An Outsider's Impressions of Japan

Oh, Japan. Land of my father's family, small cars, earthquakes, people who are unfailingly polite, and interesting sartorial choices. It can feel pretty "foreign," a sense perfectly captured in Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation, but there are some things that the Japanese do much better than other countries (see #1). As for others, well, I'm still figuring out how I feel about them. Warning: lots of potty talk ahead.

1. Simple syrup with your coffee. It's beginning to catch on in American coffee shops that sugar does not dissolve well in beverages, particularly chilled ones. So imagine my delight when I realized that all drinks you could possibly want sweetened are served here with simple syrup. Amazing! 

2. Taco rice. A bed of rice topped with beans, greens and a dollop of "salsa." As far as approximations of ethnic food go, this one is highly questionable.

3. Musical PSAs. At 5pm music is played over public loudspeakers. I asked my current host why this is, and she replied, "So that people know that it's 5pm." Okay. In Okinawa this occurs also at 7am and noon. Sometimes announcements are made.

4. Inexplicable business hours. Even in the most remote places (e.g. winding backroads of Okinawa), small businesses are often closed 2-4 days a week, which begs the question: how do they survive? Are they merely retirement passion projects? Or a front for something else...

5. Drawn out greetings and goodbyes. I appreciate good customer service, but it can feel overwhelming when you're the only patron in a shop, and each person on the sales floor addresses you with the standard irashaimasennnn. When everyone is paying attention to me, I'm never quite sure whom I should look at when I'm speaking.

6. Warm toilet seats. This is the connection that my mind makes when I encounter a warm toilet seat: someone was sitting here for a while; they were probably taking a dump; it is [most likely] really stinky; gross. But, in fact, Japan's high-tech toilet seats include heaters,  which are generally turned on. There are few things as startling as a blast of heat on a bare ass when least expected.

7. Flushing sound effects. This one caught me be surprise when I was reaching up to get toilet paper, and suddenly a flushing noise came on. Turns out that many public restrooms have this function, I suppose to cover the noise of you peeing/farting/pooping. 

8. Flushing sensors. The first time I used the restroom at the TOHO cinemas at Roppongi Hills, where the film festival took place, I puzzled over how to make the toilet flush before, ultimately, giving up and running away. (Not my best moment). There was a motion sensor, but not the American kind that often goes off when you are still sitting on the toilet. No, this sensor was wall-mounted and, contrary to the diagram (which simply stated "place hand over sensor"), you had to apply just the right amount of pressure for it to flush. It's times like these that I wish I could use a urinal.

9. Crocs. I was surprised at first how many people in Japan wear Crocs on the daily - not like at home where stigma has relegated them to hospitals, kitchens and other places where employees value comfort over style. But, now that I'm in a traditional Japanese-style home where shoes must constantly be removed when coming and going, I get it: Crocs are kind of awesome. 

10. Rubbish bins. If you thought that separating trash, compostables and recycling was hard, try combustibles versus non-combustibles. Pop quiz: where does plastic go?

Wrong. That's combustible.* However most people are equally confused, because I see the same items in both bins. They, like me, probably stood there and agonized for a few moments before giving up and arbitrarily picking one.

*Unless it's a bottle or bottle cap. Those each go in their own bins.