Friday, December 30, 2005

Nippon News Volume 1 Number 4

The lesson learned in the week before Christmas was that underestimating the speed with which the Japanese function, and the accuracy of their work, has consequences. With son Scott arriving on December 17, we set out on Dec. 19 aboard the Shinkansen, the fabled Bullet Train. At seven minutes before our scheduled departure time, a Shinkansen pulled into the station. I asked the platform manager in Japanese if this was the train for Shin-Osaka; it was. Thus, we three hustled aboard and walked the length of the car, only to find people in our assigned seats. Producing our tickets, they indicated that this was not the 'right' train. (It was really the Local Train to Shin-Osaka; not the express.). With this little mix-up now understood, we attempted to walk off the train, but only Scott managed to do so before the doors shut and the Shinkansen roared out of the station!

At this point you must understand two critical things; the Japanese Bullet Train is thus named not just for the cruising speed; - its station stops along the way can be between 30 – 60 seconds long. NO room for error, here. [We also keep getting caught at elevators – when the doors open you have maybe 3 seconds to pile in before its outta here!] Secondly, when the schedule says the train leaves at 10:37 am, IT WILL! Not one minute before, or two minutes after. This also means that it will only arrive in the station at 10:36!. Now we had to make our ways to Hiroshima separately.

The Shinkansen is a fast, comfortable and entirely civilized ride; it has big oval windows, enveloping airline style seating (but not Cabbage Class seating density), and the opportunity to enjoy food, drink and entertainment as the scenery flies by smoothly. While not taking the super-express Niozomi Shinkansen [Niozomi – the very word breaths speed, doesn't it?), we still arrived in Hiroshima about 5.5 hours later, despite some weather issues and having to change trains twice.

At Hiroshima station we boarded the local tram and clunked down to our hotel in the heart of the city. You will recall that Hiroshima was the unfortunate site of the dropping of the first A-Bomb 60 years ago – our hotel was two blocks from the hypo-centre. Arriving at the hotel, we then experienced two more entirely satsifying components of Japanese culture; there is NO tipping, and all prices include their 5% national tax. Thus, the fee for the item is what you actually pay! All of those irritating administration fees, user charges, disposal surcharges, GST, PST, MSG, NSF, whatever, do not magically appear when it comes time to pay up. Think about that the next time you take an airline flight, or check into a hotel! And we think Western civilization is advanced!

The next morning we were off to the island just offshore, named Miyajima, which is a legendary tourist site repleat with shrines, pagodas, temples and the natural beauty of Japan. Welcoming us at the ferry dock on the island were about 25 tame deer that roam the island freely, safe from predators. Unfortunately, upon learning that we had no food for them, one of the little blighters promptly snatched and ate Jean's tour map, so we were forced to wing it from there. The island is full of remarkable sites, the most prominent of which is the O-torii Gate in the water offshore; which welcomes visitors. That evening we struggled to order supper in Japanese in a Noodle Shop where no English was understood and then walked about taking photos of the city lights decorating the trees and bushes downtown.

The next day we walked over to the Peace Park, which is on the island in downtown Hiroshima that was the aiming point for the bomb. We photographed the A-Bomb Dome; the remains of a large building left standing as a memorial to those who died, and then spent some 3 hours going through the excellent museum there. We left depressed at the thought of this beautiful city being levelled and the kind and generous people who were normal citizens being killed, but this was a new kind of deadly war. In the late afternoon we took the Shinkansen to Kyoto, where we celebrated our 32nd Wedding anniversary with a formal (and authentic) Chinese Dinner at the Hotel, courtesy of our son, Scott. (we thought we were handling the thing reasonably well until the staff started laughing at the fact that the chopsticks were being held upside down!) Every course, and there were five of them, came with its own complete service, and a particular way of eating the offering. Oishii!! {Delicious}

