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Baffled By Beautiful & Backwards Japan

A quick rant on our first impressions of Japan; then, some of the stranger, quirkier and odder things we saw and experienced in this wonderful country!

Japan is one of those countries that everyone has heard something about. Whether it be the high-tech quality gadgets that are manufactured there, or the ‘crazy-fast’ bullet trains, Japan has a certain allure for the tech-orientated person.  I was expecting the most advanced technology the world has produced and for the entire country to run in an efficient, smooth and convenient fashion. Or at least, I was expecting something on par with South Korea. Maybe it was those preconceived notions that left us slightly dumb-founded when we arrived…

Exchange offices often charge high commission fees or offer horrible exchange rates and as a result Dan and I really don’t carry much cash – just the minimal amount we might need in any given country,  withdrawing more as we need it. Given the convenience and efficiency of credit cards, they are fast becoming the main form of payment across the world, regardless of what country your credit card is issued from, and thus we relied mainly on our credit cards throughout the trip.  Our usual routine is to find an ATM on arrival, pull out a bit of cash and use our credit card for the remainder of purchases. As it turns out, the vast majority of ATM’s in Japan don’t accept foreign cards (debit or credit). Now, you can go ahead and call us unprepared, but had we been heading to a remote un-populated island or a developing third world nation we might have researched the ATM situation; but given that our credit cards have worked in the ATM machines of 45 other countries, we assumed we were safe.

Having just landed in Osaka we were a little dismayed but we kept our spirits high and decided to start by grabbing a quick bite to eat and then worry about the cash situation. Once again our credit cards were rejected. We quickly learned that most restaurants, including major chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s, also don’t accept foreign credit cards. Yup, you read that right, we were now cashless and hungry. We immediately turned to Google to solve our problems. Only problem with that, there was no free WiFi at the airport  or, as it turned out, in most of Japan. We then understood why there were so many advertisements for renting a portable WiFi router to carry around.  (Our Airbnb in Tokyo provided one for the week we were there pictured below.)

Japan

We managed to exchange enough USD cash to buy train tickets to our accommodation where we assumed we would have internet to research our money predicament. Figuring out how to buy train tickets from the machine took us longer than in any other country anywhere in the world. Most countries train/metro/subway system machines are fairly intuitive and all worked more or less the same: you search and select your destination on a touch screen and the machine tells you how much to pay and you insert payment. Simple. Japan just had to have it completely backwards. First, you referred to a complicated chart/map to figure out how much to pay based on the distance between your current station and destination station. Once you had that straight (good luck!) you first interested money (cash only) and then selected the correct payment option on the machine. We suddenly understood why the line to buy tickets from a person was so incredibly long. Regardless, we purchased tickets and hoped for the best. Upon arrival at our station, the gate wouldn’t let us exit (likely we had paid the wrong amount) and the guard didn’t speak English but just let us go through anyways! *sigh of relief*

Japan

Japan

Japan

(Tokyo’s subway/train system was even crazier!)Japan

Finally at our accommodation, we helplessly attempted to get the WiFi to connect only to learn that the guest house we were staying at was full and he only has 3GB of internet per 2 days which had all been used up. Almost in tears of frustration, we went to bed. The next morning was the same story – no internet and we had no food, no money and no idea if we could drink the tap water…

If you’ve read any of the other posts we wrote about Japan you know how this story ends: we figured things out and had an amazing time! And once we had our heads screwed on backwards, things got a lot easier in Japan. So on to everything out of the ordinary we managed to photograph and/or document in Japan.

7-Eleven is a life-saver. Yes, 7-Eleven the convenient store. Not only do the stores offer free WiFi but 7-Eleven brand ATM’s accept foreign debit and credit cards and the stores are stocked with tons of reasonably priced and surprisingly tasty food! Genius marketing to tourists. Once we found our first 7-Eleven our moods greatly improved. 

