Strong earthquakes are expected to continue for another week.
The continuing earthquakes that have hit the island of Kyushu for the last four days have wrought significant destruction on the region and resulted in the loss of 41 lives. Beloved historic sites have seen extensive damage, and landslides and a small eruption from the volcano Mount Aso have only added to the disaster and anxiety in the area.
The severity of the earthquakes can be difficult to comprehend, but recent news stories show just how much they have changed the face of the land. According to NHK, one GPS observation point in Minimi Aso moved southwest 97 centimeters (38 inches). The same observation point rose 23 centimeters (about 9 inches). Another observation point moved east-northeast 75 centimeters (about 28.7 inches) and fell 20 centimeters (about 7.87 inches).
The tremors and aftershocks have yet to stop and NHK reports that over 400 have been detected between the first earthquake on April 14 and noon on April 17. Japan’s meteorological agency expects strong tremors to continue for some time and have called for vigilance in the area, indicating that the earthquakes with a seismic activity of “weak 6” may continue for around another week. Currently, 11 people have been reported missing.
In addition to the earthquakes striking Japan, a massive earthquake has also hit Ecuador, resulting in the deaths of 28 people.
Despite the visual beauty and life-giving nature of plants, there’s always been one main problem with our vegetative friends: plants can’t fly. A small company called Hoshinchu based out of Kyushu, Japan, recently set out to fix the problem that evolution forgot by inventing the Air Bonsai, a system for magnetically levitating small bonsai trees several inches above a small electrified pedestal. The system allows you to create your own miniature Avatar-like worlds with tiny trees or shrubs planted in balls of moss, but is also powerful enough to suspend special ceramic dishes of fragments of lava rock.
Air Bonsai is currently funding like crazy on Kickstarter and is availble in a number of configurations starting with a base DIY kit for $200 that requires you to use your own plants up to more elaborate designs that may only ship in Japan.
German videographer Marc Szeglat managed to capture video of an extremely rare volcanic lightning storm in the plume of Sakurajima, a highly active volcano location on the Japanese island of Kyushu. The phenomenon, also known as a dirty thunderstorm, occurs when particles from the eruption collide to produce static charges.
Usually when people talk about “culture shock,” we think of moving to another country–but it doesn’t have to be limited to that. It can be anything from moving from one prefecture to another or even just moving into the city from the country or vice versa.
Of course, you can’t get much more “city” than Tokyo, so, of course, many Japanese people moving here from more rural areas might experience a bit of culture shock. And today we’ll be looking at one such example for one of our Japanese writers who came to the metropolis from Kyushu! Hint: it involves delicious ice cream.
▼We’ve marked Kyushu on the bottom-left and Tokyo on the right.
Of course, moving from Kyushu to Tokyo isn’t exactly the same as, say, moving to Japan’s capital city from France or Germany, though it certainly does present a host of new things to learn. For Takashi Harada, one of our writers for the Japanese side of RocketNews24, there was naturally a lot to get used to, least not the ocean of people inhabiting the city. But one of the biggest differences for him was the food–to be specific, the lack of a certain ice cream bar.
Called “Burakku Monburan,” or “Black Mont Blanc,” the ice cream bar (pictured above) is one of the most popular in Kyushu. Unfortunately for homesick Kyushu natives living elsewhere in Japan, the dessert is sold almost exclusively on the mostly-rural island. However, it seems that the ice cream bar is so popular and so common in Kyushu that most who live there never even consider that it’s not really available anywhere else.
In fact, according to our writer, the ice cream is a bit like local “soul food” and everyone from child to adults eat it. So, when Takashi stopped by a local convenience store in Tokyo, he was taken aback to find it wasn’t on any of the shelves. It’s not quite as bad as being allergic to fish in Japan, but it was a bit of a shock to our writers, and we can imagine that it would be enough to ruin your night if you’re really looking for some comfort food after moving halfway across the country!
“It would be like if Garigari-kun suddenly disappeared from all the convenience stores!” he explained. While that might not mean much to you if you’ve never had one of Japan’s most popular popsicles, it would certainly be a shock to most Japanese people.
