Last week I came back from a three week holiday in Japan. And so here are four weird and off-the-wall unexpected surprises about Japan that you most likely don’t know about yet.
1. Requiem for a washlet
Washlets are one of the unexpected delights of going to Japan. The Japanese washlet is a technological marvel in that it cleans and dries your flanks, underside and phalanges after you’ve taken a shit, without you having to step foot in a shower.
What happens after your experience with the washlet is a feeling of unparalleled freshness, cleanliness and wellness unlike anything else you’ve ever experienced before. In the West we have toilets that flush but that’s about it. It’s a toilet made for a Jurassic reptile not a highly evolved human being.
Do a half-assed job of wiping yourself? In a hurry? Lazy? Run out of toilet paper? In a Japanese washlet that’s not an issue. But elsewhere in the world you will be in deep shit. It’s 1914 and someone just killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand.
But that’s just the beginning with the beloved washlet! There is nothing more enjoyable than going to a public toilet in Japan and finding the following options on the menu, to tickle your fancy or you fanny, as the case may be.
- You can switch on a button to activate the loud canned ambient sound of a rainforest. This is ideal, so that when you’ve urgently got to drop the kids off at the pool, there’s no unpleasant splashing plops emitted out of the cubicle.
- You sit down (after a long time standing on Tokyo public transport) only to find a welcoming and pleasantly warmed seat for your ass. This is perhaps why there is often a long queue in pubic toilets in Japan, nobody wants to leave the crapper in a hurry because its essentially a warm cone.
- You can change the angle, temperature and pressure of the stream of water washing you. This makes it ideal for all of those hard to reach nooks and crannies of your shit-flaps. It’s particularly enjoyable if you’re a woman and its that time of the month. It can be amazing to know that the washlet is taking care of your vulva, even when you feel like your abdomen has been hijacked by a terrorist and you want to burst out crying at the unfairness of the world. But don’t cry dear little one…every blessed washlet in Japan cares deeply for you!
- After your wash from the washlet you can get your wobbly bits dried off, sort of like a Dyson Airblade but for your phalanges. I know that this is the incorrect usage of the word phalanges, but I swear this word sounds dirty and so I have used it here.
I tell you dear friend, after you have used one, your (hopefully) long and enduring life will never be the same without a washlet. It changes everything and makes it hard to go back to the prehistoric and unsophisticated world of the average Western toilet. Apparently TOTO make them and I have seen them in South Korea and Taiwan as well, but that’s about it. So TOTO are not only an epic 80’s band known for the song Africa, but they also a make unique, intelligent toilets. You live and learn!
Whenever you need to snap off a link sausage into the porcelain buddha, nothing will make your day sweeter than Poseidon’s passionate kiss delivered out of your beloved washlet, straight up your sensitive phalanges.
2. Convenience stores are actually convenient in Japan
Japanese convenience stores like Lawson, Family Mart and 7/11 are nothing like their piss-weak namesakes in parts of the western world, for example in Australia, US and New Zealand. In Japan, convenience stores make high quality food, like bakery-grade cream cakes, pastries and mochi along with sushi, ready-made meals like gyoza, ramen, chicken katsu, salads, bbq chicken and tempura that would rival things brought to the table in a low to mid-range restaurant elsewhere in the world. However, because in general the culinary standards in Japan are very high, these items of food are more than simply edible, they are often delicious and pretty cheap too!
Not only that but these ‘convenience’ stores are actually really convenient. They stock things like socks, deodorant, stick-on ties, shirts and underwear for salarymen who maybe had a night on the tiles and need to miraculously show up for work the following day. They stock make-up, sanitary pads, hair products, underwear and sewing kits for women and have a well-serviced and clean toilet for use by the public. They sell beer, wine, sake even whiskey 24 hours a day too! These places are staffed by people who can and do go the extra mile in terms of customer service. These people will be polite and kind (like almost everyone in Japan) and attempt to speak English with you, if you get stuck. In short, these convenience stores were one of the most pleasant surprises revealed to us in Japan.
Hot tip: Use a Suica card like you would a debit card
In Tokyo, you are able to get a Suica card, (other cities have their own version of this card which works the same). This card can become like a local debit card while you are there. You can pay for most things on your Suica card in most retailers, shops and restaurants and public transport throughout the whole of Japan, other than certain market stalls and restaurants.
This means you don’t need to carry around wads of cash and change with you. It’s the same card you use to tag on and off the trains and buses. Simply top-up your Suica when you go to a 7/11, Lawson or Family Mart and you are sorted for money!
3. Narita Airport: the only airport in the world where stuff isn’t more expensive!
I’ve been to lots of places in the world and Narita Airport in Tokyo has so far been the only airport I’ve ever visited to where they don’t charge extortionate prices for food, retail goods and duty free items, after customs.
In fact they have Japan’s beloved favourite, a 7/11 in the after-customs departure lounge. It’s pandemonium in there, but it’s still possible to buy your favourite snacks, beer, cider and so on, for exactly the same amount as you would pay on the street.
Retailers in the departure lounge range from low-end Starbucks and McDonalds, all the way up to Ferragamo and Gucci. All of them charging the same amount for their goods as outside the airport. This makes for a refreshing change compared to other airports and other cities in the world.
I had a particularly special and interesting umami-filled lunch of smoked fish, cold tofu, rice and miso for the humble price of 700 yen, about $9.50 in NZD. It was my final meal in Japan and a fitting ending to a culinary odyssey which I will think about and salivate over when I’m (hopefully) 90 and can’t see, smell or taste anything anymore.
4. The Japanese really care for their clothes…and their second-hand clothes are amazing
The Japanese are known for the careful care and discipline they have in every aspect of their lives. This extends even to clothing, which remains in immaculate and pristine condition, even if it’s many years old.
If you are a sartorial seeker as I am, but you also baulk at the idea of spending money on fast fashion on the high street, then Japan and particularly Harajuku in Tokyo and Nishiki markets in Kyoto are great places to go for second-hand gear.
It’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to think that other cities throughout Japan also have second-hand clothing stores which are brimming with high quality goods.
I was concerned that my western, AU size 12-14 tall Amazonian frame would not be able to be clothed in their munchkin sizes, however I was pleasantly surprised. Particularly in traditional kimonos, haoris and yukatas, these clothes are all designed for people of all sizes. They are also designed to look flattering on just about any body type.
In a second-hand store in Kyoto found a beautiful haori (short, less formal overcoat for wearing over a kimono) which is embroidered in mauve, purple and white flowers and made from chirimen silk (this is the true silk used in traditional kimonos and craftspeople who make bags, gifts and ornaments out of this material).
Although you do get your Zara’s and Uniqlo’s here, fashion in Japan is different. It’s a country where artistry, high quality and materials seem to be valued higher than fast fashion and the quick sale. People look after their things and buy higher quality more expensive clothing here that lasts many years. It’s also a place where women are impeccably stylish, they set the bar high here. I had literally arrived into my own intoxicating fashion nirvana.
So these were the four things that were welcome revelations to me in Japan. I am sure others will find this information helpful too. Japan is an astonishing place, brimming with overstimulating activities in its cities, and quieter, more contemplative and ethereal pursuits in its quieter places. It’s a place to completely readjust your view on the world and to see everything with new ideas. The danger though – as in my case, was that now the western world seems far less exciting, interesting and deeply culturally rich as the Far East. Coming back to it has left me in a state of withdrawals, as though from a high-octane speed cocktail. I guess sleepy little New Zealand will have to do…at least for now.
Have you been to Japan or any other place in Asia? If so, what did you think compared to your home country?
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