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The first flush of obsession

I have a friend, who, if fish is on the menu, will order it. Every time. The reason: It’s hard to cook well and is therefore an excellent measure of an establishment.

“It’s the window to the restaurant’s sole. Get it?”

A recent trip has convinced me the humble toilet is the equivalent for a country – the bathroom experience a barometer for a culture and a window into its soul.

What it values, and what it can do without.

At the very least [and I will argue this until my dying day] this assertion holds true for Japan.

My number one takeaway, after 10 days in what I can only describe as the future of civilisation, is a utopian toileting experience.

My phone contains more photos of bathrooms than anything else. Well-lit, tiled paradises exist in train stations, on the streets, and in skyscrapers.

Don’t bother booking a penthouse in Tokyo.

Merely take the elevator to the top floor of the Asahi building and pop to the loo.

Not only does it deliver a five-star view, but it has the added bonus of cold lager on tap just around the corner [in the restaurant].

The cornerstone of the lush Japanese bathroom experience is without a doubt the TOTO toilet. Established in 1917, Toyo Toki [renamed TOTO in 1969] set out to make a daily experience not just efficient, but a delight.

Over the years, TOTO has introduced more and better technology.

In the 1980s, those advances included warm-water flushing and automatic features.

In the 1990s, water-saving technology and streamlined designs – not dissimilar from Apple’s ethos at the time – entered the market, so that in 2023, a simpleton from New Zealand was elevated to royalty in a train bathroom hurtling from Narita Airport to Shinjuku.

I stumbled across my favourite Japanese bathroom, however, in an unlikely place – a car rental depot on the northern island of Hokkaido.

Pushing open the door, the TOTO toilet seat automatically lifted to reveal a neon strip of blue-purple light underneath. Nice touch.

The perfectly warmed seat was standard by this time, but with one wave of my hand I accidentally discovered perfection, activating a sensor for bird sounds. There was also the option of ‘running water’ and ‘fake flush’.

Game. Changer.

And what’s more, it will only set you back a cool $10,000. It’s honestly tempting.

I could go on at length, but won’t.

However, my effusion is less frivolous than it sounds, namely because this extraordinary attention to detail – this seeking efficiency, pleasure, and joy in the day-to-day minutiae – seems to permeate Japanese society.

The public transport system could be distilled to a series of small steps and interactions that cumulatively make navigating a metropolis like Tokyo a breeze, even for a foreigner.

Why drive when such a reliable and efficient system is at your fingertips? Our own, by comparison, makes you want to weep.

And that’s before reflecting on the truly horrendous bathroom conditions endured, for years, by Cockburn St’s residents.

Voltaire once said the measure of a person is not in their answers but in their questions.

So, when can these residents expect a toilet, perhaps not on par with TOTO, but at least the rest of New Zealand?

Mary Argue
Mary Argue
Mary Argue is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with an interest in justice and the region’s emergency services, regularly covering Masterton District Court, Fire and Emergency and Police.

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