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7 Things About Living in Japan Nobody Tells You

I am an expat living in Japan. Every day is an adventure and a blessing. Here are some of my most memorable experiences.

Moving to Japan?

Downtown Osaka

Downtown Osaka

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.

7. There are children everywhere

The sacred fountain of the Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto

The sacred fountain of the Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto

We've all heard about the aging population in Japan. 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 above is a handful of little people who got in the way of my picture of the sacred fountain at 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 noticed 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 two 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

The food in Japan is great. It has all kinds of restaurants serving dishes from all over the world. Still, now and then, there are some things that are missing.

I'm originally from New Jersey and I love my bagels. Who doesn't love bagels? Here, the locals have to get their bagel fix at Starbucks. With locations all over Japan, this isn't hard. Today, Starbucks 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 people live longer than other populations.

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 whole wheat bread has to go to the supermarket--to an almost hidden part of a small shelf to find anything resembling wheat bread. It's a mystery to me.

If this sounds like entitlement (I love that word), maybe it is. But if you decide to live in Japan you'll find that just a handful of your favorites back home are impossible to find here.

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

Speaking of food, 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.

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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

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.

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

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

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

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 riding my bicycle. I don't have a bicycle. Besides nobody in Japan wears a helmet when riding a bicycle.

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 when I first got here. Now my shins look like a battlefield hammered by artillery.

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?

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

Julia Rose from Japan on May 23, 2019:

As someone who lived in Japan for a year this rings true on so many levels. Personally, I don't like iced tea in general and loved their regular tea, but the bagels were killer. I remember taking a 1 hour train ride every weekend to my favorite bagel place in Fukuoka because the grocery stores near my apartment didn't have bagels and I wanted a fresh bagel. There was this one shop near Hakata that I loved called Rill Bagel it was amazing. I hope to see more articles like this.

Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on April 07, 2018:

Interesting to see the perspective from an American.

Arun Dev from United Countries of the World on July 10, 2015:

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

mikeydcarroll67 on May 19, 2015:

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

stvabs on January 01, 2014:

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.

Ultimatedivemaster on December 08, 2013:

Love it !!!

Michael Yoshinaka from Honolulu, Hawaii on August 31, 2013:

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

Stephanie Tietjen from Albuquerque, New Mexico on August 25, 2013:

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 on March 12, 2013:

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 on March 02, 2013:

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!

Chazz from New York on February 13, 2013:

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

Chazz from New York on February 13, 2013:

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 on February 11, 2013:

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 on February 07, 2013:

You make me want to go to Japan :)

Takkhis on January 28, 2013:

Amazing lens man!!!

myspace9 on January 16, 2013:

Congrats on your purple star and thanks.

Gloria Freeman from Alabama USA on January 10, 2013:

Congrats on purple star, blessed by Squid Angel flinnie.

Gloria Freeman from Alabama USA on January 10, 2013:

I think it would be fun to visit Japan.

nifwlseirff on December 04, 2012:

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!

RinchenChodron on November 24, 2012:

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

Karli McClane from USA on November 12, 2012:

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

Jack_WUK on October 17, 2012:

I'd like to visit Japan one day

anonymous on October 04, 2012:

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

webscan on October 01, 2012:

Japan? I'd rather 'ikimasen!'

CherylsArt on September 25, 2012:

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

MarkoAkinaga on September 15, 2012:

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 on September 09, 2012:

This is so funny. I really like this lens

ismeedee on September 08, 2012:

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

eccles1 on September 08, 2012:

Congrats on your purple star! Love this lens

jdwheeler on September 07, 2012:

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

Mamabyrd from West Texas on September 05, 2012:

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

Funkysi on September 04, 2012:

Great lens. I wish to visit Japan.

allaboutdubai on August 29, 2012:

loved the lens, Japan is surely the place to be

countsquid on August 26, 2012:

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

Addie Johnson on August 23, 2012:

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

anonymous on August 21, 2012:

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.

naomiyoung on August 20, 2012:

japan sounds like an interesting place to visit.

aquarian_insight on August 20, 2012:

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*

aquarian_insight on August 20, 2012:

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 on August 20, 2012:

I would love to live there!

The birth place of Nintendo and Anime!

AlleyCatLane on August 18, 2012:

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 on August 17, 2012:

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.

cassieann on August 17, 2012:

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

intermarks on August 17, 2012:

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

RinchenChodron on August 16, 2012:

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.

Heather B on August 16, 2012:

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 on August 14, 2012:

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 on August 09, 2012:

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 on August 07, 2012:

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.

Paula Morgan from Sydney Australia on August 04, 2012:

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

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