First, read my little intro about Japan.
Overview of Japan posts:
Japan 1: Welcome to Tokyo! (and a killer okonomiyaki)
Japan 2: Yokohama and Omuraisu
Japan 3: What Makes Japan One Of A Kind
Japan 4: Special Japanese Neighborhoods + Those Famous Food Floors
Japan 5: A Gourmet Japanese Lunch + Roppongi Hills
Japan 6: Kyoto (1st installment, 2nd installment)
Japan 7: Disneyland and DisneySea
Japan 8: Tsukiji Fish Market & Tsukiji neighborhood
Caught in the frenzy of traveling and moving from one place to the next, it’s easy to ignore the things that are right in front of me. Japan is not an easy country to understand, literally and otherwise. Discovering it however, is joy: with every layer discovered there’s even more to discover and be delighted in. Thus, the learning never stops and this continuous discovery is one of the most captivating aspects of being here. So, in honor of that, this post is dedicated to all the things that make Japan unique, all the things that proclaim, “Welcome to Japan, man!”
It’s impossible to not notice the number of jidohonbaiki (vending machines) in Japan ”“ all 6 million of them. Something that the Japanese take for granted is a cause of amusement and amazement for the people who come to visit their country. In any other place in the world, these vending machines would be vandalized and goodness knows what else, but in Japan they’re relatively untouched. These rectangular whirring boxes are a ubiquitous source of refreshment for me during the sweltering heat I experience in Japan. And these machines don’t just sell drinks mind you; there are lots more that sell cigarettes, sex toys, condoms, and ice cream, among a myriad other products.
Another denominator on the ubiquity scale in Japan are the konbini (convenience stores); the ones you’ll see everywhere are 7-11, Family Mart, and Lawson’s. Now, I’ve been to convenience stores in other countries, but in Japan, they rival supermarkets in terms of product selection. Clean, well-lit, and open all day everyday, convenience stores are the 21st century yoruzu-ya (general stores) that cater to the single executive living alone, the hapless traveler looking for a rice ball to eat, and the students who pop by for a few dozen cup noodles to get them through exam week.
Some products that catch my eye at a nearby ampm (yes, Japan has those too) are the cups of ready-to-drink Starbucks coffee, everything from espresso to a caramel latte. Japan has no shortage of their own ready-to-drink coffees and there are plenty of those too in varying strengths and caffeine content. I’m also surprised to see a cup of Fauchon Double Rich Tea made from an Assam blend. It’s the “Double Rich” and the fact that it’s from Fauchon that makes me scoop a cup up and buy it. And speaking of all these cups of coffee, there are also hot cans of coffee, yes, hot. Apparently, there are heating machines that keep these cans of coffee hot, sort of like a freezer but in reverse. Okay, let’s say it all together now: “Cool!”
Fast food kings like KFC, McDonald’s, and even Yoshinoya are all very popular, and dare I say ”“ very good in Japan. They are perhaps the only restaurants that have illustrated menus (thank God for overhead menu boards!) where pointing will suffice.
One day, I have breakfast in McDonald’s and am instantly enchanted by the “bread” that my sausage-egg McMuffin is ensconced in: two small pancakes with the “M” molded onto the top pancake. Sweet. I also dig the container that the mini pancakes come in, a sort of plastic-corrugated container that’s heatproof.
Taxis and transportation
Japan has the cleanest taxis and the best-dressed (if I may say) taxi drivers. All the taxi drivers I meet, even the lone woman driver I encounter, are suited up in ties, a vest and dark pants. They’re even better dressed than I am.
All vehicles are right hand drive, and traffic (vehicular and pedestrian) moves on the left side. Passengers also enter and exit from the left hand side, the door of which swings open by itself controlled by a button on the driver’s side. After a few mishaps, I get used to not struggling with the door latch as soon as we arrive at our destination.
I won’t say that all Japanese drivers are polite ”“ some are downright ornery ”“ but riding in a taxi in Japan is a pleasant experience. I just have to make sure that I have my Japanese phrasebook with me ”“ sign language and playing charades doesn’t work.
