Never in my life did I imagine that I would one day visit Japan, but now that I did, I realize Japan should’ve been at the top of my list of countries to visit all along.
I was one of around 30 African journalists, each from different African countries, selected by the Japanese government through the respective Japanese embassies to cover the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), in the Japanese port city of Yokohama.
The trip was extremely monumental career-wise, and each moment absolutely memorable and rewarding as well.
I visited five prefectures (administrative regions that are more or less the equivalent of counties in Kenya), as well as four of Japan’s largest and most populous cities — Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, and Osaka.
While I will talk about my experiences in these cities in other posts, in this particular article, I will share my most prominent observations and takeaways from my trip to Japan, the land of the rising sun.
Communicating in English is extremely challenging
The language barrier was clear from the moment I landed at Narita International Airport. The signage at Narita Airport is in both English and Japanese and most of the staff can communicate in English, but I experienced trouble in some sections of the airport, particularly considering the rigor of the checks at their airports.
However, I only realized that I would have trouble communicating after I got to the hotel and ordered dinner (the waiter barely understood English). While I knew beforehand that Japanese is the predominantly spoken language in Japan, I was not aware that so few people spoke English.
Even though English is taught in high schools, it’s spoken by a very small percentage of the population. Unlike in Kenya, where speaking English is made to appear like an absolute necessity, the Japanese don’t put much emphasis on learning English. I don’t know why the Japanese don’t consider English important, but I’m guessing it’s partly due to Japan’s isolationist policies, which ensured the country was secluded from the rest of the world for centuries.
However, because of the language barrier, doing anything, from navigating the country to shopping and ordering food in restaurants, is exceedingly difficult and requires a lot of patience.
Still, at most train and bus stations, signage and announcements are both in English and Japanese.
At most restaurants, menus are written in English and Japanese and are sometimes accompanied by photos of the food, so they are quite easy to understand. Also, from my experience, many waiters and waitresses have a basic understanding of English, so they can help you to an extent. However, getting detailed information, like descriptions of how exactly the food has been prepared, is almost impossible.
I visited some supermarkets, convenience stores like Family Mart and 7-Eleven, and CAN DO, one of Japan’s famous dollar stores and I can say shopping in some outlets can be a headache. Some of these stores label the prices and names of the products in both English and Japanese, but shopping is still painstakingly difficult.
Also because of the arrangement of the stores and packaging and labelling of products, it is difficult to know exactly what you are buying. For instance, most supermarkets stock yoghurt and ice cream in the same section and the packaging is so similar that it’s hard to tell just which is which. I remember shopping for snacks at the supermarket and ended up buying plain instead of flavoured yoghurt because I couldn’t read the descriptions.
For an easy time communicating, you can use Google Translate or other language translation apps.
Also, if you have trouble in shopping outlets, you can ask other shoppers, mostly expatriates, for help, especially since supermarket staff don’t really understand English.
While the Kenyan shilling is equivalent to the Japanese yen, you can buy less with the yen. But shopping isn’t necessarily expensive
I had heard of the famous Japanese 100-yen stores (similar to the American dollar stores) like Daiso. Japan has plenty of 100-yen shops, from Daiso to CAN DO and others. 99 percent of the products are sold at 100 yen (the equivalent of 100 Kenyan shillings), but because of my intense schedule, I only got to visit CAN DO, since it was in the same building as my hotel in Yokohama.
Since the majority of products are sold at 100 Yen, the prices are usually not indicated. The only prices shown are for products retailing at above 100 yen.
You can get yourself plenty of items for just 100 yen, from makeup to skincare products, grooming basics like combs and mirrors, clothing, shoes, snacks like candy and chocolate, accessories, kitchenware, stationery, décor, and miscellaneous household items.
Souvenirs aren’t necessarily expensive either, depending on where you shop. But there’s a small catch;
Consider hidden costs when planning your shopping or dining budget
While many items are priced at 100 yen in the dollar stores, the price is exclusive of the value-added tax. At CAN DO, for instance, the VAT is 8 yen for each item worth 100 yen, so the total price, inclusive of VAT, is 108 yen. It’s therefore advisable that you include an estimate of the taxes in your shopping budget.
While most stores offer shoppers free plastic bags, some, like a supermarket I visited in Kyoto, don’t. You have to carry your own or buy at the store, although they are extremely cheap (I bought a medium-sized plastic bag for three yen).
Also, many restaurants, especially the high-end ones, require customers to pay a service charge in addition to their bill.
Google Maps WILL GET YOU LOST
I didn’t walk around much on my own. I took a small stroll outside my hotel in Yokohama and Kyoto but managed to get to where I was going without any confusion (you can ask hotel staff for help with directions or maps).
But it was in Tokyo that I had the biggest problem. I spent my last night in Tokyo, arriving in the city at 8 p.m. from Shizuoka prefecture. Supermarkets had been closed by the time I finished dinner, but the hotel staff referred me and a couple of colleagues to a supermarket they said would be open, just a few minutes away.
