While most bathrooms in the United States are business as usual, toilets in Japan and in some parts of Europe are high-tech wonders, overflowing with luxurious amenities such as heated seats, sound effects, built-in bidets and lids that raise automatically.
But the toilets lids aren’t the only things going up. Complex commodes are also raising eyebrows, especially with Americans unaccustomed to toilets that require an instruction manual.
“You walk into a bathroom in Tokyo and the toilets are like the captain’s chair on the Starship Enterprise,” says Kim Terca, a 27-year-old public relations consultant from San Francisco. “There’s a control panel with all these buttons. The first time I saw one, I just burst out laughing. Then I started pressing buttons to see what they could do.”
Terca says she found Japan’s smart toilets both “hilarious” and somewhat perplexing, since not all toilets offer the same snazzy features — including a special deodorizing feature that she says she never figured out.
And then there are the motion sensors.
“Once, I was in a coffee shop and went back to use the bathroom and when I approached the toilet, the seat suddenly went up,” she says. “It stayed for a second and then went back down. So I kind of reached for it and it opened back up again. It was like a Venus flytrap.”
Mary, a 53-year-old business consultant from Manhattan who asked that her last name not be used, says the special sound effects were what threw her for a loop.
“I went to see my client and had to use the bathroom and as soon as I sat down, there was this sound,” she says. “In retrospect, I realized it was a rainforest or some nature sound to give you your privacy, but at the time it sounded like applause. I thought, ‘Good god, that’s what you do in toilet training!’ ”
Peter Czech, a 31-year-old Web developer from Rutherford, N.J., says the smart toilets at a Japanese resort where he stayed a few months back were a constant topic of conversation among guests.
“People would talk about it breakfast,” he says. “They’d come down to the restaurant in the morning and say, ‘How about that toilet seat?’ ”
Czech says high-tech toilets definitely come with a learning curve, but he loves the innovation, particularly when it comes to heated seats, his-and-her bidets and seats that “self-sanitize.”
“It’s like the ultimate gadget,” he says. “I think it’s the next big thing.”
Trickling into the U.S.
Dr. Michael Sykes, a San Diego molecular biologist who runs the International Center for Bathroom Etiquette blog says he’s surprised at how long it’s taken for high-tech toilets to hit the U.S.
“Bidets and dual-flushing systems have been popular in Europe and Asia for a long time,” he says. “It’s interesting how people are encountering this on their home soil now.”
Tina Kurfurst, a 46-year-old data coordinator from Seattle, says her company recently moved to a new building where the bathrooms now have a fancy new flushing system.
“They’ve installed these multiple-choice potties complete with instructions,” she says. “You pull up on the handle for number one and pull the handle down for number two. I guess it’s even more efficient than a low-flow auto-flush. But I’m a foot flusher. So ‘up for #1’ and ‘down for #2’ requires a bit more forethought and dexterity — especially in heels.”
Jamie Hysell, a 28-year-old interior designer who specializes in hotels and casinos, says most of her clients opt for “run-of-the-mill” features such as motion sensor flushers or self-cleaning seats, but she’s ordered a few deluxe models – complete with built-in bidets, motion sensor lids- and heated seats – for presidential suites.
Not surprisingly, the extra bells and whistles have elicited some interesting responses.
“The funniest responses were from the construction workers,” she says. “I found them playing with the remote control seat and shooting each other with the bidet. They would crank up the water pressure and send a stream of water eight feet across the room.”
Some features — like the heated seat — are popular (“When I came home from Japan, the first thing I told my husband was we need a heated toilet seat,” says Mary), but others — like the bidet — often receive a more tepid response.
“There’s a lot of fear surrounding a bidet,” says molecular biologist Sykes. “Obviously, there’s nothing sinister about it, people have been using them successfully for years, but there’s a fear of the unknown. It’s a new thing.”
Or is it? According to Lenora Campos, public relations manager for plumbing manufacturer TOTO USA, many cultures have traditionally used water to cleanse “post-toileting” but for various reasons, the practice hasn’t really caught on in the U.S.
“My own private opinion is that when our forebears started up new settlements, there wasn’t the plumbing infrastructure to support a bidet culture,” she says. “So something important dropped away.”
TOTO is attempting to bring that “something” back with both its high-tech “Neorest” toilet, which can costs thousands of dollars, depending on the model, and the retrofitted toilet seat, “Washlet,” which starts at around $500 and comes in several different versions.
The “hands-free” units — which can be found everywhere from Hollywood bathrooms to hotels in the Heartland — come with heated seats, built-in deodorizers, motion sensor lids, remote control seats that go automatically lower after use (“We call it the marriage saver,” says Campos), automatic flushing, dual flushing, self-cleaning capabilities and antibacterial coating.
They also feature built-in bidets (with both oscillating and pulsating features) and a warm air dryer.
“The idea is to remove paper from the equation,” says Campos. “If we can use water to cleanse, it benefits both the individual and the environment.”
Terca says she liked the built-in bidets she encountered in Japan (once she got the hang of them), but is dubious about the U.S. becoming T.P.-free.
“I don’t really see Americans going for that,” she says. “People have their favorite brand and there are huge campaigns about which way to put the roll on” the toilet paper dispenser. That might be kind of a tough sell.”
Toilet of the future
Paper-free bathrooms are just the start, though, says Campos. The humble commode may soon become a virtual seat of knowledge.
“Traditionally, we’ve thought of a toilet as a waste-removal receptacle, but we’re working on technology that will re-conceive it as an in-home health testing unit,” she says.
Already, smart toilets in Japan can perform urinalysis — testing for diabetes, for instance — then wirelessly transmit the findings to either a home computer or health care provider. In the future, Campos says toilets in the U.S. will be able to act as both an early warning system for disease and provide the user with insights into their day-to-day health.
“We’re always thinking about how to improve the individual’s life,” she says. “Soon, your toilet will be able to give you advice about diet and exercise."