7 Things That Shocked Me About Japan on My First Visit

Japan is such an amazing country. In fact, I always tell people it’s my favourite when the inevitable question comes up. I love it there. I wrote this article after the first time I visited Japan, and love to look back on it to enjoy my innocence and youth!

I’ve been back a few times since but nothing beats the first time.

shocking japan

There are 7 things I don’t like about Japan. Only 7 things in the hundreds of new experiences I’ve had while I’ve been here: I’d say that was pretty good going.

I tried to get over them – in some cases I tried the things I didn’t like in Japan twice – but still, you can’t like everything. There’s an epic list of things I do like about the country in my head, but for now, I present to you… the 7 things I couldn’t believe about Japan the first time I went.

1. Onsens aka public washing

onsen in japan

Basically Japanese people like to bathe together naked in big public baths. In the name of experiencing everything Japanese culture has to offer I went to one in Nozawa Onsen.

As you can tell by the name its a town known for its onsens – 13 in all – and is also where I went on my first skiing trip in Japan. I decided that while I was there it was the perfect chance to try it out. 

Just 5 steps in and there were 5 naked Japanese ladies bubbling about in a pool of water. Another one had just got her kit off so out the corner of my eye I watched what she did so when my turn came I wouldn’t look like a fool.

1. Strip, totally naked.
2. Crouch down to wash yourself with a bucket and scrubber.
3. Squirt the hose over yourself.
4. Get in one pool to clean.
5. Get in the other to relax.
6. Out, dry off, clothes on.

Bare in mind that in this particular onsen step 2 required you to practically shove your arse in the people in the pool’s face. And that the pool was only a screen away from the snowy temperatures outside (picture above) so it was frrr-eezing in there.

I felt totally self conscious, didn’t enjoy it and didn’t get clean.

For me bathing is like picking your nose – best done by yourself in private.

2. Ryokans aka Japanese-style beds

ryokan in japan

A futon on the floor vs a raised wooden structure with mattress. There’s no competition.

Japanese style bed time is like a 13-year-olds sleepover. You sleep on a futon on the floor where you can with some sort of duvet for cover. The room above was for six people!

I experienced two sessions of this in my five weeks in Japan. Three days when I was skiing – a time when all you really want at the end of the day is a cushty bed – and once when I was in Osaka, for FOUR nights. Neither were comfortable, or enjoyable or conducive to a restful sleep.

In fact, after skiing I some sort of twisted neck that took three days to get right and my back has never hurt so much as on that floor in Osaka. The pillows are full of beans – like an overstuffed bean bag – and the ‘mattresses’ are on a hard wooden floor.

I just can’t understand why ryokans are a choice and a ‘thing to do in Japan‘. Staying in ryokans in Japan can be really expensive too – I’d much rather a hotel.

3. Masks aka germ paranoia

things i didn't like about Japan

At one point I was the only one on the train without one. In fact, day two I coughed and a lady handed me one. Hence the photo above.

I didn’t like them. I want to see your face, not feel like I’m walking around the theatre in a hospital ward.

I mean, how protective can they really be?

(This is definitely an interesting point to read in 2021!)

4. ‘Crossing’ at traffic lights aka wasting time

crossing in japan

You get to a road, you look left, you look right, and if it’s clear you cross it, right?

And if you’re a Londoner as long as you have three seconds to make it, you take the chance.

In Japan everyone waits for the little green man. It’s painful. It could be totally clear on the horizon, and the horizon after that, and still they stand obediently waiting for some neon green dude to beckon them over. I’ll admit I jaywalked a few times, and actually felt like the worst person in Japan, but I couldn’t bear to wait any longer when every way was clear.

Couldn’t be doing with that every day.

5. Tokyo tube map aka I’m lost already

me at the tokyo metro

Too confusing. This was the last time I smiled when approaching an underground station – just before it all went wrong. You see ‘Asakusa’ on the map but the station you need for the line you take could be 10 minutes walk away (in my case, with 20kg backpack).

You also have to keep paying when you go on different lines. Once you’re on there and you know what you’re doing its nice, a much better experience than in London, it’s just really difficult to work out.

If you’re planning a trip to the capital city, check out my 7-day itinerary for Tokyo some inspiration.

6. This lunch aka Noodle Sneeze

disgusting food in japan

Oh my god this was disgusting. There were only a few foods I didn’t like in Japan, and this monstrosity tops the list. I will eat a lot of things but sadly for my 550¥ this was not one of them. Those noodles weren’t cooked, it was all brought together with some gloopy bind and it was pure bogey in a bowl.

No thanks Japan.

7. Smoking rules aka who made them up?

Smoking in Japan is way more prevalent than I thought it would be, not that I really ever thought about it. Day one when I was sitting down to some sushi and the familiar smell hit my nostrils inside I winced, surely they’re not allowed to do that, in a sushi restaurant? Turns out they are, and that they do it in most restaurants I frequented.

