If you’ve been reading this blog the past few weeks, by now you likely know that I am intrigued by Japan and I am having a love affair with this place and all of the fun idiosyncrasies it has to reveal. There is so much to like here and there are so many unique-to-Japan sights, so many in fact that it is impossible to photograph and share them all. I’m definitely putting forth my best effort to capture as many images and write as much as possible about my experiences here, but even then it’s hard to capture just how charming this place is. Case in point, just a few nights ago I saw this wonderful sign while out on a bike ride:
However, there are a handful of minor things that have continually irked me since I arrived here three weeks ago. Since the majority of these blog posts will likely be about the numerous positive aspects of being Japan, I feel that it’s okay to kretch about a few things. I’ll start with the first thing that I noticed:
(1) Floor Ledges
With the exception of the way that the sidewalks slope nicely down to street level without requiring curb cuts, this country is not very alter-abled accessible, at least from what I’ve seen. In doorways mostly, and in other areas where flooring medium types transition (from linoleum to tile, for example), there is almost always a ledge, like this one:
I have tripped on ledges like these more times that I am proud to admit. In hotels, restaurants, subway stations, shopping malls, everywhere. They were hard for me to get used to, even though I have the advantage of being short and not that far from the ground! I feel a little embarrassed and afraid for tall newcomers to Japan who may not be aware of these trip hazards. I thankfully haven’t experienced a full-on, sprawling face-plant yet, but I still have many weeks left here, so I won’t rule out the possibility entirely. Hopefully my newfound wary awareness for doorways will pay off while I’m here and save me from extreme embarrassment! And speaking of doorways, my next area of complaint is…
My complaining about doors is reserved only for the giant, mammoth heavy doors that are everywhere on the IUJ campus. The doors in most public places in Tokyo and at restaurants here in Urasa are very cool. Most places in Japan have these glass slider doors that will either open automatically or quickly at the push of a button. They are profoundly aesthetically pleasing, energy efficient, and just cool all around. I haven’t taken any pictures of them yet, but here is an example of said cool door from our hotel in Tokyo:
The IUJ doors are completely different animal. To be fair, it gets damn cold here in the winter time and the snow piles up very high, so having big thick doors to protect entry ways and keep the warm air indoors makes complete sense to me. However, those practicalities don’t keep me from hating on the user-unfriendliness of these doors. They are heavy and gigantic. The ones in my dorm look like they are made of steel and old heavy glass and I feel like I need 10 times the upper body and core strength that I currently have in order to open and enter though these doors gracefully.
The worst doors on campus are the ones into my office building: made of heavy glass and the handles are in completely the wrong place for the leverage needed to operate them smoothly. There is not one, but two sets of glass doors to enter this building. Again, two doors is great for energy conservation, but two heavy, hard-to-open doors are not great if you don’t feel like getting assaulted by a giant chunk of glass while trying to pass through a doorway. Even if you muscle them open, they will quickly reassert themselves and show you that their closing speed is the same, whether you use your arm and shoulder brawn or not. These doors give me about, oh, one and a half seconds to get myself and my bulky shoulder bag through before they close. Note: during this sliver of time, it is imperative not to forget about the aforementioned floor ledge trip hazard (see gripe #1 above). These glass doors always give me nice pat on the rear on the way in, as if to say: “Welcome, we just wanted to make sure that you got in quickly. Now get to your office and get some work done.”
As if opening and walking through doors wasn’t challenging enough, most entry ways have two sets of two doors. Easy enough, right?
Not so much. Notice the “push” signs on the door. These signs are not to be ignored. Frequently, the first door on the left will be locked and the door on the right will be unlocked… most of the time (not in the case of the doors in the photo above, but you get my drift). The unlocked doors are labeled “push” or “pull”. In the case of the photo above, both of the first doors are “push” doors, but as for the second set of doors, only the one on the left will open to the outside (and the photos is blurry, but it is a “push” door, for your information). The door on the right is locked. You can know that, because there is no “push” or “pull” signage on it.
