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7 Things About Living in Japan Nobody Tells You

Updated on April 24, 2017
Downtown Osaka
Downtown Osaka | Source

Moving to Japan?

Visiting Japan is a magical experience that will change your life. Living here can be just was wonderful but it has its own surprises.

Wander through the web and you'll read the endless tirades about the cost of living, dense populations, "weird" culture and so on. Other sites will remind you of the low crime rate, ancient history, hospitality and so on.

This isn't about any of that. Also, this isn't about everything you must know to get here. In other words, you won't find any immigration, customs and embassy stuff here. However, I will include resources that will provide that information.

This is about the little things that you won't find anywhere else. These aren't makers or breakers but you'll be glad you know about them before you decide to settle here.

The sacred fountain of the Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto
The sacred fountain of the Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto | Source

7. There are children everywhere

We've all heard about the aging population in Japan. You may have heard of it as well. It's the idea that too many Japanese people are getting old and there won't be enough young people to replace them once they retire. The numbers speak for themselves. This can have a serious impact on its economy and society.

However, if you actually live in Japan you'd never believe it. What you see to the right is a handful of little people who got in the way of my picture of the sacred fountain of the Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto. Kyoto was once the capital of Japan during ancient times. It has countless shrines and temples that date back hundreds of years. It would only be natural for schools to bring their children here for class trips, right? Right.

But this isn't just a Kyoto thing. In almost every community, there seem to be children everywhere. Every time I go out during daylight hours, I see at least one small group of them. I get the urge to ask why they aren't in school or why there isn't there an adult around but I already know the answer.

Longer school days over a longer school year allows more class trips and outdoor sports. The adult is nearby, I just haven't seen him/her yet. Also, the way most communities are designed a child doesn't need an adult to drive him all over the place. If he wants to get a snack, the market is three minutes away.

Finally, Japan has a fairly low crime rate. Communities are tightly-knit so people trust each other. Going outside isn't a crime. No need to worry, by sunset all of them are safely home with their families.

6. There's something missing here... the food

One thing I miss is Mexican food. I love Mexican food. I loved it more when I was stationed near San Antonio while I was in the Army and then when I moved to California after my enlistment. But it's almost impossible to find here.

It tastes great so why isn't it in Japan? Japan has every other kind of food: Italian, French, German, Korean, Chinese, Indian... the list goes on. I ask my friends and they shrug. They all like Mexican food but somehow live without it. This is obviously the free market at work. If more people loved Mexican food then Mexican restaurants would be everywhere. Fair enough.

Then, can anyone explain why I can't get any bagels? I'm from Jersey and I love my bagels. Who doesn't love bagels? All of my Japanese friends who have been to America love bagels. Now we all get our bagel fix at Starbucks. At this time, there are 973 Starbucks locations in Japan. It somehow has a complete bagel monopoly. Even then the bagels there are served as sandwiches. Nothing toasted with cream cheese or lox.

Maybe it's a health thing. After all, Japanese food is known to be among the healthiest in the world. So it seems possible that high calorie bagels and Mexican food might not get off the ground (but anyone with some imagination knows Mexican dishes can be prepared in a healthy way).

If so, it doesn't explain why it's so hard to get whole wheat bread! There are bakeries that sell breads and baguettes. For cakes and pastries, there are cake shops. However, someone looking for 100% whole wheat bread has to go to the supermarket: a small part of a small shelf to find anything resembling wheat bread. It's a mystery to me.

Don't get me wrong, Japanese food is great. But in a country that seems to have everything else figured out, nobody is able to open a bagel shop or a Mexican restaurant.

A Practical Guide to Living in Japan: Everything You Need to Know to Successfully Settle In
A Practical Guide to Living in Japan: Everything You Need to Know to Successfully Settle In

Maybe food isn't on your mind. Maybe you have other things on your plate than burritos. If you're getting serious this book will help. It is thorough and will get the job done.


5. It's hard to be vegetarian and impossible to be vegan

If you're trying to cut down on meat, Japanese food is a godsend. Most Japanese meals don't orbit around meat. The few that do aren't eaten frequently. However, going full-blown vegan is not easy. Remember, a culture spread over countless islands won't be in a hurry to stop eating fish.

For these reasons, it's not easy for a Japanese person to understand why anyone would want to be vegetarian in the first place. It's like wearing body armor to bed. Sure, it's possible but what's the point?

Japanese recipes require broths and sauces made of fish or other animals. This includes miso soup. Those that don't require eggs. If a vegetarian can adapt and overcome, he will barely make it. For the diehard vegan, it's going to be a lonely existence of bland onigiri and cold soba.

