Part of the fun of traveling to new countries and exploring new cultures is discovering quirky attributes of the society, customs, and way of life. In Japan, there was no shortage of intriguing experiences and insights for me ooo and ahh over.
1. Automated Toilet Seat Warmers
I was prepared for the the bidets in Japan but was surprised to discover that the automated toilets have an embedded seat warming feature, much like my car. This was a feature that I quickly grew to enjoy and then take for granted. So much so that when Michael and I arrived in Seoul, South Korea, and I plopped down on our hotel toilet, I was miffed to be greeted by a cold seat.
“Where is my butt warmer?” I fumed under my breath.
To add insult to injury, the bidet only shot out freezing cold water instead of the heated water my Japanese bidet provided. I yelped the first time I turned it on and an ice-cold stream of water shot out and up. Searching the Korean hieroglyphics above each button for anything denoting warmth was futile. The closest sign featured a ring of red which I assumed communicated warm water but the floating smiling face above the stream of water confounded me. Does this bidet double as a water fountain? I did not press the button to find out.
2. Toilet Stall Music
The toilet experience had one more surprise in store for me in Tokyo. Traveling by subway to go sightseeing, I popped in to the ladies restroom before embarking on our ride. When I entered the stall, I heard the sound of rushing water. Perplexed and alarmed, I searched the stall for a leak and looked under both the right and left partitions to see if my neighbor’s toilet was overflowing. Nothing was amiss. As I sat down the sound got louder. The more I listened to it, the more it sounded familiar. With a start, I realized the sound was almost exactly the sound that my white noise machine made every time I turned it on to go to sleep. It was the sound of a gurgling stream. My Pavlovian reflex kicked in and I started to get sleepy. I quickly finished my business and stepped out of the stall before I turned into a bathroom narcoleptic. I don’t think the local authorities would know quite what to do with a snoring foreign lady straddling the toilet seat. As soon as I exited the stall, the music turned off.
3. Considerate Hotel Maid Service
If you do not want your room cleaned and put the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your hotel door, a plastic bag with fresh towels, slippers, robes, and toiletries will be hung from your doorknob at the end of the day. Now that’s service.
4. Book Jackets
During our climb up Mt. Fuji I saw that one of the guides, who happened to be American, was carrying a book the size of a fat baby. And this fat baby was emblazoned with Japanese characters. Intrigued, I asked him what Japanese book he was reading and if it was hard for him to master reading the language, not only understanding the characters but reading in the traditional tategaki vertical style, down the columns from right to left. He laughed sheepishly and let me know that he was actually reading The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky in English. The cover was a book jacket that the bookstore clerk dressed the book in once he purchased it. This was standard practice in Japan. Every book purchased is covered in a book jacket. This way, not only do you keep your book clean but potential nosy neighbors wouldn’t be able to find out what you’re reading.
When I gave him a sly look, he laughed in reply.
“No, it has nothing to do with reading smutty books. It’s reflective of the reserved culture.”
For such a large metropolis, I was surprised at how quiet the streets were. In the one week we spent in Tokyo, I did not hear one car, bus, motorcycle, or truck honk. Which was so pleasant compared to Los Angeles, where every third second of every hour of every day is punctured by petulant honking, a maddening cacophony of impatience and road rage.
6. Gas Stations
Gas is pumped from the ceiling of gas stations in Tokyo. This bypasses the need to park close enough to the gas pump and on the side that the fuel tank is located on, reducing anxiety over whether you parked on the right side and close enough for the hose to reach your car.
Coming back from our MariCAR adventure at 11pm on a Thursday, I was astounded to see the wave of business men and women returning home from work on their daily commutes. The train and subway stations were jammed with suits and briefcases. I had to double check my watch to make sure I read the time right. How could this late hour constitute rush hour? But the clock was right and this sea of worker bees buzzing towards the platforms at such a late hour was de rigueur for a weeknight. Madness.
8. Animal Cafes
There is no shortage of animal cafes in Tokyo. Whatever your animal of choice is, Tokyo will most likely have a cafe for it, where you can hold, pet, feed, and play with the furry cafe residents. We passed countless cat cafes, heard of dog cafes, and saw signs for owl, rabbit and hedgehog cafes. We knew we had to experience this cultural phenomena and made appointments to visit a cat cafe and an owl cafe.
For cat owners, the cat cafe is underwhelming. Being used to your own cats climbing all over you, making biscuits to their heart’s content on your soft belly, and purring in your ear, the cats in the cat cafes are standoffish, shy, or uninterested by comparison. After feeling so wanted and loved at home, interacting with these blasé cats left me irritated. I am the Cat Queen at home with loyal feline subjects. I will not tolerate feline indifference.
So the more interesting experience was the owl cafe. I was surprised there was such a cafe. I’d never interacted with an owl so the ability to hold one, pet it, and feed it was intriguing.
I scheduled the first appointment of the day at 11am at Owl Village Harajuku and two other pairs of tourists had the same idea. Our group of six would have the first hour of the day to visit the owls. Michael and I were first to arrive about fifteen minutes early. Shortly after, a heavyset Austrian mother and her teenage son joined the queue. A few minutes later, an American Chinese couple arrived.
As we waited, Michael and I sat down on the staircase climbing the side of the five story building to wait for the cafe to open. As the Austrian mother, I will call her Helga, exited the elevator, she saw what she assumed was a wooden perch for humans and plopped her plump body down. While it was a wooden perch, the target percher was owl not human and to no surprise, we heard a loud pop as the wooden perch splintered in half. Helga flew up with a nervous laugh.
I assumed that she would sit down on one of the many empty concrete steps on the staircase winding the building but she approached my step and pointed to the six inches of space between me and the railing. I couldn’t quite believe that of all of the available steps to sit on, Helga would ask to squeeze her rubenesque form on the same step that I was sitting on. And so there we were, thigh plastered to thigh, side boob cuddling side boob. Undeterred by the uncomfortable intimacy, Helga was eager to make conversation. She asked me if I’d been to a cat cafe and we bonded over our mutual disappointed in the experience since we were kindred cat ladies in our respective homes. Helga took it a step further and scoffed at both the rabbit and hedgehog cafes.
“Rabbits? Psh. Everyone has rabbits in yard! That is not special. And hedgehogs? Psh. I have an entire family of hedgehogs in my yard right now! Eh?”
I couldn’t identify with that one but I would not be outdone.
“I have a raccoon, a possum, and a skunk in my backyard.”
“Ok, yes! Good.” She beamed at me, pleased. For the first time in my life, this admission was greeted by delight instead of horror at the motley crew of woodland creatures who called my back porch home.
The clock struck 11am and my new friend and I entered the owl cafe, a pair of modern-day Snow Whites, minus the dwarves.