Quirks 24-27

24. Shoes have secrets.

Everyone knows you have to take your shoes off when you enter private houses in Japan, right? Okay. Well, you also have to take your shoes off in a lot of restaurants, at the gym, at school, in some hospitals, in some offices, in any place that has tatami and some temples, shrines or historical buildings.

Generally there is always a step and that shows you the division between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’:

(It’s polite to line up the shoes you took off and turn them around to face the door.)

Often there are shelves to put your shoes into:

(You don’t step on the wooden slats on the floor with outdoor shoes.)

Some places have a box for you to put your shoes in and a key to take with you.

Often there will be sexy vinyl slippers in icky colours for you to put on:

At school you put your outdoor shoes in a box and put on special indoor shoes that you only wear in the school buildings:

Tatami mat rooms are for socks or bare feet only so if you you are wearing indoor slippers, you have to remove them before walking on the mats:

At touristy places you have to remove your shoes and carry them with you in a plastic bag they provide (because they have a one-way route that you walk through so you don’t return to the place where you would leave your shoes):

At the gym you have to have two pairs of sneakers – one for outside and one for inside, and you often have to rent a locker to keep your indoor gym shoes there so you don’t have to carry them around with you all day.

Obviously all this shoes on-shoes off stuff means that you don’t want to fooling around with undoing straps and laces and things all the time, so women’s shoes you buy in Japan have a secret snap lock under the strap or a secret piece of elastic hidden in the strap so you don’t have to stand on one leg doing the hopping dance while you try and do-up/un-do your shoe:

(You can just see the dark brown of the secret elastic behind the buckle.)

(See the secret snap lock under the buckle peeking out?)

Basically the shoes thing is a hygiene issue. When you sleep, eat and live your life on the floor, you will understand why you don’t want dirt & crap all over your floor. It also goes without saying that while you are in Japan, you want to make sure your socks are respectable and that your feet don’t smell like something has died in there when you take your shoes off.

25. You can travel with just your handbag.

Hotels (and especially traditional style inns) are designed for people to come and stay with nothing but their wallet. Amenities provided will include a shaver, brush, comb, ear buds, hair dryer, shampoo, conditioner, body shampoo, a shower cap, a towel you use to wash yourself with, towels to dry yourself a toothbrush and toothpaste and pyjamas:

Hotels will generally give you disposable slippers that you can take with you when you leave, but other places will have communal plastic slippers for you to use during your stay:

Hot spring inns will often have their name printed on the towels you use to wash yourself with so they make nice souvenirs to take home:

(You take this to the bath with you and use it as a body cloth. You can also use it to strategically cover your private parts in communal bathing areas. There will be large bath towels in the changing rooms to dry yourself with.)

Pyjamas come in the form of a yukata (a light cotton kimono) and in winter they will give you a warm jacket to put over the top. You wear the yukata during your stay and sleep in it:

Obviously, if you’re staying longer you will need more changes of clothing, but for an overnight stay, your lodging have everything you need (love hotels do too🙂 )

26. You are born a Shinto, marry as a Christian and die as a Buddhist.

Kids are taken at the age of around 30 days to be blessed at their local Shinto shrine:


While some people still have a Shinto wedding ceremony, most people have a Western christian-style ceremony in a church or a ‘church-like’ hall at a hotel.

 

(A Shinto-style ceremony where the woman wears a cover over her head to hide her ‘horns’. Yes, black or navy suits are mandatory.)

Any wedding ceremony is not legally binding in any way and often the ‘priest’ in a Christian ceremony is an actor or an English teacher earning some money on the side (as western-looking ‘priests’ look better…)

(It’s only when you register the marriage at your local city office that it actually becomes legal.)

Almost all people have Buddhist funeral rites at their local Buddhist temple and are cremated when they die:

(Lights and disco fog are optional extras.)

Have I mentioned that Japanese are very flexible when it comes to religion??

27. Technology – and the lack of it – will blow you away.

Japan is a country where things are so advanced it’s amazing. For example, your train pass doubles as electronic money that you can use at vending machines and many stores and you can check the balance using a reader installed in your computer:

You can also buy your elderly family members a hot-water urn that sends messages to your mobile phone when it’s turned on, filled with water or used to make tea so you can see their movements and know they’re okay:

(Don’t you love how it’s called an ipot?)

