Plumbing the Depths of Toilet History

Anyone with a taste for traditional architecture must agree that the Japanese toilet is perfection.

— Junichiro Tanizaki, from In Praise of Shadows

You know you love them: TOTO’s toilets are second to none. They are high-tech wonders with warm seats, automatic lids, bidets, and more buttons than the cockpit of the Dreamliner. And now, when you visit Kita-Kyushu, you can worship them in their totality at the TOTO Museum.

That’s right. A museum dedicated to the history of plumbing equipment. Only in Japan. And we mean that in a good way. No snark intended. That’s why this column is called “obsessions.” We’re riffing off of the Japanese word kodawari, which depending on the translation engine you use, comes out as “commitment,” “obsession,” “be particular about” or, strangely, in Google, “good.” (Come on, Google, where’s your kodawari?)

Each issue, we’ll highlight something in Japan that exists because of that obsession, commitment, exactitude, etc. that is so often found in Japanese culture. And this issue, it’s the TOTO Museum.

TOTO, which was founded in 1917, created the museum in August 2015 to celebrate its first 100 years in business. To date, the museum has had more than 180,000 visitors. Here’s what’s in store when you visit:

First, the museum exterior is a thing of wonder. It’s white and pristine, like a recently scrubbed toilet bowl. TOTO says it’s designed to look like the earth and a drop of water, but it looks like an upside down toilet bowl. The first floor features a showroom. The museum is on the second floor. Both are free. The ultimate highlight in this writer’s opinion is the Toilet Bike Neo, a three-wheeled 250cc motorcycle with a toilet for a seat that is run completely on biogas. The toilet seat isn’t a functioning toilet, but the cars next to you don’t know that. Vroom, vroom! Toilet Bike Neo has traveled more than 800 miles in 2011.

Another not-to-be-missed exhibit is the miniature toilets and basins that salespeople once used in lie of showrooms. A different gallery depicts the evolution of plumbing products through the years. Also, check out the elegant, deluxe toilet from the Akasaka Palace, the gold-plated one sold in China and the square one marketed in Europe.

Next, head to the museum store to pick up tiny toilets, toilet paper printed with images of the cute little bear mascot of Kita-Kyushu taking a shower and other novelty goods. And before you go, don’t forget to go — the TOTO Museum washroom has state-of-the-art toilets for you to use.

Location & Contact Information

TOTO Museum
2-1-1 Nakashima, Kokurakita, Kitakyushu, Fukuoka 802-8601 JAPAN
Hours: 10am to 5pm(Admission by 4:30pm)
Closed Mondays, the year-end/New Year holidays, and summer vacation period
Admission Fee: Free – Reservations required for groups of 20 or more

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Bruce Rutledge loves books, baseball, and Pacific Northwest beer, He also loves Japan and has dedicated his career to telling more stories about the country through books, magazines, newspapers, TV, radio, and now, on Origami magazine. He works in Seattle's Pike Place Market. Come visit him in his store in the Down Under.