10 Things That Surprised Us While Visiting Japan

From the kindness of the Japanese people to their amazing vending machines, here are 10 things that surprised us while visiting Japan for the first time.

It’s been a mere week since Mr. Five O’Clock and I returned to NYC from visiting Japan, and in some ways, it feels like we’re waking up from the best dream of lives. (Oh, wait, I did just wake up… and it’s 3 AM. Curse you, jet lag!)

Plenty of things surprised us throughout our two weeks in Japan, from the kindness of the Japanese people to those freakin’ cool ramen-eating booths. Perhaps what surprised me most of all, however, was how much I grew to love this country that had originally not even been on my radar.

In putting our jet lag to good use, we’ve got our first post about Japan all ready! Here are 10 things that surprised us while visiting Japan.

1. Japanese people will help you get out of a jam.

After 20 hours of international flights and an hour-long train ride, it’s no surprise that we were exhausted and delirious by the time we reached Tokyo. We were all set to exit Shinjuku train station with our Japan Rail Pass, only to stare dumbly at the electronic turnstile. How do we get out of here with a paper pass?!

Fortunately, at that moment, an elderly Japanese woman came to our rescue. She pointed at an office by the turnstiles; this was how we learned that with the rail pass, you need to present it to guards upon entering and exiting a station with JR trains.

Countless times on our trip, the Japanese people we encountered went out of their way to help us. Whether we were lost, needed to translate a Japanese phrase, or simply didn’t realize the proper etiquette, we found folks voluntarily willing to help out a poor gaijin, or foreigner. It was a complete 180-degree turnaround from some other countries we’ve visited!

2. Be respectful and reverent, and it will pay off in spades.

Sitting in the coveted seats in the center of the bar at Bar Ben Fiddich in Tokyo

We researched Japanese customs and etiquette ahead of time and tried to put our learning into action as much as possible.

By the end of our time visiting Japan, we were bowing to servers and hotel staff on autopilot and saying itadakimasuand “gochisosama deshita” — meaning “I receive this food” and “It was quite a feast,” respectively — at the beginning and end of our meals. We were rewarded by fleeting surprise, followed by a warm smile, from chefs and concierges alike.

Nowhere was the payoff for being respectful more apparent than when we visited Bar Ben Fiddich, one of the world’s best cocktail bars.

In following Japanese bar etiquette, we sat where we were told, spoke quietly, and demonstrated genuine reverence for cocktail master Hiroyasu Kayama’s creations. By the end of the night, we’d been invited up to a coveted seat at the bar directly in front of where Kayama-san worked. It was like a tango of respect: once we proved that we weren’t just gaijin looking to get drunk, we were welcomed into the fold.

Spending time with the master himself. Arigatou gozaimasu, Kayama-san!

3. A little language knowledge goes a long way.

The day after purchasing our flight to Tokyo, I had a mini meltdown. What if I get lost and can’t understand directions back to my hotel? What if I can’t read anything on this restaurant’s menu and order sea urchin (which I’m allergic to) by accident? What if I can’t read the sign for the women’s restroom and accidentally wander into… 

OK, you get the point.

Being my more rational half, Mr. Five O’Clock suggested that we study some Japanese before visiting the country, which instantly calmed me down. I took a 10-week in-person course with Fluent City, while Mr. Five O’Clock took online lessons via JapanesePod101.

I can’t tell you how many times we uttered some basic Japanese phrase during our trip, only to hear, “Your Japanese is very good!” Maybe these folks were just being polite, but their sentiments seemed to be genuine and appreciative. Plus, it made us feel really, really good about ourselves. *Pats self on the back.*

We promise to write a post on key Japanese survival phrases you’ll want to have handy, but in the meantime, here are three to get you started.

  • Sumimasen
    • How to write it: すみません
    • How to pronounce it: SOO-ME-MAH-SEN
    • What it means: Excuse me; Pardon me; I’m sorry
  • Arigatou gozaimasu
    • How to write it: ありがとう ございます
    • How to pronounce it: ARE-EE-GAH-TOE GO-ZAI-MAH-SSS
    • What it means: Thank you very much
  • Toire wa doko desu ka?
    • How to write it: トイレはどこですか
    • How to pronounce it: TOY-RAY WAH DOH-KOH DESS KAH?
    • What it means: Where’s the toilet? [Perhaps the most useful phrase in any foreign language, right? Heh.]

