It seems like a good idea to explain some of the smaller details, the habits and rituals that provide a lot of the texture of life in Japan.
One of the most popular topics of discussion is the bathroom. I mentioned before the Japanese fondness for gadgetry--it does not stop at the bathroom door. Toilet seats here (not mine, thank goodness) are often pretty complicated affairs, boasting half a dozen knobs and dials. First of all, they are heated--and you can, of course, control the temperature. The general preference seems to be for just warmer than body temperature. Some put themselves down if you ("you" being a man) leave them up. They also incorporate a bidet; since this is built into the seat rather than the bowl, the aim and construction of it is a bit different--in fact, I would go so far as to say that the aim is surprising. VERY SURPRISING. Both the temperature and the pressure of the bidet can also be controlled--and some combinations of these settings, such as I found on the toilet in my hotel in Tokyo, can also be VERY SURPRISING. Adding to the thrill of all this is that the flush controls are not on the toilet seat, although the vast array of confusingly labeled buttons can lead novices to look for them there. A common form of amusement in Tokyo hotels is to loiter outside the rooms of newly arrived westerners to wait for the inevitable screams when they first try to use the toilet. As one ALT put it, "you're just not used to the damned things squirting back at you." However, once mastered, with a warm seat and warm water, it is the most comfortable toilet seat you will ever find. The toilet mechanism itself makes a few concessions to Japanese sensibilities. Here it would be very embarrassing to produce any audible noises in the bathroom. I found this out when I asked if a Japanese friend in Chicago was OK, as she had been flushing the toilet continuously for ten minutes, leading me to suspect some dire if unimaginable difficulty. She had been doing it to cover up the normal noises (which I would never have heard or even suspected were it not for the flushing). Thus, flush levers here have two positions, marked by the characters for "big" and "small" (which might have suggested another interpretation). "Big" flushes the toilet normally. "Small" runs water for as long as it is held but does not completely flush the toilet. This is solely to make covering noise. Also, on top of some toilets is what looks exactly like the head of an American drinking fountain. When you flush, the water from the line bubbles through this before refilling the tank. My initial thought was that, well, I understand this is clean water before it goes into the toilet, but given its association with the act of flushing a toilet no way will I drink from that. A more experienced friend told me that it is to wash your hands--it reuses the wash water to flush the next time, and you don't have to touch the lever you touched before washing to turn it on because it turns itself off when the tank is full. Very clever. I'd make it look less like a drinking fountain, just for psychological reasons, but very clever. Oh, and the last bit of info: low-flo has not hit Japan yet. My toilet tank looks to be of normal size (about 5 gallons, I'd guess), but when you turn the lever it's like someone pulled the plug on the Hoover Dam. The force and volume of the water is incredible, and it goes on for much longer than any other flush I've experienced. It is a force of nature. This is the Japanese take on the "western" toilet.
The Japanese take on the "eastern" toilet is completely the opposite. Stark in its simplicity, the Japanese squat toilet forgoes any pretense of comfort. I know, I know, some of you will tell me that the eastern toilet puts the body in a much more natural position and is thus more comfortable. However, in Japan, the design is a bit different than what I have used in Viet Nam and Thailand (in whose toilets I can find some justification for the comfort argument above); it forces one into what I find a much more precarious squat. Westerners tend to have longer limbs and shorter torsos than Japanese; perhaps it is the difference in balance that does us in. Perhaps one could get used to the different position, but other factors clearly make the western toilet (and other eastern toilets) superior. First, and there is no way to put this delicately, is the issue of stench. Whatever one puts into a western toilet, or into some of the other versions of the squat toilet, immediately sinks under water--it has little chance to release whatever odor it carries to the atmosphere. Whatever the Japanese squatter receives sits there in the open air until the device is flushed. The ensuing stench problem leads to the other fundamental comfort problem. To mitigate the smell, just about every bathroom with a Japanese squatter has its windows fully and always open to the outside. The outside tends to be cold for much of the year. This last week, the teachers' men's room at my school has averaged about 40° F (5° C).
The other bathroom issue is slippers. But slippers and shoes are a much broader topic, so I will start from the beginning. The Japanese think of outside shoes as dirty (come to think of it, they're right), so they never make it into the house. When I enter my apartment, or my school, or a clinic, bath house, some restaurants, the office area of a car dealership, etc., I find myself in a cement or tile floored area just inside the door, with a raised floor just beyond it. I walk to the edge of the raised area (which is the level of the floor of the house), step out of my shoes, leaving them on the lower level, and step up to the raised floor. My shoes never touch the upper level floor and my bare or stocking feet never touch the lower level. Clean and unclean. In a house or apartment, I leave the shoes there. At school, I pick them up, put them in my shoe locker, and take my indoor shoes out of the shoe locker. At a public place (clinic, bath house, restaurant, etc.), I put them in a shoe locker and put on the slippers provided (which are always small enough to make walking in them distinctly dangerous). When I go to a restroom in a slipper area (most regular restaurants and stores one wears one's shoes in), the area by the sinks is higher than the area around the toilets. I leave my house slippers at the higher level and slip into the provided toilet slippers at the toilet level. If you forget yourself and walk around the house in the toilet slippers, you will be deported. The toilet ritual is fading, though, and I notice that the teachers at my school never change out of their regular slippers to use the bathroom (which is always spotless anyway). Following is the all-footwear version of my first enkai. I arrive, and change from my street shoes into the minute slippers provided to walk the twenty feet to the assembly room, where we drink and wait for everyone else to arrive. I leave my slippers outside the assembly room and enter in just my socks. Leaving the assembly room, I put a pair of slippers back on (there is no telling which was mine) for the dangerous walk upstairs to the dining room. I leave the slippers outside the dining room. When nature calls, I put on my restaurant slippers, walk to the bathroom, put on bathroom slippers, then back to restaurant slippers, then back to stocking feet to reenter the dining room, then slippers to walk to the door, then back to street shoes. Keeping street shoes off the indoor floor does help to keep it cleaner, an important consideration since most people here sleep on the floor. Unless it seems to be a big imposition on my friends, I can see adopting this back home.
Well, now I've mentioned sleeping on the floor. There isn't room for a bed in many apartments, and even where there is, most people seem to follow the tradition of keeping the futons (much thinner than what we call futons in America) rolled up in the closet during the day. At least once a week if there is a sunny day, I toss it over the clothes line on my balcony to air it out. Some people with two-story houses heave them out second-story windows to air on the roof of the first floor. Some people toss them on top of their cars if they're not going out for a while. Space is limited and people are creative.
More rituals to follow (remind me to tell you about what 22 year-old women have to do in public!), but now, bed. I hope all this will help you be prepared for when you wash up on this mysterious island.