By now, you’re probably wondering what makes this Black Mont Blanc ice cream bar so special, but it’s apparently just vanilla ice cream covered in chocolate and cookie crumbs. That’s…actually, that sounds really good, even if it is still freezing in Tokyo right now! But it’s not just the ice cream itself–the bar was first produced 45 years ago, and we suspect its long life has been part of cementing its popularity. Kind of like an edible security blanket.
Now, we mentioned above that it’s almost exclusively sold in Kyushu. Apparently the manufacturer has started branching out a little bit, and you can now find it at limited stores. For example, it’s available at Summit in Tokyo, some 7-Elevens in the Kansai area, and you can buy it online, too.
A proper anime character huggy pillow seems to have become a critical component of the full fetish and fantasy regalia of a well-rounded otaku, but there are certain things you just can’t do with such a 2-D crush. Sure, anime girl pillows will let you squeeze them and passionately insert your sweet nothings into their non-existent eardrums, but no matter how fervently romantic you become, you can’t expect any sort of pillow talk from your pillow.
Unless, that is, you’re curled up beneath the sheets with theIta-Supo, the first talking huggy pillow that responds to your touch with verbal responses, including angry outbursts if you get too grabby.
Developer Koichi Uchimura used to be a researcher at Kyushu Institute of Technology. While we’re not sure what precise field of academia he was involved with at the Fukuoka Prefecture university, his current mission in life is developing new technologies with which to “support people’s otaku life.”
No stranger to the allures of anime huggy pillows, or dakimakura, as they’re called in Japanese, Uchimura nonetheless was feeling unfulfilled. “When we’d sleep in the same bed, I’d start to think, ‘I wish she could talk,’ so I wanted to make that a reality.”
The result was Rina Makuraba, whose family name is a pun on makura, the Japanese word for pillow.
The Ita-Supo isn’t as rudimentary as a button-activated speaker inside a pillowcase, though. As Uchimura explains in the product’s introductory video, “If you don’t rub her, she won’t make any sounds. You have to rub her.”
▼ The inventor is happy to demonstrate his technique.
You can probably already see where this is going: straight to the breasts, which in this instance are accompanied by Rina meowing like a pleased kitty cat…
…followed by an excursion in Crotchland, which elicits a breathy, “No, not there,” but capped with a telltale heart mark to show she’s being coquettishly consensual.
“For otaku, this is the dakimakura of their dreams,” asserts Uchimura. But while that claim might make you imagine that Rina will let you do whatever you want with her, that’s actually not how the system works.
As shown in the video, the sensor responds differently to different kinds of stroking. Mash your palm over Rina’s chest, and she’ll get upset, saying, “Hey, that hurts!” and “Hey, hands off!” Uchimura even alludes to a cumulative effect, where a continual lack of gentleness will put Rina in such a bad mood she’ll stop talking to you altogether.
On the other hand, a smoother, more measured groping will instead produce a string of increasingly positive reactions.
▼ “What’s gonna happen if I start to love you even more than I already do?”
Otaku who’re worried about a limited phrase set ruining the mood by making it feel like they’re making out with a 1994 Sega Genesis sports game announcer will be pleased to know that the Ita-Supo comes preloaded with over 500 speech patterns. Uchimura says that expansions are also planned, which can be downloaded to your smartphone, then transferred into the pillow.
Despite proudly referring to Rina as his wife in the video, Uchimura seems to have no qualms about sharing, or even selling, his anime spouse, and his campaign on Japanese crowdfunding site Makuake has already raised 302,000 yen (US $2,560) of the 500,000 yen it’s seeking. 20,000 yen will get you your very own touch-responsive dakimakura, featuring either Rina or alternate Ita-Supo stars Shion Kamitsuki and Shiho Natsuki.
▼ Shion and Shiho’s family names aren’t as pun-tastic as Rina’s, but they do both contain the kanji character for “moon,” keeping with the nocturnal image of pillows (and bedtop hanky-panky).
If you’re feeling like your bed is both too lonely and too quiet, you can throw some cash at Uchimura right here. Who knows, if the response is positive enough, maybe for his next project he’ll equip that giant six-meter (19.7-foot) anime dakimakura we saw last month with a megaphone.
The speciality here is tonkotsu with pork loin slices, crunchy kikurage (cloud ear mushroom) and thin, own-made noodles (in the dish called Shiromaru Hakata Classic). Vegetarians are not left out at Ippudo: there’s a seaweed and mushroom broth-based version that’s topped with fried tofu. Sadly, this is another no-bookings restaurant, and despite running to 80 covers, queues have been enormous so far.
