At the beginning of this summer, I had the immense privilege of visiting lovely Nippon, a dichotomy of a country. It’s where nature meets high tech, East meets West, and my awkward lumpy body meets the delicacy of a kimono. While I only saw a snippet of what this string of islands has to offer, as I only stayed a week in Kyoto and Osaka, I’ve already fallen in love.
I was walking back to the hotel room one night after a day of successfully navigating the subway rails when I looked around at the businesspeople, the schoolchildren, the rectangle apartments and glowing storefronts and said to myself, I can see it. I can totally see myself living here.
As always whenever I visit new places, I hope to return someday. Japan truly was a treat, a land of amazing photo opportunities and even better food. Despite the familiarity and the immediate feeling of home, there were still culture shocks along the way. It’s so strange that no matter how much you prepare yourself for being a foreigner, how much you tell yourself that your normal may not be everyone else’s normal, you always find that you were a little more close-minded than you thought you were. As much as I’d love to believe that I am a global citizen, I always end up feeling like such an American tourist. Here are 10 instances of the unexpected whilst in Japan.
- It hit 90 degree Fahrenheit temperature and adults and children alike were wearing coats and sweaters out and about.
As a kid who was raised in Texas, this was incomprehensible to me. In the summer, Texans don’t have conversations that don’t start with complaints about the heat. Everyone is out in tank tops, short shorts, flip flops, bikinis, sunglasses…basically as little clothing as possible. Amazingly, everyone in Japan adheres to dress code even in sweltering heat. Everyone wore long pants or skirts. Everyone wore long sleeves. School uniforms were strictly in place – long dress socks, ties, sweater vests, button-down shirts, and all. I felt out of place in my T-shirts and jean shorts whenever I stepped out into the street.
- The streets of Japan are extremely safe.
Of course, I didn’t expect Kyoto or Osaka to be the favelas of Rio or the back streets of Detroit, but I did expect maybe the occasional pickpocket or even drunk person singing in a back alleyway. Never once did we experience that. We got lost maybe three or four times coming back to our hotel in Osaka, but even in the dimly lit business district where we were staying, we always felt relatively secure. Teenagers biked up and down the streets. One sweet lady even stopped to help direct us back to our elusive hotel.
- I didn’t hear as much K-pop as expected. Actually, I didn’t hear K-pop at all.
After reading Euny Hong’s The Birth of Korean Cool as well as experience the Hallyu wave in America myself, I expected a cacophony of K-pop to greet me in every store, restaurant, and mall. Not the case at all. To be fair, I was in quiet places the majority of the time – temples, shrines, nature walks, the Osaka aquarium – the kinds of places where pop music would be out of place. However, I didn’t hear any K-pop at all. I heard snatches of J-pop here and there. But never K-pop. I understand that the two countries have had a long-standing political rivalry, but I assumed that Japan would be willing to embrace the Korean pop culture boom heard round the world, especially the East Asian world. I guess not.
- The food courts in large malls are FABULOUS.
It’s almost as nice as walking into Hogsmeade. Bento boxes, every flavor of ice cream, cute Italian restaurants, cafes upon cafes, sushi, seafood, ramen, ramen, and more ramen. It’s all pretty reasonably priced (although fancier places may be on the expensive side), and it’s all yummy. *Although one side food surprise: I expected there to be more bubble tea places! Maybe it’s because I’m used to drink shops every five feet in my homeland of Taiwan or maybe they’re just all in Tokyo, but I definitely expected to see many more cups of the Taiwanese tapioca milk tea delight. My guess is that Japan wants to preserve its own unique culinary culture without too many foreign influences everywhere. Of course, there’s enough matcha lattes to simultaneously quench my thirst and sweet tooth.
- Everything is aesthetic.
The uniformed people. The delicate maple leaves. The pink and white pastel buildings. The draping subway lines. The fluid, singsong language. The food positioned just so as it’s brought before you. Beauty in Japan is on a whole other level. Everywhere I was surrounded by pale, flawless skin and slim, petite bodies – what seemed like the ideal of beauty for both men and women. What surprised me wasn’t this ideal, it was the incredible consistency. Everyone aimed for the same look, and very nearly, everyone achieved it. It seemed like such a stark contrast to American individualism. There seemed to be some unspoken rule about makeup as well. Schoolgirls never wore it, but it seemed like after high school, you were required to don the foundation-blush-eyeliner-lipstick combo that every working class lady wore. Bright colors were a no go. Everyone matched in the same dark, cool colors normally reserved for wintertime back in the States – black, white, beige, navy, gray. It was interesting seeing Japanese collectivism and conformity manifest itself this way. I don’t think it’s my place to condone or object to this kind of behavior – it’s an entire culture after all – and I’ve always had my own inner conflict of individualism vs. collectivism that I haven’t quite resolved. But to me, this uniformity in aesthetics proved both strange and absolutely beautiful.
So that’s my two yen on Japan. I think it’s safe to say it’s literally my favorite travel destination ever, 10/10 would recommend. Have any of you been to Japan? Are you considering it? Leave me a thought below. xx