The Hungry Happy Hippy: Turning a simple loo into high-art, the Japanese way!

Show me a restaurant loo and I can tell all I need to know about the hygiene standards of its kitchen. How well a toilet is designed and maintained is such an important part of our experience of dining out or staying in a hotel, and yet precious little is talked about it. Isn’t it surprising that while we discuss almost every aspect of life threadbare, so little is mentioned about loos?

As an avid traveller, finding the best loo is important. As a city guide who does eight-hour tours for overseas visitors, clean restrooms are like the Holy Grail that will ensure five-star reviews from my guests! As a restaurant critic, I’m a loo snob, with high expectations, especially from high-end eateries. Innovative design delights, but something that is spotless, dry and smells good is paramount.

I’m so finicky about a clean loo that I once thought I’d create a blog reviewing all the restrooms I had ever visited on my travels, to help like-minded, loo-snob travellers. I didn’t land up doing this in the end, but it’s a fact that I remember every single washroom I’ve visited and still have my own ratings in my head!

The earliest public restaurant restroom I recall was the one at the erstwhile Mocha, the first outpost in Churchgate, two decades ago. It was the first toilet I saw that didn’t merely exist but celebrated its presence. The flush tank was a big yellow chunk of Swiss cheese. A cheeky mouse made an appearance and the story continued on the toilet paper dispenser. It was just a design device, but it put the fun into functional. That was a starting point.

Over the years, restaurant loos have evolved. They are not just places to eliminate unmentionables but can also be a moment of peace in a manic day. Haven’t you ever taken that much-needed time out from a meal or difficult conversation by spending a few extra minutes more than necessary with Mother Nature after answering her call? Some of the public loos that have pithy witticisms or philosophy on the walls give your visit to the lavatory an intellectual or entertaining twist.

They are also a bonding factor between friends. Haven’t you ever timed your loo visit together so you and the BFF can take a break to compare notes on the night or make plans to bail out on that double date you’re on? And then there’s the loo selfie. Can anyone honestly say they haven’t indulged in this – idiotic but ubiquitous act – at least once?!

No wonder then that our idea of what makes for a good washroom has evolved as well. A tap, a mug and a hole in the floor seemed enough a few decades ago. Western style commodes moved out (literally!) from under nobles and royals and came to the rescue of the aging and arthritic. Hand sprays and bidet functions enhanced the hygiene and experience.

Speaking of royals, I’m always fascinated by the asides about erstwhile rulers that guides at palaces and forts across the world comment in hushed tones. ‘This was his personal potty – made in the best porcelain’, ‘She had her attendants spray rose water while she went’, and the best one yet – ‘He was so conscious about being seen and heard that everyone had to leave the palace when he wanted to move his bowels’! Talk about royal privilege!

The Japanese – who else?! – have taken the simple toilet and turned it into high art. What I miss most about my travels through Japan are their lovely loos! Seriously. Even the public ones are spotlessly clean, most have a pleasing fragrance, many have space to safely stash your baby! There’s usually a sanitising liquid to wipe the seat, disposable seat covers in some toilets, plus the seats are often heated for added comfort. A variety of sprays and bidets are just a push button away. There’s also a musical button that creates a loud flushing sound in case you want to drown out any embarrassing sounds you may emit while on the toilet. I’ve even seen one with a ‘tampon remover’, which I don’t think I will ever have the courage to try.

My first encounter with a truly high-tech Japanese toilet system was in New York though. I was dining at an authentic Japanese izakaya restaurant called Aburiya Kinnosuke with a friend. As we paid our bill, I excused myself to visit the facilities. I was so overwhelmed and enchanted by the plethora of buttons and attachments on offer, that I spent ages trying everything out.

My friend didn’t know whether to be worried or angry at sitting in our cleared-out booth long after we were done. So much for a limited menu here, I told him, when I came out – the washroom had too many options to choose from!

Timed loos are a thing too. Perhaps to deter loitering loo-junkies like myself. I can’t tell you the trauma I went through using one on the streets of Paris. After a precise minute, the door would automatically swing open, no matter what you were doing! Or that very practical Swedish one in Gothenburg’s railway terminus, which gave you unlimited access for five kroner but threw you in absolute pitch darkness once your time was up! Toilets that make your pulse race like that? No, thank you.

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