Ode to the bidet

“That’s crazy,” said the electrician standing in my master bedroom bathroom. He adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses and shook his head.

“You want a what?” added his plumber sidekick pulling on overall straps that while seemingly redundant because of his belt, were also incredibly ineffective at holding up his trousers. Especially when he was bent over examining the job at hand.

“A bidet,” I said.

“And what does it do?”

They giggled like junior high kids when I told them.

I had just returned from a two-week vacation spent in Japan, the first half of which I spent living in a dormitory and practicing martial arts every day, and the second half I spent touring Japanese whiskey making sites. You do what you want on your vacations, and I will do what I want on mine.

It was about this time of year, the cherry blossoms were coming out, and it was cold. Very, very, cold. Adding to the cold was the fact that there was no central heating in the building we stayed. Something that hadn’t been in the brochure.

I immediately had second thoughts about the whole thing. Until I saw the bathroom. On-demand hot water, body-washing wands, and the most space age looking toilet I have ever seen.

I had already experienced Japanese bathrooms on the way there. In the U.S. many of us will avoid public restrooms like the plague (pun intended). In fact, some public restrooms here are so filthy that the act of washing one’s hands and touching any (or all) of those surfaces: sink handle, soap dispenser, towel dispenser, exit door handle, might actually make one’s hands less clean.  But if you’ve ever seen a Japanese train station public bathroom you know what I mean. The words clean and modern do not begin to describe them. I’ve seen U.S. kitchens that were dirtier. When I had first encountered the Japanese public restrooms, I was not up to the task of learning the space age gadget those rooms are built around, but after that first week, let’s just say, one eventually adapts.

Hot water, warm water, fans, heated seats, power seats, fragrances, even music (for the throne sitter? Or for others? It wasn’t really clear), plus all the functions one would also expect. Suddenly two cups of coffee in the morning didn’t seem so bad.

It got to be one of the highlights of the day (the whiskey part was the highlight of the trip), crawling out of a sleeping bag, padding across an ice-cold floor and then taking a hot, hot, hot shower before exercising one’s regnal duties. 

Virginia Woolf once opined: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” To which I might counter, none of those activities are done well if one doesn’t handle the other end of that equation well either.

 When I returned to the United States, I was determined to make a few changes. I installed hot water on demand, sought out Japanese whiskey, and I began to explore installing a Japanese style toilet.

“What?” said my wife.

“Huh?” said her mother.

“Really?” said more than one friend, and several tradespeople.

There’s a conceit in this country that we know better than anyone else. Odd because many countries are far ahead of us in many ways. Take public transportation for instance. We don’t have bullet trains here, but Japan has had them since the 1950s, France has had them since the 1980s, Spain has them since the early 1990s, and Italy built their first one in the first decade of the new millennium. And speaking from personal experience, it is far easier to navigate the subway and bus system in Japan (or France) without speaking the language, than it is to get to a sporting event here using them.

We Americans sometimes look at other countries with disdain and reassure ourselves that their problems can’t possibly become our problems. We are the U.S.A. after all.

But one of the other thing’s I learned on that trip, was that if you are feeling unwell and plan to go out in public, civic duty expects you to wear a facemask. Not so that you yourself don’t get sick, but so that you don’t get anyone else sick. Which seems to be something the American public today is really having a tough time absorbing.

So, I would like to say to all those folks out there, who over the years have mocked my Japanese style bathroom but who are now waiting desperately for their weekly ration of toilet paper to arrive at their local supermarket: Who’s laughing now?

On that note, I think I’ll have a second cup of coffee.