The next day we awoke to find that we were 'lucky', (as the staff pointed out), to have the biggest snow-dump in over 20 years! This provided the backdrop for tours over the next two days of temples, shrines, the Imperial Palace, (Kyoto was for a long time the capital of Japan), and castles. In between we sampled local fare, scoured local shops, successfully learned how the beer vending machine works, and caught our first close glimpse of hotel living Japanese style – slippers at the door, fresh folded Kimonos on the bed, choice of Western or Japanese Style baths, (more on that later), the mobile pant-presser in the hall-way, ice costs extra if you want it, tooth brushes and toothpase always provided, the rooms are ALWAYS hot (usually 25 – 27 degrees, and when we left the window open to cool it to a bone-chilling 23 degrees the staff thought we were polar bears), a hot-pot of water stands by (to make tea or coffee anytime), and pillows have one end soft and the other firm so you always get the 'feel' you like and deserve! A free breakfast also gave us hints of the very different tastes of Japanese breakfasts – tomato-paste in steamed white buns, some type of rice wrapped in seaweed, fresh cabbage salads, fish, tofu, and miso soup.Best of all, many pastries, including cinnamon buns, doughnuts and chocolate bread sticks. Also, midorio ochea [green tea].

The highlite of the entire trip had to be the Golden Palace in Kyoto; a gold-leaf foiled temple surrounded by a small pond. Breat-takingly beautiful. On 24 December we took the train back to Shinagawa, where we met up with Della, who had flown in from Toronto. December 23 is the national holiday here; the Emporer's Birthday. Christmas in Japan is for lovers, so there were many weddings and clebrations in all of the downtown hotels going on at the time. People in the shops were dressed up, (a Frog and a Panda are popular, but the local store featured staff in a Reindeer and a female clerk in a Santa Suit), and most wished us a Merry Christmas.

We had a traditional Christmas; the exchange of gifts, a full turkey dinner with gravy, mashed potatos, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. Sandra and Jay celebrated not just with the Rollins family, but also a fellow pilot, Glenn, his wife Shirley, and their son, Brian. That evening, two Japanese flight attendants dropped over for a visit and were facinated by the Christmas traditions that we take for granted. I tried explaining how Christmas Stockings work, but that seemed a difficult concept for them. They closely examined all of the Christmas decorations with exclamations and admiration, and even sampled an array of treats such as shortbreads, christmas cake, mince meat and butter tarts. While not all were to their taste, they were very curious about the whole deal, and the Rockin' Xmas Tree with the Santa Hat from the 100 Yen Store that plays Holly Jolly Christmas was a big hit.

Learned along the Way; - (besides the truths revealled above).

  • Four is an unlucky number – never buy four of anything. The photo at the right shows this susperstition at play. Slices of bread always come with no crust in packages of 6 or 8 slices. An attempt to introduce a smaller, 4-slice size failed due to the above superstition. Viola! The 5-slice economy-sized package!;
  • always ride the escalator on the extreme left so people in a hurry can get by;
  • to get onto a really crowded subway train, just turn around on the platform, back up to the door, reach up with both hands to the rim above the inside of the door, push with all of your might and lever yourself into the carriage so the doors can close;
  • How the Pachinko Palace Scam works – gambling is illegal, so you trade any steel balls that you win (I have yet to figure out how you actually win) on the spot for small stuffed animal 'prizes' – which is legal. Somewhere close in the neighborhood is a single window where you can then exhange the stuffed animals for varying amounts of hard cash;
  • plastic shopping bags are really easy to carry if you clip on one of these handy plastic handles, which are available free of charge from the local supermarket checkout counter;
  • Do not lean on the door at the front of the subway car; the conductor on the other side will not be happy when he is unable to get into the carriage to make his necessary station announcements, and when he gets frusterated, stepping aside suddenly will cause him to make a completely undignified entrance into the carriage.. Loss of 'face' (both physical and social), is not good.

Doug-San In Japan saying 'Sayonara' for now.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Nippon News Volume 1 Number 3

Yet another week in Japan, and the string of major social faux-pas continues uninterruped. How was I supposed to know that one must always remove their shoes prior to entering a dressing room to try on some pants? Or that it is not 'cricket' to stab food with a chopstick and hoist it to ones mouth a la skewer? (I thought this was quite an innovation over the 'hunt and peck' mode prevelant among newly-arrived Westerners).

