Tokyo: Japanese Toilets And Express Trains

I was really looking forward to visiting Japan for the first time. First, let’s talk about Japanese toilets.

Japanese Toilets

In Thailand, you get a teaser of Japanese sophistication when you visit one of those sophisticated Thai shopping malls and sit down on one of those sophisticated Japanese toilets. In case you didn’t know, they have all these fancy electronic buttons you can push after you’ve done your business, and then a magical bidet shoots a jet of water at, well, where a jet of water should be shot at. But that’s not even half of the story, because lots of other magical things happen, too:

  • Depending on the toilet manufacturer and model, you can vary the position of the water jet – I assume this is to account for human anatomical variations in “anus outlet positioning”.
  • You can vary the water jet intensity.
  • You can vary the water jet temperature.
  • You can toggle an “oscillating” mode. It gives the water jet a massage-like character. Not sure how this might be useful – maybe to break loose some nasty fossilised remnants. I used it religiously.
  • After using the water jet, you can switch on a blowdryer – yes, seriously. This enables you to do something I coined the “magical poop” in med school, which is defined by not needing any toilet paper at all. But, you see, in my definition, which assumed traditional toilets, this was a rare occurrence, only enabled by a fiber-rich diet. With the Japanese toilet’s water jet and blowdryer, the magical poop’s occurrence goes from an exceedingly rare sighting to a daily routine. Impressive.
  • The toilet seat is heated. This also makes it less awkward if you sit down immediately after another human has vacated the stall, as you can attribute the warm seat to the smart toilet and not to the prior human.

But that’s not all! I’ve discovered more things after I used more Japanese toilets, this time in Japan:

  • Some have a “smelly air suction” mechanism. There seems to be some sort of fan which vents out the nasty air lingering inside the toilet bowl. Not sure where the air ends up though – it probably gets filtered and blown out of the back of the toilet or so (I wonder who changes that filter – nasty).
  • Some have a movement sensor and motorised toilet lid, so that the toilet lid automatically opens when you move dangerously close (this startled me multiple times – imagine walking up to a toilet at night and it suddenly opens up. There’s some nightmare plot stuff going on there, like, will the toilet jump at me and eat me next?).
  • Some toilets automatically spray a mist of water inside the bowl once you sit down. I suppose this is to prevent skid marks. Smart.

Alright, where was I.. I actually wanted to write about Japan in general but got distracted by its toilets. Wait, maybe it wasn’t only me, because, after one week in Tokyo, I felt that while the toilets were really sophisticated, everything else was somehow crumbling. As an example, let’s look at public transport next.

Dysfunctionality?

When looking at dysfunctional countries, it’s always good to look at Berlin first. Berlin, the capital of Germany, is, in some aspects, a rather dysfunctional city. Renewing your passport requires you to make an appointment where your wait time might easily be multiple months. The courts are so overloaded that court cases take more than one year before they’re being processed. There’s a housing shortage which often leads to a new listing receiving thousands (yes, thousands) of applicants within 48 hours. Then there’s the new airport. And so on.

How does Tokyo compare?

I think this is an interesting comparison. If I had to assign personalities to these two cities, Berlin feels like a drug-addicted, impoverished artist trying to get his act together. Tokyo, on the other hand, feels like a perfectionist who was perfect in the past but is not slipping in a million small ways due to old age.

Let me explain.

The Tokyo public transport system is awesome, but has some hair-raisingly broken aspects. The awesome parts first:

  • Trains are on time.
  • The signs are impressive – everything is color-coded and there are arrows pointing where you have to walk next.
  • The platforms have markings where to stand to board the train, and people line up in an orderly fashion, letting the passengers disembark first. Very cool.
  • Public toilets everywhere (yes, with those fancy Japanese toilets). Unthinkable in Germany, they’d be vandalised immediately.
  • There’s a “prepaid card” type payment system (Suica / Pasmo) where you put money on your card and just tap in and out and the stations you travel to. Money gets deducted based on the distance you traveled (compare this with the paper tickets in Berlin).