4. Japan is incredibly safe.

People’s luggage just chillin’ in the train station. Nobody stole a thing. Incredible.

I’m used to clutching my bags in Egypt, wearing money belts in Europe, and at least trying to pay a modicum of attention on the New York City subway so I don’t wake up next to any of these weirdos. It’s safe to say that I’m a little, er, super paranoid anxious when it comes to personal safety at home and abroad.

But Japan is the safest country I’ve ever visited, hands down.

In fact, we saw people leave their luggage in the train stations, grab some McDonald’s, and return 45 minutes later… and the luggage was all fine and dandy, completely untouched. Not that I recommend doing this all of the time, but still. Nobody stole a damn thing.

If you still don’t believe me, perhaps official, hard numbers will convince you: Japan tied with Ireland for the 10th safest country in the world in the 2017 Global Peace Index. (Iceland clocked in at #1, in case you’re wondering.)

5. Those *toilets,* though.

That privacy button is key.

Where do we even start with this one? Japanese toilets are perhaps the greatest invention ever made. And no, I’m not talking about squat toilets — those may be more oriented toward the way nature intended us to go, but man, they give my thighs a bloody workout.

I’m talking about the high-tech, magical wonderland of toilets. I’m talking about seat warmers. Lids that rise when you approach. Torrents of water to clean your derrière. (Or your front.) And there’s even waterfall sounds you can play for privacy — you know, in case you’re farting up a storm and don’t want anyone to hear. We won’t judge.

With their friendliness and cleanliness, I ask you: why aren’t we all using Japanese toilets?

6. Hotel check in times are strict.

Arriving early at a hotel in the United States? No big deal. More often than not, if we arrive before the designated check in time at a U.S. hotel, the staff will smile at us and say, “The room’s ready for you!”

But if a Japanese hotel’s check in time is 3 PM, it really means 3 PM sharp. Not 2 PM, not 2:45 PM. Not even 2:59 PM. It’s by the book here, but that’s OK.

7. Trash and recycling are taken seriously. Like, really seriously.

This helpful sign was in English… but not all of them are.

Garbage and recycling — and the dizzying number of ways of sorting them — are serious business in Japan.

For example, some Japanese cities have 10, 20, even 44 categories for sorting trash. You’ll have 20+ pages of instructions on how to deal with over 500 items. And God forbid that you do it wrong, lest you get sternly chastised by your neighbor or even evicted from your apartment.

I learned this the hard way at Odawara train station while en route to Hakone. I’m pretty sure I gave this older couple a heart attack because I threw my trash into the wrong canister by accident. It happened in slow motion: after investigating each bin, I made an educated guess… which turned out to be wrong, as evidenced by an elderly woman frantically pointing at the opposite bin.

Take the time to figure things out, and if you don’t know, bite the bullet and just ask someone which bins are for what. It’ll save you — and Japanese grandmas — a lot of grief!

8. Cash is still king.

We put alerts on all of our credit cards before visiting Japan, only to discover that we couldn’t use them at many shops and attractions. We used Japanese yen for all of our small purchases; a good general rule of thumb is the more expensive a restaurant is, the more likely it is to take cards (see: pricey omakase dinners). The hotels we stayed in took credit cards, but it’s wise to check this ahead of time too.

Fortunately, if you’re low on moola, it’s easy to get more. Just visit a 7-Eleven and use their ATM. Plus, they’re open 24/7, which is a godsend in emergency cases!

Another important point regarding money: you don’t need to tip in Japan. In fact, it can be considered an insult if you do! But you can give a small gift from your country to show appreciation if the situation warrants it; for example, we gave Godiva chocolates with NYC art on the box to our Japanese tour guides in lieu of cash.

9. Vending machines will be your best friend, especially when it comes to your cup of morning joe.

The very first vending machine we saw in Japan (at Narita airport)

For some reason, we kept running into 900 yen coffee situations in restaurants and hotels we visited, which is the equivalent of $7.95 USD. No offense, but unless my coffee beans were pooped out by furry animals in Bali, there’s no way I’m shelling out more than $3 for my daily dose of caffeine.

