My Best “Only in Japan” Moments

I may have an aversion to roller coasters and an irrational phobia of creepie crawlies but to say that I fear a culture shock is simply untrue. I was raised (for at least part of my childhood) in an Indian family on the east coast of Saudi Arabia. I went to an international school, where I would learn to pronounce names from all over the world even earlier than I could spell my own and a few years later with the same family by my side, I boarded a flight to London and never looked back. Now, I feel blessed to work in an occupation where every day, I see society around me for what it really is and not just the little bubble that I am part of.

sunset Miyajima Island Japan
Sunset at Miyajima Island, Japan

Different cultures rarely surprise me; they are the very essence of who I am.

Yet, somehow, Japan did.

Nara temples

Only in Japan

This was a nation that put the spring back in my step. It blew me away with its high-tech wizardry and timeless traditions. It enthralled me with its neon jungles and embraced me with its courteous bows. It stunned me with its daily newfound treasures and age-old temples and it propelled me to rise at dawn and sleep past midnight so my senses would stretch to the seams of intrigue with the most unfamiliar and the most curiously entertaining Only in Japan moments that I never expected to find.

Kabukitcho Tokyo

Hello Kitty Traffic Cones

Kawaii (a term encompassing all things cute) culture is prevalent everywhere you look in Japan and those of you who read about my visit to a Hello Kitty Café in Seoul will know that this was an aspect of the country that I was wholeheartedly ready to embrace.

Hello Kitty Traffic Cones Japan

Whilst it came as no surprise to find it in stuffed toys in department stores, I certainly was not expecting Hello Kitty to make her presence felt on traffic cones and construction sites in the gigantic capital of Tokyo.

Hello Kitty things Tokyo

Bathing Nude with Strangers in a Japanese Onsen

A couple of years ago, I spent my birthday in my birthday suit (almost) in Marrakech. It was an intensely embarrassing day in a hammam spa and that was when I was in a private room with just the therapists and Pumpkin.

How on earth then, would I cope 3 years later in Japan when I would learn that Japanese onsen etiquette would require me to part with Pumpkin (onsens are hot spring baths where men and women are segregated) and step into the bath totally – and I mean TOTALLY nude with complete strangers?!

ryokan bathroom Japan

These photos are actually from our private bathroom in our Ryokan room – for obvious aforementioned reasons, it would clearly be entirely inappropriate to be taking pictures inside the public onsens, travel blogger or not!

For the faint-hearted, there are private onsens but that is far from an authentic onsen experience and whilst a few years ago, there’s not a chance in hell I would have gone into a public one, I think some of Pumpkin’s quietly-confident, free-spirited sense of adventure has rubbed off on me so I have him to thank for my transient moment of insanity.

bathing in onsen

Plus, it’s not as if I was ever planning on seeing those other three Japanese women again…you know, the 60 something year old trio of friends who all sat with me in the onsen, chatting away through their nudity like it was the most ordinary chore in the world!

Giant High-End Fruit

Most of us all well versed with the importance of eating our five a day and with the fact that an apple a day keeps the likes of me away. But it was only in Japan where I learned about the concept and desire for giant high-end fruit, moulded seamlessly, foundation free, boasting no blemishes and charged with the most unfathomable of price tags.

giant big fruit Japan

These freakishly supersized pieces of fruit (that will leave you believing you are a Borrower) are highly sought after food items to gift to others or for those wanting to make a stand out impression.

With me quite unconvinced by Pumpkin’s mention of giant fruit, he went on a hunt in Tokyo to prove he wasn’t lying. After a few dabbles in and out of department stores and fruit parlours (think greengrocer goes to Hollywood), we eventually stumbled upon these celestial melons, individually wrapped, each one as flawlessly round as a plump full moon setting customers back a mere 70 USD!

big melon Japangift wrapped fruit Japan

Many of the apples were around half the length of my face. I tried eating one. I barely finished a third, when the fullness started to kick in. Believe me when I say, this photo does not even remotely reflect the true magnitude of the apple weighing down my wrist.

quirky alternative Japan blog post

Maid Cafés

One afternoon, in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, we found ourselves inside a Maid Café, where drinks, snacks and informal food are served.

