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Japanese culture – the feelings of a first-timer

by Heini Hirvonen
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I knew that the Japanese culture was very unique and different, but it still managed to surprise me. What is a first-timer’s Japan like?

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Japanese language and signs


The Japanese language sounded a little familiar when I first heard it at the Kensai airport. I’ve overheard Japanese throughout the decades since Timo is involved in the Japanese culture in the form of movies and series. It didn’t take long before the basic travel vocabulary was familiar to the whole family.

But that was the extent of understanding. We couldn’t interpret the signs. Not understanding the written language becomes quite the obstacle when you try to read metro maps or menus. Asking helped, though, even if none of the people we met were very knowledgeable in English – not even the people at hotels or tourist info.

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Bathrooms


The bathrooms are just as wondrous as I had imagined them to be. The heated seat is lovely. I mean: lovely. Trying the bathroom out for the first time was quite exciting, though. By pressing the button for washing your behind you got a mechanical sound, after which a little apparatus appeared in the middle of the seat. Then: commence the showering, which in my case lasted for quite a while, because I didn’t realize that you have to switch it off, too. I, of course, thought that it, too, would be automatic. Well, the pressure was quite strong, so after this experience I knew better. I adjusted the pressure to be lower and instructed the girls to press stop when they were done.

Other bathroom functions besides the heated seat were “front-wash” (for women) and “back-wash” and in some versions drying.

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It is customary to wear bathroom slippers in bathrooms, but to not wear them anywhere else. Otherwise tatami slippers are to be used indoors.

Washing your hands is a procedure of its own. There are different kinds of bathroom locks, taps and soap systems. The most fun was the soap bubble in the attached picture, which we just couldn’t figure out. It took a while to understand how to use the taps, too. There was one bathroom with a tap that had to be shut down by lifting it up and opened by pressing down, whereas in the previous bathroom you turned the tap anti-clockwise.

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Food and restaurants

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We started our trip with a day in Osaka, in the Dotonbori area. Osaka is famous for its food, which was straight down our alley. Within a span of a few days, we ate thick udo-noodles with different meat, fish and stock options, creamy crab soup, tempura with different fillings, unfamiliar vegetables, different balls of dough, as well as sushi, sashimi and nigiri with the most amazing and delicious toppings and fillings. Japan is culinary heaven for a seafood lover.

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We only visited restaurants that served Japanese food. During our visits we didn’t come across other Westerners. The restaurants we visited went traditional Japanese style where the cashier is located by the front door and there are booths, separated from another by a sliding door, on both sides of the aisle. In some of them you sat on the bench, in others on a pillow with your feet crossed. It was quiet and harmonious everywhere. The food was, as a rule, unfathomably good.

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There were eateries to suit lots of different tastes, but we liked to escape the cold air by going inside. Otherwise we could have gotten food from stalls, like the locals did.

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Almost every restaurant had a menu with images or sample portions of menu items for Westerners.

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Vending machines


There were vending machines in every corner and sometimes they just stood in the middle of nothing, seemingly just to fill the void. You can get absolutely every kind of food from them, as well as hot and cold drinks. The vending machines aren’t limited to just food or drinks, either, but there are separate machines for different items.

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People


The people are very friendly, helpful and smiling. They’ll apologize even if it isn’t their fault, and they’ll apologize on others’ behalf, too. It is for this specific reason that we felt very welcome and warm right from the get-go. Everything feels so easy, thanks to people’s friendliness.

The people’s politeness takes many forms: for example, the lines are super-straight and nobody complains or pushes and squeezes. People give each other space in metros and most passers-by get a smile.

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The way Japanese dress is very colorful. You may see a geisha walking down the street, then a girl in a school uniform, followed by a character from an anime-cartoon. There were robots here and there, amusing people. This one was at the Osaka airport.

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Ryokan and other hotels

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Ryokan is a Japanese guesthouse with paper screens and a tatami mat. Often times there is only a low table in the room, surrounded by pillows for sitting. At night, the personnel places the futons – thin mattresses – on the floor, from where they are collected in the morning, rolled up and placed in the closet with sliding doors that goes along the walls of the tatami. We slept surprisingly well on the futons.

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Other equipment included in the guesthouses were kimonos and slippers, as well as a teapot and mugs without handles. Both places only had good green tea. Drinking evening tea there isn’t too shabby.

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Public baths


Most hotels have a common spa, which includes a hot pool and a washing area. Washing in the showers is to be performed sitting on tiny, white stools in front of mirrors. We didn’t figure this out at first, and the older girls and I wondered why there was a mirror at the height of our private parts…

You have to wash yourself thoroughly before getting in and after getting out of the hot pool and you do not use bathing suits in them. Men and women naturally have their own pools. These common pools are a window to the Japanese life from another perspective.

Everybody uses the spas and while bathing you can’t help but admire how well even the little girls obey their mothers. It’s quiet and beautiful in the spas, too. The hot pool is literally hot, which means you won’t spend a long time there. Afterwards you and your skin feel look and feel exactly like you do after going to the sauna. Bathing is an especially pleasant experience after several hours of walking in the cold wind.

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After a day in Osaka we put our pre-purchased Japan Rail passes to use and journeyed to Nara, the former capital of Japan, known for its old Buddhist and Shinto temples. Nara deserves its own blog, so more about that in the next post.

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