The Wisteria Tunnel of Kawachi Fuji-en

At long last, the wisteria tunnel! During our visit to Kitakyushu last weekend, Tessa and I stopped by the absolutely incredible wisteria gardens of Kawachi Fuji-en. The light rain showers became fairly steady rain during our brief visit–not so good as personal comfort goes, but pretty amazing for photographic purposes with diffused light and misty backgrounds. Normally I would curate the selection of photos a little more carefully, but this time I’m just posting a lot. Because I can.

For those of you intrigued and interested in viewing wisteria next year, you don’t have to go all the way to Kitakyushu. Another famous wisteria park called Ashikaga Flower Park sits much closer to Tokyo, and tours from companies like Japanican make scheduling a visit easy.



A Japanese Museum Without a Mascot? Or, our Visit to the Toto Museum

Shortly after we moved to Japan two years ago, Toto Corporation opened the Toto Museum adjacent to its corporate headquarters. Roughly 112% of my Facebook friends sent me links to news stories covering the blessed event–you know who you are–and Tessa in particular seized on the idea of visiting. Sure, I thought. I’m game. Then I realized which city hosts the museum: Kitakyushu, about 1000 km (620 miles) from Tokyo. While I appreciate the child’s smart aleck streak, I wasn’t about to trek all the way to the other side of Japan for said museum visit. So I nixed the idea pretty quickly.

IMG_6861Fast forward two years. Two months ago another Facebook friend linked to an amazing story about the beautiful wisteria tunnel in Japan. I knew about sakura (cherry blossom) madness but nothing about wisteria until then. Her post caught my eye and I clicked through, learning that one such garden lies near Kitakyushu. The same town as the Toto Museum. I know. I know! Traveling across Japan for one silly museum sounded crazy, but a wisteria tunnel and Toto Museum suddenly made for a splendid girls’ weekend. So last Friday, Tessa and I boarded a shinkansen (bullet train) and off we went.



We arrived at the sleek museum, which clearly took its inspiration from one too many visits to the Apple store. Elegantly dressed staff took our photo for us at the museum entrance in front of a sign with the attraction name and the current date, a feature of pretty much any attraction in Japan. Notably missing was the adorable mascot, which every museum, town, and even government agency in Japan proudly features.


IMG_6865We started wandering the exhibits and learned about the history of modern plumbing in Japan, and of course the nearly-messianic role that the Toto Corporation played in its evolution. Here’s an overview, with a disclaimer. I didn’t take notes during our visit, assuming that I could find a detailed history of Toto online after my visit. But alas, I cannot–at least not in English. So here’s a quick and dirty of how Toto came about, from memory.

The eventual founder of Toto (whose name escapes me, and the Google) visited Europe around 1905. He saw the sleek, shiny ceramic toilets in use and thought, cool–we should do that in Japan. So he returned to Japan and started tinkering around with prototypes in 1912. In 1917 he incorporated the Toyo Toki Company and started producing ceramic toilets and vanities. The only problem? Very few Japanese homes had running water or sewer service, so the company had no customers. So while they waited for demand to catch up, the ceramic kilns instead cranked out Western-style tableware for the Noritake Company, still in business today.

Within a few years demand for toilets went up, especially in public housing and government buildings. Toto found its way into both lucrative markets, and the rest is toilet history.

IMG_5925In the U.S., anyone who recognizes the name Toto likely pictures a super high-end line of luxury cans with heated and self-raising seats, washlets squirting warm water about, and price tags in the thousands of U.S. dollars. While those models certainly exist, here in Japan Toto plumbing fixtures are much more common and pedestrian. Think Kohler or American Standard–solid, respectable brands but not necessarily crazy expensive. All of the plumbing fixtures in our house are made by Toto, and they are pretty ordinary. Solid, yes. But not exactly luxury items. Though yes, all of our toilets feature washlets.

Here in Japan washlets are sold as standalone units that are installed on the separately-purchased toilets, and washlets’ prices start around 20,000 yen, or just under $200 USD. Prices go up from there as you add more crazy features, but installing a basic washlet in Japan doesn’t automatically make you material for MTV Cribs or anything. [Is that show even on anymore? I bet my millenial cousins are rolling their eyes and/or wondering what the %$!* I’m talking about. But I digress.]

So without further ado, let’s stroll through the museum’s galleries, shall we?