And for those who do eat meat? Try not to pass out when you see whale meat for the first time. For me, one of the toughest things about living in Japan is knowing that it slaughters whales as a delicacy.

This isn't to discourage vegetarians or vegans from coming to Japan. It is just to show that it won't be easy to stay.

4. Everyone loves mayo - So do you

Takoyaki in downtown Osaka
Takoyaki in downtown Osaka | Source

What you see above is the Japanese snack, "takoyaki." It is famous in the Kansai area, especially Osaka. Foreigners call them "octopus balls" because they contain pieces of octopus and are grilled into small dough balls. I promise you, takoyaki tastes far better than it looks and sounds. Just ask this fellow.

You see them here because the white sauce on top is mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is very popular in Japan. It is a condiment in many popular dishes, especially fried dishes. And why not? It tastes great!

Also, Western foods that include mayonnaise are popular as well. It's not unusual to see potato salad, macaroni salad, egg salad, chicken salad, tuna salad, shrimp salad, crab salad, seafood salad, coleslaw or the like anywhere in Japan.

Ironically, the only place you won't see mayonnaise is in your sandwich. You'll more likely find egg salad or potato salad in your ham sandwich than mayonnaise.

3. Tea please but hold the high fructose corn syrup

One hot, humid summer day I walked into a convenience store. It was my first summer in Japan. I bought a cool bottle of iced tea. As soon as it hit my tongue, I spit it out immediately. I was coughing until I realized what happened: my iced tea tasted like... iced tea.

For someone who grew up on soda and other sweet drinks, I expected an artificially-colored bash of high fructose corn syrup and other chemicals to appease my thirst. If I ever wanted to see that again, I'd have to go for soda or fruit "juice." Here in Japan, the days of iced tea as I knew it were over.

For an American, Japanese tea can be quite a challenge. There is a large variety. Many, at first, taste like someone put out a cigarette into your glass of water. Yuck! Soon you realize that the stuff you've been drinking back home barely had any tea in it and what you have now is as real as tea gets.

2. Nobody is Asian but everyone speaks Japanese

Race in Japan is as complicated as it is anywhere else. I'll touch on it very briefly here. Look at Japanese anime (cartoons), manga (comic books) and video games and you won't see many Japanese people.

In these forms of media, you'll see people of almost very other race than Asian. You'll find a green-haired, grey-eyed alien who looks like a teenage girl and speaks perfect Japanese before you find a black-haired, brown-eyed girl.

This is not as easy as being in denial of one's heritage because there's no shortage of beautiful Japanese women who are worshiped by their own right.

I don't think anyone can explain what's going on exactly. What I see is a fascination of the exotic when it comes to fiction such as anime and manga. Then, when it comes to people, there is more of an appreciation of the natives.

The way all this applies to you is not to take things personally when people turn their heads the second you start talking. Stay cool when it looks like they see you as an oddity rather than a person. It'll pass.

A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony
A Geek in Japan: Discovering the Land of Manga, Anime, Zen, and the Tea Ceremony

This guide clears the myths of Japanese culture. It answers questions similar to the ones I address in this article. It's thorough and fun to read.

This Japanese gate is lower than it looks. Watch your head!
This Japanese gate is lower than it looks. Watch your head! | Source

1. Low bridge! Low ceilings and doorways...

If you are under 5'6" there is no need to read any further. Everyone else, please continue...

Maybe you've heard of this already so I'll put it simply. Everything is a low bridge. Doorways, hallways, ceilings--just about everything you can think of is about two feet lower than you expect it to be. If you live in a Japanese apartment expect to bang your head regularly coming home and leaving for work.

Of course you'll get used to it and start crouching a bit. But every once in a while, in the middle of the night when you're barely awake to go to the bathroom... BANG!

I'm over six feet tall. My hair is short so my friends see my suffering by the scars on my head. Yes, scars. Last Christmas one of them bought me a helmet. He said it was for when riding my bicycle. I don't have a bicycle. Besides nobody in Japan wears a helmet when riding a bicycle unless it's for sports.

In nearly all Japanese homes, to save space, people sit on the floor. For this reason, the dining table comes up about a 18 inches off the ground. This table is called the "chabudai." Better wear shin-guards or you'll end up like me. My legs were nearly flawless a couple years ago. Now my shins look like a battlefield hammered by artillery. My family back home were shocked to see this when I visited them last year.