Japan

There is even a microwave to warm up your gyoza, noodle bowl, etc. in almost every convenient store (and even in some supermarkets). Note that if you’re the type of person that likes napkins when eating, you’ll have to carry your own. Get used to using disposable, individually packaged wet-wipes, we didn’t encounter any paper napkins in Japan.

Japan

Sushi Triangles are one of the easiest and quickest snacks in Japan. Ingeniously, the plastic is wrapped between the seaweed and rice so the seaweed doesn’t get soggy. If you unwrap it correctly (there’s a “1-2-3” written on the packaging) the plastic will come off and the seaweed will be freshly attached to the rice and ready to eat! So simple and yet so fascinating. I’m also embarrassed to admit that I definitely messed it up the first time and ended up with a sheet of seaweed in one hand and a rice triangle in the other…

Japan

To go with your food, you can purchase both cold and hot drinks!

Japan Food

And just in case you’re craving a single, hard-boiled egg, (or maybe two if you’re feeling up to it) they’ve got those too! Because really, why not!

Japan food

If you get sick of 7-Eleven food, you could splurge on a $18 USD single strawberry….because that seems like a good deal!

Japan food

I loved the look of this orange juice served in an orange that we found at multiple street stands.

Japan Food

To pretty up you’re meal you could purchase what I’m assuming are edible flowers for sale in the vegetable section of the supermarket.

Japan food

I never did figure out what the differences were between all these gyoza’s…..

Japan Food

Or you could just stick to eating raw sea urchin which was seemingly quite popular and readily available at most markets.

Japan Food

Japan Food

For more of a ‘fun’ eating experience, try ordering from a machine (yes, someone had to help us).

Japan Food

Or try going to one of the sushi train restaurants where as-ordered plates coming whizzing to you on a conveyor belt. (Discussed in detail in our Tokyo post.)

Japan Food

Japan Food

And there’s plenty of options for dessert, including, but not limited to: cat shaped marshmallows, and a never ending array of baked goods such as matcha-flavoured scones!

Japan food

Japan Food

Cash is king in Japan and their smallest bill is worth the equivalent of $10 USD – expect to carry a lot of coins. It’s important to understand that money is never directly handed to the cashier but rather placed in a small dish and slid over. In turn, your change will placed in the same dish. The first few times I tried to hand bills over to the cashier, they just started blankly at me. We quickly figured out to use the dish at all times.

Japan money dish

At one of our hostels, using the computer was charged on an hourly rate and payment was based on an honour system. I couldn’t get over how cute these boxes were! You place a coin on the fish and press down, the cat sticks its little head and a paw out to grab the ‘food’ and goes back inside the box! How could you not want to pay for the computer!

Japan

There are literally no garbage bins (or recycling bins) ANYWHERE on the street and it’s extremely rare to see someone walking and drinking a to-go coffee or even a soda.  Usually food and drinks are eaten or drank at the purchase place or brought home. As a result, the only place you will find garbage and recycling bins are beside vending machines and outside convenient stores. In Japan, garbage is sorted into “burnable” and “not-burnable” – some of our guesthouses gave extremely lengthy and often confusing descriptions of what can go in each: I learned that leather shoes can be burned. Not very much is recycled and they are quite strict on the few things that are. For bottles, the cap must always be removed and there is usually a separate compartment for the caps (this seems very important).

Japan

Check out the old-school keypad commonly found on ATM’s:

Japan ATM

CD Rentals are still a thing…..

Japan

Japan

And just because I couldn’t not take a picture of this sign advertising “Duty Free” sex shop items:

Japan

These outrageous and funny facial beauty masks area  a common site in Japan and Korea.

Japan

In one beauty department, we stumbled across what appeared to be a machine to suck the fat out of you…..

