Words by James Hadfield
When people first land in Japan, the most common phrase used to describe the experience is: 'It blew my mind.' We've taken this feeling, analysed it, and broken it down into 100 specific ways that this country will blow you away. Starting with kawaii icon Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, our list includes things like the receptionist robots at newly opened Henn-na Hotel, the crazy new Kawaii Monster Cafe in Harajuku, the bonsai that 'flew' to space, and everyday wonders like the pens with erasable ink and the sun visors that sparked a fashion trend on global catwalks. Who ever said culture shock was a bad thing?
They call her Japan's Lady Gaga. And they're right – although more cute than grotesque, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is every bit as compelling as her American counterpart. Which probably explains why she has been one of the few Japanese artists to break into the international market. Famed for her kawaii-cum-kooky dress sense and weirdo facial expressions, Kyary started off as a model and blogger before releasing her first single 'PonPonPon' in 2011. She has since brought out three albums, been featured on the cover of 'Dazed and Confused', and completed two world tours. And she's only just getting started...
Remixing is a national pastime
The rise of otaku has made remixing a central part of pop culture. Fan-made dojinshi art concocts new (and lewd) storylines for characters from popular manga, open-source Vocaloid star Hatsune Miku lends her voice to thousands of songs produced by fans, and Nico Nico Douga is awash with the aptly named ‘MAD movies’ – hilarious remixes of TV shows, ads and anime.
Bibliophiles are in for a feast
There’s more to Japanese fiction than Haruki Murakami, you know. The literary scene is ripe with talent at the moment, as authors including Hiromi Kawakami, Hideo Furukawa, Risa Wataya, Tomoyuki Hoshino and Yoko Ogawa (all woefully underrepresented in English translation) take the modern novel in new and unexpected directions.
You can go to an art island. Three, in fact
Since 1992, a sleepy island in the Seto Island Sea has been slowly transforming into a modern art sanctuary, teeming with galleries, site-specific installations and architecture that blends into the landscape. As if Naoshima wasn’t impressive enough, it now has siblings, Teshima and Inujima, with stunning art shrines of their own.
Any message can be manga-fied
In a nation raised on comics, it’s only natural that manga would end up being used to educate as well as entertain. School textbooks aside, there’s a rich library of informational manga on topics ranging from disaster preparedness to social security reform, making even the dreariest of subjects accessible.
Bonsai ain't dead yet
Bonsai, the millennium-old art of cultivating miniature trees, may not seem like the most obvious candidate for a high-tech makeover, but Makoto Azuma has managed just that. The self-described flower artist has been taking bonsai to some unexpected places recently, from fashion shows to an abandoned power plant in Belgium. Most famously, in 2014 he sent a 50-year-old white pine bonsai up into space, as part of his ‘Exbiotanica’ project.
We've got the world's best second-hand shops
The petite size of the average Japanese home makes life difficult for hoarders, but a bonanza for second-hand shoppers. With people constantly shedding their unwanted clobber, there’s never a shortage of products for the nation’s many impeccably stocked recycle shops and vintage clothing emporia – and you can find bargains aplenty. Read our roundup of 'Tokyo's best vintage stores'.
The pop music is deliciously different
With international pop music reaching peak homogeneity – as artists from Sweden to South Korea enlist the same genre styles, songwriters and production techniques to craft songs that sound staggering similar – thank heavens Japan has remembered how to be different. Love ’em or loathe ’em, Oricon chart heavyweights like AKB48, Exile and Arashi couldn’t be mistaken for music from anywhere else. Meanwhile, some mutant strains of J-pop have been finding a well-deserved audience overseas, from Babymetal’s inspired idol-mosh mash-ups to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s kawaii singalongs, Scandal’s chipper pop-rock and Perfume’s 22nd-century electro-pop.
There's a mascot for everything, maybe three
In recent years, a pot-bellied, rose-cheeked bear has been giving Hello Kitty and co. a run for their money. But Kumamon is no ordinary cartoon character: he’s an official mascot, originally created in 2010 to promote a new bullet train link to Kumamoto Prefecture in southern Kyushu. Japan is home to thousands of such mascots, known as yuru-kyara, which supply a cute public face to everything from local industries to police forces and prisons. There are so many, in fact, that the Finance Ministry proposed a nationwide cull last year.
