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Practical Japanese

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Everyone knows about Japan. That is to say, they know of it. It plays a role in everyone’s lives. The electronic devices in your house were probably designed there. You or your neighbors likely own a Japanese automobile. Your weekend sumo tourney originated there. Or something.

But other than imagining some magical metal workshop on the other side of the globe, most of us don’t give Japan a second thought as a travel destination. It is a destination that is mysterious, decidedly off the beaten path, and yet is one of the last that deserve that position. What awaits you in Japan is something of a hidden gem, ironically enough one that you interact with daily.

“Oh great” you may say, “another song of praise for Japan.” However there will be no mention here of temples, sushi, rock gardens, or other such perpetual predictabilities. While serene and enjoyable, these have about as much to do with Japanese life as maple syrup tapping and beaver dams have to do with Canadian life; that is, however symbolic, very little.

As Asian destinations go, aside from a fierce language barrier, it isn’t very exotic. Japanese culture parallels our own, all the comforts of home are there. Where the Japanese express their differences is in the exaggeration and perfection of these amenities. They take the best of worldwide cultures and imitate it, magnify it, and generate a refined version better than the original. Whether it’s on the subway, on the toilet seat, or a more intangible collective attitude, you’ll find more than a few improvements that you’ll wish we employed back home.

Starting at the bottom, toilets in the west are impersonal and cold, both literally and figuratively. After leaving a frozen ring on your cheeks, you’re forced to tidy yourself, well, yourself. Japanese toi-res not only have variably heated seats, but also a hidden nozzle that showers the, ahem, “target” with a direct stream at the temperature of your choice. Complete with cartoon bum drawings on the control panel.

Japanese heated toilet

Toilet Controls

A parking lot at home is a vast gray wasteland, ruining potential green space while ensuring you walk a long way with your arms full. Space is tight in Tokyo. Rather than park cars next to each other, they are parked on top of each other, in a slender unassuming tower, marked simply with a P on top.

Japan parking lot

Japanese vertical car park

These automobile ferris wheels are about two cars wide, accepting and ejecting cars at ground level; your car goes in, and shifts up one side while the next car shifts down from the other. A turnstile in front rotates your car 180° for easily entering and exiting. Personal, elevator-style home versions are also available, for parking your two automobiles one above the other.

A Japanese convenience store, a combini, gives new meaning to convenience. If you’re hungry, grab one of several healthy, fresh meals, rather than a North American hot dog wiener that is strictly ornamental. Drop your golf clubs off on the way to work in the morning, for delivery to your 2pm tee time. Drop your luggage off for delivery to the airport at departure time. Withdraw from the bank machine any amount you like down to a single yen coin. Fax, dry clean, buy concert tickets, print digital photos, listen to new CDs, vote, mail, charge your phone, and of course buy a slurpee, 24 hours a day, every day. Competitors are scarcely 500m apart, and can even be neighbors at the corner. It’s a level of über-convenience that will have you renaming the North American counterpart ‘inconvenience.’

In a North American department store, you’ll typically find two or perhaps three floors, departments mingling with each other. Visit Tobu, Seibu, or Odakyu stores in Tokyo and Yokohama, and you’ll find 12+ stories of department store, each level as large as a shopping mall here at home. Rather than a corner devoted to shoes, you stop at the shoes floor, or the kitchenware floor, or the stationery floor, and as you would expect, one of two or three women’s apparel floors. Upper floors often house several fine restaurants, while underground levels offer fast food, groceries, and vast food emporiums. If the weather’s nice, head to the roof for gardens, pet stores, amusement rides, and a welcome diversion for the kids. Many of these department stores operate their own subways in fact, serving as the terminus for trains reaching far out into the suburbs. This guarantees rush hour business, especially in the underground food levels, and makes commuters happy. This takes us to the final and most extraordinary expression of Japanese ingenuity and initiative.

Of the many inevitable comforts on a trip to Japan, the Japanese rail network is bound to be the most overlooked, but certainly among the most worthwhile. It is a public transit phenomenon with no equal. Nowhere is this more evident than in Tokyo itself, where over fifty routes interlace the metro area in a colorful linear choreography, moving millions in and out daily. Trains, minutes apart, arrive and depart timed to the second, always punctual. Each station has a different jingle play when the doors open, so should you fall asleep, when you hear your station’s tune, you’ll quickly pick your head up off the shoulder of the person next to you and alight. In the odd event that the train is late by over 30 seconds, listen for an apology over the loud speaker. In the very odd event that it’s late by more than a few minutes, head to the station manager for a note to show your boss why you were late. The coverage of the city is so dense, any point is scarcely a five minute walk from a station. Clean, efficient, convenient; a microcosm of Japanese life overall.

Tokyo Subway Map

And how about a shoulder massage standard with your haircut? And taxi cab doors that open and shut themselves? And live lobster vending machines? The list goes on. The slice of life you’ll experience in Japan is a marvel, and virtual extension of what you’re already used to; you’ll feel more comfortable in Japan than you realize. Cameras and automobiles aren’t the only man-made Japanese resources worth exporting. Operations in the land of the rising sun needn’t be the mystery they are today, and you can take full advantage.

And how about a shoulder massage standard with your haircut? And taxi cab doors that open and shut themselves? And live lobster vending machines? The list goes on. The slice of life you’ll experience in Japan is a marvel, and virtual extension of what you’re already used to; you’ll feel more comfortable in Japan than you realize. Cameras and automobiles aren’t the only man-made Japanese resources worth exporting. Operations in the land of the rising sun needn’t be the mystery they are today, and you can take full advantage.

For more information on the Tokyo rail network, please visit tokyo.chrisjongkind.com. For quality images of Tokyo’s trains and other urban scenes, please visit shiodome.deviantart.com/store.

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