The Weirdest Parts of Japan
Oh the oddities of Japan. After exploring Asia and Southeast Asia for over 3 months you’d think we would’ve already seen strangest of the strange. Heading to the much more Western-friendly Japan, it was a surprise to find new challenges, some more egregious than the poorer countries we had visited previously.
Dietary Restrictions and Allergies in Japan
For dinner our first night in Tokyo we had what seemed like the Japanese equivalent of an iHop. There weren’t many vegetarian or gluten free options, but this menu did at least have allergens labeled. I never thought Japan would be the hardest country to eat in.
As a vegetarian I’ve become accustomed to there usually being at least one thing on the menu I could order. Instead, it was like going back in time to when I was 8 in the U.S., and had to ask for modifications on everything to make it vegetarian. This was worse because not only was there was a language barrier, but the Japanese can sometimes take offense to asking for modifications.
I thought for sure Lawrence would have more luck finding gluten free options. I’m thinking; sushi, rice, steak, seafood…that all sounds safe! But he had it as bad as I did since nearly every dish secretly includes some form of gluten. For no apparent reason, I might add. They also don’t label “gluten” in the ingredients, only wheat and barley. A lot of things had “modified starch” which sometimes contained wheat, but got away with being unlabeled since it was modified…I guess?
It was even difficult finding options at Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea! I assume it’s because the park is ran by a third-party company and not quite up to the normal Disney standards. Lawrence at least had a handful of places that served all encompassing allergy-friendly meals. I, on the other hand, had the option of an allergy veggie curry or one table service restaurant that served pasta.
The parks offer allergy-friendly options meant to be safe from the top allergens: gluten, dairy, nuts, seafood, soy, and egg. However, there were numerous labeling mistakes when it came to the the allergy-friendly menus. For example, the pasta place had an allergy-friendly option that said it was free from all the previously mentioned allergens, including gluten, but clearly included pasta. We’d found a so-called “plant based chicken” that listed “chicken” as an ingredient in the dish. And forget about asking for something without meat, or modified at all. I attempted this at a quick-service place with a spaghetti and meatballs option. Apparently not adding in meatballs was too big of a hassle.
I wouldn’t expect the country as a whole to abide by Western allergy standards, especially if not consistent with the culture. But for Disney this was not on brand and a bit of an upsetting setback. I mean, if Disney can’t get it right the rest of the country was doomed. For such a technologically advanced state they seemed determined to ignore any dietary restrictions and include meat and gluten in nearly every dish. It had become tiring by the end of the trip. Lawrence was plenty sick of eating rice and sausages from the grocery store, the only item of substance he could find for the 2 weeks we were there.
If you’re one with dietary needs it’s something to be prepared for. We did a lot of grocery store shopping rather than eating out.
The Tokyo Metro
The Tokyo Metro is world class when it comes to city transportation. It’s fast, efficient, and frequently on time. It is not, however, tourist friendly. The best way to use the Metro is to obtain a refillable IC card. If you can get it, this card works on all forms of transportation, and even worked outside of Tokyo in Osaka and Kyoto. However, it is nearly impossible to obtain in person as an English-speaker.
IC cards can be printed at the kiosks found by many of the subway stations, but the English translation of the screen is misleading and confusing. When we asked the help desk for assistance they simply pointed us back to the kiosks. Eventually we were helped by two wonderfully kind boys who spoke both English and Japanese. Even they admitted the metro card system is too difficult for foreigners to figure out, even though the city is occupied by plenty of non-native Japanese speaking citizens.
The kind strangers were able to print us off two of the IC cards through the Japanese language option. We think they selected the option to reissue a lost card, rather than to print a new one. Without their help we would’ve needed to purchase separate individual tickets for each one of our numerous journeys. If you’re only in Tokyo for a day or two, it might not be such a big deal to print off a few tickets, but since we were staying for nearly 2 weeks, it was more time-efficient to purchase the IC cards. I believe the cards can be purchased ahead of time online, which could be an easier option if planning ahead.
If your only in Tokyo for Disney, note that if you plan to take the monorail from Tokyo Disneyland to DisneySea (which is pretty much the only option unless you love walking long distances) you must also pay for the tram ride as if it were a subway. This means a single use ticket or IC card with cash payment. It especially surprised us since we are so used to the Magic Kingdom area’s complimentary service in Florida.
It should also be noted that IC cards and individual subway tickets can only be purchased and refilled with cash. This was also true in Seoul, South Korea. They will provide ATMs to withdraw cash from, which you can then re-deposit on to your cards. It’s still a mystery why you can’t simply refill with credit. Our theory is it’s too easy to dispute with your bank and cash is more absolute.
The Absence of Trash Cans
As we walked through the Tokyo streets, metro, and landmarks we slowly noticed the lack of trash bins in place for public use. At first it seemed coincidental, but after not finding them in food courts, parks, or even the bathrooms, we suspected a greater reason than poor city planning.
In 1995 a terrorist group attempted to poison the Japanese public by putting sarin gas throughout the public metro trash cans. They hoped it would spread through contact affecting those who road the subway. Luckily, no one was killed, but over 5,000 people were exposed to the dangerous gas. To ensure a similar plot was not attempted again the Japanese government responded by removing all public trash cans in the city.
I’m not kidding when I say you will not find a garbage can in even the toilets. If you were to collect trash you’re expected to carry it with you until you return home. I had purchased a coffee to-go before we decided to visit a museum. By the time we arrived I had finished the coffee and was told “no drinks in the museum.” Which was perfectly fine, I was ready to throw the cup out. Instead I was given a plastic bag to put the cup inside and carry with me. Somehow the system seems to work, though, as the city is pretty much spotless.
It’s not a myth: Japanese toilets have more buttons than a spaceship. No matter how fancy the location almost all toilets will come equipped with the following features:
- Automatic air and bowl freshener
- “Privacy” feature (a.k.a. a speaker the plays music or the sound of running water while you get down to business)
- Automatic flush
- Temperature controlled seat warmer
- Water temperature control
- Bidet water pressure control
The toilets at our hostel even had a sink built into the back of the toilet! However, you’ll rarely find soap. For a country that keeps everything so clean, it’s a bit of a head scratcher.
I wonder how mortified Japanese natives are when visiting the U.S. Some of the Disney World bathrooms in Florida rank among the top toilets on my personal list, and they didn’t even come close to what Disneyland and the greater Tokyo area had in store.
The Lack of Deodorants
This is one I can not, for the life of me, figure out. I was used to countries outside of the U.S. preferring aerosol cans and sprays rather than stick deodorant, but Japan doesn’t have…anything.
Even beauty supply stores, that had almost every other health product you could think of, were void of the product. Whenever I asked the shop employees for anything to put under my arms I was met with confusion. The closest I got was baby wipes.
Luckily, I had enough deodorant to last me until we left Japan, but this one I am lost on. Do Japanese people not sweat?? Please advise.
More to come on the best Japan has to offer. Stay tuned!