Japan, you had me at Toilet

Japan, come on now. Stop it!  You don’t need to offer those gracious bows.Or your incessantly impressive food with simply stunning presentation. You don’t need to lure me with seven varieties of breakfast rolls, or 4 kinds of salt or the myriad of ways in which you offer health to every meal–with fish or seaweed or pickles or miso.  There’s no need for the delectable Kobe sweets or even its orgasmic beef–although that is a meal that I never, ever want to forget.

Truly, Japan, you had me a Toilet; and that was while I was in the air over my own country; before I discovered your in-country toilets.

For the restroom in JAL’s 787 flight from Boston to Tokyo was a surprise. Streamlined. Crisp. High functioning. You gave limited space a feeling of spaciousness and even understood the sublime relevance of place on the counter for a folded paper flower in the morning after 11 hours in the air.

But it was when I arrived in the airport in Tokyo that my world view was shifted. There, I encountered my first toilet– with a control panel of choices (which I was afraid to use until the comfort of my own hotel); and I was hooked–line & sinker.

It did take me awhile to figure out how to flush and another day to figure how to turn down the temperature on the seat once I had turned it up; but I caught on quickly with the bidet and “posterior” rinse, and regretted that my hotel room did not offer some of the features I experienced in public restrooms: the “powerful deodorizer,” the air dryer, the variety of sprays, the music, the flushing “sound” (for enhanced discreetness.)

Kobe Convention Center

No matter where I encountered your toilets, even your terribly frightening traditional ones on the floor, there was always one feature upon which I could rely: Privacy. Floor to ceiling doors enclosed each toilet space for that most intimate of needs. Sometimes, even a tiny sink was included.

I’m sorry, but it just isn’t enough to list Toilets at the top of the 10 Things I’ll Miss Most About Japan, I have to elaborate, even if my friends have grown tired of my gushing.

I will restrain myself from talking about anything beyond the toilets–like the round ball that served as the most perfect and easy to use tub stopper that I have ever encountered.Or the slot inside the door of my hotel room, where the key card is placed, which results in the lights and the air condition turning on–or off, when you depart. Or the tiny apartment where I stayed in Kyoto, where the faucet for the sink pivoted to serve as faucet for the bath; or the toilet which had a sink built into it–where hands were washed before the water traveled into the tank for flushing.

Space & resource efficient sink/toilet combo. Kyoto apartment.

The truth is that I don’t typically get excited about mechanics and technology, but you hit me where it counts–in the place where we all crave comfort and privacy and efficiency.

Before you, I never gave much thought to restrooms. I never compared one country to another over it. I certainly never fell in love with a place because of it. But like a lovesick teenager, I can’t sing enough of your praises.

My resident therapist (aka. my husband) suspects that years of toileting trauma at the hands of my grandmother may have been healed in my two week visit to your country.

Did I mention the fold-out seats in bathrooms stalls–even on the plane? (You know, where you can put down your toddler, instead of trying to juggle him on your lap while you wipe.)

…And what about the fold-out shelves? A clean place to put your things, like backpacks or shopping bags,  instead of on the floor?

Seriously, Japan, set aside your stunning temples and shrines, you had us at Toilet.

Kelly Salasin, May 2012

ps. One question though. What was this contraption for?

pps. For those who are wondering, here’s a photo of the traditional toilet, still apparently preferred by many (Japanese) women–of all ages. Practice those squats ladies! Some of these don’t come with balance bars.

Public toilet

10 Things I’ll Miss Most About Japan

Of all the things I’ll miss about Japan, I embarrassed to admit that number one is their exceptional:

1. Toilet

I’ll never forget the welcoming embrace of a heated seat; nor the myriad of options available to the user while seated: rinsing, spraying, drying, deodorizing and sound.  Some toilets had temperature controls, not only for the seat, but also for the bidet or “posterior” rinse; while the speed of the spray and the manner of spray could also be adjusted; as well as the volume of the “buffering” sound.