Founded in Japan in 2009, this award-winning tonkotsu specialist arrived in London in September 2014. Small, brightly lit and minimal, it is not the place for a leisurely meal. And it has a serious downside: lengthy mealtime queues outside its doors. But this is exceptional ramen, using smooth, rich, seriously savoury tonkotsu broth – one of the best we’ve tried in London.
In Tokyo there’s a whole, maze-like restaurant devoted to ninjas with stealthy staff dressed the part. Now London also has its own ninja-inspired venue, named after the fictional Edo period warrior Sarutobi Sasuke. But you won’t find any trick doors or throwing stars at this Soho ramen bar. As for the ramen, our miso version was hearty enough to fuel any covert mission.
There are just a handful of varieties on offer at Seto, like soya sauce (shoyu), miso and Korean pickled cabbage (kimchi). All are made with an earthy chicken and pork bone broth and filled with pleasingly chewy noodles. Another ramen shop staple, pork gyoza dumplings, make a good choice too with crisp bottoms and bouncy wrappers.
Run by the same people as the Japan Centre across the road, Shoryu mix authentic Japanese flavours with a little bit of innovation. Specialising in tonkotsu ramen, made with a long-simmered pork bone broth, the bowls are filled with bouncy noodles and include a choice of unusual toppings like wasabi stalks and spicy-pickled mustard leaves. There’s a second branch in Soho.
Another champion of the long-simmered pork bone broth variety of noodles in soup stock, Tonkotsu serve theirs topped with slices of tender pork, beansprouts and half a marinated soft-boiled egg. They also offer a veggie noodle soup here – something you don’t see so often at ramen joints. There’s a second branch in Haggerston.
While the vast majority of Japan’s population is crammed onto its four largest islands, Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku, and Hokkaido, the country’s territories extend much farther out to sea. For example, if you head about 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) south of downtown Tokyo, you’ll come to the Ogasawara Islands, one of Japan’s most remote settlements.
We’ve talked about the Ogasawaras before, and how their beautiful ocean scenery has been helping to attract tourists, to the archipelago. Recently, though, the islands have been seeing an increasing number of extremely unwelcome visitors, in the form of ship coming from China to poach coral.
Japanese authorities and Chinese fishing fleets regularly butt heads in the disputed Senkaku Islands. Things are usually a lot more peaceful, however, in the Ogasawaras, which presumably have less strategic importance due to their greater distance from mainland Asia and Taiwan.
The Japanese media has a lot more eyes on the ordinarily low-profile Ogasawaras these days, though, with reports of groups of as many as 200 Chinese vessels gathering to harvest red coral, which is then transported back to China for sale. Xiapu County, a district of Ningde City on the coast of the East China Sea, is said to be the base of operations for many of the poachers.
In order to recoup the fuel and labor costs for their voyage to Japan, some of the poaching vessels spend two months out of port, employing techniques such as camouflaging their Chinese markingsin to avoid arousing suspicion. The coral they gather is then sold illicitly sold in Xiapu, and with more product available than what’s needed to supply local demand, buyers also come from Shanghai to purchase large quantities to resell in other markets that are more lucrative still.
Japanese fishermen in the Ogasawara complain that the poaching activities are already disrupting their catches. Environmentalists and tourism promoters are likewise angry over the illegal practice, given that the slow speed at which coral develops makes any damage an ecological tragedy.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement denouncing the illegal gathering of red coral, and has expressed its intentions to work with its Japanese counterparts in addressing the problem. At least a portion of the Xiapu public is unhappy with the poachers as well, as illustrated by an interior goods shop with a notice posted reminding customers that, “Recent poaching of red coral on the open seas has been staining our town’s image.”
The authorities have also offered rewards of up to 10,000 yuan (US$1,640) for information regarding poaching activities, and anecdotal evidence points to black market sellers becoming less brazen and open in the trafficking of their ill-gotten goods. Here’s hoping the countermeasures continue to be effective, giving the Ogasawara Islands’ coral the earliest possible start on its healing process.