Nor it is really helpful in a restaurant to tell the waiter that Tempura actually was a Portuguese dish introduced into Japan in the 16th century. Or that saying 'Hi' in English really means 'Yes' in Japanese. (I thought I was only being frendly, but ended up with a souviner photo of Toyko and a persistant vendor wanting to be paid.) Or that 'yea' means 'Hello'. Just think of the Beatles lyrics, 'Yea, Yea Yea!”

[This usually kicks off the ever-popular Japanese verson of the old 'Whose On First' Routine in the restaurant –

Tea? [the waiter talking to me]



Hello Yourself!

You want Tea?



OK, OK - Enough!. How about some tea?



Hello! - Okhii? (means Big but sounds just like the English 'O.K.')

O.K. Good. Tea, then.

Tea! Okhii!



(OH NO, not again!)].

I have a hard-enough time with words like Kinichewa [Good Afternoon], which sounds much like Can Greet You-All. And, oh yea, that little figure on the washroom door that you thought was one of Robin Hood's Merry Men; it's a woman! The first clue was that there was a missing porcelin fixture in the bathroom, and the give-away was that the walls were Pink, but by then I was aready inside the stall!

But the best is saying 'Thank You' in Japanese, which you will have to do many, many times each and every day. A complex culture here, there are multiple lyers of politeness involved, and quite the little linguistic dance as well. There is the bare-bones 'Domo', which simply means 'Thanks', or the improved model, 'Arigato Gaizimus', which sort of means 'Thank You'. Or, if the circumstances warrant, you can bring out the really big guns when necessary with the killer phrase, 'Domo Arigato Gaizimus'; Thank You Very Much! At least a cursory nod of the head is manditory while mumbling incoherently a badly-formed idea of what Japanese should sound like. However, I have noted that during the bow the head goes lower according to the length of the actual response involved. This, quite understanbly, motivates most Westerners to conjure up the briefest, but still curteous, reply that one can manage in most cases.

Armed with this crucial insight into the Japanese languarge, I had hoped to at least hope behave civily in a store when buying things, but I failed to appreciate that you also have to contend with the little physical dance that is associated with a sales transaction. When a clerk at a till says something (I have no idea what), I just smile and nod. You try not to give the game away by looking alarmed when they then stuff reams of packing paper into the bag, chuck in some advertising or coupons, poof-up the purchase (is poof a word?) by conducting what amounts to a mini-origami experiment on your four-volume set of the Three Stooges Greatest Out-takes (or whatever elese you thought you had to have), and even tape or staple the bag shut in an elaborate show of one-upmanship on the bag from the 'other store' that you have in your hand. You might or might not be handed the bill, but if not, it will be somewhere in the bag with the rest of the stuff. She/he then ususally contines to talk pleasantly (I think) until the climax of the intricate little dance, which hopefully ends with me being able to see the total on the cash register, able to knock off two zeros to figure out what is owed in Cdn. (to make sure it is a deal, after all), and to then proceed to fumbling wildly with uncertain currency.

They have way more coinage here, including the ususal pennies, nickles, dimes, quarters, dollar and two-dollar coins, but also a fiver, and a fifty-cent piece, as well as an assortment of things with holes in them; I have no idea what they actually are. In my first days in Japan I paid for a hot chocolate and two coffee with what turned out to be a $100 bill! The clerk even smiled!.
Meanwhile, back at the till, I had failed to take into account a critical insight into Japanese culture when paying for a purchase. Even though you have the money, one then MUST put the money INTO the little 'tip tray' that all the tills have. I had attempted to hand the money directly to the salesgirl, but she just stood there for a few seconds, smiling, but not taking the handful of metal and paper clutched in my extended hand. A major breach of social ettiquite had just occurred, but she was giving me the opportunity to redeem myself.

Slowly it dawned on me; 'something is wrong here'. Examining the salesclerk closely, I noted that while the smile was frozen in place and most abulatory action had ceased entirely, the sole exception was that her eyes were darting down and to her left side rapidly and repeatedly. A quick check assured that I was zipped, there was no evidence that she was having some sort of sizure, the fire alarm was silent and people weren't storming the exit, so I was momentarly stumped as to what was the problem. Then I followed her line-of-sight and ended up at the inconspicuous little 'tip tray' sitting on top of the cash register.

