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Saturday, Jan. 27, 2007

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Never visit a Hokkaido home in the a.m.


Just when I thought I knew everything about Japanese toilets, I came to Hokkaido. Boy, do I have a lot to learn.

News photo
THE TOILET in Mina Mina restaurant looks like a normal toilet but is really of the jokaso variety. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

The first thing different about Hokkaido toilets is their location in the house -- in the genkan! Yep.

When you walk into someone's house here, there is sure to be a door to the toilet right there in the entryway, before you have a chance to even step into the house. "Ojama shimasu! Toire onegai shimasu!" (I'm here, may I use your toilet?) No, it's not for the casual passerby who needs to use the toilet. It's for a different reason, which I will explain in a moment.

The genkan, which I had always thought of as a formal place to receive guests, with an ikebana flower arrangement and perhaps a seasonal painting in the entryway, I now think of differently.

With such close proximity to the smelliest room in the house, I doubt there would be too many people just popping their head in to have a chat in the genkan as they do at home on my island.

As a matter of fact, the genkan in this apartment in Hokkaido, being the coldest part of the house, currently doubles as a walk-in refrigerator. With a toilet.

I dare say you should ever visit someone in the morning in Hokkaido. How would you like it if you were on the toilet during your morning constitution, when someone announces their arrival in your genkan? You could not merely appear from the toilet and expect to bow out of that gracefully.

Before I moved into this apartment, I was told, or rather warned, that the toilet was not gesuido, not on the sewer system. No problem I thought, accustomed to island life, where everyone has a pit toilet. I had lived with my pit toilet for 10 years (or it had lived with me, however you want to look at it) and we had never had any disagreements. And it never smelled. Except for the time the fan went out, but that was the fan's fault, not the toilet's.

And there was the time it all hardened into one mass when I went on vacation for a month, but again, that was my fault. What's a toilet to do?

I've always rather liked my pit toilet; it's straight to the point. No surprises and no toilet monsters hiding in there. But with this new toilet, I'm not so sure.

This is yet another type called jokaso, which means it is not attached to the sewer system but it is not a simple pit toilet. Instead, it's attached to a septic tank, and has semi-flushing capabilities.

In English, I hear people call it a "drop toilet" referring to what happens to the matter once it is deposited inside. This is then followed by a flush of water.

This, however, differs from a simple pit toilet, because this toilet gathers the contents first, drops it, then flushes with water. With a pit toilet, it just drops straight down -- "Banzai!" No flushing required.

The jokaso is more like a delayed banzai, triggered by a spring attached to a cap that covers the hole. The cap only opens to uncover the hole and dispose of the contents when there is enough weight piled on it to trip the spring. I find this unnerving. Especially when it is preceded by someone yelling "Ojama shimasu!" from the genkan.

Furthermore, with the jokaso toilet, since the cap springs back up afterward to cover the hole (and the smell), you can't see straight down into the depths of the toilet, so you never really know what's going on down there. Don't laugh -- this toilet has a history.

The story goes that the last person who lived here had troubles with the toilet when the cap would not spring back as it should. Not only did this result in a smellier-than-normal smelly toilet, but it also let too much water flush into the septic tank, until soon it was like the Arctic Sea in there, with ice bergs floating around.

Eventually, the whole tank froze up. Toilet men in their jumpsuits had to come out in mid-winter and heat up the tank to unfreeze the contents so they could empty it. You see? It pays to know what's going on inside your toilet.

So why is the toilet in Hokkaido houses placed in the genkan? The only explanation I have is this: Hokkaido people like to drink. When they get home from a night of drinking, there is no need to rush to the toilet as soon as they get home. Instead, the toilet meets them in the genkan.



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