Biking is also a popular and efficient way to get around. It’s definitely not the Netherlands, that’s for sure and there’s also the very real chance of getting run over by a distracted biker. Presence of mind is key. As a funny aside, I’m told that the only things that get stolen in Japan are bikes and umbrellas. Go figure.
Tokyo has an efficient albeit terrifying subway system. Subway maps are posted in Japanese and the 12 subway lines illustrated on the bulletin boards are so complicated that they immobilize me in fear. The two times that I take the subway by myself, I use my broken Japanese to ask for directions. One wrong move and I could end up heading to Osaka. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen.
Addresses and street signs
If you’ve noticed that I haven’t listed any addresses in my Japan posts, I’d say you’re observant. It’s because it’s almost impossible to do so. To illustrate, Tokyoites rarely leave home without a map to a new destination. Only the largest streets in Tokyo have street signs, and even those aren’t listed in addresses. In addresses, numbers are used instead of names, with every number representing the ward, the district, and the establishment’s number. Thus, a sample Japanese address can look like this:
La Porte Aoyama 1F-2F, 5-51-8 Jingumae, Shibuya-Ku.
The few street signs however that I do see are lovely and worth a photo:
Appearance is everything
Japan has an obsession with packaging that sometimes borders on the absurd. Granted, it’s pretty but sometimes I wonder if it’s necessary. At Matsuya Ginza, a department store, I buy a simple set of two glasses. Thinking that the attendant would just shove the box into a plastic bag, I hand over my yen and impatiently wait for the change. No, the girl slowly takes out the two glasses, inspects every inch for cracks, rewraps them carefully in their protective bubble wrap, closes the box and then proceeds to gift-wrap the box before sliding it carefully into a glossy plastic bag! I’m not even aware that my mouth has dropped open. Such attention to detail causes brief hiatuses in my vacation schedule, but hey, appearance is everything.
Fancy packaging is also most evident in food where even little cakes and pastries are wrapped with surgical detail. Consider this tart and cream puff that I buy at Gramercy New York, a satellite bakery of its North American counterpart. Stiff paper is bundled around the precious cargo, like a babe swaddled in a blanket, so that no amount of jarring that occurs mid-shopping will damage it. The proverbial cherry on top is the specially formulated ice packet that’s inserted at the back of the box to prevent the desserts from melting. Imagine that! Two hours in the hot sun and the pastries are still as pristine as when I left the store. Now that’s awesome.
Lastly, consider this three-box collection of truffles we buy at chocolate boutique, Le Chocolat de H. It’s a plush, suede tri-level box with sections that pull out like drawers to reveal the glimmering truffles inside. Notice the slim, silver medallion thick and heavy enough to pass off as jewelry. You can bet I’m keeping that and using it as a pendant.
I don’t think any overview of Japan would be complete without talking about their toilets. So curious am I about all the toyru (comfort room) that I visit that I’m actually compelled to take a few photos. There are two types of (public) toilets available in Japan, the Western-style that most everyone is familiar with, and then there’s the Japanese style where the user squats facing the back wall.
Some toilets have a box attached to it with various buttons: bidet, sprinkle (light and heavy), light or strong flush, etc. Unfortunately, some labels are all in Japanese characters and while the corresponding illustrations are helpful, sometimes I can’t find the one I’m looking for: the flush. One time, I accidentally press a button that I think is the flush and I get the sound of flushing, but no flush. There’s also a button that I see which looks like it lets loose a powerful deodorizer but I don’t quite have the guts to press it. Some buttons even have a built-in heating element ”“ nothing like plopping down on a cold seat, after all ”“ and even a button that turns on music to do one’s business to.
While there are plenty of “regular” toilets in Japan, here’s one with a feature that I’ve never seen before: a faucet that turns on when the toilet is flushed. The user washes his/her hands while the toilet is flushing and the soiled water is used to fill up the toilet tank. Very environment-friendly.