[The American Years]

Monday, November 13, 2006


Greetings from Japan, where the word for 'loud' and the word for 'annoying' are the same word. You can't be loud without being annoying here. (I guess they have heard me singing karaoke.)
We took a weekend trip to Tokyo last month. Below is a slideshow of our fun.

Of note: we went to NHK (translated PBS, or occasionally CBC depending on your dictionary) and visited the "Studio Park", full of NHK fun. I got to try my hand at broadcasting. Note the assured gleam in my eye while I read the news.

NHK studios are in Shibuya, a vibrant and bustling area of Tokyo. 'Vibrant and bustling' sounds like Frommer's-speak for 'crowded'. It was crowded, but a lot of fun. The crowds are part of the fun. The intersection right in front of Shibuya station is said to be the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world. It's a great place to people-watch.

We took a guided bus tour the next day, and saw the sights like the tourists we are. Highlights included: the Shinto shrine where we saw wedding parties marching off to their ceremonies, the Imperial palace gardens where even the police cars (lovely hybrid cars I might add) are adorned with the imperial symbol of the crysanthemum, and the harbor cruise where our kids became tourist attractions themselves.

When you think of Tokyo Station, you probably think of some modern glass-and-steel structure. But it's all brick, built in the early 20th century, and based on a train station in Holland somewhere.

This was our first ride as a family on the Shinkansen, or bullet train. 275km/hour converts to 'flat-out haulin' in the metric to Kentuckian conversion chart. Zane was particularly impressed.

We had heard such stories about supercrowded subway trains in Tokyo, but we were lucky enough to miss rush hour. Preparing for the worst, I had my Japanese speaking friends help me with these cards worn by the kids.

We are thankful that nobody got separated or lost. Well, that's not exactly true. We all got lost, but we were all together, following me!


Deceiving a deceiver is no knavery. Source: Japanese Proverb

(Knaving a knaver, however...)


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Potty training, revisited

Greetings from Japan, where for as polite as they are, they don’t bless people when they sneeze. Also holding a door open for someone is largely not done. Not sure why or why not, but it's just different.


If you thought this blog or its author were above potty-talk, guess again. Due to overwhelming pressure, I can no longer remain silent on this topic. (Actually the pressure was only moderately whelming... )

Finally, Japanese restrooms will be addressed! First an image to set the tone (from a train station in Nagoya).

For those of who with weak constitutions, or who take offense at discussions of your bodily functions and the facilities designed to contain them, please tune out now.

(Here's where I can pretend that my mom has stopped reading, so I can widen the filter.)



The Japanese toilet is in a transitional phase, so this is a work in progress. We are right on the cusp between two eras. Japanese historians will look back and recognize these days for the ground-breaking revolution that they are, similar to when the Edo Period became the Meiji.

Let’s start by talking about technology in Japan. Yes, they are high-tech. Given. But they are more selective than Americans as to what technology they will embrace, and what they will delay on. Newer is not always better in Japan, so people hold on to what they have a little longer. Case in point, VHS still exists here. As does Mini disc. And let’s face it, chopsticks. They have known about forks and knives for generations now, and they are just fine with what they have. Sure, forks and spoons are used by kids before they learn to manipulate sticks, but sticks are still king. (From comedian Adam Corrola: 'And you should see the Japanese construction crew digging a ditch by using a couple of pool cues. Very impressive.')

Now, on to toilets. The traditional Japanese toilet is not much more than a ceramic hole in the ground. There is no seat. I call it a squatter. Pictured here from a centuies-old building at the Meiji Mura historical village, but this configuration is in many modern buildings, inlcuding my office though not quite as ornate.

Closer look?

How does one use it? Instead of a thousand words, here’s a picture. My Japanese language study book has a cultural awareness page in every chapter. This image was in chapter number 8, but you'd think it'd be in number 2. (Click to enlarge.)

I include the bathtub usage instructions for comparison. The bathtub description gets 3 paragraphs. Toilet usage? Nary a word of instruction, and believe me there's more to it than knowing which way to face. Honestly that's a fairly minor point. A lot more could go horribly wrong with the toilet usage than with the bath usage. You use soap in the bath then drain it? Bit of a faux pas, but you're a foreigner, they'll understand. I'll let you imagine the outcome of toilet misuse.

I also like that they put the western style toilet in there for your reference, in case you forgot. Why doesn't the bathtub description doesn't have an image of the stick figure using a sudsy bath at home for reference?

