Public Washrooms

Probably the most angst-ridden experience you may have in Japan is using a public washroom. No, I don’t mean you will have an unpleasant experience. I mean you may have a “unique” experience.

Squat vs. Western
In many public facilities visitors will have a choice between using a Western toilet (“yoshiki”) or a “squat toilet” (“washiki”). Many squat toilets can be found at local railway stations, temples, schools, and other public places. The squat toilet is slowly disappearing but sometimes you may find yourself stuck and be forced to use one. Hopefully, you will have a choice and can use the alternate Western toilet located beside the squat toilet. If not and you are forced to use a squat toilet, well, it isn’t that tough – especially if you are like me and was born and raised in rural Canada and had to “go outside” once in a while – ha, ha! There is usually a sticker inside the squat toilet showing the visitor how to use it. It is a very simple process; just squat and do your thing. The only difficulty is the balancing act since many Canadians are not used to squatting. The trick is to hold on to the pipe in front of you to give yourself some balance. Hey, you wanted to experience the “real Japan,” well now is your chance!

Tissue Packs
Kidding aside, the squat toilets are not tough to use but the only thing you have to be aware of is to pack some tissue paper with you. The squat toilets rarely come with toilet paper so you have to bring your own. Tissue packets are handed out everywhere and it is a very good idea to grab one or two just in case you get stuck. Yes, just like the Boy Scouts, when using a squat toilet is important to always “be prepared!”

Handkerchiefs
Another good idea is to always carry a handkerchief. While there are sinks and faucets in public washrooms, most facilities do not have any paper or blow dryers to dry your hands. Many Japanese carry handkerchiefs to dry their hands and this is a good idea. Remember, use your handkerchiefs to dry your hands and keep them clean and dry as possible.

Washlets
Today the toilets have gone high tech and the only discomfort you will face is how to use them. Japanese love comfort, especially bodily comfort, and the washroom facilities are simply astounding at times. Built in to the toilets are a variety of buttons which will provide some of the most pleasant toilet experiences of your life – I kid you not! The high tech Japanese toilets are called “washlets” (in English, “bidets”) and in 2010 they were reported to be installed in approximately 72% of Japanese homes. The washlets are also found in most hotels and department stores, and these places are the best place to go to the washroom when you are shopping or sightseeing. The washlets look just like a Western toilet except they have a number of buttons such as blow dryer, seat heating, massage options, water jet adjustments, automatic lid opening, automatic flushing, wireless control panel, room heating and air conditioning for the room—included either as part of the toilet or in the seat.  I will shortly include a diagram to show you which buttons to press for which feature.

Sushi !

Oh yes, sushi! Everyone loves sushi! Sushi is the staple food of Japan so everyone in Japan must eat sushi everyday, right? That’s what I thought too until I moved to Japan. No, rice is the staple dish, not sushi; and unfortunately for most Japanese sushi is expensive and there is no way most people could dine on sushi everyday. Like Canada, sushi for dinner is only eaten once in a while but it is eaten as a snack more often than not.

What kind of sushi is served in Japan? Do they eat California rolls? Do they have the conveyor-belt sushi bars? Well, a lot of different kinds of sushi are served at sushi restaurants, much more than most sushi restaurants in Canada. As for California rolls, no, they are a North American creation and not a native Japanese sushi. And yes, the conveyor-belt sushi bars (known affectionately as “kuru-kuru zushi”) are just as popular especially among the young children. Sushi is for everyone too; families, singles, young and old. At the kuru-kuru zushi restaurants, it seems everything under the sun can be found on the sushi plates as they saunter by – fruit, cakes, veggies, meat, you name it. The tea taps are my favourite. Small dispensers send steaming hot water into your Japanese cup and nearby is a box of green tea bags. There is nothing like going into a sushi bar in winter and warming up on hot green tea before diving into plate after plate of mouth-watering sushi.

The big advantage of eating sushi in Japan, of course, is Japan has the best sushi around! I’ve had some incredible sushi in Japan, simply unbelievable. I have heard, however, that the sushi restaurants in Vancouver are good and some of them compare favourably to their Japanese counterparts which is saying a lot. I am not a sushi connoisseur but I have found the best sushi can be found outside of the big cities in coastal towns (unless you are in a very, very expensive sushi restaurant in a city) or at the smaller, out of the way restaurants where the owners take great pride in serving fantastic sushi.

