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Things That Only People Who Have Been To Japan Will Understand

For as small as the world feels nowadays, the Far East can still seem like a fascinating place to us Americans. That’s especially true of Japan, which gets a reputation for being a unique paradise thanks to the way it’s portrayed in television and movies. Most aspects of Japanese culture indeed seem fascinating (at least to our Western sensibilities), but in most ways the island nation is a mystery to us. In “Things That Only People Who Have Been To Japan Will Understand” we take a look at some of the things that make Japan such an awesome place that you might not know unless you’ve been there yourself.

UNMANNED STANDS

Located mostly in the countryside of Japan, unmanned stores — known as mujin hanbai — are stands or huts that typically sell fruits or vegetables with nobody present to collect money. Farmers who have leftover crops after selling to the markets during the summer may choose to set up their own space to sell their excess produce with as little as a sign asking potential consumers to place money in a box, and a heavy reliance on the honor system.

OH MY DEKOTORA

Oh My Dekotora

Wikicommons

The easiest way to describe Dekotora would be to say it’s just a “decorated truck”, but that would be a huge understatement. Those that take part in Dekotora define what they do as a form of art, and if you’ve seen a fully-decorated truck you would be hard-pressed to disagree with them.

The movement really hit big in 1975, when film and TV studio Toei released the first of ten movies in a series called Trucker that featured someone driving around in a spectacularly-decorated truck. Although Dekotora existed before the film series, it was the success of the movie that truly inspired people to start enhancing their own trucks in a similar fashion.

COMMUTE AND SHOP WITH ONE CARD

Here, we’re used to having multiple ways to pay and get around. First you whip out your bus pass, then you use your rail pass on the subway, and then finally your debit card to pick up some Sapporo for the evening. Depending on where you are in Japan, however, you may be able to use one commuting pass to do everything — from riding the Metro to purchasing items in convenience stores and vending machines. It’s such a simple, elegant solution to an overstuffed wallet that you wonder why it hasn’t made its way to our shores.

YES, THE VENDING MACHINES REALLY ARE EVERYWHERE

Here’s a general rule for Japan: If it exists, it can probably be purchased from a vending machine. A corollary: If you’re wondering if there’s a vending machine nearby, there probably is — even at the top of Mount Fuji. The country is home to over 5 million vending machines, selling everything from foodstuffs to booze to cigarettes. As previously mentioned, Japan has a history of unmanned food stalls, so modern vending machines carry on that tradition. There’s also a more practical reason: When Japan expanded rapidly in the ‘60s, vending machines were simply a way to expand their reach to potential buyers.

NO SPACE FOR YOUR CAR? NO PROBLEM – PARK VERTICALLY!

You don’t need to go to Japan to understand that when real estate is at a premium, it’s often more feasible to build up rather than out. After all, that’s a feature of most large American cities. But what might shock you about Japan is how they’ve found ways to make everything vertical. Need a place to put your car? Don’t bother with space-wasting traditional drive-around parking garages — park in a vertically-stacked automated parking tower and relieve the headaches of searching for a free space.

SORT YOUR TRASH (OR ELSE)

Sort Your Trash (Or Else)

mujitra/Flickr

We may pat ourselves on the back when we remember to recycle, but in Japan, it’s the law. Enforced in 1997, the Law for the Promotion of Sorted Collection and Recycling of Containers and Packaging requires that all citizens separate their recyclables from their trash. Not only that, but paper, aluminum, steel and different plastics all get sorted into different bins, and the citizens are very good at taking on the responsibility: The national recycling rates for aluminum cans come in at well over 90% every year.

AUTOMATIC TAXI CAR DOORS

Should you be traveling around the country in a taxi, you don’t have to worry about opening the door yourself — they open automatically. And by “automatically” we mean that the doors are controlled by the taxi driver. This incredibly convenient and hospitable perk has surprised so many foreigners that one taxi company in Osaka started to place stickers on both rear doors informing riders that they don’t have to open it themselves, and are hoping the rest of the country follow suit.

BEER AND BASEBALL

There’s seemingly nothing more American than sipping on suds while taking in a baseball game, but that’s how plenty of Japanese would like to spend an afternoon as well. The rules are nearly identical, but the experience itself is different enough — crowds have specific team and player chants, separate sections for the visiting fans — that knocking back a few Sapporos served by a young, smiling female vendor via keg and rooting on a Japanese baseball team should be on any fan’s bucket list.

THE TRAINS RUN ON TIME

In Japan, the trains run on time — period. The Tokyo Metro is the world’s busiest subway system, and the trains need to arrive on time in order to move 6.7 million people every day through the most populous city on the planet. They owe their precision to the obsessive training of their conductors who instinctively know how fast they must go to reach the next stop in the required time.

