Bums on seats

Notes from Japan:1

Cultural differences have their honeymoon period in the eye of the visitor, during which there can be a clarity of detail that, over time, melts back into the flux of the every day. Living with family members rather than as a tourist enables one to stay clear of the well worn grooves of convention so that these details can be magnified for personal illumination.

For example, the trains. In Kyoto, that venerable city and repository of so much Japanese tradition, I learned that each train line has its own tannoy jingle. The Japanese love bits of melody. In the railway stations you can hear the familiar ditty of your train approaching as well as seeing details on screens and hearing voices over. In the carriages the seating may look familiar, except that the passenger can revolve seats to make up group spaces or create more privacy. The ticket collector-cum-guard enters the carriage and bows to everyone and when he leaves he does the same, thanking you for your cooperation. Extreme politeness, efficiency and enthusiastic customer care pervades every avenue of commercial life. As one who has never thought too much about it, putting up not too stoically with the wide range of attitude one meets in the UK service, retail, transport and leisure arenas, it came as a pleasant surprise. I found myself nodding and smiling back to everyone I encountered in stores, trains, restaurants and the like. And because I was smiling I felt rather good! The experience will sharpen my discontent on my return to the grimy, late, fixed seat conveyer belt lines that are UK trains, where customer care amounts to being warned against fare dodging and even a cattle prod could not force more people into a commuter carriage.

In Kyoto, too, I made my first acquaintance with the heated toilet seat. In its off-cream bulkiness, it fell, in a design sense, half way between 1950s modernity and one of those patented but failed innovations of the 1930s which never saw the public light of day and are now exhibited as curios in science museums. Except, in that parallel universe called Japan they took off and have become very popular. It was explained to me that the Japanese suffer, en masse from haemorrhoids and these seats offer the solace of warmth (going up to a heat that would cook in milliseconds the immured products of an egg bound chicken) and an up thrusting jet of warm water to cleanse the unloaded orifice. Instructions are in Japanese script and also in English and are stridently concerned to have you avoid splashing water from the shower on to this prized monument to the technology of ablution. The dire consequences are not spelled out but can easily be imagined.

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