I’ve just spent the last week in Japan. It’s a country that I find fascinating and my Japanese friends are very patient with me as I try to circumnavigate their customs and practices – I will always be a “gaijin”, but they are very welcoming. One evening last week, as a few of us were sitting eating ramen in a restaurant in Tokyo with a queue stretching down the street outside, I was asked what I found most different about Japan when I compared it with home. This was a tricky question to answer, but I had a go. Here’s what I came up with – and made my Japanese friends giggle uncontrollably in a very unJapanese way:
1. I love your High tech lavatories – Only in Japan can the lavatories be baffling! Automatic opening and closing lids and the recorded flush sound to cover up what you are doing are pretty impressive. But there are buttons for gadgets and gizmos that I really have spent a good hour trying to figure out – and when I have figured them out I can’t quite believe that they really do what they say they do. Just why do you need to have a jet of warm water directed there? Where’s the flush? Usually it is sensor activated so I don’t even really need to worry about it. At least the buttons have amusing little images on them so even if you can’t read the Japanese you can figure them out.
2. Your trains are never late – If for some unavoidable reason, like a power cut, an earthquake or a flood, the re is a delay, then apologies are made profusely over the loud-speaker. And you make the apology in English as well as Japanese! This is particularly surprising for someone like me who has to battle with a daily commute on Britain’s railways. You are deservedly famous for your punctuality.
3. How can you eat quite as much as you do and not get fat? – Japanese food is healthy and low-fat. (There are plenty of foods to get fat on in Japan, but many of those are western influenced)
4. Your 100 yen shops put our Pound shops to shame – You can get anything from food to footwear. 100 yen shops are a good place to replace broken dishes, rice bowls, soup bowls and individual serving dishes, not bad for a 100 yen. I love 100 yen shops. To an almost embarrassing degree.
5. The Japanese Bath, or ofuro, is marvellous – No other people take such pride in their ofuro as you do. But for people who find daily showers sufficient enough, the Japanese bath culture is a bit shocking. Sento, the public bath houses as well as onsen, the hot springs, offer the opportunity to get naked among strangers and soak in, more often than not, a beautifully relaxing atmosphere. The bath technology inyour homes is also something to be amazed about. Push button temperature controls prepare your bath, and a re-heat mode turns tepid water hot again. There are even controls to keep moisture down when the tub is empty. Your bath tells you when it is ready with an announcement in a gentle female voice. At home, I have to rely on the cat.
6. You have vending machines everywhere. I love the fact that you can buy iced coffee or beer on the street at any time, day or night. And that your vending machines are on every street, by every shrine and outside every shop.
7. Your kids are so polite. I’m used to working with British teenagers. Enough said.
8. You have a fixation with cuteness. There is only so much ‘Hello Kitty’ I can stand. Really. And I truly cannot get to grips with the way that young women choose to infantilise themselves by the way they dress.
9. Your Kit Kats. Green tea flavour. Wasabi flavour. Cherry blossom flavour. So, so wrong and yet so absolutely right.
10. Pachinko. I really don’t understand how people can get so addicted to watching little metal balls inside a slot machine. But then, I’ve never actually sat down and tried.
Yes, I love Japan. And I can’t wait to return.