10 Things I didn’t know about Japan until I went there

Everyone’s talking about Japan right now, and so they should. It’s hands down the best, oddest, most compelling, most flat-out nutso country I’ve ever visited. Everyone who’s been there will tell you that, but until you go yourself, you won’t quite really get what they mean.

Here are ten things I didn’t know about Japan until I went there:

1. Everyone in Japan smokes...

And also no one in Japan smokes. Smoking is banned in public, so you won’t see a single cigarette on the streets and you’ll never walk through a cloud of smoke exhaled by a huddle of doomed-looking office workers defiantly pretending to be enjoying their life choices. But restaurants and bars are private property, so step inside one and it’s like being back in a nightclub in the 70s, or an episode of Mad Men. So long as there are walls and a roof, everyone and their children are happily puffing away like Humphrey Bogart. It’s the world turned inside-out.

2. In Japan you can hire strangers to pretend to be your family...

If you have a new boyfriend and don’t want him to meet the embarrassing losers who actually did raise you. If you’re a single mom, there are agencies where you can hire a man to pretend to be your husband at office parties or when trying to enroll your kid at a fancy school. The really odd service is the one that provides you with a handsome man who will sit beside you while you watch a sad movie, and gently wipe away your tears. For an extra fee, he will even manage to shed a few tears himself, probably by sitting secretly on a drawing pin, and thinking about how sad it is that the Springboks lost to the all Blacks in their first match of the World Cup.]

3. Some bars won’t allow you in if you’re white.

Stop smirking, you black and coloured and Indian people – the same goes for you, and anyone else who isn’t Japanese. In the tiny bars of Drunkard’s Alley in Shibuya, there’s only space for four or five people at a time, and the point of the evening is for stressed and lonely office workers to be able to sit and chat with the barman, and eat copious amounts of small tapas-style traditional dishes and drink unfeasibly large amounts. As a foreigner, you might want to sit there a while and experience an authentic Japanese evening, but if you can’t speak the language or be part of the culture, you’ll spoil the vibe for everyone else.

4. On that subject: Japanese people drink a lot.

They drink a lot. On Friday nights in the Shibuya business district of Tokyo you’ll see the subways and sidewalks littered with men and women in their sober, expensive business suits, sleeping with their briefcase as pillow, or simply publicly passed out in a variety of extraordinary poses. I encourage you to Google image-search “Shibuya meltdown’ for some fine specimens. A very powerful businesswoman I met in the Tight bar in Shibuya told me that it’s not considered shameful to be drunk in public. The only shameful thing is to behave badly when drunk – to become aggressive, or make inappropriate jokes, or over-share. Sleeping on the pavement is fine.

5. The subways are so quiet.

Making a noise – like talking on a phone, or laughing with a friend, is an intrusion and a violation of other people’s space. You can stand on a packed train station in Shibuya or Shinagawa, surrounded by thousands of people, and hear nothing but the whoosh-whoosh of trouser legs rubbing together as they walk, and the click-click-click of high heels. Oh, and the discreet tape recorded tweeting of forest birds played through hidden microphones to charm your ears and soothe your urban soul.

6. There are no public garbage bins in Tokyo.

I finished a can of Coke on a hot afternoon and looked around for somewhere to throw it. Nothing. No wire bins, no plastic bins, no concrete bins, no bins at all. What, should you just drop your rubbish on the floor? No. There’s no rubbish on the floor. Do they just have super-efficient sanitary workers? No. In all the time I was there I didn’t see a single street sweeper or garbage truck. If you buy food or drink from a café or street stall, you have two choices – you can finish it on the spot and hand your rubbish back to the person who sold it to you, who will receive it courteously. Or you take it home with you or to the office and throw it away there. Or, I suppose, if you’re a selfish South African whose deep-grained commitment to lawlessness overcomes him, and who isn’t going home or to the office any time in the next few hours, you could just pop your empty Coke can in the basket of a bicycle leaning against a lamppost and hurry off without looking back.

7. Here’s a tourist tip – shrines and temples stay open at night.

There’s no point trudging in a grim crocodile of slow-moving foreigners up Mount Inari from the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto, even though the place is a must-see, with its rows and rows of vermillion tori gates stretching up multiple converging paths through pavilions and pine groves to the top of the sacred mountain, each. Rather go and enjoy a delicious bowl of ramen and come back when it’s dark and the whole mountain is empty, and you can walk up and up in perfect solitude and safety through the lit shrines and gates and paths, through the tree-cover and the open night air with the yellow moon rising like a fingernail over Kyoto till you reach the top and feel like the last and luckiest person alive on Earth.

8. For the Japanese, sushi is a finger-food, the way pizza is for us. 

I know you think you’re being terribly sophisticated when you twirl your chopsticks like Mr Miyagi and shovel up the Salmon roses and maki at your local sushi bar, but only tourists eat sushi with chopsticks. 

9. Another tip for chopstick-etiquette: don’t rub them together or in your hands...

The way some people do back home, as though they’re trying to start a fire. In japan, you’re telling your hosts that you think they’ve provided you with bad-quality chopsticks that might leave splinters in your hands.

10. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Not everyone speaks English, but everyone is generous with their time and concern and will try to understand and assist, sometimes to a fault. At Shibuya station I was waiting at platform 3 for the Shinkansen to Osaka. I idly turned to the young woman beside me and said, “Is this the platform for Osaka?” I was pretty sure it was, but that’s the kind of thing you say to strangers to pass the time.

She looked at me in distress. She turned to the person beside her and said something urgently, and then the person next to her, and the person next to that. Then she gestured that I should wait, and sprinted down the platform, from food kiosk to food kiosk until she returned dragging someone with you.

“She doesn’t speak English,” the newcomer told me earnestly, “so she asked me to come and translate.”

“Oh,” I said, blushing furiously. “I just said, um, I just asked her if this is the platform for Osaka?”

The newcomer turned solemnly and translated it. When English is translated into Japanese, it becomes much longer, with question marks and exclamation marks and all sorts of strange and dramatic inflections. As she spoke, the first woman’s eyes lit up.

“Ah!” she said. The turned to me, beaming, “Hai!” she said, and bowed.

The newcomer turned solemnly back to me. “Yes,” she said, bowing in turn. “It is.”

*Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer and aspirant retiree - follow him on twitter @DBBovey.

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