Of Place and Wind 11: The most beautiful toilet

Tetsuya Kaida highlights the distinctiveness of Japanese toilets which have won fans from all over the world.

What reverberations would you rather suppress? Those of the toilet, for example? Preferences might vary. Readers who have borne with me thus far might wonder why I bring up such a topic at this point.

It is because toilets in Japan have their own distinctiveness. I would say that these days they carry no negative connotation at all. If someone asked me what the cleanest place in my house is, chances are the answer will be ‘the toilet’. In Japan, companies like TOTO and INAX are to be thanked for creating the wondrous products that make toilets into such attractive places. I am talking here of the products commonly known as ‘shower toilets’. Once you have stepped into their world, ‘toilet time’ takes its course through several stages.

- As you approach the toilet and stand in front of it, the lid opens with the suavest of movements, as if to say ‘Welcome, Sir!’, and the story begins.
- If you sit on it, you realize that the seat is preheated to body temperature, which is immensely pleasant on chilly days and fills you with gratitude before you know it.
- Needless to say, the temperature can be adjusted to your liking to match the mood of your rear end (?) and the season.
- You have the option of listening to the music of your choice as you are enjoying the moment.
- At the touch of a button, the ventilation system absorbs away any lingering scent.
- Once you’re done with your business, your rear end is washed to perfection by your favorite spot shower, with water angle and temperature all adjustable.
- Of course, the toilet is also equipped with drying functions using soothingly warm air currents.
- For nighttime moments, a discreet glow suggestive of the moonlight glimmers inside the toilet, as if mindful not to interfere with your dreams.
- When all is over and you rise to leave, regretting that you cannot stay a little longer, all memories of what just happened are silently washed away.
- At the end, the door of the story closes and you depart, hopeful for a chance to meet again.

As someone who considers himself a well-traveled person, I believe this is another five-sense experience that you can only ‘savor’ in Japan. When I lecture abroad, I make sure not to miss any opportunity to introduce my audience to this unique Japanese gem. I can tell that the topic sparks the interest of many listeners. At times, they even respond with outbursts of laughter. I have heard of many foreigners who, although a little confused in the beginning by the Japanese toilet culture, deplore the absence of these products when they return to their countries after having lived in Japan for several years.

The toilet industry is another of the many fields in which Japanese technology advances at a lightning pace, with the development of easy to clean materials and surface treatments, water spouts and flushing systems that function effectively with minimum levels of noise and water use, as well as antibacterial, fungicide and deodorizing functions… Plus a variety of self-cleaning technologies that reduce the need for toilet cleaning, the task most disliked by housewives among the various household chores. I keep wondering why the Japanese care so much about details.

There is a carpentry-related expression in Japanese which translates as ‘toilet carpenter’. In the past, toilets used to be cramped places that were a carpenter’s nightmare. Being able to build this tiny room with hardly enough space for one person to turn around was regarded as a proof that a novice carpenter had become a full-fledged craftsman.

A few decades ago, I worked side by side with the carpenters who built my house. One day, I was called by the master carpenter who said to me: “Hey, Kaida, I want you to line the walls of the toilet on the second floor with wooden panels by the end of today”. I accepted without hesitation, sure that it was no big deal and would not even take me half a day.

However, as I started working I realized what a hard job it would really be. Why hard? Well, for instance you may be convinced that the board you have prepared is the right size and yet it would be too big to fit. Otherwise, it may fit, but you don’t have enough room to swing your hammer as you try to hit the nails. It was a day of desperate struggle. On the night of that monumental accomplishment, the master carpenter came to see what I had done. “Beautiful job”, he said, with a broad smile on his face. “I guess you got a feel of what a carpenter’s work is like”. He patted my shoulder several times. To this day, I cannot forget the sense of fulfillment that filled my heart in that moment. It was a feeling so intense that, for a few years after having built the house, I spent each and every weekend immersed in do-it-yourself projects. The three spaces in the attic, the wainscoting in the washroom and the living room, the sideboards and cupboards are all fruits of this period in my life, which I am really proud of (laugh).

On the day when I put together that tiny room I learned many important things about what it means to build a house and to establish a long-term relationship with it. For some reason, even now I often feel the urge to clean and smarten up that little place.

Kobayashi Seikan, an author whose books I’ve read, says that “the toilet partakes in a vital flow that is connected with the universe”. In an obscure way, I feel I know what he means.

There is a certain austerity about this enclosure where you have nobody by your side and which questions your ability to honestly face up to your own heart and settle things by yourself. As the place of our most basic animal functions, it is closely related to the flows and rhythms of the natural world. It closes a loop in the food chain that links us with plants and animals and stands, although this might seem somewhat of an exaggeration, for the world’s laws of causality and retribution.

In my travels I have visited many places, used airports, stayed at hotels, where, naturally enough, I had the opportunity to compare local toilets with Japanese ones. As you live the experience through the five senses plus your feelings and emotions, you come into contact with the essence informing the repertory of actions and customs of that particular place. Many differences so far hidden start to emerge. With this, I think I have reached the limit of what words can express on this topic.

The headquarters of INAX, the sanitary fixture manufacturer I briefly referred to above, are located in the city of Tokoname, the first stop as you enter Chita Peninsula by train arriving from Chubu Centrair International Airport. Here, the company has opened a tile museum featuring artifact exhibits that guide you through the history of toilets around the world. I once visited the museum for a cross-industrial social event and listened to the curator explain everything in vivid detail. Luck was on my side. (laugh).

Next time you use Centrair Airport, I would recommend that you set aside a couple of hours to drop by for an incursion into toilet history.

Time for me to go home and get down to some serious cleaning of the toilet, this space that might link into the depths of the universe. And to thank it for always being there for me. Because it is the thing that I would miss most if I were to lose it.

By Tetsuya Kaida

(This article originally written and published in 2010.)