When Adam and I first visited Japan in 2014, I found it a pleasant and refreshing visit coming from Korea. I knew I wanted to come back to live to explore life here deeper than I could as a tourist. So, I made it happen. Last year, I lived in Nagoya and Tokyo in 2016 and now I’m back in Tokyo again on a short-term teaching contract. Though I enjoy living here at the moment, I wouldn’t necessarily want to settle here.
The following is a list of the things I love most about Japan. In another post, I’ll write about some smaller details I’m a fan of as well as comparing life in Japan vs. Korea.
Disclaimer: These are my experiences; everyone will have a different perspective, especially if you lived in various parts of the country. Having only lived here for about 9 months total, I do not claim to be an expert on all things Japan. No place is perfect and there are flaws just like anywhere else that I’m not going to get into right now. I just want to focus on what I like!
1. I feel pretty safe in Japan
Japan is safe. This statement is echoed by most tourists in Japan. And yes, I don’t worry about walking around alone at night nor do I really watch my bags closely on the stuffed trains. People are often sleeping on the trains while holding their phones loosely in their hands, not worrying about people snatching their belongings. I’ve even seen a passed out guy on the floor of the train with money falling out of his pockets. Someone tucked the money back in before alighting. Japan boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
That being said, Japan isn’t free from crime and I wouldn’t go so far as to call it safe. Like everywhere in the world, anything can happen at any moment. Japan has its fair share of creeps. The rate of sexual assaults is unknown because they are severely under-reported in the male-dominated society. Groping in the crowded subways must have been a problem as there is now the existence of the “women-only” cars. Unfortunately, school girls are the target of this horrific crime and they are unlikely to report or speak out. Foreign women are also a target and when they do speak out, there is not much action taken. And an incident happened to me here, too. There is a growing awareness, but still has a long way to go. For a more thorough article on this topic, click here.
So I write this with caution, not a blanket fact that Japan is safe, but I feel safer here than any other place I’ve been.
2. The public transportation is impressive and convenient
Though initially confusing, the train extensive network in Japan is the most impressive and efficient I’ve ever experienced. Most people take the train to work, so rush hour is notoriously crowded when going into the city. But the trains are reliable and unbelievably clean even though millions of people ride them every day. The whole country is well-connected with trains and buses. Riding the Shinkansen, or bullet train, is a unique experience in Japan. Recently, there is a Shinkansen that goes under the sea to Hokkaido!
3. Japan’s cleanliness and tidiness
Perhaps the first thing travelers notice about Japan is the cleanliness. The streets are immaculate! Even the trash bags are neatly arranged on the street when it’s garbage day. Early in the morning, I see older people meticulously cleaning the space in front of their homes and businesses with tiny brooms and shovels. The most impressive part is the fact that trash cans are hard to come by in public spaces. You can usually count on a convenience store or train station, but rarely on the street. So people must be keeping their trash with them until they can properly dispose of because I don’t see a lot of litter. I have seen trash on the ground, but it very little given the population.
4. Japan’s bicycle culture
All kinds of people get around by bicycle – businessmen and women rushing to catch the train, grandmothers with a basket of vegetables, young moms transporting two kids to daycare… everyone rides a bike! I feel safe navigating the streets among motorists, who are usually aware of cyclists. When it comes to riding a bike, people don’t strictly adhere to the rules like other aspects of society. Cyclists ride on both the road and the sidewalk and on either side of the road. Parking can be a tricky situation, especially at busy stations. I’ve seen bicycles with parking tickets and sometimes they are confiscated.
5. Etiquette and Politeness
Politeness goes way beyond “please” and “thank you” in Japan. It is a way of life. The list of etiquette rules can go on for eternity, but here are a few examples:
- Honorifics are built into the language so the words you use vary based on your and your conversation partner’s status.
- When paying for something, customers put their money on a tray instead of handing it directly to the cashier.
- People queue before entering a train. They wait until everyone alights before boarding.
- I never heard anybody talk on the phone while in the train nor did I ever hear a ringtone. If there is chatting among friends, people are usually pretty quiet (but not always).
- Lining up neatly on the escalator (on the left in Tokyo, right in Osaka) so people who want to walk can do so. I always opt to walk up on the right and am surprised by the number of people who don’t.
- Customer service and hospitality – Japanese hospitality, or omtenashi, is famed worldwide. The customer is god and tourists are supposed to be welcomed warmly (but not always the case…). Customers are greeted with excellent service not only at fancy hotels at restaurants but also fast food joints and convenience stores. You’ll rarely see employees using their phones on the job; they are quick and attentive to the customers. Even though there is no tipping, people take pride in their job and go above and beyond to provide the best service.
Sometimes, the politeness can go over-the-top. I’ve seen a circle of businesspeople bowing at each other at least 12 times each before finally parting ways. When departing a nice restaurant in Kyoto, the waiter ushered us outside and waved us goodbye until we were no longer in sight. It can be a bit overkill and difficult to know people’s true feelings, but I do enjoy the general politeness and regard for others.
6. Waste Management and Recycling
There is a Japanese term called mottainai, which is an expression that means “what a waste!”. When I first moved into my apartment, I got a large piece of paper filled with size 8 font detailing waste disposal procedures. Burnable trash goes in a clear bag and is collected on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Non-burnable trash has a different kind of bag and is picked up on different days. PET plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and paper are all separated as well. Additionally, there is a reverse vending machine near my apartment where people can insert plastic bottles and aluminum cans to receive points usable at the supermarket. Milk cartons and styrofoam are collected at supermarkets and are supposedly recycled into new objects like pens. A lot of the waste here is burned; there are even talks of having a usable island made from trash.
That being said, all of this effort to reduce and organize waste goes out the window when it comes to packaging and the overuse of plastic. Don’t be surprised to find an individual banana wrapped in plastic. The cashier will automatically give you a plastic bag for it, too. I try to avoid consuming plastic as much as possible, but it is pretty difficult to avoid here.
7. Tradition and Modernity
Japan is known for its technology and robotics. There are times I feel like I am living in the future in Japan with its waiter-less restaurants, ubiquitous vending machines, and bullet train. Among the modernity is the traditional culture that still permeates. Many unique cultural features like sumo, kendo, kimono, tea ceremony, geisha, kabuki, and calligraphy are still practiced today. This is not to say that you’ll come to Japan seeing geisha running around and everyone wearing kimono; people’s daily lives are pretty much like those in the west. Some of my 18/19-year-old students do not own a kimono/yukata and are just like any other teen around the world — into pop music, smartphones, and YouTube. But it’s still nice to see the traditions still existing in some form.
8. Cat Culture
I have a weakness for all things cats, so I am on board with all of the kawaii culture involving cats. From attending a supernatural cat festival to window shopping at numerous cat themed shops, this crazy cat lady is consistenly entertained.
9. Autumn Foliage
This is my first Autumn in Japan and it has been absolutely magical. People go out of their way to gaze at the Autumn foliage, especially Japanse maple (momiji) and ginkgo (itcho). As readers may know, I love leaves. Most of my free time has been spent chasing leaves and I have not yet been disappointed.
My time here has quickly gone by. Within three weeks, I will be gone from Asia, a place I have been exploring for 4 years, but there are new adventures ahead in Zambia.