KŌBANS

Typically, Americans aren’t too keen on interacting with the police because we usually only do so when something bad happens. Sure, you don’t want the Japanese police knocking on your door, either, but their approach to policing is decidedly more community-oriented. Citizens have access to police through things called kōbans, or police boxes. They’re small structures that can house more than two police officers at a time for three to four shifts, and they’re scattered about so people needn’t travel very far for the most common police services. As a neat bonus, some of the kōbans sport fun, unique architecture.

A LACK OF HONKING

In America, there are two kinds of cars: The ones you need, and the ones you want. A small hybrid might be the more practical choice for commuting, but what most of us really want is something big, loud and fast. Not so in Japan, where dense populations and often tight streets lead residents to default to small, boxy cars. The crowding also has a surprising side effect: Patience. Where a congested street may make us wish our cars fired missiles, the Japanese are surprisingly patient and courteous toward other drivers. If you hear someone honking, it’s probably because there’s a genuine safety issue.

A FRIENDLY SHOPPING EXPERIENCE

In Japan, the greeter position is taken to a whole other level and you’re greeted at almost every store you enter. Walk through any Japanese shopping district, and you’ll be met with a chorus of Irasshaimase, a very polite way of saying “welcome.” And it is, in fact, a chorus — rather than one greeter, in some stores you’ll be met by five or six well-trained greeters welcoming you to shop for bargains.

BIKES EVERYWHERE

When you’re talking about a country with cities as densely populated as Japan, it goes without saying that bikes will be a popular form of transportation for just about everyone, young and old; rich and poor. While most cities have strict laws about where bikes can be ridden and parked, reality is a little more chaotic with cyclists using the sidewalks out of convenience. Bike theft is one of the few prevalent crimes in Japan, so all new bikes are supposed to be registered with the police. If you’re worried about a safe place to store your bike, don’t worry — they have cool automated, vertical parking garages for bikes, too.

THE CLEANEST STREETS

For a nation that prides itself on having exceptionally clean urban centers, walk around a Japanese city and you’ll notice something odd: Few, if any, public trash cans. Theories as to why this is range from a tragic incident in 1995, to cities just wanting to save money on maintenance. Regardless of the why, these days everyone simply carries around small plastic bags and disposes of their trash at home.

BLUE VS. GREEN: IT’S COMPLICATED

If you ever visit Japan, don’t bother trying to reconcile how the blue sky and green traffic lights are described with versions of the same term: Ao. The Japanese only developed a word for green (midori) about 1,000 years ago, and even then it was still considered a shade of ao. In fact, it wasn’t until the occupation of Japan following WWII that children received educational materials distinguishing between the two colors. Some things like vegetables, which they recognize as green, are still described as ao. Oh, and sometimes they’ll just use the English word “green.” Yeah, just roll with it.

YURU-CHARA EVERYWHERE

For sports fans, mascots are the bane of their existence. Fans go to the game to enjoy the athletic competition — they don’t much care to watch a grown man in a suit dance around. In Japan, however, mascots are practically an everyday thing. Normally used to promote a big event, a specific region, or even a business, Yuru-chara are costumed characters that often incorporate local history and culutre into a cute and simple design.

These often-adorable characters have become so popular that there’s even a Yuru-chara Grand Prix. This annual event gathers the most popular mascots, as voted by the public, in order to crown the most popular of the most popular. Last year, there were an estimated 1,699 Yuru-chara entered — that’s over ten times the amount of the inagural event just four years prior.

TACTILE PAVING

You’ll recognize tactile paving on the little bumpy areas featured on some sidewalks and most commuter rail platforms. It was designed as an aid for visually impaired people — when their feet or cane detects the change in texture on the ground, they know they’re about to step somewhere potentially dangerous. You can find it lots of places now, but it’s ubiquitous in Japan because it was developed there in the ‘60s. In addition to textures, colors are also used to help people with poor vision confirm that they’re heading in the desired direction.

FAKE FOOD

Japan is a must-visit for any serious eater, whether you’re interested in ramen, sushi or pretty much the only way to legitimately try Wagyu beef. If that’s the case, though, why will you find plates of plastic food in so many restaurants? The answer is mostly convenience, as it makes ordering easier when you can point and say “I want that.” In Japan it’s been raised to an art form, with each restaurant’s food displays meticulously crafted to match the food on offer.

SERIOUS KARAOKE

Even if you never saw Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, chances are you know that Japan and karaoke go hand-in-hand. And while we in the West gather our closest friends on a big stage and make fools of ourselves by singing old boy band songs without the help of any lyrics, karaoke in Japan is performed in a private room and is nothing to joke about.

Originating from the Japanese words kara, meaning “empty” and okesutora, meaning “orchestra”, karaoke in Japan is serious stuff. From machines that rate the performance of participants (and some that even calculate the amount of calories burned while performing), to the hiring of professional coaches in order to improve performances, karaoke is much more than just a fun Friday night out with the gang to the Japanese.

 

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