But on the other hand…

While 69% of households have funky toilets that put our antiquated ones to shame, most houses & apartments don’t have hot running water so you have to install a small gas-operated hot water heater above your very basic and tiny kitchen that you switch on every time you need hot water in your sink. Of course there is no built-in stove, oven or dishwasher in your kitchen, just cupboards and a space where you place the gas burner that you have to supply yourself:

There’s also no such thing as central heating and most people use a kerosene heater and/or a kotatsu (a low table with a simple electric element under it):

(The heating element under a kotatsu.)

You fill up the internal tank of the kerosene heater by using a lovely, messy pump and plastic tank:

And you buy the smelly kerosene from a truck that circles the neighbourhood playing jolly music or haul it home from a gasoline stand:


Japan also has no social welfare system whatsoever so there are homeless people living everywhere in whatever way they can:


(The blue tarp is synonymous with homeless people and you’ll see them everywhere there is a scrap of public land like parks and around train lines.)

The only way they can earn money to buy food is to collect aluminium cans and sell them to the recycling companies. You see bicycles loaded up like this all the time:

So while Japan looks very cool and advanced, some basic things about every day life just leave you wondering…

This brings us to the end of our quirky Japan series (thank god! I hear you all say!) More quirky posts can be found in the quirky page (just click on the header link)

Quirks 20-23

20. Toilets are fun.

The toilets with the seat warmers and the bidets are so last year. Toilets in Japan these days open their own lid when they see you coming and close their own lid when you leave:


(Note the toilet slippers…)

You can also get toilets that open their own lid AND have a light in the bowl that comes on when it sees you coming. The light has a suitable low-wattage with a blue tinge that is intended not to interrupt your sleep-walking rambles:


Here’s a close up of the control panel:


(From left to right you can: turn the lid opening off, flush no.1s and no.2s, wash your butt – powerfully and mildly, wash your genitals, blow dry, adjust the strength of the water with the toggle and at the bottom there are buttons to adjust the positioning of the water stream, have a ‘wide stream’ (I wonder if that’s for when you do a no.3?) and have a water massage. I also like how it also incorporates the toilet paper rolls.)

I’ve mentioned this before, but the ‘Sound Princess’ makes toilets fun too!

(It emits a sound like a flushing toilet to cover the sound of you doing a splash or a tinkle. You’ll nearly almost always find them in ladies’ toilets where it’s standard practice to flush the toilet while you’re doing your business to mask the sound of you actually doing your business.)

The penetration of the iPhone into Japan meant that people just had to make applications so you can use your iPhone if there is no Sound Princess to use. Here’s the ‘bathroom happy house’ application:

(You get your choice of the sound of water running or birds chirping)

And if you don’t have an iPhone you can get yourself a portable version to keep in your purse:

 

Or one on a strap you can keep handy on your mobile phone:

Lots of toilets in homes incorporate a wash basin in the top of the toilet to save water and many people make them more fun by filling them with plastic flowers or other decorations:


Figuring out how to flush the toilet can make the experience fun also. Sometimes there’s a lever on the side of the tank, sometimes there’s a lever behind the lid and sometimes there’s a hand sensor that you wave your hand in front of to make it flush:

21. Buying an envelope is really hard work.

This is what you’ll be confronted with if you go to the envelope section in any department store or shop that sells stationery:

So what’s with all the envelopes? Well, money is given as a gift in many situations and it’s extremely rude to give ‘naked money’ i.e. money not in an envelope. Being Japan, of course, there have to be different envelopes for different situations and these are some of the main envelopes:

Envelopes for wedding money

Envelope for funeral money

(It looks a bit similar to a wedding one and I’ve heard stories of ‘aliens’ giving the wrong envelope and then needing to fall on their sword…)

Envelope for giving money to someone in a play, someone who is giving a speech, or doing some other public performance

Envelopes for giving children money at New Year

Envelope for giving someone their salary

(Generally employees in Japan get paid once a month and it’s still quite common to pay in cash. Receiving a big wad of cash is always fun!)

Envelopes you get at the bank

If you withdraw money they will give you an envelope and you can also find stocks of envelopes next to the ATM. Each bank has its own purdy design. You can use these envelopes for general money-giving. When I used to tutor people I’d always receive my fee in one of these envelopes or a special envelope you can buy to pay tuition.

Oh and when you give money it always has to be in new notes. You can’t give folded or old notes so it’s standard practice to go to the bank and exchange your old notes for new notes or to ask for new notes when you make a withdrawal.


