10 Ways You Will Experience Culture Shock in Japan
Culture shock in Japan is common. Japan is a country with a rich history and strict traditional values, along with a quirky modern culture. This clash of new age and tradition creates a unique vibe and flavor as you walk the bustling streets of Japan. With such a heavy contrast in values and ways of life, it breeds an interesting culture.
Japan’s culture is truly unique, and thus a culture shock in Japan is like no other. From the busy streets to overwhelming advertisements, stripping off in public baths to finding everything you could dream of in street-side vending machines.
Culture shock and travel in Japan often go hand in hand. Even though there are ways to identify, adapt and overcome a culture shock, escaping from a culture shock in Japan is almost impossible.
So, what are some common ways of experiencing culture shock in Japan?
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10 ways you’ll experience culture shock in Japan
Culture shock is different for each and every traveler. How you cope and discover a Japanese cultural shock will vary from one traveler to the next. But these are the 10 common ways you’ll encounter differences of culture when traveling Japan.
1. Advertisements everywhere!
Many of these lights flash and shine bright in the night
Advertisements in Japan can be overwhelming as there are just so many of them!
Many streets around Japan’s major cities are coated in colorful and eye-catching advertisements. The problem is, there is so much going on that it can be overwhelming. Buildings are plastered with bold hiragana and katakana symbols (two forms of Japanese writing) that there’s simply not enough room and they begin to pile on top of one another, going higher and higher.
On top of that, to be even more attention-grabbing, some have mesmerizing lights that blink and flash all night long. As if your senses weren’t overwhelmed enough by the busy streets, there’s no rest for your eyes down a busy street in Japan.
This image was taken in Osaka, near Kuromon Ichiba Market – a great place to try plenty of unique Japanese dishes.
2. High-tech toilets that spray you
Culture shock in Japan is understandable seeing how different things can be
Traveling through Tokyo provides many chances for a culture shock in Japan
The first time you sit on a Japanese toilet can be quite intimidating. There are more buttons than my television remote, and if you press the wrong one, you may be in for a sudden shock.
A personal story that makes me laugh and be ashamed at the same time, I decided to test these buttons out. While I was standing up, facing the toilet. Let’s just say the full power of that water jet can reach much further than you expect. Luckily, the toilet was at least very clean.
While other parts of Asia are known the squat-style toilets, Japan takes it to different levels with a toilet with many, many buttons other than the western full and half flush buttons. It sure is a unique thing to experience in Japan.
3. Naked in public baths
The traditional Japanese bath, or Onsen, is one of my favorite ways to relax after a long day or stretch out after exhausting my muscles on the ski resorts. But it wasn’t always like that.
Stripping in front of random strangers isn’t a natural aspect of many cultures around the world, but it is when visiting an onsen in Japan. Locals bare all with confidence, which personally, it took a while to build up that comfortable feeling.
I even visited an onsen with the Buddhist monk, Asami, who lives at Taiyoji Temple, a great overnight temple stay just outside of Tokyo.
Being from Australia, it wasn’t too common to interact with naked people in a public setting. One of the hardest parts of the onsen experience I had to overcome was children in the onsens I visited. But it was all too common in Japan and was only a culture shock of Japan as I had my own set of ingrained cultural guidelines.
It wasn’t ever natural for me, but it did get much easier time after time.
4. Escaping crowds isn’t always possible
Avoiding people isn’t always possible in Japan
Crowds are common throughout Japan
Japan’s capital city, Tokyo, is the biggest city in the world by population. In fact, Japan holds the first and the seventh spot in the top 10 busiest cities in the world – Osaka being 7th.
So with so many people going about their daily lives, it’s almost impossible to escape the crowds in these metropolitan areas. If you’ve ever visited Shinjuku JR Train Station at rush hour, you’ve probably experienced one of the busiest places on earth.
But the crowds of Japan are everywhere. Shibuya Crossing is said the busiest intersection in the entire world. Up to 2,500 pedestrians cross the street every time the signal changes. There’s no structure, you just politely weave through oncoming bodies until you reach the safety of the opposite sidewalk.
Accepting there will be times throughout traveling in Japan where you won’t have great amounts of personal space will ensure you’re well equipped to handle one of the most difficult culture shocks in Japan.
5. You can live from vending machines
If you spend any time wandering the streets of Japan, you’ll notice vending machines. Everywhere. You can find pretty much anything you want if you spend the time to search the glass cabinets.
Get sushi and sandwiches, to cans of hot coffee and plush Pokemon dolls from these convenient machines. There are even streets in Tokyo filled with these illuminated boxes of food and drink – I was always hesitant to try the warm can of corn kernels, but it wasn’t as bad as I made it out be in my head.
If you look hard enough, you might find some more adult style vending machines – there’s reportedly one that dispenses used underwear. Not too sure why that’s a thing, but it sure is unique.
