Japan has been one of my all-time favorite countries to go to since a long time ago. Being a country so rich in culture and flavour, it is no surprise that I’ve gained much unique experiences during my time there in Japan. I was first exposed to the Japanese culture back when I was still in secondary school. I also actively started picking up the Japanese language then and started appreciating the beauty and culture of Japan as a place. Since then, Japan became one of my favorite destinations!
Apart from personal trips, I also had the opportunity to experience Japanese cultural exchange programs in my university days.
1. I went on a Japan Cultural Exchange program partially sponsored by my university. It was an initiative organised by the Japanese Appreciation Club of my university to promote cultural exchanges between university students.
2. I also joined as part of the Kizuna Project organised by the Singapore Japanese Embassy. It aimed to promote tourism recoverability in the country since the major Tohoku earthquake on 11 March 2011.
These trips gave me the chance to gain many unique experiences in Japan that I would have never gotten if I were to have travelled on my own.
1. Homestay in a Buddhist temple
I experienced a 3D2N homestay in Japan back then during one of my cultural exchange program under Project Kizuna. It was located in the suburbs of Japan, at Utsunomiya, Tochigi. The unique part about this homestay is that I was staying in a traditional Japanese house connected to a temple. I still remember our car turning into the porch of the house and that culture shock I had when seeing a temple right there. I was confused initially and couldn’t comprehend for a second that this was where my homestay would be at. It was only after my host father explained to me that this was a temple that the family has been running for generations, that I started drawing the lines to understanding the situation. Hence, they have also naturally built their house right beside the temple. The house actually connects right through to the temple too!
As soon as we entered the house, we went to pay our respects in the temple. It was my first time in a traditional Japanese temple and I noticed vast differences to those in Singapore. The altar was lined with many Japanese spiritual statues in front of a large empty tatami area. That was used as free space for rituals and prayers during occassion. The host father then handed us some incense for us to pay our respects, and to which I was so nervous that I broke the incense with my clumsy hands. Oops.
Time to Ring the Bell
There was also this huge traditional bell in the backyard that was used to tell the time. Our host father rings it daily at 6am and 6pm. He even invited us to ring it with him on our first night and it was such an amazing experience! I never felt so responsible for the time before and this has got to make it to the top of my list for the most unique experience in Japan.
2. Culture Shock in a 7-storey Eye-Opening Shop in Akihabara(秋葉原)
Akihabara (秋葉原) is iconic to the culture of Japan. The endless stretches of UFO machines, arcades, manga bookstores and themed cafes all around Akihabara. It’s a place that screams of rich Japanese entertainment culture and a must-go in my opinion if you’ve never seen anything like that before anywhere else. If it’s your first time to Japan, I would recommend at least two hours to explore the area. Also, do go on a Sunday if you want to feel the full-blown effects of Akihabara! That is because they close all the roads going through Akihabara on a Sunday and people are able to use the streets freely. I’ve seen people displaying their exquisite collections of figurines, dolls or even cosplaying on the streets. If you’re bold enough to ask for a picture, they would usually be more than happy to do so too!
Culture shock in Japan
However, my most unique experience in Akiharaba was not any of the above, but rather, my time exploring a 7-storey R-rated shop there.
It was one of my most unforgettable experience I had there. I wasn’t intentionally searching for anything along this line, but it just so happened that I saw it along the streets. I was really curious considering how we don’t have something like that back in Singapore. Hence, I went in to the shop to grasp a feel of what it’s like in Japan. Japan, to me, is a country that’s really open and yet conservative at the same time. I’ve heard about how open Japan was with R-rated stuff but this was literally a culture shock.
I went in the entrance and everything still looks sort of cool and fun. You’ll find food and key chains that you can buy as a souvenir or gift to friends. Then I realised we had another six more storeys to go, so up we went. As we went higher up, the lights got dimmer and materials started to change in depth. Based on memory (since I didn’t take any photos of course), the higher levels were more of themed outfits, comics, then DVDs. Each level upwards just made me feel even more uncomfortable inside, like I was doing something really wrong. It was a whole new level of culture shock.
Bookstore, or not?
Another similar incident happened when I was in a bookstore at Akihabara checking out their books and comics. However as I was walking through the sections, I realised that there were no females in the store. Something didn’t feel quite right and so I paid more attention to the book titles to see what’s wrong. I realised it was again, an R-rated bookstore. I chuckled at my own cluelessness because it looked like such a normal bookstore from the outside but it turned out to be out of my expectations. They must be judging me entirely as I roamed about the bookstore for the first five minutes.
Above all that, I do appreciate this culture difference because it really opened up my exposure to a country and understand their culture through such unique experiences!
3. Experiencing Elementary School Life in Japan
Schools in Japan is another interesting part of the Japanese culture to me. They are so well-known for their iconic uniforms and school bags. If you’re a fan of Japanese anime, you’ll know that most anime are actually written in a school setting too. Hence, when I had the chance to experience school life in Japan, it felt like I was experiencing a real-life anime!
Students were dressed in blue for males, and pink for females. Classes uses green chalkboards and tables had hidden compartments below it. It was exactly like those in Japanese dramas and anime. We had the chance to go through a class with them before lunch break. When it was lunch, those students who were on duty put on their robes and became little chefs. They started giving out the food prepared by the kitchen to each of the students. It was really fun seeing them being so responsible for the meal of every student! We also got our own meals served to us by each student and we had it altogether in class. Love how welcoming they were to us and embraced our presence in class too!
4. University-Style Nomikai
A Nomikai (飲み会) is a drinking tradition of Japan and translates literally to a drinking party. It’s popular for student gatherings when you’re in university and becomes more of a professional obligatory session with your bosses and coworkers when you start work. As a tourist, you’ll see a lot of restaurants using this as a marketing tactic where they offer two to three hours drink-all-you-can buffet slots.
I had the chance to experience a university-style nomikai then when I had a day exchange with students from Waseda University during my cultural exchange trip. It was a really unique experience looking at how the Japanese had various formalities they adhere to even while at a social setting. Females were expected to cook the food on the grill and top-up the empty glasses. The students and their professors also let themselves down and really had fun together. I cannot imagine doing this in Singapore with my university professors, so that sight really caught me by surprise. When we parted for the night, the students also had to bow to their professors as they bid their goodbyes. They bowed each time they took a step backward until they were out of each other’s sight. It was fun to experience such a culture difference first-hand too!
5. First-Class Hospitality in an Authentic Onsen Ryokan (温泉旅館）
If you have not experienced an authentic Onsen Ryokan (温泉旅館) in Japan, you’re missing out so much! I visited one before in winter and it was amazing. I never felt so taken care of before in a hotel because of the amenities and the first-class hospitality! It was indeed one of a kind and the reason why I would go for it again and again!
We stayed in little wooden tatami huts that could accommodate at least six. There was a 24 hours onsen in the main building that we could use at anytime of the day. As our huts were not connected to the onsen, the ryokan very kindly prepared some thick and cushiony jackets for us to stay warm on our way to the onsen. They even set up our tatami beds neatly in our huts so it was ready for us when we returned back to our hut from the onsen. Talk about first-class hospitality!
Vegeterian Dinner Buffet before the Onsen Experience
The ryokan also served us a vegeterian meal that tasted so good! Every dish was so special and was a taste I could not forget! They grounded the wasabi on the spot and it was so fragrant. It’s definitely not comparable to those you see in plastic tubes at the supermarkets. Definitely not an experience to be missed if you have the chance to go for one!
So this sums up my Top 5 unique experiences in Japan! What about you? What made into your list of top unique experiences in Japan? Share it with me in the comments!