(That’s a pile of 10,000 yen notes with 10,000 yen equal to about $100)

22. It’s not as expensive as you think.

I remember all the horror stories about $100 watermelons and steak that costs $50 for 100g and while you can certainly buy things like that in Japan, the average person can live very cheaply. One great place to shop is the 100 yen stores:

The are over 2,500 of these stores called Daiso and they’re recently spreading overseas as well. There are also other 100 yen stores chains like Hyakkin and a lot of supermarkets have a 100 yen section. You can buy food, clothing, plates, stationery and just about everything you’d ever need or want in one of these places and the quality is very high. Daiso is where I bought my first bondage goods collection (from the pet section of course!)

Another cheap thing is all-you-can-drink ‘drink bars’ that are a feature of many restaurants. They usually cost only a couple of dollars and you can drown yourself in all manner of soft drinks, cappuccino, coffees, tea and some of them even have slushies:

100 yen sushi restaurants are superb for a cheap feast. You can occasionally find 88 yen sushi places too, but 100 yen are the most common. Along with sushi they often have noodles, soup and a range of desserts like cake, fruit and parfait.

You also can’t beat cheap bento. There are many take-away places that will make you fresh bento on the spot for under $5 and you can always find a large selection in a supermarket or department store for next-to-nothing:

An even better trick is to wait until an hour or so before the store is going to close and they’ll stick half-price stickers on everything not sold.



(This bento was originally 278 yen, but thanks to the half-price sticker it’s 139 yen – that’s $1.50!!)

Free food samples are also a great way to eat on the cheap. Any department store basement is filled with samples you can nibble on and in touristy areas you can find samples of souvenir cakes and sweets.


(These are sausages in case you were wondering…)

Things at the supermarket are also cheaper or are mostly on par with prices in Australia. Here are some supermarket catalogue prices:

(Eggs 10 for 98 yen, 1kg flour for 158 yen, leeks 88 yen, edamame (baby soy beans) 78 yen for 100g, 520g sirloin steak 1,500 yen, chutoro tuna 100g for 498 yen)

(Bunch of asparagus 78 yen, mushrooms 98 yen per packet, bread 118 yen, 250g nescafe instant coffee 598 yen, 1 litre milk 158 yen, 100g pork 98 yen, carrots/potatoes/onions 40 yen each)

23. Gift-giving is serious stuff.

Japan has a big gift-giving culture from bringing back souvenirs for all your work colleagues when you go somewhere, to giving reciprocal gifts when you receive something from someone. Once the gift-giving cycle starts, it’s an endless continuum of receiving, giving, receiving, giving and when you give something, it has to be presented correctly.

Here’s an explanatory diagram of how to wrap a box correctly:


Fortunately, if you buy a gift for someone somewhere other than the 100 yen shop they will always wrap it for you for free. If you take something to the cash register in Japan, the first question out of the sales assistant’s mouth will be, ‘Is it a gift?’ You’ll often get your choice of paper and ribbon colours and they’ll place it in a paper bag that completes the presentation.


(I sometimes used to say it was a gift even when I was buying it for me, just because unwrapping stuff is so much fun!)

If you’re giving a seasonal gift (there are two official gift-giving seasons where you have to send people you have a social debt with i.e. your boss, your in-laws, your English teacher etc. a gift) or a gift for a special occasion, you need to put a special paper seal on it that states what the gift is for and your name:


As I said, the whole package down to the bag that the gift is in are important and there is a special ‘air of superiority’ about something from a well-known department store, so even if you didn’t buy the gift there, you can still purchase one their paper bags from their handy paper bag vending machines, put your gift in it and boost your standing in the eyes of the gift receiver:

Oh and never open a gift in front of someone. Open things in private, preferably after you’ve gone home where you can drown your sorrows about getting caught up in the gift-giving cycle alone.

Quirks 16-19

16. Anything can come in a can.

Along with your general canned foodstuffs like tuna, corned beef and sardines, you can also buy some other funky things:

Bread and muffins

(Bread in cans has been traditionally marketed as ’emergency supplies’ to keep in your ‘in case of earthquake’ kit.)

Whale

(It’s a pricey product costing around $50 for this 120g can.)

Insects

(Includes such protein-packed favourites as bee larvae, locusts and silkworm larvae.)

Ramen noodles

(Comes in soy sauce and miso soup flavours and there is a cold version for summer too.)

