Posh Privies

Carren Jao enjoys the luxury of the typical Japanese toilet alongside the severe simplicity of a pit.

The toilet is a work of art in Japan. We take the humble commode for granted in the United States. But it’s elevated, just like the automatically raising lids, into something profound there. A week-long visit to Japan has left me unable to look at toilets the same way again.

There are no toilets in Japan that match the standard version found almost everywhere in America, at least based on my meager research sample. As many as 73 percent of households have advanced porcelain thrones. They warm your bum as you do your thing, and even deodorize once you’re done. Most build in a bidet, too. The Guinness Book of World Records has even recognized the Japanese-made Toto Neorest model as the toilet with the most functions. The previous record holder? Another Toto model.

From university campuses to the most far-flung temples, each one of them generally offers a Western-style toilet far beyond a Westerner’s experience. Entry into a public restroom is a bowel-jittering adventure.

Photo by Maya-Anaïs Yataghène

The bad

This is one country in which English is barely accepted. Japanese signs abound, complemented by a quirky cartoon and perhaps a word or phrase in English. In the sacred bounds of your bathroom stall there is, unfortunately, no one to ask what exactly a button does. It’s each woman for herself.

I give myself a few extra seconds upon entering the stall to scope out the territory, and most importantly to locate the flush. Tip: It’s never just on the side of the seat.

At the Kyoto Saga University of the Arts, a small arm-rest panel by the seat showcased four candy-color ringed buttons. Only icons were available to help me tease out each button’s function. “What’s this button with the musical note on it?” I asked my sister Cathie, who patiently waited for me outside the stall. “Does it play music?” She has been living in Kyoto for more than two years now. (Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t even raise my voice in a Japanese public restroom, but I knew we were the only ones making use of the amenities at the time.)

“That plays a flushing sound,” said Cathie.

Apparently, older folks who don’t want their private functions heard tended to flush over and over again to mask the sound. In a bid to save water, toilet makers installed a musical button that masks the shaming sounds. Toilets in Japan are as much a cultural by-product as the latest ramen style.

“Strange,” I kept thinking. “But pretty cool.”

The good

Women have more of a stake in a great bathroom than men because we are required to have more contact with it. It explains why it took my husband more than a week to figure out the merits of high-tech toilets.

My favorite function is undoubtedly the seat warmer. There isn’t a day this winter that goes by that I’m not reminded of this, especially as the temperatures drop even further as the season goes on. “Have you sat on it yet?” I ask, as we toured the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest structure in Japan.

“Nope.” He says with a little shake of his head, bewildered. After many reminders, I finally push him to try it in the skyscraper’s luxe bathroom stalls. The experience merits an Instagram post by my otherwise reticent husband. As his status, he writes, “To be fair, they were indeed quite wonderful.”

Photo by Martin Davidsson

It’s even more wonderful when you take into consideration that almost 60 years ago, pit latrines predominated in Japan — a hole in the ground. The country still offers that option. Alongside shiny gadget toilets are stalls that simply open to an intimidating vacancy.

I couldn’t leave Japan without trying out one of these, so following the cartoon placed on the wall, I straddled the hole, faced toward the hood, and did my business. It was surprisingly efficient. Off-track streams were kept in line by the well-placed hood. A quick flush sweeps it all away. Fast and easy.

A week after my visit, I found this squat toilet style may even be healthier than the sitting version. That’s another score for long-lived, healthier Japanese.

The Western world may still have some catching up to do when it comes to toilet tech, though there are signs they’re getting the picture In the meantime, I’ll be up every day wishing I were shuffling to a warm Japanese seat rather than getting my customary cool welcome in the morning.

Carren Jao writes about art, architecture and design for the Los Angeles Times, Architectural Record, and KCET, among others. She’s fascinated with connections, hidden histories, and how the ordinary become remarkable thanks to someone who took time to notice.

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