An American in Japan Part IV | So Fresh and So Clean

Visitors to Japan often discover a whole new level of hygiene.


The city of Tokyo has a population of over 9 million. To put it into perspective, that is about the entire population of Los Angeles County which is nearly 5,000 square miles in size, whereas Tokyo is fewer than a thousand square miles in size.

That is a lot of people in a very small space.

However, it’s not as bad as it would seem. In fact, walking around Tokyo, I often wonder, “Where is everybody?”

More importantly, I wonder where all the detritus typical of large cities is kept. If it’s there, I don’t see it. Everything is so clean.

As previously explained in An American in Japan Part II | Transport, the first thing that can be noted of Japanese public transportation is how clean and efficient it is, especially compared to the train systems of major American cities like Chicago or New York. There is no yelling, or busking, or sounds of any kind.

However, the true ingenuity lies in the restroom.

In hotels, the Japanese restroom is like a self-contained hygiene pod. It takes me a minute to understand what is happening. I step up into an off-white bathroom with a small door and begin to notice odd things.

I run the sink to wash my hands. It appears to be a normal sink, but as I turn off the tap, I hear the water trickling down, down, down. Where is the water going? I look in the direction of the sound and see a drain in the floor and a little trough along the wall. All the waste water must run down the same drain. In fact, I can see it.

Then I realize that the shower head is hand-held. Theoretically, I could take a shower in the middle of the room like some RV bathrooms. I imagine the cleaning possibilities.

You could literally spray the whole room, walls, floors and ceiling with bleach and wipe down everything and rinse like crazy and it’d be clean. Everything is fiberglass or plastic or some nonporous surface. I could completely sanitize this entire bathroom in less than a minute. I am stunned by the efficiency and I feel cheated by the American bathroom design. It is an injustice I cannot comprehend.

Then I look down at the toilet.

It matches the rest of the off-white materials of the bathroom and appears to function like a regular toilet but it is plugged into a wall outlet and there is a series of buttons. The toilet has a user interface. There is an icon of a bum. A booty. A behind. It is brown. This must be some kind of joke.


I examine the buttons of the interface in context. There is a green button that says STOP in English. The aforementioned brown button says BACK, and a pink button says FRONT and features a stick figure in a dress maybe. Both of them appear to have water spraying at them.

It becomes clear that the toilet also functions as a bidet with directional streams of water that can be activated with a flush. Is the water clean? Is this sanitary? I am skeptical at first. But after a few days in Japan, I get used to this new functionality and my skepticism turns to jealousy at this superior technology.

Additionally, some toilets are equipped with speakers that play bird noises or a neverending flush sound to help mask the other sounds occurring nearby. Apparently bathroomgoers were repeatedly flushing the toilet and wasting large amounts of water so that sound equipment had to be installed as a safeguard.

Of course, some restrooms still have the old school toilets that just look like a urinal built into the floor. I don’t understand how folks without the extreme quadriceps of professional skiers can use these, but they do.

In addition to next-generation bathroom technology, Japan also has onsen hot spring culture which puts a high premium on cleanliness of body and spirituality.

For individuals who appreciate hygiene, Japan is a great destination.





An American in Japan Part III | Eat It

Exploring food and drink in the land of fermented soybeans, pregnant fish, and Pocari Sweat.


Conveniently located next to Osaka Station is the Daimaru Umeda Food Hall. Sushi, bento boxes, freshly made salads, side dishes, candies, and bakery items, are all attractively displayed for purchase.

Japanese cuisine is something I’m still trying to figure out. There is a lot of fish, even for breakfast. There is natto, which is fermented soybeans. It looks like a gooey peanut butter rice krispies treat but tastes like a ball of wet socks left overnight in a Ziplock bag.

I’ve even tried Shishamo which are small, dried pregnant fish. Most of the things I think of as Japanese foods are fancy, not everyday fare. Sushi is for special occasions. There are a lot of pickled vegetables, miso soup, and green tea.


Vending machines are everywhere and often carry interesting and colorful drinks in interesting and colorful packaging like Ramune soda which is in a glass bottle and sealed with a marble. There is also Pocari Sweat which replaces human…sweat.

I choose a shrimp tempura maki roll, before some donuts catch my eye.

