10 Very Japanese Things You'll Love About Japan
Japan is certainly no stranger to the weird and wonderful, the profound and the bizarre. Each time I visit I notice something new and weirder than the previous time, and I love finding products that just wouldn't exist anywhere else on Earth. Then there are those things that are so quintessentially Japanese that you will fall in love with them and associate only with Japan. Here is my list of 10 Very Japanese Things You'll Love About Japan. For more examples and even more stories about my time living in Tokyo, check out my new book BECAUSE JAPAN today!
1. VENDING MACHINES
Vending machines can be found throughout the world. In the UK you tend to encounter them at gyms, pools, train stations or airports. They are usually quite expensive and have very limited products inside. In Japan, however, they can be found in pairs or small groups down most backstreets, on every train platform, outside of stores and even on top of Mt Fuji! They are topped up multiple times a day and depending on the time of year, will offer hot and cold food and drinks, as well the best seasonal products you can find; all at a very reasonable price. I used to love finding the new rare vending machine products to test out (especially the various flavours of my favourite soft drink Caplis) and would stock up before they were replaced by the latest craze.
Japanese convenient stores (locally known as Combinis) are unlike anything in the west. They aren't just a place to pick up some convenient snacks or the latest manga; you can do literally everything you need for most occasions, and what is best, they are found on each and every street or corner in the country! I would pay my bills, order things from Amazon, purchase and print off concert tickets, find fully cooked hot bento boxes, and practise my Japanese with the young staff members. There are many types of Combini and each offers different seasonal goods, but my favourite was Family Mart with their frozen frappes (the chocolate mint one is to die for), and 7 Eleven which never fails to serve anything you require.
Just when you think you know all there is to know about toilets and how to use them, you travel to Japan and your life is changed forever. Toilets come in all shape and sizes, equipped with all kinds of gadgets and magical powers that will leave you wanting more. I missed my toilet so much after I moved back to the UK that I installed a Japanese toilet seat into my bathroom and my friends all love using it when they visit.
4. SEASONAL PRODUCTS
Seasonal products are everything in Japan. Each spring you can find sakura flavours of pocky, sake and icecream, in the summer its all about kakigori (shaved ice) and festival foods. In the autumn you can find sweet potato flavourings in anything from chocolate to ice cream and in the winter, it is the only time you'll be able to find mint flavours in foodstuffs. Seasonal products keep things fresh and it gives you something to look forward to. I would stock up on
Festivals in Japan are like no festival I have ever attended before. The spirit and energy, mixed with the atmosphere of families coming together in the community, is enough to make each one special and memorable. And that doesn't include all the food and cute merch just waiting for you around every corner. Festivals can be found throughout the year, but summer is the true festival season. Tanabata sees streets lined with bamboo plants and wishes, local festivals see residents carrying offerings to the Gods throughout the streets, and I once attended the famous Penis Festival... I'll leave it up to your imagination as to what was carried throughout the streets during that interesting day! Either way, no matter the location or the time of the year, you will find a festival be it big or small, and you will leave with everlasting memories.
6. SLEEPING ANYWHERE
No matter the time or the location, it soon becomes the norm to find individuals sleeping in public in Japan. On the trains, buses, park benches, train platforms, on the grass, even standing up on the trains, buses and other modes of transport, you will see people taking naps and full-on snoozing to their heart's content; all the while subconsciously keeping track of the location in order to spring up at the drop of a hat and leave the train. This is something that took me a while to understand and appreciate, as I feel that sleeping in public in the UK invites people to take pictures or draw on your face, but after a while, I truly learned to embrace the fact that it is ok to have a cheeky power nap in between locations. I never quite mastered the skill of knowing when to wake up and would oftentimes wake up at the end of the line; forcing me to reverse my journey and make my way back to the correct station.
Safety and Japan go hand-in-hand! It is hands down the safest place I have ever known. The crime rates are almost non-existent and public safety is treated with the utmost of respect. It is not uncommon to see customers reserving tables in restaurants with their own possessions. I have witnessed people leaving their laptops, phones, face clothes and keys on the table in order to secure it. If on the off-chance you misplace a possession going about your day, you can be sure to find it as long as you simply retrace your steps, for somebody having located it would have already picked it up and placed it on a nearby wall for you to collect at your earliest convenience. Despite some of the more seedy sides of Japan I discuss in my book, public transport in Japan is incredibly safe and walking alone down a side-street or back alley, there is no need to have your hackles up, as they can happily be utilised with their intended purpose in mind; to get you somewhere faster.
If you have a sweet tooth when it comes to alcoholic beverages, Japan is the place for you. For me, I thoroughly enjoyed Umeshu (plum wine), but I also loved the various fruity flavours of Strong Zero or other canned drinks found in the combinis. My absolute favourite drink in Japan was Cassis Orange which consisted of creme de cassis liquor and orange juice. The less ethanol-tasting, the better in my opinion. All of these drinks can be purchased for around £3-5ish depending on the store, and a little more in restaurants. Kareoke bars and nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink bars) are a great place to experience all the drinks on offer as you usually pay one price and can sample the entire menu at your own pace. Due to the Alcohol flush Reaction that 80% of Eastern Asian people experience when drinking alcohol, a lot of people will limit their alcohol intake each week, so why not make those drinks as best tasting as possible so they can be enjoyed by everybody even if they can only have a couple of drinks a week at most?
As explained in detail in my book, Japan is the land of mascots. Pretty much every product, company and location in the country has its own mascot. My local mascot was a cute little walaby because the area was named Warabi which when said in Japanese sounds very similar to the former. One of the funniest mascots I ever saw was the newly revealed Tokyo Tower mascot which in my opinion did not represent the tower, but had more of a 'masculine' look about it! When I first moved to Japan, I was overwhelmed by the multitude of characters on offer but they serve a purpose and they truly work! By the end of my stay there, I even found myself choosing fruit and bread, based solely on its mascot! If you can't beat em, join em!
As with mascots, most companies, products and locations have a cute little jingle that will represent themselves to the mass market. The term nostalgic is more widely used within the daily conversation, and I put it down to the sensory overload that you encounter wherever you go. Each train station has its own unique jingle that will play when you arrive so it can be easy to learn the playlist of each line so you know when to disembark. Even walking down the supermarket aisles you will be bombarded by a chorus of catchy tunes that you will hear in your dreams that night, but it's all part and parcel of living in Japan!