They say to write about what you know
Japanese culture begets good pooping. “Good for your digestion,” as they say. Which means your trips to the loo for number two will be as smooth as a ride down a righteous water slide at Waterloo.
Japanese food is all about providing a gentle journey through your intestinal tracts. The fermented vegetables. The seaweed. The goddamn, stinky-ass natto. You hold your nose and shove that icky-sticky down your gullet for breakfast and your morning shit-break will be as satisfyingly mellow as bong rips and reggae on a Sunday morning.
They tell you that the steamy hot waters of the onsen bath, steeped with sodium ions, will cure eczema, your love life, and cancer. The true purpose of this heavenly hot springs bath is to, you guessed it, drop a sublimely hellacious deuce.
It is no coincidence that the number one toilet manufacturer in the world is the Japanese company Toto. Toto has an awesome toilet museum in Kitakyushu. They have an art museum in Tokyo.
The first freelance article I published in Tokyo was an interview with a Swiss architect who was displaying models of his designs for Rio de Janeiro favelas at the Toto art museum.
For one hot minute I was getting assignments for articles on Japanese architecture. I was followed by architectural digests on Twitter before they wised up. Still, thanks to the five lovely ladies at the toilet art museum who quietly hovered around the Swiss and I as we discussed his popsicle stick sculptures I was able to get my start as a journalist in Japan.
But let’s talk about pooping.
Any discussion about defecation in Tokyo starts with Toto’s iconic washlet toilet. Denoted as an acclaimed member of Japan’s “Mechanical Engineering Heritage,” some washlet toilets come equipped with a sensor that automatically heats the seat as the cheeks make contact. There is the toilet sanitizer, the air freshener, a button that lifts the lid up and down, and most importantly, a basin of warm water at the ready to be hosed up into your bumhole like a splash of sunshine on an Okayama peach.
A pro tip from someone who has enjoyed this anal spritzer for nearly a decade: they say the bidet function serves as an after-shit mint that leaves your rectum shinier than the $7.50 super scrub at the automatic car wash, but any Japanese salaryman worth their salt knows that you spray at the beginning of your dump to grease the wheels, so to speak.
Now, the washlet toilet is standard in any Tokyo home. Unfortunately, English instructions are as conveniently absent as a step-dad at a junior high band concert. So if there is one Japanese character you should learn it’s this one – 流す– which means flush. A lot of toilets don’t have handles, just buttons, and if you start mashing buttons, besides a sparkling clean heinie, you might also accidentally set off the emergency button, which I learned from personal experience at my first swanky Tokyo cocktail party (conversation starter!).
When nature calls, unfortunately you might not be able to find one of these golden thrones of shittery. There are a lot of salarymen in Tokyo with exemplary bowel functions and extra time to spend on their asses. These men are your competition. They know the toilets of Tokyo like the back of their silky smooth hands and they can cop a squat for hours at a time.
Thanks to these capitalistic pigeons of the port-a-potties, usually the only stall available in the public toilet is the squatter. If you haven’t tried one yet, do it. You will tell stories about it to your grandchildren.
I’ve taken shits in a lot of strange places. I’ve hung my cheeks over fallen logs. I’ve used buckets of water to rinse turds down latrines at the temples of Cambodia. I’ve dropped trow in army barracks privies where the toilets are lined next to each other like prize-winning salmon at the Toyosu fish market. Ever knocked knees with another man while taking a crap?
Yet, I will never get used to the Japanese squatter.
Most every public restroom in tokyo has one stall devoted to these squatting toilets. There are two stalls with AI technology that will customize your personal pooping setting, and then there is one porcelain hole in the floor because apparently there are people that would rather lean back on their haunches like a dog that just ate 38 Crayons as opposed to having the kind of divine shit that you can only hear about on Gwyneth Paltrow’s podcast.
If you stay in Japan long enough, you will come upon the occasion where you have no choice but to use one of these squatting toilets. My first experience came when I traveled to Nara to visit friends. They were running late so I thought it best to relieve my bowels before they arrived (I’d been drinking green tea – great for digestion!).
Except the only public toilet I could find was a squatting toilet designed by the devil himself. Still a newbie in Japan, I was full of pluck and ready to try anything once. With the stall securely locked I circled this porcelain hole in the ground, planning my attack.
The back of the squatting toilet is domed, and convention told me this is the back. It is not. But I went for it anyway. At one point I was one all fours – crapping crab-style. My knees caught in my jeans. I tripped. I slipped. I kicked walls. It sounded like one of Nara’s sacred deer was stuck in the toilet stall.
Years later, my oldest son taught me how to use one of these contraptions when he had a bowel emergency during soccer practice. As mentioned, at one end is a small dome. At the other end is the receptacle for your dookie. You need to squat on your heels facing the half-dome. Feel free to hold onto the dome for balance. Some people are able to accomplish this feat without taking their pants off.