Whether I was in the airport or in a hotel or in a public restroom on a street corner, one feature was ubiquitous: privacy.  Instead of “stalls” the Japanese provided “rooms” with floor to ceiling doors to support that most intimate of needs; and for that, they have my undying admiration.

2. Consideration of Children

I was dismayed to see that several infants and toddlers were to share the same cabin on my overnight flight to Tokyo. Instead of fussing, however, my attention was directed to how carefully these young families were nurtured by the flight attendants who could be seen heating up milk, providing pillows and blankets, delighting babies in their arms and frequently checking in on their mothers.

In the airport, there were mini-playgrounds to be found and specially equipped nursing rooms with cribs and rocking chairs and even cots. Well done Japan!

3. Passion for Detail

There are countless testimonies to the Japanese aesthetic, but one unexpected consideration stands out for me: the welcoming morning sight of a beautifully folded pink paper flower placed on the corner counter of the JAL airline bathroom after 200 of us shared its use for 12+ hours. (And check out the fresh flowers that line the walkway in the airport terminal.)

4. Containers

Breakfast in Japan, Kelly Salasin, 2012

A box and bag and all kind of container lover like me is in heaven in Japan. The box lunches that I’ve experienced at Chinese restaurants only approximate the creative way in which the Japanese contain and present almost everything, especially food!

5. VARIETY!

Every Japanese meal was a feast for attention–from the ceramic bowls, to the miniature spoons, to the varieties of pickles and rice and even salts.  Breakfast included!  Check out these rolls (the black ones are charcoal; the orange pumpkin.)

6. Diet

As I ate my way through Kobe, and Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo, I kept thinking, my doctor will be so proud of me: seaweeds, fermented foods, miso, rice and always–vegetables.

Even when ordering a decidedly Western breakfast of eggs and toast, they can’t help but draw our attention to better balance: adding a large salad to the plate of only a single egg.

Every Japanese meal was finished by miso broth–to enhance digestion. Even on the plane.  On the return flight, they served us Clam Chowder to better prepare us for Boston; but along with it came a mustard green salad, pickles and bean paste (and miso broth.)  Most notable were two delicate pink rice crackers shaped like flowers–with directions given to each passenger to crumble them into the soup.  (Step aside, oyster cracker.)

7. Language & Kindness

I went to Japan (ashamedly) without any language; but even so I was able to travel on my own with the generous help of so many Japanese–who went so far as to leave their shops or offices to show me the way to another market or to a shrine or to point me toward home.

Of the few phrases I picked up there, my favorite was what they said as they answered their phones: “Moshi, moshi.”

8. One-ness

Kyoto Subway Kimono, Kelly Salasin, 2012

I was only in Japan for two weeks and mostly for business so I’m sure to make many assumptions that may not prove to be entirely true, but what I witnessed in the Japanese was a consolidation of living instead of a separation of it.

While traveling on the subway, for instance, many (of all ages) used the minutes to catch up on sleep (respectfully using only the space beneath their chin instead of drooling on a neighbor’s shoulder.)

Even when working, intensely, most seemed to allow room for humor, for kindness, and for moments of connection; even in the most demanding situations.

It’s difficult to capture this orientation toward life, and it’s foolish to assign a glimpse to an entire nation, but there was something about the people, from all walks, which was precious to me–in their willingness to be available to so much more in each moment.

9.  One-ness, continued

Perhaps another illustration of the above is this: in my explorations of Kyoto, for instance, I would stumble upon ancient shrines and temples smack in the middle of shopping streets or back alleyways or intersections.

The Japanese seemed able to evoke reverence no matter what the surroundings–even in a bar where they shoes were to be removed.

10.  Kelly san

Imagine a world where everyone bows to one another; and what it feels like the first time your Japanese colleague calls you, not just “Kelly”–but “Kelly san.”

Kelly Salasin, May 2012

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