Life is sustainable from Japanese vending machines, as strange as that may be, you can survive, and even get some new undergarments if you’re in the market for them.
6. People wearing surgical masks
One man wearing a surgical mask in Osaka – a common sight throughout Japan
Culture shock in Japan can be experienced in many different ways – signs, crowds and surgical masks just to name a few
No, it’s not some apocalyptic virus that’s sweeping the nation. There are a couple of pretty common reasons why these masks are so common throughout Japan.
If you have a common cold or the flu, these masks prevent the spread of your sickness. The winter air in Japan can also be very dry, which is the perfect breeding ground for the contagious viruses that circulate every year.
If you’re visiting in the springtime, (March to June), you might also see a large number of people wearing them at this time due to the pollen in the air. Japanese Cedar Trees are a common cause for causing sneezes and sniffly noses, and these surgical masks cut down on the irritation.
So no, there’s no immediate and life-threatening danger, but there is a valid health reason, either for the person wearing the mask, or everyone else around them.
7. There are some interesting foods in Japan
If warm corn in a can isn’t enough for you, there’s plenty of other interesting culinary choices.
Of course, there is ramen. Basic ramen, while delicious, is pretty similar in many restaurants around Japan. But it is the different types you can find throughout Japan that make it a little more interesting. Curry ramen is a twist of the traditional dish born in Aomori, while black ramen looks a little dark and ominous, but is crafted with soy sauce to give it that color.
There’s even ramen that’s lit on fire right in front of you! That would be Kyoto’s Fire Ramen dish – and it’s one of a kind.
One thing I never expected from Japan is the use of dashi, or dried fish flakes. It’s in everything. Dried rice from the supermarket? It can apparently be in there as well. My partner who traveled through Japan is a vegetarian and had a hard time ensuring she was eating nothing of an animal.
While Japan’s culture shocks associated with food are relatively tame compared to other Asian countries, but adjusting to different flavors and ingredients can still be a challenge for some.
Asahikawa Ramen Village is a unique place to get a range of ramen. You can also get a free sake tasting nearby at Otokoyama Brewery.
8. Restaurant customs in Japan
Ramen is a typical meal and very common throughout Japan
While this common dish through Japan is easily found, there are a number of variations to it – including one that is set on fire!
Restaurants in Japan have a whole set of potentially confusing customs to new visitors to the country. Due to the polite tendencies, you might not ever find out that you caused offense to someone for breaking an unspoken rule.
One of the most important rules of Customs in Japan is tipping. It’s not only not required, but it can also be taken as offensive by wait staff and chefs. I’ve even heard many stories about workers chasing down guests from the restaurants to return the extra money left as gratitude. So, to all my North American friends (and anywhere that tipping in restaurants is customary) keep the tip with you, not on the table.
If you’re ever given a small plate of food that appears free, it might be called “otoshi”. This small dish is given as a seating fee. You can say that you would rather not have this little appetizer, but chances are you will be charged the seating fee no matter what.
Sometimes a warm towel is given at a table as your meal is served. This towel is expected to clean your hands before you eat. It can also be considered rude to pour tour own beer at certain times.
Eating out in Japan is a great experience but these customary guidelines are good to know and follow to make the experience for everyone involved.
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9. Accuracy of public transport
Public transport in Japan is reliable – very reliable
Japan’s public transport is on time almost always, a bit different from what I am used to in other places around the world.
Punctuality is a pretty well-known trait of Japanese culture. Transport runs so smoothly in Japan that noticing just how on time buses and trains run might be difficult. But if you’re reading a train timetable, and it says the train arrives at 8:13 am, the train will be there at 8:13 am sharp.
If for some reason transport is late, and crazy things do happen, there are regular announcements in Japanese and English to warn passengers of the delay.
Japan runs smoothly and efficiently, so be on time if you want to make your transit.
Find out how you can catch Japan’s cheapest shinkansen – Osaka to Kyoto high speed train.
10. Natural disaster and emergency messages
A lot of Japan’s cities are full of brightly covered advertisements
Japan is well connected, through advertising and technology.
It’s pretty unnerving to get a text message warning of an impending disaster. But that extra few minutes of warning is a great thing if it’s a matter of life or death.
While I was in Japan I only received test text messages to ensure the system was operating smoothly. It was still a little worrying seeing an emergency text message light up on your phone, even if it is a test.
Still, it’s nice to know if things went south, you would be aware almost instantly.
Have you ever had a culture shock in Japan?
Culture shock in Japan is common for travelers as the country it very unique in many ways
While Japan is full of culture shocks, you can still find peaceful places
There are many other ways culture shock in Japan can hit travelers – from the bustling, neon illuminated streets to the high-tech advancements to the plain old toilet.
While Japan is an unforgettable travel destination, there will always be some sort of adjustment no matter where you come from in the world – enjoying the challenges of travel is all part of the fun.
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