs, multi packs, travel sized packs in crinkle cut and plain cut throughout our trip.
However, the real joy came when we discovered a Calbee STORE in Harajuku, Tokyo. This two floored store looked like psychedelic a candy shop and was filled almost exclusively with teenage girls and mothers of teenage girls. The whole experience is enjoyable; queuing up and watching the staff fry the potato crisps in front of you, salivating as you wait in the excessively long queue until that first bite.
The experience in the Calbee store is an enhancement on the shop bought packaged version of course not only because its freshly fried in front of you but also because you can have chocolate or strawberry sauce toppings on your crisps. I mean who wouldn’t want that? (me, actually, I don’t want that.)
The toilets in Japan, though hard to operate at first soon become a cherished companion. This was one of my favourite things in Japan and the thing I missed most when I returned back to London with it’s simple toilets devoid of settings, functions, musical options and adequate sanitary standard. Even in the remotest of places in the most simple of buildings you can find a toilet equipped with settings to heat your toilet seat, entertain you with music and uphold a highly sanitary standard (details on the latter to be inferred, not detailed).
What is preventing the rest of the world from adopting these toilets or the sanitary standards they illicit eludes me, I just know the world will be a better place if heated toilet seats that play music and clean you are the way forward.
Japanese exports to the wider world are plenty – from sturdy cars, computer games and that smug little kitty I touched upon earlier. If you grew up watching violent and graphic manga films rented from Blockbuster (throwback!) by your older brothers and playing Street Fighter (Well, mostly waiting for aforementioned older brothers to finish playing Street Fighter so you can have a go) then Japan offers up something invaluable – nostalgia. Walking past street fighter murals and dedicated isles in Capcom stores (creator of Street Fighter) to see figurines of your first ever role model – Chiang Lee, and first ever crush – Ryu, is to be catapulted into a real life childhood dream.
Japan gave me my version of Disney land, and for that, how can I not love it?
These were just some of the strange and wonderful things I captured during my short visit to Japan which is definitely up there as the most unique country I have visited.