6 Surprising Things You Might Not Know About Japan

When I first visited Japan, I was surprised to find that lots of things I had heard about Japan were hugely exaggerated, misleading, or in some cases, simply not true! Now eight trips to Japan later, I have overturned many of my once misconceptions about Japan.

Here are 6 ways that Japan surprised me and might just surprise you too!

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#1 – Japanese cuisine is not all sushi.

Sushi has enjoyed enormous popularity outside Japan. In many ways, sushi has become Japan’s culinary ambassador to the world (along with perhaps – ramen). For some Americans, sushi might be their first (and only) taste of Japanese food. But sushi is just one of many wonderful culinary delights that await visitors to Japan! Before traveling to Japan, I equated “sushi” with Japanese food. When I got to Japan, I realized that “sushi” is just one category of food. Like in the grocery store there is the “sushi” section, or in a restaurant food court, there is a “sushi” place. But then there are aisles and aisles of other foods, and restaurant after restaurant of other options. For new visitors to Japan, I would recommend eating sushi once and then take time to sample all the other foods that Japan has to offer. After all, Japan’s culinary history stretches back centuries. Don’t miss out on the whole range of delicious eats resulting from hundreds of years of culinary tradition.

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Breakfast made by my Tokyo host mom.

#2 – The Japanese countryside is beautiful.

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Tokyo is like all of greater NY plus greater LA packed into an area ONE-TENTH the size. (Credit: Phil G. Pearson.)

People talk a lot about how crowded Japan is. Probably they are thinking about dense urban areas, like Tokyo. To be fair, Tokyo is extremely populated, following the general world trend that more and more of the population is packed into every smaller urban regions. But Tokyo might be an extreme standout even among other major cities. Tokyo has the population of Greater New York PLUS Greater Los Angeles in an area one-tenth the size.

 

But while Tokyo might be the hub of many industries in Japan, there is lots more land to Japan than just Tokyo. About 75% of Japan is mountainous and heavily forested with beautiful countryside tucked among the mountains. Whenever I ride the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto, I am amazed by how quickly the landscape turns to rice fields and farmhouses even a short distance outside the city.

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Photo Credit: S. Hirobe.

#3 – Not everyone in Japan speaks English.

For a nation where the official language is Japanese (not English), I think that Japan has done an impressive job using English – train announcements are in English, information booth workers can competently field questions in English, even signs in smaller shops and menus in restaurants are often in English. But the national language of Japan is JAPANESE, not English. Some readers might be thinking – “Wait! Isn’t there compulsory English education in Japan?” Yes, but let me ask you a question. Did you study a language in junior high or high school? I studied French…for 6 years. How well do I speak? NOT very well. I lived with a French-speaking family for the past four years. Sometimes I could pick up bits of conversations. But it was pretty clear that most of my six years of French classes had not stuck. (Let’s leave the discussion about what is lacking with language education for another day.) About Japan, if you are heading for an extended period, I would encourage you to learn the language. If you are a tourist going for a short stay, you can get by with pretty much zero Japanese.

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Bilingual Japanese-English public service ad in a Tokyo train station.

#4 – The Japanese climate is not so comfortable.

I did not know it but most regions of Japan are considered “humid subtropical.” The climate of Japan is pretty extreme, especially in the summer. I know it sounds like I am whining. I know lots of other places in the world are hot too. For me, the summer heat of Japan is exacerbated by two factors: 1) expectations about clothes and 2) air conditioning practices.

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My first summer in Japan. Looking grumpy after a long hike in the heat.

In the U.S., when the temperature soar, people shed heavier layers favoring breezy dresses and tank tops. In Japan, there is a certain modesty and decorum to dressing, even as temperatures soar into the 90’s. Men rarely wear shorts. Women wear pantyhose through the entire summer. I try to be polite but sometimes… it is just too hot to wear a cardigan. 2) Air conditioning. I was not prepared for the lack of air conditioning. I moved to Kyoto in September. Even in September, temperatures in the upper 90’s are common. Our research room was not air conditioned and I found my arms sticking to my vinyl covered desk. One day, my colleague took pity on me and asked if I wanted to turn on the air conditioner. I was expecting a blast of cool air. But instead, a soft 82 degree breeze wafted over me. That’s right – 82 degrees – the recommended building temperature in Japan. I am still not used to this steamy temperature and I get cranky in the heat in the Japan. My recommendation – if you are traveling to Japan, perhaps consider skipping the summer. (Bonus! You will also save on airfare, since rates tend to go up in the summer.)

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Beating the summer heat with frozen treats

#5 – Japanese is not a “tonal” language.

Okay, so I actually knew this before traveling to Japan but I was surprised to learn this  when I first started studying Japanese. Before starting Japanese classes, I associated East Asia with tonal languages. While tonal languages are present in East Asia (namely Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai), there are also tonal languages to be found in other parts of the world including Africa and Central America. Japanese has a minor element of pitch but not nearly to the same extent as true “tonal” languages. In Japanese, some words drop at the end, while others rise. For example, the difference between “sake” (meaning salmon) and “sake” (meaning alcohol) hinges on accenting either the first or second syllable. While this might seem like a tonal system, it is closer to how English speakers place emPHAsis on different syllables. It does not carry the same degree of meaning as tones in Chinese. Even if you completely botch your Japanese pitch intonation, a generous listener can usually discern your meaning from context.

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#6 – Japan is really not so weird.

I am passionate about changing this myth. I do not agree with the zany, crazy, bizarre, WTF-only-in-Japan image that has been encouraged by some media. Before I went to Japan, I read stories about all these CRAZY Japanese things – eating live squid, fetish vending machines that dispense used women’s underwear, prison-themed restaurants, game shows in which contestants face mummification. After traveling in Japan, I realized that a lot of these things are novelties…even for Japanese people! In the end, the Japan I know is not so crazy. A lot of life in Japan looks just as ordinary and repetitive as life anywhere else – people sleep, people eat, people go to work. That is not to say that Japan is boring but it is definitely not a wonderland of nonstop wacky adventure. And I am happy for that. The quiet, simple beauty of Japan continues to captivate, long after the novelty of some crazy wacky curiosity gets old.

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Thanks for reading! Did I miss anything on my list? What kinds of surprises have you had when you traveled? Leave any comments, questions, or thoughts below.

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Come back again! I post simple Japanese-inspired recipes and musings on Japan every week.

(Header Photo Credit: J. Lu)

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4 thoughts on “6 Surprising Things You Might Not Know About Japan

  1. Loree says:

    Having visited Japan last year in August (what was I thinking!?), I was surprised how constantly loud it was from all the cicadas.

    Like

    1. J LeClair says:

      Thanks!! So nice to hear from a fellow traveler like you. It looks like you have made many trips to Japan (and other places around the world). Do you have a favorite spot in Japan? Jessy

      Like

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