On a final note, the sushi souvenirs are a lot of fun. If you go to certain souvenir stores or department stores with souvenir sections, a variety of sushi souvenirs can be found. For example, sushi t-shirts, sushi fridge magnets, sushi key chains, and sushi erasers. A great souvenir for the sushi fan back home!

 

Chopsticks

Ah, yes, those damned chopsticks! Why can’t they use a knife and fork like everyone else?!

I know, I know. It takes a bit of practice to get used to using chopsticks but if you go to Japan it is hard to avoid not using them. The Japanese clearly understand the balance and dexterity necessary to use chopsticks properly, and if you are at somone’s home or in a restaurant you may be given a knife, fork, or spoon to assist you. However, it is worth spending some time at your own home practicing with chopsticks before you go to Japan. Once you get the hang of it, it feels very cool to be able to dine on sushi and other wonderful Japanese delights using chopsticks. It gives you a feeling of being a part of the culture and it is something nice to share with your fellow diners. You will also get a few “oohhs and aahhs” from your fellow diners as they admire your chopstick skills, which is always good for an ego-boost now and then!

Chopsticks come in 2 styles:  “normal” chopsticks and wooden chopsticks. The normal chopsticks are usually found at home and in the medium-level to higher-level restaurants. The wooden chopsticks are the cheaper variety and can usually be found in the less expensive restaurants. Wooden chopsticks come in paper wrappers (with instructions printed on the outside on how to use them) and once you tear open the wrapper you “pop” or “snap” the chopsticks apart. If you are lucky, the chopsticks break apart perfectly but if you are like me they don’t and you sometimes get slivers in your fingers if you’re not careful!

Using chopsticks is your first challenge. The second challenge is not dropping them on the floor. How many of my chopsticks have landed on the floor…I cannot begin to count! For some reason I always felt like a clutz whenever I dropped a chopstick. I would mutter/curse in embarrassment and suddenly a server would appear with a brand new pair and a look of sympathy and understanding. I would thank them and quickly dive into my meal, praying I wouldn’t drop them again.

An important health point: if you want to use chopsticks to take food from a plate, use the opposite ends. Do not use the same ends as the ends you put in your mouth – yecch! It is just like “double-dipping.” A few more points: do not point with your chopsticks; do not pass food with your chopsticks; do not stick your chopsticks into your food.

Actually, chopsticks are not all that bad and once you get used to them you will quickly adapt and they will become part of your daily routine. Indeed, once you get back to Canada you may even miss them! My favorite part of the chopsticks is their design. The Japanese department stores sell the most beautiful chopsticks imaginable. And what may be even more pretty are the wide varieties of chopstick holders. I have seen all kinds of chopstick holders – from butterfly designs to sumo wrestler designs! They make a great souvenir too: very Japanese and very easy to slip into your suitcase.

 

Shoes and Slippers

Let’s face it – shoes are dirty. Well, at least the bottom of shoes. Shoes are worn to protect your feet and keep your feet clean and dirt-free. In Japan, shoes are naturally viewed as being dirty and they are taken off in the “genkan” (entrance)  of a home and put in a shoe rack or shoe cupboard. Inside the home, slippers are worn around the house to keep your feet warm and your socks clean.

Slippers are very popular in Japan (they used to be popular a long time ago in Canada but not so much anymore), and there are even special bathroom slippers which are worn inside the bathroom. House slippers are taken off outside the bathroom door, then, when you open the bathroom door you step into the bathroom slippers. After you have finished doing your business, you step out of the bathroom slippers while in the bathroom and then open the door and step back into the house slippers. It sounds very complicated and unnecessary but it is surprising how quickly you get used to it.

Shoes are taken on and off so many times in Japan that many (most?) Japanese shoes do not have laces. The so-called “slip-on shoes” are the preferred shoes in Japan and for good reason. Being a stubborn Canadian, I love my laced-shoes and I was forever lacing and unlacing my shoes while others waited patiently for me to hurry up and get moving. I don’t know why I continued wearing laced shoes in Japan, even after I once broke a lace and had to hunt high and low all day to find a pair of laces.

If you have a pair of slip-on shoes, bring them to Japan. If you do not, then be prepared to lace and unlace wherever you go. Not just inside a Japanese home but also inside temples, shrines, and many traditional Japanese restaurants and pubs.