7 things Japan does better

I spent three weeks in Japan at the beginning of this month as a break from southeast Asia. It was my first time in the country. In many ways, Japan felt like another world – a more convenient, efficient, aesthetically pleasing one than the one I’m used to in the US. Here are some of the things I’m going to miss about Japan that should be adopted by every other country in the world as soon as possible.

1. Heated seats. It’s the little things that matter, and the joy of finding that my seat – be it on the toilet, train, metro, or rickshaw – is radiating heat (especially when the air is freezing) is enough to brighten my day. In particular, heated toilet seats are amazing, probably because we’ve been programmed in the West to expect uncomfortably cold porcelain.  

Your heated seat may even sing to you…

I was surprised that even the seat of the human-powered rickshaw I took was so toasty warm, and later realized I was sitting directly on cloth heating pads. And because the seats of the cable car gondola in Hakone aren’t heated, they hand each person a cushion before the ride to spare our bottoms from the cold leather. Maybe the Japanese are as concerned as the Russians that you’ll sit on something cold and be unable to bear children? (If you’re not Russian, don’t ask…)

2. Timely transportation. In Japan, most things run like clockwork. Trains and even buses come and go exactly at the scheduled time, and you get used to things being reliable. What impressed me even more was that the one time I observed a delay, instead of one late train causing a massive system-wide jam (ahem, Caltrain) the following train was delayed half as long, and things were fixed after that.  

Also, of all the somber things I learned in Hiroshima, it was pretty shocking to hear that the trams in the city started running again three days after the place was reduced to radioactive rubble.

When one train is late in Japan, the trains behind it quickly make up for lost time! No excuses.

3. Need change? No problem. I understand why many of the countries I’ve visited frown upon large denominations of currency – a tuk tuk driver in Bangkok might not make 1000 baht (~$30) in a week, so he’s unlikely to have change when you hand him that much money. But in many places, it gets ridiculous. You can’t pay with a bill worth $5 in parts of Thailand or Indonesia without getting complaints. And in the US, where it shouldn’t be a problem, I always feel the need to gingerly ask “Can you break this…?” if I want to pay with anything bigger than a $20. Often, the answer is no, or the bill is scrutinized for five minutes before they determine I’m not associated with the mob.

Well, welcome to Japan, the country where you can hand over 10,000 yen ($120) to pay for a pack of gum and get nothing but a smile, a few crisp bills, and a handful of (very valuable) coins in return. My first night in Tokyo, I arrived late and had to take a short taxi ride from a metro station to my hostel. I only had 10,000s (that’s the smallest denomination available at ATMs) and handed one over to pay for the ride. I was surprised, not only that it wasn’t an issue to pay with this much cash, but that all I got back was a huge handful of coins! Later I realized that one little 500 yen coin is worth $8…

Just found the equivalent of $15 in my pocket, nbd.

4. Taxis = VIP. Still on the subject of taxis – that first ride was quite an experience! I thought the lace-covered seats, automatic passenger door the driver pushes a button to open, and general feel of being chauffeured  around in a fancy, retro-chic town car might be unique to the cab I had chosen. But no. These are the standard features of taxis all over Japan. And I love it.

Each company has its own symbol on top of the cab. I liked the heart-shaped ones. <3

The cab I ended up taking in Kyoto – an electric car with a female driver!

Ok, so they could be a little cheaper (the fare in Tokyo *starts* at 700 yen – almost $10!) but it’s nice that taking a taxi is a quiet, comfortable, classy experience and that the drivers are generally trustworthy and serious about their jobs – not refusing to turn on the meter, chatting away on the phone, swerving through traffic at a breakneck speed, or doing any of the other things they do in many countries around the world. I’d actually go so far as to say the handful of cabs I took in Japan felt even more “VIP” than the Uber town cars in SF… and compared to those, Japanese taxis are a bargain!

5. Hot drinks, corn soup, and every other random awesome thing you can think of  - in vending machines. Most people have heard that vending machines are a thing in Japan. Well, the rumors are true – they are everywhere. The Japanese have made transactions easy by letting you pay a machine instead of a human for almost everything from museum tickets to ice skating admission to street food to train fares over $100. You may have to hand the ticket you get to a person afterward, but things move a lot faster with the machine processing the transaction.

Long line of vending machines in Shinjuku, Tokyo.

Since my trip fell in the dead of winter, I especially appreciated the fact that hot drinks were as readily available in the ubiquitous vending machines as cold ones. They come in plastic bottles and metal cans, containers we in the West have been taught aren’t for hot drinks – but somehow, it works out fine. Aside from the typical drinks (tea, coffee, cocoa…) most machines offer hot lemonade (?!) and corn soup (?!!)

Is it a cold winter day? Reach for a plastic bottle of refreshing, hot lemonade…

Every company wants in on the lucrative corn soup in a can business.

I tried both. The hot lemonade was a little odd. I drank the whole thing, but I didn’t get it again. Maybe other brands are better than Minute Maid.

The corn soup, on the other hand, is amazing. The corn usually settles on the bottom, and some brands have just a few kernels while others have a lot more, but the broth is nice – sweet and warm and not too watery. I would often grab a can of corn soup when I was starving but too busy sightseeing to get a proper meal. It’s the perfect cold-weather snack, and I think I’ll miss it back home!

6. The bento box. Now that we’re on the topic of food… I discovered the train station bento box phenomenon relatively late in my trip. I wanted to head to Nara from Kyoto pretty late in the day, and was stressing over where to eat and how much time it would waste when someone told me to grab a bento box and eat on the train. I’d heard of these, but somehow failed to notice them even though I’d already been through half a dozen Japanese train stations. The box comes in pretty wrapping (like everything in Japan), so it feels like you’re giving yourself a little present. Inside is a little tray with different sections for food – there’ s a rice section, and most of the other stuff is vegetarian with some seafood and maybe a tiny bit of meat. At least, that’s what was in the cheaper boxes I got. I have no idea what half the stuff was that I ate, but it was all pretty good (the general trend in Japan). The main things are that it’s cheap (you can easily get a box for under $10), fast (they are pre-packaged) and it’s real, wholesome, filling food. This is true fast food, America. Watch and learn.

Don’t ask what it is, just eat it.

7. Visual menus. So apparently Japan just knows how to do food right. Ordering a bento box is easy, because all the options are displayed as plastic models under the counter where they’re sold. Not only is this a major help for foreigners who don’t know Japanese, but it’s great in general – you can look at the food and decide what you’re in the mood for. This visual menu thing isn’t limited to bento boxes – many eating establishments in Japan have plastic models depicting everything from sushi to udon noodles to hamburgers.

Assortment of bento box models at the train station.

If they don’t have these models, the menu will almost always have photos of the food listed. It’s great to know exactly what you’re going to get instead of (to take the clichéd example) being shocked by the snails on your plate after ordering escargot. I guess visual menus also serve to make you hungrier than you already are, which can’t be bad for business.

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2 Responses to 7 things Japan does better

  1. Justin Mitchell says:

    I love the toilet dichotomy in Japan. They were almost always either a crazy-expensive heated seats with a built in bidets, or a literal hole in the ground upon which the user would uncomfortably squat.