My central thesis for successful door operation here on the IUJ campus without tripping, getting stymied by a lock, or squished is to a.) look where you step, b.) pay attention to which door has the “push” or “pull” sign, c.) become okay with the idea that the doors will probably hit you as they close. If you ignore the little signs and choose your door based on the logical walking traffic pattern, you’ll likely be met with a locked door and you’ll look like a fool. I have tried to anticipate and predict which doors will be locked or unlocked by not looking at the signs and I have had fruitless results. Near as I can tell, there is no rhyme or reason to when doors are unlocked on the right or left, nor is there logic as to when “pull” or “push” signs are used. What’s most important is to not ignore those signs. It’s like a mini intelligence mind game. It is still a guessing game for me and because getting through doors here is awkward enough for me as it is, I’ve defaulted to reading all signs while using doors, so as to avoid moments depicted in this famous Gary Larson cartoon:
(3) Excessive packaging for everything
The wonderful philosophy of of Japanese culture that all things should be aesthetically pleasing is very sweet, but it also has a dark side: many goods come wrapped in excessive packaging. I’ve never seen food covered in so much packaging. For example, I tried hard to find some rice snacks that came in a bag, but it turned out that they were all individually wrapped:
I bought peaches that not only came with their own little individual styrofoam jackets, but what you don’t see in this picture is that they were place in a styrofoam tray and wrapped in plastic wrap:
Just yesterday, I went to a little cake shop and bought two muffins. I unwrapped one this morning and discovered this little “stay fresh” pack wrapped up with it. This came from a specialty shop that sells fresh, homemade goods, and still, so much packaging:
The amount of packaging that I alone have gone through during my short time here is staggering. I hate to think about how much is wasted on a national level. Yikes.
You might think that in a country as organized and detail-oriented as Japan that they would have an epic recycling system in place to recycle or reuse all of this packaging some how. If such a system is in place, I have not had the privilege of seeing it. Which brings me to my fourth gripe about Japan:
(4) Burnable and unburnable trash
As the above title denotes, there are two disposing options for discarding waste: burnable or not burnable. The only two items that cannot be burned are glass and cans.
That means that the following goes in the burnable can: plastic (all of the many kinds), paper, cardboard, aseptic containers, foil, and food scraps. I shudder to think about all of the dioxin-like compounds and other toxic gases that are released into the air when all. that. plastic. is burned. Here is a picture of the trash piles in my dorm alone (18 rooms, some single and some family occupancy):
There is ONE pet bottle recycling place on campus next to one vending machine and for some reason pet bottle cap recycling is big here, so there are a few locations around campus for caps. There is ONE paper recycling location, next to the copier. I’ve been saving most of my paper recycling and cutting it into note-sized scrap paper and whatever paper I don’t use by the end of my stay here will definitely find its way into the recycling pile. But all of that burned plastic… ugh. It hurts my Pacific Northwest nerves to the core to have to throw all that plastic away and not recycle it, especially because I know that the technology exists for that material to be recycled! But this is not my country, so all I can do is hope that the energy conservation trend that has spread so rampantly across Japan ever since the nuclear plants have been inoperable from the 3/11 earthquake will encourage people to push for better recycling efforts.
(5) “Seven Bank” ATMs diagrams
This last complaint is minor, as it has been resolved. Before I get into detail, please look at this photo:
How would you opt to insert your debit card based on what you see in that picture? Magnetic stripe up? Or magnetic stripe down? To me, it looks like magnetic stripe up. It looked that way to Micah too. But no, the proper way to insert your card into the ATM is mag stripe down. Hurr.
We learned this after a few mishaps with our debit cards: it turns out that Seven Bank (located all over the place in 7-11 convenience stores) is seemingly the only bank that will accept our credit union debit card. After learning that, we were profoundly frustrated that none of the Seven Bank ATMs would take our damn debit card. Let me tell you that it’s not at all settling when you are in a rural location in a foreign country that is still very cash-based (read: many places don’t accept credit cards) and your debit card refuses to function. On a side note, it’s my firm belief that all ATMs worldwide should be of the “swipe-only” variety, and not of the “suck-your-card-into-the-machine” variety. Every time I’ve used my ATM card here, I take a little leap of faith and say a little prayer: “Please don’t let the machine eat my card”. So far, so good.
So there are my five gripes about Japan. I tried hard to think of more than those five, but that’s all that there really is to complain about. There are hundreds of other great things about this culture, so five gripes out of a few hundred likes is a good ratio I think. Have you had any funny travel gripes in Japan or elsewhere?