Hospitality boosts Japan's toilet reputation

"Wow, the cat is turning around." "It's always lots of fun here." Small children frolicked with delight in a toilet at Shinseiwadai Kindergarten in Kawanishi, Hyogo Prefecture. This was understandable, because this particular toilet is as entertaining as an amusement park attraction.

Deserving of its name, the "Hidamari no Mori" (forest with sunny spots) toilet features an objet d'art in the shape of an apple tree about one meter in diameter. Its branches stretch up to the ceiling, where a blue sky has been drawn. When the kindergartners enter the space, a sensor activates a cat, elephant and giraffe and music begins playing.

Although toilets in public places in Japan are not particularly regarded as special, some have been credited as being the best in the world. Toilets filled with interesting ideas and the spirit of omotenashi hospitality have received awards from the central government, while some could even be described as fantasy worlds.

At the kindergarten, the previous toilet was regarded as "smelly, dirty and dark" by the children. Some of them were intimidated and avoided using it. To help solve the problem, the kindergarten refurbished it at a cost of ¥14 million in 2008, transforming the facility into an appealing place for children. The children are no longer reluctant to go to the toilet and use it without anxiety.

"When they go to the toilet, they tend to take their time coming back. It's an unexpected piece of luck," kindergarten head Kiyoshi Moritomo said with a smile.

Last month, that toilet was one of the winners of the Nihon Toire Taisho (Japan toilet grand prix) - the first toilet competition held by the Cabinet Secretariat. The competition aims to focus on toilets the design of which creates a living space comfortable for women and issues awards to excellent facilities. The event received 378 applications from across the country, with 28 of those receiving awards.

Another toilet among the winners is at Shin-Osaka Station on the Midosuji subway line. It was designed to "provide users with comfort akin to returning to a favourite place." Its space is dotted with green and it has a powder section and a dressing room for women. Because the station is used as a transfer point to and from the Shinkansen line, the operator hopes "foreign visitors will speak about the toilet as a good memory of Osaka after returning home," according to the employee in charge.

The Osaka Municipal Transportation Bureau, which operates the subway, is planning to refurbish toilets at 112 stations over a four-year period beginning in fiscal 2012. Toilets at other major stations have also been given themes, such as "elegant" at Umeda Station, a "toilet for mature adults" at Honmachi Station and a "luxury toilet" at Namba Station. It might be worth finding out how attractive they are in person.

The toilet competition also honoured the creativity of Oita Toilennale 2015, an art festival held in Oita from July to September. Toilets at 16 locations, such as parks and shops, were decorated with the paintings and installations of artists and playwrights. Visitors were allowed not only to appreciate these works but also use most of the toilets.

Orihime Toire, a temporary toilet for emergency situations, was also awarded. It was developed mainly by female employees of Sekisui House, Ltd. and Toto Ltd., who learned from the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. The toilet's floor area is twice as large as ordinary types so that adults can use it with their children. It is also equipped with a Western-style flushing lavatory, a baby chair, ventilation equipment and an emergency alarm.

It is said that toilets represent the wealth and maturity of the country they're in.

"In the past, toilets were dubbed as dark and dirty places in Japan. However, toilet seats with washing functions have become widely used and various other innovative devices have been invented. As a result, toilets are now a place of comfort. Japanese toilets are at the highest level in the world," said Akio Satake, the secretary general of the Japan Toilet Association.