Design of Everyday Things — Tokyo Edition

Tokyo is an experience designer’s paradise. On my recent trip there, I was amazed by how considerate and intentional the Japanese are with every action, product, service, and process. “How can we make life easier and more enjoyable for everyone?” seems to be the guiding principle in life. I felt it in everything from the perfect weight of a wabi-cha teacup to the incredible efficiency and accessibility of their public transit system.

Here are some examples of thoughtful, everyday design that I came across during my 2 week exploration — mostly Tokyo, but a few from Osaka. It’s an inspiration board to help me bring more of this mindset into my own life. Hopefully for others as well.

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Tokyo is a surprisingly accessible city. It’s a necessary investment given the growing senior population, but I believe that taking care of one another is a deeply ingrained cultural value. Raised yellow tracks for the visually impaired run along almost all city sidewalks and sometimes even into buildings like the one above (Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building). At each subway station, you’ll hear fake bird chirps every few seconds — an audio cue to guide the visually impaired towards exits.

Speaking of subways, I loved the convenience of the PASMO/SUICA card. You can load it up and tap for any form of transit. It’s also accepted payment at most vending machines and convenience stores. If you ever push the assistance button on subway machines, a hole in the wall next to you will open up and a man will appear! Who wants tech when you can have a live person to help you?

Even with a vast network of stations and intersecting lines, the Tokyo subway system is quite easy to navigate without Japanese language skills, thanks to well-designed signage. Above left is a poster of how train cars align to exits at every subway station. Above right is a poster of the Toei Line iconography proudly displayed in a subway car.

A not-so-great thing about Tokyo — women get sexually assaulted on trains so often that there are now “Women Only” train cars during busy hours.

The backs of these seats can be quickly switched to the other side, causing seats to face the opposite direction when the train goes backwards.

I had a strange fascination with Tokyo smoking areas. Smoking is quite common amongst both men and women. I wasn’t used to seeing smoking rooms inside cafes and food chains like Subway. Despite its prevalence, I never saw a single cigarette butt on the streets and I rarely noticed the smell (unless in an open indoor smoking area like the cafe above). Most smoking areas are beautifully designed, well-ventilated, and have ash disposals that people actually use.

Space is precious and expensive in a saturated city like Tokyo. Architects and urban planners have masterfully made use of light, creative structural shapes, and greenery to give a sense of expansiveness even in the most constraining areas.

It was difficult to find any garbage cans even in the busiest places, so I was perplexed about how litter-free the city was. In addition to the cleanliness, I enjoyed the playful patterns and subtle detailing of side streets. Even the manhole covers are gorgeous. Each city has its own design — the one on the left is from Tokyo, the one on the right is from Osaka.

Things in Japan tend to be smaller, chubbier, just plain cuter. I would “aww” at every truck that drove by and most public signage. Look at that fat pigeon!

Anime is almost synonymous with Japanese culture, so I expected to see it everywhere in Tokyo. I found that it’s mostly contained to districts like Akihabara, but once in a while you’ll see it used in youth-focused marketing like this McDonald’s recruitment ad and mascots for Ooedo-Onsen-Monogatari (hotspring theme park).

Japanese people take their rain protection seriously. So seriously that they have shelters dedicated to umbrella security, like this one in front of the National Art Centre.

In contrast to the extrovert-celebrating culture of North America, Japan takes comfort in introversion and privacy. Many restaurants have layouts and furniture designed for solo eating, like the Subway above. This one even has a nook for your bag and a personal outlet to charge your devices.

Hands-down, this is the best soft-serve ice cream I have ever tasted. Cremia ice cream is 12.5% Hokkaido milk (as opposed to 8% in regular softserve) and 25% heavy whipped cream. When paired with the special sweet biscuit cone, it’s smooth heaven in your mouth. Worth every calorie.

A lot of research went into creating this perfect combination of textures and flavours. I discovered this through Eat Your Kimchi — one of my favourite YouTube channels. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQ9BNYoePa8)

At most small restaurants, you order and pay for your meal from a machine upfront. I appreciated the efficiency.

At grocery store checkout counters, staff will help you scan items, but you also pay through a machine. You then bring your basket to an area to bag items yourself. I think this only works because Japanese people tend to buy less groceries but more frequently.

Notice the cartoon character on the bottom of the vending machine? This will dispense items for free during emergencies like earthquakes.

Thoughtful things I found in womens’ bathroom stalls — a pulldown platform so ladies have something clean to stand on when changing outfits, and a seat where babies can hang while their moms use the toilet.

(LEFT) This bag from Itoya has a handle that folds so it’s more comfortable to hold. A small detail that makes a big difference when you’re carrying stuff all day.

(MIDDLE) An ATM with a screen that you look down at, preventing people behind you from seeing what you’re doing.

(RIGHT) A service quality tracking board displayed on a building in Shinjuku.

In the Osaka Housing and Living Museum, the kimono rental shop had its own digital queuing system.


These are just some of the interesting everyday things that I noticed during my trip. It goes to show how well-designed experiences can reflect cultural values, increase operational efficiencies, improve health and safety, and bring simple joy into people’s lives. If you happen to visit Japan, make sure to share what you find.