Japan: For Better or Worse

FoodJapan: For Better or WorseLife in Japan

Tokyo Convenience Stores

7-11 Japan is nothing like its American counter part7-11 Japan is nothing like its American counterpart

If you were to pick adjectives that are essential to understanding Tokyo, “convenient” would be a pretty choice to put high on the list. I recall climbing to the top of a mountain shrine and finding an ice-cream stand waiting for me. Whatever you might need or want is often close at hand here.

They are omnipresent

I’d say that it’s very difficult to walk three blocks in Tokyo without encountering at least one convenience store. There are three within one block of my apartment, and about 6 if you go out to three blocks. You will find them in malls, office buildings, museums, subway stations, and in your dreams.

Not only that, but most of these stores are open 24 hours. This may change, labor shortages are putting pressure on these stores in the form of higher wages and that’s leading owners to want to close them up in the wee hours, but so far, most remain open 24/7.

The big three

Three companies make up the vast majority of convenience stores in Japan. There are certainly other chains and a few independent small markets, but these guys are the giants of the business: 7-11, Family Mart, and Lawson.

You may be a little surprised to see two American brands on this list. 7-11 is generally credited as the first convenience store to open in Japan and to spark their love of this institution. The then Texas-based company franchised to a Japanese company. When the parent fell on hard times, they were bought out by the Japanese firm.

Likewise, Lawson’s started as an American firm but was purchased by its Japanese counterparts as the business boomed in Japan and stagnated in America. Family Mart has always been a Japanese firm despite bearing an English name.

Each has its own supposed specialty. Lawson’s is known for its fried chicken, Family Mart for its deserts, and 7-11 for its overall selection of quality offerings. Personally, I don’t find that much of a difference in their offerings beyond the particular house brand items they sell.

What you can buy

Like in the US, a convenience store in Japan dedicates most of the store to food and drink. The big difference is the character of what is offered. You can buy a lot of pre-made meals at these stores. They are not frozen but they are kept in a refrigerated display. You can find dishes appropriate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Unlike at an American fast food place where the “fresh” food offerings are largely all unhealthy county-fair style food, the Japanese convenience store offers a wide range of both healthy and indulgent offerings. You can find soups, salads, pasta, rice bowls, sandwiches, vegetable dishes, curry, and complete lunch box meals (bento). The quality of these meal offerings is surprisingly high.

Snack foods are about as plentiful as fresh foods. You can find a range of candy, chips, crackers, pastries, dairy, and fruit snacks. Overall, you find a wider range in the type of snacks offered, but fewer options for each type. Instead of 6 brands of regular chips, they will have one brand with six different style chips.

If you want to try some Japanese snacks, you can order many different variety snack packs on Amazon.

There are a range of drinks including alcoholic beverages. The style of drink varies more than in an American store but the number of offerings is a bit smaller. Coffee drinks are the mainstay in Japan, followed by tea. Various juices and sodas round out the mix. They also offer cigarettes.

Convenience stores are light on sundries but you will find some basic stationery supplies and hygiene products. There is usually a comics and magazine rack, a third of which is commonly dedicated to light pornography. It has been announced that the “adult magazines” will be phased out as of the 2020 Olympics.

But wait, there’s more

One thing that isn’t obvious to the casual visitor is that the convenience stores also serve as a kind of banking service. You can pay most of your utility bills and other government obligations at the convenience store. You can even mail packages at many locations. The ATMs are kind of super-sized and offer robust banking features.

Onigiri "Rice Balls"
Onigiri “Rice Balls” are commonly found in all Conbini stores.

Sorry, no Car Stuff

What you won’t find at most convenience stores are automotive-related products. This is especially true in Tokyo where you won’t even find parking spaces most of the time. Gas stations in the city are a very different animal than in the US and driving overall is just a lot less common. Outside the city, things may well be different but in Tokyo, I’ve never seen a gas station combined with a convenience store.

And no Slurpies

The branding of 7-11 in Japan is utterly different than in the US. I knew that going in but I was surprised that the Slurpee, an icon of the 7-11 brand in the US was nowhere to be found. Pretty much the only thing the stores share is the name and the fact they are small stores selling food, drinks and snacks.

Better or Worse?

I have to go with better here. The fact I can get a latte and an Alfredo pasta plate at 7-11, both of which will be pretty darn tasty gives the Japanese side of the aisle a big boost. If you say “I ate dinner at the convenience store.” it doesn’t sound like an act of desperation. The range of financial services you can find also sets it apart. Finally, Japanese snacks simply have a much wider range of tastes and textures than American snacks offer.

