Size matters

Americans seem to think everything needs to be bigger to be better. Japanese go off the other deep end.

I already knew this, as do most people who have any curiosity at all about Japan, but still I found cause for astonishment.

I arrived at Narita Airport early Wednesday afternoon and, after some frustration trying to get cash (the fourth ATM I tried finally spat out a meager ¥10,000, about US$ 100) took the Narita Express train into central Tokyo for about $30. At Tokyo Station I bought a bottle of iced tea, and faced with at least a dozen choices and having no clue how any of them differed except in color (gradations of light brown and light green), I picked the one that had a little bonus pouch of something around its neck–osembe (snacks), I assumed. I opened the pouch when I got to the hotel and found the world’s tiniest lunch. Too bad it was out of scale with the world’s tiniest little bottle of soy sauce, which had come with my lunch on the plane.

You’ll often see tiny garbage cans lurking in the rear corner of the stall in Japanese bathrooms–say, four or five inches wide, and often a quarter-cylinder that tucks oh so preciously into that corner. You might not notice the wee trash can, though, for all the distractions provided by many Japanese toilets. Most of the toilets I used had seats heated to the point of being uncomfortably hot. A warm seat on a cold day is an enviable luxury, but a hot seat on a sweaty day seemed a bit much to me. My Japanese colleagues had a different view of the weather, though–where I was wearing short sleeves and sandals without socks and still sweating and wishing I were wearing short pants–they were putting on jackets and worried that I’d be cold. They must have some genetic adaptation for surviving the sweltering heat and humidity of +40˚C summers, whereas my ancestry prepares me for –40˚C winters.

Speaking of genetic adaptations, though, may I digress for a moment to share a comment made by my guide in Beijing last December? He said that in the millenia before water treatment plants, Asians boiled their water for safety and made tea, whereas Westerners came up with beer and so on, and that’s why many Asians can’t metabolize alcohol but can drink pots and pots of tea up to bedtime and still sleep like babies, whereas Westerners get the jitters after a few cups of coffee but can handle considerably more booze. Interesting theory, at least.

Getting back to the Japanese toilets, the obsession of many a world traveler, they also had amazingly complicated apparati (and, thank heaven, bilingual instructions) for “do bidet” and “wash bottom” with adjustable water temperature and pressure, “flushing sound to mask toilet, 25 seconds” with a button for repeating and another pair of buttons to adjust the volume, and on and on. Two hours’ flight separates the world’s extremes in toilets: in China many toilets are squalid porcelain holes in the soiled floor, bring your own toilet paper, and in Japan a toilet has more buttons, switches, and dials than an iPod. The one in my hotel room was a little simpler.

Speaking of electronics, both my hotels (in Tokyo and in Seoul) feature bedside control panels for everything. Necessary it’s not, but it sure is nice. I spend a lot of nights in hotels, seemingly around the world, and let me tell you, wandering around this night’s room in this city’s hotel trying to find all the switches needed to achieve darkness at bedtime can be enough of a challenge that it wakes you back up. Both hotels also offer tea kettles, but the one in Japan wins the prize. It boils water in ten minutes and then keeps it at tea-brewing temperature all day. When you’re making tea in Japanesely-small cups, you’d make yourself nuts putting water on separately for each cup. I suppose here is a case where bigger might be better–making one big pot, or at least a really big mug, is easier–but I think the Japanese emphasis is on having the tea painfully hot, just like the soup and the toilet seat.

After finishing up work on Friday, I had a few hours to kill before meeting colleagues for a settai (the Japanese business dinner, famously elaborate and expensive), so I walked about twenty minutes from the office I was visiting to the Ginza district. Around the corner from the famous Mitsukoshi department store was a store that my colleague Chie correctly predicted would thrill me: Itoya. You probably know the brand name: office supplies. In particular, my own fetish, cunning little pens and mechanical pencils. Mind you, a Japanese stationer in the States is plenty fun, but this was a nine floor department store of pens, pencils, writing paper, engraved stationery, gifts, wrapping papers, fountain pens and related luxury goods, novelty items and desk toys and garish but dear pencil cases, and god knows what else. I used up all my time just browsing the first four floors and managed to spend over ¥10,000 (US$ 100) on a fistful of delightfully fine-pointed pens and pencils, impossibly narrow-ruled notebooks, and assorted gifts.

Most Americans consider a .5 or .7mm pencil or pens to be “extra fine point,” but by Japanese standards, these are cloddishly fat; .4, .3, .25, .20, and even smaller are the sizes that prevail here, unless you’re looking at calligraphy brushes or their brush-tipped pen-style jobbers that I don’t yet fully understand. (I bought one, strictly for research purposes of course.) And then there are all the pens and pencils that are themselves tiny–I mean mechanical pencils the size of a swizzle stick and pens that fold down to the size of a golf tee and unfold, telescope, or otherwise contort themselves into something resembling a normal-ish sized pen. How was I supposed to resist?