Secrets Abroad: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Japan Pt. 1

Street Crossing in Asakusa Japan

Secrets Abroad is an ongoing series that explores the hidden sides of cultures from around the world. Check out previous editions here.

Greetings from Kyoto!

It’s almost been three weeks since we left the US. When we first started getting serious about this trip, I knew I wanted to blog about it, and I knew what kind of blog I wanted to build. I wanted a way to show a life lived in motion, through photography, writing, and art. I also wanted to create something that was not only pragmatic but immersive.

I spent a lot of time daydreaming about the countries we wanted to see. There were plenty of sites that offered practical advice about what to do, where to stay, and what to eat, but there were fewer blogs that focused on cultural experiences. Ones that wrote in depth about the little things that come together to make up a place, the feeling of being there, the ingredients that shape a culture.

I remember researching for our Japan itinerary, and by the time I read over my twentieth “Top 10 Japanese Foods to Try!” listicle, I was pretty much over it. I didn’t want to hear for the umpteenth time how you have to get real ramen in Japan and how it’s so different from your average cup of noodles. What I was really looking for was what it felt like to be lined up in a cramped hallway sweating over a bowl of spicy miso. I wanted to know what font they used for the logo on the napkin, or that the salarymen sitting next to you were dressed in black pants and dress shirts despite the crushing summer heat.

I want to know what it’s like to wake up in the morning as someone living in that country: what my alarm sounds like, what I’d eat for breakfast, whether people smile at me as I pass them on the sidewalk. I want to know if the people on the subway are talking about their days or sitting quietly on their phones. I want to know what the festival poster hanging outside of the post office looks like. I want to know what makes the locals tick. I want to know the little idiosyncrasies that thread together and make a country’s heart beat. I want to feel the spirit and the soul of its people.

There are so many little details that we soak in when we’re visiting somewhere new, and I want to share them. Because there’s delight in the details. Roaming through temples and museums can be great experiences, but I believe that the true joy of travel is found in the little things.

So I’ll be writing up a post for each country I visit, detailing all the tiny details I’ve found interesting about the places we’re in, the things you don’t usually hear about in guidebooks and “Before You Go” round-ups. Stuff you never realize or learn about until you’ve actually arrived. The kind of things that you see your friends who have also been there light up about, like a shared secret. Topics that aren’t worth a whole blog post, but make up the daily life of a local through a thousand tiny little lenses.

A Portrait of Japan

1. Traffic isn’t much of an issue here, at least in Tokyo, which is surprising considering it’s the largest metropolitan area in the world. I’ve yet to see a real traffic jam, and the roads aren’t very crowded in general. Tokyo has a well-functioning public transit system and quite a few people choose to bike. It reminds me a bit of Isla Vista, with people walking all over the empty streets and biking by with backpacks in their baskets. So overall it’s very safe and calm when walking around. Except that cars tend to drive brutally fast, so you kind of feel like you’re going to get run over all the time.

2. I was a bit of a Japanese culture nut back in middle school (not much has changed) and made it a hobby to cook up recipes that I found in manga and anime series. One of my favorites was onigiri. So you can imagine my excitement when I happened upon one of these babies during our first night in Japan. An issue I always had with making these at home was keeping the nori fresh against the warm rice, but the Japanese created a genius solution. It’s a little hard to explain and even more complicated to succeed at on your first go, but they wrap each snack in several plastic layers folded between the rice and seaweed. You pull down the center, then pull out the sides, and voilà! You have an onigiri ready to eat with a nori wrapper that still has a nice snap to it.

Onigiri Wrapper

3. Japan has far outpaced its Chinese neighbors in the toiletry department, as they’ve mostly upgraded from the standard squat toilet to a sit-down seat. This evolution must have happened over a very short period of time. In almost every public restroom I’ve been into there’s an instructional sign on how to properly use a toilet. Classic mistakes according to these posters include standing on the seat or straddling it backward.

4. You know how hoops have recently made a comeback in the States? Well, they’re popular in Japan now, too. But on guys. I’m still unsure how I feel about this.

5. You’ve probably seen all those pretty Instagram photos of matcha soft serve in front of some trendy café in Kyoto, but let me tell you, this is no ordinary soft serve. Japanese ice cream is pure wizardry. I always associated soft serve with the end a buffet meal, these little plops of half-melted, chocolate-vanilla swirls. So I was never all that excited about the prospect of trying it in Japan. But I was wrong. Very wrong. Japanese “soft cream”, as they call it, is actually a ubiquitous type of frozen treat that you’ll see all around Japan. Shops that sell it are marked by a cute little plastic ice cream cone outside, and they all carry the same brand of Nissei ice cream maker. Shop owners pop in a flavor cup of your choosing (like a giant Keurig machine) and pump out your order right in front of you. The first flavor I had was purple sweet potato, and I have lots of other quirky local specialties like sakura, sake, tofu, and chestnut on my list before I leave.

Mango Ice Cream in Nara Japan

6. I have seen exactly zero rain jackets since we arrived. Nobody wears them here, despite June being the rainiest month of the year. There are tons of umbrellas, though, especially those clear plastic ones you see in street photos of Tokyo. I haven’t figured out yet if this is a cultural thing, or just a blanket refusal to wear any more layers than necessary when it’s 90 degrees and humid outside.

7. The Japanese are obsessed with claw machines, at least in larger cities, and they’re totally different from what I’m used to back home. They’re nothing like the American versions where you pop in a quarter, give it a whirl or two, and if you’re lucky, go home with an ancient looking toy that you would never have paid money for in the first place. Instead, they have massive arcade complexes filled with dozens of these things. They’re huge and bright and sing happy music 24/7, and they’re filled with some of the most kawaii prizes imaginable. Shibas in pink bibs, Pikachus in tea pots, plump Kirby dolls the size of a mini fridge. The technique is also different. Instead of “grabbing” a prize and hoping it stays up, the aim is to slowly edge one further and further until it tips over a set of bars. This means that you can’t just casually play to win–you have to commit for the long haul.

Claw Machines in Japan

8. Would you believe me if I told you that the best chicken I’ve ever had comes out of a chain convenience store? Family Marts are found all around the country and have a hot foods section like 7-Eleven. Within it, they serve what is literally the best chicken I have ever tasted. It’s called their “spicy fried chicken” and costs around ¥180. I would honestly come back to Japan just for this.

Family Mart in Japan

9. Crosswalk timers don’t use traditional Arabic numerals. Instead, there’s a column of several small blocks that disappear one by one at set intervals. When the last block goes away, the green man flashes and quickly turns to red. This resulted in several close calls (see #1) during our first week here until we figured out how it worked.

10. It’s not at all uncommon to see kids as young as five or six getting around on their own. You would think that this phenomenon was exclusive to rural areas, but there are plenty of children running around central Tokyo carrying stacks of books and waiting patiently to cross the street on their own. These kids grow up using the subway alone. You’ll also see grown-ups sleeping on public transport with their valuables just sitting on their laps for anyone to take. Japan is really just that safe. It’s crazy.

If you found any of these points interesting or want to see more of this series, please comment below. I have a lot more cultural quirks to share before we leave for South Korea at the end of the month. So next week, get ready for part 2! And don’t forget to subscribe to get posts like these delivered to your inbox each week.

Part 2 / Part 3

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  • Corinne Severin

    Hi Anna!
    I just stumbled on your blog! I absolutely LOVE it. Keep up with the writing! Hope you and Joel having a wonderful time!

    • thetravelsketch

      So happy to hear you’re liking it! Hope you’re doing well 🙂

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