Japan is made up of over 6,000 islands that stretch over 1,500 miles.
Chances are you think of Japan as the single island of Honshu, home to the major cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. But in reality, Japan is a chain of islands that includes well over 6,000 islands. And thanks to the placement of the islands from north to south, you'll find a huge variety of climates from Hokkaido's deep snow (and amazing skiing) in the north to Okinawa's beaches and crystal blue water in the south.
The capital of Tokyo is the most populated city in the world, but it's surprisingly quiet.
Almost 38 million people live in Tokyo, making it the world's most populated city. And while places like Shibuya Crossing make you aware you're in a city with tens of millions of people, most streets are so quiet you can hear a pin drop. It's a true testament to the quiet, respectful nature of most Japanese people.
It's one of safest countries in the world.
Japan’s crime rate is almost non-existent, making the country one of the highest ranking on the annual Global Peace Index year after year. In 2021, the country was ranked #12 on the index out of 163 countries. You'll feel that security walking the streets (or, if you happen to leave something unattended in a shop).
Japanese has one of the highest life expectancies in the world — with an average lifespan of 84.5 years.
According to data from CIA.gov, Japan ranks #4 in the world for life expectancy (just below Monaco, Singapore, and Macau). To put that into perspective, the U.S. ranks #46 with an average life expectancy of 80.43.
Relatedly, Japan is home to the oldest living person, who recently celebrated her 118th birthday.
Japan sells more adult diapers than children's diapers.
In a report from 2019, NPR announced that the number of births in Japan fell to record lows, a testament to the country's aging population. If you need more proof, look at the fact that Japan sells 2.5 times more adult diapers than baby diapers.
The Japanese stick to a clean diet with lots of rice and fish.
There's a reason the Japanese live long, healthy lives: for the most part, the population sticks to a diet of minimally processed foods, small portions, and lots of fish. A 2008 study reported that people in Japan eat an average of three ounces of fish daily. By stark contract, most Americans eat fish only twice per week.
Nonetheless, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas is a Japanese tradition.
Less than 1 percent of Japan's population identifies as Christian, but the holiday has been adopted on a secular level. And one of those stalwart Christmas traditions in Japan includes a visit to KFC for Christmas dinner. In fact, an estimated 3.6 million people in Japan celebrate with Christmas dinner at KFC.
The tradition started in 1970 when the manager of the first KFC in Japan started marketing and selling a “party barrel” as a substitute for Christmas turkey. Apparently, this initiative worked, and people still flock to the fast-food chain for their fill of Christmas fried chicken.
Eating raw meat — including horse meat — is common.
In addition to raw fish (hello sushi and sashimi) you'll see people eating raw beef and, on occasion, raw horse meat. While controversial, raw horse meat is well known as a Japanese delicacy called bashari.
It is considered good ettiquite to slurp noodles loudly.
In Japan people are generally reserved and polite, but when it comes to eating noodles (something people do a lot) you'll find the notoriously polite Japanese loudly slurping their noodles. The reason? Some say slurping allows you to better enjoy the aroma of the noodles, which is best appreciated via the mouth.
Either way, it's one time you can cut loose without feeling like a loud, bumbling foreigner.
You can buy pretty much anything from vending machines... from underwear and ramen to French fries.
Vending machines are a big part of Japanese culture. You'll find them on most street corners and outside many restaurants where you actually order via vending machine and give your ticket to the staff. In fact, there's one vending machine for every 23 people in Japan — the highest human to vending machine ratio in the world.
You can buy almost anything from these widely available and diversely stocked machines, including piping hot bottles of green tea, ice cream, toys, tech gadgets, underwear, and freshly made foods.
And you'll find elaborate plastic food replicas outside many restaurants.
When you don't speak the language in a country you're visiting, menu photos are key. But Japan takes things one step further: many restaurants showcase fake food replicas that give diners a life-sized idea of what to expect. And boy do they look real.
In fact, making fake food has become a $90 million dollar industry in Japan, with an entire street — Kappabashi Street — dedicated to the art. (In fact, you can even enroll in a fake food making class like the one I took at Ganso Sample.)
Square melons are a thing (and go for about $90 each).
Giving fruit as a gift is the norm in Japan, but as you'd imagine, some fruit is more valuable than others. Enter the square watermelon — a cultural phenomenon that's purchased for aesthetic reasons and not usually eaten. You'd have to hope they have a long shelf life as the decorative fruits go for around $90 each
apping on the job is actually encouraged and highlights a good work ethic.
It's not uncommon to see "salarymen" (stereotypical white-collar workers) napping on the metro, and while you could argue this is acceptable in most cultures, the Japanese take it one step further by encouraging people to sleep on the job. Yes, you read that right.
Being caught taking a nap on your desk during the workday is a sign you're dedicated to your job and have been working hard.
Shoe etiquette is extremely important.
House slippers are the norm in Japan — before entering most homes, the hosts will ask you to take off your shoes and offer you a pair of house slippers. In fact, separate pairs of slippers are often worn in bathrooms and public spaces.
You might even witness this custom when you tour historic sites (especially holy places) and restaurants, which might have you dine on a raised tatami platform. This is one rule you won't want to break, so look around and do as the locals do.
Japan is a very clean country, thanks in part to the fact that public schools teach the art of cleaning.
In some Japanese schools, the kids actually clean the premises in lieu of hiring janitors.
Walk on any street and you'll see just how much maintaining a clean space (both in and out of your home) is an important part of Japanese culture.
The toilets are out of this world, complete with seat warmers, built-in bidets, and music.
If you only ever go to Japan for one thing, go so you can experience the toilets. The next-level fixtures are not only hygienic (with front and back bidets) but most have heated seats and some have a built-in fan so you can use less TP. The best feature? The music function which you can use for "discretionary purposes" (or just for your own entertainment) while using the bathroom.
You can pay someone to cuddle you.
We all need love, and in Japan you can literally pay a stranger to cuddle you. The "cuddle cafe" menu usually ranges from a short, 20-minute cuddle session to a full night’s sleep with a professional cuddler.
If cuddling isn't your thing, you can also pay to be treated like royalty at one of Japan's maid cafes. Here, you'll find young women serving food, performing, and taking photos with guests — while dressed as a maids.
While both sound highly sexual (and potentially inappropriate), the reality is much more wholesome than you might expect.
In some cases, people with tattoos aren't allowed at public pools, hot springs, beaches, and gyms.
Tattoos may be the norm in many cultures, but in Japan there's a serious stigma around tattoos. In some cases, they're seen as ugly, dirty, and a sign that someone is associated with crime or gangs.
Because of this, many of the country's onsens (hot springs and bath houses) and some public facilities (pools, beaches, gyms) actually ban people with tattoos from visiting. Thankfully, the stigma is slowly changing.