Believe it or not, this occurs in modern houses and apartments as well. "Well I'll just spend double what everyone else does on rent to get a place with higher doorways. I'll also have the space for Western-style furniture," you're probably thinking. If you can afford it that will work... until you visit a friend or go to the many businesses, especially restaurants and bars, that are out to get you.

This may seem amusing as a tourist but living here it's tough to handle. You'll bump your head in the shower, while cooking and even while hanging laundry. However, you can be confident you're doing your part in pest control by clearing cobwebs every morning on your way to work. It's all around you and there's no escape!

But if you can rub your head and laugh it off, you'll do fine. You'll do fine in Japan.

Here's what others have to say...

What do you think? - Would you live in Japan?

Would you live in Japan?

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Moving to Japan? Live here already? - Let me know what you think

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  • adevwriting profile image

    Arun Dev 2 years ago from United Countries of the World

    Would like to visit Japan someday. Sadly I'm vegetarian :(

  • profile image

    mikeydcarroll67 2 years ago

    It might be interesting to visit. I remember China being somewhat the same way with the children-it was everywhere.

  • profile image

    stvabs 3 years ago

    You have clearly spend the time to see beyond the tourist trappings.

    I found Japanese to be very friendly once introduced. They live a busy life, at least in the big cities. So it feels a lot like home, just with new smells.

  • profile image

    Ultimatedivemaster 4 years ago

    Love it !!!

  • Minoru10 profile image

    Michael Yoshinaka 4 years ago from Honolulu, Hawaii

    Great lens, I love visiting Japan and I just got back. : D

  • Steph Tietjen profile image

    Stephanie Tietjen 4 years ago from Albuquerque, New Mexico

    This was a very interesting read, expressed well. I laughed at the way you told about the unsweetened tea. I actually have the opposite reaction when iced coffee or tea contain sugar. Thanks

  • BabySadako profile image

    BabySadako 4 years ago

    Great lens! I've always wondered if it's easy to find vegetarian food in Japan as I'm vegetarian so I'm glad my question is answered in your lens. =D I don't think I'll move to Japan but I will surely go there for holidays in the future.

  • Spirality profile image

    Spirality 4 years ago

    I wouldn't like to live in Japan permanently but I would stay there for a month. One month to get a good feel for the country and culture. But I probably couldn't take it for longer. Great lens!

  • chezchazz profile image

    Chazz 4 years ago from New York

    ps. blessed and featured on "Still Wing-ing it on Squidoo"

  • chezchazz profile image

    Chazz 4 years ago from New York

    My son and daughter-in-law live in Japan. I figure if I ever have grandchildren the only way I'll get to see them more than once every few years is to move there too. We'll see.

  • Beatlechan profile image

    Beatlechan 4 years ago

    Nice lens. I lived in Japan for a few years. I loved it! It's interesting that it is hard to find certain ethnic foods. In the area I lived, you couldn't get Mexican or Vietnamese but finding authentic Indian food was no problem. Japanese food is great though

  • Magda2012 profile image

    Magda2012 4 years ago

    You make me want to go to Japan :)

  • takkhisa profile image

    Takkhis 4 years ago

    Amazing lens man!!!

  • profile image

    myspace9 4 years ago

    Congrats on your purple star and thanks.

  • flinnie lm profile image

    Gloria Freeman 4 years ago from Alabama USA

    Congrats on purple star, blessed by Squid Angel flinnie.

  • flinnie lm profile image

    Gloria Freeman 4 years ago from Alabama USA

    I think it would be fun to visit Japan.

  • profile image

    nifwlseirff 5 years ago

    A country of contrasts, definitely. I've travelled there multiple times, and lived in Fukushima - kids are definitely everywhere, both in the cities and tourist hotspots! Hope to visit again soon!

  • profile image

    RinchenChodron 5 years ago

    No Mexican food would be tough, But all sorts of fun new foods to try.

  • Karli McClane profile image

    Psycho Free Zone 5 years ago from USA

    I think I'd like it, but I'd sure miss Mexican food.

  • profile image

    Jack_WUK 5 years ago

    I'd like to visit Japan one day

  • profile image

    anonymous 5 years ago

    I will get along fine there. I like mayonnaise also :)

  • profile image

    webscan 5 years ago

    Japan? I'd rather 'ikimasen!'

  • CherylsArt profile image

    Cheryl Paton 5 years ago from West Virginia

    I've had friends before who were from Japan, but haven't been there myself. Fun lens, I enjoyed my visit.

