Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to spend a week or so in Japan and there were several bits of everyday and unassuming design that struck me.

Though these were not digital examples, I thought I should share them anyway to provide a bit of inspiration.

1. Sinks on top of toilet cisterns

The toilet shown below is relatively common in homes. When you flush, the water that refills the cistern first comes out of the tap letting you wash your hands (for the period of time it takes the cistern to fill through the plughole).

This saves water, but also space.

Image via Sarah in Maibara

cistern tap

2. Queueing markers for first and second trains

It’s not particularly ingenious to mark a line on a train platform allowing customers to queue successfully.

However, I was particularly impressed by the two queue system on the monorail platform at Hamamatsucho.

If you’re waiting for the second train, simply use the red queue marked ‘2’. This image shows Japan’s commitment to order.

Seen an example here.

3. ‘Automatic’ taxi doors

Tokyo is an interesting market for taxis, not least because it’s the biggest in the world and Uber is not allowed to operate (licensed cabs only).

Many taxis I saw had a passenger-side rear door that could be opened and closed by the driver.

This improves speed and efficiency, as passengers can step in or out without having to mess around with their shopping bags, and without the driver having to exit the vehicle in order to be courteous.

4. Distances on subway directional signage

Tokyo train stations such as Shinjuku are cavernous compared to most others in the world.

Finding your way around can be difficult, but is made easier and more bearable by distance markers on directional signage.

signage tokyo subway

5. Petrol/gas from above

I’m not sure exactly how this works (I presume the petrol still sits in tanks below the station), but it’s a fantastic space saver and allows for a very dinky forecourt.

The counters showing volume and price of petrol are mounted on the wall.

6. Illuminated light switches

When in the ‘off’ position, light switches are backlit by a neon bulb or an LED. This means you can find them easily in the dark.

These light switches are used in many countries, but I saw a high frequency of them in Japan (plentiful in both my Airbnbs).

Image via Sophelia’s Japan

light switch

7. Subway platforms tell you the next station

Many things to enjoy here. Each subway platform sign tells you what the next station is (Yoyogi, below), so that unsure train passengers can look out of the window and quickly see if they have to get off at the next stop.

You’ll notice, too, that each station name is written not only in Japanese and the Roman alphabet, but is assigned a number and letter (C03) corresponding to the line and the number of stops from the terminus (C01, C02, C03 etc).

subway sign in tokyo

8. Smart cards

Tokyo’s equivalent of London’s Oyster card is the Suica or the Pasmo card.

However, these smart cards are not reserved only for public transport. Your credit can be used at vending machines, to use a station locker, to pay for food and drink on a train or to pay for goods at many convenience stores.

Given that tax on goods can leave customers with lots of small change in their pocket, the smart card system is a boon.

9. One tap for bath and sink

Another great space saver.

One long mixer tap above the sink is also used to fill the bath (simply turn it until it overhangs the bath). Very neat.

10. Yellow tactile paving

This paving is seen all over Japanese cities, in the street and leading into hubs such as train stations.

The markings change at crossings and when directions change, so those with impaired vision can navigate more easily using their feet.

This paving leads to important points such as station platforms and ticket desks.

See some examples at Commonsense Design.

11. Transparent umbrellas

Nothing particularly new or innovative, but something truly appreciated in a city of 35m people.

Transparent plastic umbrellas make it slightly easier to navigate the crowds on a rainy day.

Incidentally, the Japanese have a long history of umbrella culture, and they get through a lot of these ‘disposable’ plastic umbrellas.

When everyone is required to leave their clear plastic brolly at the entrance to shops and restaurants, yours may often get taken during or after a shower.

However, some larger buildings such as museums have lockable umbrella racks which are free to use.


12. Baby seats in toilets

I didn’t see many prams or pushchairs in Tokyo because of the obvious space restrictions.

Most mothers and fathers seemed to carry babies in a sling on their front.

That’s why the fold-down seats shown below in toilets are invaluable, allowing a parent to do their business with baby safely sat by their side.

13. Sliding doors

A staple of Japanese interior design and a common way of partitioning the kitchen from a living space.

Even if they are more costly to install, pocket doors are a fantastic space-saving device and something I wish I had in my own house.

The original Japanese design is, of course, made from wood and paper (called a shōji).