Sunday, May 20, 2012

Privacy Behind Glass

The country that gave us the poop-powered bicycle and the urine-controlled video game Toylet has made headlines again with the opening of a new public restroom.

Visitors to Tokyo rarely fail to comment on the abundance of clean and well-maintained public toilets. Unless stuck in one of the city’s more rural suburbs, you need walk only a short distance to find a restroom in either a department store, park, bookstore, station or restaurant. Unlike most other cities, for those looking to find the best, P-Vine Publications published Tokyo Toilet Map in 2010, a guide to the twenty most stylish restrooms in Tokyo. So what’s special about a new public restroom in the Tokyo suburb of Ichihara City? Last month the city officially opened what it calls “the biggest public toilet in the world.” Located in front of Ichihara’s Itabu Station, the white normal-sized toilet is situated inside a spacious glass cube in the center of a 2,152 square foot garden of potted flowers and plants. A fence almost seven feet tall surrounds the garden to ensure privacy. At a cost of $123,000 some have criticized the project as a waste of both space and money.

Since the design is one by world famous architect Sô Fujimoto, the man who designed the new Taiwan Tower, you have to wonder if he took on the project as a community service declining a fee. Fujimoto came to the job through the Art Front Gallery, an organization that manages the city’s art festival. Asked about his involvement, Fujimoto commented, “I thought it would be quite interesting. Public lavatories are something both private and public, so designing them can be a very motivating challenge for architects. I was also enthusiastic about the fact that Itabu Station is surrounded by such wonderful natural life. It was a great opportunity to rethink the relationship between architecture and nature.”

The problem for the time being is, the relationship with nature has yet to be fully realized. At the opening ceremony visitors found numerous potted plants lined up on grassless turf surrounding the glassed-in toilet, giving the appearance of a work in progress. Officials explained that it was only in the first stage, that the soil had not yet settled completely and prevented actual planting. The potted flowers were something of an improvisation for the scheduled opening. City officials have made assurances that in the future the garden will resemble Fujimoto’s original concept—a wild grassland area with trees lining the fence.

For the time being the toilet is reserved for ladies only, something that officials say is simply to keep the lines and number of users manageable. Fujimoto has indicated that he prefers the toilet be available to both men and women, making the experience open to more people. For temporary convenience he has designed another toilet adjacent to the garden open to all.

How many have experienced the spacious new garden toilet? One official said he couldn’t offer a number, but that rolls of toilet paper are steadily decreasing. Asked why such an unusual public restroom, he explained, “It’s hoped that the toilet will become a tourist attraction for visitors to next year’s Ichihara City Art Festival, which is currently in its planning stages. The festival is a government-led initiative to improve the area through the renovation of public facilities with the help of arts.” The hope is that the garden toilet will attract more tourists and boost the region’s economy.

There was a time when public conveniences in Ichihara City were few and far between, but these days it is an area that attracts a lot of visitors who come in spring for the spectacular cherry blossoms and mustard fields bright with yellow flowers. Though the area is scenically beautiful, for a long time the only toilets for visitors were the old-fashioned squat toilets. Those original old pit toilets were installed for quick-stop train passengers at Itabu Station, but these days most visitors come by car, and everyone today wants clean modern conveniences.


  1. I am always amazed at how you find these "off the wall" topics to write about. Very interesting concept. I would find using something like that a bit embarrassing even though it is considered private.

  2. Wow. Having hunted and fished and camped out around a nighttime fire, my first thought was that this is like a throwback in that one must have the feeling of doing your business in the woods with lions, tigers and bears and plants and wide open spaces surrounding you, an experience always different and notable.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America