When people imagine what it’s like to work at a Japanese animation studio, they usually visualise piles of drawings stacked up high and a group of exhausted-looking creatives who’ve been working steadily with little pay or sleep. Studio Colorido, however, is bucking the overworked-underpaid industry trend, and its office space looks more like an orderly IT startup with a bright future. The company is also paving the way for a new kind of digital animation in Japan. Click below to read the full article in which we interview the team...
Virtual pop stars are already a reality
When William Gibson’s ‘Idoru’ came out in 1995, the idea of a holographic pop star still qualified as science fiction. Not any more: in 2014, Hatsune Miku – a blue- haired avatar whose voice is created using vocal synthesiser Vocaloid – opened for Lady Gaga in the States and performed live on ‘Late Show With David Letterman’. For many overseas viewers, it was their first taste of Japan’s hugely popular Vocaloid scene, an alternate-reality J-pop universe where the stars are all virtual.
'Made in Japan' is keeping traditional arts alive
Japan has one of the richest artisan cultures in the world, but with many traditional crafts requiring long and demanding apprenticeships, they’ve been at risk of dying out. That’s all starting to change, as an increasing number of fashion and product designers find new uses for age-old techniques. At department stores such as Coredo Muromachi in central Tokyo, there’s an explicit emphasis on ‘Made in Japan’ products, which are updating traditional crafts while shedding some of their fustier associations. Win-win.
We've got the best music fests in Asia
Though they’re facing increasing competition from events in South Korea and China, Japan’s outdoor music festivals are still the top dogs in the region. Fuji Rock Festival is the closest you’ll get to an Asian version of Glastonbury or Roskilde, while the twin-city Summer Sonic serves up big-name pop and EDM acts at locations within easy striking distance of central Tokyo and Osaka. There’s also a vibrant scene of festivals that specialise in homegrown acts, including Rock in Japan and Rising Sun.
The scary monsters are in league of their own
While Western writers content themselves with endless rehashes of vampire, werewolf and zombie tropes, Japan has a much broader pantheon of spooks and monsters to draw on. Collectively known as yokai, these range from yurei – best represented by Sadako, the vengeful wraith in horror movie ‘Ringu’ – to magical foxes and Akaname, the notorious ‘bathroom licker’. They bring a ghoulish edge to many manga and anime: try current kids’ favourite ‘Yokai Watch’, or Shigeru Mizuki’s classic series ‘GeGeGe no Kitaro’.
Obsessions are celebrated
One of the biggest shifts in Japanese pop culture since the early 2000s has been the rise of otaku, the obsessive fans who gorge on anime, videogames and idol pop. But the country was a hotbed of hobbyists long before the otaku went mainstream. Wander around the unashamedly nerd-centric Nakano Broadway mall in Tokyo, and you’ll find shops devoted not just to manga, cosplay and figurines, but also model trains, lucha libre masks, antique dolls and accessories shaped like cats. It’s like nothing is too niche.
There's a solution for everything – even you-know-what
Japan has a well-deserved reputation for attention to detail, and that extends to life’s unmentionables, too. The greater Tokyo area has over 50 branches of Takarajima 24, an internet café specifically geared to customers who want to watch porn (they even give you a condom when you check in). And then there’s Tenga, the ‘Apple of adult goods’, whose stylish masturbation aids and luxury vibrators have picked up Red Dot Awards for their sophisticated product design.
The architecture is world-class
It’s no secret that Japan’s architects are among the best in the world; only the United States has produced more winners of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, the industry’s answer to the Nobel. 2014 laureate Shigeru Ban is perhaps the prize’s worthiest winner to date: his pioneering use of paper tubing has allowed him to create temporary structures for disaster survivors in countries including Rwanda, Japan and, most recently, Nepal. While there’s much to admire in the concrete edifices of earlier masters such as Tadao Ando and Kenzo Tange, Ban is crafting a sustainable, humane architecture for the future.
Analogue culture is still thriving
Remember Tower Records? The once-mighty chain of music emporiums is still alive and well in Japan. Digital media may be booming, but consumers haven’t lost their love for the analogue here, whether it’s magazines, books or vinyl. Bibliophiles are advised to start at the expansive Daikanyama T-Site, a shrine to print media, while crate diggers should head to one of the many branches of Disk Union or to one of 'The best record stores in Shibuya'.
It's all about the little things
Sticklers for detail will be in heaven here. Pay close attention, and you’ll discover thoughtful touches in some unexpected places, from the localised designs adorning manhole covers to the station-specific melodies that play when train doors are closing. Even humdrum packaging isn’t spared – witness the fish-shaped soy sauce bottles included in bento boxes.
Karaoke keeps on getting better
Even people who profess an abject hatred of karaoke may be forced to reconsider after a visit to the glitzy Pasela Resorts chain or the lavishly equipped Karaoke Adores in Akihabara, which has booths where aspiring axe gods can practise their guitar licks. The karaoke industry just keeps on moving forward: recent innovations include Joysound Musicpost, which lets users upload songs, and an initiative by NTT to make karaoke machines easier for elderly people and foreigners to use.
It's a brand thing
Don’t just take our word for it about how great this place is. Last year, Japan came first in FutureBrand’s Country Brand Index, which rates nations on factors ranging from awareness to whether they evoke positive associations. Beating out Germany and Switzerland to the top spot, the country was ranked particularly highly for its business potential, heritage and culture, and the quality of its products. Can’t argue with that.
The revolutionary briefs
Wondering what this sexy golden pair of men's briefs is doing on the list? Well, it’s made by local brand TOOT, which is credited with revolutionising the way Japanese men view their underwear. Since the brand’s launch in 2001, its premium fabrics, artisanship and styles have by all accounts turned men onto the value of expressing their individuality through their underpants.
Move over, Levi's
The secret’s out: long championed by obsessive bloggers, Japanese selvedge denim is starting to attract mainstream attention. Okayama-based brands such as Evisu and Momotaro take an old-school approach to manufacturing, using vintage shuttle looms and natural indigo dyes to produce fabric that’s prized for its distinctive texture, colour and durability. Japan’s artisanal denim is now increasingly in demand, too: UK high street fashion brand Topman recently teamed up with Okayama’s Kurabo Mills to produce a limited-edition range of clothing. Discover Tokyo's best denim shops here.
We're still inspiring fashion trends: Darth Vader style
Sure, Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen caused a kerfuffle when they brought the visor back to the catwalk in 2012, but Japanese grannies had been sporting them for years to shield their skin from UV rays. Take that, fashionistas.
We're still inspiring fashion trends: Kabuki chic
New York designer Thom Browne went the whole geisha with his Spring 2016 menswear collection, featuring kimono suits and geta clogs. This high-fashion tribute to Japan makes a lot of sense: the country is Browne’s biggest market.
We're still inspiring fashion trends: Origami all around
Fashion designers including Calvin Klein and Gareth Pugh have found inspiration in the techniques and motifs of origami, but recently it’s been turning up in furniture too, from Julie Walbel’s ‘cone’ seats to Tracey Tubb’s folded wallpaper.
We're still inspiring fashion trends: Foot wrapping
Searching for a follow-up to its minimalist FiveFingers shoe, Italian footwear brand Vibram turned to the traditional wrapping cloth known as furoshiki. The company’s namesake shoe is a gripped outsole that wraps around the wearer’s foot. Nifty.
The robots are taking over (and it's kinda cool)
Making good on its ‘country of the future’ reputation, Japan has been stealthily repopulating its service industry with automatons. At the newly opened Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki’s Huis Ten Bosch theme park, the receptionists and porters are all robots. The venerable Mitsukoshi department store in Nihonbashi, Tokyo made headlines earlier this year when it put a kimono-clad humanoid on the front desk for a couple of days. Things are going cybernetic on the home front, too. In June, SoftBank started selling the world’s first personal robot, Pepper, a cutesy droid that can read people’s emotions. Despite costing ¥198,000, the first batch of 1,000 sold out in a minute. And there’s more to come: Suzumo Machinery has even developed a line of sushi-making robots.
3D technology is getting mind-bending
From ceramics to prosthetics, Japanese businesses are making inventive uses of 3D printing technology. One of the most impressive developments comes from scientists at the University of Tokyo Hospital, who are working on a bio-printer that uses stem cells and a collagen-like substance to make artificial implants. Need a new ear? Meanwhile, imaging experts are muddying the divide between the physical and virtual realms: Japanese researchers recently unveiled a 3D hologram that you can actually touch.
Intercity travel happens at bullet speed
The world’s first high-speed rail service, the Shinkansen (aka ‘bullet train’) is still one of its best, with a network extending from Kagoshima in southern Kyushu to Aomori in the north. The only thing more impressive than its operating speed (up to 320km/h) is the time it takes station staff to clean an entire train: just seven minutes. Expect things to get considerably faster when a new maglev line linking Tokyo and Nagoya opens in 2027. In test runs in April 2015, the train set a world speed record of 603km/h.
Everything is connected
There’s been a lot of buzz recently about the Internet of Things – where everyday objects embedded with electronic devices can communicate with each other – but few countries have done as much legwork as Japan. Aided by some of the fastest Internet speeds in the world, the country has spent the past decade networking everything from infrastructure to vending machines, household appliances and umbrella stands (no, really). The market was valued at ¥11 trillion in 2013 – and that’s predicted to double by 2018. Buckle up.
There's a groovier way to play your records
Why mess with a classic? 35 years ago, Tamco released the Sound Wagon, a toy VW camper van that plays records by driving over the grooves. DJ gear specialists Stokyo just unveiled an updated version, the Record Runner, which offers better sound quality than the original, without sacrificing an iota of cuteness.
We've got the food (and fuel) of tomorrow
You need a microscope to see it, but a microalgae being commercially cultivated in Japan may be the answer to two of the world’s most pressing problems. Hotly fancied start-up Euglena is pitching the eponymous single-celled organism as a nutrition-rich dietary supplement that could solve world food shortages – and as a viable biofuel, too.
Selfies? Been there already
Long before selfie sticks became the accessory of choice for teen narcissists, Japanese youngsters had purikura: photo booths where you can pose with friends, then decorate the pictures and print them as stickers. Oh, and spare a thought for Hiroshi Ueda, a Minolta engineer who patented a commercially unsuccessful selfie stick way back in 1983.
The beauty products are next level
Overseas fashion magazines are just waking up to the wonderful world of Japanese cosmetics, turning beauty products such as Cure Natural Aqua Gel and DHC Deep Cleansing Oil into must-have items. It’s hard not to love the novel treatments and preference for natural ingredients here. And with so many pharmacies around, prices stay competitive, too.
The gaming industry is still booming
Japan may have given the world many of its greatest videogame consoles, but these days most of the gaming action has gone mobile. Ludicrously popular smartphone game ‘Monster Strike’ – produced by social media company Mixi – is currently raking in ¥500 million every day, while rivals ‘Puzzle & Dragons’ and ‘Tsum Tsum’ aren’t far behind. Still, it’s too soon to call time on the traditional console makers: worldwide sales of Sony’s PlayStation 4 passed the 25 million mark earlier this year, taking even the company’s
executives by surprise.
You've gotta have 'eco'
Japan’s automakers have been a driving force (sorry) in developing fuel-efficient hybrid cars and electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf. But you’ll find all kinds of eco-friendly products here, from Panasonic’s energy-saving intelligent air conditioners to PET bottles that are made from other recycled PET bottles.
You can drive the car of the future
It may bear a passing resemblance to the bubble cars that Messerschmitt churned out in the ’50s, but don’t be fooled: one day, the Toyota i-Road (above) could be the automobile of choice for city dwellers. Powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, this compact, car-motorbike hybrid is both eco-friendly and easy to park. If you need something smaller, try Honda’s Uni-Cub, a personal mobility device that ‘USA Today’ compared to ‘a bar stool on wheels’, or Cocoa Motors’ WalkCar, a moving platform that’s dinky enough to fit in a briefcase.
The high-rises keep rising
Improvements in anti-seismic technology are allowing Japanese developers to be ever more ambitious. Tokyo is in the grip of a skyscraper boom that’s transforming the city’s skyline, while Osaka boasts the tallest building in the country, the 300-metre Abeno Harukas. And don’t forget Tokyo Skytree: at 634 metres, the tallest tower in the world.
The Toto Washlet
Once you’ve experienced a heated toilet seat, there’s no going back. The Toto Washlet elevates the act of excretion to wondrous heights, complete with built-in bidet, blowdryer and an automated seat that rises to greet you.
There's always room for improvement
Given that fares have barely changed since the early 1990s, you’d think that Japan’s public transport system would be suffering from benign neglect. Think again: rail companies are constantly upgrading their rolling stock and investing in large-scale redevelopment projects, while bus operators are taking pains to make their services more accessible to foreign tourists.
Rechargeable IC cards
Not just a convenient way to pay your train fare: you can use them at convenience stores and vending machines too. What’s more, a Suica or Pasmo card bought in Tokyo is compatible nationwide.
Even the apps are cute
Making sure even your smartphone can get the kawaii treatment, CocoPPa is an app that lets you customise your phone’s wallpaper and icons (even for standards like Facebook and YouTube), choosing from over a million designs. With 40 million downloads and counting since 2012, this is one of Japan’s most successful apps ever.
Rather than lament the death of handwriting, Japan’s stationery makers continue to innovate. Pilot’s FriXion pens use heat-sensitive ink that you can actually erase, while Kokuyo’s Harinacs is a stapler without the staples. Brilliant.
Space is at such a premium in Japan’s major cities that around 540,000 car parks nationwide have gone vertical, using lifts and conveyor belts to stack vehicles on top of each other.
You can cook while you eat
Diners who like to take a more active role in the preparation of their meals are glutted for choice here. Okonomiyaki (above), shabu-shabu, yakiniku: there’s a plethora of restaurants that let you cook your own food. At the Zauo chain of fish restaurants, you can even catch your dinner before eating it.
It's a nation of perfectionists
‘I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit,’ says octogenarian sushi master Jiro Ono in 2011 documentary ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’. ‘There is always a yearning to achieve more.’ Perfectionism is hardwired into Japanese cuisine (washoku), and you don’t have to go to Sukiyabashi Jiro, Ono’s Michelin three-star restaurant, to appreciate it. In fact, you don’t even need to eat washoku: from haute cuisine to burger bars and pizzerias, Japanese chefs show an attention to technical mastery and carefully sourced ingredients that leaves many of their Western contemporaries in the dust. There’s a reason why Tokyo has more three-star Michelin restaurants than Paris.
One word: Onigiri
If you want a pocket-sized snack that will keep you going for a few hours, there’s nothing quite like an onigiri (rice ball). Every convenience store offers a wide variety of these nourishing treats, with typical fillings including umeboshi (pickled plums), salmon and mentaiko (sea- soned cod roe), wrapped in a layer of nori seaweed. Ever wondered why onigiri are triangular?
The whisky is better than scotch
Japanese whisky has been in such demand recently that producers can barely keep up. That’s hardly surprising, when Suntory and Nikka are scooping up international awards, and esteemed critic Jim Murray picked a single malt from Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery as his whisky of the year for 2015. Closer to home, the success of NHK’s TV series ‘Massan’ – based on the life of early whisky pioneer Masataka Taketsuru and his Scottish wife, Rita Cowan – has encouraged a new generation of drinkers to kick out the drams. Want to try it out? Check out our feature on 'Where to drink whisky in Tokyo'.
Cosiness is a virtue
Real estate doesn’t come cheap in major Japanese cities, and bar and restaurant owners have adapted by squeezing into every available space. Many of the best spots to eat and drink in cities like Tokyo and Osaka are crammed into locations barely any larger than a student bedsit, resulting in a gloriously intimate experience. For more information check out our 'Tokyo alleway guide'.
Even the expensive lunches are cheap
Perhaps the best advice you can give to someone on a culinary tour of Japan is: eat out at lunchtime. Discount lunch sets are the norm here, especially on weekdays – and that’s as true at high-end hotel restaurants and sushi shops as at the cheaper eateries frequented by office workers. Even the odd Michelin three-star restaurant is getting in on the act: Aoyama Esaki in Tokyo offers a Saturday-only lunch course for a surprisingly reasonable ¥5,500.
You can have a theme park with your dinner
Like an izakaya and amusement park ride rolled into one, Japan’s theme restaurants offer some of the most bizarre dining experiences imaginable. Whether you want to eat in a zombie-infested prison hospital (that’d be Alcatraz E.R. in Shibuya), have your food served by ninjas (Ninja Akasaka), or spend an evening inside the pages of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (Alice’s Fantasy Restaurant, which has seven branches nationwide), there’s something to suit most proclivities. The newest – and cutest – addition to the ranks is the just-opened Kawaii Monster Cafe in Harajuku (above), a lysergic, dayglo fantasia created by artist and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu collaborator Sebastian Masuda.
Eating and drinking is the thing to do
As your parents might have warned you, drinking on an empty stomach is the fastest ticket to a stinking hangover the morning after. That’s less of a problem in Japan, where drinking sessions tend to take place in izakaya – meaning there’s always plenty of food to help soak up the booze.