At 10am on 1 October 1964, with less than a week and a half to go before the start of the Tokyo Olympic Games, the two inaugural Hikari Super Express Shinkansen, or “bullet trains,” arrived at their destinations, Tokyo and Osaka. They were precisely on time. Hundreds of people had waited overnight in each terminal to witness this historic event, which, like the Olympics, heralded not just Japan’s recovery from the destruction of the second world war, but the beginning of what would be Japan’s stratospheric rise as an economic superpower. The journey between Japan’s two biggest cities by train had previously taken close to seven hours. The Shinkansen had made the trip in four.
The world’s first high-speed commercial train line, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Wednesday, was built along the Tokaido, one of the five routes that connected the Japanese hinterland to Edo, the city that in the mid-1800s became Tokyo. Though train lines crisscrossed the country, they were inadequate to postwar Japan’s newborn ambitions. The term “shinkansen” literally means “new trunk line”: symbolically, it lay at the very centre of the huge reconstruction effort. All previous railways were designed to serve regions. The purpose of the Tokaido Shinkansen, true to its name, was to bring people to the capital.
A couple say goodbye as he leaves on the Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo.
After the war Tokyo was in ruins, but its rebuilding progressed without any master plan. As industries gravitated to the city, young people flocked to Tokyo to work; and as they started families they were encouraged to buy homes. The only land they could afford, however, was outside the already densely populated city. Property prices skyrocketed in the 1970s, and even more during the “bubble era” of the 1980s, forcing newer families even further from the city centre. Tokyo swelled to elephantine proportions. The Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area, composed of four prefectures, became the world’s pre-eminent megalopolis – some 35 million people by 2010, or 27% of Japan’s total population. It isn’t unusual for commuters to spend two hours getting to work every day on trains that exceed 150% of capacity.
This “rush hour hell” has been made famous worldwide by images of station employees stuffing stragglers into packed train cars – potent symbols of the superhuman forbearance of the Japanese worker, but also the dogged efficiency of Japan’s railways. All foreign visitors to Japan invariably ride the trains and come away with the same impression: Japan’s public transportation is the cleanest, most courteous in the world, run by uniformed, be-gloved men and women who still epitomise a hallowed Japanese work ethic that most companies struggle to maintain in an economy that has remained sluggish for two decades.
Crown prince Naruhito on board a Shinkansen bullet train in 1968.
But the most vital aspect of this efficiency is that trains run on time, all the time. This is not just a point of pride. It is a necessity, given the huge number of people that have to be moved. Transfers are timed to the split second, and the slightest delay has the butterfly effect of delaying connections. The Shinkansen is no exception, as exemplified by the “angels”: teams of pink-attired women who descend on a train as soon as it arrives at its terminal and in five minutes leave it spotless for the return trip.
The first Shinkansen skirted the Pacific coast through the huge industrial corridor that links the capital with Osaka. This is a nearly unbroken stretch of urbanisation: it has few parallels on the planet. By the early 1950s the conventional train that ran on this route was crammed. Taking a hint from the private Odakyu Electric Railway, which launched a train that could reach speeds of 145km/hr, Japan National Railways (JNR) decided to develop an even faster train, and in April 1959 construction of the Tokaido Shinkansen commenced with an initial budget of ¥200bn (£1.1bn), though the eventual cost would be double that.
The high-speed network now reaches all the way west to the island of Kyushu and north to Akita, at the northern tip of the main island, Honshu. Next March, the Hokuriku Shinkansenwill be extended to Kanazawa near the Japan Sea; there are plans to build a new line connecting Honshu to the northernmost island of Hokkaido. Each line is under the authority of one of four JR (Japan Railways) companies that formed when JNR was privatised in 1987. But the central government has overseen the construction of all new Shinkansen lines, usually covering 35% of the cost (JR companies pay 50% and local governments 15%). That means the construction ministry makes the relevant decisions about where lines go, or which cities get stations.
In an interview in the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper last week, Takashi Hara, a political scholar and expert on Japanese railroads, said the policy of extending the Shinkansen was promulgated by Kakuei Tanaka, Japan’s prime minister from 1972 to 1974. “The purpose was to connect regional areas to Tokyo,” Hara said. “And that led to the current situation of a national Shinkansen network, which completely changed the face of Japan. Travel times were shortened and vibration was alleviated, making it possible for more convenient business and pleasure trips, but I have to say that the project just made all the [connecting] cities part of Tokyo.”
