As noted in the Facilities sidebar, we (Barney especially) were enthusiastic about the high-tech toilets. We also, once we got the hang of it, really appreciated having hot water for tea always instantly available. Every room we stayed in had some sort of electric kettle. While some were jug-style, most were pump pots. I could definitely get used to having one of those around! Another clever feature we noticed on the kettle in Yokohama was the magnetic plug. While some jug-style kettles are removable from a base that remains plugged in, this one was easily detached from its cord, but reattaching it was facilitated by a connection that magnetically snapped into place.
Another amenity we were favorably impressed by was non-fogging vanity mirrors in the bathrooms. In every hotel we stayed in, a portion of the mirror remained fog-free even when the room filled with steam. We didn’t analyze this miracle at the time, but I have since learned that it is accomplished by means of a wafer-thin (1/16") heating pad adhered to the back of the mirror and wired into the light or ventilator switch. It would appear that this feature is standard in good hotels throughout Europe and Asia, and I hope to see it spread to the United States soon.
Many electric and electronic devices seem designed to intrude gently. We noticed that the phones ring softly at first, becoming gradually louder with each ring. Someone theorized that this is because only one of several phones in the room rings first, later joined by the each of the others (which could be a limitation of their ringers), but I’m not sure that’s the entire answer (though most of the rooms we stayed in had at least two phones). In any case, it was an especially welcome touch for a wake-up call.
Similarly, the lights in the bathroom of our room in Tokyo brightened gradually. The first time I entered the bathroom, I was dismayed by this. I flicked the light switch and was greeted by a response that made me wonder if I had sunglasses on or was going blind. Before I had time to complain of it, however, the lighting had come to full strength, and it took a couple of repetitions for me to understand what was happening. The same effect was noticeable with the fluorescent “bulbs” in some of the room lamps. I suspect that they just require some warm-up time (if you turn the lights off and immediately back on, they come on at full strength), but certainly if you get up in the middle of the night, it’s pleasant not to be blinded by turning on the light.
As mentioned in the Facilities sidebar, we were very favorably impressed by the Japanese hand dryers. Although they run on 110V current, they are much more powerful and effective than any 220V hand dryer we’ve ever encountered in the United States, especially since they dry both sides of the hands at once.
Another convenience were the ubiquitous provisions for umbrellas. It rains a lot in Japan, so everyone carries an umbrella, and chances are better than even that the umbrella is wet. The concept of umbrella bags has made its way to the United States (our supermarket provides clear plastic umbrella covers at the entrance), but even this humble accessory is high-tech in Japan: insert your umbrella into a mechanical device and it is bagged automatically! One of the companies that makes these “umbrella sleeve dispensers” is Kasapon. Its Web site is not only informative but, when I first discovered it, was accompanied by a very bouncy rendition of “Singin' in the Rain” (it now has rain noises instead). A U.S. firm, RainSafe, is attempting to promote these devices in the States, but so far I have not encountered one.
At the entrance to the Yokohama Novotel was a sort of umbrella check stand that we found intriguing. Insert your umbrella, then turn the numbered key and take it with you. One online source suggested that this device was designed not so much to prevent theft as to make it easier to find your umbrella amongst a mass of similar ones (in crowded locations such as theater lobbies). This photo gives a better idea of how it works.
Casual theft seems not to be much of a problem in Japan, and we were impressed by the unsecured, usually covered bike parking areas we saw at bus stops—until Matthew pointed out that the bikes were actually protected by unobtrusive wheel locks.
Japanese food and eating in general provided much that was unfamiliar. Some things we liked at first and then tired of (after a few meals, including breakfast, that were heavy on fish, Barney said he wanted to eat something that had not slept in the ocean the night before), but it’s hard to find fault with a dining custom as welcoming as oshibori (heated damp towels for washing the hands before, during, or after eating). Sometimes, as at Denny’s, these were actual cloth towels wrapped in plastic; in other cases they were like large “moist towelettes”; but they had always been heated, presumably in a microwave. They went a long way toward making up for the lack of usable napkins.
A nifty novelty that we especially liked was the way table sugar was packaged. Although we did sometimes encounter portion sugar in packets or “sachets” as in the West, in most instances the sugar was packaged in tubes that we referred to as “sugar sticks.” After returning home and searching on the Web for “sugar tubes” and the like, I found that these are actually called “sugar sticks”! Although most of the illustrations I saw online were rather loosely packed, relatively wide rectangular packages, most of those we collected as souvenirs were narrow tubes so tightly packed that the result was a pencil-like cylinder. Since returning home we have encountered these sticks elsewhere and really like them. Not only are they attractive, but they have the advantage that if you want to use only half a teaspoon of sugar, it is easy to pinch the stick in the middle and dispense just half of it.
Another novelty that we became quite fond of was the ubiquitous “running man” EXIT signs. I have learned that this design was created in 1982 by Yukio Ota, a professor in the Design Department of Tama Art University and member of the Japanese national delegation to ISO/TC 145, the International Standards Organization technical committee on graphical symbols. The design has been accepted as part of the ISO 7001 standard for “Graphical symbols for use on public information signs” (1990). In addition to the intelligent design of the signs themselves, what struck us was the sensible placement of the signs. In hotel corridors, they were generally placed low on the walls or even embedded in the floors—a logical location since the area near the floor is more likely to remain visible when the hall is filled with smoke.
One of the things I liked that was neither modern nor really anything that could be translated to the United States was the ceramic roof tiles. Because (unlike the terra cotta tiles used in the U.S. Southwest and other parts of the world) many of them are glazed with a grey, metallic-looking glaze, I actually thought they were metal till I did some research after returning home. Although they are no doubt expensive to use and to replace, they do last a long time (undoubtedly longer than asphalt shingles). Those used on homes are fairly plain, but temples and other public buildings have very ornate end caps, ridge caps, and corner embellishments, as can be seen in this photo of Nishi Hongwanji in Kyoto. In this photo Barney is standing by a display of worn-out tiles and their replacement, illustrating the process required to repair the roof. This photo shows the effect of the tiles on a large roof.