First Impressions of Japan

Wfm_kansai_overviewI have arrived in Japan to study for one year at Kobe University. I cannot express how much of an adventure this is to me, for it is also my first time in Japan and my first time living in a foreign country. Of course I was a little sad to leave my family and friends behind, but now I am here, I am incredibly excited about “my new life” and grateful for being given this chance. The fact is, I have been studying everything about Japan for 4 years now. By reading books and watching drama I have learned how the island looks like, how the people on it behave, but experiencing Japan proves to be a totally different thing. It’s the first time I cannot step outside “the Japaneseness” anymore, like was possible when spending an evening with Japanese friends in Belgium or going to a sushi restaurant. From now on, I will emerge myself in this Japanese world where everything seems so familiar but still new. Time by time, I will post something about my life here in Japan. The approach will be much more subjective and less academic than my usual writings. I will do my best, however, to research a bit about the things here that make me wonder.


I had my fingerprints taken.

I boarded in Amsterdam and arrived in Osaka around 10 o’clock. The landscape seen from outside the airplane window was spectacular: the snow-covered mountain ranges surrounded by forests and the deep blue sea, interrupted by long brown strokes in the plain areas – cities. Once safe and sound with both feet on the ground, all passengers headed towards the Immigration Section. There, I encountered the first big difference between Japan and Europe. An airport official was waving his arms, yelling loudly and running around to lead us in the right queue, “JAPANESE” or “FOREIGNERS”, what also was written on huge boards. The funny thing was that he kept yelling everything in Japanese to a big group of European passengers, while obviously most of them could not understand it. Still, he went on very energetically for his age. This is what they call isshōkenmei 一生懸命, “with utmost effort”. Europeans, on the contrary, are not isshōkenmei ; trying too hard is showing off or simply not done.

Wireless_toilet_control_panel_w._open_lidThen I paid a visit to the toilet. Halleluyah, everything I heard about it is true. Toilets in Japan look like they come from the future and are typical examples of the Japanese comfort. Firstly, the seat is warm. Secondly, there is a control panel with many buttons, so you can choose features such like automatic flushing, a bidet that sprays water (you can choose spot and strength), otohime 音姫, a flush sound that covers up your own sounds, massage options,… I haven’t had time to test them all, but probably I will write a blog post about this peculiar phenomenon later on.

To continue my journey, I took the 12 o’clock airport limousine (sounds fancier than it is, it is just a bus) to the center of Kobe, Sannomiya. With delight I observed Japanese punctuality, as the motor of our limousine started at 11:59 and we drove away exactly 1 minute later (on the left side of the road). This was something I – living in Belgium where complaining about public transport is a national sport – was really looking forward to. Also notable is the fact that passengers are reminded to be silent. On the expressway, I saw the Pacific Ocean through the left window  and Osaka, an endless chain of buildings, through the46067632 right window. Japan has an overall high population density, due to their 70% of mountainous area and only few plains on which living is possible. I was surprised to read that Belgium’s population density is  still a little bit higher, because we live in a very small country – no mountains – with a lot of people. The population density in Japanese big cities like Osaka and Kobe, however, skyrockets. The many tall buildings were proof of that. I am not yet sure if I like the style and color of the unique apartment buildings (mansion マンション) I have seen on my route. Also remarkable is that the staircase is always outside the building.

Apart from the cities and buildings, everything is small here. Cars are really cute. To make up for limited space, the Japanese are incredibly functional-minded. Take my hotel room for example (I have to stay here for two days before I can move into my dorm). Again, everything is provided for. There is a mini fridge, electric kettle with free tea, hair dryer, safe, toothbrush with toothpaste, pyjamas and slippers in my room, and free water, vending machines, microwave and washing machines in the 5340338_wlounge. The bathroom is small but contains everything one needs. It is like a plastic container in which everything is one piece. The tap of the wash basin can be moved to fill the bath or provide water for the shower head, located in the bath. There is a comfy toilet. You can also dry your clothes or towels in the bath: there is a string you can pull out of the wall and fasten to the other side.


Sometimes, the English translations are hilarious.

Something else that drew my attention are the many warning signs, even things I have never thought about. In the bathroom it is written that you should close the door, to not accidentally set off the fire alarm. It is also forbidden to color your hair in the bathtub. There is a sign on a metal plate next to the elevator buttons stating “put your finger here first to avoid electrocution”. In the bus, the seatbelts were labeled to not confuse those of the left and right seat. There is a sound that indicates when it’s safe to cross the street. On every machine there is written what to do with it and where to watch out for. When you step into the elevator, a voice welcomes you and announces when the doors close and open and on what floor you are. There is also a television inside…

What about my interactions with Japanese people? I have not had many encounters yet, only with hotel staff, shop keepers and people I had to ask road directions to (I am really bad with maps). That will change of course once I start university. Nevertheless, I am really glad I can speak Japanese. There are only few things written bilingual and most of the Japanese people cannot speak English very well. I have to admit though, that the Kobe dialect is really puzzling me. And they talk fast. I also felt half-dead because I barely could have some sleep during these 2 days of travelling, so the Japanese I uttered must have been a bit incomprehensible as well. On the one hand, I can imagine how hard it is for tourists to make themselves clear in Japan – even in big cities like Kobe. On the other hand, Japanese people are so polite and patient, they will try their best to understand you.

