Of all countries on earth, Japan may have the most interesting and widely varied culture. From ancient traditions, to imported interests like golf and baseball, to the ultramodern, Japan seems to have something for everybody. Combine this with incredibly friendly people and a culinary scene that’s second-to-none, and it’s little wonder Japan is one of the world’s most popular travel destinations.
Of course, just like any country, Japan also has its share of weird and downright unpleasant features too.
These travelers who have been to Japan recently went online to share their weird and wonderful Japan stories with us. Enjoy!
20. The Friendly Giant
19. Night Food
18. “I Felt Like A Minor Celebrity”
17. A Shower Before Your Bath
16. Universal Language
I was in Shin Yokohama on business. On my last day there, before I departed, I bought one of those cardboard cameras to take some pictures. I was standing on the median (between two 4–5 cars wide boulevard lanes), and a local fellow dodged through live traffic to find out if I was okay. Just because I looked lost, apparently, standing there on the median strip.
A bit later, I was outside the subway station. Outside the station was a large bas-relief map of the entire Yokohama subway system in stainless steel. A very old man with a cane — easily in his 80’s — came up to me. He tapped the ground with the tip of his cane, then tapped a spot on the map. Without saying a word, he let me know where on the map we were.
Japanese people are just so darn nice!
15. Friends In The Bath
14. A Great Karaoke Story
13. The Customer Is Always Right
12. Only In Japan
My phone was stolen when I was visiting Japan last spring. I speak a little Japanese, but I was seriously relying on my phone for translation, as well as directions and booking hotels.
As I was walking around the train station hoping to find it and crying, a businessman saw me and with very limited English asked me to wait as he called one of his employees who was fluent in English to help. They were incredible. The lady helped me ask the stationmaster and others if my phone had been turned in, and directed me to the lost and found at another station.
Once I emailed her from my laptop to let her know I hadn’t had any luck, she and her boss took me out for lunch and let me stay at their office (a fashion company!) for the rest of the day while I figured out hotels and transportation with my laptop. Two other employees treated me to the best ramen I’ve ever had and showed me around Osaka that evening. They also got me to the hotel I had booked. The boss even lent me his pocket translator for the rest of my trip.
I can’t imagine encountering that much kindness and hospitality anywhere but Japan, but even there it was absolutely incredible. I got their address and sent them thank you gifts once I got back home, but there’s no way I could repay them for all the ways they helped me and absolutely saved the rest of my trip from disaster.
11. No, You Make Less Sense!
10. An English Teacher
9. Not Everyone Is Friendly
8. A Spiritual Experience
7. Is This Japan Or Footloose?
We didn’t know about the (former) no dancing after midnight law. A friend of mine was trying to organize a party for us adults still on site after the World Scouts Jamboree in 2015, and was threatened with arrest three times, with no explanation of what he was doing wrong, most likely due to the language barrier.
The party eventually got the okay, but at 10pm a group of Japanese men showed up and surrounded us. A man pushed through to the DJ and started ripping out cables and yelling at us in Japanese. Eventually everything got sorted, and the party was allowed to continue to 11 pm, but it was still really strange.
We didn’t know we were doing anything wrong and the escalation went from not caring to yelling and damaging things. It was a bit of a shock.
I’d still recommend Japan to anyone who asked though. It’s an amazing place. And now you’re allowed to dance after midnight.
6. Japanese Ink
We got tattooed by a traditional Japanese artist. It was a bit of a process since we had to get a referral from a friend who knew him. But once we met up with him, he tattooed us and then took us out of dinner and drinks at a bunch of restaurants and bars we’d never be able to get to on our own because of our American-ness and lack of Japanese language skills.
5. All To Save A Jacket
Tokyo was always a stopover in a lot of my international flights. I didn’t mind; I love the airport, they have day rooms where I can sleep and shower. Haneda airport had capsule hotels and an Edo style mall. That was perfect for me since every one of my friends and family who are fans of Japanese culture like myself wanted the Wasabi Kit-Kat only sold at the airport.
One flight I took with All Nippon Airways, I was travelling alone. Severely jet-lagged and tired, I realized I had left my jacket on the plane after I already disembarked. This was a gift given to me and was a limited edition gaming jacket which happens to be very comfy and somewhat water proof.
With very limited Japanese, I asked if I could retrieve my jacket. The whole crew in the baggage check area passed along the message util it reached whoever was still on the plane. I only had a few minutes before I had to catch my connecting flight, so I was ready to give up but felt guilty for inconveniencing so many people.