Curry and rice

Oden (vegetables, egg, deep-fried fish paste sticks etc. simmered in soup)

I’m guessing the love of putting things in cans comes from the popularity of vending machines and considering there are over 5.2 million vending machines in Japan, that’s a lot of canned-goods love.

(Not everything coming out of a vending machine is a can though – sometimes it’s sushi.)

17. The language is easy, but excruciatingly difficult at the same time.

Compared to English, Japanese is a very structured language and the pronunciation is much easier. Japanese only has five vowel sounds compared to the 11-20 that English has (depending on your accent) . If you see the letter ‘a’ in Japanese, you know it’s pronounced as ‘ah’ as in ‘cup’ not the variety of sounds it can have in English like ‘apple’, ‘about’ and ‘cup’.

There are also lots of handy phrases and words in Japanese that convey a whole range of ideas in a compact package:

doumo – means hi, nice to see you again, good to talk to you again, thanks.

natsukashii – describes a feeling of missing something, something  that gives you fond memories and sometimes makes you homesick

yoroshiku onegai shimasu – means it’s a pleasure to meet you and I hope you will be nice to me in our future business dealings and I look forward to building a relationship with you

Having said that, Japanese also has one of the most complex writing systems on the planet which requires you to master three separate writing systems and the honourific/humble levels of language mean that you must know whether the person you are speaking to is higher or lower than you in the ‘food chain’ so you don’t embarrass yourself so badly you need a sword to fall on.

Japanese is also a very contextual language and often there is no subject in a sentence, so if you say, ‘atsui ne’ theoretically it can mean ‘It’s hot today’, ‘This room is hot’ or ‘I’m hot’. It’s up to the listener to decide what the speaker is referring to. There are also a huge range of regional dialects within Japan and in some areas, the dialect spoken is almost totally incomprehensible to someone speaking the standard Tokyo dialect.

Learning Japanese takes some serious blood, sweat and tears, but once you get a grip on it, it’s so much fun.

18. Fashion fads are scary.

Here are a few of the fashion fads over the past few years:

Yamanba/Ganguro – Wild mountain hags/Solarium-sizzled faces

(Characterised by really dark skin, white lips and eye-liner and funky hair.)

Gothic Lolita

(Characterised by lots of frills and a black and white colour scheme.)

Kogyaru – High-school girls

(Half the time you don’t know if they actually are school students or if they’re just wearing the uniform for fun…)

Shibuya Gyaru – Shibuya girls

(Characterized by big hair, loud voices and five-inch acrylic nails.)

19. It’s okay to seriously decorate things.

Mobile phones

Trucks

(Even more impressive when you see this coming towards you in your rear-vision mirror at night on a dark, lonely highway.)

Newly opening shops/restaurants

Fingernails

Funerals

(Is it just me, or do these decorations seem to say, ‘You’re dead, let’s disco!!)

Quirks 12-15

12. Etiquette is a minefield.

As mentioned in no. 4 “There are rules about everything”, there are endless ways to make faux pas in Japan from forgetting to change out of ‘toilet slippers’ to using your chopsticks in a way that is only done at a funeral. There are whole sections of bookstores related to 作法 sahou (manners, the right way to do things) in Japan because things are so complex even for the Japanese (and especially the younger generations) and there are lots of classes offered – mostly aimed at women – by schools that specialise in teaching you how to perfect your sahou.

A few basics about eating:

  • Soup is always placed on the right-hand side and rice on the left

(This picture also shows an important point of never grouping things in fours. Four is an unlucky number so everything always comes in groups of five or six. The same also goes for the number nine.)

  • Break your chopsticks by holding them horizontally and pulling in a semi-circle like you’re opening a fan.

  • Hold the rice and soup bowls as you eat – don’t leave them sitting on the table. But don’t pick up a large bowl of noodles – leave it on the table.
  • Rest the arm you are not using on the table – not on your lap or under the table.
  • If you want to put your chopsticks down while eating, don’t leave them sticking out of your bowl and don’t put them on a plate or bowl (although many people do this, it’s not technically polite). Rest them on the chopstick rest (if there is one) or you can make a little one from the paper sleeve your chopsticks were in:

  • Don’t spear things with your chopsticks or pass food with your chopsticks – put what your passing on a plate and give it to the other person or put it on their plate directly.
  • Don’t gesture while holding chopsticks and don’t point with them.
  • When you’re finished eating, return things to as close as possible to how things looked at the beginning of the meal. Put lids back on bowls and return plates to where they were. Don’t stack plates and if you’ve still got your paper sleeve for the chopsticks, put them back in it and lay them where they were originally.

