“Watch your manners, we’re in Japan.”

On my first day in Japan, while wandering around Osaka Castle, I heard an American dad say to his ~ seven-year-old son who was goofing around “Watch your manners, we’re in Japan.” It made me laugh and also wonder what he says when his son goofs off at home… “It’s okay son, do whatever you want, we’re in America.” But after a couple of weeks in this country I realized it kind of sums up my experience so far. Japan is a place that subtly demands manners. Here are some of my initial observations (in my first two weeks I have been to Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto):

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Osaka Castle
  • It’s as clean as everyone says, if not cleaner. I challenge you to find a piece of trash on the ground in any of my pictures. Also, like many other Asian countries, there are not many public trash bins (yes, I’ve started saying “bins” because Americans get made fun of a lot for our trash terminology). You are sort of expected to take care of your own trash, or if you are like me, find a Starbucks to dump it.
  • Train stations and shopping malls are insane. I spent three hours walking around Kyoto Station and felt like I may have still missed a huge part of it. I’m finding that top floors are usually designated as “restaurant floors” with actual sit down restaurants. But in the basements there are food halls with tons of smaller food shops, grocery stores, and cheaper sit down restaurants.
  • They drive on the left here! They also walk on the left side of sidewalks but when it comes to escalators they mix it up. In Osaka it was stand on the right walk on the left (like at home) but in Kyoto it was a mix. I think the more local the escalator the more often you stand on the left. I just follow the person in front of me.
  • Bicycles seem to be the primary mode of transportation and they strap kids onto bicycles like they pile them onto motorbikes in SE Asia. Nearly every bike is fit with some sort of car seat on the front or back or both.

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  • I find it funny to watch Asians from different countries (like Koreans and Japanese) speak to each other in English.
  • They use the same plugs as in the US! No adapter needed. Who used it first?
  • There are more vending machines here than Starbucks in Seattle. If you are standing at one you can see at least two more in the distance. They sell anything from hot and cold coffee to energy drinks to cigarettes to ramen.

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  • There are a lot of etiquette related things that you quickly get used to in Japan, but the first few days you feel like you’re screwing something up every few minutes. Just a few:
    • Do not hand your money to someone, put it in the tray! But some 7-Elevens don’t have trays and then I’m at a loss and awkwardly hold out my money.
    • Bow to the people bowing at you. You’re doing it wrong but it’s better than not bowing at all.
    • Don’t leave your chopsticks sticking out of anything, lay them across your plate.
    • The floors are generally spotless everywhere, but restaurants don’t like you to put your bag on the floor, so there is typically some sort of basket or foldy thing like what you put luggage on in a hotel room that is put next to your table for your bag. It’s not just a suggestion, use it.
  • Hello in Japanese is “Konichiwa”, right? But every time you enter a building this is not what they say. It’s usually “Irasshaimase!” meaning something along the lines of “welcome/come on in” and so I struggle with what to say back (typically…table for 1?). BUT, on the hiking trails everyone says konichiwa (with a little head bow) and it makes me feel confident again. Also, hi in Japanese means yes, not a short word for hello.

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  • Contrary to popular opinion…it’s really not that expensive. You can get solid meals from convenience stores (there is either a 7-Eleven, Family Mart, or Lawson on every corner) for $3.00 – $4.00, you can get an immaculate hostel for ~$25.00/night, and unless you want Kobe beef or fancy sushi, dinners run right around $10. I guess relative to Southeast Asia it’s expensive, but isn’t everything? As you’ll notice below I am enjoying the $1 edamame…
  • Speaking of money, the currency here (Japanese Yen) is heavily coin based. It’s similar to the Euro where 100 Yen (just under USD $1) is a coin. But 500 Yen is also a coin, so don’t lose the coins!
  • Hiking trails, parks, and gardens are beautiful and perfectly manicured. I don’t generally like the color orange but it’s heavily used in Japanese shrines and it looks gorgeous with the Spring greenery. I also don’t have much interest in temples these days, I’ve just seen SO MANY, but I will say the temples and shrines in the Kansai region are all gorgeous and unique (and typically on a mountain so that helps).
  • I like matcha, in all forms, but especially ice cream. What is matcha? Basically crushed green tea leaves dissolved in water, but it tastes better when made in a fancy tea ceremony (or when served in ice cream form).
  • Japanese written language is one of the most complicated in the world. They use three alphabets and often use all of them in one written sentence (and sometimes even in one word). Kanji are adopted Chinese characters. Hiragana and Katakana (which comprise Kana) are used for native Japanese words, each with their own emphasis, each containing roughly 50 letters that represent the same sounds but look entirely different. To further the confusion, Japanese is typically written top to bottom but also sometimes left to right.
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Menu from an Okonomiyaki restaurant
  • I realized that on this trip I have now been to all three WWII axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan).
  • You can smoke in many restaurants (particularly the small local ones), which surprised me. It seems very un-Japanese?
  • There are a lot of pachinko buildings – giant bright buildings full of slot machines (and people…mostly men in suits).