Just in the nick of time, a lady walked out with my jacket and was apologizing to me. I said ” No, no, no. I’m sorry!” We exchanged barrages of apologies and bows.
I’ve never seen people go so far above and beyond to help me.
4. Maid Man
My partner and I visited something called a maid café in Tokyo.
“First time?” asked a stern-faced woman at the reception desk.
“Y-yeah,” I stammered.
The woman thrust a set of rules into my hand and pointed us to a bench back near the entrance so we could read them.
This was the last opportunity we could decide it was too weird and get out of there.
“When in Rome…” my partner reminded me yet again. This had become something of a catchphrase throughout our visit to Japan. It did the trick. We decided to stay and read the rules.
The list, complete with little cartoony pictures, was comprised of things like: “Don’t touch the maids”, “Don’t ask the maids for their phone numbers”, “Don’t ask the maids their real names”, “Don’t take pictures of the maids,” and “Don’t follow the maids home.”
They were the sort of rules that would apply to an exotic dancer. But unlike dancers, the maids are not meant to be a sensual experience. As we were led to our table, we eyed up the rest of the clientele. All male, generally in small groups, some alone. It wasn’t a huge place, but managed to fit in a stage area towards the back.
“Welcome home, master. Welcome home, princess.”
Our maid had arrived, ready to serve us. I was taken aback by being called “master” for probably the first time in my life.
We exchanged pleasantries with our maid, who was called Mikuru. She talked us through the menu and explained the three packages we could choose. Our pick entitled us to a magical, mystery gift, and our pancakes were going to be made with real fairy dust.
We were left to uncomfortably await a pair of loved-filled coffees. The maids floated around the tables, spending time with their “masters.” Evidently the main patrons of the vast maid café industry were those just looking for a bit of company and trivial conversation.
This was all a fascinating, alien concept, but as Westerners it was difficult to depart from the mentality that young women wearing French maid outfits were not trying to do more than bring us treats. Looking at them felt wrong.
Our maid soon bounded over with the two coffees the princess and I had ordered, but we weren’t allowed to drink them yet.
No, no, first we needed to participate in a magic spell to make the coffee taste nice. Our maid led us into a ‘shaking salt’ kind of hand movement. “Nyom nyom”, “Moy moy”, “Moo moo,” we repeated.
The spell worked! The love inside the coffee had manifested into a heart shape on the top that would make it taste yummy. Or so we were told.
This time our maid sat down and joined us.
“Where are you from Master?”
“The United Kingdom.”
“Ah, close to the United States!”
“Err, it’s quite far away from there actually.”
“No, close to the sound!”
The conversation was hardly riveting.
It turned out our package also granted us a photo with a maid of our choice. We’d been more interested in the pancakes. Mikuru handed us an album and intently observed, doe-eyed and smiling, as we flicked through. Maids in the park, in the street, in the kitchen. Maids on a car.
“Who would you like your photo with master? You can choose any maid.”
We picked Mikuru herself.
“Aaaah, thank you, Master!” she said excitedly, hopping over to a board recording an ongoing competition between the maids. Mikuru was now only two behind the leader.
Honestly, we felt a bit coerced but it would have felt odd (well, odder) to pick a maid we hadn’t met or spoken to at all. Some people must do it, and I wondered how crestfallen the maids must look when it happens.
Mikuru departed for a while to get our pancakes. They arrived, and we performed another magic spell on these. It worked again.
The pancakes were quite nice, but at this point we felt we’d rather outstayed our welcome. It had been interesting and a little fun but we couldn’t quite settle into it.
Then we heard some microphone feedback screech through the room, followed by Mikuru’s booming voice.
“Can Princess Sara and Master Tom come to the stage?” That was us. We looked at each other, eyes wide open in alarm.
It seemed the photograph was meant to be taken on the stage in front of everyone. Mikuru was so excited that we couldn’t exactly back out now.
Heads down in pure shame, we shuffled up to the stage to face our punishment. It felt as though all eyes had turned in our direction. Not only were we the only foreigners, but my partner was still the only female customer in there.
Then things got even worse.
“Master Tom, Princess Sara, please choose an item from the box to wear.”
The box contained a selection of ridiculous hats, ribbons and props. We chose the least outrageous items we could find: a pair of bunny ears and cat ears respectively.
