Saturday, October 11, 2014

Potty Training for Grown Ups, Japan Style

Kitty Litter: The Early Years

I shared a bathroom with my sister growing up.  I was in junior high when she chose a college and from then on, we had a Northwestern Wildcats toilet seat cover.  If it wasn't my favorite color purple, I might have questioned the sanity of the scary decal taking position when I took those midnight potty breaks in the dark.  Little did I know this "wild" experience was just "warming" me up for even stranger days, years and decades ahead.

I probably became adept at using a toilet at around age 2, and was learning to read around 5.  I doubt I was ahead of the milestone curve, in fact I am completely taking stabs in the dark based on educated guesswork in order to set the background to my confession.  Fast forward to age 25: a higher degree, the foundation of a career, and years of travel experience under my belt and I was an absolute failure at using a toilet. Furthermore, just like that 2 year old learning to flush and then subsequently paging through Dick and Jane around 5, I couldn't passably read until the same span of three years later at around age 28, when I subscribed to my first Japanese newspaper.  That first year of using toilets, where no two look, sound, nor function alike, was comprised of 365 nightmarish days of stabbing in the dark too. 

The Outhouse Inside

I went to summer camp throughout elementary school, so I wasn't a novice at using "long drop" toilets.  As far as simple family road trips, I stress that it's the "Buckeyes" that are the Pride of Ohio, not its rest area facilities.  Moreover, I am not above a port-a-potty pit stop at a concert, carnival or circus, and I have survived periods of time without modern plumbing in my (now 45 years) life in both advanced and developing countries. Yet despite the surplus of modern gizmos and the popularity of luxurious hot-springs in Japan, a larger percentage of households here still choose to have a "long drop," eastern style toilet in their homes as compared to any other first world nation. 

This is not necessarily a reflection on socioeconomic status as much as it is a reflection on the age and calibre of the tradition of the house and homeowner. It was only as recent as 1977 that western style toilets overtook eastern style squatters. How does the old school pit toilet impact my daily life? Well, not much, and I do hold an admiration from afar for traditionalists' dedication to historical pre-plumping appliances.  

However, on the third Thursday of the month, the city sewage trucks do their business and make their rounds to suction the "business" out of those homes.  The hose you see on the truck pictured below is lowered into the commode, and the sounds and scents speak for themselves.  I stopped at a yellow light just to create space between the truck and my Honda when I took this photo opportunity, but the idea of the smell lingered throughout the rest of my commute, in the way a dirty cloud follows Pig Pen, or a plume of fumes chases Pepe Le Pew beyond his exit.
Vacuum sewage truck leading the way to my office

Still, there are times when you come face to face with the porcelain squatter in Japan, and you reorient yourself with religion classes by saying a quick Hail Mary, in hopes of not letting your skirt slip out of your strategically pulled to the side grip.  Add a round of rosary beads to ward off the danger that the length of receptacle is shorter than usual and you have positioned yourself too far back. I'm not going to get too graphic, but as you can imagine "accidents" happen, and it is a little harder on the ego once you are out of the toddler biggie girl or biggie boy pul-up a quarter of a century.

Public transportation facility, traditional Eastern-style
I'm not even going to use this space to complain about the challenge of using a toilet on a 3 hour bullet train ride across the country - you don't really have a GPS on the wall in the stall that highlights when the Shinkansen is approaching a curve in the tracks at 200 miles per hour. If you have a sense of humor about you, and moving here solidified that it is my most valuable trait, you can brush off minor embarrassments and add it to the list of been there, done that when gaijin get together and compare horror story notes.

"I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up": The Five Alarm Flush

However, humor can take a back *seat when your systems are down and you take ill.  Being sick (as an expat) invites inking home in front of the word too - the simple equation for homesickness.  Under the weather, patience runs thin when things go wrong (*the "seat," as in toilet seat pun is intended, runs, as in potty talk, is not).  A few weeks after my initial August 1994 landing in Japan, I came down with something.  

It might have been some form of a cold from all I could understand, but I was certain I wasn't feeling well and was completely worn out.  A Japanese mentor with adequate English skills from work accompanied me to a local doctor, and spoon fed me every question on the forms and hung on to my every answer.  No major surgeries, no heart disease in my family...just please get me a big fat Bayer and get me home.

With no effective remedy, I took matters into my own hands and set off for an "International" hospital in central Tokyo the next day. It was over an hour commute one-way, with several train changes, but it did have a familiar feel. It wasn't that local clinic with a mop in a bucket in the corner that visited the previous day; rather, it had framed art work on the walls and plush carpet under foot. Before I went to reception in hopes of getting the bilingually translated forms to fill out, I made a stop at the restroom. I had assumed that decorative lobbies and background muzak equalled a Western style hospital experience.

At least the toilet was western style, which spared my having to crouch down and experience head rush while feeling feverish. I used the facilities and flushed, which is apparently easier said than done in any language. There are more bells and whistles on toilets here than there are on the latest software reveal from Apple. Incidentally, in 20 days, I didn’t meet two toilets that flushed alike. That didn’t seem significant until there were red and green buttons in the restroom. Green means go and Red means stop? Unfortunately, I was not driving the toilet. 

Green set off an alarm. An ear-piercing siren. Nurses charged in the stall to tend to what damsel in distress was having an emergency. There it was, they were coming to take me a way, the little white robed ladies in their little white hats - my "green" light to the padded room. 
Example of one of the millions of variations of a public Washlet

The above story was within the first 20 days of my sejour.  As of this writing, I have entered my 20th year and have never met the same kind of toilet twice.  Washlet and Warmlet are trademarked (and household) names for the beloved luxurious commodes in Japan.  And they are loved: there is a Japanese proverb that states that, "a pregnant woman who keeps her toilet clean will give birth to a beautiful baby."