Hello Kitty Coffee Art

The waitresses inside typically dress in conventional French maid clothing, complete with wispy lace aprons and frocks, held together flatteringly with the sort of frilly bows that would have the suffragettes rocking in their graves.

Maid Cafe Akihabara Tokyo

After asking us what characters or animals we wanted drawn into our lattes, the cutesie and giggly maids could be seen playing board games with some of the locals dining alone and merely making conversation with others. They brought us our orders with nothing but life-loving smiles and frankly, I had no idea what on earth the whole experience was about but it was a surreal and strangely endearing way to while away a couple of hours.

Maid Cafe Desserts

Do they serve a perverse purpose? It seemed not, as most of the locals we saw just seemed to be enjoying chatting to the maids.

@home Maid Cafe Tokyo

In any case, most cafes are underpinned by a strict code of conduct to protect the welfare of the maids, prohibiting people from asking them for their phone numbers or making physical contact with them though honestly, I can’t say I tend to do either when I go out to restaurants!

A Dog in a Kimono and Bow

And the maids aren’t the only ones sporting bows in their hair in Japan. I will let the photo do the talking here because I can’t find the words. This precious pooch was spotted during a tulip festival on our first day in Tokyo. We had only slept for around two hours after our night on the airport floor so at first, I wondered if was an exhaustion-induced hallucination but no, this well-dressed mutt was very much someone’s reality. I don’t even groom myself this smartly on nights out 😀

dog in Kimono Japan

Queuing for Sushi at 7am

In which other country would you set an alarm for 5.30am to arrive at a malodorous fish market, queue for an hour at 7am to eat a breakfast solely comprising raw fish. And we were the lame ones. The hardcore sushi aficionados queued for nearly four hours for some of the most renowned sushi restaurants in at the Tsukiji Fish Market.

Tsukiji fish market restaurant Tokyo

Despite the wait, the feast we were rewarded with was quite simply the freshest, most flavoursome and expertly prepared sushi I had eaten in  my entire leaf and during my whole time in Japan.

Tsukiji fish market Yamazaki sushi

What else would you expect when the fish has been caught not just hours but sometimes only minutes before being served? Sure, the sharp taste of wasabi felt a little strange on the palate at that hour of the morning but then again, when in Japan, breakfast is so much more than bacon, eggs or croissants.

Kit Kat Obsessions

Kit Kat Chocolatory Tokyo Japan

Whilst foodies in London have long shunned their Mars and Twix habits for fair trade and artisan varieties of chocolate and for the salted caramels,almond nougatines and fusion flavours, over in Japan, they’re rather more taken by Kit Kat. The good old humble, finger chocolate that you hoped would appear in your school lunchbox, the one with the body of light, wafery biscuit that was always so easy to split and share, yes that Kit Kat has earned itself a cult following in Japan.

Kit Kat Tower Cake

Plush Kit Kat boutiques could be seen in many of the Japanese cities we visited, serving not just the classics but all manner of previously unheard of flavours such as raspberry, Hojicha tea and the one that got away (cherry blossom and matcha flavour).

Kit Kat shops Japan

Plastic Food

When we first arrived in Japan and saw restaurants and cafes displaying plastic food models in the windows, we assumed these must be the tacky, touristy spots to avoid. Then we found more and more plastic food models on every side street and every corner: plastic ramen, plastic tempura, plastic sushi, plastic dessert – entire plastic suppers unfolding in front of us behind the glass screens of eateries that separate the hungry rumblers from the post-prandial snoozers.

plastic food models Japanplastic parfait desserts Japan

We found plastic food standing proudly in upscale eateries as well as concealed hidden basement jaunts and it soon became something of a compelling curiosity, browsing the models for their intricate accuracy & relying on them when ordering in cafes with no English menus. We may have even made some plastic food….but that’s another story for a rainy day.