Mikuru lodged herself between us and directed us towards a Polaroid camera held by one of her maid colleagues.
Once again a series of childish phrases had to be repeated. Since I was wearing bunny ears, I was told to imitate a bunny. My partner had to make cat claws.
Thinking about the life choices that had led to this dignity-sapping ordeal, we obliged with as little enthusiasm as possible. Mikuru didn’t seem to mind.
“Meow meow!” “Moy moy!” “Moshi moshi!”
Click, click, click.
And there it was. Tangible, pictorial evidence of this moment existed in the world.
We thrust the props back into the box and retreated to our table. We asked for the bill as soon as possible, but it wasn’t over yet. There was still the special gift from the maids to come.
Mikuru came and hand-delivered it herself. Wondering what wacky item would be forced upon us, we were pleasantly surprised to find they were… normal biscuits. Of course, these biscuits were packed full of magical ingredients, which Mikuru recounted one by one. I think unicorns, fairies and elves may have featured a lot but I wasn’t really listening. It was time to go.
As we thanked Mikuru for her service, she gave me another thing – a loyalty card confirming my status as a Level 1 Master. Not the proudest moment of my life, but certainly up there.
All of the maids waved us goodbye together, and then we were finally out. We felt we could breathe again.
The Polaroid picture was in with the biscuits. Our first instinct was to find the nearest grill and burn it, but it was all packaged together so nicely we couldn’t bring ourselves to open it. Our second instinct was to get a drink, which we did.
To this day, though the unicorn/fairy/elf biscuits are long gone, we have never destroyed the photo and I couldn’t quite tell you why. But there is one thing I know for certain – I won’t be becoming a Level 2 Master, ever.
3. It’s The Thought That Counts
My two favorite Japan stories came from miscommunications.
I was staying with a host family, and after 2 weeks I was missing American food. I guess my host mother realized what was happening, so she went out and researched American foods. One morning, I was sitting at breakfast and she asked if I would like a piece of corn bread. Normally, being from up north, we don’t eat a lot of corn bread, but I was ecstatic. My host mother then proceeded to give me a piece of white bread with whole corn niblets cooked into it. I really appreciated the thought though.
Another time, we were going to go kayaking. However, the weather turned much warmer than anticipated and the jellyfish started to breed. We finally got to the ocean park, and our tour guide spoke in Japanese for a minute or two and then switched to English. “Unfortunately due to high jellyfish population, we can’t go kayaking. We will go scuba diving instead.” Then, with a satisfied smile, he turned and walked out of the room. All 10 American students immediately turned to our teacher and asked her to get that nice man back in here. We explained we’d rather be in a boat with a weapon. Turns out the Kayaking location and the scuba diving location were completely different.
2. Missing Finger
Back when I was 21, I was living in Japan on my own and was moving from Kyoto to this backwater rural town in Tochigi province. My info for my train transfer was wrong and I missed the last train to my new place and got stranded overnight in Utsunomoya (a town in the middle of nowhere). Having no budget and no place to stay, I went around to a bunch of capsule hotels in the area but none of them accepted women.
Defeated, I spoke in my terrible broken Japanese to a security guard at the train station who offered to let me stay with a bunch of other stranded travellers in the station by where the security guards had their camera monitoring stuff.
I took him up on the offer and joined the five other travellers (all guys, no other foreigners) in this little glass box of a room. Knowing I wasn’t going to sleep, I started reading a book I had brought along.
An hour or two later, this sketchy, weedy looking guy wanders over and starts practicing his English on me and interspersing it with Japanese. It was summer and while all the other guys in the room had unbuttoned their shirts and rolled up their sleeves this guy had not, which I thought was strange. Sure enough, when I glanced at his hands, he was missing a little chunk of pinky.
So probably Yakuza then.
No reason to panic. Gangsters are people too and I wasn’t going anywhere with this dude. Furthermore I could tell he thought I was a guy. I was flat as a board, had short hair, and most people thought I looked like Harry Potter.
At one point in our utterly bizarre conversation after he, made a grab for my groin. Being a fencing nerd, I parried his hand and shouted, “Dame!” (no/stop). He just laughed and said, “Extra big size!”
Thankfully, the quick-thinking security guard came over from his station, pulled me aside, and told us that he can’t have me making a disturbance for the others. Then he led me over to the area behind his desk .
I thanked him quietly and proceeded to spend the next six hours before the first train behind his desk.