And where the Shinkansen’s long tentacles go, other services shrivel. Local governments in Japan rely heavily on the central government for funds and public works – it’s how the central government keeps them in line. Politicians actively court high-speed railways since they believe they attract money, jobs and tourists. In the early 1990s, a new Shinkansen was built to connect Tokyo to Nagano, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. The train ran along a similar route as the Shinetsu Honsen, one of the most romanticised railroads in Japan, beloved of train buffs the world over for its amazing scenery – but also considered redundant by operators JR East because, as with almost all rural train lines in Japan, it lost money. There were only two profitable stations on the line – Nagano and the resort community of Karuizawa – and both would be served by the new Shinkansen. A large portion of the Shinetsu Honsen closed down; local residents who relied on it had to use cars or buses.
Meanwhile, the bullet train has sucked the country’s workforce into Tokyo, rendering an increasingly huge part of the country little more than a bedroom community for the capital. One reason for this is a quirk of Japan’s famously paternalistic corporations: namely, employers pay their workers’ commuting costs. Tax authorities don’t consider it income if it’s less than ¥100,000 a month – so Shinkansen commutes of up to two hours don’t sound so bad. New housing subdivisions filled with Tokyo salarymen subsequently sprang up along the Nagano Shinkansen route and established Shinkansen lines, bringing more people from further away into the capital.
The Shinkansen’s focus on Tokyo, and the subsequent emphasis on profitability over service, has also accelerated flight from the countryside. It’s often easier to get from a regional capital to Tokyo than to the nearest neighbouring city. Except for sections of the Tohoku Shinkansen, which serves northeastern Japan, local train lines don’t always accommodate Shinkansen rolling stock, so there are often no direct transfer points between local lines and Shinkansen lines. The Tokaido Shinkansen alone now operates 323 trains a day, taking 140 million fares a year, dwarfing local lines. This has had a crucial effect on the physical shape of the city. As a result of this funnelling, Tokyo is becoming even denser and more vertical – not just upward, but downward. With more Shinkansen passengers coming into the capital, JR East has to dig ever deeper under Tokyo Station to create more platforms.
Deepest of all is the new Tokyo terminal for the latest incarnation of the bullet train – the maglev, or Chuo (“central”) Shinkansen, which is supposed to connect Tokyo to Nagoya by 2027 and is being built 40m underground. The maglev is the next technological stage in the evolution of high-speed rail travel. It is meant to be a morale booster for Japan’s railway industry, which no longer boasts the fastest trains or the biggest ridership in the world, distinctions that now belong to Japan’s huge neighbour to the west.
A passenger in traditional dress on board a Japanese Hikari Shinkansen bullet train in 1965.
It is being built by JR Tokai, the company that runs the original super-profitable Tokaido Shinkansen, though experts assume the central government will eventually have to contribute money due to snowballing costs. The Chuo Shinkansen will cut the time it takes to get to Nagoya to 40 minutes, theoretically putting the central Japanese capital within commuting distance of Tokyo – in much the same way that the proposed HS2 will make Birmingham a bedroom community of London. “The Chuo Shinkansen will make Nagoya feel like a suburb of Tokyo,” said Hara.
If you have any doubt about that, consider that the maglev – short for “magnetic-levitation”, and known in Japanese as “linear motor car” – has to move in as straight and as level a line as possible in order to reach the speeds that will make it the fastest train on Earth. But since Japan’s topography is mostly mountainous, 86% of the journey will be underground. (The technology probably makes more sense on a flat, open terrain, and JR Tokai is trying to sell it abroad.) In other words, the maglev will essentially be a very long subway ride. Certainly few tourists will find it appealing.
Plans are to extend the maglev to Osaka by 2045, by which time potential ridership will have declined by a third, due to Japan’s shrinking population and more efficient air travel due to new regional airports. The Shinkansen is expensive; with the rise of low-cost carriers, any train trip that takes more than two hours from Tokyo is less cost-effective than flying. The development of the Shinkansen can’t be separated from geography. China’s faster, vaster high-speed rail service isn’t all focused on Beijing, because the country itself is huge; in Japan, however, until recently the Shinkansen was the best way to get to Tokyo from almost anywhere. Like the first Shinkansen, the maglev is a national project, even if the central government hasn’t spent any money on it (yet), but national priorities aren’t as clear as they were in the 1950s. Tokyo can’t get any bigger. Other areas of Japan are barely hanging on. Japan’s high-speed rail system may end up being the victim of its own success.