Enter vending machines. Here, you’ll find practically any drink your heart desires, from coffee to tea and soda. I was particularly excited to learn that some of them even dispense — *gasp* — beer!!

Be still, my beating heart. I’ll be back in a second once I’ve gotten more Asahi beer from my hotel vending machine…


10. You probably won’t see everything on your original itinerary when you’re visiting Japan, and that’s okay.

Sipping tea at our ryokan in Kyoto

Some things you can’t really plan for while traveling: getting sick, missing a train, or a change in weather.

For us, we were in Kyoto when Typhoon Lan hit. Having lived through typhoons and “black rain” in Hong Kong — I vividly recall being on lockdown in a school building for hours there in 2010 — I didn’t intend to mess around with Mother Nature. So, after a few minutes of deliberation, we scrapped our plans to take a day trip to Kobe.

And you know what? It wound up being a perfect vacation from our vacation. We spent most of the day just sipping green tea and reading books in our ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. Not too shabby. (Plus, we wound up going to Kobe a day later after all when the weather let up. You never know how things will turn out!)

Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto, Japan

Essential Info:
Where should you stay in Tokyo? Check out options here.
Where did I personally stay in Japan? Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku and Hotel Ryumeikan Tokyo in Tokyo, Gion Miyagawacho Grandereverie and Kyokoyado Muromachi Yutone in Kyoto, and Hotel Nikko Osaka in Osaka. We enjoyed each of these properties.
Want a guidebook for Japan? I use Lonely Planet and Fodor’s.
What other cities have I visited lately? Seattle, London, and Reykjavik, to name a few!

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From the kindness of the Japanese people to their amazing vending machines, here are 10 things that surprised us while visiting Japan for the first time.

All costs were paid by me, and all opinions are my own. Not even a perfect Japanese toilet can change that.

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30 thoughts on “10 Things That Surprised Us While Visiting Japan

  1. Justin

    Hi Julianne! Really enjoyed reading this post. Brought back so many good memories. And your tips and observations are absolutely on point. I also think it’s fantastic that you and Mr. Five O’Clock studied the language before traveling. Knowing basics makes such a difference. As for your open question regarding the toilets, it’s because they are crazy expensive! Otherwise, without question, anyone who has experienced them would immediately have one installed upon their return home. 😁

    1. Julianne

      Hi Justin, I’m so glad you liked the post! Yes — he and I loved learning Japanese so much that we’re continuing to take classes now that we’re back. Such a beautiful language! And that makes sense about the cost — with all of the fancy gadgets, I can see how costs would add up quickly. Maybe we can install one in our future dream house 😉

  2. Shirley

    Really loved this post! Japan was not previously on my travel list, but it is now! Your tips for a successful trip are extremely useful, especially about learning the language and customs. The reminder of flexibility really helps too. Loved your sipping tea photo!

    1. Julianne

      Haha I know! If it wasn’t for Mr. Five O’Clock, I don’t think I would have thought about going to Japan for years. But it’s so amazing — I would prioritize going back there a second time over a new country any day! And the photo is all thanks to his tripod skills 🙂

    1. Julianne

      Hi Caroline, I’m so glad you liked it! I can’t believe that it wasn’t higher on my bucket list before. I’ve seen the light and am telling everyone I know to visit Japan!! 🙂

  3. Victoria

    You had me cracking up with your writing! LOL. I’m planning a Japan visit next year and I’m grateful for the tips. I want to stay in a Ryokan really bad! Your tips on where to stay were welcome. I can’t wait to go to the toilet over there LOL.

    1. Julianne

      Thanks, Victoria!! I’m glad I could make you laugh. 🙂 That’s awesome that you are planning a trip to Japan — you will love it! And definitely stay in a ryokan; that was one of the highlights of our trip.

  4. Nicky

    Loved this!! Japan has been on my travel list since I was a child – shocking that I haven’t got there yet! – and this has really given me some extra motivation to get there! Great job!