One thing that's right on the money is they got the typical Japanese body type correct. Stick figure drawing must have been invented in Japan, because it's just so darn realistic.

Okay, back on topic.

In this Japanese culture that honors The Clean, if you were accustomed to that potty would you switch it up and prefer to sit on a regular western-style throne seat? Probably not. Benefit to the western-style: relaxing seat. Detriment: Kinda germy to share a seat with the world. So the Japanese as a society did not embrace the western throne because it did not honor The Clean. “Better safe than sorry” applied.

For the longest time there were only Japanese squatter-potties. In some places, where westerners frequent like my office, there was the occasional western potty. We all knew where they were and prefered to wait in line for them rather than taking our chances with the squatter. Our fear of the squatter might not need to be explained. Let’s just say that body parts and clothes are closer to the action than westerners are used to, so it makes us nervous. That and (except when drunk or Elvis) we've never had to worry about our balance while using the potty. So “better safe than sorry” applies for us as well.

The Japanese had their potty, the westerners had theirs. It looked like it would go the way of the chopsticks vs. forks and knives. Each side was happy with what they had.

But now the stalemate has been broken. (This revolution will not be televised, thankfully.) There have been technological advances to the western potty seats in Japan over the last 10-15 years. The primary component is the built-in bidet in the potty. Push a button and a little nozzle comes out below to spray your hind quarters clean. This technological advance has put The Clean back into potty-sitting, and the Japanese have now embraced it. The bidet has also put The Cheap into throne sitting, as paper is expensive.

The built-in bidet is where it started, but the Japanese spirit of ‘copy-and-improve’ has been in full force in the past decade. Once you’ve decided that electricity and buttons will be present, you can just start adding things.

Our own toilet seats in our home here have the following features: Seat warmer, bidet of adjustable water temperature, spray strength and optional oscillation, air deodorizer, auto flush sensor activated when you stand, and pushbutton controls (including two flush buttons, ‘small’ and 'big'- translated #1 and #2) on a wall-mounted console next to the seat. Other versions include a auto lid lifter when you approac. Ours might have other features, but I only push the buttons I'm familiar with.

Our wall mounted controls for the "Toilet of Wonder".

The Simpsons in Japan episode was not too far off. When Homer approached the hotel’s toilet it put on a water and light show and announced, “I am honored to accept your waste.”

From what I hear, the auto-powder feature, the splash suppressor, the built-in Brazilian waxing, and the computer generated voice giving words of encouragement will be the next steps. The auto colonoscopy is still a ways off, however.

And now the original concern about The Clean (sharing a seat with strangers) has also been addressed. It’s getting more common to have sanitizing gel dispensers in the stalls. Put a little on a tissue, wipe down the seat, and you are sparkling.

The potty revolution has not been complete. There is still a generational difference, I think. Luddites who would prefer to squat rather than to sit on a robotic fountain are still around. The age of a building often determines what potty specification you’ll find there. My own office has low-tech and high-tech in neighboring stalls. Tradition and technology side by side. It's an allegory of Japan itself.

Toilets have always been a topic of conversation for the western traveler in Japan. It used to be shock and surprise at the primitive facilities. Now it’s shock and surprise at the elaborate technology. Yet another way the Japanese are superior.

Side note 1. Warning for men using the fully modern Japanese restroom. There are buttons on the wall, and most of us can’t read them. If you are someone who, like me, occasionally stands up in front of the potty, take care which button you press. When trying to flush, if you press the wrong button the bidet feature will engage, and begin spraying up out of the bowl. The arc of the stream will almost exactly match the arc which you created just moments before, and will stike you right where it counts. It won’t hurt, but as you exit, people will think you didn’t make it in there in time.


Side note 2. Public Service Announcement: If you are someone who, like me, occasionally wears pants, the toilet usage instruction sketch above has a key component missing: pants. The #1 rule: Western toilet, pants at ankles. Japanese toilet: Pants at knees. If this had been a real PSA, I would have come up with a clever rhyme or jingle and maybe a spokespuppet. You know, for kids. But I believe further explanation isn't required.


Side note 3. Potty talk. If you are traveling in Japan and nature calls, don’t ask someone where the bathroom is. Let me remind you that Japanese like a nice soak in a hot bath. They take baths, and even do have shared public bathing areas, or Bath Rooms. However, bathroom is not a word for restroom in Japan. This is an actual conversation that happened when two colleagues of mine, one Japanese and one American, landed at the airport in Japan:

American: Hey, where’s the nearest bathroom.
Japanese: The what?
American: The bathroom. I need to use the bathroom.
Japanese: Um, I don’t think there’s one in the airport, and anyway we don’t have time for that now.

