This is a tale about a toilet.
It’s five o’clock in the morning. I’m sleep deprived, beyond jet-lagged, and sitting on a toilet at the Grand Hyatt in Roppongi Hills (Tokyo, Japan, Far East, Asia, Pacific Ocean, Earth).
As I have discovered, sleep deprivation can have a similar effect to alcohol intoxication in that, while you are in a sleepy haze, everything and anything is hilarious. As I tried to decipher the many buttons to my left and right, I was happy to find that the Japanese characters (Kanji, some of which I can read because it is adopted from Chinese characters) were translated into English. I could admire the automated technology of toilet flushing through the message reading “Hold your hand over the sign.” I could also appreciate the button, “Press for emergency assistance,” a likely indicator of consideration for an aging population (seeing as Japan ranks number one in life expectancy).
In toilet land, so far, so good.
But then, after a brief moment of surprise, I broke out in hysterical laughter when I read the buttons more closely. In addition to “Wash,” “Spray,” and “Bidet,” there were options for how you wanted to be “sprayed” with water (you know where)…the frequency, area, angle…There were buttons to wash all kinds of things that, even in English, I didn’t fully understand.
Amazing, I thought. I’m in a toilet spa. The funny thing is, though, this wasn’t my first time experiencing toilet luxury.
Once while waiting at the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris, I ventured into one of the toilets, only to see exorbitant prices—1 to 5 Euros - for a single visit to the water closet. This Parisian bathroom had fancy decorative toilet paper and promised, for the minimum price, that someone would go in and clean the toilet between uses, especially for me.
Amidst a frenzy of pressing all of the bidet buttons on my Japanese toilet, it hit me: the services provided at the French Louvre toilet are modeled after Japanese toilet technology. Ah-hah. It’s not just manga and sashimi that the Japanese have managed to export—it’s an experience in itself.
But there is more to my experience of using the toilet in Japan than just my delight of always having ultra-clean nether regions. While sitting in a quiet café in Tokyo near the bustling nightlife scene of nightclub hustlers and drunken Tokyo-ites, a friend explained the juxtaposition between Japan’s cleanliness culture (with positive health implications) and the widespread indoor tobacco-smoking culture (with negative health implications).
“In Japan, anything is allowed, as long is it is done within the boundaries allocated for it,” my friend explained.
So according to this logic, during the week, you work very hard. You can smoke in the “smoke corners” of the street (they literally have signs – as if air doesn’t travel). You can strip naked and no one will even look at you…as long as it is within an Onsen (natural hot spring).
In all, I enjoyed living within boundaries: eating soba or persimmon ice cream alone at the designated individual-friendly stool-style bars in restaurants, stripping completely naked within the confines of an onsen, and yes, enjoying a simple moment of luxury in what I call the “toilet spa.”
But I did find some aspects of my time in Japan, well, frustrating. For example, it was very difficult for me, as a sustainable business practitioner, to find sustainable seafood (places that I could trust were not overfishing and catching endangered species)- a fact that seemed odd to me, considering Japan’s high level of sophistication and advancements in technology and social freedoms.
One word of wisdom to consumers in Japan: it’s cool to eat non-threatened fish species (so no eel and blue fin tuna).
The more I began to consider this issue, the more I began researching sustainability and fishing practices in Japan and in other nations around the world. Did you know that over 70% of the world's commercial marine fish stocks are already either fully exploited or overfished? The good news is that all consumers, tourists and non-tourists, can support sustainable seafood initiatives wherever they are. You can make a difference whether you are studying in Princeton or traveling through Tokyo; if you are shopping for seafood, look for sustainable seafood eco-labels.
My trip to Japan further motivated me to become a more sustainable tourist. Tourism contributes to a wide range of environmental and social issues, including greenhouse gas emissions, wildlife destruction, increased waste, energy and water overuse, and social disruption.
By the end of my trip to Japan, the toilet became a metaphor for the cutting-edge nature of Japanese technology. But somehow, this technology was not helping promote sustainable tourism efforts. I later learned to look out for “有機 / ゆうき [pronounced yuuki]” for “organic” in Japanese, but it would have been great to know where to go to eat organic food. I realized that I hadn’t been able to find a resource for sustainable travel experiences during my stay in Tokyo. So, I decided to create one that could be applied worldwide. The idea soon evolved into an online platform, SustainableVisit.
SustainableVisit enables people worldwide to make sustainable travel and lifestyle decisions by providing free suggestions across many categories (restaurants, hotels, activities, etc.). If you’re interested in food, culture, travel, or sustainability, join the movement today by registering on the site to receive the sustainable travel newsletter and the latest blogs in sustainable travel.
~ Marilyn Waite '06
© 2014 Princeton Traveler