Beyond Screens: How Japan’s User-Centered City Planning Helped My Travel

My brother and my friend, first day in Kyoto

At a glance, Japan may not be the easiest country to travel to; most of the people don’t speak English and they write with their own sets of alphabets. But its visual-based culture has easily become one of the greatest assets in city planning. With user-centered design behind its street signs and urban settings, getting lost in Japan is only a walk in the park.

I find Japan as a country of extremes. The country of robots and katanas, of high-speed trains and bicycles, of blinding neon lights and tranquil shrines. I traveled to Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo for eight days in the spring of 2015 with my brother and a friend. Amazingly enough, despite being terribly ill-equipped in language and culture understanding, we managed to go for eight days without getting lost. Not even once.

Our trip took eight hours of flight from Jakarta, Indonesia. In addition to that, we had to spend a night at the airport (Haneda International) because by the time we landed, it was almost midnight and the last bus to the city had just left. In the morning, we took a one-hour bus ride to a friend’s house in Machida to drop off our bags. Shortly after that, we took another trip, this time by Shinkansen train, for 2,5 hours to Kyoto. Not to mention all the walking from and to the train stations. By the end of the day, all the commuting exhausted our energy. In spite of that, I quickly noticed that our trip(s) had been nothing more than an easy sport.

If Japan was a piece of a digital asset, say, a mobile app, it bears the marks of a good one, measured in terms of navigation, usability, interactivity, and value. It has successfully turned what was expected to be a confusing journey into a hassle-free, enjoyable vacation.

Their navigation system takes you places — fast.

One of the most important aspects of user experience is the navigation system. Based on a robust information architecture, it determines how fast and easy users can access the information they need within a platform. A navigation system can also be intuitive and contextual. When it is, it constantly adjusts and shifts itself based on the objectives of the page.

As someone who works in the tech industry, I always rely heavily on the devices I have in my hand. Google maps activated, I readied myself to navigate through the intricate transportation system that I’ve read so much about. But there was nothing intricate about it at all.

Every station I went through is embellished with ample information to help commuters decide which train they will ride on, written in both kanji and latin alphabets to help them read. Every platform states clearly which train will pass through, complete with the exact time (down to a T!) they will pass. If I’ve ever gotten on the wrong platform, these markings will direct me to the right one. All I had to do was look up. Literally.

A system like this may not have been new in developed countries. Singapore, for instance, have adapted a neatly organized MRT system that can generally take you anywhere within 30 minutes. But then again, Singapore is tiny, compared to Japan.

Now my background and cultural upbringing may have clouded my judgment. I know the transportation system in Jakarta is nothing far from a trainwreck (pun fucking intended), making my encounter with the one they have in Japan quite an orgasmic experience. Nonetheless, chasing down trains, spotting markings on the walls have never felt this enjoyable.

They know your pain points and actually give you solutions

Remember that night around 3AM you open your Zomato app, starving, and thinking “I wonder if this place is still open…” and you scroll down to the section where they put the opening hours, low and behold, they have that tiny widget that says “OPEN NOW”? Or that time, fresh out of an airplane, you open your Uber app and it immediately recognized that you’re in an airport and it suggested a couple of meeting points to make your (and your driver’s) life easier?

Carefully placed important items in appropriate areas are one of the marks of good usability, and it’s something I encountered daily in Japan. One of the most memorable events happened when I arrived in Osaka station on the third day. We were hauling our luggages because we were supposed to take a train to Tokyo that evening. Naturally, the first thing we looked for when we arrived was a locker, so we could drop our bags and take a little walk in the city. We found a row of coin-fed ones right outside the platform. I remember reaching inside my coat pockets as I ascended from the stairs and thinking, “Shit, do I have enough coins to use these lockers?” and I looked up and there it was. A big sign saying “Need change? Go to the kiosk →”. Impeccable placement.

Don’t get me started on the toilets

The toilet seats are always warm. No, it’s not gross.

After spending the whole windy day outside in a temperature below 10°C, you will appreciate something warm and cozy to welcome your butt cheeks. The sensation was otherworldly. Like being greeted with a cup of hot cocoa and marshallows. I wondered sometimes if I could just stay 10 more minutes in the bathroom to warm my ass.


And of course, I don’t know how, but once upon a time, there was a genius out there that thought, “Hey, I bet people feel embarrassed sometimes when they need to take a shit in a public toilet and they fear of making too much [fart] noise. I should do something about it.” And he did. There was a sophisticated dashboard of buttons on the side of the toilet seat, and one of those buttons literally triggers a flushing sound out of your toilet.

Swoosh. Users happy.

Navigating yourself in Japan is like navigating within an exquisite website. They make it easy, they help you fulfill the tasks you were set out to do when you get there, and best of all, they anticipate your problems and provide a tangible solution. Japan, or at least its city planners, have walked in the users shoes and I can see empathy play an immense role in determining the kind of experience they want their visitors to go through.

They’ve just gained at least one more returning visitor, they better have a kickass loyalty program up their sleeves.

During my travel, I didn’t know I was going to write about the experience. So by the time I decided that I will, I had to scour the internet and pull some strings from a friend who lives there to get some pictures. Will do better next time. Pinky promise.

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