Ah! I get it now! As soon as I had placed the money in the tray the cashier immediately became animated once again, muttering something in her soft Oriental voice while opening the till to make the necessary change. With my eyes focused on the tip tray awaiting the appearance of my change, I then became aware that things had once again ground to a halt. Lifting my head, I met her eyes, which were now fixed directly on me. I then noted that she held the change in her outstretched hand.

Ah so!! The little-known Japanese Tip Tray Transfer Mechanism only works one way!

As soon as I had taken the money, the little wretch then proceeded to short-circuit my plans for a graceful exit by immediately bowing and saying clearly 'Domo Arigato Gaziamus.'

This completely flustered me. My mixture of stunned surprize and confusion must have been something like playing Shakespeare on stage and getting ready for your big monologue when the player at your side suddenly scoops Your Line. This was completely unexpected; somebody filtched my only line! Now what? Surely I couldn't just repeat the same thing!

I was so taken aback I only managed to mutter something in Japanese, which upon subsequent reflection I realize indicated that I thought she had really big asparagus, and left the clerk frozen at the till with a very puzzled look on her face. Bag in hand, I immeditely exited the shop without looking to either side, and certainly not backwards. My only blessing was that I would not likely see her again, either!

Christmas, or at least Christmas displays, are everywhere you go, but I am not entirely sure that the Japanese completely get the concept. I saw an animated 4-foot animal with a Santa Hat and a duffle bag over his shoulder singing in English a very passable 'Wish You A Merry Christmas'. Unfortunately, the miserable creature looked like a badly abused reject from a 1950s Huckleberry Hound Reminant (or is that ruminant) Sale. Come to think of it, I have seen store clerks wearing cute little Santa Hats, but very few Santas appear, and never any reindeer.

The Chistmas Tree is big here as a seasonal item as is Dean Martin or Bing Crosby singing You Know What; there are large and well decorated trees in most big stores downtown, and they even have them in 4” models that plug into your computer's USB port, in case you are in the mood for a little cheer while surfing.

Sighted on the Way – (besides the usuall collection of challenging bathroom fixtures, doo-dads and gizmos), the following objects;

  • a coin-operated, shoebox sized, sidewalk air pump for your bicycle;
  • a Christmas Wreath made of Red Chili Peppers;
  • the KFC Colonel with slanted eyes holding chopsticks. The Colonel, at the right, appears to be the closest thing the Japanese get to Santa Claus;
  • what looks like big yellow Lego blocks in major sidewalks and train stations, (they are really a textured path for the blind, complete with braile symbols indicating turns, stops and hazards like the open grates, the Pachinko Palace entrance, etc. ), Unfortunately, some of the local louts take advantage of this to lay a series of clever booby-traps to snare the unlucky bypasser. Either that, or the blind are allowed to drive motorcycles in Japan!;
  • shacks for the homeless down by the river – complete with TV antennae;
  • a Japanese Salvation Army Trio on the corner complete with the Kettle and bugle;
  • liquid sato [sugar] in the Starbucks Store;
  • Computer USB Flash Rom rendered to look exactly like your favourite Sushi.

In closing, some you you will soon be off celebrating, so – Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!

Doug-San In Japan saying 'Sayonara' for now.

Nippon News - Volume 1 Number 2

Another week in Japan, and some things are becoming familiar; like the fact that you have to step to your LEFT to avoid oncoming bicycles, (sorry about that Yamoto-san, and I would help you pick up the tomatos but I was late for the train) and when going through the checkout at the store, try not to enter from the Exit and exit into the queue that forms at the Entrance to the till. This is bad form and results in everyone eyeing you as you try to act nocholant while strolling by the line with your goodies in the little bag that they always give you. The Japanese love packaging; everying is plastic-formed, wrapped, bagged, tagged and taped shut – the bulk of the packaging often exceeds the size of the article itself. I have actually seen individual, shrink-wrapped carrots in the store and they sell bread in a plastic bag containing just six slides! None of the bread has a crust on it unless it is a specialty loaf like baguette or cheesebread. Remember rule 1; don't ask why!