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  • Baseball is huge here. While they are generally bad, the Osaka-based Hanshin Tigers are known to have the best fan base so I made a point to get to a game and was not disappointed. The game had the feel of a college football game, with live bands in both the home and visiting sections. When a team was batting their fans were chanting and beating their thunder bats nonstop. NONSTOP. The best part was during the seventh inning stretch when everybody blew up these odd-shaped yellow balloons and released them all at once (video below). I later learned that the Hanshin Tigers are so bad because they are cursed. The Tigers won the Japanese league for the first (and only) time in 1985 and the fans went nuts. They got a little crazy and threw Colonel Sanders (yes, the KFC one) into the river. Since then the team has been under a curse known as the Curse of the Colonel. Just to prove I am not making this up here’s the link to the Wikipedia page – the full version of the story is even better.

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  • I know a lot of people in Kyoto! In my eight days here I had dinner with a couple from the neighborhood I grew up in (I used to babysit their kids), drinks with an old coworker who now lives in HCMC (but she was unfortunately in the Bay Area when I was in HCMC), and enjoyed a day of touring with my cousins Amy and Andy! None of this was planned, Kyoto is just the place to be right now. Where were you?

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  • Also, Kyoto, KYOTO. Wow. What an amazing city. When I checked into my hostel the girl looked at my reservation and said “Eight nights! Wow!” (Eight nights is a long time to stay in a hostel, especially traveling around Japan). I said “Do you think that’s enough time?” And she responded “For Kyoto, there’s never enough time”. I think she may be onto something there. A very quick blurb on Kyoto history – it was really the only big city in Japan not bombed in WWII (supposedly Einstein called the White House and said something along the lines of “please don’t”). Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over one thousand years (Kyoto literally means Capital City) and as a result is a cultural hub of Japan. It has many of the most beautiful attractions, retains much of the architectural charm of historical Japan, and is surrounded by mountain ranges with a river running through it.

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  • Lastly, food. I’ve had ramen, tsukemen ramen (where the noodles and broth are separated), okonomiyaki (an Osaka specialty, sort of like a Japanese pizza?), udon, takoyaki (fried doughy balls with octopus), taiyaki (fish-shaped baked goods filled with red bean paste), gyoza, chicken teriyaki, soba, katsu, pickled plums, sake (served in a shot glass sitting in a box and the whole thing gets filled up), Asahi beer (I really like it!), umeshu (plum wine), lots of tofu, miso, and everything matcha flavored. Good thing I’m walking about 12 miles a day! Still high on the list to track down – Japanese curry!

Next I am off to dive into slightly more modern history with a few days in Hiroshima, then a quick day up and over the Japanese Alps on my way to Tokyo! Here are some more photos from my time in the Kansai region:

3 thoughts on ““Watch your manners, we’re in Japan.”

  1. Wow! I love your blog article and the photos! We also LOVED Kyoto and thought you could never have enough time there, as there are just so many temples, places and things to do. The first weeks in a new place are always the most exciting, we will also move to Japan in August and can’t wait to explore all of these things!

  2. auntcorie

    The chance of my sister’s grand daughter and my daughter and son-in-law meeting in Japan seemed impossible. And yet it happened! Never say never!

  3. Tim Farrell

    Another great post, Emily! Loving these photos. Glad you were able to meet up with Kien! And love that you loved Kyoto as much as I do. “For Kyoto, there’s never enough time.” So true!

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