“Sumimasen,” I say, smiling at the clerk. She responds back in a stream of words in Japanese that I don’t understand.

“Ohayo,” I continue, uttering the customary before-noon greeting. “Onegai shimasu,” I say, pointing to one of the donuts in the case.

The clerk smiles at me and pulls out the bakery, holding it up. “Hai,” I nod. “Arigato gozai masu.” I hand her a 100 yen coin and bow as she gives me the change. I have successfully purchased a donut and according to her social cues, I haven’t said anything weird.

I wander past more food and up a flight of stairs, through an upscale boutique. My stomach growls. Where are the tables?

Finally, I gesture to an employee. I don’t know the Japanese word for table.

“Table?” I ask. She shakes her head and frowns.

I switch to mime. Pretending to open my bag, I hold an invisible fork up to my mouth, chewing air. Then I squat down to sit on an imaginary bench. Other shoppers glance at me curiously. Another woman walks up and says something to the clerk.

“Oh!” she says, realizing what I want. Then frowns and shakes her head. They are both shaking their heads at me.

All that food and no place to eat it?

I walk out toward the building directory. There’s nobody around so I sit on the cement floor and open my food for real, still wondering where everyone else went to eat. On a train? Do they go home? Is it wrong to eat in public?

I shrug and clasp a piece of sushi between two chopsticks and eat it. Delicious!

An American in Japan Part II | Transport

While a tourist in Japan can take many different forms of transportation, some are more entertaining than others.

Arriving at Tokyo Haneda Airport, I board the first train toward the upscale Ginza shopping district via the Keikyu-Kuko Rapid-Limited Express.

The first thing that can be noted of Japanese trains is how clean and efficient they are, especially compared to the train systems of major American cities like Chicago or New York. There is no yelling, or busking, or sounds of any kind. In fact, as far as I can tell, no one speaks.

Our particular group is made up of my extended family, including in-laws, children, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Some of us talk for a living. Some of us have ADHD. Needless to say we have extreme difficulty blending in with the silence around us. We are almost always the loudest people on the train.

Navigating trains can be tricky. It can be made trickier when you do not plan your route in advance and it’s raining. We wander the streets of the tony Ginza district without umbrellas for what feels like hours trying to find our hotel. My hair is soaked. My glasses are fogged. One man laughs at us and takes pictures. I imagine us as unwitting stars of Japan’s Funniest Home Videos, or at least a series of internet memes.

One of the best ways to see Tokyo and the surrounding area is by bus. After drying off and resting, we take the Hato Bus Tour to Mount Fuji. The expedition promises ten hours of delightful bus riding. This is after twelve hours of delightful plane riding, followed by three hours of delightful train riding for the previous two days.

Fortunately the jet lag is not severe and the host of our bus tour, Fumi, is full of interesting facts about Japan. Since there is nothing else to do but look out the window and listen, I learn a lot.


En route to Mt. Fuji, Fumi provides us with key statistics on the current labor shortage, describing Japan as a “super-aging society.” Twenty-five percent of the population is elderly. Also, the birthrate before WWII was 4.3, whereas now, it is 1.4.

I also learn that Mt. Fuji has been worshipped since ancient times as a Kami for those who practice Shintoism, one of the two major religions in Japan.

Fumi also discusses early Japanese ukiyo-e artists like Hokusai, known for immortalizing Mt. Fuji in famed woodblock prints. One of Hokusai’s most popular works is the Great Wave Off Kanagawa. We learn this while driving through the prefecture of Kanagawa. I glance nervously eastward searching for any evidence of an incoming tsunami. I see mostly mist, rice paddies, and green rolling hills.

Reaching Mt. Fuji, we are told that we will not be able to see the mountain today because of the fog. I close my eyes and imagine Hokusai’s Mt. Fuji, its peak just visible beyond the great wave. A horse neighs. My green tea ice cream melts. I feel full of emotion, standing on an invisible mountain, in a faraway land.

On the way back to Tokyo on the super-fast Shinkansen bullet train, I catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, just a blur out my window.

Sometimes the destination is the journey.

Note: The picture associated with the blog is some type of cart that was parked at the 5th station of Mt. Fuji. There were horses nearby which, I assume, are used to pull the cart.