11 April 2013 — Just back from Japan.

I lived there for a few years in my early 20s, so it feels like going home.

We stayed in a business hotel, $70 for a couple, per night, including a buffet breakfast. Which was only good if you don’t mind miso soup, rice, fish cakes, boiled eggs, a mixed green salad and plenty of green tea. Which I don’t. Mind, that is.

The room was small but everything fitted just right – they even had a huge space under the bed for the “western suitcases”.

And if the Japanese do anything well, they do “small” well.

I was reading up on the new trend of micro apartments recently which had me harking back to when I lived in, first, Tokyo, and then on the island of Shikoku at Niihama.

Both were relatively new buildings. My apartment was known as 2LDK. Two living rooms, one dining room and a kitchen – although the kitchen was actually just along the wall of the dining room.

This was quite a large place for one person. The living rooms, which have a shoji screen for privacy, convert to bedrooms at night when you drag your futons out of the cupboard and onto the floor. So I actually had a full-time living room – and a part-time living/bed room. Luxury. My Japanese mates were quite envious. (And I did try to remember to roll up my futon each morning. Sometimes.)

And there was no oven. Just a cook top. I guess roasts are a western thing. I did have a rice-cooker – which I had never seen before – and was used daily.

And while we are catching up on rice cookers and fast trains, maybe, on this trip, I noted that the Japanese are quickly catching up on the sustainability theme.

Flipping through the country side, on a shinkansen (fast train), I saw houses, many either quite old or built in that style, with solar panels adorning their beautiful roofs.

And talking fast trains, as we are on the east coast of Australia just now, the skinkansens speed through Japan, north, south, east and west, with a trip from Osaka to Tokyo, 400km,  taking just two hours and 25 minutes. And they run every 15 minutes. Both ways. On time. Always.

In fact, Japan is so set up for public transport with trains and trams, it’s amazing there are any cars on the road. But there are. But they are quiet because they are hybrids. And there are top up power points at car dealers.

Did I mention no-one toots their horn? I don’t think they have heard of road rage.

There are also bicycles everywhere. Being ridden by school children, business men in suits going to work, and grandmothers on their way to the local supermarket.

The streets are also rubbish free. There are bins everywhere clearly marked “paper, glass, cans or other”. And people use them religiously as they step off trains, their beer can in one, the plastic bag in another and the bento box in yet another. Beer on trains – that’s civilised.

Mind you, they are still a tad keen on packaging. Bento boxes come wrapped in a plastic film, with chop sticks and toothpicks separately wrapped in paper. Then there is the wrapped wet towel, and all in a bag provided by the station bento seller.

I even bought a bottle of chardy from the local supermarket, $14 for not a bad drop, and it was wrapped in about two metres of bubble wrap and then placed in a bag. Maybe they thought I was taking it back to Australia – it only made it to the hotel room.

Some of their fruit also comes individually wrapped but that’s more of a gift thing – especially when one melon was $50. You’d want it to taste rather good for that.

And sadly much of Japan has also gone from really sustainable toilets to ones that offer myriad options to wash, dry and just about turn you over.

In the old days, (have I really reached an age where I can say that?), and I am sure still, in more rural places, the toilets had a bowl above the cistern where you could wash your hands with the water that was being used to refill the cistern. I always thought that was a great idea.

Mind you, even then, as now, they had a button you could push which ran water through the toilet while you were sitting there. It’s to cover the noise of, well, your water running. Or any other embarrassing noises.

Anyway, we had a great but short holiday taking in the beauty of the cherry blossoms. We accidentally arrived a week early but thanks to climate change, so did the flowers.

The Japanese love their nature and they have parks full of cherry blossom where families, work mates and friends, gather on hired tatami mats and enjoy a cold beer and a picnic.

It’s fabulous. A huge amount of quite drunk people without a rude word to be heard or a fight to watch. Just getting on with life and enjoying the blossoms.


Donna Kelly writes for The Fifth Estate. When she is not in Japan.

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