When Worlds Collide

When my private student didn’t show up on Friday because of a business trip, I was faced with with long gaps in my work schedule. Obviously, it was the perfect time to head over to the bathroom and photograph the toilets.

Don’t judge me. Toilet culture in Japan is schizophrenic, and therefore fascinating. Even after a year and a half here, I am still unable to understand how this Jetson-age bum warmer, bathroom noise sound proofer and bidet combo can exist in one stall:

… and how this gaping porcelain maw can exist in the stall right next to it:

Everyone knows that Japan’s technological prowess is beyond compare; entrances to nearly all public places are automated, robot pets actually seem cuddly and the free cell phones make the ones from Verizon look like figments from an episode of the Flintstones. Prior to arriving in January of 2007, I imagined that toilets like the one in the first picture would be the norm. My disappointment over the fact that the toilets in homes are usually not super-powered was soothed only by learning that the Kanji symbols on either side of my own toilet’s flusher meant “big” and “small.”

I had my maiden encounter with a squatter shortly after arriving in Japan, during my first authentic sushi dinner with Carnitas. I moseyed on over to the bathroom, a happy belly full of cups of green tea, and flung open the stall door. My eyes – and my heart – plummeted to the blackened ceramic-framed hole in the grimy tile floor, then, to the roll of toilet paper which was, naturally, empty. Panicked, I jogged down the length of stalls in the, thankfully, empty bathroom; squatter, squatter, squatter, squatter. I was faced with a dilemma: spit on a lifetime of cultural education or hold my tea for an undetermined amount of time?

I’ll spare you the gymnastic details. Suffice to say, you must NEVER turn down the free tissues companies hand out at train stations and, when one’s bladder is involved, anything is possible. I returned to the sushi restaurant, more triumphant than shaken, and ordered another plate of tekkamaki. My unsavory introduction to the squatter was only the first in a series of culture-bending experiences; next up was the shocking realization that I could, in fact, eat organ meat.

So why squatters when robo and not-so-robo toilets are readily available? I’ve been told that the squatters are for the elderly who grew up using them and who, if confronted with the slick musical model, would just try to stand on the seat. That explains the persistence of squatters in public bathrooms, if not their presence in bars and clubs. Anyway, if you ask me, a sit-down toilet would be far more convenient for the elderly since it’d be easier on the joints and require far less aim … but who am I to judge? I’m not you, after all – a work break toilet picture taker judger. Besides; when in Japan, right?

You get the hang of it. You really do. Oftentimes, there’s no other choice. You’re in a bar. There have been countless glasses of nama biru. It has to happen. And, after numerous messy encounters, you eventually find that, with the aid of a clothes hook, it can.

It’s not as though the robo cans don’t come with their own set of issues. Ask Diego, who came bum-to-bowl with them when he visited me last August. Despite his hotel’s international flavor, the commands on the fancy loo’s control panel were all in Japanese. My parents and I were flipping through TV channels when our ears were pierced by a bloodcurdling scream emanating at decibels previously believed to be accessible only by 10 year-old girls. While the bidet feature of these toilets is very thoughtful, it really is so much better when you expect it.

Another quirk of the robo pot: the flushing noise. I’ve heard that some play soothing rain forest music instead of flushing but the goal is the same: to cover up the unseemly sounds that might come from within the stall. While I’d rather listen to a flushing toilet than other kinds of music, it seems more like an admission of guilt to me than anything else – merely replacing what it’s trying so earnestly to cover up.

It’s useless to hide. Everyone knows what you’re doing.

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