Elegant kimono, cascading wisteria blossoms and the stunning scenery of Kyushu, Japan’s most southwesterly island. If this sounds like an archetypal scene from the land of the rising sun, you’d be half right –new drama ‘Kol Kimono’, which hits TV screens in December, is definitely set in Japan. But you won’t find it broadcast there just yet – only in Thailand!
In Thailand, interest in Japanese culture is at an all-time high. Thanks in part to relaxed visa regulations, the number of Thai visitors to Japan has doubled in the last three years. The new primetime drama, which started filming on location in Kyushu last week, also stars Thongchai “Bird” McIntyre, one of Thailand’s biggest names, in his first leading role in 17 years.
▼ Thongchai McIntyre, king of Thai pop.
Entitled Kol Kimono, the 24-part drama is described as a romance with fantasy elements. As you might expect from a plot described as “a cross between Romeo and Juliet and tanabata [a Japanese festival held in July, which has its origins in a story of star-crossed lovers]”, the story revolves around two feuding families.
BEC Group, Thailand’s biggest TV broadcasting company, says the show will be “the highest-class drama in Thai history”. They certainly seem to be pulling out all the stops, with an unprecedented high budget for a drama, and 80 percent of the filming taking place in Kyushu, Japan. Hoping that tourists are inspired to visit the locations shown in the drama will be business-owners in Imari, Ureshino and Takeo cities in Saga Prefecture, which are said to have been used for key scenes.
▼ Lead character Hoshi’s name even means “star” in Japanese. Because they’re star-crossed lovers, right?
To coincide with the show’s first broadcast in December this year, events in Bangkok are being planned, including a kimono fashion show and the opportunity for visitors to try on kimono. There’s no news yet of an international release date, but we’re certainly intrigued by this new drama’s concept and set-up. It’s been given a Japanese title, too (Kimono Hiden, meaning “kimono mystery” or “secrets of kimono”), so we’re looking forward to finding out what Japan makes of its depiction in a Thai drama!
The cast and crew are in Japan from May 14 for the start of filming, as well as for press conferences and some slightly less conventional events, including “praying for the show to be a hit”
Dirt, stains, effluent, material, the load, waste, matter. These are the words my tour guides at Toto‘s toilet factory and research center in Kyushu used to verbally pirouette around what exactly its porcelain thrones deal with: shit. Japanese toilets are probably the best in the business at getting rid of your business, but for many Westerners, that first moment of contact can be terrifying. There are so many buttons, so many unknown symbols and open-to-interpretation stickmen figures; not to mention the (unfounded) fear that you could be sprayed with toilet water by merely approaching one. The Washlet, as Toto’s combination bidet/toilet is called, doesn’t come cheap. And yet, in Japan, they are everywhere. In fact, compared to plain, old, featureless toilets, washlets occupy the majority of restrooms.
Japan’s biggest toilet maker isn’t based in Tokyo. Toto’s headquarters are actually hundreds of miles away from the capital, on the island of Kyushu in the southwest tail of Japan, an area better known for its addictive tonkotsu pork ramen. Toto’s been here for just shy of 100 years; early, illustrious years that included making Japan’s first seated flush toilet. This is the same company that refers to itself as the “Apple of toilet tech.” But for all its technical accomplishments, Toto believes its toilets are the best simply due to its heritage in this area of bathroom fixtures, and not the Star Trek-esque control board attached to the bowl’s side.
FLUSH WITH FEATURES
The washlet’s plethora of user settings focuses more on physics and chemistry than electronics. Toto’s modern toilet bowls have a nanotech coating on the interior to defend against incidental stains and prevent waste from sticking to it long after you’ve flushed. The very latest models even partially electrolyze the flush water, which not only adds an antibacterial bonus to every flush, but also has a bleaching effect on urine stains. And some higher-end washlets pack proximity sensors that cause the seat to raise and lower on your approach and dismount.
A representative demos Toto’s Intelligence Toilet.