That’s not an exhaustive list and that’s just mostly dealing with chopsticks. As I said, etiquette is a minefield.

13. There are four seasons.

People in Japan always used to ask me, ‘Does Australia have four seasons?’ and I never really understood the question. I mean we have spring, summer, autumn and winter, so that means we ‘have’ four seasons, right? Wrong.

In Japan seasons are marked with foods, festivals, flowers etc.and everyone *feels* the changes and actively does something that celebrates the change in the season.

Very rarely will you ever eat a food that is not in season, people will travel vast distances just to see seasonal flowers bloom and seasons are marked by specific clothing changes. June 1st is the official day that school students and company employees with uniforms change into short-sleeves. They then change into long sleeves from October 1st and generally you’ll see the official changing of the sleeve length as a story on the night’s news bulletin.

The seasons are also the basis of the vast Japanese domestic tour industry and you’ll see busloads of people going to see the ‘new green leaves’ at the start of spring and the autumn leaves in autumn and to eat specific foods that are only available at that time. People will also often change the furnishings inside their house to match the colours of the season.

There are also seasonal events above and beyond the four major seasons including:

Monsoon season – in June during which everyone admires the hydrangea blossoms and complains about everything going moldy from the humidity

Fireworks & festivals season – usually in the height of summer during July and August

Moon-viewing season – in September and it’s also the time that McDonald’s in Japan releases their “moon-viewing burger” because the egg in it looks like a moon.

14. Everyone has a uniform.

When I first went to Japan and started working in a hotel, I had a uniform. It was a hot pink jacket and skirt with a bow-tie. It was oh-so-sexy and one of many uniforms I had in Japan. Every single person has a uniform from the sales people at the department stores:

to the guys directly traffic:

Train drivers and conductors and the lovely ladies pushing the buttons in elevators wear hats and gloves. Many people (generally the women) in offices wear uniforms and the sailor uniforms of school girls are famous.

Even if you don’t have a specific uniform, there are generally rules about what it’s ok to wear to work. Guys wear grey or navy suits with ties, while women wear skirts, pantyhose and high heels shoes. Make-up for women is also part of uniform – you’ll never see a woman in public without it (mostly because a lot of Japanese women shave their eyebrows and without makeup they look like something out The Ring)

15. Sex is everywhere but no-where.

On the surface of Japan, it looks totally over-sexed. Everyone has heard about the love hotels, the maid cafes, the used-panty industry, the vending machines selling porn, soft-porn tv programmes and anime & manga porn featuring tentacles:

It seems like sex is everywhere, all the time, but apparently while it’s in your face all the time, no-one is actually getting any.

It’s a fact that Japan is one of the developed nations with the lowest birth rate (1.28) and the highest number of sex-less marriages according to the Ministry of Health in Japan:

It’s also standard practice to have two single beds in the master bedroom in your house and double futons are almost unheard of. Housing companies are also reporting that many Japanese people building new houses are requesting separate bedrooms so they don’t have to sleep in the same room as their significant other.

Maybe this is why they’re being forced into dealing with tentacles.

Quirks 8-11

8. The convenience store is your friend.

Japan has over 42,000 convenience stores in an area equal to the size of my backyard (I’m kidding…sort of…) so the competition to attract customers is fierce and they do it by offering all sorts of amazing services. The top three convenience stores chains are:

7-eleven

Lawson

Family Mart

Each of the chains has their own range of obento, bread, rice balls, sandwiches, salads etc. and the normal selection of other foods, drinks, alcohol, cigarettes, books & magazines, game software and everyday items. Each 7-eleven store stocks 2,500 items and receives fresh supplies of perishable food three times a day.

(Staff will heat up your obento for you with microwaves behind the register and there is self-serve hot water for your instant ramen.)

(There are sweet breads and pastries as well as savoury goodies like tuna & mayo rolls and pizza bread.)

