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Ten Things About Japan That Shock First-Time Visitors

Image: Julie McNamee

Ah, Japan. Often, Western countries are amused by what we see as the odd quirks of Japanese culture. Thus, first-time visitors of Japan may be surprised by a number of Japanese customs. One example would be their Christmas traditions.

While Christmas is not a national holiday in Japan, that doesn't mean they don't celebrate the holiday. It's just that they choose to celebrate with breasts and thighs. That would be similar to the way a ton of others in the world like to party, only I'm talking chicken breasts and thighs. The Colonel's chicken, to be precise. Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken is a Japanese Christmas staple. KFC Japan enjoys their highest sales on that day of the year. "Merry Christmas! Original Recipe or Extra Krispy?"

Read about nine other ways Japan keeps first-time tourists on their toes here.  

Image: Token

Image: Token

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I guess after a while some of these things become so common they lose their shock value. It's always interesting to see what the recently arrived find odd.

One thing Japan definitely isn't is quiet. It's loud, but in a different way to what Americans, and I assume other Westerners, are used to. There are speakers outside of shops playing music/ads to entice shoppers in, and once their inside, they're bombarded by small radios playing jingles on a 10s loop(I worked retail in school, and I think I'd have gone homicidal listening to the same tune that often).
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Oh, and a shock that I was kind of prepared for, but is rarely mentioned and a very real issue - getting around without GPS. If you aren't with a tour, I highly recommend making plans for data connectivity (a potential issue itself since you can't just pick up normal phone SIMs like in the west, and stores are frequently out of rental devices if you don't book well in advance), or having a tablet/phone with offline maps (I used MAPS.ME pro since google maps for android didn't allow offline caching in Japan). City layouts in Japan are very complex/haphazard, rarely on a grid, and almost no streets have names since addresses are done by ward and block. Finding an address can be near-impossible without either electronic or local help.
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None of these shocked me when going for the first time this year, but I knew pretty much all of them going in. The more shocking differences are the depth and feel of the cultural differences which are hard to explain in a tour guide. The solitary feeling of Tokyo for example - millions of people in close quarters, but everything about their lives and culture distances them from one another. Don't get involved, don't do anything which may disturb others (which includes staying quiet and not showing emotional reactions to random occurrences), follow your route and get to your destination (reflected in driving, walking, biking and commuting). When required to interact, always be polite (which westerners used to frank responses often mistake for kindness - trust me, it's not always). Even knowing superficially that this difference exists, how that makes you feel while navigating the city isn't something you are likely going to be fully prepared for. In particular, if you have to have real interactions with people (business or social), learning how to read the situation properly can be a real challenge. That said, a lot of Japanese people understand and expect that, thanks to exposure to western culture, which helps.

You may not even realize how different that can be from what you are used to until you go -and even more fun - when you come back. The Japanese are so quiet and polite that I actually found it more jarring coming home and getting on public transit at the airport - suddenly everyone is making noise, strangers talking to each other, couples yelling at each other on the train... yeah, part of me definitely preferred the quiet solitary feeling. :)
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