So far, so good. Let’s look at the dysfunctional things next.

Due to the “global supply-chain shortage” (?), those prepaid Suica cards are in very short supply. This poses a huge problem, because the system is not designed towards people purchasing the alternative individual tickets all the time. Your best bet is to go to one of the travel offices and hope to find a supply of prepaid cards there. I found one and they were rationed to one per person.

Think about it – this is crazy! It essentially prevents new people from using public transport. Apparently there’s also a huge second-hand market for these cards now.

Those prepaid travel cards can only be charged with cash, not credit cards. So you end up in this somewhat hilarious situation of running to an ATM machine first, getting cash out of that machine, then running to the Suica card machine next to it to stuff the cash into another machine.

The train ticket system is hilariously complex. You can observe this when standing at the stations of major tourist hotspots like Mount Fuji or any of the airports: Tourists get stuck in the turnstile gates all the time, and they have no clue what they did wrong. Everyone has some sort of ticket, but rarely the right combination of tickets (yes, you sometimes need multiple). Let’s talk about this next.

Traveling From Tokyo To Mount Fuji

As an outsider, you get the impression that you need a PhD in civil engineering and serious Japanese skills to understand the ticketing system of Japanese trains. Here’s how it works for taking the train from Tokyo to Mount Fuji.

Your first and most obvious option would be to use the direct train which runs ~4x per day. This is an “express train” and run by one company (JR East). Purchasing it requires you paying something called a “basic fare”, which you’d pay in any case if you’d choose a non-express train (confused already?), and an additional “express fare” which you have to pay on top because you’ve chosen an express train.

So you need two tickets: Basic fare and express fare. But that’s not it!
The basic fare can either be paid by simply using your Suica card (those which were in short supply). In that case, you only purchase the express fare from a vending machine (= a paper ticket). But be sure to not get lost in the touchscreen menu, because if you push the wrong button, you also purchase the basic fare there again and now you’re completely screwed because you’ve paid the basic fare twice and need to run to a train assistant dude to somehow fix that. That might have happened to me. So that was the basic fare.

The express fare is also complicated, because you can either purchase it with or without a seat reservation. Ready for more confusion? If you purchase online on the JR East website which feels borderline broken, they only offer the express fare tickets with seat reservations. So, if all seats are booked out, you can’t purchase online, but you can still purchase at one of the vending machines, albeit without a seat reservation. No one tells you that.

So that was your first option.

Your second option is to take a normal train to Otsuki station and then switch to another train which takes you to Mount Fuji. The first train is run by JR East, just like the express train. Now, get ready for this – it’s just as fast as the express train and it stops at the same stops, but it is not an express train, so you only need a basic fare ticket (or prepaid card) to use it. Wow. Okay. But that’s not all of it!

The second train is not run by JR East, so you need a separate ticket to use it.

Anyway, I’ll stop there.

The results are, umm, interesting. The train stations are swarming with confused tourists. There’s a bunch of train staff whose main work seems to consist of bouncing between groups of confused tourists and somehow guiding them through the system. They are super helpful and, as can be expected, completely overwhelmed (mad props to them though, I would have gone crazy after one day in such a system).

Another side effect is that the express train was completely overbooked. Like, I don’t know when I last saw something like that, but it wasn’t in a developed country. Like, “so-many-people-standing-in-the-aisles-that-no-one-can-move overbooked”. You see, the “non-reserved seat express tickets” don’t seem to be limited in number, and the express train is rather short, so all Mount Fuji tourists cram into one tiny train. It’s complete craziness, with families with strollers having to leave the train mid-journey.

So.. yeah. I don’t know. It seems like the system started out really awesome: Prepaid travel cards, a simple ticketing system, good trains. But then, each layer of minor complexity got layered upon another (express trains, ticket types, supply chain shortage) until the system as a whole no longer feels very functional.

So yeah. A perfectionist who’s now slipping in a million small ways.

Or maybe I’m wrong. It was just a week, and I feel like I just scratched the surface. I might be back!


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