Tokyo toilets are an electrifying experience

THE following column contains copious references to toilets, rear ends, butts and other things ablution-related that might offend some readers, or at least put you off your Weetbix.

Yes, I have just come back from Japan – a land of gorgeous public gardens, spectacular food, stupendously busy but efficient railway stations and electronic toilets that scare the pants off unsuspecting tourists.

Within a few minutes of landing in Tokyo with friends, I was in trouble.

Picture the scene. Tired, middle-aged Australian woman wanders an airport corridor minutes after landing from a nine-hour flight.

“I just need to duck into the toilet,” I threw over a shoulder as our group headed for the baggage area.

A few seconds later everything changed.

It would be fair to say I like the simple things in life. Sit me down with a pot of tea, some toast and a good book and I’m just about the happiest person on the planet.

I like quiet, and gardening, and walks in the bush. I can’t stand it when things that should be simple – like dealing with government departments, or negotiating complicated automated processes to do everyday things like bill-paying – are made onerous by bad technology or needless complexity.

So I was always going to be challenged by what was hiding behind the cubicle door in that Tokyo airport women’s toilet, and unprepared.

Somewhere back in the past – in June, 1980 according to Wikipedia – Japan decided, for some unknown reason, to bring together two previously unrelated items, the toilet and electricity. Going to the loo was never the same again.

The Tokyo airport women’s toilet, like virtually every Japanese toilet we used over the following two weeks, had a control panel. It had plenty of buttons and dinky little stick-figure pictures. It had lots of Japanese and English writing. It had a heated seat. It had bells and whistles all over the place that were enough of a distraction that all thoughts of relieving myself went out the window for a minute or two.

So complex and wondrous was the Tokyo airport women’s toilet that when it came to actually flushing the thing and departing, I was suddenly flummoxed. Without my glasses, which were in my bag outside, I couldn’t actually read what the buttons and bells and whistles said. I couldn’t make out what I had to flush, and I was nervous about randomly pressing things for fear of what might happen.

The Tokyo airport women’s toilet, like virtually every Japanese toilet we used over the following two weeks, had a control panel. It had plenty of buttons and dinky little stick-figure pictures. It had lots of Japanese and English writing. It had a heated seat. It had bells and whistles all over the place.

And thus began the strange toilet ritual that occurred quite regularly during our Japanese stay, because who thinks to take their glasses for a trip to the toilet? Even the blokes I know who take a magazine with them for quality toilet time only look at the pictures.

My Japanese toilet ritual involved squinting at the control panel from very close range, checking the cistern for flushing buttons or levers, waving my hands near things that might have been sensors, and calling out to friends in nearby cubicles to see if anyone else had worked out where the flush was on the particular model we were using.

A typical conversation across cubicles went like this:

Me: “Has anyone worked out where the flushing thing is?”

Friend 1: “Have you tried the little flat button on the far left of the control panel?”

Me: “No.”

Friend 1: “Me either. It just looks like it might be the right one.”

Friend 2: “It’s the lever on the left hand side of the cistern, down the back.”

Me: “How on earth did you find that?”

Friend 2: “I’ve been in here for five minutes. I just pushed everything until something worked.”   

I can’t remember where we first experienced two other fabulous features of the Japanese toilet cubicle – the automatic water sounds that erupted from the control panel to cover embarrassing noises, and the public toilet cubicle intercom.

The water noises seemed to come in two versions – loud waterfall or crashing waves – although people talked about visiting toilets with the option of classical music and singing. Wikipedia helpfully advises it was an innovation introduced to stop Japanese women from repeatedly flushing the toilet and wasting water to cover their toilet sounds, and the option is known colloquially as “Sound Princess”. 

I don’t know when the public toilet cubicle intercom was introduced, but it was a huge temptation as I sat and pondered where the flush point was on a number of occasions.

Who would be on the other end of the line if I hit the intercom button? The Toilet Emergency Response Department (TERD)? What government authority would cover that? I will die wondering.

One of the first companies to develop and market the new “washlet” toilets from 1980 thought it was on a winner with an electronic toilet that had a control panel which allowed users to select bidet options.

By 1982 it was ready to promote its wonder toilets with a commercial that featured a young pop singer and the advertising slogan “Our butt wants to be washed too”. True.

There were complaints. Viewers weren’t thrilled about advertisements for toilet seats during dinner, and they objected to the reference to “butt”. But they bought the electronic toilets so that now more than 80 per cent of Japanese toilets are electrified, to confound and entertain people like me.

I loved Japan. It is a gardener’s and food-lover’s delight and its people are friendly. And I almost miss its loos.

This story toilet tribulations first appeared on Newcastle Herald.