Traveling always gives me a new perspective on commonplace things. Daily activities become challenges as I figure out the basics of food and shelter all over again, not to mention which tap controls the water out of which spout in the shower.
Sooner or later, nature calls.
While my Japanese language lessons often begin with “Otearai wa doko desu ka?” on a first visit to a new country my vocabulary is seldom extensive enough to be able to ask all of the subsequent questions that arise surrounding both etiquette and mechanics.
“What is the bucket for?” and “How does one flush?” came up in India.
On first venture beneath the little universal skirted emblem that passes for a woman in Japan, I found myself needing to figure out how to say “What on earth does each of these six buttons do, especially the one with the music notes?”
This pondering was supplanted by surprise when I discovered with a mixture of consternation and delight that the seat was heated. Over the next week, as winter solstice came and went and we dipped towards zero, I came to appreciate this innovation along with the electric carpet at our host’s apartment. Yes, go ahead and scoff about the temperature, but also recall the lack of heating in temperate climates and cut me a bit of slack in transitioning from the tropics.
I went to sleep beneath Tokyo’s blinking neon lights and dreamt of emerging into a crisp, starlit night to trek through the snow to my drafty outhouse and being greeted by a comfort that goes well beyond the neutral forgiveness of the carved styrofoam seat.
When I mentioned it to my Japanese-Canadian host, he replied that it was old news; his parents, who live in Whitehorse, have one of these miracle devices in their home.
Well. It comes as no surprise that I am a technological infant and that the Japanese are light years ahead wherever they may reside. In what other country can you be served noodles prepared by a robot chef?
My other preconceived notions of Japan swam around time-honoured traditions, a deceptively simple aesthetic and amazing food. None of these preconceptions were disappointed during my week-long stopover in Tokyo, nor were any of the apparent contradictions resolved.
In fact, this seeming paradox of shiny techno-future and traditional formality was delightfully apparent in everything. Take, for example, my experience of catching the last train at Shibuya station on the evening before the Emperor’s birthday, which is a national holiday. I never would have imagined how peaceful and quiet things could be while being physically – and politely – crammed into a train compartment by a pair of well-dressed gentlemen with white gloves.
And then there’s those music notes. A little Bach with your a.m. BM?