If you’re planning a trip to Japan, you no doubt have all the big sights on your list—traditional shops and streets around Kyoto, towering samurai castles, the iconic Mount. Fuji and much more. A good place to plan your trip is our very own GaijinPot Travel.

But for me, what really makes for an interesting travel experience are the smaller things that are mundane for people living in a country but novel and captivating for newcomers. So if you want to feel truly immersed in Japanese culture, check out these quintessential everyday experiences you might have left off your list.

1. Squeeze into a ramen bar

Photo: iStock/ RichLeggPrepare for slurping.

Thanks to the country’s many inexpensive noodle bars, fast food isn’t a negative term for Japanese cuisine. These restaurants cater to solo diners without the time for a lengthy meal—meaning they’re often filled with office workers, but are also perfect for tourists with busy sightseeing itineraries. It’s an excellent way to immerse yourself in the culture.

As a bonus, many noodle bars operate on a ticket ordering system—where you select your meal from a machine at the front door, print out a ticket and present it to the staff. This makes it quick and easy to order food if you don’t know any Japanese.

The bars are usually tiny and spartan, but size and decoration have no correlation with quality and only add to the authentic atmosphere. You might have some of the best ramen of your life while crammed into a venue with four seats, one chef and no English in sight—as steam from the soup warms your cheeks and you watch the kitchen at work right in front of you.

2. Get addicted to gachapon

Photo: iStock/ tupungatoGotta’ collect ’em all.

Gachapon machines are simple—insert a few hundred yen, turn a dial, and receive a random toy in a plastic capsule. The name comes from Japanese onomatopoeias for “gacha,” the sound of a hand crank, and “pon,” the sound of the toy landing in the tray.

Each machine has its theme, often related to characters from popular media franchises, and toys vary in rarity—with some particularly uncommon ones becoming expensive collectors’ items. The dopamine hit of turning the handle and wondering what toy you’ll get is real, so watch out!

Gachapon machines are common at shops and tourist spots; you can even find dedicated gachapon stores in bigger cities. Gashapon Department Store Ikebukoru in Tokyo holds the record for the biggest collection of machines, with over 3,000.

3. Shop conveniently at konbini

Photo: iStock/ SeanPavonePhotoYour one-stop shop.

Japan’s convenience stores, called konbini in Japan, could be considered the country’s lifeblood. Stocking every essential item, from toiletries and umbrellas to shirts and stationery. There are few places you can’t find a FamilyMart, 7-Eleven or Lawson. You may even find several konbini from the same brand on a single street.

Chances are you’ll be making frequent stops to konbini no matter where you travel. So you’ll have plenty of chances to try Japanese food and drink options:

Rice balls: Onigiri and sushi rolls are among the most iconic Japanese snacks and one of the cheapest ways to get filling food on the go.
Coffee: You can get canned hot coffee from a special shelf (usually marked by a red banner) where the cans are constantly heated.
Bento: Pre-made bento meals are a popular lunch option, covering the gauntlet of Japanese cuisine and some Western meals. They can be heated up in-store if you like.
Cup noodles: For a cheap, fast and filling dinner, try one of Japan’s many cup noodle brands—which come in much wider flavors than in other countries.
Sando (sandwiches): Besides standard sandwiches, many konbini sell fruit sandwiches, a popular (and surprisingly tasty) dessert choice filled with cream and pieces of fruit.

4. Vending machine bender

Photo: iStock/ NonChanonOne of these is not like the other.

You’re never far from refreshment thanks to Japan’s surprisingly ubiquitous vending machines, which can be found on many street corners and even at temples, country roads or next to private houses. So when traveling around, it’s comforting to know a bottle of water or coffee is always within reach.

While most machines offer a range of soft drinks, teas and coffees—and a few sell snacks, alcohol and ice cream—it can be fun to seek out some of the country’s more bizarre dispensers, and you might begin to believe there is nothing you can’t find in a Japanese vending machine.

I’ve found machines for oysters, cheesecake, pizza, curry, coffee beans, electronics, Pokemon cards and soup stock. But my favorite is a vending machine in Roppongi that distributes water and supplements for hungover patrons passing by.

5. Enjoy high-tech sushi

Photo: iStock/ vanbeetsGet on the sushi train.

Perhaps I’m just getting old, but I’m not sure I’ll ever stop being wowed by modern conveyor sushi restaurants (kaiten-zushi in Japanese). Rather than customers taking dishes as they pass by, newer places allow you to order on a tablet and have your sushi delivered directly to your table via the track—which is as impressive as it is convenient.

Sure, you could (and should) visit Japan’s fish market sushi bars, where quality is second to none, but conveyor restaurants are the cheaper and more accessible option. They provide a huge range of sushi dishes—plus alternative options like ramen and desserts (helpful if you’re vegetarian).

You also usually get free hot green tea straight from taps at your seat. The fact that you only need to order one or two pieces of sushi at a time is useful if you’re not sure how much you want to eat—but it’s hard to resist splurging once you’ve started. I probably don’t need to tell you that authentic Japanese sushi is one of the tastiest dishes in the entire world.

What’s your favorite everyday experience in Japan? Let us know in the comments!

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