The art of street covers

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I often look down when I’m walking.  I don’t know whether it’s a function of above average height – it’s a fair way down there for me – or whether some hidden force seems to place obstacles in my path.  Either way, I prefer not to take my eyes off the ground for too long for fear that I might trip up.  Or worse, step into a pile of faeces.

Up until the time when multi-focals entered my life, I could get away with dipping my eyes downwards and know that they would adjust their focus automatically.  Presbyopia put an end to all that.  Now I incline my head as well as my eyes in order to survive the hazards of street and footpath travel.

There is not much to recommend looking down at Sydney roads and footpaths.  In fact,  if  you were to ask me to describe the sewer cover in the street outside my house – an object I have crossed both on foot and in the car probably more than a thousand times – I’d be hard pressed to describe its features to you, other than it is dark grey in colour.  I think.

But in Japan my visual circumstances unwittingly opened up a new interest that would otherwise have gone unnoticed: the beauty of the street and footpath.  Looking down suddenly took on a whole new meaning.

So what could be attractive about millions of kilometres of bitumen?  Quite a bit.  And this is yet another example of how Japan takes a universal concept and turns it into something special.

At home, street covers appear standard, mundane and forgettable.  Their primary purpose is to hide the waste that flows beneath them.  In Japan, however, they are neither standard nor mundane.  And you will never forget them.

The Japanese street covers of today are a relatively new addition to the urban fabric.  They were, however, a by-product of a separate, larger initiative: the desire to standardise the Japanese sewer system in the 1980’s.

The overhaul of the system was agreed to by municipalities on condition that each got its own custom designed sewer cover.

These custom designed covers became important to cities and towns because they presented an opportunity for them to turn a normally ordinary part of a town into something that could showcase local attractions, festivals, crafts, flora and fauna, even tell a story.[1]

All of Japan’s custom sewer and associated street covers are forged in the Nagashima Foundry, the second largest in Japan.  The foundry has made 6,000 different patterns and a carved wooden prototype of each design is saved in a central library.[2]

It wasn’t until we reached Kyoto – the fourth leg of our trip – that I really started noticing the detail in the street covers.  It was as if some subliminal reinforcement had been working on my consciousness and it needed a few days to take hold, to awaken my senses to the quirky art of the covers.

After that I could hardly take my eyes off the ground.  Here’s why.

A street cover in Nara.

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Takamatsu, famous for (the remnants of) its castle by the sea.

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Matsue, another town famous for its castle and its surrounding garden.

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Pagoda and blossom motif, Osaka.

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Okayama.

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Nagasaki drain cover.

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The beauty of these objects tends to overshadow their primary purpose, that is, to keep a lid on waste.  They have attracted the attention of numerous photographers far more competent than me and are the subject of a book by Remo Camerota, appropriately titled “Drainspotting”.

Looking down will never be the same for me again.

 

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For the love of a cat

As we passed through one of Asakusa’s many shopping alleys, I was bemused to see four middle-aged men fawning over a tortoiseshell cat perched on some goods outside a shop.  The cat seemed quite accustomed to the attention of strangers and I soon found myself joining in.

I shall declare an interest here: I love cats.  We have three felines at home who are a big constant in our lives.  When travelling, I do miss them.

But on this trip, cat therapy was close at hand.  Japan is home to some 79 cat cafés and, for a fee, I could get my fix of felix.  While the cat café’s primary purpose is to give city apartment dwellers – often having to work long hours and unable to keep pets – the ability to pet a cat in a controlled environment, tourists are welcome to partake too.

For a background to the cat café culture in Japan, see here. 

I had put M on notice that we were not allowed to leave Japan without visiting at least one cat café.  As we ticked off various destinations on our itinerary, I mentally charted lost opportunities, from the sixth floor cat café near Shinjuku station in Tokyo, a stone’s throw away from our hotel, to the cat café in Kyoto near the Nishiki markets.

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I did turn off the flash, honest!

