No family is the most important thing

Off on a Sunday afternoon walk through the suburbs of Tokyo… what’s this interesting cabinet?

A condom vending machine?

I assume that according to the machine’s designers, a “Happy Family Life” is one without any new additions.

I have seen exactly one condom vending machine in public sight in all my travels around Tokyo, and it’s this one in my neighbourhood. It’s just inexplicably sitting there on a completely unremarkable backstreet. It feels like finding a glow-stick vending machine in a public library.


With the stealth of a cinderblock

I’ve always wanted to get a nice shot to show the horrors of a Japanese subway commute; horrors largely greeted with resignation by most Tokyoites.  So, using my compact stealth camera, I figure I’ll snap a few on the train.

However, I don’t count on this one staunch defender of public privacy:

You have to imagine me against the carriage wall, raising my arm near to roof to take the shot in a manner I incorrectly believe is discreet.

Discreet to mortals, perhaps. Oh, he gives me a glaring like you wouldn’t believe:

He generates a sublime look of dignified suspicion, which Google tells me has happened only 14 times in recorded history.

Kudos, curiously dignified commuter!  I  feel slightly bad and will never try it again.  If I see you on the same train as me.

Robot toilets

You might have heard about the marvel that is Japanese toilets, but what do you do when you meet one in your hour of need?  You’ll be confronted with this:

Oh yes, it’s a regular space shuttle cockpit.  When you’re at your most vulnerable, random buttons causing grinding and whirring noises between your exposed regions is less than comforting. A sampling of buttons:

  • bidet mode
  • “bottom” mode
  • “soft” mode
  • water spray strength control
  • deodorant mode on / off
  • heated seat on / off
  • heat temperature setting
  • warm water on / off
  • water temperature setting
  • toilet self-cleaning mode
  • power saver mode
  • power saver timer

Many women’s toilets also have a “Sound Princess” button, usually shown with a musical note. When pressed, loud waterfall noises mask the terrible, terrible shame of your ablutions.

Some people’s home toilets also have the lid automatically rigged to compliantly lift when you open the door.  If you don’t know this, it’s quite a shock when you open the door to an apparently empty toilet and see movement.  “Waah!  Sorry, I…. oh, it’s just you, robot toilet.”

Another favourite is when alongside the panel encrusted with buttons, there’s a single large button.  Not being able to read Japanese, you figure this obvious large button must be the flush button.  When you press it, there’s no flush: just peels of laughter from outside.  You press it again.  More laughter, no flush.  Eventually, you work out the button that flushes. When you walk back out to the party in progress, you find out you just announced to everyone that you had finished your business via a buzzer that you couldn’t hear, but  everyone outside could.  Luckily, they had already stopped the building superintendent rushing up to the apartment to help the older person who apparently needed urgent assistance.

The one button missing from Japanese toilets is “Recover lost dignity”.  Coming soon, hopefully.

His Super Commuter Power is over one million!

The trains in Tokyo are crowded.  Can’t-move-your-arms-to-scratch-your-nose crowded.  Ride in Tokyo rush hour, and you have the exciting chance to be part of a can of spam, seasoned with business suits and briefcases.

It would seem sane to try to ride outside of the worst of peak hour.  Thanks to a flexible workplace policy, this is what I do.  However, many Japanese offices have rigid starting times.  If you are not in the door by 9am, heaven help you.  Additionally, working overtime is highly regarded, but getting to work early… not so much.  So of course, the rational thing to do would be to step foot in the office at the stroke of 9am.

Perhaps you can see where the problem lies: waves and waves of packed trains with people aiming to arrive at the same place at the same time.  So, how do you change those super-peaks of commuters into a more even distribution across time?


Everyone loves loyalty card schemes in Japan.  Lots of restaurants and shops will give you a stamp card  to get some kind of modest freebie down the track, and happily, they don’t seek to mine your personal information like some schemes I could name (or link to).

So, someone had An Idea.  People like points, they reasoned.  If we offered points for commuters moving their travel outside the normal peak hour, could we change commuter behaviour and alleviate the worst of it?

Enter the “East-West Line Waking-Up-Early Campaign”:

Just touch your commuter pass to the glowing hexagon to rack up points:

To give you an idea of the rewards, the best case has 10 weeks of consistently travelling before 7am netting you a $35 gift card:

Anticipated result: happiness (on a spiritual level, I’m assuming):

So, how did that go, then?

