I sometimes think that travel is at least as much an encounter with your own ignorance and arrogance as it is with another country and its cultures. In Australia, I have heard various things about waste and thrift in Japan from Japanese people as well as from Australians who have travelled to Japan (but weren’t born there). I’ve heard both about minimalism and about a culture of everything needing to be new and old things being always thrown away. I’ve read about boro and also about extravagant, amazing silken fabrics. And, as with the culture/s I live in, surely there would be diversity and contradiction? I was interested to see what I could learn about avoiding waste from being in Japan, and to see how recycling was managed there.
One place where I noticed a very striking difference between Japan and Australia was public bathrooms/toilets. I am not referring to the differences in toilets between these two places, though those are considerable. For those who do not wish to hear anything more on this subject–skip the next two paragraphs!
In an upscale public toilet (airports, big cultural institutions, department stores) Australia has toilets that while clean and even occasionally stylish, are metaphorically like an old fashioned phone. Though water saving, they often offer half or full flush, and that is all they do, like a phone that merely allows you to make or receive a phone call. Japan has these too, but they also have the toilet equivalents of the SmartPhone. They play music, may come with a motion sensor and light up, mist water and/or play music as you approach (which made me giggle a lot). Some offer a heated seat with different heats, multiple washing/bidet options and self cleaning. It’s also routine for Japanese public toilets to have an emergency call button (not so in Australia). Half and full flush, of course. Designed so the lid must be down to flush (which would be capable of ending gender wars on several continents if adopted worldwide–or maybe that’s an Australian thing). And that’s what I figured out without being able to decode all the options (because I couldn’t read the buttons and even our hotel had decided English speakers only needed translation of about 4-6 of about 20 options).
On the other hand, in less flash places where tourists were less likely (some shrines, supermarkets, smaller or older public institutions) what my place of work calls a “natural posture” toilet, often translated in Japan as “traditional” and called by English speakers a “squat toilet” was the only option, and flush and emergency call were the only options. Much easier to figure out which to choose for the clueless such as myself. I could see from wordless queue exchanges where I was the only foreigner that I was not expected to use the traditional model (whether or not there were choices in the matter). In one museum I saw why Japanese people have reached this view when I saw a European looking woman open the door of a cubicle, startle visibly and hurry out. Also interesting, at a shrine sale where I had to watch the flow of people to even find a toilet, was a small bathroom being used by people of all genders, with gentlemen clearly expecting to use the urinal in mixed company with no evidence of embarrassment, and only the usual polite averting of eyes from people doing private things. There was no evidence this was embarrassing to women or children, even with a fair sized queue standing by.
Well. How was that for a digression?
When I go to a public toilet, I hope for a toilet and a place to wash my hands. And this was on offer everywhere we went. What I almost never saw outside of a major airport was a place to dry your hands nor anything to dry them with. Contrast Australia where there will usually be a paper towel dispenser, electric hand dryer, or both–and in more traditional establishments, eco conscious businesses or people’s homes, a hand towel. In Japan, none of these was common, no matter how upscale the building or how thick the traffic of tourists. I watched closely hoping to understand what was happening instead. I saw no clues at all, and clearly it was at least as impolite to stare in Japan as in any bathroom at home. Just imagine how much paper and power is being saved in this way, I thought!
I did wonder if I had seen a clue out in plain view (hot as it was)–many people carried, wore or used a neck towel, at least in the heat wave we experienced. I believe this might be the tenugui, often made of thin woven material or perhaps terry clothing on one side and plain weave on the other, narrower than an Australian hand towel and longer. People working or playing in the heat might have it draped over or wound around their heads (men and children), hanging dampened around their necks (anyone) or held in their hands. In the picture below, the men are participating in one of the major parades of the Gion festival in 39C heat and you can see these cloths in use. Sometimes I would see a woman pull one out of her handbag or bike basket and dab her face or neck at traffic lights or apply it to a sweaty child. Was this a sign that no one needed anything to dry their hands with because they had something suitable with them? I couldn’t figure it out but I never saw anyone shake their hands or dry them on their clothing either.
After return to Australia, a Japanese zero waste instagram account I am following linked to some interesting sounding content, so I wandered off to their blog to find all manner of interesting applications of Japanese traditional knowledge and traditions to resolving the question of how to create less waste and use less plastic and there it was, another clue, perhaps. The post is headed “homemade reusable wet wipes”. I am not sure this is the answer to my personal state of ignorance either, but the wet cloth in a container with a lid in this blog post, carried with you, seems to me an application of the Japanese custom of providing a wet hand towel with a meal. These tiny towels varied from room temperature to chilled, from clean individual white towels in nice restaurants to a shared, coloured cloth like a damp face washer made available to you at a food market stall where you might have been given a tasting of something that you could only eat with your hands, down to a non woven, disposable wet wipe in an individual plastic package in a downmarket eatery. It was usually available in place of the now-ubiquitous paper napkin I would find in a similar context at home. In some contexts–the reusable rather than single use item seems to me less wasteful as well as much nicer and more effective. On the other hand, the single use plastic wrapped kind may be even worse waste-wise than a compostable paper napkin, while both are offered in such a way they cannot really be refused.