Only in Japan

Getting the Bullet Train and whizzing past Mount Fuji

When I think San Francisco, I think Golden Gate Bridge; when I think Egypt, I think Pyramids and when I think Japan, I think Mount Fuji. And in the same vein, when I think San Francisco, I think trams; when I think Egypt, I think camel rides and when I think Japan, I think Bullet Train.

Bullet Train Travel Japan

Naturally, these stereotypes, whilst worthy of their reputations, barely scrape the surface of what their respective destinations have to offer but for me, no trip to Japan would have felt complete without seeing Mount Fuji and riding a bullet train.

Mount Fuji view

Never once did I imagine fulfilling both in one journey though – that awe-inspiring feeling of whizzing past Mount Fuji in the blink of an eye (literally) and seeing its elusive snow capped peak, whilst grafting hopelessly to get the kind of photo that is simply impossible to attain when one is moving at a speed of 200 mph. (The photo above was taken on our trip to the pink flower fields at Shibazakura Festival.)

Japan Rail Pass Information

Weird/Genius Toilets

Since visiting Japan last year, I still haven’t told you about what to see and do in Tokyo, I haven’t waxed lyrical about my one night stay in Osaka and I haven’t yet spun the magical sugar that a place like Kyoto deserves. Yet somehow, here I am talking about toilets for the second time!(The first round of toilet talk was in my travel tips for Japan.)

Japanese toilet functions buttons

Japan’s toilets will make your brain jiggle during moments when nature really only intended for other organs to take centre-stage. There are washes, powders, scents.

Japanese toilet tips

There are more buttons than my imagination could conjure up purposes for – the kind of toilets that make the UK seem like it has been plucked straight out of Tudor times, the kind of toilets that could never comprehend the hole-in-the-ground variety of lavatory I used so many times on visits to India.

fancy toilets Japan

And just when you thought the novelty was wearing off and a toilet would no longer surprise you this trip, you found one with a hand-washing sink right above it.

toilet with attached sink

Harajuku Style

Quite how anyone can manage to make knee length white socks adorned with bright red hearts and green/purple hair look so damn cool is something that will always remain one of life’s great mysteries. But they do and they out-do, each teenager making your head turn just a little bit more than the last with their dynamic attire. If you think Shoreditch in London is hipster, you ain’t seen nothing yet…

Harajuku girls TokyoHarajuku style Takeshita Dori

Vending Machines, Vending Machines, Vending Machines

We Brits have clearly been missing a trick over the years, what with all our pubs and restaurants crowding up the streets. After all, who really needs a roof and a few bits of wooden furniture when you can live out your bottomless desires from a vending machine. In Japan, you might well find a liquor store within the confines of a little  street-side contraption, where BYOB is more “buy your own booze” than “bring” it.

liquor vending machine Japan

And as a non-drinker, I didn’t miss out either. How could I when there were milk vending machines, coffee vending machines with more choice than Starbucks and even machines where you could order your ramen at lunchtime.

Japan noodle machine

I guess there won’t be too many waitressing jobs coming up anytime soon there then.

alcohol vending machine JapanAsahi Beer Vending Machine Japan

Love Hotels

And then there was the seedy side, more reminiscent of some of the less appealing scenes I witnessed during my student holiday to Thailand many years ago. Kabukicho is well known for being one of the key red light districts in Tokyo and there were no shortage of love hotels paying homage to that.