Not so well, at a guess.

The machines got taken away some time ago, never to be seen again.  By most accounts, peak hour is still unbearable as ever.

Nice try, behavioural economists, but it seems you’re going to have to work a little harder to manipulate the citizenry.  Still, why people need to be manipulated to avoid getting treated in a way that would make cattle stand up and complain is a mystery.

Expensive bubbles

Soapbox time.  Tokyo has a reputation as an expensive city – a reputation that gets echoed repeatedly.  The most recent example of this was in Businessweek recently,  when Tokyo picked up the gong for #1 most expensive city in the world.

But is it true?  Is Tokyo prohibitively expensive?

No.  It doesn’t have to be.

Of course Tokyo can be a expensive city, if you so choose.  The reality is that if you live like the locals do, Tokyo is not nearly as expensive as it’s made out to be.  Let’s look at some of the claims of the article.

Lunch at a restaurant: $18*

Actual cost: $6 – $12.

$18 might be a Western-style upmarket eatery with cloth napkins and white wine.  At the restaurants I go to with my co-workers every day, which are uniformly excellent Japanese-style establishments, the most expensive set lunches cost 1000 yen (~$12.00).  A more typical example is the generously-sized, outstanding pad thai I had today for 700 yen (~$8.50).

…according to restaurant surveyor Zagat, dinner with a glass of wine plus tip in Tokyo costs $94, on average.

Firstly, Tokyo does not have a tipping culture as standard.  I believe you can tip for absolutely outstanding service (the purpose of a “gratuity” anyway), but it’s rare.  As for a $94 average for dinner – sure, there are high-end dining experiences in Tokyo running hundreds of dollars, but you don’t have to pay anywhere near this for a brilliant dining experience.  Meat on a stick, edamame beans, beers and a great atmosphere will set you back between $15 – $30 a person.

Source: Kobakou on Flickr

Movie ticket: $22*

This is true – going to the movies is expensive in Tokyo.  Still, cinemas are a discretionary expense, and DVD rental shops are practically begging you to loan DVDs at $3 overnight for a new release and $1 for a weekly.  Late night session discounts, “ladies day” and the first of every month sees cinema prices discounted down to about $12.

…rent for a two-bedroom apartment for expats is typically more than $5,000 per month in Tokyo…

Perhaps the key phrase here is “for expats”.  There are real estate agents in Tokyo set up specifically for cashed-up expats.  They’d be delighted to show you insanely over-priced rentals if you don’t know any better, or can’t find someone to help you with language issues.  If you’d like to live in a furnished apartment in the exclusive area inside the Yamanote ring line, you’ll pay for it.  Likewise, if you’d like a great deal of unnecessary space in your apartment, you’ll pay for it.  Once again, live like the locals do, live where they do, and you’ll be paying somewhere between $1000 and $2000 a month for a nice, if not extravagantly spacious, place.

For convenience, King shops at expatriate grocery stores, where goods sell at a premium, and it is not uncommon for him to pay $50 for a steak.

It shouldn’t be surprising that if you buy imported goods, you’ll pay a lot more for them.  Go to the same supermarkets as everyone else, and the prices are far more reasonable.  It’s also true that steak is expensive in Tokyo.  Other cuts of meat, smaller parts or the type you’d use in stir fry, are priced reasonably. Fish, too, is cheap, and is more of a staple of Japanese diets.

So, I’d summarise the article like this.  If you refuse to integrate into Japanese culture at all, and insist on creating your own little bubble of the West in Tokyo, then yes, your Japanese experience is going to be expensive.  Otherwise, you can have a great time in Tokyo for not too much money.  For an extreme version of living frugally in Tokyo, this guy tries to survive for one month on $400.

Take fifty of these and call me in the morning

As promised a while back, a medical story.

For well over a year, I’ve been experiencing fatigue.  “Fatigue” is a irritating problem: it’s hard to describe precisely, unpredictable, and there are lots of possible causes including sleep problems, diet, stress, lack of exercise, emotional issues, licking lead paint walls, or any combination of the above.  The toughest thing of all is that you can still basically function, it’s just that something’s “off”.  In my experience, this is hard to explain to healthcare professionals.