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We will probably never get to pet Liz, Chocolat, Pen or Karin in Kyoto.  M felt that 1200 Yen (about A$12 at the time) was a bit steep for 30 minutes.  Skinflint.

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During some down time in Nagasaki we found ourselves near the city’s sole cat café, Neko Fuku Fuku.  We agree that “it’s time”.  I argue for an hour, at 800 Yen, but am beaten down by M to half an hour at 500 yen.  It’s still a bargain compared to Kyoto and Tokyo prices.

With its four metre frontage and see through front window, Neko (meaning cat) Fuku Fuku doesn’t  look like the kind of flash cat café we’ve read about in the bigger cities.  Those which serve tea, coffee, cakes and snacks.  Fuku Fuku has a sort of utilitarian feel to it.  We get the feeling that one comes here strictly to pet the cats.

There are two doors which separate the street from the cats, one at the public entry behind which is a vestibule and the other at the end of the vestibule.  This is obviously for security purposes, as an escapee cat would stand no chance in the Nagasaki traffic.

We take off our shoes and don slippers.  The female proprietor speaks enough English to ask us how much time we want, take our cash and start the clock.  We are even given a “five-minute bell” to remind us not to overstay.  She is friendly enough, but does not engage.  If I have any questions about cat cafés – and I do – then I’m not going to get them answered here.

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There are nine cats in all, five in the room fronting onto the street and four in a room at the back.  Two are in a cage for some reason.  All but one younger cat are fast asleep.  Now I know that cats sleep a fair bit, but these barely twitch an ear on our arrival.  Have we come at siesta time?

I set to and pat the tortoiseshell in the doll’s house.  It curls its paws, but does not purr.

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I move to the tabby on the orange shag pile and get a similar reaction, then to the tabby with white markings in the window.  And so it continues.

The room at the back has a couple of tables and chairs on raised tatami mats, suggesting the possibility of refreshments.  None is offered.  Perhaps we need to stay an hour to qualify for that.

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The cats are obviously well fed and well looked after.  Their coats are smooth and sleek to the touch, a sure sign of good health.  They may be a bit dopey, but they are not unfriendly.  Each one responds in some way to our ministrations, the youngest quite playful at times.  The establishment is neat and tidy, and spotlessly clean.  If there are cat toilets anywhere, they have been discreetly placed out of sight and there is no smell of cat urine inside.

As we stood there, I wondered where these cats might have come from.  Apparently some 200,000 abandoned cats are destroyed in Japan every year, so there is a role for cat cafés – in a small way – to do their bit by taking in rescue animals.

Questions have been asked about the welfare of the cats.  There is a view that large numbers of cats do not thrive in confined spaces and that they might find such an environment stressful.  This was not evident in Neko Fuku Fuku when we visited, but it may be at other times and in other cat cafés.  Cat cafés are also required to obtain a licence to operate and to comply with strict regulations governing the protection of animals.

What about the health of the cats?  Do the Nagasaki cats ever see the sun?  Does the proprietor take them somewhere where they can run and play?  Can they have a good life without going outside?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that indoor cats can live longer than their “free to roam” counterparts.  The home is free of both natural (e.g. dogs) and artificial threats (e.g. cars), although indoor cats generally need more stimulus and are more demanding of humans.

My thoughts returned to the Nagasaki cats, cooped up in what I reckoned was less than 50 square metres.  Would a few cat trees, toys and the stimulus of passing humans be enough to promote longevity in their case?

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A week later, we were on the island of Naoshima.  Despite the island’s tiny population – it has fewer than 4,000 inhabitants – it supports a cat café.  This is a very charming venue in a lovely garden setting and if it had been the first cat café I’d seen in Japan, I’d have found it hard not to venture inside.

But by now I was over it.  I wanted the company of my own cats and I particularly wanted to tell them how lucky they were to live in our home.

Not that they would know anything different.

 

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Can gender discrimination stop bad behaviour?