The Japanese are models of 'downsizing'; they have the small cars, mini-cement mixers and micro vans that any Smurf Village would be proud of. I saw computer desks and chairs that had no legs, dishwashers the size of a breadbox (really), a computer case that would fit into a shoebox, and what almost looks like playhouse furniture. And an unanticipated benefit is their clothes; they all fit! I was shopping for pants the other day at the local Mr. Short and Chubby store (or whatever they call it here), and I was trying on sweaters to discover that I take a size XL! So, I have finally made it to the bigs! I am pretty sure that most of you would be XXX material, but that is another story.

Besides toilets and beer bottle openers, (I must tell you sometime about the handy, cylindrical plunger-opener that Jay gave me a cople of years ago), the once thing the Japanese really go all out on are fridges. They have taken a fresh look at this humdrum appliance and have re-engineered it to what is a very modern and convenient design. The top one-third is usually a single, large and entirely normal fridge interior with adjustable shelves and rocks, but, other than the fact that the door will open on both the left and the right sides, it is the rest of the fridge that really stands out. Below the top compartment are two drawers, about a foot in depth (No, I don't know what that is in centimeters, but it is some ridicuously large number). In the smaller of the two is an ice-cube tray, compete with water tank to fill so you don't have to plumb the appliance, and with a handy little scoop that stows in the side. Perfect! Next to it is a meat-keeper that slides out for access. Below this are usually two larger doors for crispers, freezer compartments, and storeage of large items like big and long green onions, and probably umbrellas, for all I know. Some units have warming compartments, and even electronics, including LCD TVs. I will never again look at the interior of my fridge at home again without thinking of the endless untapped potential that lies within.

We are living in Kamanoge, which is a suburb about half-way between downtown Tokyo and Yokahama. It is a very Japanese area, and I normally only see another Westerner about every third or fourth day. The locals do not speak a great deal of English, but you can usually get by with my trusty 120 word vocabulary, of which nouns are critical. However, in that regard, I was surprized to discover that many, many English words have been appropriated into the Japanese language, suitably modified for their culture. Here is a sampling; Hoto (Hoto Chocolato), Erebateh, Shampu, Jacketto, Biru, (Okhii Biru – a big beer), deodornto, wain (wine), taburu (table), etc.etc. There somehow seems to be a common theme here, but then again, you don't ponder the universe.

The Japanese seem almost Zen-like in their respect for and acceptance of the forces of nature, which I guess should be understood given their association with Tsunamies, earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons, and rush-hour. If you think the elevators in Ottawa are crowded at noontime, you have to try your luck on the Tokyo trains going home around 6 pm. You might not read Japanese, but your nose is likely to be firmly planted in the back of a pulp novel held by your neighbor, fellow travellers are sufficiently jammed all around you so that you don't even have to hang onto those handy plastic grips strategically hung from the ceiling so as to whack you in the face when you become distracted and run for the exit, and you can never be sure if the lady behind you is carrying an unusually large bag of turnips, or is just built that way. It really wouln't matter, since you couldn't turn around to find out even if you wanted to. On the bright side, you don't have to ask anyone what they had for lunch; and you would know who to ask for a light, if you needed one. And god help you if you are near the train doors when it pulls into a major station; once the flow starts, you are liable to be swept along with little or no concern shown those standing between the commuter and the exit.. This is nature at its raw and merciless core; Survival Of The Thinnest!

However, once you emerge from the station, a little bent and bruised, and with a new-found respect for push-button umbrellas, there is a world of delights to be found in the many local restaurants, cafes and takeouts located along all the major streets. Some estabishments are so small they have only about 8 stools, and none of them get cold between customers. Everyone just bellies up to the counter, places their order, and falls to with an enthusiasm usually reserved for free samples at Costco. There is no lingering over a long lunch here, and as for the bill, it is usually just an amount written on a piece of paper. Fortunately, they use arabic numbers, and 100 yen is almost exactly $1.00 CDN. You have two choices; either equal shares, or one pays the entire bill. No tipping.

