Japan's reputation as a weird foreign place has become a bit of a cliché. No, swordfights between geishas and yakuzas vying for the control of the local pachinko are not a daily occurence. Those happens once a month at most.

But some things are different in Japan. For example, do you know what makes a typical Japanese apartment stand out from the average American or European home?

Here are four areas of a Japanese home that might just surprise you the first time you come to Japan.

You Always Take Off Your Shoes

The one thing every single Japanese home will include, from the smallest studio to the largest mansion, is a genkan (玄関), that small recessed entryway where you take off your shoes before stepping into the home proper.

The genkan The genkan. Don't forget to take off your shoes! View Listing (Shinjuku) →

But as Wikipedia states, taking off your shoes is not the only thing the genkan is good for:

A secondary function is a place for brief visits without being invited [...] into the house proper. For example, where a pizza delivery driver in an English-speaking country would normally stand on the porch and conduct business through the open front door, in Japan a food delivery would typically take place across the genkan step.

Whatever its function, don't let the genkan trip you up (both metaphorically and literally) when you come to Japan, and remember to pause to take off your shoes!

There's A Room Only Found in Japan

A washitsu is literally a “Japanese-style room” (by opposition to yōshitsu, or “western-style room”), meaning a room with tatami flooring.

Many modern apartments now forego the washitsu entirely, but they're still common in older properties or in larger suburban homes that have extra rooms to spacre.

The tatami mats mean a washitsu is better for sleeping on futon, since the floor will be softer. It's also great place for kids to play in, or for you to do your morning yoga.

Futons laid out for the night. Ready for tea. View Listing (Shinjuku) →

But tatami rooms also have their own specificities: for example, you'll rarely see any heavy furniture in them, since that would damage the mats. Or if you do, you'll notice that said furniture is often resting on a narrow hardwood border that circles the perimeter of the room, and not on the tatami mats themselves.

And one more thing: just like you take off your shoes before stepping into a Japanese home, you should take off your slippers before stepping into a washitsu!

Bathrooms Feature Their Own Share Of Innovations

Japanese bathrooms have also evolved to accomodate local customs. You're probably used to having your showerhead hanging above your bathtub, but in Japan the shower is traditionally located outside of the tub. This is because the same bath is typically shared by the whole family in order to save water, meaning you wash yourself before stepping in, and then enjoy a soap-free (and grime-free!) soak.

This means bathrooms are usually fully-waterproofed unit bathrooms, little plastic cocoons in the middle of the apartment.

Then again, smaller apartments or hotel rooms often do away with the separate shower area and adopt the more familiar shower-in-bathtub layout.

Another trick to save space: when a bathroom features a sink, it will often share a tap with the bathtub! Just rotate the faucet from one to the other as needed. But yes, it does make it hard to both run a bath and brush your teeth at the same time…

Sharing a faucet Sharing a faucet. View Listing (Osaka) →

And of course, much has been written on high-tech Japanese toilets that warm your posterior while serenading you with a lullaby. But did you know even lower-tech toilets often include a built-in faucet on top of the flushing reservoir? That way, there's no need to install a separate sink anymore and you can save a few more precious square inches!

Japan Invented Shape-Shifting Living Rooms

The living room also has its share of particularities. Although this is less common in recently designed apartments, Japanese living rooms traditionally feature a chabudai (ちゃぶ台), a low table that stands about 16 inches from the ground. Its close cousin the kotatsu table can be upgraded with an electric heating blanket, making for a cosy dining experience even during the coldest of winters.

A Japanese Chabudai Ready for tea. View Listing (Asakusa) →

Another nice feature of Japanese living spaces is the use of removable sliding doors, or fusuma. Because these slides in a track without being fastened down, you can unhinge them from their groove and store them away to remove the partition between two rooms and expand your living space.

Sliding doors open up to reveal a larger living room. Sliding doors open to reveal a larger living room. View Listing (Shinjuku) →

A Unique Blend

Due to the speed of Japan's meteoric rise into modernity in the second half of the twentieth century, Japanese living spaces occupy a narrow middle ground between the legacy of tradition and the constraints of modern cities.

So Japan may not be the crazy wonderland its cultural exports sometimes portray, but there's still something fascinating about discovering for yourself all the small details that make daily life there just different enough!