Ode to the glorious Japanese toilet
Travelling to Japan? It make take a while to figure out how to flush the loos, but it will take longer to get over toilets that say hello, blow hot air up your bum or serenade you with bird song.
The first time I ever encountered a Japanese Toto toilet was in a manga cafe in Singapore’s Robertson Quay. As life-changing experiences go, it ranks way up there with the time I flew to Chicago to watch an actual Oprah show, and when I discovered the dermatological joys of Dr Sandra Lee, aka Dr Pimple Popper, on YouTube.
I still remember walking into that little bathroom. It was tiny, though someone had gone to some effort to doll it up with a little bottle of fragrance sticks and small wooden-framed pictures of kittens. But it was the toilet bowl that caught the eye because it had an unusual number of tubes and attachments, not least a panel with lots of soft buttons, Japanese characters and a couple of icons that showed the letter ‘w’ over a stylised fountain of dots.
I was done with the task at hand in a few seconds, but was then forced to spend several minutes trying to work out how to flush. Thankfully, an expensive education helped me work out that the icon with the Chinese character for “water” was the one to press.
“Don’t you just love the Toto Washlet, they have?” purred my friend A. when I returned to the table.
“Really? That’s a thing?” I replied. “I had to press random buttons to work out how to flush it!”
“Did you do a ‘number one’ or a ‘number two’?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but… ‘one’,” I replied stiffly.
A. sighed. “Oh, that’s a shame. Because it washes and dries your bottom as well!”
Something clicked. “Oh… That's what the ‘w’ represents! Your bottom!”
“It’s life-changing,” A. insisted. “I want a Japanese toilet! But this is the only place in Singapore that has it. It’s actually the main reason I come here to eat.”
Many years later, I, like many Singaporean travellers, have since fallen deeply in love with the Japanese potty. Every other toilet I’ve ever encountered has looked, felt and smelled pre-historic.
I have been known to book hotels purely on the basis that their bathrooms have a Toto.
Leave it to the Japanese to elevate the toilet bowl to a whole new next-level-fierce luxury. Who else but the Japanese could fold a piece of paper and make it an art-form? Or transform lines in sand into something spiritual? Or turn a French maid’s uniform into acceptable day-wear?
In Japan, 60 percent of toilet bowls are made by Toto, and 30 per cent by Lixil, which also does hi-tech toilet-bots, as I call them. The sheer prevalence of these toilets might make you think they’re cheap, but they’re not. The Toto Neorest model, for instance, costs between ¥270,000 to ¥540,000 (S$3,300 to S$6,600), but let me tell you, it’s worth every penny.
For starters, it gives a friendly beep whenever you approach, and the lid rises up in welcome. The seat is warm when you sit down, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but once you’ve lowered your bare rear onto a warm ring, there’s really no going back to the cold shock of porcelain.
The helpful thing also washes your bottom with warm vibrating water pulses whose pressure can be adjusted, a particularly useful function for those who prefer a thorough deep cleanse. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t?
It gently blows warm air to dry you off, while flooding the air with a constant stream of ionised air so the bathroom never has any lingering “fragrances”. It even has a night light, which means you never have to stumble into the bathroom ever again.
I once stayed at a hotel in Paris whose owner had clearly been to Japan because the bathroom had a Toto-like toilet with Bluetooth capability and built-in stereo speakers for those who like to synchronise their morning movements to Mozart’s Greatest Hits.
Meanwhile, the Toto automatically flushes without you having to press anything, and then it lowers the seat – which means, no more undignified “You left the seat up!” quarrels – and quietly closes the lid.
If I ever hear that the Japanese have come up with a microwave oven function for the loo, let’s just say I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
You can imagine my delight when, a few weeks ago, during a stay at the newly opened Moxy Osaka, I discovered that as soon as I sat down on the toilet, it immediately began broadcasting bird song and the gurgling notes of running water. I phoned reception downstairs for an explanation.
“It hides any sounds you’re making while you’re in the bathroom, so that you don’t disturb the other person in the room,” I was told.
You can also imagine how depressed I was when I got home to Singapore and sat on my useless ordinary toilet which, other than flush, literally, does not do anything else. And even that, you have to push a button.
No deep cleanse. No warm blow-dry. No babbling brook. No Mozart.
It really is the pits.