In our regular non-sabbatical life in Madison, both Seth and I do a fair amount of work-related travel. One unusual feature of this year is that I’m doing rather more work travel than usual, while Seth is doing far less. I’m not quite sure why I accepted so many invitations. In part, it’s because I have no teaching obligations this year, making it easier to schedule trips. It’s also the case that there are many interesting colleagues and destinations that are difficult and expensive to reach from Madison, and relatively easy to reach from Rome.

Entrance to Meiji Shrine in the rain.

For these reasons and others, I’ve been in Japan for the past week. Yes, it’s not very close to Rome. But there are direct flights between Rome and Japan, making the trip far easier than traveling from Madison. I spent the first 5 days at a conference in Kyoto on the evolution of language (very interesting – lots of cool talks about birdsong and non-human primates and even some soccer-playing robots). I’m now in Tokyo to give a colloquium at the Riken Brain Sciences Institute.

View from the 42nd floor in Shinjuku.

This year has been an extraordinary blur of cultural experiences. My colleague Yuri Miyamoto studies how being immersed in the visual environments of different countries can change how we perceive the world in very subtle ways. When we first arrived in Rome, the city looked so strange – everything about it seemed foreign. Now it almost seems like home. Much of Yuri’s work focuses on differences between Japan and the United States, and her results make so much sense to me, being here: there is a visual cacophony of signage and lights and buildings and people that feels so strange. There’s also an auditory cacophony, with disembodied voices constantly greeting, thanking, and entreating us (Yuri, has anyone studied the effects of this auditory bombardment on auditory perception)?

One of many courses in a traditional restaurant in Kyoto.

At the same time, many things here are so serene. Actual people (not the disembodied voices) on the streets and at the shrines and museums I’ve visited are mostly very quiet. The cuisine encourages mindfulness. Even the way foods are displayed in the markets and department store food halls is stunning and thought-provoking. The clothing in the fashionable stores is engaging and compelling – wish I could fit into these sizes!

There is, however, one cultural comparison that I believe has not received sufficient attention: the toilet. Fellow European travelers will have noticed that the toilet situation is less than ideal. In restaurants and public places, the Roman commodes are unpleasant at best. Most of the other places we visited haven’t been much better (with the notable exceptions of Munich, Copenhagen, and Istanbul – which is one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever visited).

We’ve known about Japanese toilets for a while. Indeed, when we renovated our house, we installed toilets by Toto (the main Japanese brand). But ours lack the bells and whistles that you’d find at even the most basic public restrooms in Kyoto or Tokyo (that is, in the Western-style restrooms; there are still also crouch toilets in many places, though these too are immaculately clean).

Instructions for use in a restaurant restroom.

The Toto toilets here all plug in. Most have heated seats. This is a little jarring at first, but quite welcome. Some have sensors so they know when you’ve walked in or walk out, remotely operating the lid. I’ve encountered several that have a noise function so that unpleasant sounds are covered up by pleasant water sloshing sounds.

A few of many exemplars at the Toto Tokyo Center Showroom.

During my wanderings today, which took me to the Meiji Shrine, the Tobacco and Salt Museum, the Isetan Department Store Food Hall (wow – worth a visit in itself), and the Sampo Japan Fine Art Foundation, I made a side trip (pilgrimage?) to the Toto Tokyo Center Showroom. For my Wisconsin friends, this is akin to visiting the Wall of 100 toilets in Kohler, WI (well worth the trip if you’re in the area). The Toto Center is a home renovator’s dream, with all sorts of high-tech kitchen and bath appliances. It’s entertaining to contrast this sort of visit to the local equivalent in Rome: the ruins of enormous ancient bathhouse complexes.

Returning to the theme of culture, perception. and travel, I’m not really sure how to interpret the high-tech bathroom situation. Is it just about cleanliness (a prominent theme here), or is there something deeper at play? Hopefully my social psychologist friends will weigh in with their answers. Regardless, as I get ready to return to the more familiar sights and sounds of Rome, I know that my own perceptions have been altered even in just a short time in Japan.

– Jenny