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The first time I saw this sign at a Tokyo metro station, I blinked a couple of times.  Back home, this would be cause for more than just raised eyebrows.  A zealous upholder of equal opportunity principles might report the perpetrator for breach of the law.  Barristers would be briefed and several months, perhaps years later, the appeal would be heard – and the case won – and the offending sign scrubbed from the train platform and eventually living memory.

And then the carriage appeared.

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Women only carriages?  What?  Would M be prevented from joining me in a carriage designated for “Women only”?

Apparently, the need to provide a safe haven for female travellers on major city subways arose in response to their treatment at the hands of male predators.  These subway offenders – known as “chikan” (molester or pervert) – were unable to keep their hands to themselves on crowded trains, particularly during rush hour, making a nuisance of themselves to women by leaning, pushing and groping.

A 2004 survey conducted by the Tokyo Metropolitan Police and East Japan Railway company showed that nearly 64% of Japanese women in their twenties and thirties had been groped on trains, subways or transit stations in Tokyo, a threefold increase in reported cases of groping over the previous eight years.  Authorities had been unable to control this behaviour with awareness campaigns and stricter penalties, as trains are too crowded to identify the perpetrators and victims are often too ashamed to come forward and complain.  This prompted Tokyo-based services to introduce women only carriages in 2005.[1]   Other cities followed suit.

Of course, men who don’t grope women might be forgiven for feeling a little peeved by this gender bias on trains, particularly if they could otherwise travel more comfortably during peak hour (women only carriages can be less crowded than mixed carriages).

Indeed, some Japanese men don’t believe that women-only carriages solve the groping problem. A few years ago, some even banded together to oppose the separate carriages, led by a Tokyo office worker and boasting about 300 members who claimed that they weren’t effective and smacked of gender discrimination…against men.

Well, yes, I suppose they do discriminate.  But a 2009 survey found that 40% of Japanese thought that “men only” carriages were necessary, even if the reasons for having them were not made clear. [2]

While I could not find more recent information as to whether this movement gained any traction with the authorities, I did turn up a curious reaction to the issue of denying “chikan” their lust for groping: a train café in Tokyo where men can indulge their inner letch.  “Services” are carried out in a room refurbished to look like the inside of a carriage on Tokyo’s Yamonote line and patrons are allowed to fondle young women standing at strategic points.  The club, with 4000 members, claims to be fighting the crime of molestation by getting chikan off the streets.[3] 

Whether this outlet for male molesters has reduced the incidence of groping remains untested, if anything, such activity can only reinforce inappropriate behaviour among men.

So are measures targeted at reducing molestation of women on trains succeeding?

Apparently, despite continuing media awareness, heftier fines and the provision of separate carriages for women, the incidence of groping continues.[4]

It is all too easy for most offenders to get away with it on crowded trains where surveillance is low.  On the other hand, being caught brought such shame to one molester that he exacted the highest price of himself.

So was M prevented from boarding a female only carriage?  As it turned out, no.  Many foreign men unwittingly hop aboard “women only” carriages during rush hour without realising their purpose.  And most Japanese women cut them some slack for being ignorant.

Which is not to say that men can’t legally travel in women only carriages.  Far from it; but as with so many things in Japan, there is a polite expectation that male passengers co-operate and use their discretion by refraining from boarding carriages designated for women only.[5]

From thereon in, we decided to do likewise.

Even if it meant standing for a short period.

 

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Shinkansen spotting

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Shinkansen 700 series, Tokyo Station

It didn’t take long for me to become seduced by shinkansen, Japan’s version of high-speed rail.  In fact, I couldn’t have been happier with our hotel in Hiroshima, located directly above the railway station and providing an unobstructed view of shinkansen movements below.

The name shinkansen means “new trunk line”.  These trains run on a dedicated standard gauge track which was purpose-built for the service, powered by an overhead electricity supply.  The trains operate at speeds of up to 300km per hour, using tunnels and viaducts to cut through and over obstacles rather than around them.[1]  They take about three and a half minutes to slow down before stopping.

