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Saturday, April 23, 2005

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Rocket Johnny: to infinity and beyond!


In the heart of downtown Shinjuku there's a land -- far over the rainbow -- where dreams really do come true. That is, if your dream involves a bowel movement.

Fittingly it is called the Toto Super Space, a showroom for bathroom fixtures set on the lofty 26th and 27th floors of L-Tower Building, where visitors can just flush their troubles away. And -- if they are perhaps so inclined -- their little dog too.

This shiny wonderland must be the place where the Wicked Witch, Edward Scissorhands and Mickey Mouse go to relieve themselves. Step inside, and guess what's on the Muzak? Yep, "Zip-a-dee doo-dah, zip-a bi-det!"

But stop! For in the Toto Super Space, fantasy imagery seems a sort of waste. More than a resting spot for Dorothy and Big Bird, this is the realm of hardcore science fiction. The panels of buttons, the electronic eyes, the silent mechanisms . . .

"There is nothing wrong with your vision," suggests some controlling voice. "Do not attempt to adjust your brain." (Although you might need to loosen that belt buckle.) "Yes, you are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner reaches to . . . the outer limits . . . of the plumbing."

And then perhaps to infinity and beyond.

As for me, I have always harbored a certain hesitancy toward highfalutin Japanese toilets. Nor, as I have oft stated, do I care so much for the hole-in-the-floor variety. When it comes to johns, I am in essence a meat-and-potatoes type of guy. I desire only privacy and minimal comfort. When I need to jettison, I do not need a jet.

In fact, I admit to being a bit fearful of the fancy kind. We do have a Washlet in our home, but I always leave it unplugged. At least electronically. For I worry that if I were to switch on the machine and scrunch in tight, I might soon hear some distant technician shout: "OK, Scotty! Beam him down!" This, I figure, is to be avoided.

I do not know where this toilet phobia began. Perhaps I can blame my mother for telling me stories of pythons and baby alligators lurking just out of eyesight under our toilet bowl, prepared at any instant to snap up and grab you where you least like to be grabbed. Especially by serrated teeth.

For a constipated mind like mine, it is not such a leap to imagine mechanical claws and heat-seeking missiles perched in the lower regions of the fittings and just waiting for me to push the wrong button. Or, even worse, for me to mistakenly hit the eject switch and find myself flying through the Tokyo sky, with a plume of pink toilet paper trailing behind.

Yet I have friends who absolutely love modern Japanese fixtures. This includes a farmer pal in Wisconsin who was so smitten by Japanese "o-furo" that he made one by using an overturned pig hut. Not so high-tech, but still functional. Of course, to properly concoct a current-day Japanese toilet, he would need the cockpit of a spaceship. And you don't find many of those in Wisconsin.

Which brings me back to the Toto Super Space. With the focus on marketing, the mood is quite user-friendly. Genteel staffers guide potty-phobes like me on a pleasant tour of more than just the latest in lavatories. There are shower rooms with instant-dry flooring, bathtubs with built-in TVs and kitchens with disappearing cabinets. Every convenience of the 22nd century home.

Yet, to say Toto is to say toilets. Here the Super Space does not disappoint. Beyond what might be the world's largest selection of toilet-paper racks sit sparkling rows of the newest-style cans. Included are some -- specifically designed for the elderly -- that will rise up off the floor to meet your bottom.

Now doesn't that frighten you? I mean, what if your bottom was in another room, sitting on your sofa? Might not this gadget come after it?

Nonsense, says my Toto guide. Don't be silly. She then shows me a toilet with an unattached flushing and bidet mechanism, similar to a remote control device, with the control box designed to be bolted into the wall somewhere alongside the stool.

Yet -- I force her to admit -- it is possible to place the control box in another room. In which case, the toilet user would be at the complete mercy of . . .

"Do you realize," I tell her, "what this could do in the hands of a terrorist?"

She says she does not and then politely declines my offer to demonstrate. She next shows me Toto's piece de resistance: toilets with lids that instantly flip up when you stand in front of them.

In fact, the Super Space boasts a long line of such toilets. It's possible to dash back and forth before them, causing the entire lot to flap up and down as much as you like. And in my particular case, I liked for about 20 minutes.

Then . . . "We have restrooms on the 26th floor," says the guide. "You can try our toilets for real. If you want."

I take that for a dare. At a glance, the men's room looks normal enough. But when you step inside a stall, the toilet lid gives an immediate salute.

So . . . the moment of truth has arrived. I settle down, with the platform of control buttons placed ominously at my elbow. I feel all the power of the universe resting beneath my fingers. Do I use it? Or abuse it? Whichever, something does not seem right.

Sure enough, I have neglected to tug down my drawers. I spring up and wipe cold sweat from my forehead. The bidet had almost had me! But I swallow and try again.

"How was it?" asks the Toto girl somewhat later.

Well, what can be said? Except that . . . yes, I was moved indeed.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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