There’s no doubt Japan has a unique culture, the subtleties of which became increasingly obvious the longer I lived in Tokyo. Its uniqueness is just as apparent in the competitive swimming world as any other; Japanese clubs develop their huge depth in the sport by requiring children to master perfect stroke technique before they are allowed to advance to the next level. Within this rigid structure are plenty of cultural quirks, like bowing to the pool to show respect before and after a race.
Cultural nuances in the land of the rising sun have little regard for outside norms; Japanese people do things their way, with precise method that they never stray from. Although adjustment was a bit of a process, I became accustomed to Japanese life over the better part of the past year. I’m already missing some of the small things now that I’m back in Canada for the summer. Here are 10 of them, in no particular order.
1. The Bakeries
When you think of Japan, the first thing that comes to mind (eating sushi while battling mech-suited anime characters with a samurai sword?) probably isn’t baked goods. But the truth is, European-style bakeries are hugely popular throughout Japan, baking fresh breads and pastries daily. The smell alone is worth a visit to any of these numerous establishments!
Some of my favourite items from the local bakery were triangular-shaped loaves with figs and nuts baked inside, as well as fried doughnuts with curried meat in the centre.
Sunday afternoons were perfect for sitting down at a table with a coffee, a pastry, and a relaxed conversation.
2. The Train System
Getting around Tokyo is easy and efficient thanks to the elaborate rail system and frequency of train departures. This particular train leaves the suburbs every 12 minutes for Musashi Sakai, where commuters can quickly transfer to the Chuo Line and blast toward Shinjuku Station, Tokyo’s largest transport hub.
Riding the train is an experience in itself. Passengers form neat lines on either side of the platform’s door markers while waiting for the train to pull into the station. Talking on the phone is prohibited, and sometimes you’ll even get disapproving stares for speaking to the person next to you above a whisper. During rush hour, you get packed in so tightly it becomes hard to move.
When the doors open and you’re released at your station, the dash for the exits begins; if you don’t beat the crowd, you’ll get stuck in a shuffling mass of hundreds of people moving toward the escalators (on which you MUST stand to the left and walk on the right — Japan drives on the left side of the road).
Timing the train transfers, choosing a car that lines up with anticipated exits, and manoeuvring for a seat are all strategies in a game that’s played every train ride. Plus, it’s fun to people watch.
3. The Snacks
Japanese snacks are intriguing and tasty. Many have local origins (mochi balls and seaweed flavoured crisps included), but unique varieties of global brands also occupy the shelves. The wasabi steak and creamy shrimp Doritos flavours pictured above are one example, joined by green tea Oreos, red bean Kit Kats, and countless others.
Discovering interesting twists on recognizable treats gave me excessive pleasure, even if the taste was sometimes questionable.
Also worth mentioning is the complex packaging found on even the simplest snacks. Onigiri (triangular shaped rice balls wrapped in seaweed, filled with seafood — an excellent, filling snack, by the way) have multiple layers of plastic to prevent the dry seaweed from touching the moist rice. There are instructions on how to remove the plastic layers in the correct order with the proper tears. Too many times I impatiently ripped apart the packaging and ended up with a mangled rice ball breaking apart in my hands. Always follow the instructions in Japan.
In some cases, the packaging was excessive. Take these limes for example. They’re individually wrapped in plastic — probably unnecessary and certainly not doing the environment any favours.
4. The Neighbourhood Cats
A large population of cats slink along roads, between buildings, and atop the ledges of Tokyo’s architecture jungle. The stone walls wrapping around houses in the suburbs provide perfect perches for these curious felines. We gave names to the visitors that frequented our porch, peering through the window at us or simply trotting past.
Sounds from the street easily penetrate the paper-thin walls of Japanese houses, and the loudest of all is the howling that accompanies a cat fight. Not that these animals are always vicious; occasionally a cat would approach with a purr and allow me to pet it. After my childhood kitty died earlier this year, the affection was nice!
One weekend we took a trip to a cat cafe, which is essentially a place to enjoy coffee and dessert while playing with dozens of freely roaming cats, toys provided. I highly recommend visiting one of these establishments if you get a chance (I hear Toronto might be getting one?)
5. The Egg Man
Every Monday at precisely 5:00 pm, a van announces its arrival to the neighbourhood by blaring from its speakers a jingle mixed with cries of cocka-doodle-doo. The van pulls to the side of the road and a man hops out, pops open the trunk, and begins selling farm fresh eggs from the back of his vehicle. There are other products for sale, but the eggs, with deep orange yolks, are the main attraction.
Every week we took part in this convenient roadside transaction, handing over our empty cartons and watching the man fill them with fresh eggs while chattering in Japanese. There was a certain charm in doing business this way; it involved a weekly Monday evening alarm reminder, and sometimes a run from the school to make the appointment. On multiple occasions, eggs and yen were exchanged under an umbrella in the pouring rain.
Meeting the egg man on the street was an integral part of my weekly schedule.
