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Asia travel

Japan: the land of 1,000 conveniences, from heated toilets to revolving train seats

Olympic-goers gearing up for their 2020 trip to Tokyo who have yet to experience the country’s quirks and charms can look forward to a plethora of public services and pragmatic devices that make people’s lives more bearable

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 September, 2017, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 September, 2017, 5:00pm

Heated toilets that spray users clean, train seats that revolve so passengers can admire the scenery and a convenience store on every corner: welcome to Japan, where hospitality and customer service form part of the country’s DNA.

Visitors readying to flock to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics can expect a dizzying array of services in Japan where quirky, futuristic gadgets and everyday conveniences ease people’s passage through the stresses of daily life.

“Attention to others is at the root of Japanese culture,” says Kazuhiro Watanabe, a consumer trends analyst at consulting group Nikkei BP.

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There is even a word for it in Japanese: omotenashi, or a focus on hospitality. “Here, we anticipate customers’ desires,” Watanabe says.

Don’t believe it? How about this typical – if not exhaustive – day in Tokyo.

The alarm goes off. Bleary-eyed, you head to the washroom. It is chilly but don’t worry: the toilet seat is heated.

Japan’s multifunction toilets have an astonishing range of other features too. Enjoyed by foreign celebrities and legions of tourists alike, there are jets to wash yourself, deodorisers, and a flushing noise button to cover up embarrassing sounds.

But what if you are alone with a child and nature calls? Many public toilets (spotlessly clean, of course) have infant seats inside the stall. Park the baby in the holder and you are good to go.

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Back at home, you are late for work and there is no time for breakfast. So you head to the konbini – Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores – for some food. While you are there, why not pick up fresh socks or underwear while you are at it.

Grab some yen from the ever-present ATM, which itself has a handy umbrella and drinks holder.

For your caffeine fix, you can buy a hot tinned coffee from a vending machine. You won’t have to go far: Japan has more than two million drinks vending machines.

Eating out in Japan is also an exercise in convenience. Most restaurants come complete with realistic plastic versions of the meals in the windows so the hapless tourist can just point.

And why wait to actually order your lunch? Many eateries have vending machines outside, so you can order your meal before even going in – speeding up the whole process considerably.

Most places also give you a basket so your bag doesn’t get dirty on the floor. A hot or cool hand towel – depending on the season – is standard, and if you don’t have a glass of iced water within a couple of minutes of entering, something has gone very wrong.

On the move, order and service help smooth the journey through even the most packed of stations.

Commuters queue up politely and wait for their train. What is the rush when they are always on time and there is always another one about to arrive?

The stress of long-distance travelling is also eased by a courier service known as takuhaibin that will ship bags to your weekend retreat for a modest fee.

Not weighed down by heavy bags, you can line up for the bullet train in an orderly fashion – painted markings on the floor will guide you – and enjoy the seats that rotate so you can watch the scenery fly by at 300 kilometres an hour.

“The Japanese are very pragmatic – comfort and practicality are paramount,” says Muriel Jolivet, a sociologist who has lived in Japan for four decades.

The country famously has its share of quirky objects too: a book pillow that lets you snooze in between reading, a shirt with a fan sewn into the back for those boiling summers, and pocket heaters for winter.

“These kinds of things have always existed,” Watanabe says. “[The Japanese] are very good at making existing products better, rather than creating entirely new concepts from scratch.”

Does that make Japan the perfect place to live? Maybe not. There are rules, rules and more rules. “People cannot do what they want – that’s the other side of the coin,” Watanabe says.

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And perfection has a price, Jolivet adds. “There is a psycho-rigidity underneath all this,” she says. “Mistakes are not tolerated.”