So please use the word ‘Toilet’. They’ll know what you’re talking about.


“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”

(Japanese Proverb)


Sunday, November 05, 2006


Greetings from Japan, where since the bad guys don't have guns, neither do the good guys. Police are however highly trained in martial arts. This makes them super good at writing parking tickets, it turns out.

*Japanese is difficult, so let’s not even try:
There are 4 words for brother and 4 for sister. Different words if it's my brother or yours (your brother gets the honorary word, even if he is a total goober), and whether he's older or younger. Same goes for our sisters. And just for fun, a couple more unrelated words which mean 'brothers and sisters'. Fun!

* * *

Takayama is a little town in nearby Gifu prefecture. Gifu is fast becoming my favorite prefecture. And ‘prefecture’ is fast becoming my favorite geographical term.

We went to Takayama for (three guesses…?) a festival! Takayama is famous for centuries-old wooden floats which are wheeled through the streets but twice a year. The woodworking and gold and silversmith craftsmanship on these floats is astounding, and they are all national treasures. The additional attraction to them is the puppetry. There are mechanically controlled puppets on these floats. It’s this skill that Takayama has become famous for.

Kathleen read at the museum that the Takayama area had many woodworkers, and during a generation or so of slow demand, they decided to make puppets and floats to attract business. I guess it paid off, because we went there, right?

You can’t call the puppets marionettes because there are no strings above them.. The puppets are completely internally controlled via strings and levers operated by people inside the floats.

(If this sounds similar to the Tsushima festival from a few posts ago, you’re right. But Tsushima is the minor leagues compared to Takayama.)

The problem is that we got there at 12noon, and didn’t realize that the Sunday parading of the floats had just wrapped up in the morning hours.

Not to be daunted, we found the museum, which had many of the floats on display and a demonstration of the puppetry, which can be best likened to Disney animatronics, without electricity. The most amazing was a puppet which climbs from pedestal to pedestal, being controlled from inside whatever pedestal it is standing on. So the controls are run up through the puppets legs, and connect to the puppet as it steps on each pedestal.

Another puppet just sits there, but it writes for you. His arm is controlled by strings connecting it to a puppeteer below, who can watch his handiwork through a series of mirrors. As the strangest looking people in the audience, we were chosen to receive the puppet’s writings.

The puppet wrote 'Hida', which roughly translates to “Kick Me”.


The puppet wrote 'Hida', which roughly translates to "Help, I'm trapped inside this puppet and they won't let me out!"

The wind-up tea serving puppet is great also. Early robotics. Setting the tray of tea on it starts it moving. Removing the tea makes it turn around and return to its post, ready to serve you again. (It’s just like a Japanese wife, except they are typically self-winding.)

There’s a sampling of the puppetry in the video I have here, which doesn’t do it justice at all. If you are interested in it at all, go to the festival next spring (and get there early), or go to this visitor website which has much better video than I was able to capture.

There was also a pretty impressive Buddhist temple, where we were privileged to see the ancient rite of a car being blessed. It involved a priestly man standing in front of the car while the owner and friends stood beside the car. Then a nunly woman ran around the car shaking some bells. The whole thing took about 15 seconds.

(The car was a Nissan, and I could make all sorts of jokes about how it needs a few more blessings, and all the help it can get, or how the owner was actually repenting for his improper choice, but I’m above all that. Clearly.)

Friday, November 03, 2006

(Way too many pictures from) Kamikochi

Greetings from Japan, where autumn leaf viewing is a big thing. Not as big as cherry blossom vieweing, but still pretty big.

We tried to get in on the action as well. We broke a cardinal rule of limited-stay traveling: we went back to somewhere. We went back to Nagano prefecture to stay at the same inn we stayed at this past summer. Our hope was to catch some fall color. And anyway there are two national parks adjacent to each other in this area. Last time we visited one (Norikura) this time it was the other (Kamikochi).

We were a little early for leaf peeping, but the weather was great and the scenery was wonderful too. And the main reason we went back to the same inn (the friendliness and fine cooking) were in full force. Just a quick weekend, but time enough to take way too many pictures and to overuse my wide angle lens. A selection of them are here for your viewing pleasure, or just for you to ignore.

As they say in Japan: Dozo, bozo!