The reason for building a high-speed rail network in Japan was increasing congestion in the densely populated Tokyo-Osaka corridor, where some 45 million people were living immediately after World War 2.

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Shinkansen O series (Osaka Railway Museum)

The first shinkansen service – indeed the first high-speed rail service in the world – opened on 1 October 1964 between Tokyo and Osaka, just in time for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

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The closest I’ll ever come to sitting in the driver’s compartment of a shinkansen (O series, Osaka Railway Museum)

The service became an instant success and has since been extended throughout Honshu and the northern part of Kyushu, with plans underway to link to Hokkaido.   As of November 2010, 4.9 billion people had travelled on these trains.[2]

The service is one of the most reliable in the world, with departures and arrivals occurring within 6 seconds of scheduled times.

As with so many things in Japan, there are certain protocols and rules that go along with travelling on a shinkansen.

The first is lining up in the correct place.

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The signs on the platform show the length of train and where your carriage will stop in relation to the location of your pre-booked seat (if you have one).  This is where you join the queue.  And when the train stops, the door of your carriage will open at that very spot on the platform marked by the sign.

According to Japan Rail regulations, each traveller is allowed to bring up to two pieces of luggage (excluding small bags), with each piece not weighing more than 30kg and not measuring more than 250cm in width and depth, with length not exceeding 200cm.  If anything, this allowance seems more generous than I observed the capacity of the overhead space to be able to accommodate.  Once this fills up, the alternative is a small space behind the last row of seats where bags can and do pile up quickly..

Fortunately, common sense – and several planned stops – dictated that we travelled light.  We learned our lesson well all those years ago dragging 60kg of luggage on and off European trains.

Good manners are de rigeur and include refraining from stowing your luggage in the aisles, talking quietly, reclining your seat gently so as not to inconvenience the person behind you, and setting your mobile phone to silent mode.  You can SMS, email and web surf to your heart’s content.  You will probably lose signal in a tunnel, of course.

When you think of it, none of the above protocols is exactly onerous and it makes for a much more pleasant trip for everyone.

So what is the shinkansen experience like?  Well, it’s fast.  Very fast.  And very smooth.  The only time you might notice a slight “adjustment” is when another shinkansen passes alongside.  Even entering and exiting tunnels is seamless.

Seats in ordinary class are generally in 3X2 configuration, comfortable and with plenty of leg room.  A smiling woman pushes a food cart up and down the aisle; we were not tempted by the offer, but were more intrigued with her uniform which would easily have passed muster on Tokyo’s Takeshite-Dori of a Sunday morning.

The trains are squeaky clean, both on the inside and outside.  The exteriors are blissfully clear of graffiti, one of the defining characteristics of Sydney trains.  Maybe the shinkansen travel too fast and don’t stop long enough for any latent Japanese graffiti artists to point a spray can at them?

Upcoming destinations and announcements are repeated in English, so there is no excuse to overstay your stop, even though it’s often tempting to do so.  On the other hand, because Shinkansen work so closely to their scheduled times, you will miss your train if you’re late.

However, there is always the next one.

You may only have to wait as long as five minutes.

 

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How to max out a Japan Rail Pass

At some stage of one’s Japanese journey, one is likely to want to travel by train.  This presents the foreign traveller with two choices: to buy individual tickets on a “pay as you go” basis, or to buy a Japan Rail Pass before entering the country.

The Japan Rail Pass is available only to foreign tourists.  There are two types: “ordinary” (base level) and “green car” (superior class).  They can be purchased for one, two or three weeks and offer unlimited travel on most Japan Rail services for the chosen period.

A key benefit of the Pass is the ability to pre-book seats at no extra cost.  While train seats can be pre-booked without a Pass, they incur a fee which, on the shinkansen (bullet) trains, can be almost as high as the fare itself.  And no trip to Japan would be complete without at least one leg on a bullet train.