Kabukitcho Tokyo
Manzoku Station….translating to “Satisfaction Station”……

But before you go imagining romantic cocoons of roses, chocolates and cosy log fires where you might bring a loved one on a special anniversary, think again. These love hotels offer short stay rooms that guests can book in brief time slots such as half an hour. I will leave the rest to your imagination, not that the pictures and advertising banners right outside the hotels really present much of a comprehension challenge.

love hotels Tokyo

Strictly speaking, they weren’t “Only in Japan” as we saw them just a few days afterwards during our visit to Seoul but Tokyo was certainly the first where I had ever witnessed them being touted in such a blatant manner.


Have you travelled to Japan? What have been your most bizarre moments there?


53 thoughts on “My Best “Only in Japan” Moments

  1. LOVED this post, Shikha! Especially about the onsen … I’ve read about them and I was already a bit squeamish about going topless in a Hungarian bath in Budapest, but I also really want to experience an onsen someday! Well done for taking the plunge (literally and figuratively).

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 11, 2017 — 4:24 pm

      Hahaha, love the wordplay Jaime! I somehow hoped that if I go to the onsen really late at night, I might be the only one in there & somehow save myself the embarrassment but no such luck! It was certainly an experience albeit a very awkward one!

  2. A brilliant post! I so want to go to Japan but may just give the onsen a miss! Fab pics. Wilbur.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 11, 2017 — 4:26 pm

      Thank you so much Wilbur! So pleased you enjoyed the post & really hope you do get a chance to visit Japan one day – but yes, I totally don’t blame you for wanting to skip the onsen!!

  3. This post has made me miss Japan so much! The crazy outfits in Harajuku were one of my favourite things about Tokyo, and as a recent sushi convert I’d love to go back to go to the Fish Market.
    I was as mortified as you when I first found out about the onsen situation, but I was amazed how quickly I stopped caring once I took the plunge! 😂
    ~ Kate

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 11, 2017 — 4:31 pm

      Oh that’s good that you stopped finding it awkward after a while Kate – I wonder if the same would have happened with me if I had been brave enough to try it more than once! I’m so glad to hear you loved Japan & all its crazy quirks too! I have loved sushi already but it was in Japan where I fully first got into sashimi and even eating it all without rice but it was all so fresh & delicious that I just loved it! ☺ Would love to return one day!

  4. my friend lived in Japan for a year:) so yes, she told me all about strange and wonderful Japanese things:))

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 11, 2017 — 4:37 pm

      Aaah that’s good that you’ll be prepared about all these things if you go then! I expected it to some extent but so many additional quirky things I had no previous clue about like the giant fruit for example!

  5. so basically, 90% of what you experience there IS only in Japan. Very good at getting to snap that maid! not an easy task. I miss the toilets.I never knew about the giant fruit. Looks like maybe it was grown in the Fukushima Province!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 11, 2017 — 10:00 pm

      Yeh the giant fruit came as quite a quirky surprise find for me too! We weren’t able to take photos of the maids inside the café we went to but was lucky to catch a glimpse of this one giving flyers outside!

  6. All of this is so true! And you did a great job describing Japan’s various quirks. 🙂

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 11, 2017 — 10:04 pm

      Thanks so much Maria! Glad you agreed & have observed many of these very unique Japanese quirks too! 😀

  7. Really enjoyed reading this, Shikha! I can totally relate to how growing up in international school’s raised us to be blasé about culture shock, however I’ve always thought Japan would be a place that would still be fascinating because they’re so proud about their heritage – as well as out of this world!

    I’m so curious about the onsen baths, I’ve read so many squeamish stories about them from bloggers alike.

    Those love hotels are quite popular in Asia, but I think in Japan they’re really more blatant!

    I’m now more excited to visit this country!!!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 11, 2017 — 10:08 pm

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment Honey! I hadn’t realised you were a fellow international school kid back in the day ☺ I’m honestly still shocked to think I actually took the plunge to try the onsen bath – a few years ago, there would have been no chance but I guess sometimes, exploring the authentic cultural aspects of a place can involve a bit of awkwardness here and there!

