The train is seven minutes late. Halfway through a 70 km distance, that is. In Japan something like this only happens after a typhoon wreaked havoc across half a country. Back home it’s a normal part of my morning commute that throws me into an unexpected state of reverse cultural shock right on the first day when I return to work. How do people tolerate this? And no one even apologizes!
Trains will never be the same again…
In terms of train travel our trip to Japan set a new milestone. There was time “before Japan” where I could tolerate delays, noisy passengers and kids putting their stuff and feet on the opposite seat oblivious of people around them. And there’s time “after Japan” where I feel sorry for myself every day having to put up with prehistoric trains that never arrive on time.
Japanese trains are a marvel of efficiency: comfortable, clean and punctual like a clock. I thought we would have difficulties finding our way around due to language and writing system barrier. But once we grasped the whole concept of seat reservations and platform signage the railway system was surprisingly easy to navigate. All you need is a JR Pass and the Japan Travel mobile app and you’re good to go.
Just a tip: If you happen to stand at the wrong end of the platform when the train arrives, better board it right where you are instead of running along the platform to the designated car. Don’t repeat our rookie mistake that almost made us miss a connection. The same goes for when you are leaving the train with all your bags and belongings. Japanese trains don’t wait for anyone.
…neither will be toilets
Whoever invented “World Toilet Day” (19 November) must have had Japanese toilets in mind, because, honestly, I don’t see anything worthy of celebration in any other toilet. Except maybe the fact that one owns it in a place like India, but that’s another story.
Despite all their robots and other futuristic gadgets it’s the toilet that epitomises Japanese ingenuity like no other invention. Hard working people as they are, it seems like they wanted to make the most of their potty break so they designed nothing short of spa for their bottoms. The trip to the bathroom in Japan is an experience in itself: pleasantly warm seats, flushing sounds, wash and dry function… with some extra support for my head I could easily fall asleep. And what’s best: no matter where nature calls you, you can be sure the toilet will be spotlessly clean.
But beware, there’s a downside to everything. I painfully became aware of it as soon as I entered the first toilet outside of Japan. Even our private throne at home feels oddly uninviting: cold without any extra features. All the fun of going to the loo is gone. After Japan you’re back to the strictly functional no-frills routine.
But there’s more
It’s not just trains and toilets that I miss about Japan. It’s all the little things that make this country so different:
- Train conductors that bow before exiting the car and bus drivers that thank every single passenger getting off the bus because they make you feel appreciated.
- Vending machines with cold and hot drinks because spending that extra change in your pockets has never been more fun.
- Colourful five-toe socks, because you can move your toes freely and it’s supposed to be healthy too.
- Smooth ballpoint pens in all the colours of a rainbow and then some, because they make handwriting fun again.
- See-through umbrellas, because they add a new dimension to sightseeing in rain.
- Bathtubs that fill up automatically and keep the water warm, because who wants to wait?
- Food, because – do I need to say more?
So while I’m thinking of new destinations to discover in 2018 (it’s that time of year again), Japan keeps coming up in my mind. I think it’s worth considering, if only for the toilets and trains.