Ask any seasoned traveler, and most will wax lyrical about the technological marvel that is the Japanese toilet. For a country that places so much emphasis and value on the concept of omotenashi (hospitality), it should come as no surprise that the quintessential Japanese lavatory experience should also allow both residents and visitors to feel more than welcome in a foreign space.
The Shibuya district in downtown Tokyo is as diverse as it gets; as a major commercial and finance centre, it also houses two of the busiest railway stations in the world: Shibuya Station and Shinjuku Station. Now, the area adds not one or two, but 17 must-visit locations to its extensive list of attractions.
Managed by The Nippon Foundation, the Shibuya City Government and the Shibuya Tourism Association, THE TOKYO TOILET project was unveiled this year to dispel common misconceptions about public toilets. As part of the initiative, a total of 17 public toilets in Shibuya received a makeover from 16 creative heavyweights, including the likes of Tadao Ando, Shigeru Ban and Masamichi Katayama. To date, seven are already in operation, with the rest slated for public use in 2021.
Combining Japan’s extraordinary standard of hygiene with unique design features, these public restrooms are accessible to everyone regardless of gender, age or disability, further demonstrating the possibilities of an inclusive society, especially in a country that is so known for its homogeneity.
A SERENE SHELTER SURROUNDED BY TREES
Designed by Tadao Ando
Tucked away in Jingu-dori Park amidst a grove of cherry blossom trees, the design of Ayamadori (meaning “a shelter to wait out the rain”) was inspired by a rather endearing image: a frog, holding up a lotus leaf umbrella to shield itself from the pouring rain. This became the basis of the structure’s rounded roof, with protruding eaves to provide a shaded space, whether from rain or shine.
Ando is known for his minimalist designs, and Ayamadori doesn’t disappoint, boasting a sleek, curved interior of stainless steel. The cylindrical wall of vertical louvres not only offers ventilation, but also allows light to filter in through the lattices. “I sought for this small architecture to exceed the boundaries of a public toilet; to become a place in the urban landscape that provides immense public value,” he explains. “It was vital for me to make a space that was comfortable and safe.” With two separate entrances leading to the men’s and women’s cubicles, users can enjoy their privacy without feeling boxed in. There’s also an “everyone’s toilet”, which includes a baby chair, diaper changing table and ostomate facilities.
Ayamadori’s design also pays homage to Japanese architecture by way of the prominent engawa. In traditional houses, the engawa is an edging strip of non-tatami flooring, usually made from wood or bamboo. It circles the house, creating an “aisle” that functions as a porch or sunroom. In the context of this toilet, the space underneath the eaves becomes a communal relaxing area for those waiting for a companion.
CLEARLY, COLOURFULLY TRANSPARENT
Designed by Shigeru Ban
The public restroom dilemma is one that often strikes the desperate user: “Is it occupied? Am I just waiting outside like an idiot when there’s nobody actually inside? Am I being rude if I call out to check?”
“There are two things we worry about when entering a public restroom, especially those located at a park,” reads the design brief for award-winning architect Shigeru Ban’s toilet.
“The first is cleanliness, and the second is whether anyone is inside.” This formed the basis for his now-viral transparent toilets at Haru no Ogawa Community Park and Yoyogi Fukamachi Mini Park. When vacant, these candy-coloured stalls are clear, allowing you to literally see right through them. Once locked, the smart glass frosts over, turning opaque thanks to an electrical current that realigns crystals in the glass. At night, the illuminated structure lights up the park like giant lanterns.
However, one has to wonder – how fail-proof is the smart glass? Some Tokyo residents who tried out the transparent toilets voiced concern over the possibility of future glass (and potentially wardrobe) malfunctions, and commented that they felt uneasy even though they could not be seen from the outside. Only time, it seems, will tell.
A BRIGHT BEACON OF LIGHT
Designed by Takenosuke Sakakura
Previously uninviting and rarely used, the public restroom at Nishihara Itchome Park got a new lease of life with accomplished architect Takenosuke Sakakura’s design. Andon Toilet gets its name from andon, a lamp made from paper stretched over a box-shaped frame. The toilet’s design echoes the andon’s shape and aesthetic; at night, its pastel-coloured walls take on a semi-translucent glow, illuminating the area for passers-by.
