Last week, Jason and I decided to try out a new Japanese restaurant in our area. The food and atmosphere were amazing–even I could appreciate the large flames that came shooting out of the grill as our chef prepared an assortment of vegetables, rice, seafood, beef, and chicken. We also had wonderful soups and salads, yummy drinks, and exotically-flavored ice-cream for dessert. The whole experience reminded me of the five weeks I spent in Japan nearly ten years ago.
While in Japan, I had the incredible opportunity to work a guide dog in training at a Japanese guide dog school outside of Kyoto. The dog (a cute little Lab-Golden cross, named Olivia) was predominantly trained according to the British method, but there were a few very interesting differences.
First, if you are a blind couple in Japan, you are only given one dog to share. I’m not sure if this is due to space constraints, cultural ideas, or what, but there was a couple training with their one dog while I visited the school. I’m trying to imagine the challenges associated with matching one dog with two very differently sized, paced, and personalitied people. I think another reason for the single dog custom might be in the interest of preserving the integrity of the rice (or tatami) mats that are found in many public places. The Japanese feel so strongly about protecting these neat floor coverings, that their guide dogs are supplied with little cotton outfits that cover them from ankle to base of tail. The outfits keep in the hair as the dog sheds, and are removed in outdoor or non-tatami-covered areas.
In addition, the trainers strongly discouraged me from relieving or watering the dog in public. They actually separated her from me, and took her away to some undisclosed area to be relieved. I found the watering thing very difficult to swallow, as it was extremely hot that day, and I felt strongly that the dog should not be required to wait until we returned to the school to receive water.
Finally, one of the interesting training differences was that the dogs were taught a Japanese command which basically means “get over to the far left side of the walkway as quickly as you can.” I am certain this was meant to compensate for the crazy cyclists that ride freely down the sidewalks of major Japanese cities with little regard for the bodily safety of the pedestrians they are sharing those tight spaces with.
I welcomed my time with the dog, however, as I left my then guide at home. At the time I visited Japan, the country did not yet have a national law protecting the access rights of service animals, and I felt that it would be easier for all involved if I went dogless. In addition, given my dog, Rae’s breed (she was a GSD) I felt that we would encounter a great deal of fear, which would not benefit us in a country where we were already strangers to the culture and the language. I did take her successor, Gingko, to Spain, Germany, and France in 2001, which was an amazing experience that I will save for another entry.
Speaking of sidewalks, many of the sidewalks in Japan were equipped with brightly colored, tactile strips, that (while painful in thin shoes) are extremely helpful when traveling with a cane. They resemble the bumps that can now be found on many North American subway platforms.
There were lots of little accessibility marvels in Japan, in spite of the fact that I didn’t see many blind people out and about. One of the strangest things I recall seeing was a brailled toilet in one of the hotels we stayed in. I am not joking. There were a series of buttons along the side of the seat, and each had a braille symbol beside it. I say “symbol” because the braille was Japanese, and I couldn’t understand a single character of it.
As is the case when visiting a foreign country, humorous mistakes were unavoidable. Two of my favorites involved our search for the Canadian embassy and my search for a flushing mechanism in a restroom. Wow. I’m talking about toilets again. Those pesky things gave me a lot of trouble while in Japan.
In fact, before one of my speaking engagements, I remember asking our host for a “bathroom.” (I was living in Canada at the time.) He became quite agitated, and disappeared for a number of minutes. When he returned, he offered me the use of a neighborhood salon. When I asked him curiously why I might need such a facility, he explained that they had employee showers where I could bathe. I suddenly realized that he had mistakenly inferred that I wanted–not a bathroom–but a room in which I could take a bath. He was visibly calmed when I was finally able to convey that I only needed a place with a toilet.
Anyway…So I was in a one-person restroom at a prestigious Japanese university. I had already been in Japan for a couple of weeks by this point, so I knew that flushing mechanisms often came in very odd configurations. I was looking around for the one in this particular restroom, when I discovered a pull-chord above the toilet. I had already encountered such contraptions, so I gave it an expectant yank. Instead of a flushing sound, however, I was horrified to hear the ringing of a very loud alarm. Realizing that I must have triggered some “in case of an emergency” button, I rushed to open the bathroom door. Several anxious Japanese men were waiting outside, and because of the language barrier, I had a very difficult time convincing them that I was fine, and that I only needed to flush the toilet. Unfortunately, I had picked up enough Japanese phrases by this point to catch the word for “foreigner” being muttered repeatedly in very disgruntled tones.
In another adventure, we went in search of the Canadian embassy, which we needed to find because my passport (which my mother had unknowingly defaced when she corrected my misspelled name with permanent ink the day before my trip) had to be replaced. Following the directions we had been given at our hotel, we set off through the streets of Tokyo. When we came to the assigned street, we caught sight of a beautiful building. It had chain link fencing around it, and the architecture was stunning. We were pacing along the fence, looking for an opening, when we were surrounded by some very official and uptight-looking guards (equipped with nightsticks). When they demanded to know what we were doing we explained that we were Canadian, and that we were only looking for the Canadian embassy. In broken English, one of the men barked. “Canadian embassy across the street.” He pointed at a much less impressive building with his nightstick. “This Emperial Palace.”
Overall, I found our various Japanese hosts very gracious and helpful. Some of the most memorable parts of my trip were attending a religious ceremony at a tiny temple in the mountains, talking with an atomic bomb surviver (who was only 1.5 kilometers away from the hypocenter when the bomb fell), visiting Peace Park in Heroshima, and my time in Tokyo.