Five Hard Lessons I Learned While Living In Japan

October 2017

I’ve been in Japan for a little bit now and while I didn’t feel any sort of what you would call technical “culture shock,” I was and continue to be dealing with some hard lessons that I find myself struggling with almost every day. There are many things I noticed right away that I loved about Japan and some ingenuity that left me wondering, “Why haven’t we thought about this?”, but that’s another article for another day. Here are the five hard lessons I have learned about being here and how I am coping with them.


Don’t get me wrong, I am all about saving the environment; I don’t want to add to the landfills any more than necessary and I will do my part. What I didn’t realize is “my part” in Japan would be to become a part time non-paid employee for waste management. While you can do your part by recycling pretty much anything minus food particles in the US, in Japan there is a complicated system and getting it precise is a monumental task for newbies. In the US, after drinking the rest of your Coke you can just toss it into a recycling bin and call it good. At stores and other shopping areas in Japan, you will find yourself starring at the recycling cans for over five minutes reading the incredibly detailed instructions. One thing that will stand out is that Coke bottle of yours must first be completely rinsed out. That’s right, you must clean it first.

(You will find a sign like this in every apartment building)

You also are required to remove the wrapper as it goes in a totally different bin and the lid in a different bin than that. I am not a super lazy person, but this seemed really complicated for me to dispose of just one bottle, so I took it back home with me instead. This, unfortunately, didn’t save me from the hassle as the apartment we were staying in had the exact same recycling rules. This made me almost not want to purchase anything that came in a container! This gets worse with kids as they tend to not finish their food entirely and cleaning everything out completely gets even more annoying.

(This one had me laughing. Even though they had bags in them and some trash these bins were "out of order")

I imagine one guy working at the recycling plant has pretty much all his work completed by the residents in the area. He happily just tosses in the completely cleaned, almost shiny and new bottles and other assorted items and only does the work that our recycling employees do once he goes home.
As if that wasn’t enough to drive you crazy, they have specific bags for certain types of trash and you must pay for them with cash. You can’t use a credit card, it has to be cash! If you are planning a visit in the near future, be prepared to stand around blankly staring at the garbage cans trying to figure it all out. I am starting to get used to it, but I am far from loving the “system” and can’t wait to get back to the US where I can recycle everything together!

Bikes on Sidewalks

(I would have taken a photo of people riding bikes down the sidewalk, but I definitely would have been run over)

Bikes, bikes, and more bikes! They are everywhere in Japan, especially Tokyo, and while I am an avid bike rider from time to time back home in Utah, I share the road. It can be terrifying at times to share the road with cars zooming by, but sidewalks were made for pedestrians and I’m okay with that. Well, that’s not the case in Japan and if you don’t watch out you will easily get run over by a bike as you go sightseeing down the sidewalk. They are all over the sidewalks and they go fast! Most people have little bells on their bikes but I rarely hear them used. Instead, you will look back and hurry over to the other side two seconds before impact! Throw in a family of four with two kids who use sidewalks as their own personal dance floor and it can quickly become a disaster. I can’t even count how many times we have yelled at them to stay to one side and watched about a dozen times our son narrowly missed being mowed over. As a foreigner, I have no right to say how things should be done, but something about this system drives me crazy and, as a pedestrian, I just don’t feel safe. Cars in the city really don’t get to very high speeds and I believe the bikes belong on the road or they need to go slower on the sidewalks. This is something that will always be a pet peeve of mine and I don’t think I will ever get completely used to it. 

Cash Only

In the US, we are made aware that the Japanese are very technologically advanced in almost every way. Now that I am here, a different reality has smacked me across the face. Let’s start with “cash only.” Based on our other international travel, we arrived with very little cash ready to use our chipped credit card for most purchases. This is something that is widely accepted in most countries and we actually spent 10 days in London and Paris with no cash at all! We only used a credit card the whole time we were there. Now back to Japan, almost all food establishments, subway and train systems, and many other establishments only take cash. While you can track cash and your spending with cash, it’s not nearly as easy to account for as a credit card and we found it was easy to lose track of how much we had spent. They also have a $5 coin in Japan. That’s right, a coin. Ones and fives are coins (I say ones and fives because the exchange rate right now makes 500 yen about the same as $5). I never knew I loved bills so much until I came here! A 500 yen coin can get lost way too easily. No, thank you. I will stick with my credit cards and bills and if I happen to lose a coin in the US, most likely it was only worth $0.25 at the most. It’s 2016 and Visa and MasterCard should be accepted everywhere in Japan by now.


While we’re on the subject of the lack of technology, let’s talk about the Internet. Even saying the word “Internet” makes me laugh.
The problem is Japan does not have an extensive wired/fiber optic infrastructure for the Internet. Because of this and the sheer number of people, most internet data is wireless cellular data. Cell phone companies then apply limits to data per month to prevent large surges in data usage which the system, due to being cellular-based, would most likely be incapable of handling smoothly. This way, they can guarantee availability and uptime and a consistent customer experience. In America, we are given increasing amounts of unlimited data plans. Even with bandwidth throttling, our plans still give us 5, 10, 20 gigs and our homes almost always have unlimited, so it’s very hard to plan out your usage each day and think, “Is it worth streaming Netflix or checking my Facebook news feed?” or “Will this cute cat video use up too much data?” Questions I don’t really want to have to deal with. I like my Netflix, checking my FB feed, and watching cute videos and I don’t want to sacrifice one for the other. ;)


Washing your clothes is the same in Japan as it is in the US with one exception: drying. Somehow, the washer-dryer combo just never caught on here. Whether it be for a cheaper electric bill or so the breeze can blow through your undergarments, you will not find dryers in Japan. What you will find is every sort of contraption for you to attempt to hang everything up and lots of balconies. Balconies in Japan aren’t for sitting on enjoying the sunrise; no, they are for drying your whole wardrobe.

When I think of line drying, I picture clothes swaying in the breeze, smelling fresh and touched with sun. Yeah, that doesn’t happen. Instead what you will get is starchy, itchy clothes that took most of the day to dry (if it was a warm day!). I miss my dryer, dryer sheets, and hot clothes fresh from the dryer!

Being able to live in Japan has been a dream come true, but, as with every destination, it has its drawbacks and hard lessons. These have been mine and maybe, slowly over time, I will get used to them. Or maybe not. We’ll see. ;)


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