  5. Sarah

    Your tip 2 of being respectful is wonderful! We often go into a country thinking about us, but I love being able to honor and respect another culture! Thank you

    1. Julianne

      Thanks, Sarah! Now, if only I could transport the respect people have in Japan to my fellow New York City subway riders… Haha. 🙂

  6. Melissa

    This was so interesting! I love hearing that a country I want to visit is safe and that their toilets are awesome, lol. Definitely saving this for the future!

    1. Julianne

      Yep – there’s lots of buttons on the toilet, and let’s just say that it took me 2-3 times to figure it all out, haha. It’s serious business! 🙂

  7. Sarah

    Great post and great observations! Japan is one of my favorite countries. And I loved speaking Japanese (or what little we learned) too. Now I want to go back and buy things from vending machines and eat ramen!!!

    1. Julianne

      Oh my gosh, I am OBSESSED with ramen. Would you believe that I had only eaten ramen for the first time like a month before visiting Japan? Crazy, I know. Japan is now one of my favorite countries too! 🙂

  8. Kiyoko

    Words cannot describe how accurate all these statements are!

    After living in Japan for 4 months, I learned that a little bit of effort to learn the language and the culture goes a long way.The Japanese will go way out of their way for you if you’re not being that ignorant and arrogant foreigner. Despite having decent Japanese skills, I still got lost once or twice when in more remote areas, and I would have total strangers help me, not only make sure I got on the bus I needed, but also inform the bus driver where I was trying to go so he could make sure I got off at the right stop.

    As a 5’0, 100lb female girl, not once did I ever feel like I was in danger (although I did have some issues with chicken – perverts)

    God I miss Japanese toilets. Where I live, it’s turning to winter, and those non-heated toilet seats just make me cringe.

    Even after four months, I still feel like I couldn’t sort my trash properly.

    In the states, I never carry cash like EVER, but in Japan, I think the only time I ever used my debit/credit card was to withdraw cash from an ATM.

    And no, I doubt you will get to see everything, just because there is SO MUCH to do and see, but its okay, because everything you do end up doing will be well worth it.

    1. Julianne

      Hi Kiyoko, I love your comment! I’m so glad to get validation from someone who lived in Japan and spent much more time in the country than we did. We’re actually continuing our Japanese language classes because we love the language so much (and will probably be back one day!).

      And yes, not having heated toilet seats in the winter is a tragedy!! 🙂

  9. Ann

    This is one of the best posts on visiting Japan that I’ve ever read. Like you, I haven’t thought visiting Japan was a priority for me, and like you — I worry some about the language barrier for myself. You answered a LOT of my questions and given me some tools — like the Japanese language course you took ahead. Thank you!

  10. Katie

    OMG reading this makes me miss Japan so much…especially the toilets and how KIND people are. What a great country…I can’t wait to go back. Love the post!

  11. Juliann

    The language barrier has always been my biggest hurdle in thinking about visiting Japan. It seems overwhelming at times. But I hear so many rave reviews like yours and think I need to rethink this. Otherwise, I’ll be missing out on a fascinating culture.

  12. Cat

    One thing I miss the most about Japan are their high-tech toilets. I love the seat heating feature – especially useful in winter. It makes you don’t wanna leave the washroom lol!

  13. Jen

    Honestly Japan has never been high on my list, but your post made me look at it differently! I laughed at your thoughts on squat toilets lol I thought I was the only one who found them to be too much of a workout. And I’ll definitely brush up on some basic language and reverence skills before a trip!

  14. Jenn and Ed Coleman

    I think a lot of travelers could do with a little more respect and reverence. No matter where you go, it will serve you well. We just came back from Sri Lanka and perhaps the best encounter we had on our trip was searching for a Moonstone shop. We ambled into a shop and the keeper really wanted to have a conversation. We ended up talking about his kids (who live in Arizona and Japan) and even played chess with his 3rd grade grandson (who kicked my ass BTW). It all started with a little respect and a little conversation. We also got a great stash of gems and even a free gift stone, but the friendship and insight into the country was worth so much more than a good deal.

  15. Ashley

    Japan is like so high on my list it’s not even funny. I love that you researched customs and language beforehand. Something I think a lot more people should do. It would go a long way.

    Those vending machines too. They look amazing haha. I never thought I’d be envious of vending machines.

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