Going to Japan? Breaking the Myths

Going to Japan - Vera Ciria - Toyko Neons

So, you’ve decided to take the plunge, you’re finally going to Japan. After years of dreaming about this magical trip, the time has now arrived. You have planned and investigated, you have contacted a local guide, bought books, watched documentaries. Probably learned a few words, just in case. Done research online. You have a pretty good idea of what you’ll be doing there. You’re excited.

A strange phenomenon occurs when you say you’re heading to Japan. It seems like EVERYONE has been there and, of course, EVERYONE has lots to tell you, advice, recommendations and opinions. Even if you don’t want the information…

I recently arrived back from Japan. The conclusion? It would have helped a great deal if people hadn’t been so willing to add their two cents. So let’s break some myths that everyone keeps going on and on about. It almost seems like people are afraid to say anything negative about Japan. Maybe because you have to spend so much time and money to get there, everything should and must be perfect.

Myth 1: All bathrooms are sparklingly clean
Wrong! Just like in any other city in the world. There are clean bathrooms, not so clean bathrooms and god-awful bathrooms that give France a run for their money. People go on and on about the bathrooms. The techie toilets aren’t in all bathrooms. When you do find one, the warm toilet seat is really unpleasant. Public toilets in parks and subway stations are pretty awful. I came across way more toilet holes in the floor than Western-style toilets. You know, the ones that you have to crouch over, trying to balance while not touching anything… That said, there is always toilet paper.

Myth 2: The people are super friendly
Wrong! The people, especially in Tokyo, are just as busy and stressed, tired and annoyed, as in any other big metropolis in the world. No one was particularly friendly, aside from children who seemed to want to practise their English. No one stopped to help with maps, although who uses maps today? People in Kyoto and other areas were more open but life itself seemed more laid-back, they seemed to have the time to deal with tourists.

going to japan - garbage

Myth 3: The streets are clean, super clean!
Wrong. Or half wrong. The garbage issue is kinda difficult in Japan. There are no public trashcans anywhere, aside from recycling bins beside vending machines. You basically have to dispose of your trash when you get back to wherever you’re staying. The trash cans were removed in the 1995 after a terrorist attack in the subway. In other words, 21 years’ ago… Of course, it saves a huge amount of money. No trash collection necessary, no upkeep of trash cans. All main roads, avenues, large and important streets are spotless, but make your way down alleys, side streets and back roads and the garbage is piled everywhere, waiting to be collected. On the positive side, this means you can basically get rid of your trash throughout the day. Just take a quick detour down a side street.

Myth 4: The bullet train is amazing!
Meh… Launched in 1964, the shinkansen must have been amazing. High travel speed, great technology, comfortable. Today however… People go on and on about the bullet train. The Ave trains here in Spain travel just as fast, have Wifi service, and look conspicuously more modern and clean. Don’t get me wrong, the extensive service in Japan is great and makes travelling around very easy. But I can’t quite understand why people in Spain find it such a big deal.

Myth 5: The queues are so well organised.
Just as much as a queue in any other country that demonstrates a certain degree of respect. Sweden, Canada, Austria, etc. Even people in Barcelona queue quietly for the longer distance buses along Ronda Universitat.

going to japan - convenience store food

Myth 6: Convenience store food is the best and so cheap.
I don’t know where to start. The food is just as good and just as bad as food in any other convenience store around the world. People go on and on how they lived off of the convenience store food. This article from The Japan Times raises serious questions regarding the pre-packaged food. (Yes, it’s from 2001, but the food doesn’t seem to be any better). The amount of preservatives that are contained, the texture, the colours, not very appetising. Without forgetting to mention the low wages of employees that work endless hours. Tried several options and decided to avoid convenience stores. There are supermarkets that offer better options if you’re on a budget.

Myth 7: The food is incredible, anywhere you go is good!
Wrong. Once again, just as incorrect as any other city in the world, with the added difficulty that you have no idea what you’re ordering. Relying on TripAdvisor or FourSquare is bound to land you in tourist traps with lacklustre food. Eating in Japan is a total gourmet roulette. If you go to a restaurant that has photos, it might be good or it might be awful. If you go to a restaurant with no photos on the menu, you don’t know what you’ll end up with. I’ve had better Japanese food in Barcelona. That said, there were some very good meals during the trip, but it was very hit and miss in general.

How about some truths? Things that people aren’t talking about?

Truth 1: There is no soap in public bathrooms.
No one tells you about this. Why? It’s so strange. A great portion of the Japanese population are wearing face masks, largely due to pollution, allergies, fear of getting sick or they themselves have the flu, etc. Why so cautious with the face masks and then have no soap to wash your hands? Extremely contradictory.

Truth 2: You have to pay an entrance fee for about 90% of temples and some parks.
I understand that the fee goes towards maintenance but if you’re planning to visit a lot of temples, shrines, pagodas, etc., this will get expensive pretty quickly.

Truth 3: There are no benches in Tokyo
You’re tired, you’ve been walking for what seems like years. Forget about having a quiet sit-down to rest. Doesn’t matter if you’re in a park, walking along an avenue, wherever. Don’t even bother looking for a bench, they don’t exist. This is supposedly to deter homeless people from making a mess and installing themselves on the benches. Another theory is, you’re supposedly so busy in Tokyo, going from work to home that there is no need for you to be sitting outside…

Truth 4: People don’t speak English, or Spanish, or French, or Italian. Any language that might help you to communicate. 

Don’t even bother. It’s impossible. The little bit of Japanese you probably learned beforehand won’t be of much use. No one speaks anything other than Japanese and the ones that do know some English just manage to confuse you even more. Very few signs are in English, just enough so that you don’t get completely lost, especially when navigating the subway / transport system. (Forget about buses).

going to japan - strange translations

Truth 5: The translations are hilarious.
Japanese is a very curious language. Certain kanji can mean different things so translations can end up being utterly senseless and ridiculous. I know you’ve downloaded different translation apps, you can erase them, they won’t help. Just go with the flow and have a giggle at the English signs in hotels and restaurants.

There were loads more curious situations, myths and truths, but these are the most glaring. Just take everything with a pinch of salt. Have a good time and go with the flow. And please don’t listen to all those people with advice! If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. I’m no expert but I promise you’ll get straight answers.

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