I am not one of those and have no intentions of becoming a squatting pooping pro.
But go for it. This is Tokyo. You can be whoever you want to be.
The Art Toilets of Tokyo
Never ones to pinch one off, the people of Tokyo who decide these kinds of things took toiletry to a new level. Called The Tokyo Toilet project, 16 architects and designers were commissioned to create eye-popping public toilets throughout Shibuya.
You have public toilets designed by Prtizker-award-winners Kengo Kuma (Tokyo Olympic Stadium), Shigeru Ban (Centre Pompidou-Metz), and Tadao Ando (Church of the Light). You have mushroom toilets, squid toilets, labyrinth toilets, and more.
Hell, filmmaker Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas) is producing a movie about the cleaning crews who keep these marvels of modern pooping spic and span 365 days a year.
So the next time your katsu curry goes bad, Kengo Kuma, one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2021, has got your backside covered.
Where Not to Take a Shit in Tokyo
Let’s get down to brass tax. Nature can call at the most inopportune times and you can’t always be choosy about where to bake a loaf. When you do have time for a little window-shopping, here are some of the places to avoid.
• Train Stations
Tokyo train stations are clean, functional, and efficient. Compared to the loos at train stations in the US, England, France, and other cesspools of humanity, restrooms at Tokyo train stations meet the Martha Stewart pooping seal of approval.
Still, with 3.6 million people a day traveling through Shinjuku Station alone, there are gonna be a few errant shit stains. Especially later in the day. And in most cases, especially when the colon is about to blow, there will be a queue outside the stalls packed with grunting salarymen.
Restaurant restrooms in Tokyo can be a mixed bag. Sometimes you get toilets decorated completely in polished driftwood, or you get to take a shit next to a ceramic dragon. If you find yourself in a high-end hotel or luxury establishment, then it is absolute that you use the water closet. It’s not often you leave a toilet smelling better than when you entered.
More likely than not, you will be sitting in the cheap seats with me. If you ask for the toilet, the server might hand you a key attached to a worn wooden fob and give you vague directions down the dark alley outside. Or you might find yourself in a stall with a broken latch, held together by a frayed piece of twine, where you stretch your foot out to press the door shut.
Enter at your own risk.
• Mount Fuji
Not in Tokyo, but I will never pass up the opportunity to share a personal story about pooping. When we hiked Mount Fuji, we made it to the summit with little trouble. Then trouble found its way to my intestines.
During the descent, I was Mount Vesuvius and the toilets of Mount Fuji were the unsuspecting villagers. The higher stations of Fuji have pay toilets. I was hopping over little gates to make emergency pit stops in spattered latrines that were more decrepit than the worst toilet in Scotland.
When arriving at Mount Fuji, be sure to take one hour to acclimate to the elevation, and to take care of business.
Where to Shit in Tokyo
Finally, some useful information. How to find the right toilet for your delicate tush.
• Gyoen vs. Koen
The regular Tokyo park is called a koen. The toilets at Yoyogi Koen look like they were bombed by Russians full of potato vodka. The public restrooms at Ueno Koen are somebody’s home. Every little neighborhood park in Tokyo has a toilet – that are used on the regular by deliverymen, garbagemen, and diarrhetic toddlers.
A gyoen on the other hand is public land dedicated by the imperial family. Shinjuku Gyoen for example, was an imperial garden before being opened to the public. There is an entrance fee of ¥500, so it keeps the general riff-raff off of their pristine porcelain.
Meiji Shrine was also once a private imperial garden that is now open to the public. Free of charge, avoid the toilets near the entrances. Meander a bit further through the towering oak and camphor trees to find the toilets near the inner precinct of Meiji Jingu Shrine. Here you will find a quiet respite to pump a grumpy.
• Department Stores & Multi-use Facilities
Here is the créme de la créme of Tokyo pooping. Tokyo department stores are elegant oases of fashion, jewelry, sweets, and powder rooms worthy of national heritage designation. Even better, they are free of ulcerous salarymen.
The beauty is that foreigners can inconspicuously slip into the public restrooms of Takashimaya, Marui, Isetan, Mitzukoshi and other high-end department stores. Head to the higher floors for a world-class shit.
Whenever I had a meeting or event to attend in Ginza, without fail I took a pit stop at Ginza Six. On a weekday, there is no one but you, a handful of Tokyo housewives, and empty restrooms just waiting to relieve your load.
Tokyo’s multi-use facilities – Roppongi Hills, Tokyo Midtown, Hibiya Midtown, Toranomon Hills – also provide amazing facilities that further enhance the Tokyo cultural digestive experience.