Visiting Japan after it’s been closed off to tourists for so long is making people see the country with new eyes. 

On 11 October, Japan finally eased its strict border controls, allowing tourists back into the country without restrictions for the first time in two years. One of the first people on an international flight to come and see us was our South Korea-based reporter Soon Pyon’s, who’d previously lived in Japan for over ten years, never leaving for more than a week until the pandemic kept him out of the country.

Soon Pyon’s has spent about half his life living in Japan, so when he finally returned to the country last week, he was expecting it to be just as he’d remembered it. However, he was surprised to find that some things seemed quite different now, and his time away from Japan had made him see the country in a whole new light upon his return.

After discussing it with a number of his other returning friends, Soon Pyon’s found he wasn’t the only one to have noticed new things in Japan, so here are five common things that surprised them, and he thinks they’ll surprise a lot of other foreign travellers to Japan when they visit as well.

1. There are sooo many vending machines

We all know Japan is the land of vending machines, but seeing them after so long really makes you realise just how many there are here. Soon Pyon’s felt there were even more machines around than when he was last in Japan, and he might not be wrong, seeing as non face-to-face sales systems rose dramatically here during the pandemic.

It’s not just the number of machines that appears to have risen, but the variety as well. For instance, during a trip to Daikanyama in Tokyo, Soon Pyon’s happened to find a vending machine selling caramels in front of the Number Sugar caramel store. It was one of many original vending machines he came across outside stores, which were initially installed to help keep businesses afloat by allowing them to sell their products in a safe way while coronavirus-related restrictions were in place.

▼ You’ll find many more unusual vending machines in Japan than you did on your last visit.

2. People in Japan queue for everything

This isn’t a particularly new thing, but it’s something that’ll definitely stand out for foreign visitors back in Japan after a long time. Soon Pyon’s has seen people queue in Japan for years, and he himself has been one of those in line with everyone else, but now after a couple of years away from Japan, he was struck by the sight of people lining up after each other. At station platforms, at escalators, in front of ramen restaurants…wherever people were waiting, they formed orderly queues where nobody cut in line and everybody waited patiently, creating a sense of calm amidst the crowds.

3. It’s easier than ever to buy Korean foods

Sure, this might not be something that masses of international tourists will be interested in, but for Korean visitors and residents, this is very welcome news. When Soon Pyon’s first moved to Japan in the 2000s, K-pop idols hadn’t beome popular yet and Shin-Okubo, Tokyo’s Koreatown, was not the popular tourist destination it is today.

Back then, Korean supermarkets in Shin-Okubo were pretty much the only place were you could buy Korean products, but now they’re becoming common in a lot of supermarkets, and even the big novelty chainstore Don Quijote, where Soon Pyon’s snapped these photos.

4. You still need to use physical money to buy a lot of things in Japan

Japan has made a lot of headway with cashless payments since the pandemic, but the country still has a long way to go to match the contactless systems a lot of foreigners are used to using abroad.

In fact, Soon Pyon’s doesn’t even carry a wallet with him anymore in Korea, instead just using his credit card or smartphone to pay for everything. Even when going out for drinks with friends and splitting the bill, one person pays the restaurant and everyone else pays that person their share of the bill via net banking or a mobile payment service called Kakao Pay.

Don’t expect to be able to do that in Japan, though, as many local stores still don’t support cashless payments, so you’ll still need to carry a wallet with physical money everywhere you go.

5. A lot of prices haven’t risen

While the cost of living and daily necessities has increased somewhat in Japan in recent years, that’s something that tourists likely won’t notice or be affected by. Tourists will be looking at menus at restaurants and entrance fees to parks and museums, and there’s been no noticeable change to these prices in the past two years. In fact, Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea have temporarily dropped the cost of their day tickets by 20 percent, and with the yen being lower than it was before the pandemic, you’ll be amazed at how affordable things are here compared to your home country.

So there you have it — five things that’ll surprise foreign tourists when they visit Japan after being away from the country for so long. For Soon Pyon’s, being back in Japan is something he’s long been looking forward to, and his extended time away was actually a blessing in disguise, as it made him fall in love with the country all over again and view it with a fresh set of eyes.

Here’s hoping you feel that way too when you visit…after you make it through the “three small hells” awaiting new arrivals at immigration.

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