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Saturday, Sept. 15, 2001


On flying futons and other mysteries

I've ushered enough tourists through Japan to become expert on answering strange questions about Japanese culture. Here are some of the most common:

Where are those people going? The ones in pajamas.

They're on an anti-insomnia mission. They're on their way to the "sento," or public bath. The public bath is a place where you submerge yourself in scalding water to scare out all the stress in your body. It works. After a hot Japanese bath in the evening, you don't even have enough stress to stay awake. Once your body is numb, it's much easier to sleep.

Why is there a man standing inside your house?

Is there? Oh, him! He's the delivery man. He's not inside the house, he's in the "genkan," or front hallway. In Japan, your genkan is a semipublic waiting room. Although I am tempted to put chairs in my genkan, it's really meant to be standing-room only. Most people walk into a house first, then call out to let you know they are there. While they wait for you to come to the door, they admire your genkan decorations: ikebana flower arrangement, a hanging scroll or, as in my case, an array of soccer balls and squirt guns.

What are those things hanging out of everybody's window?

Futons. They're really just thin mattresses, so they are easy to drape over the windowsill. When the futon has been on the windowsill all day, airing out while taking in exhaust fumes from the road below, it is considered fresh again. The aroma of exhaust may induce dreams of sleeping in the street.

What are those cushions doing on top of the bicycles?

It's just one of those Japanese rules that cushions should be aired out on top of bicycles. Japanese love cushions, perhaps because they have little natural padding on their own bottoms. Every household has cushions for chairs and cushions for sitting on the floor. They don't have to be nice cushions, and in fact usually aren't. Most Japanese people spend their days sitting on top of cushions with cartoon characters' faces on them, which must bring some kind of gratification. The characters do get some relief when the cushion is put outside to air out on top of the bicycles. If you don't have enough bicycles, you can borrow your neighbor's.

What are those silver rods sitting in front of the house?

Poles for drying your clothes on. There is something comforting in the permanence of such a structure. It's a statement: I am clean. It doesn't matter what kind of odors your clothes pick up after drying out next to the road. The important thing is that they are washed and can now welcome visitors at your door.

What are those plastic bottles of full of water in the flower gardens?

Those are to keep away dogs that pee on flowers. The Japanese have an uncanny way of not seeing ugly among beauty. Thus, a plastic water bottle gleaming in the sun is nothing to worry about. The flowers will effectively overpower the water bottles. Foreigners find the bottles distracting, but the Japanese see only flowers. The only ones who can see those plastic bottles are dogs and foreigners.

Why does everybody drag their feet?

Japan is a slipper-wearing culture. So even when they're not in slippers, Japanese drag their feet as if they were. The proper way to drag your feet is to lean back on your heels and point your toes out, preferably while dragging off a cigarette.

Why are those kids sleeping at the table over there?

This is McDonald's. Everyone sleeps in McDonald's. You mean, they don't do that in your country?

E-mail: amychavez@excite.com To subscribe to "Japan Lite" for free, go to www.amychavez.com

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