Opinion on the topic of the Japan Rail Pass was divided.  Some friends swore by it, while others felt that they had lost nothing by having gone without.  We were still deliberating when our travel agent advised us that part of our stay would overlap with Golden Week, a peak travel period. When he said that people were known to stand in trains during Golden Week, that clinched the deal for us.

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We bought a Japan Rail Pass for three weeks at a cost of 57,700 yen each.  By the end of three weeks, we had made seven shinkansen rides, 17 ordinary train rides, two ferry trips and a couple of bus rides in Hiroshima.

With the help of the excellent hyperdia.com website, I have calculated what it would have cost us if we’d not had a Japan Rail Pass, with and without the booking fee.

If we’d opted for unreserved seats on all legs, the cost would have been 50,690 yen.  Pre-booking seats added another 32,100 yen, making a total outlay of 82,790 yen.  The Pass certainly works for you if you want the certainty of being able to sit down.

I acknowledge that if we’d travelled in low season, we may have gotten away with buying each fare and still managing to sit down on all train legs.  However, we may have been a bit more circumspect – perhaps a bit less adventurous – about the number of trips we would have made.  The almost unlimited credit of the Pass certainly encourages you to travel more often which, in turn, means that you will see more.  In our case, we explored several lesser known destinations along the way, where we may otherwise not have ventured.

So was it worth it?  Well, apart from the joys of train travel in Japan, which will be the subject of another post, the answer is a qualified “yes”.  Much depends on how long you spend in a particular place, whether it is serviced by shinkansen – the most expensive of Japanese trains – and whether it offers opportunities for day trips.  If those three criteria line up, then the Pass will deliver benefits both to your hip pocket as well as your experience of Japan.

And there is nothing quite like sitting down as you watch the scenery pass by.

 

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Where can I get a coffee?

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Australian city dwellers tend to take their coffee very seriously.  We have a robust coffee culture with countless caffeine holes in the city and suburbs, where competition and quality is generally high, and brand loyalty is hard-earned.  If a barista burns the beans just once, we’ll move on to the next place.  And we don’t care how good the chocolate brownies are because it’s all about the coffee.

So how would Japan – a country perceived as having an obsession with drinking tea and sake – rate on a coffee drinker’s index of satisfaction?  Would it evoke the words of Edward VII (1841-1910) who is reputed to have said that he could tell when he’d crossed the frontier into Germany because the coffee was so bad?

A first time visitor might be surprised to learn that Japan is one of the largest consumers of coffee in the world.  And this didn’t happen overnight.

Dutch traders first introduced coffee about 400 years ago, but it wasn’t until the port of Kobe opened to trade in 1868 that coffee became widely available.  It did not take long to become fashionable with Tokyo’s first kissaten – or coffee shop – opening in 1888.  By the 1930’s there were 3,000 in the city and 160,000 nationally by the 1960’s.[1]

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Like so many things in Japan, operators have taken the best from the West and put their own stamp on it.  In addition to one’s regular brew, you will also find vending machines and convenience stores dispensing bottled, canned and instant coffees.

On our first morning in Japan, as we stepped out of our Shinjuku hotel in search of breakfast, we were confronted by something like this:

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Where Starbucks failed to gain a foothold in Australia, the opposite is the case in Japan where the locals have enthusiastically embraced the concept.  1,000 stores now operate nationally and the Shibuya outlet in Tokyo is alleged to be the highest grossing store in the world.

But we didn’t care to celebrate our first breakfast in Japan with a frappucino.

After fossicking around the streets and laneways east of Shinjuku station, we found a Segafredo outlet.  This offered a passably good cappuccino with an admirable head of froth, albeit it minus the dusting of chocolate we take for granted in Australia.  And from our window seats, we were treated to a spot of light entertainment as representatives of the city traffic department painstakingly measured up how far a parked truck had exceeded its legally allotted space before towing it away.

2013-05-02 12.10.18Our experience of the coffee chains was as variable as the chains are numerous.  No matter how often we asked – admittedly in English or by pointing – we could never get coffee from Vie de France, a Japanese owned French bakery, served in anything other than a cardboard container. Yet Japanese diners seemed to get theirs in porcelain.

