Exploring the Cultural Quirks of Japan

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Many countries have things they are widely recognized for, such as tulips in the Netherlands, the Eiffel Tower in France, and Carnival in Brazil. But there are also cultural intangibles that might not be as obvious but can be equally interesting. By way of greetings, Americans exchange hugs while Europeans prefer to kiss on the cheek. On the culinary front, Scots are crazy for Haggisย while Australians can’t get enough Vegemite. Openly blowing your nose into a tissue is considered rude in China but spitting on the ground is okay. Discovering these idiosyncrasies is partly why I travel, to explore and revel in what makes different cultures unique.

While traveling around Asia, I was fascinated that countries so close geographicallyย could often be so varied culturally. Thais are renowned for their hospitable and friendly manner while mainland Chinese have a reputation for being a little brusque. The Japanese, meanwhile, are more reserved and have turned politeness into an art form. Service personnel will bow to you in thanks and young people will quickly give up their seat to their elders.


Even the construction signs are polite!

Japan Sign

Japanese society is steeped in centuries-old traditions that remain resilient today. Surprisingly graceful sumo wrestlers delight crowds at sold-out tournaments, while elaborately made-up geishas entertain guests with traditional song and dance performances. The customary tea ceremony continues to thrive, with many people taking classes to learn the ancient rituals of preparing and pouring tea. There are thousands of steps involved, many which change with the seasons and the formality of the occasion.



In everyday life, tradition is preserved by the women who don beautiful kimono for special occasions, the school children who diligently practice writing the intricate Japanese characters and the sushi chefs who take pride in every precise knife cut. Food is regarded very seriously in Japan, and great care goes into presentation. Meals often consist of multiple components, each expertly prepared and served on individual dishes.


Hello Kitty dressed in kimono.

Even the sandwiches sold at convenience stores are meticulously packaged, although some of the ingredients can be baffling. Why does corn always seem to find its way into foreign versions of Western food? It’s unclear if the white substance in the photos below is cream or mayonnaise, the latter which the Japanese use liberally.

Japan is also at the forefront of advanced technology and architecture, with its buildings designed to withstand the impact of earthquakes which plague the region. But what really sets Japan apart is its whimsy. Everything from buses and lampposts to advertisements and public service announcements are given a dash of cuteness. Even the Asahi Brewery has been shaped like a beer glass and topped with a golden flame, affectionately known around town as the “golden poo.”




This cute character was advertising the fast food chain Lotteria.

Japan Ad

Advertisement for a computer store. Notice the mouse on the cat’s tail.


Store display inside a shopping mall. Please note that the stuffed animals with freakishly human appendages were moving.


The most adorable puff of smoke I’ve ever seen!



A very sturdy building topped with a giant chef’s head.

ย What are the cultural quirks you’ve discovered while traveling?


37 thoughts on “Exploring the Cultural Quirks of Japan

  1. I was just waiting for that smoke puff warning to appear! This post has me ready to head back to Japan. ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. What a brilliant collection of photos! Japan was the first place I travelled to solo so it will always have a special place in my heart – in some ways it’s a crazy place to start as you think that everyone in other countries is as wacky as them! So many contradictions are present all the time – I love it.
    Caitlyn recently posted…That first foreign food forayMy Profile

    • Yes, I know just what you mean! I love the contradictions, the reserved businessmen and the crazy Harajuku counterculture. Japan was my first destination in Asia and I thought everyone was going to be just as polite across the region. I got a bit of a shock in China ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I have a question regarding Geisha. I’ve heard it is extremely difficult to see them in the streets and foreigners are not allowed to take photos of them or with them. They are protected by the Japanese law. Is it true? Have you managed to speak to some of them? I was surprised by seeing a photo of them in your post :). By the way, lovely experience!
    Agness recently posted…5 Tips On How To Travel Central America On The CheapMy Profile

    • That’s a good question, Agness. I haven’t heard about that before. I saw those two geisha in Kyoto and everyone was taking their photo, including Japanese ladies wearing kimono and lots of tourists. It is hard to see geisha because there aren’t very many of them anymore. Kyoto is the best place to spot them, though I think there are some in Tokyo too. It’s just a matter of finding the neighborhood where they work. I haven’t spoken to any, but a friend of mine went to a special studio where she got to dress up like one!