So to my perverse relief, the problem intensified a few weeks ago to the point I was unstable on my feet, unable to stay alert or concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds.  Great, symptoms I could actually describe!  Off to the doctor I went.

Now, while my Japanese has improved to a point where I could probably battle through a medical consultation, when it comes to health matters, I didn’t really want to experiment with it as a language-learning opportunity.  So, I shopped around for an English-speaking doctor in Tokyo.  I found a Japanese doctor near my house who was listed as speaking English “fluently”.

Ah, “fluently”, my favourite hazily-defined word.  It means lots of things to lots of people.  Obviously, it meant something different to this doctor than it did for me.

“Konnichiwa… ah, hello,” he said as I entered the room, projecting my powerful aura of foreign-ness.
“Hello”, I said, wanting to keep proceedings in one language, at least.
“Where from?”
“Ah! Many times I have been there. It’s my favourite place!  I… uh…”

He dived into his draw, plunking a hefty English-Japanese dictionary on to his desk.

“… oh, traveled! to there in eight years ago.  I like it very much.  I had a car crash there.”

I started to get a little nervous now.  I was relying on the English language as my conduit for acquiring ingestible chemical substances.   Although sure that we could have proceeded at least a little more effectively in Japanese, I decided to persevere and plough on in English.  As a language learner myself, I know I would have been a little gutted had my efforts been brushed aside had the tables been turned.  He was certainly giving it a red hot go.  I’m realising in retrospect that it was a foolish decision.

I described my symptoms to the doctor – the dizziness and fatigue and what not – and explained that I worked in a Japanese environment.  Without the need for any tests, his diagnosis was decisive.

“It’s all….. (how do you say it in English)… about your head… (how do you say “psychological”)…”
“Ah yes!  Psy-cho-logical.”
“I’m not a doctor, but I don’t think it’s psychological.”
“Yes!  It’s psy-cho-logical.  I’m sure of it.  You should eat antidepressants.  I’ll give to you.”
“Look, I’m not sure if that will help…”
“And these are for your stomach.”
“For my stomach?”
“Yes, the antidepressants will make your stomach painful.”
“Oh, and try this on your muscles, it might do something.”

He passed a roller over my shoulders with some kind of watered-down version of Deep Heat.  It had the net effect of feeling somewhat wet before evaporating.

“You feel better, yes?”
“Uh… yes?”

In my enfeebled state, I decided to go with the flow at this point.  I naively thought that Eastern medicine was about energy and balance and chakras and whatnot, but apparently here at least it was about stuffing me with mind-altering substances and seeing if anything interesting happened.  I would have even preferred to be fobbed off with the “Try getting some more exercise and call me if things don’t improve” classic that I just love to paying $60 in a 5 minute consultation for in Australia.

With that, my time was up.  I received my gift bag of medicinal candy:

From front to back, anti-clockwise: stomach-ache powder, aspirin (maybe?), strange rubbing alcohol, a variety of anti-depressants.  They were given loose, just like this, with some hand-written instructions in Japanese that I couldn’t really make out.

At the very least, thanks to the wonders of Japanese socialised medicine, both the consultation and medicines only cost me a grand total of about $30.  He gave me a range of three different antidepressants to see which one I liked.  I didn’t try any of them.

Post-script: I went to an actual native-speaking English doctor on the far side of Tokyo a couple of days later.  He gave me a thorough check up and a blood test, and I’m on my way to getting on the mend, fingers crossed.

Lesson learned: go to a “native”-level English-speaking doctor.  If you can’t do that, perhaps it’s better to go to one who can’t speak any English at all.

The anti-boom boom

With land in Japanese cities at an absolute premium, mammoth parking garages are often eschewed in favour of smaller car parks slotted in wherever they will fit.  Suburban car parks are often nothing more than a single empty lot between towering apartment buildings with space for about ten cars.

The return on such a small car park is likely too low to afford to have any staff on a boom gate – or for that matter, any gate at all.  If the car park needs to be unmanned, what to do?  Here’s a common solution:

Until you pay, the automated toll keeper in front stays firmly up, and the railings on either side make sure you can’t sidle out.  Still, if you had a car with pneumatic lifts or a Humvee, maybe you get to park for free.  Your typical Japanese box-on-wheels doesn’t stand a chance, though.