Monday, May 28, 2012

Toilets and Munchies

In the United States there are a lot of little annoyances that we ignore; those insignificant problems that bug you in the moment, but later become an afterthought. There’s an attitude of “deal with it,” which is fine, because, really, no one should waste her time being upset about such trifling incidents. On the other hand, in Japan people go to the next level to erase any discomfort or inconvenience you might be feeling. Examples of extraordinary care and concern can be found in nearly every aspect of Japanese daily life, and just like the annoyances are forgotten in the U.S., sometimes I wonder if the conveniences are forgotten in Japan. Their usefulness and rarity were certainly not wasted on me, and there were some amenities that stood out in particular.

Let’s start with toilets. The Western-style toilets in Japan are awesome. The high tech ones come with a button pad mounted on the wall, allowing you an array of options to make your business as enjoyable as possible. There is a water spout option with adjustable angles, which helps wash away the mess from your private bits. It can follow up with a good warm air-drying, leaving you feeling cleaner than any meager piece of paper could accomplish. Some toilets include a button that plays the sound of running water to camouflage any…uh, unfortunate sounds that might happen. There was even a massage button, but when I pushed it nothing happened, so I’m not sure what is supposed to occur. (Does the toilet seat start pulsating or send rotating spheres along your buttocks like those massaging chairs? Or maybe it’s just an undulating, high pressure spout? I have no idea.) The most appreciated feature, however, was the heated toilet seat. During the winter months and still cold early spring, a freezing cold toilet seat is enough to deter you from the bathroom for even the most urgent call. So the addition of a heated seat is happily welcome. For Japanese people the warmth of their toilets seems to be an important thing, because even non-electric ones are covered in some sort of fabric to keep your bottom warm. The electric ones include a programmable timer, so that it doesn’t waste electricity (or money) during times of infrequent use, such as when the user is asleep. My boyfriend was so fond of these toilets that he often scorned our low-tech dorm bathrooms and insisted on traveling across campus to the library to use their fancy ones. They’re that awesome.

Just as Japan cares about what should be kept warm, they also care about what should be kept cool. One of my favorite places in the mall near campus was a specialty cake shop called Fujiya, whose mascot is a supposedly cute girl licking her lips in anticipation.

(To me she’s a little kimokawaii, or cute but creepy.)

Fujiya sells Western-style cakes, with their most popular being strawberry shortcake. Although a bit pricey, I would often pick up a slice of some sweet treat or another, for around 400 yen, as an afternoon pick-me-up, or a surprise gift for my roommate. The slices would come in their own little boxes with a handle for easy carrying and a tiny spoon for eating, but the most impressive part was the small icepack slipped inside. I have never bought a cake in the United States that came with such a courtesy. Even specially made cakes for birthdays are simply put in a cardboard box, so that the icing is less than perfect when it gets home. Of course, higher priced bakeries probably do provide some sort of cooling method, but Fujiya is not overly expensive. Even if you only spend a few dollars there, they still strive to make sure your cake looks as good when you open it as it did when you bought it. The icepacks don't look cheap, either. 

The Japanese also care about variety. In the U.S., vending machines never have any pull over me, because their options are simply too limited. What kind of syrupy soda do I want, even though they’re all variations on each other? Which sugary or salty, vastly unhealthy snack food should I choose, even though they all taste like sweet or salty cardboard? Compared to the U.S., Japan’s vending machines are godly. Their drink vending machines include the usual array of dark and light sodas, as well as some sodas unique to Japan, such as Calpis or Qoo. On top of that they have various juices, a selection of teas including oolong, black, green, milk tea, and fruit teas. They have different flavors of coffee drinks and chocolate drinks. They even have a kind of drink that includes fruit soda filled with fruit jelly squares. Japanese drink vending machines offer both cold and hot drinks, and while some of them are the standard bottle or canned kinds, they also have some that dispense your drink right into a paper cup! My favorite drinks included the addictive Ty-Hi Milk Tea (hot or cold), creamy matcha tea, and frothy hot chocolate (which was often sold out because it was so tasty).

The paper cup vending machines often had options that allowed you change the ratios of espresso, water, sugar, milk, or froth. The warm drinks are sold in extra thick steel cans to provide insulation.

For food, Japanese vending machines went beyond simple candy bars and chip bags. They had assorted pastries with different fruit flavors (melon bread being one of the best), a large selection of instant ramen for your middle of the night cravings, chocolate biscuit treats, Kit-Kats in flavors you’d never find stateside, and pretzel sticks that were the savory equivalent of Pocky. Japan even had vending machines that sold hot food, with everything from hot dogs to fried chicken to grilled rice balls (called onigiri). The one below also has french fries and takoyaki, or pieces of octopus inside balls of batter and covered in a savory-sweet sauce.

The vending machines even say hello (or good morning/evening depending on the time), and thank you for your business in a cheery female voice.  At my school, during mid-terms and finals they said “Otsukaresama desu!” or “Good work!”

Japan’s courtesy could be found in the most unexpected places. Sidewalks are covered in rows of bumps to help blind people move about easier. Shopping carts in grocery stores and suitcases have wheels that swivel in every direction, so it’s never a struggle to move them in any way you like, even in tight circles. Much better than lifting those ungreased, broken-wheeled carts at Safeway whenever you need to move to make room. Ice-cream stores provide guests waiting in line with paper flavor menus, so you can choose faster. Iced-tea orders come with individual packets of liquid sweetener for easy dissolving. Malls have attendants at entrances to help you locate what you need, instead of just providing a map that might be hard to read.

These every-day amenities stem from the fact that the Japanese are a very polite people. In everything they do, they are concerned with being unoffensive and avoiding any discomfort for their guests. They are very hospitable by nature. This attention translates into the entire service industry, even when there are no actual people there to serve you. It is as if the entire country is trying to say, “irasshaimase!” or “welcome,” even if you are just walking down a sidewalk or buying some munchies to get through tests.  Personally, I wish my toilet seat would be a bit more courteous and learn to warm up next winter. 


  1. Ok, not that I'm denying how courteous the Japanese are, but for non-Japanese speakers/readers the high-tech toilets are goddamn horrifying. Using one was like playing high-stakes roulette with my ass. Luckily, I managed to never guess which button to press poorly enough to lead to anything loud or embarrassing. I did accidentally warm up my toilet seat once; If I knew what was happening, I'm sure it would have been lovely. As it was, it just convinced me (briefly) that I was having a really specific stroke.

    Incidentally, it's really fun to read this and compare it with the German culture stuff I'm learning about. The whole 'irasshaimase' concept is a far cry from Germany's general 'you'll take it and you'll like it' mindset. Not that I don't love German strength of will (the get-drunk-and-invade-countries-because-they're-just-not-doing-it-right stereotype is pretty spot on), it's just a fun comparison.

  2. It is definitely an interesting comparison! It was kind of harsh coming back from Japan where the country seems so rude all the time. The toilets are maybe more helpful if you can read the Japanese on them? It's scary at first, but once you figure it out, they're pretty awesome, especially if the seat is already on a timer for heating. ^_^

    I don't mind not having the toilets, but I really do miss their vending machines. Milk Tea is bottled awesome.