We couldn’t figure out the map, so we opted for Google Maps, but it failed us terribly.
The Google Maps language settings automatically changed to give speech and text directions in English, even though the default language settings on our phones were English (perhaps because most streets and buildings bear Japanese titles) and the app kept rerouting.
Don’t over-rely on Google Maps unless you’re okay with getting lost, not just because the directions and most street and building names are in Japanese, but also because of how big the cities are, particularly Tokyo.
You need not worry, though. Looking back now, I have never felt safer than I did during my evening walks in the cities, even when I was alone. While you may get lost, the chances of you being robbed or running into any sort of danger in Japan are minimal.
Japan IS NOT a 24-hour economy! (BIGGEST SURPRISE OF ALL)
I never guessed that Japan, one of the world’s most advanced and wealthiest countries, is not a 24-hour economy!
I missed dinner half the nights I was in Japan because restaurants had closed by the time we got back to the hotel. Most restaurants take the last orders between 8 and 9 pm and close by 10 p.m. Very few restaurants are open beyond this time.
Supermarkets, dollar stores, and other shopping outlets also typically close between 8 and 9 p.m., although some are open until 10 p.m. on weekends.
Still, many convenience stores and fast food outlets like McDonald’s (which is on nearly every street corner) operate for 24 hours. Surprisingly the McDonald’s prices are similar to the prices in Kenya, so it’s very affordable.
Vending machines are also popular and are everywhere, even out in the open streets, in case you need snacks or drinks. I couldn’t help but imagine how fast the machines would be vandalized if left out on Kenyan streets.
The Japanese are very polite and courteous – but they expect you to be as well
The Japanese are the exact opposite of Kenyans. Their courtesy and politeness are out of this world. I cannot speak generally on their courtesy, but I observed polite habits like everyone keeps time and I noticed that people can’t even walk in front of you if you’re taking photos. Most people will go around you or wait until you’re done to pass. Even servers at restaurants are extremely polite.
But they also expect you to be courteous in return. You are considered impolite if you are late and workers at establishments like restaurants get upset if you stay past the closing time. They will not hesitate to ask you to leave.
You’ll likely love the food (although I didn’t)
The hosts were really generous and gave us meal vouchers that allowed us to eat at some pretty upscale restaurants (even by Japanese standards). I noticed many of the restaurants had buffet breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, comprising mostly of Japanese staples like rice, seafood, beef and pork.
Many of my colleagues loved the food (sushi, rice porridge, tofu etc), but I didn’t like it at all. First, the Japanese like their rice sticky, which is the exact opposite of how we prepare it in Kenya and how I like my rice.
Second, the Japanese love seafood, which is not exactly my type of food. Also, nearly half of Japanese food is served either cold or raw. I remember feeling unimpressed seeing cold steak at the buffet of one fancy restaurant and it was not just cold, but also far from cooked (not even rare).
I can count the number of times I had breakfast because I used to oversleep every morning so I was forced to skip breakfast most mornings. However, when I got the chance, breakfast was my favorite meal because I had a diverse range to choose from, including non-Japanese choices.
The desserts were also my favorite. Chocolate forms a big part of Japanese dessert menus, and supermarkets usually have dozens of different types of chocolate. The Japanese love chocolate so much, which is one of the reasons Ghana is famous in Japan. I also loved that some restaurants offered all-you-can-eat ice cream in different flavors.
While I hated the food, most of my colleagues enjoyed it, so I guess it’s tasty.
However, you will find cheaper and also really tasty food in places other than full service restaurants. You can opt for fast food joints like McDonald’s or better yet, buy meals at convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Family Mart. The food is usually refrigerated but warmed after you buy it. Often, the stores have multiple ranges of tasty meals, from pizzas to meals like rice and chicken.
Japan’s population and workforce is really old
Unlike Kenya, where more than three-quarters of the population is 40 and younger, the exact opposite is true of Japan. It is pretty common to spot old people (really old) working, mostly men.
The majority of the population is old, which is both bad and good. It’s a good thing because it’s a testament to Japan’s high life expectancy, which is among the top three in the world (81.4 years for men and 87.6 years for women).
However, the aging population is also increasing due to Japan’s low fertility rates, which have fueled a steady decline of the population since 2011, spelling doom for their future.
The Japanese are extremely disciplined
The Japanese are the most civilized in the world. They are extremely disciplined, which, unfortunately, cannot be said of Kenyans. The streets are particularly clean, despite the absence of trash cans in public spaces.
Nairobi, the city centre at least, has trash cans on nearly every corner but the city is still filthy. Japanese cities, on the other hand, don’t have trash cans but are unbelievably clean, mainly because the people are very disciplined. People don’t trash streets or trains and buses, unlike in Kenya.
Motorists and pedestrians are also disciplined. I was surprised that even when the roads don’t have cars, pedestrians and cyclists wait for their light to go green, regardless of whether the road is clear. Even small children are obedient to traffic laws. It was utterly surprising.