  8. Loved this Shikha! It brought back so many Japan memories! I think one of our favourite “only in Japan” moments was the cherry blossom parties in every park we went to 🙂 x

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 11, 2017 — 10:10 pm

      Thanks so much! The hanami parties must have been absolutely magical Emily and a very Japan scene indeed! If I’m ever lucky enough to return, I’d love to see the cherry blossom in full bloom or discover all the autumnal colours!

  9. I loved reading these, Shikha! It brought back some great memories and reminded me why I love Japan and would repeatedly go back. We have a Kitkat obsession and look for the various flavors to try. My daughter would have been out of her mind seeing all that Hello Kitty on the road. Is it sad that one of the reasons my kids really like Japan are the toilets? 🙂 You are brave to go on that onsen! Glad you had such an amazing experience!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 11, 2017 — 10:14 pm

      I’ve seen on Instagram that you guys are big fans of Japan top Mary! This was my first visit but now I totally understand why people want go back

    2. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 11, 2017 — 10:17 pm

      And yes, as bizarre as it sounds, the Kit Kats and the toilets were 2 very intriguing things about the place – now there’s 2 things I never thought I’d be writing about in the same sentence!! As for the onsen though, that might have to be one of those things I put into the category of “things I’m glad I tried once but will never do again!” 😀

  10. Hello Kitty Traffic Cones are my favorite, and I am seriously contemplating on installing the Japanese toilets – with heated seats and all the buttons – in our house when we finally decide to settle down. Love this list Shikha, you are talking about all the behind the scenes of Japan and give a VERY interesting insight into local culture and life!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 11, 2017 — 10:24 pm

      Omg as bizarre as it sounds Nano, having one of those fancy toilets in your future home would possibly be one of the funniest tributes to your amazing time together in Japan! 😀 I knew Japan would be filled with immense beauty and culture but maybe hadn’t realised just how weird and wacky and brilliantly bizarre it would turn out to be!

      1. Haha that is so true! I just cannot resist the heated toilet seat, ultimate luxury 😀

  11. It really is a one of a kind place! When we went to the Maid Cafe Mr S was like ‘where have you taken me…’ but he soon realised it was just a bit of fun and actually hilarious!! Those toilets are just something else, right?

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 11, 2017 — 10:30 pm

      I know!! When we got home to England, the toilets looked almost pre historic! Funnily enough, with us, it was the reverse situation in the maid cafe with me wondering where on earth Pumpkin had brought us but I really enjoyed it and am so glad we tried out the experience too Angie!

  12. Those traffic cones are just so random! I must say that I like their dress sense, it’s colourful, eccentric and playful

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 16, 2017 — 4:31 pm

      It’s very appealing for its colour & individuality isn’t it – not sure I could ever wear it though Suze! 😀

  13. Judging from your vivid description, I would be culture shocked, if I were to visit Japan. But the melons with knitted baby hats are cute.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 16, 2017 — 4:32 pm

      It all came as a big surprise to me too Mette – but in a good way mostly! 😀

  14. Everything “Hello Kitty” always cracks us up! But “Hello Kitty” traffic cones are new for us :-). Can’t really figure out the fascination… Oh, and going nude, we had to bathe completely nude at the Friedrichsbad bath in Baden-Baden, Germany – there, men and women bathe nude together at the spa baths. That was an interesting experience!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 16, 2017 — 7:02 pm

      Oh my goodness, that is definitely much braver than I could do so good on you both for taking the plunge!! I think the onsen was probably my limit! I’ve always been a Hello Kitty fan mostly for nostalgic reasons as I loved all that stuff when I was a child but it was utterly bizarre seeing her on a construction site! 😀

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 16, 2017 — 7:06 pm

      Thanks so much! It was such a photogenic country to visit!

