While traveling through Asia for the first time I experienced a healthy amount of culture shock. But once you get used to the crowds, the lack of traffic laws, eating sketchy food on sidewalks sitting in tiny plastic chairs and constantly sweating like a whore in church, you’re mostly acclimated.
The constant stream of backpackers swarming through the country means you can find the comforts of home if you really need them. There’s a metaphorical safety net that will catch you if you start to get uncomfortable.
The only thing I knew about Japan before I went came from their TV shows on YouTube which are fucking insane. But that’s entertainment, you can’t judge an entire culture based on a few TV shows. American TV depicts people getting shot all the time but it’s not like we’re out here every day shooting guns at each othe…..OK I see it now.
Dan Carlin said in his podcast about Japan that “The Japanese are just like everyone else, only more so.” And I think that’s the best way anybody could have described them. No matter what their profession or hobby is, they dedicate every fiber of their being to perfecting it. They’re fiercely dedicated and tireless when it comes to the pursuit of perfection.
The culture, formed from a history of isolation and forcing the population to follow social norms has made Japan and it’s inhabitants behave like a well-oiled machine. A single hivemind. It’s a place where everybody understands the rules and follows them as if their lives depended on it.
Despite how bizarre it was at first, I understood it almost immediately. Everybody sacrifices individuality to serve the greater good. The system only works if everybody buys in.
When I was first watching commuters on the subway during rush hour in Tokyo, a lot of them appeared to be depressed. Nobody interacts with each other, everybody looks sleep deprived, barely conscious as they stare blankly at their smartphones with AirPods on blast. After doing some research I found that Japanese people literally work themselves to death so often that they have a word for it: Karoshi. Working insane amounts of overtime is the norm as is social isolation.
Despite how it appeared at first, I learned that the lack of social interaction is only in public places. Once you get into restaurants and bars people have a lot of fun. There are designated areas in Japan for everything, smoking, drinking, farting, so their bars and restaurants act like designated fun zones. You can have as much fun as you want, you just need to do it in the right place.
Once I figured this out I got why it was so quiet and seemed hostile walking around in public. You know those assholes that blast Bluetooth speakers on subway cars and buses in America? That complete lack of self-awareness is completely absent in Japan. They treat public places like shared spaces, as everybody should, more so than any other country I’ve been to.
Here’s what I learned pretty quickly: In order to enjoy Japan, you have to jump in headfirst. The more you immerse yourself in the culture the more fun you will have. If you let yourself get uncomfortable, think too hard about what’s going on, or try to compare what you’re seeing to things you’ve seen before, you’re going to have a bad time. Just accept everything for what it is and go with it.
Japan is the most entertaining, fascinating country I’ve ever seen and probably ever will see. It will test your threshold for the unfamiliar and expand your mind in the best way if you let it.
City Streets are Cleaner than my House
Tokyo is a bustling metropolis stuffed to the brim with 9 million people yet it’s cleaner than a hospital. I didn’t see a soda can, a cigarette butt, jizz-soaked anime book, nothing. People respect the ever-living shit out of public areas.
No matter how crowded the streets were or how many people were out, the trash was noticeably absent. The unfathomable cleanliness made me uncomfortable. Like when your mom cleans the living room and is watching you like a hawk making sure you don’t fuck it up.
That gave me some brief insight into how Japanese people must feel all the time. That overwhelming pressure to follow the rules. It’s stressful yet effective.
It’s Eerily Quiet
The loud chaos that comes from living in a bustling metropolis is eerily absent from the cities in Japan. Even in Tokyo. If I were blind I’d think the streets were empty.
As I said before, most of Japan’s population lives in their smartphones. We went to the shopping district in Shibuya during lunch and all I heard was shuffling shoes punctuated by the occasional cough. It was as crowded as I’ve ever seen a city yet I didn’t overhear one conversation. I kept waiting for everybody to turn around and look at me, revealing that they were a civilization made up entirely of androids.
I tried having a somewhat quiet afternoon on the outdoor deck at a Kyoto hostel and received 6 noise complaints within 20 minutes. We kept turning it down and talking less and less until we realized that anything other than dead silence was viewed as the ultimate disrespect.
While I was impressed at the unanimous dedication to keeping the peace, as an especially loud American it was hard to adjust. Japanese people are usually too polite to say anything but you definitely feel the hateful stares when you have a drunk conversation on the subway.
