Cold in Kyoto and Other Hot Topics

By Rick Steves
Junk Mail Sign, Netherlands
The Dutch can put stickers on their mailboxes to keep junk mail out of their lives. (photo: Rick Steves)

I once spent a cold January in Japan. I was in Kyoto, sleeping in a ryokan. As is often the case in these traditional inns, there was no central heating. It was so cold I could see my breath — inside my room. It was dark and the middle of the night. And of course I needed to go down the hall to the toilet.

I put on the loaner kimono. The size was a lady’s medium...comically tight. I put on my hallway slippers, heels hanging over the edge, and shuffled quietly down the hall past balsawood-like walls on creaky floorboards. I can still feel the cold. At the bathroom, I slipped out of my hallway slippers and into the awaiting bathroom slippers. They were just as small.

Dreading the frigid toilet seat, I jockeyed my big body into position. I could still see my breath. Feeling entirely exposed to the cold, I gingerly sat down. The seat...was heated. Sitting there, I thought, "I love traveling in Japan."

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the wonders of exploring and experiencing other cultures — from heated toilet seats to heated discussions about foie gras (once illegal in Chicago yet the chief reason legions of Brits flock to France’s Dordogne region).

We Americans have plenty to be proud about, but we need to remember the risk of finding too many truths to be “self-evident and God-given.” Because when you travel, you learn that other people find their own solutions to challenges that confront us all. On my recent trip, my Swiss, British, and Dutch friends impressed me with some creative thinking. 

The Swiss government deals with its social problems with pragmatism and innovation. Too many cars clogging up downtown? Hard-to-employ people struggling to get by on welfare? In Switzerland, big cities provide free loaner bikes to those who leave their cars at home. And the bike system is run by people who would otherwise be collecting unemployment benefits.

Like the United States, Switzerland is dealing with a persistent drug abuse problem. The Swiss believe the purpose of a nation's drug policy should be to reduce the harm that drugs cause their society. Like many Europeans, they treat substance abuse more as a health issue than as a crime. Rather than fill their jails, the Swiss employ methods they find are both more compassionate and more pragmatic.

To help fight the spread of diseases like HIV and AIDS, street-side vending machines cheaply dispense government-subsidized syringes. The government even tries to control where junkies shoot up. To keep them out of public restrooms, the interiors are lit with blue light. Why? Because if junkies can’t see their veins, they’ll shoot up elsewhere. The government hopes they'll use heroin maintenance clinics, which provide counseling, clean needles, and a safe alternative to shooting up on the streets.

In Switzerland, the casual use of marijuana is tolerated. In Bern, locals pass joints with no worries in the shadow of the cathedral, ignored by passersby. It seems the Swiss simply enjoy life in a country that believes tolerating alternative lifestyles makes more sense than building more prisons.

London has some clever fixes, too. It’s long wrestled with traffic congestion. Recently they’ve instituted a "congestion fee," charging anyone who doesn’t work or live downtown about $16 to drive into the city center. The money raised subsidizes public transit. On your next visit you may experience the intended result: cheaper bus tickets, more buses, and less car traffic — enabling buses and taxis to get around quicker. Anyone who still wants to drive downtown can — by paying the congestion fee.

In the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal, prostitutes pay taxes, get regular medical checkups, and even have a union. When a prostitute pushes her help button, it’s the police — not an abusive pimp — that come to her aid. The pragmatic Dutch know that prostitution will happen no matter what, so they might as well make it as crime- and disease-free as possible.

While the Dutch may choose to pay for sex, they may also choose not to get junk mail. They have a simple solution: mailbox stickers. If they want to receive mail addressed only to “resident,” their decal says, “Ja” for yes. If they don’t want unsolicited fliers, ads, and credit-card offers, their sticker says “Nee” for no. That’s a sticker I could use.

One of the many benefits of travel is the eye-opening realization that there can be logical, civil, and even better alternatives to dealing with life’s challenges — from junkies to junk mail.