The Foreigner’s Guide to Japan

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Japan offers tourists a delightful mix of traditional, modern and strange. Yes, strange. Expect to find everything from ear wax cleansing cafes to signs that state you must offer your seat to an individual applying makeup. Here are a few things you will find it hard to not notice in Japan.

1. People walk around wearing surgical masks. Yes, even people who work at tourist information booths.

If you’ve travelled to East Asia, you have probably seen people walk around with masks. Initially I thought the Japanese, like other East Asians, wore masks because they were sick and didn’t want to spread their germs. However, when I saw a mask-wearing gentleman in a restaurant share a straw with 3 bare-faced men, I decided to investigate a little further and found 2 reasons.

a. The Japanese often take their shoes off when they enter hotels, homes or other establishments, which results in unbearable smells. Scented masks can prevent you from having to deal with smelly shoes or feet.

b. They are a very fashionable culture and occasionally buy masks that match their outfits.

2. Japanese people rarely say no.

The trouble is that while they will avoid saying the word ‘no’, they will still not say yes. So if you walk into an internet cafe and ask to use a computer when  you aren’t carrying ID they will not say ‘no’ but they will still not let you use a computer. If you tell them that the moment you log on you will be able to show them a copy of your passport, they will still insist that you show them the passport first. They are not familiar with the term ‘catch 22’ either.

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3. KitKat is not available in as many flavours as you think.

Okay so in most countries KitKat is only available in 1 flavour . However a simple Google search you will be lead to believe there are hundreds of flavours easily available in Japan, but in reality green tea KitKat is perhaps the only one that is consistently available. Everything else is seasonal and/or regional. Even the official KitKat store only has 4 flavours. Also, your friends will get angry when you drag them into every single convenience store in hopes that just maybe it will have a new flavour.

Aside – The airports do have some limited edition flavours but unfortunately Haneda (the airport I left from) had less than Narita (where my friends departed from) so I had no choice but to leave the airport this comment.

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4. Few can pronounce the letter ‘L’.

‘L’ will be pronounced as ‘R’. Not that this will not stop Japanese stores from coming up with names which include the letter ‘L’. If you visit Tokyo or Osaka make sure to try Pablo cheesecake, but when you want directions say Pabro or nobody will understand. However, most people barely speak any English so confusing pronunciations are perhaps the least of your worries.

5. Capsule hotels are more spacious than they appear in pictures.

These (literal) holes in walls are surprisingly spacious and are usually equipped with a personal television. However you may be a bit more concerned about not being able to carry footwear beyond the entrance of a hotel and not having a curtain or door while taking a shower.

6.  Alcohol is not just for bars and pubs. Streets and public transportation can be substituted for beer halls.

Nobody will give you dirty looks for drinking beer on a public transportation. In fact restaurant hosts may even invite you to finish your beverage in their establishment provided you purchase your next beverage from them.

7. It is rare to find a Japanese man with facial hair.

In fact many companies in Japan have the right to fire an employee simply because they grew a mustache. It’s safe to say Movember would not work well in this country.

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8. It is an excellent country for Halloween shopping.

Expect to find everything from Saddan Hussein face masks to video game character costumes. Also, expect to find some people dressed for Halloween costume parties on just about any day of the year.

9. Eating at a ramen noodle shop is a completely different experience from anywhere else in the world.

The average shop will have about 8 seats (all facing the counter) and nobody will take your order. You have to enter your order and pay at a machine before you can take a seat. If you look foreign they will give you an instruction card on how to eat your ramen.

10. Japanese toilets have as many buttons as a TV remote control.

Expect to find buttons that do everything from warm your seat to spray water at your preferred pressure level. Do not expect to find instructions in English. For a more detailed guide on Japanese toilets, look here.

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