10 Things That Will Surprise First-Time Visitors In Japan

Are you planning a visit to Japan soon? This country is probably very different to what you’re used to and there are a few things that you might want to know before you go. But don’t worry! I’ve got you covered!

Everything is written in Japanese!

surprise first-time visitors japan Rakbo Harry

This might seem like a very obvious thing, right? You go to Japan and everything is in Japanese (duh). But you might not always have a grasp on how overwhelming this can be. Because, on some level, you still expect that there will be a little English here and there – especially for a city as popular as Tokyo. Of course, place names are often displayed in both kanji and English, but often the English word is very small and not that noticeable. You just have to take a breather and look carefully. Don’t panic because of all the Japanese!

You shouldn’t talk on your phone on the train.

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This is considered very rude in Japan! If you get a call on the train you simply don’t answer the call or you do answer but quietly tell them that you’ll call them back later. You’ll often notice signs in the trains saying to put your phone on “silent/manner mode”.

Trains can get VERY packed.

surprise first-time visitors japan train Rakbo

You’ve probably seen a few images on the internet of this phenomenon already. And let me tell you, it’s no rare occurrence! Unfortunately, there is not much you can do to avoid this when you need to be somewhere on time (except for leaving super early or super late). If you need any tips on how to survive these packed trains, be sure to read my Rakbo article on how to survive rush-hour trains.

All the machines talk to you.

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This surprised me very much at first. It’s just something you don’t expect as a Westerner, but in Japan, most machines talk to you. Whether it’s an ATM, vending machine, train ticket machine or a toilet, they will most likely be thanking you for your service.

The toilets are difficult to operate!

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Toilets can be very tricky to deal with in Japan! Yes, there are a lot of buttons, and no, if you can’t read Japanese you probably won’t know what to do. Usually, the main buttons are: a big flush, a little flush and a bidet spray. Some of them even have a button that mimics the sound of running water, so that other people in the bathroom won’t hear you do your business. In many cases, that sound will start playing by itself once you sit down and you might have a fright (talking from personal experience over here).

Here are a few symbols to get you started. You’ll thank me later:

小 Little flush.

大 Big flush.

温水 Warm water.

おしり Bidet spray.

強 Strong.

弱 Weak.

Convenient stores are EVERYWHERE.

surprise first-time visitors japan Rakbo Yes

They truly live up to their name. Convenient stores like 7Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart, SunKus and many more, can be found on every street corner in Japan. They’ll provide you with anything you might need to survive. They’ll offer you warm food that isn’t even half bad, along with toiletries, magazines and cleaning supplies. And, as an amazing plus, they’re open 24/7! So, if you ever feel a midnight craving at 3am, they’ve got you covered.

There are a lot of Chikan.

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This is a not-so-fun side of Japan that you might find surprising. Chikan (which translates as ‘pervert’) are usually men on crowded trains or events that will try to touch women. I’ve been lucky up till now to never have had this happen to me, but I have a few friends who have had very bad experiences with it. And please, if this does happen to you, don’t be afraid to make a scene! Tell them it’s wrong! It keeps on happening because people are often too shy to make any remarks. Tell them who’s boss!

It’s impolite to walk while eating or drinking.

surprise first-time visitors japan Rakbo Jen

In Japan, you’ll rarely see a person snacking while walking. I used to do this all the time. I’d just eat my lunch on the way to class or have a snack on the way back home. But then a Japanese friend kindly told me that this is considered impolite in Japan… and that’s when I noticed that nobody does it! Nobody eats on public transport and nobody snacks on their way to work. It was a hard thing to get used to, as I am always hungry.

There’s no sarcasm.

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Sorry everyone who is fluent in the language of sarcasm, but alas, the Japanese do not share this form of communication. Let me tell you, I’ve been in many situations where I would make a subtle joke or remark about something in a sarcastic way, and my Japanese friends would think I’m being serious or mean. Just to illustrate this, here’s a short anecdote of a situation I was in a few months ago:

I was watching a movie with another exchange student and a Japanese friend. In the movie, one of the characters made a mean remark, so other exchange student and I were like: “Ooooh the shade!”

In response, our Japanese friend asked us: “What shade?”

The other student said, “Don’t you know what ‘throwing shade’ means?”

And I said (which I release is an AWFUL joke): “So you see your shade, right? You pretend to grab it and throw it at someone!”

And our Japanese friend answered very seriously: “Oh really?! How does that work?!”

So, just be careful with what you say. And, if you need, just kindly explain what you meant.

Fruits and veggies are EXPENSIVE.

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Yes, I wrote expensive in big letters, because I MEAN it! You can’t just go to a super market and think you’ll just buy a banana or apple as a snack for later. Convenient stores sell bananas for 100 JPY (US$0.89) each. Yesterday, I wanted to buy apples in the supermarket because it had been a while since I had eaten one and I was really craving them. But it was 230 JPY (US$2.05) for just one apple. It’s funny how buying fruit in Japan makes me feel very decadent, whereas back in Belgium, my fruit bowl was never empty.

TIP: Buy frozen fruit! It’s way cheaper and good to put in smoothies. Smoothies are a necessity in Japan’s summer heat. If you want more tips on how to stay healthy abroad, I wrote a whole article about it!


I hope this helped you guys out and prepared you more for your future trip to Japan! Be sure to leave in the comments some things that have surprised you about Japan!

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Hanna B

Hanna is a 22 year old Japanese Studies student who majored in Japanese literature in Tokyo, Japan last year. She founded her blog,, where she documents her travels and daily life in Japan. In her spare time she loves to read and write. She also has a big passion for food and fashion.

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