At convenience stores in Japan you can’t buy petrol or lottery tickets, but they’ve taken the term ‘diversification’ to a whole new level by allowing you to:

Print photos; send faxes; photocopy; pay your bills; buy domestic airline tickets; buy tickets to concerts, theme parks & museums; buy phone cards, phone recharge vouchers and any other sort of prepaid thing that exists; buy stamps and postcards; buy insurance; recharge your mobile phone; get your dry-cleaning done; send & receive packages; bank with the in-store atm including doing telegraphic transfers; order cakes, special meals and a whole range of other stuff through catalogues;  buy carbon off-sets; book a tour; order anything from amazon and other on-line sites and have it delivered to your local 7-eleven for you to pick up and just recently some 7-eleven have started to issue you with proof of residency which previously you had to go to your local government office during office hours to get.

In each store you’ll find an atm, a copier or two and and an electronic terminal for booking tickets etc.

(You’ll also find copious amounts of pornographic material in the magazine section…)

Like I said, the convenience store is your friend.

9. It’s perfectly okay to sleep whenever and wherever you can.

(Drooling on your neighbour is considered bad form but it’s perfectly acceptable to lean all over them.)

Trains and buses are great places to catch up on zzzz’s, but so is your desk during a lull in your fifteen-hour work day:

And at school is fine too because your teacher won’t care even if you’re in the front row:

10. Bookstores double as libraries.

Spending hours in a bookstore reading books from cover to cover without making a purchase is perfectly acceptable.

There is a word for this called tachiyomi 立ち読み which literally means ‘standing reading’. Some people will often list tachiyomi as one of their ‘hobbies’ along with sleeping and eating (their idea of what a ‘hobby’ is is slightly different to ours). Trying to actually get to the books when people are two or three deep in front of the shelves though can be a bit of an issue sometimes.

11. If you ain’t got an umbrella, you ain’t got nuffin.

In Australia rain is so infrequent that many people live their entire lives without purchasing an umbrella, and on the rare occasion that it does rain, people simply get wet and they don’t really care. So I was totally unprepared for how important an umbrella was until I went to Japan….

Every single store in Japan has an umbrella stand that magically appears outside the door once the first couple of drops of rain fall.

(Hopefully the stand you want to use doesn’t have a sleeping cat in the bottom of it…)

Many establishments also offer ‘umbrella sleeves’ so you can take your umbrella inside with you without dripping water everywhere. Sometimes you have to take a sleeve and put it on yourself:

(The sleeve stand includes a bin to throw the sleeve away as you leave the shop.)

But often there are machines that do the sheathing for you:

(You insert the umbrella in the hole at the top and pull it out through the gap in the front.)

Being Japan there are also sometimes machines to remove the sleeve for you:

(You put the umbrella in the hole in the top and pull it back out again.)

Umbrellas come in all shapes and sizes from utilitarian 100 yen plastic umbrellas:

To ultra-light, ultra-small umbrellas that rely on cutting-edge materials to still be strong enough to use and that can be bought for around $10:

(Pink is of course for girls and boys can get suitably ‘manly’ colours.)

Being Japan, you might even find yourself an umbrella vending machine:

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what sort of umbrella you have, just ensure you use it. Walking outside in the rain without an umbrella is right up there with blowing your nose in public – it just ain’t done.

Quirks 4-7

4. There are rules about EVERYTHING.

Obviously with a lot of people in a small space, everything flows much better when there are rules and people follow them. On escalators, people not moving stand to the left and people walking walk on the right.

(Except when you travel to west Japan where people stand to the right and people walk on the left.)

Lining up for a train is also serious business. On the ground there are indicators for where the carriage doors will be and at some stations there are places to wait for the ‘next train’, ‘the train after that’ & ‘the train after the next, next train’ (in the below pic the white, orange and red lines):

Once a train has come and gone the whole group moves orderly to the adjoining area as per the diagram:

This particular station has a wall along the platform and doors that open once the train has arrived. Some stations have this so they don’t have to have a conductor on the train, to avoid people falling onto the rails and to help avoid ‘accidents’ where people jump in front of trains:

They also have some fairly serious rules about where you can and cannot smoke. Smokers are often herded into glass boxes in the middle of train platforms to do their business:

5. Everyone has a bicycle.

This is one of the bicycle parking lots near a station I once lived near while I was going to uni:

(It was still early morning when this picture was taken so there are a few places left.)

To use one of the eight parking places in this area, you pay a few dollars a day or enter a lottery to get a parking place you can use for a year for a set fee. To park your bike at your own apartment may also cost money, but at least you don’t have to worry about helmet hair as helmets are not compulsory.

