Thoughts on Japan from a First-Time Visitor

I mentioned in yesterday's very long Joseph Niisima and The Savory Family Bible post that my friend Arthur's brother John had visited him from The States to, among other things, remodel Arthur's kitchen. John has returned home, but asked me to post some thoughts he had from his trip, so here they are...

Japan trip:

On the airplane to Japan, I was sitting next to a Korean man from Atlanta, Georgia. He lived in Atlanta, but was going back home to visit his mother. I told him that I was going to Kyoto to visit my brother and to remodel his kitchen. After some conversation, he reminded me that visiting my brother was more important than the kitchen.

I spent five weeks living in Arthur's house with Kayo, his wife, and Monet and May his two small daughters. It was wonderful. I asked Jeffery if I could put an entry in his blog and he agreed. These are some thoughts from my visit:

Liked about Japan: Chopsticks, great salad dressing, stocking feet in the house, small cars, metric system, unusual volcanic mountains, (the Japanese do not appreciate the unusual geology of their islands) food, medical system (I had an unexpected encounter with the medical system). Generally costs were quite low. This includes food, clothing, and building materials.

Perhaps what I liked the most is the very strong sense of security. You never feel threatened or insecure. You never worry about that sort of thing.

Disliked about Japan: road system, including the numerous and expensive toll roads, lack of central heating, lack of napkins and paper towels.

Weirdly different: I was surprised at the difference in bicycle design. The brands of cars were pretty familiar, but the actual models were mostly unheard of in US. No matter how small the car, it usually had four doors. If I recognized a car model, it more likely to be a Jaguar than a Ford. I never got used to the traffic on the other side of the street. I am glad I never had to drive! “One time payment” What is up with that? Money does not seem to flow as easily as it does in the US, but the cashier can float you a loan on anything at any time?

Things I missed: regular microbrew beer. We do not think about it, but the quality of beer in US has gone up in recent decades. Not so in Japan.

I spent a great deal of time on a remodeling project. Let's go category by category:

Electrical: The wiring was not much different. The ground wire that has been code in the US since the early ‘60s is sort of optional in Japan. The two prongs in Japan match up with the two prongs in America. (Japan has no third prong) Japan is all 100v instead of 120v. There is temptation to use tools designed for American wiring in Japan and that is okay. But I suspect that some of the tools I was using did not perform properly with the lower voltage. In a Home Depot one can find a larger variety of electrical boxes. That is an issue with everything.

Plumbing: The plumbing is identical in every way. ½ inch and ¾ inch galvanized pipe are standard. The grey plastic pipe I was using was the same. A standard faucet in Japan is “vertical mount”, unusual, but not unheard of in America. A common toilet has a little sink built into the top of the tank. It comes on automatically when the toilet is flushed and drains into the tank, filling it. Pretty clever. The sinks and bath tub drain into the storm sewers, rather than the sewage system. This relates to the complete absence of garbage disposals. Arthur found a dishwasher for his new kitchen. I fussed and worried about it, but in retrospect, I realize that it installed identically to an American one.

A trick in America is to use a “no hub connector”. This is a heavy rubber sleeve that is put on the two pipes and then attached with hose bands. Think rubber tires. These guys are of heavy rubber and seen most often in the drain, sewage end. They are great and very forgiving. And not to be found in Japan.

General materials: Building supplies are not more expensive in Japan. The availability is not different than a Home Depot. They have 2x4s and 2x6s and 1x6x8s etc. Plywood comes in 3' x 6' instead of 4x8s and a six foot length seems to be more standard than 8 foot length.

I quickly got used to the metric system and liked it.

I did a tile project. The very great infrastructure in US for do-it-yourself tile installation does not exist in Japan. The adhesive and grout are both just Portland cement. As a chemist and builder, I realize that there is nothing really wrong with this, but the materials did not behave as I expected and we had to adjust.

Attitude: there was an overwhelming attitude that ‘you cannot do that, You need a professional, we do not sell that, nobody has ever done that before, you cannot do that, but what about this?' I America, very few persons do all around house restoration, but people accept the concept. In Japan, this is completely inconceivable.

The man on the airplane was of course correct. The most important part of the adventure was the time I spent with my brother, Arthur, and his family. My nieces cried when I left. I cried too, but did not let anyone see.

John Brigham

All 5 comments so far, oldest first...

Great to hear that John could spend some time with his extended family!

Despite having heard stories from non-Japanese friends who are practicing architects in Kyoto about the big-picture differences in building design, it was totally fascinating to read about John’s experiences with the remodeling project — especially the plumbing. I, too, have run into the “…nobody has ever done that before, you cannot do that…” mentality when it comes to DIY projects in Japan. At the risk of boring every other reader of your blog, Jeff, I’d really love to hear more from John and Arthur about the project and experiences getting it done in Japan.

— comment by dan (also in kyoto) on December 3rd, 2008 at 12:21am JST (9 years ago) comment permalink

Thanks, Jeff, for allowing John to post his most interesting observations. Being in the throes of remodeling here ourselves, I found it fascinating.(except for the liking of metric part.) With all the plumbing, rewiring and electrical ,etc. that you (Jeff) did on your own home in the States, I wonder why you weren’t conscripted to help out with this project? Or perhaps your friends are unaware of how competent you are in the home repair dept. “Handy as a pocket on a shirt” as Aunt Edie would say.

I learned early on that it’s done faster and with higher quality if I pay someone else to do it. I’m sure they sensed that. 🙂 —Jeffy

— comment by Grandma Friedl on December 3rd, 2008 at 12:27am JST (9 years ago) comment permalink

Thanks Jeffrey for your interesting blog, it’s very interesting to read about an American in Japan.

I found your blog from your 70-200 review, any chance of a 24-70 review? I’m trying to decide if I should get one for my D700.

cheers, ron in seattle

Like the 17-55/2.8 for a DX, it’s the main walkaround lens. I use it 90% of the time. LIke the 17-55, it’s big, though. Handy for looking impressive and for taking nice shots, less so in the easy-to-carry department. —Jeffrey

— comment by ron on December 3rd, 2008 at 4:14pm JST (9 years ago) comment permalink

To Anthony’s grandma:

I had no idea that Jeffrey was so handy around the house. He lives in a wonderful apartment here which doesn’t look as if it would ever need any improvement, so it didn’t occur to me to ask him. But, he did offer to put in the new doorbell/video and he did it very well. I was impressed that he didn’t hesitate to crawl under the house, through a tiny little entry point, to look at the wiring (of which there was none visible). Though it is my house, I have never ventured down there before.

Congratulations! He is tribute to your mothering skills. You certainly raised him to be a fine person.

— comment by Arthur on December 5th, 2008 at 12:02pm JST (9 years ago) comment permalink

After being here in Japan for a number of years now it was good reading somebody’s first experience.

Did you get a chance to see a new house design? What was your thoughts? I really like some of the designs except for the ones that don’t take into account I’m 6’2″ tall.

I disagree with you regarding beer. You just have to look. The Japanese are avid beer drinkers and love to micro brew. In my travels around Japan I’ve found plenty and shipping it is always easy and cheap in Japan.

How you get to return and stay longer next time.

Nagoya, Japan

— comment by Steve on December 6th, 2008 at 6:09pm JST (9 years ago) comment permalink
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