The local Tully chain, with its white sandwiches and lukewarm coffees, offered all but one beverage in a cardboard cup.  So I ordered the espresso, something I would never do at home because I don’t like espresso.

Family run coffee shops can also be a hit and miss affair.  Our venture into a charming looking Asakusa coffee shop renewed our acquaintance with a substance we’d long forgotten.  I began by asking for a cappuccino and M a flat white.  These were politely declined and we were directed to the single coffee offer on the menu.  At 300 yen a piece, we expected at least filter coffee.  The whistling of a kettle on the counter should have been a dead giveaway, but it wasn’t until the coffees arrived at our table and we’d taken the first sip, that we realised what we were drinking: instant.

By contrast, some of our best coffee drinking experiences were at what we would have thought of as unlikely places.  I can’t readily think of a Sydney train station where I would choose to sit down and enjoy a “cap”, but there are many such places at Japanese stations and some of them serve exceptionally fine coffee.  At Namba station in Osaka, we were introduced to the Kiefel brew.  Kiefel has been in business for the last 50 years so clearly they are doing something right.  And while M’s black coffee was a tad on the dear side at 500 yen, it was worth every drop.

The station at Hakata – a stop more visited in order to change trains than as a point of disembarkation – yielded a fine coffee shop where the coffee was splendid and the smokers were tucked away in a sealed bunker, far from the aroma of roasting coffee beans.

I’m sure that Edward VII would have been satisfied.

 

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A funny dunny

“From singing johns to heated commodes, Japan has long been number one when it comes to number two.” [Lonely Planet Guide to Japan, 2011].

Bathroom, loo, lavatory, WC, dunny, long drop, bog, commode, toilet….whatever you want to call it, this is the place where, in most countries, you go simply to relieve yourself.  In the west, it’s an upright “sit down” version, in the east a “squat” type sunk into the floor.  Japan has both.

The Japanese squat toilet is like most others in Asia, with the odd modification.

IMG_4120You will notice that it has a raised part at one end.  If you’re executing a number one, the idea is to face the raised side, lower yourself into  position with enough clearance, take aim and do the necessary.  This position is designed to minimise wetting the floor and everything else within close range, such as your clothing.  If you’re wondering about the bin in the corner, that is where you place soiled loo paper.  And the feet in the kangaroo socks are mine.

Amusing – and often challenging – as westerners find the squat toilet, it’s not where I wish to linger.  It is the western style, sit down version in Japan that captures the imagination of most visitors. For this is yet another example of Japan’s ingenuity in taking an ordinary western concept and turning it into something unique.

While I have no doubt that this is not the first post about the Japanese toilet – I commend you to Introvert Japan’s recent post “The miraculous Japanese toilet” – I am certain that it will also not be the last.

A few examples.

Our Tokyo hotel room toilet with its adjacent “armrest” of functions.

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The spray and bidet jets are remarkably accurate, directed exactly to that part of the anatomy as depicted.  Nothing goes to waste.

A constant flow of warmth is pumped to the toilet seat in most models, one of the most endearing features of the Japanese toilet which, in my opinion, is worthy of its own ISO standard.

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In confined quarters, wall mounted controls save space.

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Our Kyoto hotel toilet.  Note addition of “flushing sound” function.

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Push the button twice unless you enjoy the sound of unabated flushing.

Benesse House minimalistic design….

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…with all the usual features plus a few others.  I  never got to figure out the purpose of the vertical buttons.

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None of the above, however, compares with Sega’s development of the ‘toylet‘, a urinal that encourages men to take part in a series of contests by varying the strength and direction of their urine flow.

Each of the urinals is fitted with a pressure sensor in the bowl and a screen mounted on the wall above the unit.  Players can choose from five games, which are interspersed with advertisements for products and services. Sega hopes that users of these toilets will pay more attention to the adverts if they can also play games while using the facilities.

Only in Japan.

 

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