I have absolutely no idea what Tessa was doing here, but it made me laugh

So this sink. Gorgeous, right? At least I bet you menfolk think so. This kind of sink makes me absolutely crazy, because I am a woman who has the nerve to stand in front of a bathroom sink (in my home, not this one) and use a hairdryer and put on makeup and stuff. So where do the hairdryer and makeup go? In the sink basin itself, because there is no counter space. I see this All. The. Time. (I’m looking at you, Ikea.) The giant/wide basin looks lovely from a design perspective, and there’s just enough space on the ledge for a toothbrush and maybe a bar of soap–you know, the tools of your average man’s grooming regimen. But women have Stuff, and this poorly designed sink proudly flies the flag declaring that Not One Woman Was Involved in the Design of This Item.


Tessa/Goldilocks gives different sized toilets a go.


I know what you’re wondering: What does the public restroom at the Toto Museum look like? Let’s take a look!


So far so good: a fancy, well-lit, spotless Freshen Up the Makeup Area (with a counter!)…..


….ooh, fancy standalone sinks!


…a toilet that almost/literally scared the [ahem] out of me when I opened the stall door and the seat raised automatically and illuminated the bowl with a slightly menacing blue glow…


….amusing signs labeling the toilet’s functions. Looking great so far…..


…and a miss: the back-of-the-door hook hung so high that I had to hop a little to hang my bag. So close, you guys! You almost had the perfect bathroom.


Next: photos from our visit to the Kawachi Fuji-en Wisteria Tunnel. Stay tuned!

“So Have You Written About the Toilets Yet?”

Japan is famous for so many things: Sumo. Sushi. Manga and Anime. And yes, fancy, high-tech toilets. My friend Kristi posed the question above over a year ago, so at long last–let’s talk toilets!

Tessa and I are heading on a girls’ road (rail?) trip to the Toto Toilet Museum in Kitakyushu this weekend, so I’ll save the history of how Japan achieved toilet supremacy after our visit there. For now, let’s look at the toilet situation as it stands today.

Why yes, I *did* pimp our toilet with stickers of a Panda face–from the 100 yen store, natch!

Like most Japanese homes, our bathrooms feature washlets, which are heated toilet seats that includes a nozzle for spraying warm water when you’re done with your business. Washlets are incredibly common, even in public restrooms; you’ll find them in train stations, restaurants, and pretty much everywhere.

Hands down, highway rest stops feature the most impressive public restrooms. My friend Sina snapped the following photo on a recent road trip.


My favorite part of this photo? Not the fancy status board, or the impressive floral arrangements. It’s the piece of red tape and shapes of feet to show you where to stand. It makes me laugh every time I look at this photo.

Here are a few more snaps from a rather typical highway rest stop stall, including directions on how to sit on a toilet.

The problem with these awesome toilets pretty much everywhere is that it sets a really, really high bar for future toilet use. Over the winter I was at the Navy base and popped in to use the restroom. It was a cold day, and the restroom had its door open to the outside with no heat inside–and no heated toilet seats. So I’m doing my business and I hear a mother negotiating with a young girl who is very irate to discover the unheated seat. “But I don’t want to sit on the American toilet! IT’S SO COOOOOOLD!!!! I want a Japanese toilet”. The mother desperately tried to shush the daughter while the rest of us in the bathroom burst out laughing. We assured the mother that the daughter was right. American toilets are so, so cold.

FullSizeRender 8 copy 2Another fun quirk of Japanese bathrooms is toilet slippers. You’ll find these at hotels and sometimes first floor bathrooms of private homes, and you’re supposed to surrender your indoor slippers at the bathroom door to use the communal toilet slippers instead. Perhaps you’re keeping toilet room germs from spreading over the rest of the house–but one would argue that proper toilet usage would keep said germs, you know, *in the toilet.*

All it takes is one visit to a bathroom with nothing but squat toilets to explain the toilet slippers phenomenon. Let’s just say that peoples’ aim is pretty poor, and toilet slippers suddenly make a whole lot of sense.

Even with all of the high-tech toilets across the land, squat toilets pop up more than you would expect. In the summer if I’m wearing a skirt, fine. I chalk up squat toilet usage as a Life Skill, albeit a stinky one. But in the winter with lots of layers or skinny jeans, forget it. Train station bathrooms often include one or two squat toilets in addition to the Western toilets. If I’m waiting in line and the squat stall comes open–and I’m not feeling particularly squatty that day–I’ll offer it to the person behind me. Once a Japanese woman grimaced, grabbed her nose, and waved her hand in front of her face using the international gesture for I’m Not Using That Stinky Toilet Either, I’ll Wait For the Next Western Toilet Thankyouverymuch. So now I don’t feel so bad for waiting for the Western toilet.

Coming soon: our report from the Toilet Museum this weekend. Stay tuned!