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Joel's Reflections on Japan

Impeccably-maintained public bathrooms every couple hundred feet, many with computerized toilets that offer a panoply of rinsing options, their icons struggling to tastefully distinguish between “spray” (for him) and “bidet” (for her). Automatic discounts to tourists and complementary wet naps with the purchase of even the tiniest food item. Pedestrians waiting patiently for the light to change - a minute, minute and a half - without a car in sight. Muzak versions of popular and semi-obscure songs by American artists echoing through the megamalls. Unlocked cruisers parked streetside overnight, but locked parking docks for umbrellas. A noticeable lack of trash cans, yet barely a scrap on the ground.


Incedible attention to detail, thorough mastery of subtlety and understatement. Businessmen in uniform dark slacks and white oxfords with the flourish of contrast stitching on just the collar button hole. Less is more. Specialized utensils for particular dishes, holders for those utensils, holders for those holders of utensils. A solution for every problem. Impeccable design that simply works as it should, and doesn’t try to multi-task.

An astounding differentiation of social roles - with workers enthusiastically performing jobs that other economies simply couldn't support. Who could imagine the need for a subway platform caller to direct commuters who self-organize into neat rows without prompting? Or a transit employee charged with maintaining a cordoned-off section outside the station for the handful of homeless to neatly arrange their flattened cardboard shelters? And department store greeters in garish color-coordinated outfits to push the elevator button for you?


Refreshingly, a culture of tip and tax-inclusive prices means no hidden costs. Still, five dollar cover charges often apply, both at five-seat microbars in Tokyo’s Golden Gai district and at Lockup, a kitschy jail-themed bar in Shibuya where together with Todd and Crystal we experienced ambivalence-themed service. Similar cover charges at Kyoto’s many UNESCO World Heritage Site temples and shrines, but the views never failed to justify the fees.


We've worn our sneaker souls thin at the heel from treading eight miles a day through Tokyo, and twice as many on bike around Kyoto. Too often we’ve burned as many calories just getting to the vegan restaurant as we consumed once there. Other nights we walked miles to find doors shuttered, and settled for Subway in the subway station, which in Japan comes with neither cheese nor in footlong portions, but does offer basil french fries. The steep learning curve on proper chopstick technique inducing prolonged bouts of cramping in my right hand.

Alternately planning for the next day and six months out. Heavy use of googledocs sub-bullet points to organize related ideas, indenting so far to the right on my narrow iPhone screen I'm reading English almost vertically, as if it were Japanese. Convincingly impersonating pronunciation (or so it seems to me), but getting tongue-tied in the moment trying to recall the most basic phrases. Fully aware of committing cultural faux pas by the smile the wrong move elicits, yet completely helpless to correct it.


words by Joel.

photos by Joel and Amy.

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