Japan: 7 Things That Surprised Me

In a previous post I mentioned how I loved finding little nuggets of  information about new places I visit. What I equally love is when new destinations take me by surprise. I recently visited Japan for the first time, and there were a number of things that surprised me.

How Polite and Helpful Everyone is

I had heard before I went to Japan how polite and kind everyone is. What surprised me was how incredibly polite and helpful they were.  From the gentlemen who found me trying  (and failing) to use the wrong ticket machine and took it upon himself to walk me to the other side of the station to show the correct machine, to the lady in the Nakamise-dori who saw me struggling with multiple shopping bags and gave me a large shopping bag (without having to ask), everyone was very kind. Even in Tokyo, which is always hustling and bustling, you only have to look a little lost, and someone will step up and offer help.

This politeness extends to the service culture in Japan , which is the best I’ve seen from anywhere I’ve visited (23 countries and counting).  The service anywhere (hotel, restaurant, café) always starts and ends with a deep bow, and there are smiles throughout, and they don’t accept tips.

Nakamise-Dori near Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa

Everything Looks Like it Was Built in the 1970s

Being a busy, cosmopolitan city, I expected Tokyo to be more like New York or London – full of new buildings, all in crazy shapes and sizes. But in Tokyo (other than a couple of buildings like the sky tree), the skyline is fairly traditional, and most buildings are solid concrete and glass, that look like they were built in the 1970s. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with any of the buildings – perfectly clean and functional, but they look a bit dated.

Buildings near Shinagawa Station
Buildings near Shinagawa Station
Tokyo Skyline

Tokyo Hop-On/Hop-Off Tour Bus

This is the one thing that really disappointed me in Tokyo. In any new city, I always make a point to try the tour bus to get my bearings and prioritise which attractions to visit. I expected the city tour bus in Tokyo (known as Skybus Tokyo) to be similar to city tours in pretty much anywhere else – 1 or 2 routes, buses leaving every 15- 20 minutes and an audio guide. On Tokyo Skybus, there are three routes available, but buses are only available once an hour during weekends, national holidays and summer holidays. At other times, the buses are even less frequent.

The easiest place to catch the bus is at the Mitsubishi building near Tokyo central station. Other hop-on hop-off stops are not that easy to find as the map showing the stops is in Japanese. It is also the first time I’ve been on an open top tour bus, where seats are not available on the lower deck.  This means if it is raining, there is no shelter. Also, your seat is reserved at the time you buy the ticket, which I found unusual. There is a live guide in Japaneses, and an audio guide available for other languages. However, there are  two problems with the audio guide: one, the live guide commentary tends to override the audio guide, so if you are listening to the audio guide, you need to increase the volume significantly and mentally tune out the live guide commentary. Secondly, the audio guide works by GPS and is not that accurate.

Tokyo Skybus Map
Skybus Map Section showing bus stops – in Japanese
Skybus Timetable


Expensive is a word I have often heard associated with Japan. However, I didn’t find this to be the case. Or, it was no more expensive than London. A few example prices: A single ticket on the underground cost from 170 Yen to 410 Yen (~£1 to £3).  A Starbucks coffee was 410 Yen (~£2.70), McDonald’s breakfast: 450 Yen (~£3). You can also get a good lunch dish (e.g. pizza or a really nice bento box) for about 1000 to 1500 Yen (~£7 – £10) in a decent restaurant. I don’t know whether it is because the Pound is particularly strong against the Yen, but I didn’t find Japan as expensive as expected.

Colourful Bento Box Lunch

Foreign visitors (or lack of)

This surprised me – especially in Tokyo. Being a bustling metropolis, I expected Tokyo to have an eclectic mix of people form all over the world – again I think I set my expectations by London or New York. I found this wasn’t the case. If you are near a tourist attraction or hotel, there is a high concentration of overseas visitors, but that was it really. In most other places, including the Tokyo metro foreigners tend to be an exception.

Senso-ji Temple, Asakusa


Smoking bans in Japan aren’t as prevalent as it is in UK or Europe, so you are like to see smoking much more often. Pretty much every restaurant we went to had smokers. Also, smoking and non-smoking areas are not separated. I had always associated Japan with health and long life, so the prevalence in smoking was a surprise.


I knew that Japan was an Earthquake prone country, but little did I expect to experience 2 Earthquakes in as many days. Both occurred in the middle of the night, but the real surprise was that in Japan this was seen as a common occurrence. There was no panic, but a fact of daily life.

Although, I should add that we felt these earthquakes during our time in northern Japan, so if you are in Tokyo or further south, it is unlikely that you will experience it.

Earthquake Alert

So, there you go. 7 things that surprised me about Japan. Have you got any interesting pieces of information about Japan?  Please leave a comment below and let me know.

Linking up to faraway files with Untold Morsels

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  1. Reading enjoyed reading your thoughts on on Japan as we are headed there later this year – it’s been my dream country to visit since forever and I am so excited to be finally going in May! I’m from NZ so we are pretty used to those earthquakes too, but I do hope I can avoid them when we’re there!

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  2. I haven’t been to Japan though I would love to, hopefully in 2018 or 2019. It’s true that there are not many foreigners in Tokyo as we would expect in metropolis cities in other parts of the world – Japan is a homogenous society. A friend of mine recently travelled to Japan and he found that food is not terribly expensive – apparently one can get cheap/affordable bento boxes from 7-Eleven – I would love to see that one day! 🙂 #FarawayFiles

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  3. I loved the politeness of the Japanese people too – and was also surprised about how smokey the restaurants often were! I would love to see Tokyo (we were in Kyoto and Osaka) so it was fun to see some of the architecture through your lens. #farawayfiles

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  4. Loved this post! A friend recently came back from Japan and mentioned how polite everyone is! Would love to travel around Japan one day. #farawayfiles

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I just loved our visit to Japan, it was one of the most magical family vacations we ever took! I found it surprising how incredibly quiet and clean it seemed, especially in such a large city like Tokyo. #farawayfiles

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  6. Great insights into Japan. How did you feel during the earthquakes? I did a primary school project on Japan many years ago and have wanted to visit ever since. I still haven’t made it but hope 2018 will be the right time. I’ll be keeping your insights in mind. Thanks for sharing on #farawayfiles

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    1. Thanks for stopping by Katy. Earthquakes were fine, mostly because I was too sleepy to fully realise what was going on, plus the fact that everyone else took it so calmly so, I didn’t get too worried 🙂 Japan is so lovely, I hope to visit again in 2018 too 🙂


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