An American in Japan – Curious Observations

In this post, I hope to share some some interesting and, at times, humorous observations that stood out to me as an American traveling in Japan. Just to be clear, I am in no way poking fun at or trying to disparage Japanese culture (not worse, not better…only different). I absolutely loved my trip to Japan and look forward to returning again to immerse myself deeper into the Japanese culture.

When I travel, I am typically focused on historic architecture and sites where key events in world history occurred, even if little remains of those sites. As a result, the thought of spending an hour or two over a meal where there is so much to see feels like a painful waste of time. I’d much prefer to power down a quick bite and keep exploring. That said, I am now beginning to appreciate restaurants and local cuisine as an opportunity to more fully experience the local culture.

When I visited Kyoto, Japan I was still in my old mindset of being on the move with no lengthy meals. Finding a place to grab a quick bite in Kyoto proved to be a real challenge. There weren’t many cafes around (like in Europe) and most of the restaurants looked like every other brown, wooden building lining the historic streets of Kyoto. There was very little (if any) advertising or signage out front on any building. Clearly, dining out favored advanced planning over spontaneity.

My must-see list was packed with visits to incredible temples, gardens, and historic sites. One afternoon I was struggling to find a place that suited my western palate before finally finding a place that looked promising. The menu wasn’t in English so I had a to rely on small photos of each dish to make my selection. One option appeared to have some noodles, meat, chicken, mashed potatoes, and a small bite of desert. I was so hungry and it felt like a dream come true! It turned out to be a tofu variety platter with noodles on ice. Well, the beer was great.

Experiences like this happened quite often and I remember feeling like I was constantly struggling with getting enough to eat. Fortunately, I stayed at a hotel that offered an American-type breakfast with eggs, ham/bacon, potatoes, and bread. I made sure to at least take advantage of this meal each morning. There was also a substantial fish-based breakfast spread available to Japanese customers for breakfast which created an unfamiliar and unsettling scent (for me) during this essential meal. Seafood is common for breakfast, grits and biscuits with gravy are not.

I remember one night early in my trip when the day was over, and I was absolutely starving. I spotted a convenience near the hotel and went there in search of potato chips and a sandwich or anything that remotely felt like my kind of food. Instead, I found this: 

I didn’t even know what to make of it. Is dried squid supposed to be eaten like beef jerky? I would never find out. Maybe I’ll could grab a Snickers and call it a day. Wow, I didn’t recognize any of the brands. I had anticipated that many of the brands that are so popular in the States would be international brands as well. I was wrong.

Not sure the food is working for me. Maybe I should get more beer? Well, I think this is beer, but it might be fruit-flavored sparkling water. I had to look really close to make sure because I had never seen any of those brands before. 

Even the Tea Ceremony I participated in, while filling for the soul, didn’t do much for my stomach. 

It would take another day or two, but I finally located a McDonald’s and was assured of at least having one meal  before or after my adventures around Kyoto. It was fun to see a familiar menu written in Japanese.

Even with this confusing translation, I assure you, their English was far better than my Japanese.

When time is taken to make a reservation, you will find excellent dining in Kyoto. Sushi and Kobe beef are foods one should experience in Kyoto. Kobe beef is Wagyu beef from the Tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle. The meat is tender, well-marbled, and considered a delicacy that is valued for its flavor. 

Kobe steak – Now this was a great meal!

Another curious observation was the Japanese fascination with toilets. Check out this control device (below) in the restroom.

Toilets are serious business in Japan. Go ahead, touch any button…I dare you.

The image above is toilet advertisement in Tokyo. Heated seat, multiple point sprayer, deodorizer, and warm air dryer are features that are sure to make a big splash. As a portion of the advertisement reads in English, this model “for beauty, pursues perfection in all things”. 

Something else I noticed, relative to restrooms, is that their was rarely any paper towels to dry your hand after washing them. It’s not that they were out, they simply didn’t provide them. I watched the Japanese men and saw they carried handkerchiefs to dry their hands. Actually, this isn’t a bad idea and certainly reduces the amount garbage to be disposed.

Similarly, there weren’t any garbage cans in public areas. Japan is very clean. If you happened to be carrying around a coffee, you would likely be holding onto that cup for a long time before you could dispose of it. In fact, I rarely (if ever) saw any of the Japanese carrying around food and drinks. I imagine such behavior is considered rude.

Transportation around Japan will certainly require careful attention. You will likely experience some travel on a bullet train which hits speeds of 200 mph.

Looking at the connecting stations and mapping out your path from Tokyo to Kyoto will be a breeze…not.

I got stuck in Tokyo the night before my departing flight when the one of the connecting stations to the airport area closed. I ended up having to take a lengthy taxi ride. It is interesting to see the flights heading out to destinations I don’t often see on departing flight schedules. 

The Japanese are very orderly too (which I appreciate). I remember being in Italy and how foreign the concept of lines seemed to be. I was waiting to get on a ferry and some of the tourists had queued up to board – what a joke. When boarding time opened, there was a mad dash to the entry point. Forget about the fact that there were 50 or so folks that had gotten there early (myself included) to wait in line. This doesn’t happen in Japan. 

Picture this scene. There are two doors exiting the hotel with a taxi stand on the left. I walk out a door on my right and go to the stand on my left. The bellman directs me back inside to exit out the other door that will put me in same spot I am already standing. I’m confused and think that maybe there was some kind of check-in point inside that I hadn’t noticed. I walk back inside and, not seeing anything, come out the door on my left to return at the same spot I was standing a few minutes before. The bellman greats me and then opens the taxi door. There was a process and I needed to follow it. 

In the intersection below, children dressed in their school uniforms make an orderly group trip to school. 

At another intersection, I catch a rare Giesha sighting near the Gion district in Kyoto. She created a celebrity-like buzz at this intersection. By the time this moment occurred, I was aware from reading travel guides that is considered very rude to take photos of Geisha. I try to hide my phone and take a few discrete shots from a distance. 

I certainly had my fair share of Sake in Kyoto and even some nice Japanese bourbon but Kirin beer seemed to be my favorite beverage. I needed the carbs and fluid! 

Marvel comics (below) seemed very popular in Tokyo which was an entirely different experience from Kyoto.

Last but not least, there was Kit Kat craze flowing out of Japan. I can’t even believe all of the surprising flavors available.

Sake, grape, wasabi, and cantaloupe flavored KitKat bars – mind blown.

I’ve shared many things that caught my eye during day-to-day moments around Kyoto. But, the one that has left the biggest impression are the distinct mannerisms of the Japanese people. They are extremely polite and gracious. Who knows what they are really thinking, but as someone who also prefers to behave in a polite manner, it felt comfortable and familiar to my Southern sensibilities. I always felt appreciate and welcomed and look forward to returning again to experience more of wonderful Japan. 

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