6. The Customer Service
This viral video of a cleaning crew preparing a bullet train demonstrates the unbelievable efficiency and attention to detail in the Japanese service industry.
Customers are always treated with utmost respect. Even at fast food restaurants like McDonalds, the staff member at the cash register would bow multiple times and thank me profusely. Upon entering a store, I would be greeted with a chorus of voices from all employees. Purchases are often gift wrapped with neat precision. Waiters in restaurants are quick and attentive. Public washrooms are spotless (and the toilets are equipped with seat warmers and control panels — yes, even in train stations).
I was the most impressed with the postal service. In contrast to my typical North American experiences (sitting around for the duration of a designated five hour drop-off window, dealing with contradictory reports and poor communication, and ultimately wondering if anyone is going to show up), I was able to select a specific drop-off time for my package, which arrived promptly on motorbike.
Despite the unbeatable service, there is no tipping in Japan. To tip is considered insulting in some cases; prices are chosen to reflect the service, and paying above that price is alarming and confusing. Pay too much, and you might even be chased down the street with your change!
7. The Convenience Stores
FamilyMart, Lawson’s, and 7-Eleven are some of the most popular “konbini” located at nearly every block across the city. These convenience stores are a staple of Japan, packed full of magazines and manga, snacks, and more substantial meals, which are delivered between two to five times a day so that they’re always fresh. The stores also offer a range of services; I was able to pay bills and buy event tickets at the counter.
There’s also a precise system when purchasing anything at the counter. Barcodes are scanned before any items are bagged, so that the customer has time to count change. Money is placed in a tray on the counter rather than in anyone’s hand, and then change is placed back in the tray. The employee constantly talks in Japanese throughout the transaction, walking the customer through each purchase and the amount of money received and returned. Of course he or she also thanks the customer repeatedly and gives a farewell bow.
Convenience stores sell alcohol (and rather than show your ID, you must simply push a button on the screen to confirm that you’re over 20 years old — the Japanese honour system at its finest!) and drinking in public is permitted under Japanese law. Therefore it’s possible to purchase a beer, open it outside, and drink it while walking or riding the train. This seemed utterly unbelievable at first, coming from Ontario where alcohol distribution and consumption is so tightly regulated.
The Family Mart near the local train station always had customers, no matter the time of day or night, and I paid it a visit almost daily.
8. The Sense of Community
Do foreigners have a bad reputation in Japan? A comment in this discussion thread describes foreigners as “a constant micro-disturbance in the harmony-optimized Japanese social ether,” due to the existence of invisible rules that they constantly break without meaning to — rules that “are so implicit, even a Japanese person would rarely be consciously aware of them.” The word gaijin, which translates to foreigner, could or could not be used in a derogatory manner depending on context.
Despite the fact that I didn’t always know the correct procedure, and I usually received second glances in public (only 1.5% of the Japanese population is foreign), I never felt unwelcome. The language barrier was difficult at times, but the Japanese people always did their best to accommodate me.
In friendly gestures, neighbours regularly brought food to the door. Their gifts ranged from cheesecake to warm dishes of curry to raw vegetables (one time I received a head of cabbage from the woman across the street, who was very delighted to announce “cabbage” in English). When the man living next door passed away, we brought soup for his widow, who was so thankful she dropped to her knees and bowed repeatedly with tears in her eyes.
Japanese culture is based in mutual respect. People go out of their way to keep communal spaces clean, exude politeness, and lend a helping hand to strangers. Sharing is caring.
The “we’re in this together” attitude was quite refreshing in contrast to the “me first” attitude that seems entrenched in many North American societies.
9. The Evening Chime
Sometime between 4:30 and 6:00 pm (it changes depending on the season and the length of the day), a cheerful song plays from the loudspeakers in Japanese neighbourhoods.
It’s comforting to hear a soft melody every evening as the sun sets, but the chime actually serves multiple purposes beyond musical enjoyment. It’s both a signal for children playing outside to return home before nightfall, and a daily test of the speakers to ensure the broadcast system is functioning correctly.
Announcements about community events are occasionally made from the speakers, but their most important purpose is to alert the public in the case of severe weather or disasters, including typhoons, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Multiple earthquakes occur every day in Japan, most of which are too weak to be noticed and certainly aren’t reported (although I do miss the excitement of a gentle shake). However, during larger-scale threats, important information must be transmitted immediately. I’ve heard the system is even prepared to inform the public of missile launches from North Korea.
It sounds strange, but I do miss hearing the chime drift over houses every evening.
10. The Metropolis
Photo by Marc Buehler, some rights reserved.
Rumoured to be the world’s busiest pedestrian intersection, this is “The Scramble” in Shibuya, one of Tokyo’s premier shopping and entertainment districts. During rush hour, over a thousand people cross the street at every light change.
It’s impossible not to feel the pulse of the city as you’re weaving your way through this crowd under massive glowing neon signs.