Japan

Almost every toilet in Japan is ‘high tech’ in one way or another. For starters, the seat is usually warm (which I found really weird at first). There are tons of other options on a control bar: temperature adjustments, various spray-cleaning options and more I couldn’t understand. In many of our guesthouses the toilet was in a very small room with limited space and the back of a toilet doubled as a sink. There was never soap present and soap was also missing from a lot of public washrooms (ew!).

Japan

Nothing screams Japan more than this following picture: men dressed in business suits smoking indoors playing classic arcade games. As I previously noted in our Tokyo post, most bars and restaurants still allow smoking and people are often required to go inside due to rules that prohibit smoking on the street!! Another common site was extremely drunk men (again, in business suits) stumbling around metro and train stations after dark (as early as 9PM).

Japan

You can buy cigarettes from vending machines that are located on almost every corner.

Japan

Out of place aquariums filled with cute and exotic fish on the side of buildings weren’t too uncommon.

Japan

Almost everyone in Japan secretly carries an umbrella and whips it out the moment it starts to rain. Umbrellas are so popular that many places offered locking umbrella stands at the entrance!

Japan

Can you believe these Hello Kitty delineators?!

Japan

We saw dozens of decorative and beautiful manhole covers.

Japan

Japan

Gas station pumps come from the top, not the bottom – likely to conserve space.

Japan

Bullet trains are pretty awesome, not to mention fast and efficient.

Bullet train

They also have tons of leg room and are an incredibly comfortable way to travel.

Japan bullet train

Getting our JR pass to use the trains was not nearly as convenient or comfortable as the trains. Only foreigners are allowed a JR pass and you must apply and receive your JR pass outside of Japan. It’s a paper pass that you have to manually show to the attendant each time you want to enter the paid area of the train station. I was baffled that they didn’t give an electronic pass that could be scanned at the electronic gates (like most of the one time use tickets). Beyond that, to make a seat reservation on the bullet trains (required), you had to line up and get a paper reservation ticket. The fact that you couldn’t just reserve a seat on an app on your phone or at least use one of the machines to do this was crazy. The hours we spent getting our JR pass, lining up for reservations (and changing reservations) was ridiculous. On the plus side, making reservations are free and you can make or change them as often as you like.

Japan

Don’t be surprised to find yourself sleeping on the floor.

Japan

At many of the famous temples and shrines around Japan, we saw women dressed in stunningly gorgeous  traditional Kimonos with meticulously done hair and makeup. Supposedly it is even currently trendy to get dressed up and have photos taken!

Japan

Last but not least, this adorable puppy pack I spotted in one of the markets.

Japan

5 thoughts on “Baffled By Beautiful & Backwards Japan

  1. John T says:

    Enjoyed your post – fond memories for me (even the frustrating ones). IC cards are prepaid rechargeable cards that can be used to pay the fare for trains and buses. The ticket vending machines are not cash only but are confusing.

  2. Anna Jean Mallinson says:

    You learned a lot — sometimes the hard way. Can all your clever problem solving be coded into a category that will enhance your job resume? You had tto be so observant! I liked the cat’s paw snatching the fish in payment for computer time, though I think the Japanese go rather far in their liking for cute kittens. There are two sides to the Japanese aesthetic: the refined tradition associated with woodblock prints and fabric design, and the contemporary obsession with the cute., including their animated figures with enormous eyes, which I don’t like at all. The old tradition is often comic and even pornographic but never silly. i love its formality and the beautiful abstract patterns derived from nature. I loved the ornamental man-hole covers! I have heard about the drunken japanese business men. Apparently this is a custom tolerated and absorbed into some notion of what it means to be a man. Interesting to be in a country where you must have been very aware of being different and yet where you learned to adjust and enjoy. Have you had a chance to talk to john Tak about your japanese trip? He knows japan well ane would be fascinated to hear your impressions.

  3. Dave says:

    Crazy wacky unexpected world in Japan! Thanks for the exciting rendition of your adventures and discoveries. I still want to go but will talk to you first. And maybe John.

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