My niece and I are watching videos of hi-tech toilets in Japan. She is six, and curious about many things, including subjects we giggle about or speak in whispers, such as bums, poop, farts and private parts.
“Atta,”* she says, climbing into my lap. “Show me! Show me videos of Japan bathrooms.”
I settle her down, pick up my phone and launch one video after another, videos made and uploaded by dazzled tourists and expatriates. To a child who knows only the varieties that come with a flush and a hand spray connected from the outside, watching gizmos that are warmed, fitted with water jets at various speeds to wash you off in the front and the back, that mist the bowl before use, sanitize, and deodorize is nothing short of witnessing a wonder.
When I told her about these toilets for the first time a year ago, her first reaction was one of terror.
“Chee, I will never go to Japan!” she said, eyes widening, then immediately shutting before hiding her face in my stomach.
“But why not?” I asked, “It’s not as if you have to use tissue paper.” Most Indians are disgusted by the use of toilet paper; we believe nothing cleanses like water. She shakes her head but doesn’t say anything further. An avid watcher of cartoons that feature superheroes, supervillains, zombies and sundry creatures mythical, magical and mechanical, maybe she imagined a sinister hand reaching out from inside the toilet bowl.
Despite her protestations, we do plan to visit Japan when she is older. In preparation, we watch some Japanese language videos, and my niece greets us in Japanese morning, evening and night for some time after that.
In 2008, I visited Osaka. An earlier opportunity for Indian journalists to visit Tokyo had fallen through when the hosts canceled the event. Soon enough, I got another opportunity to visit when an electronics company invited media persons to visit its factory and other facilities. State-of-the-art potties—even hand sprays— were not common in India then, but there used to be a Toto showroom near the gym I used. At over Rs 100,000 apiece, it was not something I even considered exploring.
In my hotel room in Osaka, though, I came – well – face-to-face with one. Unaccustomed to winters, I was cold enough that January night to appreciate a warmed seat. Like a child, I laughed in disbelief and delight when I experimented with the various fittings. The water was warm and I could control the force of the flow. It wasn't all fun and games, though. After the whole process was over, there came a rather peculiar odor from the toilet. It was nothing like the citrus or floral smells of cleaning products I was used to. I still do not know what it could have been – it was a chemical smell and rather unpleasant.
The toilets, of course, were not all I enjoyed on my trip, or all that I remember fondly. It is still a thrill just to have made it to Japan. Just a few days before my toilet experience, I had tripped on the flare of my new trousers, giving my right foot a hairline fracture. I would not miss the Japan opportunity a second time, though, so I went ahead, bandaged foot in tow.
I was so captivated by my experiences on that trip that I don’t remember my injured foot bothering me. I was intrigued by the digital traffic signs which gave updates on the traffic ahead and the weather, replete with emojis. I got a taste of the famed Japanese hospitality. Most media junkets I had been on lasted only three or four days and the hospitality varied. Some hosts provided us a tour of the city, others didn’t offer any extra touches. Some stuffed us with the same food everyday (“you listed it as a preference”), even when we were on our knees begging for something different. Some bluntly told you that you had no ‘free time’. Others just expected you to show up and left you to explore alone.
In Osaka, we had a chaperone from the moment we entered the airport and up to the moment we boarded the plane back to India. The solicitous guide pointed out every aspect of Japanese life that she thought would interest us, and she took questions patiently. Every meal was unique, giving us a taste of various Japanese menus, such as the hot pot and the Bento box. Our hosts arranged for vegetarian versions, allowing many of my colleagues to be included in the experience. There was Indian food as well as pizza, pasta, and sandwiches. Knowing how difficult it is for vegetarians to find food abroad that is more than subsistence fare, such as bread or fruit, this struck me as not just polite but painstakingly caring. Someone had gone the extra mile!
There was a trip to Kyoto entirely for sightseeing. We saw a persimmon tree, orange fruit on its branches, on the way to the Kinkakuji temple, and we met a geisha at one of the restaurants where we ate dinner. She was just 18.
I came away enamored by everything I saw. Just as in India, there was an array of shops outside the temple selling souvenirs. I bought a few cups painted with landscapes. I kept one and gifted the rest.
I must look for that cup I kept. It has come to be hidden among other souvenirs accumulated along the way. Maybe holding it, savoring my tea in it, and gazing at its silhouettes of trees and mountains will keep my memories intact and push me to go back. I have only dreamt about it till now, but done little except drool over many things Japan on Instagram. It’s time to plan a trip or two, ride a bullet train, pluck persimmon off a tree, see Mount Fuji, savor minimalistic meals that often look like works of art. And I will visit again with my niece when she grows up if she remains sufficiently interested in Japanese toilets . And to ensure she does, I must locate a store here that stocks these wondrous toilets and take her there when she visits me next.
*Atta = Paternal aunt (in Telugu)
Sravanthi Challapalli is a Chennai, India-based journalist and has been an independent writer and editor for the last four years. In about 26 years of working at newspapers, she has worked and written on subjects ranging from politics to business, including civic affairs, campus news, lifestyle and weekend features.She enjoys writing humour, fiction and non-fiction, about food, travel, quirky things and anything else that catches her fancy.