  • profile image

    MarkoAkinaga 5 years ago

    You mentioned that almost nobody in Anime/Manga is Asian, but they all speak Japanese. I'd like to add the fact that imported English speaking movies get dubbed into Japanese with close to non-existent lip synching. I live on the warm subtropical Kyushu island in West Japan. Over here the real life people (compared to manga) are mostly only Japanese. You hardly see any foreigners at all. I'm the only white person in my area. A total opposite of the Manga world. Maybe that's why native Japanese dream of a foreign world with to them exotic non-Asian faces? Something they don't see on daily basis. Unless you live in a larger size city like Tokyo or Osaka. And then some people wonder why Japanese don't learn how to speak English? Simple answer. Little to no exposure.

  • eTravelSense profile image

    eTravelSense 5 years ago

    This is so funny. I really like this lens

  • ismeedee profile image

    ismeedee 5 years ago

    I very much want to visit, but not live there.

  • eccles1 profile image

    eccles1 5 years ago

    Congrats on your purple star! Love this lens

  • jdwheeler profile image

    jdwheeler 5 years ago

    Very interesting. I've had lots of Japanese friends over the years and they are always so cool to talk with.

  • Mamabyrd profile image

    Mamabyrd 5 years ago

    I've traveled a lot but never had the privilage to visit Japan. I would really like to visit someday. Congrats on the purple star

  • profile image

    Funkysi 5 years ago

    Great lens. I wish to visit Japan.

  • allaboutdubai profile image

    allaboutdubai 5 years ago

    loved the lens, Japan is surely the place to be

  • profile image

    countsquid 5 years ago

    It is not imagination but nobody told me that except you. arigatou

  • addiej profile image

    Addie Johnson 5 years ago

    Awesome lens. I would love to live there someday!!

  • profile image

    anonymous 5 years ago

    Thanks for sharing. Lived in Sapporo for 4 Years & loved it. My favourite food is Yakitori from Kushidori & Ramen from Ikokudo. Going for a 4 week holiday in 2 weeks & you're right about Japan not being expensive it's a myth I recommend Japan to live & holiday.

  • profile image

    naomiyoung 5 years ago

    japan sounds like an interesting place to visit.

  • profile image

    aquarian_insight 5 years ago

    Japan has always held a fascination for me just as it has for so many others. I really enjoyed your insider view of Japan and it has made me want to visit even more. *blessed*

  • profile image

    aquarian_insight 5 years ago

    Japan has always held a fascination for me just as it has for so many others. I really enjoyed your insider view of Japan and it has made me want to visit even more. *blessed*

  • TwistedWiseman profile image

    TwistedWiseman 5 years ago

    I would love to live there!

    The birth place of Nintendo and Anime!

  • profile image

    AlleyCatLane 5 years ago

    Interesting lens. Since I am 5'4", I guess I'd be ok with the ceilings. Not sure I can handle the food on a daily basis. I'd love to see the country though.

  • bluewren56 lm profile image

    bluewren56 lm 5 years ago

    I am Australian, and my daughter went to Japan to teach English for 2 years During that time I went to visit her and had a fantastic time checking out the country. I would go again. Great lens.

  • profile image

    cassieann 5 years ago

    Maybe a visit someday but it is not on my top 5 destinations to explore.

  • intermarks profile image

    intermarks 5 years ago

    I never been to Japan before, but it is one of my dream destination. I will be there one day.

  • profile image

    RinchenChodron 5 years ago

    I have never visited Japan. When I was young I wanted to go to Japan and teach English, but I owned a home and I had a cat two impediments. So it never happened but I still want to go visit.

  • marigoldina profile image

    Heather B 5 years ago

    I lived there for two years as an exchange student. As much as I love it there, I can't see myself living there permanently.

  • Michey LM profile image

    Michey LM 5 years ago

    Japan is a great country with an old culture to learn from, very well educated people, mannered... How I know? My first job in USA was at Sony Corporation of America, I started in 1980, and I worked with them for 3 years. In that time I function in teams which were 1/2 American and 1/2 Japanese... So I worked with them, I was very impress with my collegs.

    I never had the chance to visit Japan, but I love to go there... Blessings!

  • MayaIxchel profile image

    MayaIxchel 5 years ago

    Very interesting! I have Japanese friends, and I have always been interested in life in Japan. I hope I get to visit one day! Greetings from 'the land of eternal spring'!

  • dancerene profile image

    dancerene 5 years ago

    I visited Kansai last year. I love Japan and Japanese food. I miss the takoyaki in Osaka, those in my country are of no match. Good observation you have there.

  • PaulaMorgan profile image

    Paula Morgan 5 years ago from Sydney Australia

    I really hope to make it to Japan one day. Thankfully I am a short omnivore so I should have no problems ;-)