Wagashi will refine your sweet tooth
Sophisticated, seasonal, unlikely to make your teeth rot: there’s a lot to like about wagashi, Japan’s traditional sweets. These elegant morsels evolved as a complement to the tea ceremony, and were crafted in such a way that their shape, colour and flavour would subtly evoke the time of year. Today’s wagashi are just as classy, and forward-thinking sweet shops such as Tokyo’s Higashiya and Yokohama’s Kouro-an are putting a fresh spin on traditional techniques. To try wagashi, visit one of these 'Top teahouses in Tokyo'.
There's a coffee boom brewing
The days where visitors struggled to find a good cup of Joe in Japan are long gone. Specialty coffee is booming at the moment, thanks in no small part to the likes of Karuizawa’s Maruyama Coffee and Tokyo’s Nozy Coffee. And the ¥100 coffee on sale at 7-Eleven and other convenience stores? It’s actually pretty drinkable, too.
Craft beer is on the rise
Twenty years after Japan deregulated its beer industry – and after a 'lost decade’ of fairly awful microbrews – the craft beer scene is in rude health. It’s not all hopped-up IPAs, either: the likes of Baird Brewing, Coedo and Y Market Brewing are using local, seasonal ingredients to make some only-in-Japan beers too. Visit one of the 'Top 10 Tokyo brewpubs' to see for yourself.
The sake scene is going places
As the US and UK grow ever thirstier for sake, young Japanese drinkers are also rediscovering the pleasures of premium nihonshu. Following years of slumping sales, sake producers are innovating like wild: adopting eye-catching packaging, embracing new styles like sparkling sake, and reviving old-school techniques such as the kimoto brewing method.
Want to turn your food into art? Go ahead
You’ll never look at sushi the same way again after encountering the work of Tama-chan. Known to her friends as Takayo Kiyota, the illustrator and sushi artist sculpts multicoloured makizushi rolls to resemble everything from Buddha statues to ukiyo-e prints and Vermeer paintings. Good, wholesome fun, in other words.
The fast food is actually good
Washoku isn’t all fancy, you know. Over the past decade there’s been a resurgence of interest in heartier, homier fare such as ramen, Japanese-style curry rice, okonomiyaki and donburi rice bowls. Dubbed B-kyu gurume (B-class cuisine) by the locals, it’s the kind of fast food that you won’t feel guilty about eating.
The lunchboxes are inspired
Why settle for a sandwich and a packet of crisps when you can have a well-balanced meal? The bento lunchbox puts most other takeaway options to shame, and there’s a dizzying variety on offer in Japan. Bento artists such as Mari Miyazawa transform their ingredients into cartoon characters, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘playing with your food’.
There is probably no other nation on earth that loves to put things in cans the way the Japanese do. Besides the staple canned foods like salmon and mackerel, you can buy pretty much anything in tins here – from the kind of top class red king crab you usually only see at luxury restaurants, to roast chicken, volcanic ash, or even air captured at the peak of Mt Fuji. It’s a mystery when exactly this love affair with canned foods began, but the reason is pretty obvious: the kind we make in Japan is really quite delicious. Click below to check out our taste test...
Forget kale, we've got: Matcha
Used in traditional tea ceremonies, the antioxidant-rich, powdered green tea is also a popular flavouring in ice creams and desserts.
Forget kale, we've got: Gobo
The long, slender root vegetable, also known as burdock, contains ample antioxidants and is believed to be effective against high blood pressure.
Forget kale, we've got: Goya
A staple of Okinawan cuisine, the appropriately named bitter melon is a good source of Vitamin C, and said to lower blood sugar levels.
Forget kale, we've got: Natto
They may not look appetising, but these pungent, fermented soybeans are rich in vitamin K2 and probiotics that keep your gut healthy.
Forget kale, we've got: Collagen
Japan helped kickstart the trend for ingesting this skin-rejuvenating protein. You can get collagen-infused hotpots, health drinks – even beer.
Famous flavours: Umami
There aren’t many countries in the world that can claim to have birthed an entire taste category, are there?
Famous flavours: Wasabi
The pungent plant is an essential – and frequently eye-watering – condiment for sushi and other washoku.