Classic local food consists of Ramen (noodles in fish or chicken broth with whatever), Gyoza, (dumplings), Tempura, Oyako Donguri (means mother and child since it has both Chicken and Eggs in it!), and even Yakatori. However, that is a whole other Tori! While not keen on fish (in Regina eating seafood meant having canned tuna salad sandwiches) I did try the Sashimi (thin slices of raw fish). [Note to Self- as a supplement to Rule One – when eating local food don't ask what is it, either!].There are lots of vegetarian rolls available and chicken is common, too. Unfortunately, dining in public means that you not only have to master the art of chasing corn kernels around the plate with two oversized toothpicks, but you also have to respect Japanese traditions like wiping your hands with the towel furnished at the start of the meal and not tucking it into your collar, slurping your noodles with gusto, clinking drink glasses while shouting 'Choke The Cat!' (at least that's what we say and everyone still gets it), ordering Gohan [rice] and Nori [seaweed] as the LAST dish of the meal, and, above all, resting your chopsticks parallel to your edge of the table and NEVER struck in the food bowel. P.S. The Kleenix is the napkin – remember, napkins do not exist here; you have just three choices; eat it, leave it in the bowl, or wear it home!

Unfortunatley, in their faultless eagerness to provide helpful and respectful service in English, the Japanese sometimes provide well-intentioned but misleading advice. Consider the following tidbit, which, while warning of the dangers of earthquakes, is illustrative of some translation difficulties:

When, in the eventuality that you with all of the hair are on fire, screaming with pride will arouse many Japanese, who will then beat you with enthusiasm until you are done.

On the other hand, there are worlds of discovery to be made, such as figuring out that the little straw on the mini-drink (i.e. About 4 oz) container has a slip collar so that the proper straw length is achieved and is pointed at one end to allow it to punch through the cap on the bottle; that the buses and trains run to schedule to the minute; that the Japanese are so frestidious about cleanliness that they have a little bath for the truck wheels at construction sites and scrub them every time prior to their departure, and that a slight mispronounciation of the word Kudomono [Fruit], means something unpleasant having to do with children. Lets not dwell on this unfortunate coincidence.

In all, its quite an experience, and as the old Japanese proverb goes, 'not one of us is as dumb as all of us put together!'

Doug-San In Japan saying 'Sayonara' for now.

Nippon News: Volume 1 Number 1

Nippon News Volume 1 Issue 1
Rollins-san in Japan

Flash – Honourable Rollins-san appeared on the shores of this fabled island just over one week ago, (November 22, 2005) following a 10-hour flight and a three hour train ride to get from Narita International Airport to Sandra and Jay’s home in Kaminoge. In the same day we took a car, a boat, a bus, an airplane, and then a train; most of the conveyances available to the modern world. I am not sure if we would have made it had they (S&J) not been around to show us the intricacies of the incredible train system they have here, and to decipher the signs for us.

Japan is a complex and a very different culture than back home. Everything is ‘wrong’; you drive and walk on the opposite side of the road, you eat with chopsticks, use a 24-hr clock, use different money, have different foods, and, of course, there is a completely different language; even the thinking is different. It would go something like this; ‘I, a nice, lightweight laptop computer, this day, will buy’.

And complex; nothing is easy in Japan. There are two different electrical systems; one used in the eastern area and another in the western area. There are 4 different alphabets in use, including a Chinese-based pictorial writing, two Japanese writing systems and a western-based roman alphabet so that people like us can write. Unfortunately, they intermix it all into the same sentence and even into the spelling of individual words. So, I am now working on my Japanese language skills and can confidently spout such infinitely useful phrases as:

Anata wa akai han-zubon to kieri na kutyu o atsui desu, keredomo watashi wa niwatori neku to- okhii biryu o hoshii desu.

(Your red shorts and beautiful shoes are hot, but I want chicken meat and a large beer)

Now, whether or not any Japanese would ever admit to understanding this assault on their language remains an open question; stay tuned for further developments.

Meanwhile, Jay had already warned me that you never ask ‘why’. “Because”; that’s why. The stores are all heated unbelievably hot (27 degrees), the conductor on the train bows to the passengers on entering and leaving the coach, there are three completely different TV broadcasting systems here, most doors open automatically or by a simple touch, few people cook at home (takeout is most common), all the ‘Salary Men’ on the train wear black suits and shoes and dark ties, school kids wear uniforms; (all green, with the boys in short shorts and the girls in skirts and all with beanies), bicycles ride on the sidewalk, (usually with a kit in front and back, mom on the seat, and nobody wearing helmets); and everyone loves gadgets like cell phones, blackberries and i-pods, and yet, even if they have a phone, they prefer to text message!.