Japanese girls are extremely beautiful and stylish
If you’re basic like me and only wear jeans and t-shirts, you’re bound to feel extremely under-dressed just taking a stroll on the streets or commuting on trains.
Japan’s young women are very petite (even I felt fat in comparison) and beautiful and also stylish, whether they are wearing traditional Japanese garments like kimonos or western clothes.
Umbrellas are also a fashion staple, although I never understood why. I saw (mostly women) with umbrellas throughout the day, from the times it rained to when it was hot, cool and even cold. I didn’t understand the logic, but I later found out that umbrellas and parasols (Japanese style umbrellas) are widely used fashion accessories.
The Japanese work ethic is unparalleled
The week I spent working was undeniably the toughest one I’ve had since finishing school. We had very long working hours, usually from 8 a.m. to 8 or 9 p.m. on most nights. Restaurants were often closed by the time we got back to the hotel. I would have burnt out if I had to endure even one more day of work.
Interestingly, while many of my African colleagues complained of fatigue, the Japanese guys appeared fine, yet they were working longer than us.
Japan actually has one of the longest working hours in the world, as this BBC news report explains. The Japanese working culture encourages employees to work for extraordinarily long works, often without overtime pay and without taking credit.
While I don’t think I’d survive a month working in Japan, their long working hours and overall work ethic are great, depending on how you look at it. It is no wonder that Japan is one of the wealthiest economies in the world.
Every aspect of Japanese living uses technology
Technology is infused into every aspect of Japanese living. I was amazed by the country’s massive advancements, from bullet trains to express lifts, toilets with heated seats and automatic flushing systems.
I wrote about how the United Arab Emirates has applied land reclamation techniques when I visited this past February, but I was even more amazed by Japan’s land reclamation. Many spots across the country lie on reclaimed land.
Even more impressive was seeing Japan’s man-made islands. I still don’t understand how they created the islands in the ocean, but even more impressive was the under-ocean roads and rail tunnels. I remember being informed that we were driving in an under-ocean tunnel during a trip from Tokyo to Yokohama, which seemed quite unbelievable because the tunnels appear ordinary. I still don’t understand how they do it.
Majority of the population uses public transport, but you have to walk for long distances to get to train and bus stations
Unlike in Kenya, where public transport is viewed as ‘for the poor’, public transport (mostly trains, then buses) is used even by Japan’s well-off.
Also, despite having so many wealthy people, I can count the number of fancy cars I saw on the roads. I don’t know whether it is because the Japanese are modest or if it is because they’re loyal to their car brands like Toyota, Honda, and Mitsubishi.
I also noticed that taxis, both traditional and digital ones, are way costlier than in Kenya. Using an Uber in Tokyo, for instance, will cost you at least three times the average price in Nairobi.
A large segment of the population gets around by cycling and walking too. It is exemplary that their roads are friendly even to non-motorized forms of transport. The roads are so safe and friendly that women even cycle with infants.
Japanese men are BIG smokers
The Japanese, particularly men, are heavy smokers. Most train stations, public spaces and even private buildings have smoking zones. Many of the smoking zones I saw were always occupied.
I researched a little on the smoking rates and found that the Japanese indeed smoke excessively. The country is one of the biggest markets of tobacco. Statistics also show that while the smoking habits are on a downward spiral, plummeting from over 50 percent in 2001, smoking remains highly popular. Around 25 percent of men and 10 percent of women smoke in Japan.
I am not sure if smoking is permitted in Japan, but I spotted a few people, including women, smoking and vaping during my evening walks. I also mentioned earlier that the Japanese don’t litter, but I came across a few cigarette butts in the streets.
Japan has large heat waves but not all summer times are excruciatingly hot
The period during which I visited Japan (late August to early September) was summer, but it hardly looked like summer, although I wouldn’t know as I have never experienced a summer.
The weather fluctuated too much. One minute it was hot, the next minute it was raining. It especially rained during the morning hours. I hated the weather was humid a lot of the time and my skin really got ruined.
However, Japan’s summers can get dangerously hot too. A heat wave in late July killed 11 and caused injuries to thousands of others, causing concerns about the conditions for athletes during the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Kenya uses a voltage of 240 V, while Japan uses a voltage of 100V. Japanese sockets, therefore, cannot connect directly to the kind of plugs used in Kenya, the United States, Europe, and most other countries.
If visiting Japan, a power plug adapter is an absolute must. Some hotels provide phone chargers or adapters in the rooms, but if you need to plug in other devices you definitely need to buy an adapter.
Also, in lifts, while the ground floor is marked G or zero, in Japan, the ground floor is 1 and the first floor is 2.
Flu is highly dreaded in Japan
Large sections of people cover their mouths and noses with white masks in public. One of our guides told me the masks are especially popular during winter. Often, they are worn by people who fear catching the flu or people with the flu who don’t want to infect others.