I just got back from a phenomenal two-week vacation in Japan, a place I had never been before. If you haven’t been to Japan, you really have to go. It was incredible. There is everything from ancient history to modern marvels, as well as the most welcoming of people and fab food galore.
I could wax poetic or rave wildly about everything I saw there, not to mention all that I ate there, but this isn’t really a travel blog. So I thought I’d focus on what really stood out to me relative to my usual day-to-day existence, and then try to bend myself in knots to show how it relates to life here.
For me, the most notable thing about Japan is how seamlessly they have integrated old and new, tradition and modern custom, ancient rituals and the tech of tomorrow. It is typical to see a 1000-year-old shrine with dirt floors equipped with the most modern bathrooms on earth (more on that last part later – #foreshadowing). I was particularly struck by the contrast of traditional culture standing alongside the most modern of buildings, the confluence of ancient shrines and neon signs all on the same city block.
For instance, within a few moments of each other, we walked through the world’s busiest cross walk in Shibuya, a massive intersection that makes Times Square at 42nd Street look dark, small and quiet, only to arrive at a dark alley containing a 2nd story whiskey tavern. about the size of a small Starbucks bathroom (#foreshadowing), which had a 10-seat bar, handwritten whiskey reviews taped all about the room and a hundred or so bottles of the finest Japanese whiskey sitting right on the bar, because that was the only place for it. This place has clearly been there forever; you expected to see ghosts. But damn it is was mighty fine whiskey.
We went to a place called TeamLab Borderless, which is an interactive digital experience that I cannot describe in words because it is so amazing and wild. It is about as advanced a technology that I have ever experienced live and filled rooms and rooms of an old warehouse now turned into this experiential entertainment operation.
And you can get there on a boat that leaves from the center of one of the oldest traditional gardens in Tokyo, Hamarikyu, which used to be the personal flower patch/falconry grounds/tea garden of the 3rd Shogun of Japan back in the 1600’s. Once again, old and new directly and harmoniously connected.
The manner in which the Japanese have integrated technology in the larger cities is an interesting lesson for those of us in the U.S., who think we are so ahead but who are clearly backwards on this front. I live in Northern California, the heart of technology-land, where our public transportation system is nearly absent or largely unusable for most residents. There’s some BART (subway-ish), there’s some buses, there’s an occasional train, there’s some ferries, but they are not very widely used as compared to commuting by car due to their generally difficult access, bad schedules, and lack of integration into broad communities. If you want to get from Marin County to the heart of old Silicon Valley, you have to pack a suitcase and a couple of meals and some bread crumbs if you are taking public transport, because it’s going to take you a long time to get there. If you want to get to out-of-the-way places, forget it.
In Japan, the trains are so convenient and so modern and clean that it would be absurd to own a car in most big cities. We routinely got to train platforms where the train had just left only to find that we had a torturous wait of…2 minutes for the next one. Yes, they were crowded at times, but the technology of in-and-out and the politeness of people on the trains made it feel just fine. And from the trains you could access the most obscure, ancient places as if it was all planned that way.
But moreover, it was the everyday technology integrated into daily lives that struck me. The Japanese have effectively adopted so many conveniences around the home, in restaurants, in public places, but it never felt cold or inhuman or like they were “trying to replace people with robots,” a phrase we bandy about here all the time when talking about technology dread. They may talk about that too for all I know, I don’t speak Japanese, but it just felt so seamless and in-service of people that it didn’t feel that way at all. There is remarkably advanced technology incorporated into airport security, every building environment, each kitchen, light fixtures, store payment systems and especially bathrooms – oh the bathrooms!
My friend Kevin, who sold his company to a large Japanese conglomerate a few years back so spent a lot of time there, told me before my trip that once you have used a Japanese toilet you can never go back to our antiquities here. I sort of laughed it off – how exciting could it possibly be? Answer: life-changingly exciting.
If you have not had the full benefit of a modern Japanese toilet experience, I will now tell you that you haven’t lived. We here in the US take toilets for granted. You do your thing, you flush, you wash your hands (please tell me you wash your hands) and you leave. Just the facts, ma’am, nothing exotic. But Japanese toilets, and I am not just talking about the ones at the five-star hotels, but the ones at every ancient temple, miniscule bar, stand-up ramen shop, train station, Shinto shrine, you name it, is a technological and experiential marvel. Kevin was right.
