Design reigns supreme in Japan, and luxury design is as commonplace there as the mediocre is here in the States. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a Japanese restaurant. However, it’s not the interior architecture or the food styling to which I refer. It’s the bathroom.
When I was opening Union Square Tokyo in Japan a few years back, I was fascinated by bathroom culture and design. Our store didn’t have its own restroom, rather it was a shared commodity, with an anteroom and four stalls. Sounds familiar, right? But once I stepped into a stall, it was as if I ventured into the cockpit of a jet airliner: all these buttons and levers and, of course, the unfamiliar Kanji characters (not, to me) explaining it all. At least I thought I knew the basics: sit down and let nature take its course. But wait! The sensor alerts a mechanism to rotate the plastic liner on the seat before I sit down, which is slightly startling, and then once I do… Oh! The seat’s warm. You know that gross feeling you get when you sit on a public toilet, and it’s been warmed by the last person? Your backside has just been IM’ed by the bare bum of a stranger. Yuck.
That wasn’t the case, however – no one had been inside before I entered. Then I keyed in on the display panel… who knew there were so many variations to relieve yourself? I pushed several of the buttons, just to see what happened. There were sound options. Odor options. Temperature options. To distract fellow stall-dwellers from any offending sounds or smells, I could make fake flushing sounds, at different volume levels (trickle, whoosh and Niagara Falls), and pick three degrees of deodorizer to scent the room. The seat could be heated on a scale from room temperature up to ski-slope thaw. And although I could practically bathe in the basin, I was never bold enough to explore all the cleansing options. I feared walking back into work with telltale signs of toilet water geysers gone mad.
Recently, I was reminded of my Japanese powder room explorations during my last visit to New York. I was deciding whether to go high-end or low-end for lunch – a Shake Shack burger or the healthier sushi option. The Upper West Side fast food line out the door swayed me – to Gari – and I figured enough time had passed since my last raw fish dining mishap (laugh at my Empty Cup story). Seated right away, I decide to treat myself and order the omakase (chef’s choice) and a small carafe of junmai daiginjo sake. Then, I ask for the ladies’ room.
In here I am instantly transported back, and this time I can actually read what each button is for. As I lock the door behind me, I turn while the lid rises automatically. This is what’s so great about Nippon hygiene: the seamless choreography of sanitation. The lid self-rises, I can warm my chilled bum, gently shower my nether regions – all with ease and discretion. Of course, this is the scaled back US version and I feel slightly gypped. I want the full, miso-soup-to-gingko-nut Tokyo experience, but I’ll either have to sell my car for airfare or settle for installing one of these modern contraptions in my own house someday, along with a Japanese soaking tub.
In the meantime, you can vicariously experience the sheer bliss of bathing in Japan as I’ll soon share my hot springs in Hakone escapade. The Japanese really know how to treat the naked body.