Saturday, January 31, 2009

Mild earthquake

I experienced my first earthquake this morning! I had been wondering when there would be one. It was just a light trembling and lasted only a couple of seconds. At the epicenter, in the ocean east of Japan, the magnitude was 5.8, but the quake was very mild in Tokyo. If I had been walking in the apartment I probably wouldn't have felt it at all, but since I was lying in bed I could feel the slight trembling. Call me crazy, but I have been excited to experience an earthquake ever since I got to Japan!

Sunday, January 25, 2009


As you know, I like taking pictures of interesting toilets. So when I saw a newspaper advertisement for an exhibition on toilets, I had to check it out. The exhibition was put on by ToTo, a Japanese toilet manufacturer.

This is one of Japan's earliest styles of toilets, a platform over a river, next to a rice field, used 4,000 years ago.

Later, people used a device similar to a western chamber pot, although it had a drawer for sand which could be removed, kind of like kitty litter. The box on the left is for poop, and the one on the right is for pee.

The box on the left is filled with fragrant tree branches. The one on the right is a miniature replica of a compost device, and people used the human manure for their gardens.

This is an early ceramic squat toilet, which would be set into a wooden floor above a pit.
Japan's first western-style toilets were manufactured in the 1940s. The seat and lid are made of wood.

This women's urinal was produced for the 1964 Olympics in Japan, but it never became popular. It seems to be a compromise between Western toilets (which don't require squatting) and Eastern squat toilets (which are cleaner because the user doesn't have to touch a dirty toilet seat).

Today, Western style toilets are replacing squat toilets in Japan. Most apartments and hotels and public places have Western style toilets. In public restrooms in the train stations, both kinds of toilets are available. Usually people wait in line and use the first toilet that becomes available, either squat-style or Western. I am comfortable with either style. In Japan, cleanliness is not an issue in public bathrooms, but in other places where the restrooms are sometimes dirty, I prefer a squat toilet because I don't have to touch it, and it's certainly more comfortable than trying to "hover" over a Western-style toilet. I have used squat toilets in Peru, Bolivia and Vietnam.
Above, the requisite slippers are pictured next to the modern Japanese toilet. In Japan, you must remove your shoes before entering a house or apartment, so as not to bring dirt from the outside into the home. Similarly, when entering the restroom in a house or apartment, you put on the toilet slippers that will be provided, and remove them when leaving the bathroom. This way, you don't bring dirtiness from the bathroom into the rest of the house. (Not to worry, the bathrooms are always very clean in any case!)

Many Japanese toilets have a bidet or shower feature, operated by controls on an arm. The shower water squirts out of a nozzle at the back of the toilet seat, and it is clean water coming from a spigot, not from the toilet bowl or tank. Often, the seat is heated for your comfort, and (as I mentioned in a previous post) there is a "flushing sound effects" device which makes a fake flushing noise so that others won't hear you using the toilet. I have even seen a toilet with a light in the bowl, so you can see it as you enter a dark restroom.
Some toilets, like this shark one, have a lid that opens automatically when someone enters the stall.

There are extra large toilets for sumo wrestlers (while a normal toilet seat measures 370 x 452 mm, the sumo wrestlers' toilet is 420 x 530 mm),

extra small ones for children,
and extra fancy ones for adults.

ToTo, the company hosting this exhibition, exports squat toilets to Southeast Asia,
and Western-style toilets to China.

This is how Japanese people draw cartoon poop!
Hand driers in Japan work much better than driers in the U.S.! The air comes out both the front and back of this device and whirls around in this compartment rather than dissipating into the room. Your hands dry very quickly!
By Japanese standards, this is a very large tub! In Japan, people use their tub for soaking and warming the body, not for bathing. Since people shower and wash before entering the tub, the water in the tub stays clean and can be used by several family members in the course of an evening. The flat object on the left-hand wall is a lid for covering the tub, to preserve the heat. In the past, all Japanese bathtubs had a water heating device to re-warm the bath water that was in the tub, but since some people were burned by the device, it's seldom used anymore.
This is a more compact Japanese bathroom, with a shower and bath tub. The little stool is for the people who like to sit down while taking a shower. Squatting or sitting is the traditional Japanese way to take a shower.
In this fancy room, you can watch TV while taking a bath.