Toto’s high-tech integration reached a peak with its nearly 10-year-old, health-centered “Intelligence Toilet.” A collaboration with construction giant, Daiwa House, the entire system included scales built into the bathroom floor, blood sugar and blood pressure monitoring, access to the internet (and your physician) and the ability to conduct “urine analysis.” It also came with a hefty $6,100 price tag.
A graphical representation of the Tornado Flush.
Then there’s the Tornado flush — think of it as the toilet version of Dyson’s “cyclone technology.” Toto’s team made it a point to drill this specific feature into my head. This particular flushing process uses less water, and as demonstrated by the company’s own graphic visualization, is a more efficient way of getting rid of everything. And it’s constantly evolving, too. Toto teams up with universities, using supercomputers to model water physics, test flushing processes with particle waste and tweak the shape of its future toilets.
THE ‘SOUND PRINCESS’ AND THE PEE
For decades, modest Japanese would apparently repeatedly flush the toilet in public stalls to mask any trumpeting. The net effect of which was wasted water. To remedy that, Toto invented the Otohime (translation: sound princess) — a simple noise generator that’s often attached to the company’s public or business-based toilets. Waving your hand overOtohime‘s sensor makes a comforting, camouflaging noise play (a delicate melody, or perhaps something representing a tranquil forest) without an actual water flush, so you can sit in peace.
DON’T CROSS THE STREAMS
The positives of embedding a bidet function within your toilet, aside from a cleaner oshiri (or “arse” in Japanese), are twofold: It’s more economical and, apparently, there’s a therapeutic benefit to washing your butt with water. If you’re looking for said therapeutic relief, Toto’s washlets offer plenty of cleaning options to try out. The typical washlet includes controls for water temperature and pressure, but it can also be further adjusted for both oscillating and pulsing water streams.
With the aid of a strobe light, the Toto team was able to show me how the washlet’s pulsing stream behaves; it’s apparently set to burst at roughly seven centimeters from the spout, about the location of our collective arses’ epicenters. The stream, a mixture of air and water, is also oddly hypnotic, as you’ll see below.
THE BUSINESS OF THE BM
Despite the myriad benefits of a coddled washlet experience, Westerners are still not entirely sold on the toilet upgrade, and not just because of the associated high price. Sure, button panic and the fear of a rogue water stream factor into that hesitation, but there’s also the cultural discomfort to consider: Everybody poops, but no one wants to talk about it.
“It can be difficult to engage with consumers; to have a meaningful discussion about features and benefits beyond the design and basic function of a toilet,” said Brian Hedlund, marketing manager for US-based Kohler.
Everybody poops, but no one wants to talk about it.
Another US company, Brondell, sells bidet seats to augment existing toilets. As company head Steve Scheer told me, for many consumers, the key to understanding and buying into the luxe toilet experience is to test it out. “Trying to convince someone to change their [toilet paper] habits that have been ingrained in them since childhood were difficult at best. Bidet seats are a very personal and experiential thing in that you must experience it firsthand. You need a trusted source to convince you to try.”
Toto’s aware these cultural traditions and taboos hamper its reach in outside markets, especially in the US. To counter that, the company runs a Try a Washlet scheme in several bars and restaurants around the US to educate potential clients. Toto’s overall aim, however, is not the service industry, but upmarket homes. It’s the opposite tact from the bottom-up approach Toto used to build its business in Japan; a washlet for the everyman. In the US and other overseas markets, Toto’s marketing the washlet as aspirational; because most of us want what we can’t have, even if we’re not comfortable talking about it.
PLEASE TAKE A SEAT: TOTO’S WASHLET IN PICTURES
The many washlets on display at Toto’s showroom.
The portable Otohime is a convenient audio disguise for toilets that don’t have audio bells and whistles.
A washlet control panel customized for the US market. That “front” setting is meant for women, but don’t let that stop you from trying it.
Relax. The washlet’s self-cleaning bidet isn’t suddenly going to spray if you press a button — it’s connected to a pressure sensor on the seat.
The Washlet G: a toilet so famous it’s part of Japan’s Mechanical Engineering Heritage, like the bullet train. It was that important.
When the Washlet was first conceived, Toto experimented with varying water pressures and temperatures… on its staff.
Designer washlets, like this floating model, can cost around $6,000.
This one’s a toilet made for Sumo wrestlers. It’s specially strengthened to bear their extra weight.