After a 13-hour flight, upon our arrival at Tokyo's Narita International Airport, I made my usual ladies room stop upon deplaning. This proved to be my first, "Toto, we're not in Philadelphia anymore" moment of our trip. I assume it is merely coincidental that "Toto" is the name of a popular Japanese toilet manufacturer.
Although my husband has cooled his heels waiting for me outside ladies rooms in airports all over the world, he could not imagine what was taking me so long. I had to explain to him that I was simply taken aback to find that using a Japanese toilet required some of the same skills employed in piloting a spacecraft. I had to read the instructions! One is actually confronted by fine print with ominous looking diagrams on the back of the toilet seat.
After studying the control panel, I was quite sure I wasn't going to be pushing any of the buttons, at least not before retrieving my luggage. I thought it would be prudent to have a change of clothes available before trying any of the water features (i.e. bidet, shower-at any strength). Actually, "flush" wasn't one of the choices on the special control panel. That was "flushing sound". I later learned that Japanese women can become embarrassed by bodily function sounds in public bathrooms, so Toto thoughtfully provides a "flushing sound" option to camouflage what might actually be going on. I decided it would be wise not to be messing with the buttons labeled only in Japanese. Really, why did they translate only some of the buttons? Was it a case of, "If you can't understand the labels for these buttons, you have no business using them"?
I admit I became somewhat obsessed by Japanese toilets. I suspect I'm not the only gai jin (foreigner) to have photographed a Japanese toilet. Fortunately, most public Japanese toilet stalls are completely contained little rooms, thus sparing one the questioning looks (or rolling eyeballs) from fellow bathroom users that a camera flash might otherwise cause.
Some toilets had more features than others. I mean, you never know when you might have forgotten your watch and mobile phone and need to know what time it is. And, some toilets were clearly designed to be used by both genders, creating the need for labels identifying which functions would correspond to the anatomic idiosyncrasies of each sex. It was a relief to know that I did not run the risk of washing my "bottom" with the guy spray. Apparently, the Japanese have determined that "drying wet rear" is a unisex function.
Although the Japanese have clearly forged ahead of the rest of the developed world when it comes to toilet technology, I did come across some bathrooms which appeared to be set up to cater to even the toilet technology challenged. There were little diagrams on the outside of the stalls identifying the type of toilet available within: one could opt for a trough in the ground (honest), a regular non-high tech toilet or a toilet with all the bells and whistles.
Finally, there was the sad day when instead of being able to visit the excellent (I'm told) exhibits in the Tokyo National Museum, aberrant gastro-intestinal activity forced me to confine myself to the museum bathroom. So, there I was, actually in need of some bottom washing (and drying), and sure enough, the toilet button labels were all in Japanese. Fortunately, this was towards the end of our trip when I was more familiar with Japanese toilet possibilities. So, I took a deep breath, figured the situation couldn't get any worse, and went with my gut.
[All photos by Suzanne Fluhr. A version of this essay first appeared on Boomeresque: Baby Boomer Travels for the Body and Mind.]