Customer Service and Public Transportation are Perfect
When I first used Japan’s subway system, I was struggling to understand how the ticket machine worked. I looked puzzled for maybe 25 seconds when a secret compartment opened up on the wall to my right and an older Japanese man with glasses appeared. “Do you-a need-uh help?” He asked. It took me a minute to fully process what was going on before I answered him. “Sure”.
He then reached his arm out of the secret wall hole and pressed the buttons on the machine that I needed with lightning-fast quickness. He apologized profusely even though he was helping me out, and then disappeared back into his wall cave. I didn’t even tell him where I was going.
That’s the level of service you get everywhere in Japan. Restaurants, bars, shopping malls, the Pokemon center, employees were would come to my aid before I even knew I needed it. The ratio of staff to people in each store was 5:1. And they were constantly apologizing for helping me out.
The impeccable service extends to public transportation. Every train and bus I took was on time to the millisecond. Their schedule is also connected to Google Maps which made getting around the city incredibly easy. It was awesome 99% of the time until I was late for my bullet train to Kyoto and I knew they weren’t going to wait.
Trying to run with a full backpack through Tokyo station during rush hour is not something I would do again. I was like a bowling ball crashing through this perfectly synchronized dance of daily rush hour. Coming from DC where Metro train waiting times are educated guesses, this was incredible.
The level of service I got in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia was outstanding, but in Japan it was perfect.
Is there anything the Japanese haven’t tried to perfect? It’s the first place on Earth where I was excited to use the public restrooms. Just like the rest of the country, they’re impossibly clean. I can almost guarantee any random public restroom you find in Japan will be clean enough to eat off the floor.
This is in stark contrast to American public restrooms which mostly look straight out of the Saw franchise. Japanese people actually clean up after themselves and don’t behave like animals when they use public restrooms.
And that’s not even the best part. Japan has turned toilets into robot servants that say “Arigatou gozaimasu” as they swallow your poop and then wash and blow-dry your asshole. Here are just a few features they have:
- Warm water asshole cleaner (some call it a bidet)
- Soothing music to help with your pooping
- Voice commands
- Toilet seat warmer
- Toilet seat cleaner
- Bidet with warm water and 5 different settings
- Blow dryer
- “Help” button (I never pressed it but still wonder what would happen if I did)
- Several hundred other buttons that I didn’t understand
Have you ever wanted to shit in a subway bathroom? Me neither, but in Japan, I jumped at the chance. The feeling of knowing that no matter when or where I have to poop, I’m going to have a pristine environment to do it in is indescribable.
Japan’s Work Culture Personified
Japan tried to engineer a utopian society and if you’re judging them solely based on efficiency, they succeeded. The whole culture feels 20 years ahead of everybody else and the robot uprising is already well underway across the country.
I’ve already described their impossibly perfect subway system but what makes it even more impressive are the underground cities that connect them. The workaholic culture is so extreme that the subway tunnels are mini-cities. There’s an entire underground civilization so you don’t have to go out of your way to eat or get drunk, or see the sun, ever. Everything you need is on the way to where you’re going.
These subterranean cities are standard across Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. They make you feel like an ant in a colony but the convenience makes it worth it. It’s so convenient to not have to hop in your car and drive 10+ minutes every time you need to buy some random bullshit. I loved getting lost in these endless underground caverns and exploring.
Also, being able to buy a gourmet cake, get hammer drunk, and then have some delicious ramen all within 10 ft. was something I never knew I needed but now can’t live without.
Japan is the Best Kind of Weird
When in Japan
No matter how much research you do or how much anime you watch, nothing can prepare you for Japan. I thought I had a semi-competent understanding of their culture and it still slapped me in the face and confused the living hell out of me. You will feel like a fish out of water at first but that’s OK. Just go with it. You get used to it real quick as long as you’re eager to understand.
If Japan had been my first country on my trip, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much. Only after I got into a rhythm of dealing with things I didn’t understand could I accept Japan for what it was and not be terrified of what it is.
If you’re only spending a limited amount of time there just be OK with the fact that sometimes robots serve you at restaurants instead of people, being quiet is more important than anything, and anime characters are more popular than celebrities.
It’s the weirdest, most unique place I’ve ever been to and I love everything about it. If you’re deciding whether or not to go, book your trip. It will be one of the most confusing, entertaining experiences of your life.