Wandering by Japanese ladies pushing their Italian greyhounds in doggie strollers through the new Tokyo Midtown shopping complex on a recent weekend, I sensed that my morning coffee had worked its way through my system. A detour was required to the mall's spotless public bathroom, where the walls were inlaid with wood and the lighting tastefully muted.
An even greater luxury was the thoughtfully pre-warmed toilet seat. Then came a disturbing discovery: Even though the other stalls were occupied, mine was the only one from which pee sounds were audible. All around me, I heard a great Zen-like steam of rushing water, but nary a human tinkle. I stopped mid-stream, overtaken by a sudden case of lavatory fright. In the land of toilets so fancy they sport buttons that manufacture artificial "flushing sounds," I had apparently committed a serious bathroom faux pas.
Japanese bathrooms are the apotheosis of the nation's fascination with both cleanliness and high-tech gadgetry. The toilet at Tokyo Midtown may have been a rather basic model of what is called a "washlet," but its options included a warmed seat, bidet cleansing, spray cleansing (a rather different angle and spray from the bidet option), a "powerful deodorizer" and, of course, the "flushing sound" with adjustable volume. The last function is also ecologically friendly. Before the advent of the artificial running-water noise, many Japanese would camouflage the sound of their ablutions by flushing, thereby wasting tons of water.
More than 60% of Japanese households are now equipped with washlets, and the unit available in the public bathrooms of the Tokyo Midtown pales in comparison to those that grace many Japanese homes and hotels. For just $5,000, Japan's largest toilet maker, Toto, offers the deluxe Neorest 600. It boasts, among other functions, five cleansing modes (front, rear, pulsating, oscillating and soft), a lid that automatically opens and closes, an air purifier, a massage option, an air-drier with adjustable temperature settings and an automatic flush. Most functions can be operated by a wireless remote control linked to an LCD screen mounted on the wall.
With the Japanese market close to saturated, Toto has its eye on the American posterior. In July, the company unveiled a cheeky billboard at New York's Times Square showing a series of bare bums emblazoned with happy faces until a local church complained that the advertisement was inappropriate, and the offending bottoms were covered. Washlets have spread across the rest of Asia, too. A TIME editor reported that on a recent trip to Tibet he happened on a wonderfully toasty Japanese toilet in what he called a "truly medieval fortress town."
Despite the proliferation of sophisticated washlets, there are still plenty of old-fashioned squat toilets in Japan. This makes any trip to a Tokyo bathroom an exercise in extremes, either a thigh-challenging balancing act or a luxurious pampering. Back at Tokyo Midtown, as I watched the dogs cruise by in their custom strollers, I wondered if Japan's vaunted toilet-makers have considered creating a pet-friendly washlet. After all, at least one firm is busy trying to develop commodes that can do everything from test for pregnancy to check the glucose levels of diabetics. A high-tech pet potty can't be that much harder to construct, and then at least those pampered greyhounds wouldn't have to leave the cool confines of the mall to answer the call of nature.