There are plenty of cultural oddities for a whitey round-eye like me visiting Japan.
Japanese Vending Machines.
Did you know Japan is about 500 degrees in the summer? Plus 99% humidity? Me neither. It’s so tidy and cool in the guidebooks. Everyone looks all nifty and suited up and un-sweaty-like. Have they photoshopped all of the melting tourists out of the pictures?
Luckily, every ten yards or so there stands a vending machine of happiness.
I’ve seen vending machines before, obviously, but not like these. They are tempting. They are sassy. And they dispense whatever you might desire: juice, milk, towels, ice cream, sweet iced coffee labeled BOSS. You can say whatever you need to say to that boss for 120 yen. That boss has been canned.
A great many vending machines are chock full of beer. Due to circumstances beyond my control, such nectar of the gods is strictly verboten. I struggled to avoid eye contact with the Asahi machines that cropped up on every other block. Given the weather, a cold beer looked damned tasty, even through the shower of perspiration raining down my face.
Oh, well. The spouse could always roll his cold can on the back of my neck.
It was a little alarming the first time I sat down and perused a toilet control panel, too terrified to push anything. What invasive and embarrassing activity might commence? It is a vulnerable feeling to bare your behind and then submit it to the great unknown.
My two girls were not so tentative. I heard them locked in a stall, screaming and shrieking with laughter. Lord knows what was going on in there, so I retreated to the hallway, cheeks a bit flushed.
One finally emerged, breathless. “Did you push the button with a musical note?” she asked. Turns out, it had played the Star Wars theme. If the line had been shorter, I might have gone back to give it a go.
Sadly, in most restrooms, the music button only makes a loud flushing sound, but now that the note button seemed safe, I decided to step-up my exploration.
What I discovered is that many of the options are surprisingly refreshing. In fact, it was disappointing to arrive back in the States and remember that our lackluster commodes do nothing besides give the ol’ heave-ho to a variety of deposits.
And now…a quick word about the seat heater. It might be a nice feature in certain specific circumstances. Like, in the middle of winter…in your own home. But it was downright lurky to sit on a hot public toilet. It made me think of bacteria multiplying, and about the last pair of bare buttocks that had rested on the very same spot.
Pit toilets on trains.
Pit toilets and trains do not go together.
You may be imagining the pit on the ground, which would not be so bad. No. On trains, the pits are at commode level. You have to step a couple feet off the ground and clutch the safety rail for dear life, trying to maneuver your pants to the ankle area with your free hand. Alternately, you can use your free hand to tuck your skirt into your armpit.
Who decided it was a good idea to dangle your hind-side over a hole while hurtling through the countryside at 240 miles per hour? Avoid. Trust me.
Never step on tatami mats while wearing shoes. You probably know that.
Here’s where things get strange:
When you get to the restroom, you have to take off those REGULAR slippers and change into your TOILET SLIPPERS. God forbid you get your slippers confused.
When all this takes place in your postage-stamp sized hotel room, absurdity reigns. Imagine opening the door to your teeny tiny room, removing your shoes to put on your regular slippers, shuffling eighteen inches to the bathroom door and changing your footwear yet again.
Also, it felt ridiculous to have the word “toilet” written on my feet. At least dogs can’t read.
Pickles, pickles, pickles.
What is it with pickles?
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. More pickles. Different pickles. Pickles as palate cleanser, as condiment, as garnish, as digestive.
It’s like the Eskimos with their snow, except you have to eat it.
Traveling with children means you can’t simply do what the grown ups feel like doing all day everyday. In order to prevent a terrible snit–or worse, mutiny–we had to mix in destinations and activities that would amuse our tiny tyrants. Since we were trying to avoid places like Tokyo Disney, however, we tried to find things that were uniquely Japanese.
About two thirds of the way through our trip, the girls got very homesick, and started waxing nostalgic about our beloved, neglected cat at home. Cat Café, here we come.
The first cat café started in Korea, followed shortly thereafter by one in Osaka, but the pet rental phenomenon really took root in Tokyo, where they have about 40 cat cafes. Since most apartments forbid pets, these places feed the need to find furry love and a little zen-like escape from the frenetic, crowded urban life. One can also find bunny bistros, dog cafes, and an occasional goat here and there, but cat lovers head to places like Nekorobi, in Ikebukuro.
This was a lovely respite for all of us, except the spouse, for whom one cat is definitely enough (if only barely tolerable). He amused himself around Ikebukuro, which is an interesting little pocket of Tokyo.
In case you are secretly judging me, this was not just a place for crazy cat ladies. People go there and play with cats, of course, but only when the cats are interested. Otherwise, people read, and sip coffee, and work, and do regular people activities.
Best of all, Nekorobi had fancy vending machines. They had cubbies and sci-fi toilets. They had regular slippers and bathroom slippers, bean bags, and wifi. And cats.
Plus, no pickles or pit toilets. Perfect.