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28 Mar 2023

A beginner's guide to Japan

10 things I learnt on my travels.

There's a lot to love about Japan. It’s one of those countries that definitely takes you out of your comfort zone  -  the language, the signage, the culture  –  it’s one of the few places in the world where, as a visitor, it’s hard not to feel very ‘foreign’.

It’s undeniable that, at first, Japan can feel a bit overwhelming  –  on each of my visits there’s been moments where I've just felt that all of my senses were being simultaneously assaulted. But there’s also been times of incredible quietness, reflection, and some amazing food.

Here’s a few things that I’ve learnt along the way.

Magazines are really big in Japan

While the magazine industry in other markets is generally contracting as people switch to online channels to source their content, in Japan there is still huge demand for magazines  –  often on quite niche subjects. There’s obviously a huge wealth of manga, and we love the queer sub-culture of the gay muscle bears of bara, but there’s magazines that specialise in all sorts of weird and wonderful subjects which is kind of inspiring to see.

They ride their bikes on the footpaths

That’s where they’re supposed to ride, and the footpaths are generally wide enough to accommodate both pedestrians and cyclists. Japanese cyclists tend not to be moving that fast, but they wobble along a little uncertainly and as they come towards you it’s not always clear what line of direction they’re taking – they always seem to be about to fall off or slam into you.

The Japanese don’t like to linger over food

You go in, you eat, you leave. That’s how you eat in a Japanese restaurant, especially somewhere as functional as a ramen joint. Sitting around with friends and catching up while you eat isn’t really what you’re there for. You might do that in a cafe, but even that is a bit of a stretch.

Wifi isn’t as readily available as you would imagine

Most locals have a portable wifi device that they use wherever they go  -  as a result, it’s unusual for cafes or restaurants to provide wifi to customers.

Don’t drink with Russians

In London, they say ‘Cheers!’ In Japan, they say ‘Kampai!’ The Russians say ‘To the next one!’ as they slam down each shot of booze. This resulted in a messy night in Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighbourhood when some Russian guys that I met decided that we should put the all-you-can-drink menu to the test. They won.

The Japanese eat a lot bread

There’s quite a lot of bakeries, and local people will often snack on all sorts of bread-related stuff. There’s one chain of restaurants called Honey Toast Cafe that serves loaves of white bread, hollowed out and filled with chunks of bread smothered in cream and honey. A surprisingly popular date option.

There’s a lot more to Japanese food than sushi and ramen

With each visit to Japan, I’ve been impressed by the variety and distinct regional and seasonal specialities that you find everywhere across the country. They take their food seriously and it shows.

Coffee in Japan is generally pretty terrible

The coffee in cafes generally tastes better iced, but you can also buy cans of hot coffee from street vending machines  -  these are better than you expect them to be. If you like Starbucks, then that kind of stuff is everywhere, but if you’re serious about your coffee then you might struggle a bit.

There’s lots of ceremonies

My favourite ceremony is the 7–5–3 ceremony. Historically, child-mortality rates in Japan were very high, so parents would give thanks when a child reached the crucial ages of three years, five years, and seven years. Today, you will still see children at these ages being dressed in elaborate traditional clothing, their proud parents taking them to the temple to give thanks for having reached an auspicious birthday.

Japanese toilets are a joy to use

Thanks to the innovation of Japanese company Toto, most toilets in Japan – including many public toilets – are fitted with a system that warms the toilet seat and delivers a bidet service. The really good ones also dry you off with an oscillating fan. Now that is one smooth-talking toilet. Ah, Toto toilets, I will miss you most of all!

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