Thursday, February 25, 2010

Japan, Post Five

Japanese Technology

Japan is known the world over for its cutting edge technology, yet the rice paddies of the country's premier crop are tended by hand. They have trains that travel 200 mph, and robots that handed out the Hugos at the World Science Fiction Convention. But then there are the toilets....

Every culture in the world is a study in contradictions. This week I'm going to tell you about some contradictions I experienced in Japan--I'm sure if I had been able to stay longer I would have encountered many more.

No visit to Japan would be complete without a trip on the Shinkansen, the Bullet Train. If I remember correctly, our trip was from Osaka to Hiroshima (more about Hiroshima next week). The trains are super-sleek and very comfortable, but as they have little luggage room our suitcases were sent ahead by coach and we took only our carry-ons.

Our tour guide purchased our tickets and herded us to the area on the platform where the doors of the car we had reservations for would open. Another contradiction: the driver, not a computer, runs the Shinkansen, and is responsible for stopping the train at the right place on the platform within centimeters. We took a mid-morning train heading away from Tokyo, so there was no mob of commuters to deal with, but there were still plenty of people taking the train along with us.

The ride is exceptionally smooth. At times we were going close to 200mph, yet there was no sense of excessive speed. We traveled through beautiful mountains--not surprising, as Japan's islands are actually mountaintops poking up through the ocean. 90% of the population lives on 10% of the land, as much of the land is practically vertical. Every valley, though, has villages, towns, or cities, and rice paddies are squeezed into every available spot, including what look like the yards of the houses.

If you are traveling on the Shinkansen, you are moving between major cities--the local trains to smaller towns are not Bullet Trains. On the Shinkansen, a LED sign indicates each stop in both Japanese and English, making it easy for tourists to know where to get off.

I love trains. I truly wish that the United States had not let our passenger railroads deteriorate--I would just love to go down to the station here in Murray, hop on a train, nap my way to Nashville instead of doing a hard 2-hour drive, do my business, and hop on another train home. That's what you do in most of the rest of the world, but not in the middle of the U.S. Here the old station house is used only for storage, and the trains that regularly rumble through are freight trains.

Anyway, I enjoyed the trip on the Shinkansen, which provides a transition to the second contradiction in this post: Japanese toilets. Each car of the Bullet Train has two toilets. No, not men and women, but Western and Japanese. The Western toilet is just what Americans and Europeans are accustomed to, as obviously are most Japanese today. So-called Japanese toilets, though, are the norm in public places--my guess is that they continue to build them even on new, modern trains and in the most modern buildings because they are easy to clean.

A "Japanese" toilet is for all practical purposes a hole in the floor. The Japanese ones are plumbed, and they flush, something not true everywhere in the world, for I have encountered this type of toilet in France, Greece, India, and Nepal as well. Most in Japan are sparkling clean, and I never encountered a public toilet of either type in the disgusting condition sometimes encountered in other parts of the world (including places in the U.S.) I assume men have little trouble with Japanese toilets, as they all brag that their accuracy is such that they can write their names in the snow. There are also plenty of ordinary urinals available for them, often pretty much right out in public, which is how I know. But for a woman it's a balancing act. Fortunately, I learned to do that balancing act years ago on a trip to Greece, a western country with very few western toilets available for public use.

Why do I say "fortunately"? Because when you are on tour you inevitably must use public toilets, and in a Japanese women's facility in a tourist area there are typically several Japanese toilets and one western one. Being older and, on the trip to Japan, still recovering from major surgery, I was slower than the other women at most things. Knowing how to use a hole in the floor, though, meant that I was in and out of one of the Japanese toilets while most of the other women on our tour were still lined up to use the only western one.

Tip to any woman traveling to a country where she expects to have to use "squat" toilets with any frequency: if the culture permits, wear skirts instead of trousers. In hot weather, skirts are cooler than trousers, and more modest than shorts. I'm not talking about miniskirts, of course.

Also, in Japan and anywhere else including the U.S., women should carry a day's supply of toilet paper. Any time you visit places with lots of tourists, they are likely to run out. In a handful of places in Japan, you have to purchase toilet paper from a vending machine, as it is not provided free of charge.

Now, the final contradiction for this post: Japan also has the highest tech toilets in the world--so high tech that it's difficult to figure out how to use them. I'm told that about three-quarters of Japanese homes are now equipped with toilets that spray massaging warm water, or act as bidets, spray perfume--or even play music! We had only one such toilet in a hotel on our trip--but as all the instructions were in Japanese we had all sorts of weird things happening before we figured out which button flushed it!


How to import a car from Japan. Click here.

Click here for Seven Reasons to Visit India.

This series of posts on my trip to Japan begins here.

The journal of my trip to India and Nepal begins here.

The series of posts on my trip to Italy begins here.

Geezer-Chick's guest blog on York, England is here.

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1 comment:

David said...

The Japanese Toilet is really a toilet bidet combination and although nice is also very expensive. You can keep your current toilet and get the same benefits by adding a hand bidet sprayer for very little cost. A hand held bathroom bidet sprayer is so much better than a stand alone bidet and this is why: 1. It's less expensive (potentially allot less) 2.You can install it yourself = no plumber expense 3. It works better by providing more control of where the water spray goes and a greater volume of water flow. 4. It requires no electricity and there are few things that can go wrong with it. Available at