That said, I think 7-11 shows that the company has taken a hard look at the Japanese and American markets and delivered what their customers in each place expect from the brand. Americans expect and need motor oil and gasoline at their convinced stores, people in Tokyo don’t. The food options at 7-11 probably say more about the tastes of Americans than the management of the 7-11 corporation.

Gaijin Survival GuideJapan: For Better or WorseLife in Japan

Religion in Japan

Tokyo templeSensoji Temple in Tokyo Japan.

For better or worse: better

Let me just say straight away, I have a huge bias on this topic. I’ve been an agnostic and atheist all my life. America doesn’t generally smile upon this viewpoint. I’ve spent long hours debating religious topics with theists of many stripes over the years. Don’t get me wrong, I actually respect religion on many levels, but that was something that took a while to develop.

Japanese Religion

I’ve had a couple people tell me that Japan is the most Atheist nation on earth. That is just plain wrong. That title belongs to China. Still, they do come out pretty high in the poll rankings. They sit pretty close to places like Sweden, the UK, and other northern European nations.

But that doesn’t really tell the whole story. Wherever you go in Japan, you will see signs of religion everywhere. Shrines, large and small are just about everywhere. Religions iconography can be hound in nearly every house and apartment. Religious rituals are part of many aspects of everyday life. Sport, art, entertainment, and food intimately connected to Shinto and Buddhist traditions.

If you go to any of the nearly innumerable festivals in japan, religion is right at the heart of it. The longest line at any such event is the one to make an offering and say a prayer at the temple. So what gives, why is Japan considered a self-identified “atheist” country?

Frankly, I don’t know the answer. My observation is that the Japanese enjoy tradition and ritual but are practiced at not being dogmatic about metaphysical beliefs. Here, Shinto and Buddhism are practiced almost interchangeably. Dogma is minimal, faith is not essential. Nor is membership, you are what you do and you can do whatever religious practice you like without judgment. If there is a common element it is that you should show due respect to religious tradition if and when you choose to engage in it.

Ginkaku-ji - Temple of the Silver Pavilion
Ginkaku-ji – Temple of the Silver Pavilion

American exclusivity

In the US, and many other parts of the world, the idea you could be a Buddhist and a Shintoist at the same time is kind of absurd. Religion is not a salad bar of choices you can mix and match. Religion is a statement about what you think is the ultimate truth, and there can be only one truth.

Sure, you can play around with different trappings of religion, but ultimately the culture asks you to identify as a member of a given religion, or a hold out against religion. Once you have made that choice you either cling to it steadfastly or make a dramatic change. Such changes are almost always due to life changing conditions that make you re-think the nature of reality, or your own self identity.

Since religion is a claim to reality, it is also the core of moral view points and codes of behavior in every aspect of life. At least in theory. In practice I observe some pretty wild variation between stated religious dogma and personal behavior. Even when this is true, religious justifications are very commonly used for moral argument.

This rigidity, sense of identity, exclusivity, and sense of an absolute metaphysical truth makes religion a contentious topic of conflict and a source of both unity and disunity in America. It was a nation founded on ideas of religious freedom, but also on strong religious conviction. As a result it is both a hotbed of belief and disagreement.

Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fushimi Inari Shrine

Why I like it so much

The things I admire about religion, despite my lack of belief in the supernatural, are the passion of faith, the art it inspires, and the sense of community and culture it creates. I adore religious art and architecture. I also love the body of thought that surrounds religion and which is generated by inter religious debate.

What is so great for me about religion in Japan, is that I can participate in it without any expectation that I actually believe in the gods or spirits I am praying to. It is fitting and perhaps even expected that I have my own individual interpretation of the meaning of my actions. So long as I show respect for the tradition i am participating in, my involvement is welcome and not the least bit hypocritical.

And when I do participate, I am showing solidarity with other participants while at the same time, I am not declaring any distance between myself and others who participate in different rituals. You simply participate in those that you enjoy and it in no way casts any sort of judgment on those who enjoy something else.

For someone who has no dogmatic supernatural beliefs, this is the ideal situation. I get to enjoy most of the positive aspects of religion, without having to pretend any beliefs I don’t actually have. I can be part of the pervading culture without sacrificing my own integrity or honesty.

It also makes for a strong cohesive cultural bond for the Japanese. One that has proven to be incredibly hard for other nations to crack. At the same time, its flexibility allows the Japanese to freely adopt traditions and ideas from other religious systems and make them their own. They are not bound by the kind of dogma that fuels violent zealots or which leads to a denial of well established science.

Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Kinkaku-ji – Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Gaijin Survival GuideJapan: For Better or WorseLife in Japan

Pooping in Japan

Washlet at the StoreWashlet at the Store

For Better or Worse: Better

Just in case the title didn’t tip you off, this article is rather frank about its subject. It is for Americans, like me, who may have heard about Japanese toilets but who have yet to actually experience one. Having done so, I really want to convince you that you should consider getting one for yourself.

What is a washlet?

A washlet is what they call a high tech toilets in japan. The name is the invention of the Toto company but it seems to have stuck as a generalized name for these devices. Some of them are a whole toilet, but most of them are really just an attachment that replaces your toilet seat lid with the washlet device.

There are quite a few features you can get on these, but the core feature they offer, and what I’m here to rave about is the bidet feature. It is a wand that sticks out and washes your bung hole after you are done pooping. if you have a vagina, it can wash that too. More on that later.

Other handy features include a heated seat, music to do your business by, deodorizing features, misting to prevent poop from sticking to the bowl, sound effects to cover up pooping noises, and probably a few others I’m not so familiar with. I’d just put all that in the nice to have category.

The washlet does require an electrical outlet to plug it in, and that you connect it to the water supply that fills your toilet. They are not very hard to install, especially in these days of YouTube tutorials.

Washlet Controls
Washlet Controls

The gory details

Sure, once in a blue moon I take a dump and then one or two wipes and I’m feeling clean as a whistle. The older I get, the more often this kind of bowel movement is a rare blessing. Typically I’m looking at wipe after wipe, each a little cleaner than the last, but never really quite getting me all the way shiny.

The results? Clogged toilets, swamp ass, an itchy ass, hemorrhoids, and lots of toilet paper into the waste stream. I’ve always fought with these demons of the deuce, but the older I get, the more of a literal pain in the ass they become. If you know too well these challenges, read on.

The magic wand of the washlet is a powerful tool in fighting back against such evils. Touch the button after your business and it pokes out of its hiding place and delivers a stream of nice warm water right where it counts. You can control the temperature, strength of the stream, and in many cases the type of spray. The machine then retracts the wand and does its own little cleaning cycle to stay sanitary.

And I am here to tell you it works wonders. What would normally be a real mining operation of wipe after wipe that never quite completes becomes a just a few quick wipes and a shiny clean ass. No more swamp ass, no more hemorrhoids, no more clogged toilet and no more madly burning through toilet paper.

I can’t speak for the ladies but I understand that its great when you have your period and for general clean up.

Washlet Nozzle
Washlet Nozzle

Words of warning

I try to always do my research for my blog so I do have a few words of warning on the proper use of the washlet. This is a device for washing the outside of your ass, not the inside. Trying to blast water up into your poop chute is not a good plan.

You risk damaging the somewhat delicate lining of your lower intestine and you can also get rid of the important gut bacteria you need to properly break down food. Whatever you think you might be trying to accomplish, don’t do it.

Happy Poop
Happy Poop

Where can I get a magic ass washer?

I have not seen them in very many American hardware stores. But as with many things, Amazon.com has a large selection of washlets for you to select from. They range in price from around $100 up to $1000. The sweet spot seems to be models in the $300 to $400 range where you are getting a quality product that has the core functionality you will want.

Washlet Different Controller
Washlet Different Controller
Gaijin Survival GuideJapan: For Better or WorseLife in Japan

Japan: For Better or Worse

Tokyo Tower at NightTokyo Tower at Night

It’s fun to make comparisons. I’ve lived all my life in America as an American, and this is my first chance to live in another nation and see how they do what they do. I can’t help but compare life in America to life in Japan every day I’m here.

This article series is about making comparisons between the way Americans do things and the way Japanese do things in day to day life. For any given subject, I’ll make a judgement: Better or Worse. This post is a sort of explanation and disclaimer about this article series.

Disclaimers attack!

#1. I am not an expert
As I write this, I’ve only been in Japan for 1 month. I don’t know the language and I don’t truly know the culture. Take everything I say with a huge grain of salt. It’s just my opinion, and it could well change as I learn more.

#2. I live in Tokyo
Tokyo is special. It is the largest city on earth and it is very different from other parts of Japan in many ways. Since I haven’t gotten out too much, most of what I’m observing and discussing is how they do things in Tokyo. It is also one of the cities in Japan most used to having visitors from other countries.

#3 These are my personal opinions
I am not making a cosmic judgment or claim to objective truth. These are just my thoughts about what I like more or less about life in Japan vs life in the US. I’d love to hear if you disagree with my judgments and why.