Design for the Real (Japanese) World

Saturday, November 15, 2008 - 03:00 AM

We (Americans) love to talk about how Japanese design - sushi, origami, bonsai trees - is amazing for its beauty and detail.  And yes, those things are there. But as I've been walking the streets of Tokyo, a few things have caught my eye that are much more utilitarian.

When we first got to our hotel, I noticed these raised metal shapes on the floor.  It took another day of sleep - and seeing them all over the place - to realize what they were for.The ones pictured here lead from the hotel elevator to the thoroughfare outside the hotel.  Take the T to the left, it goes to the mall, take it to the right, it goes to the street.  When I realized they were pathways, I figured out that they are for the blind.  I started seeing them all over the city, along every sidewalk leading to bus stops and subway stations.

img_1667 I have yet to see a blind person actually walking on them, but it's impressive that they exist.  I haven't seen anything similar in New York or London or other major cities that I've been to.  In fact, whenever I see someone who's blind walking the streets of New York I am amazed that they can get around.  Would NYC ever implement these kind of pathways? (Given that our subway announcements are often incomprehensible, probably not.)  The traffic crossings here also 'chirp' - another thing lacking from New York, though I have heard those in Europe.

On another transportation note, I've seen a lot of bikes, which usually seem to be parked in clusters unattached to racks.  So, I thought, without locks.  On closer inspection, I noticed these:


You use a key to activate the lock around the wheel.  Of course this would never fly in New York - someone would inevitably take the whole bike.  But it's cool to see a lock that comes attached to the bike - much more convenient than schlepping a chain or a u-lock.

Now here's something that our WNYC colleague Ellen Horne told me to look out for:


Yep, that's a manhole cover.  There you go: Japanese utility and beauty all-in-one.

Aha - but not everything is ingenious here.  I can officially say that our cell phone design sucks - confirmed by our Japanese colleagues.  It's the most counter-intuitive interface. And it's in English! (What are 'simple' 'limit' and 'manner' modes?)  Maybe by the time we leave I'll have figured it out.


- Leital Molad


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Comments [3]


I'm not sure about the other two modes on your cell but manner mode is one I'm familiar with. The idea is that you're on the train and you don't want the keys to make noise. In manner mode your phone automatically goes to vibrate as well.

Good luck on figuring out your other two modes. You should get a Docomo phone. The English on those is a lot better.

Nov. 19 2008 12:06 PM
Jesse Dukes

I want to know what door and window trim look like in newer office buildings and homes. All the American architects I talk to like this modern clean style. They favor simplicity and emptiness in favor of detail and ornamentation so modern homes will have either simple dimensional trim--just a piece of 1"x5" spruce painted white--or try to eliminate trim altogether through various techniques. To my uneducated eye, it looks bleak and soulless. The Japanese seem to embrace ornamentation on a micro level, so I wonder how they manage the transition between walls and portals and windows.

Love the manholes. I wonder if you could check one in your luggage? :-)

Nov. 15 2008 09:49 PM

I went to Japan with my brother back in August to visit our sister who has been there for a year on the JET Programme. I saw the raised metal designs everywhere too, but I never really thought about their purpose. It seems genius for the Japanese to install them for the blind. It surprises me too, as I never thought Japan catered much to those with disabilities. It was very rare to find wheelchair-friendly entrances and paths to public places. Maybe Japan is stepping up on improving accessibility for those with disabilities. I think that's fantastic.

The manholes! I didn't catch them, nor did my sister who had walked by them for an entire year. It was the artist eye of our brother who found beauty in designs. He started taking pictures of the manholes we walked or biked by for a little photo collection. We ended up spending one night biking around a little Japanese town searching for different manhole designs. A very fun experience. I'm so glad you noticed them too. They were works of art indeed.

Nov. 15 2008 04:16 PM

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