Originally published in The Hindu on March 4, 2017

For a Delhite like me, living in Tokyo can feel like having entered a science fiction novel

Narita, the Japanese capital’s international airport, features a toilet exhibition. “This delightful and engaging space is open to everyone. We would like to share the sense of toilet comfort and technology that is so important in Japan to the rest of the world” a large sign states. And indeed, to know Japan is to know lavatorial luxuries undreamt of. An array of buttons along the side of a typical commode allow you to spray and dry your rear, or front. Others activate oscillation or pulsation, and raise or lower the intensity of the gush. And then there is the wondrous heated toilet seat. I’ve heard that in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake that caused the meltdown at the Fukushima power plant, energy shortages had buildings shutting down escalators. In the bathrooms, electric hand dryers ceased their roar, but the heated toilet seat continued to warm bottoms. Some things simply cannot be done without.

Metro life

For a Delhite like me, living in Tokyo can feel like having entered a science fiction novel. Not because of the futuristic skyscrapers or the robots that sometimes greet you in retail outlets. It’s the sight of unescroted children hopping onto buses, changing trains in subway stations and walking along thoroughfares on their way to or from school that’s truly hallucinatory. The first time I saw a five- or six-year-old, with a school bag nearly as big as him, wandering alone down a busy road, I ran to offer help. But before I could catch up, he pulled out a metro pass and disappeared with cheery unconcern into the bowels of one of the capital’s busiest subway stations. These days my eight-year-old son informs me he’ll be back in an hour and exits our apartment all alone. He descends the elevator to the basement, takes his bicycle out to the local park for a spin and is always back on time. It really is like science fiction.

The Tokyo metro is where most of the city’s residents spend a sizeable chunk of their days. It’s a labyrinth. You have to learn not only to negotiate the physical layout, but also the unspoken yet equally complicated social norms that dictate metro use. One must only stand on the left of the escalators. The right is for the more athletically-inclined who want to actually walk up or down. There are posters that sternly query, “Are your manners in good shape?” Commuters are constantly reminded of the hazards of walking while staring at mobile phones. Once on a metro platform, I received an urgent message from our helper about my younger son’s bowel movements. Mindful of not moving about while staring at the screen, I stopped in my tracks to reply. By the time I’d finished texting and looked up, I realised a long queue of deathly quiet Japanese had formed behind me, having mistaken my still form as the start of a line. The Japanese love a good queue even more than the English.

Inside the metro cars there is always pin-drop silence. Even during rush hour, when people are physically stuffed into the cabins like battery chickens, there is no sound. For an Indian this is preternatural. The silence is only topped on the bizarre scale by the propensity for masks. Commuters resemble smart-phone addicted, manic surgeons on the loose. Masks are usually worn by commuters with colds who don’t want to infect others, although some wear them out of fear of being infected. And still others, I believe, wear them simply to discourage social interaction.

Rain fed

There are four different Japanese onomatopoeia to describe rainfall. When the rain falls ‘shito shito’ it is constant and enveloping. When it rains ‘zaa zaa’ it’s a sudden downpour, typhoon-strong. At the very outset of a shower, it rains ‘potsu-potsu’ which describes a few early drops and a darkening sky. At this stage it can also be ‘para para’, a bit random as though someone were spraying occasional moisture on plants out of a watering can.

Pallavi Aiyar is a globetrotter who is currently parked in Japan.