Friday, November 14, 2003

Why I love to come to Japan

I am presently in an internet cafe in a Virgin Megastore in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. Shinjuku isn't my favourite part of Tokyo (although there is nothing wrong with it - it's an entertainment and retail district, but not as much fun - and not quite as surreal - as the younger districts of Shibuya and Harajuku).

William Gibson talks about Tokyo as the place where the future happens first. People have asked him whether this is still so after the Japanese economy's disasters of the last decade, and he says that yes, it is, and yes, it is in the small details. (He outlines the position in this three year old article from the Observer, amongst other places).

But, an example. I drink a lot of Diet Coke - probably a couple of cans a day. And I stress cans. Drinks in cans stay properly cold and keep their fizz. Drinks in plastic bottles do not. (Drinks in glass bottles are fine, but these are nowadays fairly uncommon). If I buy a drink from a shop or petrol station or vending machine for immediate consumption, I want it in a can. Plastic bottles are not good enough. However, in recent years more and more shops have started selling drinks in plastic bottles instead of cans. I don't know why they do this. Perhaps they think that bottles look nicer in the refrigerator, or perhaps they are cheaper, or something. Whatever the situation, I think it is one of those situations where the people in charge do not understand the situation because they are not big fizzy drinks consumers themselves. I have certainly had peculiar conversations once or twice when I have asked for a can of Coke, have been told that there are only plastic bottles, and have then asked for something else, or nothing. It is not been understood that a plastic bottle is not to me an equivalent product. It is widely understood by consumers, however. I have certainly heard other Coke drinkers complain. (Oddly, this same state of affairs has not occurred with beer. It is widely appreciated by people both buying and selling beer that beer is ruined by bein consumed from a plastic bottle, and they are not generally sold).

Interestingly enough, I yesterday morning for some reason had a conversation about why I didn't like drinking Coke from plastic bottles, and she agreed with me. I then got on a plane, flew to Tokyo, got off the plane, and bought a Coke from a vending machine. To my initial annoyance, I discovered that it was in a bottle.

Then I picked it up from the bottom of the machine. The bottle was made of aluminium. But it is definitely a bottle, with a screw top, a neck, and a wider base below. (Photo will be provided when I have returned to London). When in Australia and England, the industry that serves me drinks seems unaware that there is a problem in this small detail of life, in Japan the problem has been recognised. And the problem has been solved. This is cool. I suppose I should prepare to see these things in the rest of the world soon.

On the other hand, in some other ways Japan is frustrating. One of the most annoying things is that their ATMs still do not generally take foreign cards. (No, I don't know why), I know from past experience (and also from the airport yesterday) that those operated by Citibank do work with foreign cards, although the one at the airport took Mastercard but not Visa. (This type of thing happens from time to time when you travel, which is why I carry a Mastercard as well as Visa and Amex). I am sure that there will be one in Shinjuku somewhere. (If not, I remember the location of one near Roppongi from my last visit). I think I will Google for the location. If I had been sensible, I would have simply got more money at the airport.

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