I was in Womb nightclub in Tokyo for a good few hours and the next day when I woke up I absolutely stank. It took two washes to get the smell of smoke from my hair and I had to flap my coat outside repeatedly – eugh.

The thing that’s weird though, is that when you’re on the street there are designated areas that people are allowed to smoke. You can’t just do it as you’re walking along. 

You can also buy cigarettes from vending machines with no minimum age check, and they’re advertised everywhere too.

Just like Japan in general: a total contradiction.


  1. If people in cars didn’t wait for the light to change, how would a near death experience feel as some impatient person almost ran you over? So stand there and wait. Pedestrians have responsibilities, too. Cross at the corner. Naked with a stranger in a bath? Don’t be a prude. I slept on the floor for 15 years. Beds just waste valuable space. Maybe you’re uncomfortable with a higher level of civilization.

  2. I disagree with numbers 3 and 4. There’s a reason why Japan Is still having tight lockdowns, don’t like to wear masks, don’t go to Japan, that simple. As for road Crossing, japanese people grow up with waiting for the light to turn green, from a young age they’re taught that. Same thing like i said before, don’t like it, don’t go to Japan, that simple.

  3. Slow Down. I am blushing within embarrassment after you had said “that they strip down”.

  4. I will never go back to Tokyo and my experience there makes me reluctant to go to Japan again. I didn’t even go in having a ton of expectations — I wasn’t one of those ‘I’m here for the anime/ramen/geiko/etc.! noobs. I just…didn’t like it. The crowds, annoying crosswalks, the slurping of food in public spaces (yes, it’s culturally driven, I get it. It doesn’t mean I have to like it); the dank smelling air, robotic atmosphere, being crammed into a train until I was in pain, the unimpressive food, struggling to grasp the language [despite my efforts]. Et cetera. Every day I felt more and more stressed.

    As for the language barrier: yes, it is real. I admit I was poorly prepared. People were so nice to me 90% of the time about my skills, and by no means did I feel entitled for them to speak English to me. The issue was my overwhelming sense of awkwardness and unease I felt because of it, and having to rely on my phone 24/7. My social anxiety was high after about five days for I knew I would f*$k up trying to do even the simplest of things, like ordering food or asking for directions. But more than that, I couldn’t just casually chat with people or make casual friends, as I often do, and I don’t think I was mentally prepared for this. (And let’s be real, the depressing atmosphere of drunken/unconscious/depressed salarymen all around also adds to the oddly lonely feeling.)

    I traveled there with only one acuqaintance and I deeply regret not being a part of a tour group or something similar that provided more social interaction and help navigating. I wonder if this would have helped at all…anyway, I’m replying with this not to be argumentative, but to try and help people see the cons from multiple perspectives.

    1. Oh I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy Japan Celeste, I loved my experience there and often tell people how it’s my favourite country I’ve been to. I don’t really agree with your points about air, atmosphere and food, but everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course. I didn’t really speak to anyone for the weeks I was there, as I didn’t know any Japanese, but I quite enjoyed the solace. To be honest I don’t really think you can go to a country that speaks a different language and moan they don’t speak yours, it’s up to you to learn a few key phrases.

      It would definitely be a good idea to travel in a tour group, as there are so many questions about the culture, food and life. I hope you will give it another chance some time. I’m hoping to go again within the next year!

  5. I’ve read your blog, and thank you for sharing. I’m a Japanese female, and live in London currently. Your experience in Japan was very interesting. 😉 There are much nicer things to do in Japan(if you could spend more money at least…), so I guess you had the bad choices unfortunately. I hope if you visit Japan again, you would have a better time. 😉 Good luck with your all journey.

    1. I will definitely be back to Japan one day – loved it there! I’d actually go back and do exactly the same route as I did before, I just thought it was such a cool place with so much to do. And I definitely need to go back to try more food and drink. I was a bit lax when it came to that!

  6. You strike me as someone very narrow-minded if these are seriously the issues you can find with a country. I’ll give you the smoking one but everything else is an essential part of the culture there. Maybe you need a bit more life experience before being so judgemental. Grow up, little girl. Stop acting like the privileged little princess you think you are.

    1. Hi Sylvia, great to hear from you. As you can see from the title I listed the very few things that I didn’t agree with, as in didn’t enjoy, about Japan. Yep, I know it’s part of the culture and I’m happy for the millions of Japanese people who enjoy them. I didn’t. I definitely wouldn’t be offended if a Japanese person came to England and said they thought it strange that we slept on big beds, or bathed by ourselves or ate fish and chips. I’d be interested to see how they viewed the world differently. I’m not being judgmental and I’m not a little girl. Thanks for calling me a princess though – I’ll take it as a compliment.

      1. > I definitely wouldn’t be offended if a Japanese person came to England and said…
        > I’d be interested to see how they viewed the world differently.

        I agree with you. I’m always interested in visitors’ impressions with Japan…even negative ones.

  7. Thanks for making me guffaw so loudly at work when I should be working. My manager came round and asked me what was so funny. I just said that my spreadsheet was playing up and I could laugh or cry. They think I’m a weirdo now.

