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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.

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.

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