Japan does things differently. These are some of the things I noticed.
- Toilets. When I first arrived in Tokyo, I was convinced that I needed a degree in astrophysics to operate the toilets. There is no such thing as a piece of porcelain with a lid that flushes when you press a lever. Oh no. Japanese toilets will douche, spray, dry and even play sounds to hide bathroom noises. At the Quest Hall loos in Harajuku, I was nearly reduced to tears by my inability to flush. (It turned out that I needed to wave my hand in front of an infrared sensor.)
- Vending Machines. In Japan, you never need to worry about buying a drink, because vending machines are everywhere. Most carry a combination of water, carbonated soft drinks, iced coffee and iced tea, but some include beer or whisky mixers too.
- Pillows. The pillows in our hotel room were filled with little plastic balls. For those guests who did not like this option, there were seven different choices in the lobby downstairs, complete with diagrams outlining height and hardness.
- Baths. In Japan, you shower before you take a bath. Baths are for soaking, not cleaning. In our hotel in Shinjuku, the baths were segregated by sex every two hours. Women were provided with a door code to access them.
- Cash. Forget the cashless society. Visitors to Japan should take plenty of yen, or note the location of the nearest ATM because they will need it. Many restaurants and tourists facilities offer cash only.
- Masks. In Japan, it is perfectly normal to wear a mask in public, and many people do. I could never work out whether it was because they were carrying a germ, or afraid that they’d pick it up from someone else. Masks were for sale in packs of 3 in most shops.
- Animals. Cats, especially beckoning cats, are everywhere in Japanese souvenir shops. Owls and pigs are popular too. But real animals are rare, either in cafes or, in the case of the six cats with the man I spotted in Harajuku, piled into a stroller. Though some Japan Rail carriages featured images of racehorses, we saw no signs of any livestock except their remains advertised on restaurant menus. We heard a dog bark once, near Lake Kawaguchi, and there were almost no pigeons. We did, however, encounter a very tame Great Grey Owl called John before settling down to a plate of curry at an owl and lizard café. (Sidebar: Japanese cats do not respond to sounds that interest South African cats. Clearly there is a language barrier.)
- Food. In South Africa, land of Ocean Basket, we think Japanese equals sushi. This turned out not to be the case at all. Most of the food we encountered in Tokyo was either noodle-based or Korean, and of disappointingly low quality. The gristle we had at a Korean grill was terrible, and my husband’s trout at Lake Kawaguchi was laughably small. I’m probably a pleb to admit this, but I enjoyed the airline food more than most of the cuisine I encountered in Japan.
- Gardens. Gardens in Japan do not look like gardens in South Africa, with a stretch of kikuyu fringed with agapanthus. Here, gardens are either completely functional and filled with vegetables, or a work of art involving irises and elaborate topiary.
- Sounds. In Japan, silence is not golden. The soundtrack of Japan is relaxed middle of the road jazz of the kind you hear in anonymous hotel bars, and you hear it everywhere. Japanese railway stations and trains play cheerful tunes for absolutely everything. The sound of Japan is fake twittering birds and Vivaldi as interpreted by Super Mario Brothers.
- Lace doilies in cars. I’ve seen lace doilies on sofas in South Africa – but never lace doilies in an Uber car. Many of the taxis in Tokyo feature this unexpected touch of Victorian granny. Who knew that the antimacassar persisted in the far east?