Famous flavours: Sansho
Frequently confused with Sichuan pepper, this spice brings a tongue-tingling citrus kick to any dish.
Famous flavours: Miso
A meal just wouldn’t feel complete without a bowl of soup made from this fermented soybean paste.
Famous flavours: Tsukemono
Tsukemono: Japanese pickles encompass a rich array of tastes, from refreshing cabbage shiozuke to mouth-puckering umeboshi.
Famous flavours: Shio-koji
When you’re in need of an umami kick, reach for this natural seasoning – like MSG without the drawbacks.
We take customer service to a whole new level
‘O-mo-te-na-shi.’ Speaking before the International Olympic Committee in 2013, in support of Tokyo’s winning bid to host the 2020 Games, bid ambassador Christel Takigawa stressed the importance of Japanese-style hospitality. And if the way she pronounced the word – pausing between each syllable for emphasis – prompted a few giggles at home, the message rang true. Meticulous, deferential and disarmingly polite, customer service in Japan can be a wonder to behold, and that’s not just true of the luxury ryokan (traditional inns) and Ginza department stores. Even the shop assistants in Uniqlo take their omotenashi very seriously indeed.
City life is outrageously convenient
Japan has over 50,000 convenience stores nationwide, most of them absurdly well stocked, with facilities ranging from ATMs and photocopiers to public toilets and dry cleaning services. More impressive still is the tally of vending machines: over five million, or one for every 25 people.
You won't mind minding your manners
If you’re going to tell someone how to act, you might as well do it imaginatively. For decades, Tokyo Metro’s subway manner posters have been using smart, witty designs to encourage people to behave a little better towards each other. What’s not to like?
There are no rail strikes
Technical expertise and careful management aren’t the only things that make Japan’s public transport system so reliable. Thanks to a variety of factors, from the waning influence of unions to an ingrained customer service mentality, there hasn’t been a major rail strike in the country since 1992.
A trip to a hair salon is a trip to paradise
Wander past many Japanese hair salons and you’ll see the staff practising late into the night. As if their precision hairdressing techniques weren’t enough, salons habitually shower customers with perks, from complimentary drinks to free ear cleaning and head and shoulder massages. Try one of these top hair salons.
Home deliveries actually arrive when you want them to
There’s no need to spend a whole day waiting at home for a package to arrive. Offering the convenience of a courier service without the ruinous expense, Japanese home delivery companies let customers choose exactly when they want a parcel to turn up – and even let them pay cash-on-delivery.
People are really, really good at queuing
When Blue Bottle Coffee opened in Tokyo in February 2015, customers queued up to three hours just to get a cup. Waiting in line is a national pastime in Japan, and it’s been refined to a high art: passengers form orderly queues on station platforms, and you hardly ever have to worry about people cutting in.
The flyers are actually handy
Most people aren’t interested in being given leaflets, so Japanese companies started bundling their flyers with stuff that people did want. Tissues are the most popular option, and in the summer you can snag a complimentary uchiwa fan outside most stations.
You can find a niche for (nearly) everything
Restaurants that specialise in a single dish, shops that specialise in a single product, bars that specialise in a single type of drink: none are considered remotely unusual in Japan. It's all just a question of finding your niche.
There are lively traditional festivals happening year-round
Age-old traditions are kept vividly alive at Japan’s matsuri, the boisterous street festivals that erupt throughout the year. There are few more inspiring spectacles than watching local residents don traditional garb and haul heavy portable shrines through the streets, to the accompaniment of taiko drumming and lots of sake.
A cat can save a company
Faced with closure, a loss-making railway line in Wakayama Prefecture revived its fortunes in an unusual way: by appointing a stray cat as a stationmaster. Though Tama-chan passed away earlier this year, her popularity helped restore Wakayama Electric Railway to profitability – and she now has a successor, Nitama (Tama the Second).
The local high streets are still going strong
While big-box stores dominate the retail landscape in rural Japan, city dwellers still do much of their shopping in their neighbourhood shotengai. These old-school arcades can be found throughout the larger cities, and while some are faring better than others, they’re always interesting, packed full of small eateries, family-run businesses and lots of local flavour.
There's a character for every year
Each December, the Japanese Kanji Proficiency Society unveils the character that best represents the passing year. Unlike the ‘Word of the Year’ tradition in countries like Germany and Norway, it’s less focused on buzzwords – and, crucially, the public gets to do the voting.
