James goes to Japan.
We (myself and a bunch of close, rugby playing friends) got lucky in the ballot and got tickets to Rugby World Cup group stages in Japan. I also took the chance to stay on a little to explore the country. While Saturday’s result is too raw to spend too long dwelling on the rugby side of things, I thought I’d share some of the things I learnt whilst out there that might be relevant to the day job.
1. Public toilets are everywhere.
We were all totally surprised, and unexpectedly appreciative of the ubiquity of public toilets across Japan (not just Tokyo). They were very clean, well used and free. It is perhaps not that surprising given how clean, civilised and polite Japan and the Japanese are. It was all the more surprising given that public bins are almost non-existent.
It makes me question why we have so few in the UK, and why they are always ‘pay per use’ and even then, of terrible quality.
I did some googling (it’s not something I’ve cared to think about before), and found an aptly named article by the Guardian - Wee demand more (very clever). Apparently our public toilet numbers have declined 39% in the last two decades. Wiltshire only has one. There is surely a broader subject here around who most needs our public toilets (homeless, disabled, mothers) who must rely on cafes or other means. I also read somebody advocating for the introduction of contactless readers to pay the 20p (a good idea, in my opinion).
2. One of my favourite spots in Tokyo…
...is a place called the T Building, (Tsutaya Building) in the Daikanyama neighbourhood. It’s quite hard to describe, but if you imagine the best curated bookstore / library (not just books but music, technology, the finest knick knacks - think a wall of bespoke fountain pens - and so on), combined with a cafe and cocktail bar, but also public spaces to pick anything up and read, or meet friends, or study.
I ended up spending hours browsing and reading (I munched through the epic novel Shogun - where better to read it than in Japan) and it really brought home to me the importance of social infrastructure.
Richard Paul and I have been spending a lot of time discussing the importance of this sort of social infrastructure. We have been posing ourselves (and people we meet) the question of where you can actually go, outside of the home.
Outside spaces are ruled out for a lot of the year thanks to the weather. Libraries (or similar civic spaces) are generally either unappealing (fair or not) or have closed. Leisure centres are oversubscribed (Paul has recently explained the Herculaen effort to get his little ones into a fixed swimming slot at the weekend). Going to the high street, which I did growing up, isn’t really a thing anymore. Which leaves the pub (which very few any longer have the charm of being independents where you know the people - staff or punters - aka community and requires drinking), cafe - fine for a certain part of the day but, well, it’s still just a cafe. And both of these are expensive. Food - lots of reasons why food is such a core part of our social lives, but equally more expensive.
We are crying out for a solution. We’re going to invest time to start thinking really hard about what this crucial social infrastructure is, could, should be. How it can work for all demographics. How it has worked in the past, how it might be done sustainably, and what we can learn from that.
The Shinkansen / bullet train gets all the press. Rightly so, it is excellent. I read an interesting piece on how it was compared to domestic air travel and beats it on all of the following: actual overall transport times because you get deposited in city centre rather than at an out of centre airport; reliability; environmental impact; accessibility (there is a culture of taking trains, it is easier, it is more convenient) meaning the economic impacts from this transport infrastructure are actually felt by more people; exportable technology (IP) and lots more. You take a step back and you can’t help but think you have to deliver HS2 and surely more.
Most surprising was the quality of the subway - it makes the enormous, sprawling, densely populated Tokyo a breeze to get around.
Comparing the challenges that are faced in say, the US, it makes me proud of ours in the UK and a staunch supporter of the multitude of benefits access to high quality, affordable public transport can bring to people across the economic classes.
It goes without saying the food is outstanding, the people incredible, the history rich and complex and I’d encourage anyone with the opportunity to visit.
A big surprise for me was actually the amount of urban sprawl - a lot of grey buildings from Japan’s boom era. Japan’s “high design” reputation is still totally justified but I had to look a little harder to find it.