Leave One, Take One: Umbrella Sharing in Japan
Seasoned travelers in Japan know to check the weather before any excursion. But they can still be caught by sudden rainstorms, especially in this country’s wet climate. Intentionally or not, Japanese locals have developed a unique way of dealing with these common, unpredictable showers: communal umbrellas—helpful companions to unprepared travelers again and again.
Flanking the entrances to konbinis, or convenience stores, are racks full of umbrellas waiting for some soggy person to use them. After a person uses one of these communal umbrellas, it is deposited in another store’s umbrella rack to help the next unlucky traveler.
However, not all umbrellas in the racks are communal, so learning to identify which ones are communal is a must.
There’s nothing special about communal umbrellas. They’re almost always those clear plastic ones that break when the wind blows the wrong way and that can be found in the hyaku-en stores (Japan’s equivalent of American dollar stores). And while some undamaged umbrellas might find their way into the communal realm, most communal umbrellas tend to be damaged at least slightly.
The context of an umbrella’s location is critical information because not all plastic or even all damaged umbrellas are communal. That’s why konbinis are the best place to find them—the context is fast and easy to understand. Just compare how many people are in the store to how many umbrellas are in its racks. If the numbers are roughly the same, then buy an umbrella to be on the safe side. But if there are at least five more umbrellas than people, chances are there should be one available for taking.
Be very careful about taking non-plastic, non-cheap, or non-damaged umbrellas. Accidentally taking a hundred-yen (US $1) umbrella that wasn’t communal is easily forgivable, but nicer ones should be left alone, unless they absolutely have no owner (for example, if three of them are in a rack outside a closed building with no signs of anyone being present inside).
Knowing these guidelines makes entering the community of communal umbrellas easy and even fun for travelers as they take and, in turn, leave or forget umbrellas at scattered locations around Japan. They won’t always get the best umbrella, but at least they’ll keep relatively dry and save some money that would be better spent on something good—like sushi.
Su Yin Khoo