All-you-can-drink is actually a thing
In a binge-drinking nation like the UK, any establishment offering free-flowing drinks at budget prices would probably go out of business within the week. In Japan, cheap nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) deals are standard at a lot of izakaya and karaoke boxes – and if you’re an even moderate drinker, they can be an absolute steal.
The gardens are exquisite
Many have tried, but nobody does Zen shrubbery quite like Japan’s gardeners. You can still find beautiful traditional gardens in the middle of major cities, where they provide a serene – and slightly surreal – oasis amidst the din of modernity
The fireworks will make your jaw drop
Think you’ve seen some impressive fireworks in your time? Wait until you witness the bombastic displays that happen throughout Japan during the summer months: the largest events, like the Suwa Lake Fireworks Festival in Nagano Prefecture, use a staggering 40,000 fireworks.
It's a nation of cyclists
From schoolchildren to salarymen, young parents to pensioners, everyone seems to cycle here. There are an estimated 72 million bicycles in Japan, and 14 percent of all journeys in Tokyo are made by bike. Only a handful of countries in northern Europe boast higher usage rates.
It's the birthplace of emoji
A staple of every smartphone, the cute ideograms known as emoji were originally created by NTT Docomo employee Shigetaka Kurita, who drew on manga and kanji characters for inspiration. Instant messaging app Line takes the idea even further with its vast (and mildly insane) library of stickers.
Lost-and-found actually works
When you lose something here, there’s a good chance that you’ll actually get it back. It’s easy for people to turn in lost items at the nearest police box (koban), and they tend not to pilfer the contents first. Last year, Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department Lost & Found Center processed nearly ¥3.5 billion in cash that had been turned in by the public, three quarters of which made it back to the original owners.
The public bathing culture is oh-so refreshing
For a nation with a reputation of being a bit uptight, Japan is awfully blasé when it comes to getting naked with strangers. Whether you’re taking a dip at an onsen (hot-spring) resort or a neighbourhood sento (public bath), you’ll have to leave your inhibitions where you left your clothes: in the changing room. The bathing culture can take a while to get used to, but it’s worth persevering. Thermal onsen waters have a range of therapeutic effects, while a trip to the sento can be a fascinating social experience. The practice of washing before you get in the bath is something that more Westerners might learn to emulate, too. Try one of these top Tokyo hot spring baths.
You don't have to tip – ever
While restaurants in the US are only just starting to experiment with enforcing no-tipping policies, Japan is already way ahead of the curve. Waiters, taxi drivers, hotel porters: you don’t have to tip any of them, and they’ll actively rebuff you if you so much as try. Haggling is rare, too: what you see is what you get.
Department stores: retail heaven
For a taste of retail paradise, go to a Japanese department store when the doors open in the morning, and watch in awe as the staff line up to greet customers with a bow. In a country where shopping is akin to religion, department stores are the high temples.
You can drink anywhere, anytime
On the corner, in the park, riding the train: there are no restrictions on public drinking in Japan, meaning you can hit the bottle wherever you like. With alcohol on sale 24/7 at many convenience stores, as well as a plethora of late-night bars and izakaya keeping the liquor flowing, you can drink whenever you like, too.
Floor culture: tatami
Fashioned from tightly woven rice straw, tatami mats have been the flooring of choice in Japanese homes for centuries. It absorbs carbon dioxide, regulates humidity, and is comfortable enough to sleep on.
Floor culture: futon
Speaking of sleeping on the floor: futons are the perfect complement for a tatami room. Firmer than the average Western mattress, they’re also easy to fold up and stow away, meaning you can use a single room for multiple purposes.
Floor culture: tea ceremony
You’d think that a centuries-old ritual devoted to making a cuppa wouldn’t have many modern adherents. In fact, many people continue to study tea ceremony. For the rest of us, it’s a handy introduction to Japanese aesthetics.
Floor culture: kotatsu
Winter is the best time of year to appreciate Japan’s floor culture. Homes tend not to have central heating, so families snuggle around a kotatsu, a squat table with an electric heater built into its belly. It makes every evening feel like a slumber party. Try out winter kotatsu dining at Casita.
Floor culture: no shoes
Some Japanese customs seem odd. Others, like the tradition of removing your shoes on entering a home, don’t brook any argument. The habit is so ingrained that you’ll even see children slip their shoes off before standing on the seats of trains.