    BUT, I totally agree with you about crossing roads. I just don’t have the patience for them. I got caught out by the police in Singapore and Germany for jaywalking but luckily, I managed to get away with it.

    Also, I despise the masks. Why? Because I simply can’t lipread and it’s my living nightmare. Just don’t get me started on dentists…

    1. Oh god yeah, I never thought about that! That makes things a lot more difficult. Good job not many people wear them here, apart from the dentists.

      Glad I made you laugh. Nice bit of entertainment for you while you’re at work 🙂

  8. I really love reading about your experience as a visitor to Japan as I’ve been living in Japan for 7+ years now and my opinion surely has changed a lot since I first came here.
    I remember hating some of the things you’ve mentioned above as well … AT FIRST!

    How can anyone hate onsen? It’s one of the best things in Japan! 🙂
    Yeah, I had to overcome my fear and shyness to get naked in front of strangers, but apart from that, onsen are awesome.
    You just gotta know / learn when and where you should go to avoid crowds. The past 10-ish onsen I went to I was either all alone or there was only one other person around. There are also private onsen you can rent (like family onsen in your room), but that’s extremely expensive.
    I also like the ones that have outside (rotenburo) and inside onsen as well as a sauna.

    I also LOVE the masks. At first, I hated them and the fact that I was forced to wear one (at work or at the clinic) when I was sick. Nowadays, I use them all the time when I’m in crowded places and don’t want to get sick, when I have huge pimples in my face, when I was too lazy to put on make-up … etc.
    Oh …. and during hay fever season they really help a lot! 🙂

    Hm. I don’t know. From my experience, people just cross a road in Japan even when the traffic light is red. It really depends. Nobody would cross a busy, huge road (like the one in Shibuya in your photo), because there are ALWAYS cars running, but the smaller roads? Yes, definitely!

    Tokyo’s really easy to navigate around, especially because they’re used to tourists there and everything has English attached to it. However, Tokyo’s HUGE and some train stations could be small cities and that’s what makes things confusing. I totally agree with that. *g*

    In Japan it’s EXTREMELY rare that an underage person would drink or smoke – even though there are vending machines for cigarettes and alcohol around and basically anybody could buy them. I’ve really never seen any young people in public who were drinking or smoking.
    In my home country, Germany, I’ve seen little children smoking many, many times. It’s disgusting!
    However, I’m biased about smoking rules in Japan. I’ve had issues in some restaurants, but most of the time you’re not bothered as a non-smoker at all.

    1. I honestly don’t understand why everyone says that about the onsen :s I’m about to go skiing up north so I’m willing to give it one more try to see if I can get on this bandwagon of onsen love.

      Hmmm, I can see the point with the masks. It’s just a little weird when you first arrive to see everyone walking around with them. Doesn’t it get hot under there? My friend in London wants me to bring her some back to wear during hayfever season 🙂

      Ha, yes, Shibuya is definitely a different case. Probably shouldn’t use that photo but didn’t have one of the little crossings.

      I love Japan – there’s a list of hundreds I could say that I liked, but yeah, it’s just these 7 things I’m not too keen on 🙂

      1. I totally understand that an onsen might not be for everyone, but I love them to bits and pieces. ^^

        In the hot and humid summer it can be tough using the masks, but in winter it’s great to defeat the dry air, actually. That’s also why so many people wear them in airplanes (including me). ^___^

        Glad to hear that! 🙂

  9. Haha, great! Yeah, I won’t be comfortable with the onsen and those futon beds too! The mask is not meant to be protective for yourself, but from you couching spit on others (so it’s more of a polite thing to do to others than a protection from evil sick people :). The dish you tried, isn’t that natto, aka fermented soy beans? I heard there are only 10 people on the earth liking that, haha. Loving your Japan stories, it’s been a couple of years since I was there!

    1. Natto is really delicious and healthy. Here in Japan we say that 50% like it, 50% hate it, but I wonder about the real numbers. *g*
      It’s certainly not for everyone, but if you like stinky cheese (or blue cheese and the likes), I’m sure you’d like natto as well.
      Personally I LOVE natto. 🙂

      1. Ahhh is that what it was. I just pointed to something on the menu and was really disappointed with what I ended up with! I tried, I did, but to put it in my mouth made me heave. I’m definitely in the 50% that hates it!

    2. I’ve just finished a run of four nights on a futon and one in a capsule hotel – can’t wait to get to my hotel tonight! At least I can say I tried 🙂 Yeah, I found that out about the masks when I got here. I guess it’s a nice gesture – just freaked me out a bit at first everyone walking around with them. One thing I can say for them is that I filled my bag with cough and flu medicine expecting to get some sort of cold being outside here all day, but not even a sneeze. Maybe there’s something to be said for them after all.

      Apparently that is natto, yes. Definitely not ordering that again. Bleugh.

      1. >Apparently that is natto

        The dish in your your photo isn’t natto. That dish in your photo isn’t actually Japanese…it’s a Chinese dish. Chamen.

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