    • I know, I just love Japan. It’s probably the strangest place I’ve been so far and I mean that in the most affectionate way. The maid cafes freak me out, plus I’ve heard the food isn’t very good and you can’t take photos inside. I’d rather make some furry friends at one of the dog or cat cafes. But that’s another great thing about Japan – they’ve got something for everyone! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. I always wondered what they were thinking with that “golden poo”?! I know it’s supposed to be a flame, but did they not look at the design?! haha

    Were you wondering about the white substance in the strawberry sandwich? That is definitely cream. On the packaging, it describes it as a “strawberry and milk cream, custard sandwich.” Not a fan myself but they keep selling it so I guess people buy it haha

    Love cultural quirks – they are what make a place interesting. Japan is such a fascinating place. Don’t think I’ll ever get tired of learning new things about it.

    Did you try any convenience store food, Heather? What was your favourite?
    Jessica – Notes of Nomads recently posted…Beginnerโ€™s Guide to Housesitting: What is it exactly?My Profile

  5. I know exactly what you mean about countries being geographically close but culturally different. When I first moved to China, I was actually expecting it to be a bit more similar to Korea (where I lived a few years ago). But I really don’t find them anything a like- both in terms of culture but also in the way the cities look, the types of shops etc. I’ve heard that Korea is a lot more similar to Japan than China but I don’t know if it’s true. Have you been to Korea too?
    J in Beijing recently posted…Life on the Water at Inle LakeMy Profile

    • I have been to Korea and noticed a lot of similarities with Japan: Extreme politeness, cafe culture, architecture, neon signs, appreciation for cuteness. Seoul is a little grittier than Tokyo, but I like that having lived in NYC.

    • Japan has the best ice cream! I love all the random flavors, like soy sauce and potato, though the plain milk flavor is my favorite ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. That was a fantastic post, Japan is quirky traditional and modern with some bizarre mixed in and yes I find some of the food combinations odd like corn with that white mayo cream! But the bentos and other seafood are devine!

    • Thanks Noel! Japan is such a fascinating place and I love all the contradictions and delicious food. I could go for a bento box lunch right now!

    • Thanks so much! We blondes need to stick together ๐Ÿ™‚

      I hope you make it to Japan! It’s a fabulous place ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Japan has been top of my wishlist for quite some time now – it’s that contrast between the tradition and the ultra modern that draws me in. Sounds like you had a fantastic time there ๐Ÿ™‚
    Catherine recently posted…Reading List #1My Profile

  8. I found these to all be true on my visit to Japan, too, Heather! I was also impressed with how well people were dressed at all times, which I think speaks to their culture as well. Also, how you hear a lot of those “hai!” in conversations, which I think means “I follow”…like maybe how Americans do the whole nod and smile during conversation?
    Jess @UsedYorkCity recently posted…UYC Style: Mint ConditionMy Profile

    • Yes, you are absolutely right Jess! I had forgotten about all the “hais!” but it is a super endearing habit. I imagine Japan today is like the U.S. circa 1950. I love looking at old family photos from that time and seeing how dressed up and polished everyone looked. It would be nice if we could get just a little of that back, don’t you think?

  9. This post makes me want to go back to Japan, I loved its different and quirky culture. Thanks Heather for bringing back nice memories

    • It was absolutely horrifying, especially with the arms and legs swaying back and forth! Truly the stuff of nightmares LOL!

    • Thanks, Shing, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! I just love Japan and can’t say enough good things about it. It’s such a unique and fascinating place! I definitely encourage you to visit ๐Ÿ™‚

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