Bicycles are the life and blood of Japan and if you don’t have one, shopping is tough and taking your kids to daycare is even tougher:

(They recently introduced a law saying that you had to have a special bicycle if you want to carry two kids. The new bicycles are more stable and are supposed to stop kids being killed when a strong breeze knocks the bike over into the path of an on-coming truck.)

6. Non-Japanese people are from another planet.

If you stay in Japan for more than ninety days, you have to register yourself at your local government office as an alien. Alien registration requires you to give them fingerprints and every possible scrap of information about you including where you were born and the names, date of birth, nationality and relationship status of anyone you live with.

Once you get registered as an alien, you have to carry your alien card with you at all times and theoretically you can be arrested if you don’t have it on you. I still have mine with my very alien-looking mug-shot and if you look carefully at the top you’ll see it says “Certificate of Alien Registration”:

(I always felt so proud of officially being an alien, but looking suspiciously human.)

7. Toilet paper is really cheap but you have to carry your own.

Toilet paper generally comes in packs of 12 rolls that sell for anywhere from 198yen to around 400yen ($2-$4).

(I’m guessing the reason for the 12-roll pack is because it’s the biggest size that you can hang from the handlebars of your bicycle and still steer.)

Tissues come in packs of 5 boxes for around the same price:

(Once again wrapped in plastic with a little handle for hanging from your bicycle…)

There are also some companies that come around collecting old newspapers and in return for a stack of newspapers they will give you a roll or two of toilet paper. In Australia we normally pay $5 -$7 for 12 rolls of toilet paper and each box of tissues can cost what five boxes does in Japan.

But even though it’s so cheap, generally speaking, public toilets do not contain toilet paper or anything to dry your hands with. So what do you do?

You collect little packets of free advertising tissues to wipe your bum and carry a handkerchief to wipe your hands.

(There are normally about 10 tissues in each pack and they advertise absolutely anything from haircuts to porn shops.)

Especially around big stations and and shopping areas, you’ll generally see people giving out tissues:

Oh and don’t ever blow your nose in public in Japan or you won’t just be an alien, but a dirty one.

Quirks 1-3

1. Postal workers are amazing.

Here’s a pretty map of Perth CBD with streets, terraces, avenues and whatnot all clearly marked.

Here’s a map of the area around Tokyo station with….nothing.

So how do you find anything? Well everything is broken down into areas like suburbs and then the suburbs are broken down into smaller numbered areas on separate blocks of land and then each building is numbered. Sounds easy, right? Except most of the numbering occurred according to when the building was built, not according to its location so number 77 can be next to number 43.

Here’s a close-up of a place I used to live (yes, I lived in the middle of nowhere a few times) and you can see the numbers are all over the place:

It’s standard practice to give people a map for directions because having the address tells you fuck-all. Postal workers simply have to memorise where places are and that’s why they’re amazing.

2. Everything is ‘busy – even the books and tv.

I remember watching my first Japanese tv programme with Master and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Why do they write all over the screen?’


I was used to it so it never even dawned on me that it might be a bit strange for someone watching the first time.

The magazine my friend sent me is pretty much the same – it’s ‘busy’.

I don’t actually know why they write all over the screen on tv, but my guess is that it’s because so many words in Japanese have exactly the same pronunciation, but are written with different kanji.

3. Public garbage bins are virtually non-existant.

If you visit Japan, one thing you’ll notice is that there is almost no-where to throw away anything. The ubiquitous convenience stores generally have one outside, but anywhere else, you could be searching for days.

Why?

Throwing stuff away is serious business in Japan. Most of the waste is burned in smoke stacks that dot the landscape and for large things like furniture you’ll often pay a hefty fee to dispose of it. Although the rules for separating waste vary between prefectures, wards and even suburbs, normally you separate into burnable, non-burnable & recyclables and put them out on separate days. Separating your waste can require a phd:

There is nowhere to put garbage bins so you generally just leave out your garbage in a designated spot between designated hours on your designated day (yes, people will watch you like a hawk to make sure you don’t break the rules). There is generally a net at the designated spot supposedly to keep the crows away.

The garbage trucks often have cutesy pictures on them and they play music at ridiculous volumes that will wake you up at ungodly hours ( I think anything before 8am is ungodly…) There are always two or three guys in uniforms that run around picking up the bags and who take their job very seriously.

Stay tuned for part two in which I continue to prove that I have waaaay too much time on my hands.

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