The average western-style toilet – actually let’s call it the baseline toilet, has a heated seat, a built-in two-way bidet with controllable pressure stream and a butt dryer for when you’re done with that, white noise for the modest, and auto-flush. That’s what’s everywhere. Everywhere. I’m talking bathrooms at remote, out-of-the-way temples where the antiquities are as old as Buddha and the bathrooms could teach NASA some things. When you go high-end, you get all of the above, PLUS: lighting in the water (perhaps to ensure better accuracy?), a front-wash, musical accompaniment (with volume control), auto lid opening and closing, a deodorizer and lord knows what else. I did not find the toaster function or the button that allows you to view the newspaper in the language of your choice, but again, I don’t speak Japanese. However, they did have a handy-dandy set of poorly translated instructions for how to use the toilet’s features in virtually every locale. Notably, many public restroom had these tricked-out toilets next to stalls with old-fashioned squat toilets that had few to no amenities. Mostly, those stalls were empty, but again, old and new juxtaposed.
When I first arrived in Japan, I thought to myself, “Honestly, who needs a heated toilet seat, heated bathroom floor, a toilet lid that auto-opens when you walk near it and auto-closes when you walk away?” By day 3, when our seat warmer stopped working (because I accidentally hit the wrong button in my frantic attempt to try every damn feature of the toilet), I panicked. “How am I going to function without the heated toilet – SOS! Mayday! Mayday!” You know those humans who spend lengthy times in the bathroom reading or whatever? If they had access to Japanese bathrooms, we would never see these people again.
I have written before about so-called Smart Toilets that are intended to be used for health monitoring. It’s an interesting idea and has been featured at several Consumer Electronics Shows (CES), including the one just past. At this CES there was even a smart litter box! I am including its promo paragraph because it should be the 2020 winner of the “are you kidding me that this is how we are using AI now” award
“Lulupet is a connected litter box that uses artificial intelligence to track the health of your cats. The litter box comes with a camera and on-board AI chip that can recognize different types of cat feces, which can provide signs of bad health depending on the shape and consistency. This is made possible by a machine learning algorithm that has been trained using a method called transfer learning. Lulupet also tracks body weight and the number of times the cat visits the litter box. The litter box, which syncs with a smartphone companion app, allows you to enter the cat’s age, breed and lifestyle, so that it can be cross-analyzed with thousands of other cats in a database. The litter box is expected to cost $99 for pre-order when its Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign begins in March.”
Anyway, health sensors in smart toilets may well be a good way to monitor human or cat health, who knows? (Note to self: if there were smart litter boxes in Japan, they would have Hello Kitty on them) But in America, who is going to pay to put those in every house, bar, store? No one, that’s who. And furthermore, in the U.S. we always jump to the utility and spend so much less time on design and user experience.
Maybe one exception to that: CES also featured a little toilet-paper robot that brings you a roll when you run out. Now that’s a good user experience and one I did not observe in Japan.
Notably, there were fancy toilets from US manufacturers at CES this year, as in previous years; However, I don’t know about you, but I have literally never seen one in the wild in the U.S. And I certainly haven’t seen them in the bathrooms of public entertainment and cultural sites, where you usually have to pray before you enter the bathroom for fear you don’t catch something while in there. When you enter a public restroom in most parts of the U.S. you think, “Dear god I hope it’s clean and safe and I don’t have to touch anything.” When you enter a public restroom in any of the places I visited in Japan you think, “Ooh! I love these warm seats and can you play me a Carpenters’ tune? I think I’ll rest here a while.” Ok, maybe the Carpenters isn’t your jam, but hey, Alexa, what have you got in Metallica?
As I prepare today for the start of the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference and Barnum & Bailey Circus (my favorite circus act: a Tesla spilling out dozens of clowns in gray flannel), I can clearly visualize the women’s bathroom in Ground Zero of the conference, the St. Francis Hotel. I have been in there many times over the past 20 years. Except for the fact that it is generally empty (well, hello Michael), it sports no such fancy features as would be the custom in a Japanese hotel bathroom of similar stature. If we want to improve the JPM week experience, perhaps we should start with the toilets. They might actually be worth $1200 for a night of access.
PS – Hot tip: if you go to Japan, look up MactionPlanet if you want a phenomenal guide to show you all the best toilets and everything else worth seeing.