Home > Focus on Japan 2007 > Shinkansen and Restroom Nostalgia

Shinkansen and Restroom Nostalgia

April 22nd, 2007

Today, Sachi and I returned from a short stay in Nagano to meet her family. As we did twice before when traveling to that region, we took the bullet train–a nice ride, but pretty expensive. We each paid about $50 for a one-hour ride each way.

I remember the Japanese Bullet Train, or Shinkansen, back in 1983 when I first traveled in Japan. Then, I had a Japan National Railways (JNR) Railpass, which gave me unlimited access to all JNR trains for a single price. So I used the Shinkansen up and down the country, from Hiroshima to Morioka (as far as it went north back then).

I remember that “no smoking” back in those days meant that the forward half of one car was designated as “smoking,” with the back half designated as “no-smoking,” which of course meant that the “no-smoking” part was just as filled with smoke as the other half. Apparently, JNR at the time felt that entropy would not spread the smoke around, and did not see enough demand for non-smoking seats that it could designate a whole car as such.

I remember a little Shinkansen adventure when I returned from my short trip to Hokkaido (cut short by my homestay city’s request that I return to their town early, only to find that there was no specific reason and I wasted three days instead). I remember that for some reason (probably that I couldn’t stash it anywhere else), I carried with me all of my suitcases and all of the junk I had acquired in the three weeks of previous travel; it equalled one large suitcase, a backpack-suitcase (which I still have), and two large shopping bags full of stuff. To say the least, I was bogged down so badly that moving around was a chore.

I remember that when I arrived in Morioka going south and transfered from the regular train to the Shinkansen, I would have to go down four floors–and I only had a precious few minutes to make the transfer. At that time, either there were no elevators (not to mention escalators), or I did not know where they were and had no time to learn. So as we pulled in to Morioka Station, I was at the door, ready to bolt out. But when the doors opened, something unexpected happened: two dozen old ladies barreled through from behind me, literally shoving me aside and not letting me out the door until they had gotten through first. As they disappeared in the distance, I finally got out, and now made even more late, struggled mightily to make it to the Shinkansen tracks.

Somehow, I got to the bullet train platform just as the doors were about to close, but I had to jump onto the first car, closest to the stairs–and found that my seat was at the other end of the train. Already drenched in sweat and exhausted from the race down to the Shinkansen platform, I then struggled to drag my two suitcases and two full shopping bags down the narrow aisle for the length of the train.

About halfway through, I entered a car and had an encounter: there were the two dozen old ladies, all relaxed and stretched out, and when they saw me, they broke out laughing. Apparently, they too knew the transfer to be a tough one–which is why they shoved me aside, without thinking that (a) they would delay me more than I would have them, and (b) I was burdened down with huge amounts of luggage and they were not. I smiled politely as I passed them, thinking less-than-kind thoughts.

I also remember the lavatories, mostly because I lost a pair of glasses in there. In the 1980’s, they used a kind of septic-tank approach, where the toilet just had a circular rubber-leafed membrane between you and the tank of noxious material. I remember going to the bathroom there, then leaning over to flush–and in leaning over, my extra pair of glasses, worth more than $100 as I recall, slipped out of my breast pocket and square into the hole to the septic tank. I left the lavatory as soon as I could, and without thinking about it beforehand, I asked the conductor if the glasses could be recovered. He said no, with a look that I then–upon thinking about it–understood as saying quite rightly that I wouldn’t want to recover the glasses from where they were. Even with rigorous cleaning, would you want to put that onto your face?

Anyway, what brought the toilet part of this reminiscing back to me was an observation I made today, about something that has not changed on the Shinkansen for all of these years–something that makes no sense to me. Every few cars, there is a set of lavatories on the Shinkansen. One is for women, and is naturally a seat toilet. One is for men and women, and is also a seat toilet. Both are in rooms with a solid door that closes. Natural enough.

What I don’t get is the men’s lavatory: only a urinal, which is fine–but the door has a window in it. See the photo below: the left shows the men’s-and-women’s combo door, the right side shows the men’s-only door.


Here’s my question: why the hell put a window on the men’s room door? There’s no use for it. The other rooms have an indicator showing whether the room is occupied, tied into the door lock. The same could be done with the men’s urinal as well. It would not cost more–in fact, the men’s urinal door with the window must cost more, because it costs more to add a window than to have a plain door. And while many Japanese men probably don’t mind the lack of privacy, certainly some do. So why have the window at all in the first place? It makes no sense to me, though apparently it made sense to someone.

This brings back another memory from that first trip, on the ferry from Aomori to Hakodate, bridging the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido. The bathrooms were located along the outside corridors leading from fore to aft. There were stalls for men and women to do their setting business, but all the men’s urinals were simply lined up out in the open on the other side, where people of both sexes walked past. Not being quite that modern (or old-fashioned, I suppose), I used the stalls.

But in Japan, there is something of a history of men’s rooms being more open to the public. Even today, when I used a store’s restroom, the men’s room door was propped open, while the women’s room door was closed. Often it will be that way, with the men’s room’s urinals sometimes being in plain view of passers-by.

This is in contrast to a feature of Japanese restrooms that I like: the stalls, including the ones in the men’s rooms, are completely sealed from outside view. No gap at the bottom, and more to the point, no gap between the door and the stall wall. When you close the door, there is no way for people to see in unless they climb the wall and peek over. In the U.S., when you’re sitting on a john in a busy public bathroom, you often have to deal with people who want in to a stall, and who apparently don’t believe that a locked and closed door means occupancy–they will often stare right in at you as you sit there, to make sure the stall is indeed occupied. I never liked that, and I can’t imagine that anyone would. That can’t happen in Japan–it’s a fully private little room. Nice.

But one other thing that bothers me sometimes: the cleaning ladies. You can bet that cleaning men are never found in ladies’ rooms. But in Japan, mostly in hotels but also in large buildings like department stores, cleaning ladies are almost always present in the men’s rooms, or so it seems at least. Not that the ladies would necessarily ogle like men might in a ladies’ room, but nevertheless, to bathroom-shy individuals like myself, it is not really a helpful thing. It’s one of those times that you wish they were a bit less gender-discriminatory in hiring the cleaning staff.

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  1. Paul
    April 23rd, 2007 at 03:59 | #1

    On a date last night, we went to the Comedy Underground, a local comedy club. One comic had a story about accidentally forgetting to latch the door properly in an airplane bathroom and a guy comes along and opens the door on him.

    The comic says that it actually embarrasses the other guy more than himself, so now he does it as a practical joke, just to screw with people. :)

    Now, it’s a joke- obviously you can’t forget to latch the door properly, because the lights don’t turn on- but like all good humor (he was a pretty funny guy) there’s an element of truth to it. Frequently it IS the other guy who’s more embarrassed than you. Perhaps this thought will comfort the bathroom-shy amongst us. 😉

    The window in the door thing… what is up with THAT? Is that top part of the window a shade that pulls down, or a vent? I can’t quite tell from your picture.

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