An extremely opinionated list of things I reminisce about a year after leaving Japan — shopping and public conveniences in I appreciate as a minimalist non-shopper.
At first, I thought heated toilets were over-engineered too, until winter hit and I realised it was the most logical spot in the restroom to keep warm. Even more importantly, public toilets are everywhere (train stations, 24-hour convenience stores, parks, and random spots on the street). They’re usually very clean, even in the most remote of towns.
2. Konbini (Convenience stores)
Convenience stores, or konbini, are actually convenient. They’re 24/7, serve 100-yen coffee, have yummy ready made meals, will process your bill payments, will receive your parcel drop offs, and have machines for you to pay for online ticket reservations (i.e. planes, concerts, and the Studio Ghibli Museum). Oh, and Family Mart and Lawson both have free Wi-Fi.
3. Vending Machines
A can of coffee on a summer day. A can of hot coffee for a winter one (on specially marked ones). Tobacco. Snacks. I’ve even seen alcohol. I’ve survived on vending machines in Kunisaki, a forgotten penninsula in Japan that was once part of a historical pilgrimage network. They’re the happiest things one sees whether in the furthest flung reaches of the countryside or in the quietest hours of the night when you haven’t had dinner.
4. Japanese Hotels
Japan is a great country for hotels and domestic travel in general. The country has a number of unique lodging options such as ryokan, pensions, minshuku, shukubo and capsule hotels. Regular hotels in Japan can also be interesting and range from giant onsen resorts to cheap but efficient business hotels. Whether it’s more “homey” or “sterile”, you can always rely on a few things I’ve come to miss elsewhere: light yukata robes after a shower that double as my pajamas, slippers, and hot water and green tea. By the time I’ve showered and settled in my chair / futon / bed to have my first sip of tea, I all the tension is gone from my shoulders.
5. Delivery service
Kyoto was my first landing place in Japan, but my destination for settling in several months later would be Tokyo. When I headed to the post office in Kyoto to mail off my suitcase to my friend’s place, I filled out the form as best as I could. The gentleman then asked me, when do you want it delivered? I fumbled with my Japanese: the slowest [method possible].
“So does that mean this afternoon or tomorrow?” was his immediate reply.
Wanting to save money, I asked him if there was something slower. He said no. And mailing the whole suitcase came out to less than ¥2000 (US$20).
By the way, the Japanese consider Japan Post “slow” compared to Kuroneko (Black Cat). And, if you are up in Hokkaido, you can consider mailing a live king crab to a friend down south — they won’t bat a lash.
I don’t use them often, but these are life savers when you need them. My cousin used to stuff his shopping and briefcase into one before coming to dinner. Others would pile in a change of clothes. As for me, I tend to recommend them to all people travelling. The lockers come in different sizes and not all stations have the largest ones that can fit whole suitcases, but that’s exactly what I like them for. I can go to a station, chuck my luggage inside in the morning, do my last minute shopping the whole day, then hop on the train to fly out in the evening.
7. Reserve now, pay later.
I love that I can make a booking at a ryokan and pay on the day of. I love that airlines, coach companies and concerts will give me a day or two to pay from a convenience store after making a reservation. For the ryokan bookings, please don’t abuse it. They have an honour system where 50% of the payment should still be made within a week cancellation, and a same-day cancellation should have a full payment.
8. Real 100-Yen Stores
Whether the Daiso chain or a mom-and-pop store, the stuff usually works. Useful things include everything from staplers and sink meshes to laundry bags.
9. The 1000-dollar rice cookers (& other appliances)
I never got one, but just seeing what home appliances were at BiC camera made shopping as interesting as it ever could be to a non-shopper like me. The best rice cookers, by the way, recommend adding a piece of charcoal to add flavour to the rice.
10. Cleaning stuff
A Japanese home store is a treasure trove of curiosities. There will be feather dusters for particular corners, rollers for every variation of surface (floors, fabrics, and probably humans), and cleaning agents that have no English equivalent. Take a local to explain for double the fun.
11. Keigo / Service
Many people, Japanese included, find keigo oppressive. The stress to use entirely different vocabulary and conjugate entirely different words just for the service industry is enormous. That professional smile that people have to wear every minute is tiresome. But as an end receiver, I appreciate it. I appreciate the professional execution, which comes as a package of many other things that I associate with service: considerately asking how long you’ll be carrying a cake that needs refridgeration, checking all the contents for you before putting it in a bag, suggesting that you take a walk around because the wait will be 30-minutes.
Service in Japan is not imposed. It’s giving you options.
The small tray for you to put your bag in cafes and restaurants; the compartments under counters to hang your bags. The plastic wrap around your paper bag on a rainy day; the discrete V-shaped boards beside entrance doors to shake wet umbrellas; the packaging for your food so that you can’t destroy it in the commute jostling home; the attention to whether you’re right or left handed. The small discrete things that help make yours, and everyone else’s, life easier.
13. 2nd hand Bookshops
Summarized as Jimbocho in Tokyo for me.
14. 2nd hand everything
From the app Mailcarry, to second hand guitar shops, there is a market for everything second hand in Japan. If you’re thinking of throwing out your old camera, think about bringing it into a camera shop to get a bit of spare change! The crazy thing is that everything seems perfectly new.
Ever find yourself scrunching up tighter and tighter on a dark winter day? When you look down at your feet, you notice your toes are blue. Well, in a country that mostly lacks central heating, blankets in cafes and restaurants are a god-send. I think they are much more environmental ways of addressing our need for warmth without spending ridiculous amounts of energy heating a massive room that keeps on having a cold draft every time the automatic door opens.
16. Free Wifi everywhere
This is more true of the urban centres than the rural areas, but for the purposes of travel it’s true. Free wi-fi locations include the convenience stores (Family Mart and Lawson), Tokyo Metro’s free Wifi, and a slew of tourist-only pre-registered free wifi locations. I think the JR stations also have free wifi, though I never figured out how it works.
I would also just suggest travellers get a pocket Wi-Fi, which isn’t expensive for the convenience and it’s unlimited fast internet.
17. Airport check-ins and door-to-door delivery
As a “digital nomad” I fly more than the average person. I hate flying. It becomes routine, but never less tedious nor stressful. It’s a bit better flying in and out of Japan internationally. Then, I flew domestic and I learned to love flying. Going to Haneda’s domestic terminal, I was greeted by self (luggage) check-in machines. The future has arrived, quietly, under the radar, in Japan. When I had sticks I couldn’t bring as carry-on, they checked the items in for free. I don’t ever mind arriving at an airport early in Japan, where I can check out the local souvenirs and sit down on comfortable seats. In Haneda’s airport, with all the shops, it felt like I was in a mall and happened to be getting on a plane after. If you’re really running late, ANA’s app will let you check in up to 45 minutes before so you can race through security and onto your plane.
18. Going the extra mile
Everyone complains about Japanese overkill packaging. I’m somewhat dismayed as well with the amount of plastic. But when we put this into perspective as part of the care people take in making sure things are cared for and delivered intact, exactly as it was sent, and in looking its best (to be given), I’m at home. Nearly half a year after leaving, I will say what I miss most is that relaxed faith and utter trust in strangers to handle your things with care.
Check out the other 100+ things I’ll miss about Japan!