105_udonfrontWhen I went out for my first Japanese dinner, I stepped inside an udon restaurant and just stood there, uncertain what to do next. The waiter mumbled something I couldn’t understand at all, until he pointed at a vending machine in the corner. Apparently, I had to choose what to eat by pressing some buttons. Then I had to sit, received cold green tea for free, and gave my coupons to the waiter, who immediately brought my food. He literally returned to the kitchen and came back in 3 seconds, which means all food was already prepared and kept warm until someone ordered it. A Japanese “fast” food restaurant, so to call it. Some customers even managed to have dinner in less than 2 minutes, like the business man (sarari man サラリーマン – always wearing a suit and white shirt) who sat next to me. The problem with food and me is that I have been a vegetarian since last year because of environmental reasons. Only the name and a picture of the type of food appeared on the order screen, so I had to guess what it contained (I should have done some homework). Eventually I choose tanuki udon 狸うどんtanuki-udon and a sesame salad. It was really good and also very cheap, but the soup tasted a little bit like fish. When I searched for the recipe, I discovered udon soup contains dashi 出汁, Japanese soup stock made from fish and kelp. I am not sure what to do now, because it appears to be very difficult to be a vegetarian in Japan – a piece of cake in Belgium.

It is funny that Kobe is called a cosmopolitan city, for I have only seen one foreigner outside the airport and station. I am not sure if it is my imagination or not, but it feels like sometimes I am being stared at. It is also weird to only see Japanese people if you are a Belgian, used to ethnic diversity. Another thing I have to learn is waking up early. In the hotel, breakfast is only served from 7am till 9:30am. I wanted to sleep a little longer this morning to catch up some lost sleep, but received an unexpected wake up call at 10. They wanted to clean my room, and – luckily – I had locked it. From tomorrow on, I will have to wake up at 7 o’clock every morning, something I haven’t done for a long time.

I plan to buy a smart phone one of these days (Western mobile phones don’t work here) so I can take many pictures (the pictures in this post are not mine) and won’t get lost anymore. I hope to write again soonly, so please look forward to my next post!

9 thoughts on “First Impressions of Japan

  1. I look forward to following your experiences in Japan. I’m a bit jealous in fact 🙂 Wish I was back in Japan as well. Your story made me smile because it reminded about lots of things from Japan.

    One of my first posts when I was in Japan was about a toilet as well, by the way 🙂

    I think being a vegetarian in Japan will be difficult. Avoiding meat is possible, but fish is almost impossible to avoid. And if you also want to avoid all fish based ingredients, like dashi and fish cake and furikake etc, you can never eat out I think. Dashi is in almost everything in Japan. Because of environmental concerns, I decided not to eat tuna while I was in Japan. This was already very difficult to understand for most Japanese people, let alone not eating any fish at all. My advice, for what it is worth, is to set aside being a vegetarian for a year. Japanese cuisine is so varied and interesting, and you have a unique oportunity to discover it during this year. It seems like a shame to pass up on that oportunity. Think of all the things you would miss out on! And it will also make your life and social interactions a lot easier (think nomikai!). And experienceing Japan’s lack of environmental concern is also part of the Japan experience 🙂 But of course this is just my personal opinion.

    I had to smile when you wrote about all the warnings. Japanese people indeed are all about anzen, although sometimes they do things that are totally contradictory to this, like watching tv on their gps while driving.

    Best of luck with your wonderful Japanese year!

    • Thanks for the comment, Haruko!

      I guess every foreigner is taken aback by the comfort of a Japanese toilet. I’m sure I will be able to write an elaborate post about this 😉

      In fact, I was thinking the same thing before going to Japan: setting aside vegetarianism for one year. But now I have been a vegetarian for so many months, I cannot just start eating meat or fish without feeling bad. I have indeed already experienced some difficulties, like ordering tofu to play safe and getting a delicious tofu meal … with meat mixed in it. But if I kindly ask to the restaurant staff, they can just replace the meat/fish by more vegetables. Because there are a lot of foreigners in Kobe University (with different religious and cultural background), the students who are helping us out are also really understanding. I’ve accepted dashi as unavoidable, so at least I can get a bowl of soba or udon without meat at every restaurant. I actually don’t like fish at all, so avoiding that will be easy. I know I will miss out some things, but there is delicious vegetarian food in Japan as well. Luckily I live in a dorm where I have to cook by myself, so I can choose the ingredients. In short, I will try to avoid meat and fish as much as possible 🙂

      I have not yet seen someone driving while watching TV and I actually hope I won’t because 安全第一 is important indeed 🙂 Especially where I live now, there are so many slopes it’s pretty dangerous…

  2. And good luck with your studies as well. Your first few days mirror early and recent experiences in travels to Japan. I too was smiling reading many of your early encounters.

  3. Pingback: Japanese Comfort | nippaku

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