And speaking of fancy Japanese technology, here Itsumi looks at a model kitchen shelf for storing dishes. This shelf is normally above head level, but when you push a button the shelf lowers into reach. The floor of the shelf is a metal rack, and the drawer that Itsumi is holding collects water that drips through the rack. This way, you can put your clean dishes directly onto the rack to dry, skipping the drying rack step and saving space that a drying rack would occupy on your counter. Much of Japanese technology is about saving space!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Karaoke in Japan

Although Karaoke was invented in Japan in 1971, and then spread through Asia and to the U.S. and other parts of the world in the 1990s, the version exported to the U.S. is much different. While making a fool out of yourself in public seems to be a big part of karaoke in the U.S., it's a more private entertainment in Japan.

In Japan, you go to a karaoke box where you rent a small room for about $9 per person per hour. All the alcohol you can drink in an hour is included. Each "box" or room holds four or five people, and your group does karaoke alone with no audience. The karaoke machine is the same as in the U.S., and you can choose songs in Japanese, English and even Spanish. (I'm a terrible singer but I can dance the macarena pretty well!)

Above, Itsumi and her friend Kiyo are pictured in the hallway outside of the karaoke boxes. Below, Itsumi and Kiyo sing a song in Japanese.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Iyashi (and feast for cats)

In Japan there is a word for the good, healing feeling that humans get when watching animals or other cute things. It's iyashi, and it's a calm happiness, not an excited happiness.
Wanting some iyashi, I went to Ueno Park armed with a container of dried anchovies, and I went looking for cats! The first few cats I found were all being fed by other people. Finally, I found a group of four cats who were willing to be fed and petted, and I was happy, with plenty of iyashi.
As I left the park I saw an elderly man who really knows how to host a feast for cats! When I approached him he was busily opening eight cans of wet cat food, and seven lucky cats were gathered around.

The man busily dished up a tray of food for each cat. I watched as the cats ate, then arched their backs, rolled in the sunny dirt, rubbed their cheeks on the ground and did other happy cat things.

The man then served dessert to each cat, which I think was some kind of fish flakes, and followed that up with milk for each cat. Then he carefully rinsed each milk dish and served water to finish off the cat feast.

Now I dream of someday hosting a feast for cats!

pouring milk after the cat feast

The cats aren't the only ones who need to be fed in Ueno Park. The park's many homeless people live in tent cities and collect recyclables for an income.

(I borrowed this photo from another Flickr user)
Here, homeless people wait to here a presentation and receive food.

Also in Ueno Park, I saw a group of people collecting signatures asking the world's leaders to eradicate nuclear weapons. I signed a petition, and one of the peace activists (pictured below) asked me if I had been involved with any peace organizations in the United States. I mentioned the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the man was familiar with WILPF and said that they worked together with his group!

I enjoy Ueno Park because I always meet and see interesting people there.

Friday, January 2, 2009

New Year in Tokyo

Japan, in its efforts to westernize, celebrates the western New Year rather than the Chinese New Year. During the first few days of the New Year, people go by the thousands to shrines and temples where they make a wish for the new year. Many are dressed in kimonos, and many people bring traditional New Year's decorations from the previous year which the shrine will burn. Many people buy arrows and other amulets which must have some significance unknown to me.
People wait in long lines in order to make a wish at a shrine. When asking the gods to fulfill the wish, the people offer a coin, ring the bell to get the gods' attention, and make the wish. Afterwards, they clap their hands twice if they are at a shrine. If they are at a temple, they simply bow.

This little girl wore a kimono that her grandmother had worn years ago. Here, she uses cloth napkins to protect the kimono while eating her lunch.New Year's decoration
Daruma for sale. Per Wikipedia, Daruma dolls are hollow and round Japanese wish dolls with no arms or legs, modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder and first patriarch of Zen. The doll has a face with a mustache and beard, but its eyes only contain the color white. Using black ink, one fills in a single circular eye while thinking of a wish. Should the wish later come true, the second eye is filled in. It is traditional to fill in the right eye first; the left eye is left blank until the wish is fulfilled. Because of their low centers of gravity, some types of daruma doll are roly-poly toys: they return to the upright position after being tilted to one side. As such, the daruma has become symbolic for optimism, persistence, and strong determination.
Here, an employee of the shrine burns old amulets that people bought the previous year, for good luck. Amulets include Daruma and cards from shrines or temples that people obtained during the previous year.

These women are selling cards that tell your fortune, amulets, and holy Japanese sake at the edge of the shrine. Their white and red clothing indicates that they work for the shrine.

In the train station we happened upon a small performance. Here, a woman plays a koto, or stringed instrument.

Also in the train station, a lion dances. The lion is believed to walk around traditional villages and eat evil things, getting rid of them. The lion will pretend to bite children to get evilness out of the children. The lion is a good figure for Japanese people, not a scary figure.
Happy New Year to you all! Thanks for reading my blog.