“We thought it was important to create a facility that not only fulfills the basic requirements of a public restroom, such as having enough toilets to ensure a reasonable wait time, but also offers a unique appeal that encourages more people to utilize it,” explains the project brief. The inside of each cubicle is thus surrounded by frosted glass, imprinted with the patterns of trees to put you at ease while answering the call of nature.
MODERN MAZE MEETS TRADITIONAL TOILET
Designed by Masamichi Katayama
From the outside, it’s hard to discern the purpose of this structure. It could be a maze, part of a playground, or a public restroom. Modern Kawaya, by Masamichi Katayama of renowned interior design firm Wonderwall, gives a subtle nod to its function with a structure of 15 randomly placed concrete walls. In the Japanese language, the archaic word for “toilet” is kawaya, the literal meaning of which is ‘river hut’, or a hut built above the water. Dating back to Neolithic times, these huts were often made of hardened soil or pieces of wood bound together.
The concrete features a textured, board-marked finish, paying homage to the material once used to construct kawaya. Designed for everyone, this “ambiguous space” is as inviting as it is intriguing, allowing people to interact with the facility that blends seamlessly into Ebisu Park.
SQUID TOILET IN OCTOPUS PARK
Designed by Fumihiko Maki
Ebisu East Park is also known as Octopus Park because of its striking playground equipment. Therefore, it was only befitting for Fumihiko Maki to design a restroom that complemented the park’s famous slide. Thus, the Squid Toilet was born. “We considered the needs of a variety of users, from children to people on their way to work. So, we wanted to create a safe, comfortable space for all,” he says.
Using a decentralized layout to allow for good sight lines throughout the facility, the four pavilions share a curved white roof. Panes of frosted glass and clever architecture promote ventilation and natural light, creating a bright, clean environment. There is also a bench built into the exterior wall, serving as a rest area.
SHIBUYA’S GIFT TO ITS DIVERSE PEOPLE
Designed by Nao Tamura
Standing out conspicuously on a small, triangular plot at Higashi Sanchome, this public restroom makes has no intention of concealing itself. While living in New York, designer Nao Tamura witnessed first-hand the LGBTQ+ community there, living in alignment with their sexual identities. Why should one’s identity be dictated by the gender-specific bathrooms they are forced to use?
“The bathroom is a place where we address physical needs universal to all mankind, regardless of our age, nationality, religion, skin colour or sexual identity. As we come into an era of increased awareness, our communal spaces need to evolve to effectively accommodate our infinitely diverse needs,” says Tamura. With this in mind, she created three separate spaces that provide users with safety and privacy while protecting their personal boundaries.
The red-and-white aesthetic is a nod to origata, an ancient Japanese method of decorative wrapping. A single sheet of paper is used, folded many times but never cut. Tamura’s interpretation of origata extends the gift of understanding, embodying the spirit of hospitality towards Shibuya’s multinational visitors, providing them with a safe, judgement-free space to do their personal business.
HONORARY MENTION: JAPAN’S SINGING TOILETS
Our bodily sounds are unwelcome but inevitable, yet somehow the Japanese have created an ingenious method to drown out these noises. In the 1980s, toilet-maker TOTO invented the Otohime (sound princess) to help self-conscious Japanese women ease their plight of producing “toilet sounds”. In order to avoid embarrassment, women were flushing up to 2.5 times more than necessary, which was a huge waste of water, especially right after a major drought faced by the southern city of Fukuoka in the late 1970s.
Nowadays, with a wave of the hand, the Otohime will play the sound of running water, allowing restroom users to relieve themselves in relief. In cases where the built-in “serenade” is not available, there’s also the Keitai Otohime (portable sound princess), a battery-operated device that achieves the same effect. Not only does this mask any unbecoming sounds, it also contributes to water conservation – a definite win-win situation!
This article was originally published in Chinese on Sound of Life on 4 December 2020.
Cover Image: THE TOKYO TOILET
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizzare, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.