The Hot Seat 

 Our toilets are the best dressed in my family. They have wardrobes - seat covers, lid covers, carpets and coordinating toilet roll covers. The sinks to wash hands are actually part of the toilet, and many people decorate that sink area by filling it with wishing stones, marbles or plastic flowers. I am not so entrenched in the toilet fashion culture to pimp up the commode at my abode, but I find it pretty daring to post a picture of my toilet on the Internet.  

The following is the "sink" part on top of our toilet.  It's an all-in-one set up to be space efficient, and to conserve water by using clean water to wash hands from the cycle that refills the bowl after *flushing (*I know how to do in my own home). 
Toilet tank is transformed into a sink for space and water conservation.

The European WC (Water Closet) translates here, as nothing else fits in the "powder room." Leaving your indoor slippers in the hallway, you open the WC door to find the required toilet slippers on the one step of space on the throw rug that is fitted around the toilet. Liquid soap is on the window sill, two toilet rolls are vertically stacked in their cozy hanging on the right side wall, and one hand towel hangs on a fitted rack on the left side wall.

I am writing this in mid-October, a pleasant month in Japan, but we are just a few weeks away from turning our home toilet seats on. In February, the coldest month in Japan, sitting on a toilet seat is probably the warmest you can get indoors.  Warmlets have a heating function. The hallway to the restroom will not be heated, and you can see your breath upon entering the WC, but the commode is a sauna. That's right - modern homes are not centrally heated, nor insulated, but the toilets?  They do everything but whistle Dixie for you.  And by the time I click "post" at the end of this writing session, there will probably be at least 3 rolling off the assembly line that do (more on sound selection to come).  

As a general rule, you keep the lid down to maximize their efficiency. This is an especially handy tip for ladies of the household that don't appreciate when "other users" leave the seat up. When it is a matter of losing heat, wasting electricity, and further deepening your carbon toilet slipper footprint on the environment, even the hardest to train men can comply.  Below is a sign on the wall in the restroom at my local grocery store, requesting the customers' kind cooperation in closing the lid after use.
The yellow dotted line illustration is the "shut the lid" tutorial to conserve energy.
Musical Score

Toilets in Japan come in all shapes and sizes, make all sounds and voices, flush and function options that outnumber the population of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area. Last and least, they come with a rule book thicker than a roll of floral scented TP. Even public toilets sing if you choose.  There is a music button to drown out the sound of doing your business so others in the area can't hear you, and thus break that noise 
pollution-privacy line.

Before the invention of the sound control, women tended to incessantly flush in attempt to drown out nature's unimaginable sound of "going number one." The phenomena led to a company-funded research which discovered that office buildings could reduce utility bills by $38,000 a year by eliminating this free-flushing practice.  Innovation saw the birth of buttons lining the arms of the seat to recreate that meadow-flushing sound along side of the bidet, scent and shower functions.

What is a delicately shy gal who finds herself having to relieve herself in a technologically inefficient lavatory to do? Fear not! There are even portable flushing sound noise makers marketed for such ladies to carry in their purses "on the go," a concept which entertains me even more that the idea that someone funded the studies to find these interventions and inventions necessary. The (above left) guide on a public bathroom stall spells out, in rare bilingual form, a map-like guide to using the Washlet. Note the "sound" option on the lower right, which allows you to control the level of the gushing hum.

DIY Port-o-Potty

I sound almost like a stalker by going into such detail on the "John" topic.  Trust me, I'm not certifiable; rather, certified.  That's right,  my daughter and I recently completed a seminar on how to make your own port-a-potty for disaster preparedness.

Supplies and basic cutting
Seat, lid and fishing touches
When an earthquake, a super typhoon or a tsunami compromises water and electricity, the heated seats and the 5 star flushing options go down the drain. Recalling my rustic camping days in the 70s, the risk of mosquito bites in sensitive areas while using the outhouses, or ignoring the "leaflets three let it be" mantra on long hikes were my only fears.  However, now that we live in a disaster prone part of the world, we periodically update and revamp our emergency evacuation kits. The latest addition to our stash is our biggest yet: A toilet now sits along side our battery, instant ramen and flashlight supply. You can tell from her working form in this photo that she is beautiful, which according to the proverb I cited earlier, is thanks to how well I scrubbed our bathrooms while I was pregnant.  Or, maybe she's average looking and my vision is biased because of all the chemical fumes from toilet cleanser overload, but I'm good with it.
Listening intently for the next step: this photo features the pull-up lid handle.

 Stall and door for privacy,
she labeled it in duct tape,
[トイレ] = "Toilet" 
Though the seat is not heated, it is sturdy enough to hold an adult, and the "bowl" is lined with recycled grocery store bags.  Hana was born and (so far) raised in Japan, so outside of almost drowning in the huge auto-flush toilets at Chicago O'Hare transferring on our visits to the States, her toilet training and preferences are here. So she added the decorative touches and privacy features on hers (a stall and door), which is showcased in her room, now classified a "Master Bedroom" (there are not toilets in bedrooms - she is bi-cultural after all).

Thought I was gutsy for sharing my home toilet tank on the internet?  Add me as the only one of your contacts to post a picture of herself sitting on the toilet seat, lid up, modeling my just made emergency evacuation kit toilet. Later I may add some sound bite options for the flushing sound, and follow the take home accessory ideas booklet of transforming laundered old socks to line the seat for comfort and style.  But the first thing on the finishing touch list is to borrow my child's duct tape to add a "WILDCATS" logo in Japanese, [ワイルドキャッツ] to import a fresh and wild taste of "my" Columbus here.