Abigail Radnor visits Japan, and highlights a rarely-mentioned cultural difference

March 24, 2017 15:11

I am lucky enough to be writing this column some 40,000 feet above the Sea of Japan, on my flight home from a holiday of a lifetime. Japan is a truly beguiling country, full of beauty, charm, dazzling contrasts and unique quirks. It is a place that delights, and, at times, overwhelms the senses — so naturally proved to be a bounty of inspiration for a column (which is lucky really, as my deadline happens to coincide with my landing in Heathrow).

There is much I could muse on from my Japanese adventure. Perhaps thoughts on how Shintoism, steeped in spirituality derived from nature, befits a land so totally at the mercy of its beautiful and powerful landscape would make a good column.

Alternatively, I could ponder the Japanese mentality and how it has been shaped by historical and geopolitical forces through the ages.

Or… I could write about Japanese toilets.

I am going for option C, hoping that is a popular choice for a readership that is likely familiar with the delicacies of a “Jewish stomach”. For those readers preferring option A or B, I assure you this is not going to get gross and in fact, if you can hang on until the end, I will explain how Japanese toilets can actually provide a neat, allegorical window into the soul of Japan (ok, well that could be a bit of a stretch but I’ll give it a go).

First, the toilets. Like Marks & Spencer’s puddings, Japan doesn’t just do any regular, bog-standard (pun absolutely intended) loos. There is a reason why a lot of Western tourists are fascinated by these mechanisms. The array of controls, lights and features a Japanese toilet often boasts is astounding. Even the most basic of WCs will come with some sort of control panel to implement a variety of functions, seemingly to bathe “on completion”, directing nozzle position and adjusting pressure accordingly (something I…er, I mean ‘a friend’, discovered only a little late to her peril when a strong pressure gave her a shock and she quite literally jumped out of her seat).

Talking of which, another common feature is a heating element throughout the seat which is, let me tell you, quite a treat. More often than not, the seat lids lift automatically as it detects your presence, a welcoming and hygienic flourish. Our toilet in our last hotel room of the trip was a little over-zealous in this regard and lifted if we were anywhere in the vague vicinity, like brushing our teeth, akin to an anxious puppy waiting for its owner to return home, starting at any sound in the hallway.

Perhaps the most delightful toilet feature we discovered was the ability to play a sound-track to “disguise toilet sounds”. Another lavatory on our trip happened to play Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair. On a loop. With no way of turning it off. To the point now where I am concerned that if my husband hears that song again he might have something of a Pavlovian reaction and run the risk of an accident.

As fanciful as these toilets are, they are in fact a Japanese upgrade on a western import, with more traditional Japanese toilets resembling holes in the ground, which require an amazing amount of quad strength. In some public bathrooms, there are signs with step-by-step instructions as to how to use western toilets properly – something that might not go amiss in various public institutions in the UK (I am looking at you, Arndale Shopping Centre in Manchester)

The contrast in these facilities is a perfect microcosm of the range of life you see in Japan that makes it so wondrous. From ancient traditions practised over centuries with habitual poise to the advent of sleek, ultra-modern invention, you can find it all in Japan…and in its toilets.


Abigail Radnor is acting features editor of Guardian Weekend

March 24, 2017 15:11

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