The Royal Flush

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.

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Empty cup

We all know the ancient Zen koan:

A Japanese Zen master was visited by a university professor to inquire about Zen.  While serving tea to the professor, he poured the tea into the professor’s cup until it reached the brim then kept on pouring.  When the tea spilled over, the professor said, “The cup is overflowing.  No more will go in!”  The Zen master said, “Like this cup, you are full of your own ideas and opinions.  How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Embarking on this writerly life, with its requisite lexicon, mindset and lifestyle has been a gradual process.  Maybe too gradual, considering it was birthed back when Soft Cell’s Tainted Love was on the radio and I had feathered hair.  Now that I’ve finally grabbed the snail by horns, and my habits are catching up with my dream, I’m pretty sure I’ve emptied all the damn cups in the house.  Twice.  The past seems so far away now;  New York already is dusty in my mind’s attic.

But a blank slate doesn’t always get you the corner table.

Last night, after attending a reading at the Rockland library, I decide to forgo the gym and treat myself to dinner out for the first time since moving up here.  Suzuki’s, the area’s only sushi restaurant, has more than its monopoly on Nippon cuisine to recommend it.  One, it’s owned by Keiko Suzuki, a woman.  Two, she sources Maine seafood for her menu.  I’d eaten here over the summer, and knew it would be up to par.  What I didn’t realize was, despite my years in the restaurant business along with my tendency to eat out most meals when I lived in New York, that I might not be up to par.  An evening of errors ensued.

The PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED sign greeted me and I sauntered right by it on my way to the vacant sushi bar.  I was intercepted by a server who needed to check the reservation book first, and then graciously waved me on.  My first faux pas.  I ordered the cold sake, but from the wrong part of the menu, so it came out in a carafe instead of the smaller vessel I was expecting.  My server patiently accommodated me.  Settling in, I examined the menu for any specialities and decided on a (local) crabmeat and cucumber roll, one unagi roll (smoked eel) and one ama ebi roll (sweet shrimp).  Looking forward to a small meal of Penobscot Bay seafood, I was confused when I was presented with a large tray.  I had ordered the wrong shrimp and twice as much sushi as I had thought.  I tried to blame it on fatigue, or the fact I’d forgotten my reading glasses, but either way I didn’t read the menu properly.  Everything, however, was beautifully presented and satisfying;  especially the single scoop of wild blueberry and yuzu sorbet I finished with.  After paying the check and leaving, it wasn’t until I got to my car that I realized I hadn’t thanked my server or the chef, who prepared my food right in front of me.   At least I left 20%.

Sophisticated diner to inept customer in 6 weeks flat.  I think I emptied my cup too much.

Now upon reflection, I am transported back to my transition from server to restaurant manager, 7 years ago.  One day during training, I was walking through the familiar dining room, carrying hot plates to a table.  But en route, my mind went blank.  Table thirty-five?  Which one was that?  I CAN’T REMEMBER!  With food cooling fast, I had no choice but to actually ask someone.  How embarrassing, just like last night’s graceless evening.  It wasn’t until later on that I had my realization ~ in order to take in all this information for my new role, my mind was like a Zen master, helping me by temporarily clearing out some space.

Let’s hope I regain my dining-out chops before I crave sashimi again.

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