  15. I loved this post Shikha!! Yes, Japanese definitely has a culture all of its own. So many things to comment on here! Doing an onsen was totally weird for me too, but I figured “well, when in japan… right?”, and imagine doing it with your aunts and grandma!!! SO horrifying and awkward, but I just really didn’t look at anyone and it was fine. I wonder why I didn’t see so many weird things when I was in Japan (and I was totally on the lookout too). I was disappointed to not see too many harajuku girls. Oh, and my grandma has one of those japanese toilets installed in her house – I love it!!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 22, 2017 — 3:30 am

      I can’t believe she has one of those toilets in her own house Anna – they’re such fun and easily distracting from the task at hand!! 😀 I figured I had to try the onsen thing whilst in Japan and although I’m glad I gave it a go, I’m in no hurry to try it again, just couldn’t get over feeling self conscious, even though it didn’t look as if any of those other women were even remomtely awkward or fazed by my presence!

  16. Ha! That apple is almost the size of your head!! If it was cake I’m sure you’d have had a much better chance of finishing it 😉 I’ve wanted to visit Japan for years and all this weirdness just makes me want to go even more.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 22, 2017 — 3:37 am

      The apple was enormous Ayla!! I honestly don’t think I could have eaten anything this size, hated wasting it but it was like attempting to eat 3 apples in one go! Japan is so full of fun quirks, you’d love it 🙂

  17. Nice! I’ve always wanted to go to Miyajima!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 22, 2017 — 2:00 pm

      I hope you make it there – such a magical enchanting place 🙂

  18. I am an old Japanophile that started going there in 1980– married Japanese twice in fact. It is funny that the same things that interest you attracted me back then. Not much has changed. Not a fan of maid cafes and love hotels though…child idolization and under age sex pandering is a blemish.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 27, 2017 — 7:44 am

      Thanks so much for sharing your experiences & perspective. I definitely found the love hotels offputting & although I am sure they exist in many places, Japan was the first time where I had seen them displayed so openly and publicly. As for the Maid cafes, I had wondered if there were underlying sexual undertones but was perhaps falsely reassured when I heard that there are strict regulations intended for protecting staff & when it seemed innocent inside, at least on a surface level – but I certainly have no on depth knowledge on this so I accept that may have been naive & I thank you for sharing your insight because if that’s what it’s all about, then clearly that’s not okay.

      1. The YouTube “Schoolgirls for Sale in Japan” is a quick eduction on these things. I recommend it. you will never view Japanese men quite the same though.

  19. Ja'd Kurumi #HAFU February 25, 2017 — 9:01 pm

    Love this post!!! This post makes me want to go back to Japan!! Lining up for the sushi at 7am at a fish market is totally worth it though. The flavour of fresh sushi is just beyond anything 😍

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) February 27, 2017 — 7:46 am

      YES! I completely agree! That sushi was the freshest & most flavoursome that I’ve ever had anywhere – totally worth queuing! Both my hubby & I still feel that Japan was one of the most inspiring places we’ve ever been & would love to go back too! Thank you so much for reading ☺

  20. Having recently come back after 7 weeks in Japan I enjoyed seeing this post. Yes, the giant fruit. WTF?? We went to a Maid Cafe (our experience was really boring) and also saw those Hello Kitty traffic cones (again, WTF?). And yes, we saw tons of people with dressed up dogs, including many in baby carriages. Japan is really a unique place, unlike anywhere.

    Frank (bbqboy)

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) March 11, 2017 — 9:45 pm

      I agree Frank – I really cannot compare Japan to anywhere else I’ve been & I loved it but was so baffled by so much of what I saw like those utterly bizarre giant fruit!!

  21. The photos you have posted in the section about love hotels have nothing to do with love hotels. Love hotels do not provide any services such as massage (visible on your second photo): they only provide a room, that you can book for a few hours. The minimum duration is usually 2 or 3 hours, it’s very rare that you can book for only 30 minutes. A lot of customers of love hotels are couples who need intimacy they can’t have in their tiny apartment/house. Love hotels shouldn’t be mistaken for “soaplands”, establishments offering sexual services.

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