And yet, the Japanese are incredibly tidy; the stations and the sidewalks are immaculate; they are very polite and helpful (if you pause in a train station someone will come up to you to show you directions or answer questions), and you can leave unlocked bicycles on the street (some even leave their purses in the basket) without fear of theft. Drinking in public is OK, there are drink dispensers on many corners, (including booze), and yet they won’t allow cigarette dispensers to operate after midnight (some 8-year old might get hold of a cigarette)! Pachinko Palaces are rife, (if you don’t know what one is you are in for a treat – think Bingo swarms Casino in a Bowling Alley with clientelle from the local tattoo parlor and the entire front row at a Willie Nelson concert), they love MacDonald-san, the cool teens dress like Brando in Rebel Without A Cause, and pointing in public is supposed to be rude (although that is rapidly changing).

However, there are uncounted horrors in their washrooms. Often you are presented with a control panel that would rival the engineering station on a Boeing 747. There are buttons that wipe, spray, perfume, add a suitably delicate soundtrack to distract the unwilling who happen to be in audio range, and even clean the toilet seat on demand. There probably is a Freeze-Dry option that I have yet to discover. The basic problem is that if you can’t read the instructions, pushing buttons at random out of boredom leads to some pretty odd goings-on in the cubicle, and when you finally emerge, your fellow washroom mates stare at you as if you were something extraordinary.

At the other end of the spectrum is an encounter that I had in the urinals at a train station in Tokyo. The lady was soaking down the tiles with water from a large rubber hose. I had been briefed to anticipate this eventuality, (women working in the male washroom) so I went about my business, (and she hers), when, to my horror I glanced over mid-stream to discover that I was standing on wet tiles and that she had stretched an electrical cord powering her ‘trouble light’ right across the pool of water!!! I was frightened enough to disengage, (a thoroughly troubling thing in itself), and beat a hasty retreat.

And then there was the nasty little surprise for me in the War Museum; the infamous Japanese Squat Toilet. I already had had an unpleasant encounter a few years ago with its Chinese Cousin on a rickety train ride to Shainghai and that didn’t go well. (ever try to thread a needle on a rocking boat? At least if you dropped the needle on your shoes you wouldn’t worry about it!). So I took a 15-minute break to consider’ the most obvious option, (and the strategy that had worked successfully for me on the 27-hr. train ride from Hong Kong to Shanghai), which was to conduct a, let’say, ‘Holdout For More Favourable Conditions Work-To-Rule Campaign’. Unfortunately, this gambit was being badly undermined by the two cups of coffee I had previous enjoyed, but was now to pay dearly for. The Japanese might have lost the last war, but they have their final revenge on any Westerners foolish enough to visit their museum and need to use the toilet.

So, following a brief tutorial on the basics from Sandra, I reluctantly sought out the loathed cubicle that I had rejected earlier. Eying the opening in the floor below and its associated (and entirely mysterious) fixtures curiously, I sank to new depths, decided that a 180-degree about face would work better, and gave it a good go. Oh well, when in Rome go as the Romans do!….

There were five packages of toilet paper on a ledge at the far end of the cubicle, but, curiously, none had been opened and there was no evidence of use. (Note to self – remember -1- not all cubicles have toilet paper, and 2 – don’t ask why). Fortunately, I was able to get out of the washroom with my dignity more-or-less intact, despite having accidently started the blow dryer when I reached for the Soap, resulting in a scramble to grab the napkins on the counter, (yes, napkins; the Japanese use them for everything – drink coasters, towels, and even advertising – they hand out free packages on the street with ads on the back). Then, anxious to escape the scene of the crime, I had had to pry the door open with my foot and all of my strength cuz I didn’t know about the auto-opening mechanism. The remaining patrons of the washroom only stared at me impassively and winced.

Ah well, its all experience.

In closing, here is a useful (and actual) phrase for you that proves that you, too, can learn to speak Japanese like a native. Just say it out loud to get the meaning.

Weyteh; Wisuki On Za Rokku!