Confessions and experiences of a newbie toilet user in Japan

No Japanese innovation inspires more awe than the washlet.
Image courtesy: CC BY 2.0/ Flickr/ Eric Faller

“I give up” I whispered to myself. I had frisked every inch of the wall and even floor, but the search revealed nothing. How hard could it be? After all the object of my pursuit was nothing extraordinary. It was only the… FLUSH, that too in a public washroom. I had heard the sound-in-question when my predecessor had come out. Now however I had resigned to defeat and unlatched the door knob, drenched in embarrassment. “What would the beeline of impeccably dressed Japanese women think of Indians?” I lamented.  And then…voila! My train of thoughts was broken by sound of water rushing in behind me as the latch came into place. With the water also flowed in a sigh of relief.

My tryst with Japanese washrooms started with my hotel room in Tokyo, and by the end of the trip, there was nothing that could surprise me.  The ‘Toto toilets’ seemed to have converted seats of relief into thrones of technology and design – sometimes embarrassing, sometimes entertaining, but most of the time, simply comfortable.

The commodes in Japan are controlled almost entirely by a slew of touch buttons operated through either a remote or an arm rest right next to the seat. Besides the buttons, there is also what I called the ‘hot-seat’ (literally) – so warm and comfortable, that it is easier to spend more time inside the washroom than outside.

Can't get more convenient than this.
Image courtesy: CC BY-SA 2.0/ Flickr/ talloracle

The touch buttons were extremely intriguing. I started my exploration with the button most familiar to me, the bidet, a focused spray of water to clean the posterior after the act. I barely touched the button, when Swoosh came the water at a really high speed. Not prepared for the shock, I nearly fell off the throne. Just in time, it dawned on me that the remote I was holding had two buttons to control the intensity of spray; clearly the one pointing upwards was at maximum. The water assault was followed by the release of gentle warm air ‘from the seat’ (clarification essential), presumably to dry the water damage. After all how could one expect the Japanese not to complete the task efficiently?

Many toilets have a ‘music’ button. The function of this button is exactly what it appears to be – to take away the attention, especially from the uncomfortable sounds in the washroom; a role that magazine and newspapers may play for many of us. It’s fascinating to sample the music that various washrooms play. Slow and traditional music, dangerously close to the one a geisha quarters, additionally while I never experienced it myself, I heard that many of the relatively fancy washrooms even offer massage with music. Clearly the idea is to create an experience.

If the music function is pompous, the deodorizer is understated but most useful. Unlike what the name suggests, it is not about spreading exotic fragrances in the bathroom, but neutralizing the assault on the nose that we are all use too. Its inconspicuous, and a relief.

Flushing toilets were a wonderful invention, but why stop there?
Image courtesy: CC BY 2.0/ Flickr/ Christian Heilmann

If I thought that I had experienced the height of innovation with door knobs and music, I was wrong. There is one innovation that takes the cake over all others, taking vanity to another level completely. In a fancy public restroom, I saw a wall mounted device, which looked similar to the mid-sized hand-held radios so common a couple of decades ago. The left half of the device was a speaker, and in the right hand side, was the image of a hand. Out of curiosity I gently put my palm on top of the hand-image even before I used the washroom. To my utter amazement, before my hand touched the device, I heard a relatively loud sound similar to a flush without a stir in the throne. I tried again, and again the same effect. I was quite confused and realised it’s a ‘false flush’ that too, audible to the world outside.

Later I learnt that this device was called the ‘sound princess’. For a long time the Japanese ladies covered up the sound and timing of their activities inside a public washroom through multiple uses of the flush, and the sound generated from it. But environmentalists were not too happy either with the brutal wastage of water. One of them finally came up with a solution – ‘the sound princess’.

I was impressed, the Japanese have used advanced technology and innovative thinking to add both comfort and humour to the common problems of a personal ritual which is essential, but least addressed. If this is not human technology, what is?

AUTHOR'S BIO: Bhavana has done eight year of market research and advertising. She has now taken a break to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a writer. Travelling is passion and self-discovery. Her vision is to become a travel writer with a considered and contemporary voice for India, and from India.More on: