Japan in Five Days

Even though I’ve travelled to a dozen different countries, before our five-day trip to Japan I knew embarrassingly little about Asian culture, short of impressions from our movie favorite, “Lost in Translation”. What we observed, however, left us with admiration for a refined culture that is respectful to a fault and that has the best toilets ever made! (Not kidding about that!)

Our first impression was that Tokyo alone might not be a worthy tourist destination because historical sites had been destroyed in WWII. Much of this sprawling city, with its hodgepodge of buildings and exposed electrical wires, was erected at a poor time in Japan’s history after the war.

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Other areas like downtown Shinjuku (near our hotel, the Park Hyatt, setting for “Lost in Translation”), are populated by sleek modern buildings. The nightlife areas are wild and lively with bright lights and lit up Japanese advertising…sort of like Times Square on steroids.

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Although English is rare, everyone is helpful. When we asked for help in our hotel, the porter literally ran across the lobby to get answers. He ran to be helpful, not to get tipped, since tips are considered insulting to the Japanese. Even when doing a favor, the Japanese are gracious. When one restaurant didn’t have a table for us and we asked directions to another restaurant, the chef held the door for us, exited (with no coat on a cold night) and trotted ahead of us for several blocks to another restaurant, bowing as he left us. Everywhere we went, the Japanese bowed in greeting, even the bus drivers.

The Japanese are also immaculate as evidenced by the absence of litter on city streets. This is a feat since there are also no public trashcans in Tokyo so that people have to carry their trash with them until they get home to then sort into up to seven (!) different recycling bins. Health conscious as well, nearly a third of residents wear surgical masks, not for SARS, but to prevent the flu in winter and pollen exposure in the spring.

DSCN0164My favorite sanitation item by far was the Toto toilet. The heated toilet seats are self-cleaning and deodorizing, but even better they are both toilet and bidet in one, with a simple control panel of buttons for the type of spray you want: soft or hard, and a blow dryer. No paper needed. My husband said, for the first time ever, he felt cheated to only get to use the toilet seat half the time!

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IMG_1004We loved the clean public restrooms and discreet stalls. They each have a speaker that plays rushing water and birds tweeting to cover the noise of your voiding. I came away thinking that every girl’s bathroom should have those speakers!

Tokyo is a crowded city for sure. Nowhere is the density of population more apparent than in the subways. Because the subways are a sea of dark suits during rush hour, the department of transportation actually employs “pushers” who wear white gloves to physically push commuters onto trains!

Nuclear meltdowns. Tsunamis. Earthquakes. Terrorist attacks. SARS outbreaks. The Japanese are a population ready for the next disaster. After an earthquake a few years ago many citizens were trapped in subways, so a lot of Japanese stopped taking the subway and now ride bikes to work.

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Imagine Americans wearing surgical masks or carrying trash home and then sorting it into seven recycling piles! These are disciplined people!

No surprise that the Japanese are also prompt. Every bus and train runs to the scheduled minute. The one area where the Japanese seem to be lacking may be fashion design. Normally, for example, official marathon shirts are pretty spiffy looking. Not so for the Tokyo marathon. There were twenty “official” (Pokeman-like) t-shirt designs and they were all hideous. The Japanese could really use a little Italian blood running through their veins, but I sure wouldn’t want to give up the prompt trains and clean, heated toilets!


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