Quirky Japan in Everyday Life

It’s always the little things. Here in Japan, the quirks are what make this culture so unique. As a foreign resident, they can cause lots of laughs, confusion and sometimes embarrassment but these quirks make daily life just a little bit more entertaining. As soon as you think you’ve started to understand the Japanese culture, you’re faced with another. And in the end, they always remind us gaijin that we will always be a gaijin. Here’s a couple of our recent favorites.

Don’t forget your hand towel

Photo courtesy of thehoneypress
When we first came to Japan, I was gifted a small blue hand towel. When I received it, I was grateful but slightly confused. It didn’t take me long to find out why I had received this little blue towel. You will rarely find paper towels or any form of hand dryer at public sinks. It is common to see small baskets for handkerchiefs or hand towels near the sink in public restrooms as a resting place while you wash your hands. If you don’t have your personal towel on you, your hands will be left very wet and very cold!

Shoes for every room

Photo courtesy of Japan-Guide
It may be an excuse to do some extra shoe shopping, or a strategy to keep floors clean. Either way, Japanese people seem to have a different pair of shoes for every room and every occasion. It is possible to wear at least seven pairs in one day! One pair for your daily house chores in the morning, one pair for your bathroom primping routine, one pair for the transition from home to work, a pair for work, a pair for the restroom at work, indoor sneakers for the gym and another for outdoor activities. Laces become the biggest burden and emergency restroom breaks are dangerous. This is one that I will never get used to.

Warm butt cheeks 

Courtesy of traveljapanblog.com

Japanese bathrooms are always an interesting experience. Traditionally, you will find what looks to be a hole in the ground, like the one on the right. But if you’re lucky, you will often find the option on the left. The ladder is a modern toilet complete with heated seats, bidet, noises to drown out the sound of your pee and sometimes the lid even opens by itself! If these aren’t impressing you much, just try one next time you are freezing in a building with no insulation and open windows. You will find true bliss as you sit down to do your business. 


Photo courtesy of feceilo
Bowing has often been equated to the handshake. It is a good comparison, but I believe it is very different. It is true that Japanese people bow to each other in the way we would shake hands, but they also bow to show utmost respect as well as in casual passing and greeting. So, not only is a bow a handshake, it is a “I respect you,” “good morning,” “hello,” “what’s up,” “goodbye” and “nice to meet you.” And forget just bowing once. In one conversation, you may bow to the same person several times at different degrees. I’ve witnessed my coworkers bowing to each other five-plus times in one greeting, bowing while on the phone and bowing to empty rooms!

No carpooling, please

You won’t find any school buses or long lines of parents dropping their kids off, waving them farewell. Japanese school children walk or ride their bikes to school everyday, rain or shine. Jon has many fond memories of walking with his brothers and friends on their way to and from school in Tokyo and Nagano. It allowed them to be kids, make friends and learn how to navigate for themselves. I believe this discipline is one of the many reasons why Japanese school children are so tough and well behaved!

Open windows are good for you

Photo courtesy of osgco.com
Okay, so Japanese buildings are COLD. And with no insulation or central heating in the teachers’ staff room, you’d think the windows would be locked tightly shut. Wrong. I’ve heard that their is a belief that it is good to “refresh the air” which is completely reasonable. But not when I can see my breath. So when my coworkers and I are huddled around the tiny gas heater, please excuse me if I sneak behind Kyoto Sensei’s desk and close the windows…

Vending machines 

Photo courtesy of nakastravel.com
Thirsty? Hungry? Have no fear. There will be a vending machine just around the corner supplying everything from cold Calpis to hot bowls of ramen. And if you don’t like what one machine has to offer, there is a high possibility that there is a second or third machine with all new flavors and temperatures. 

Kotatsu hibernation

Photo courtesy of deviantart.com
Nothing says winter in Japan like eating nabe while sitting at a kotatsu. This genius invention makes cold apartments bearable, communal dinners even warmer and slight hibernation during the cold months possible. It is a low, heated table covered by a heavy blanket that you wrap around your toasty legs. Some even are built into the ground, giving extra space for long gaijin legs. It is a wonder why other countries haven’t heavily adopted these things!

Aren’t you cold?

Photo courtesy of dailymail
Japanese people are very indirect. This causes some confusing and funny conversations. There is a common phrase, “aren’t you cold?” that many foreigners hear upon first arriving to Japan. What this phrase means is: “You should probably put some more clothes on.” I heard this many times when we arrived here early August as I adjusted to the heat. I tried to be as modest as possible, never showing my shoulders or knees, but I still heard this embarrassing phrase. Japanese ladies will do whatever it takes to shield their skin from the sun. So while they layer up (even at the beach), in their arm sleeves, neck covers and hats, I will be confident in my arm-bearing t-shirts. More vitamin D for me.

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