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WINNER 2010 - The Toiler-ator by Elizabeth Tasker

Congratulations to Elizabeth Tasker - the winner of our 2010 Travel Story Competition.Details of this year's competition here .The story was published in our newsletter here.


The Toilet-ator

By Elizabeth Tasker


It knew I was there. 

I had slid the latch on the restroom door and turned back to find the toilet’s seat had risen silently behind me. 

Well, hello.

Swallowing hard, I scanned the cubicle from floor to ceiling. Was there a motion detector? Was the toilet sentient? The latter seemed to be a distinct possibility. The device in front of me had more buttons than one might expect to find on a starship. When I had envisaged the problems I might encounter while visiting Japan, none of them had involved needing a cybernetics degree to relieve myself. 

Had the buttons been labelled with Kanji characters, I might have been saved by my rudimentary knowledge of the Japanese language. I could have sat, oblivious to their hidden meanings, and convinced myself that they were there for maintenance purposes only. Unfortunately, enthused by the idea that all toilet patrons would require their own tailored moment, each button was neatly printed with a diagram of its effect.

Three buttons controlled the toilet’s inbuilt bidet. Judging from the pictures, the first caused a stream of water to hit you squarely between the buttocks. The second angled the stream for all those hard to reach places. The third apparently turned on with so much force that the enthroned individual was bodily lifted from the seat to sit in mid-air, atop a geyser of toilet water.  

I did not press that button. 

The last button had a music note printed on it. I didn’t plan on my visit being long enough to require musical accompaniment. Perhaps this option was there to calm visitors who had been terrified at the possibility of being blasted out of the cubicle by the bidet. Gingerly, I pushed down on the button’s rubber surface and jumped as a loud, fake flushing sound rang through the restroom. On what planet is it a good idea to put a fake toilet sound on a real toilet? Cautious later inquires revealed that self-conscious Japanese women frequently flush the toilet to cover up any bodily sounds. The extreme amount of wasted water this caused had prompted the installation of the recorded flush. Far from feeling more relaxed, however, I considering buying a trowel a nd digging a hole.

I finally sat down to discover the toilet seat was heated. It was undoubtedly designed to be the ultimate in comfort, but I could not suppress the image of an army of bottoms sitting there before me to create such warmth. Shocked and stunned, I stumbled from the cubicle convinced that I would never get used to such an experience.

Necessity, of course, changes everything. It was several weeks later. I had eaten something that had disagreed with me. Painful cramps seized my abdomen. I half ran, half staggered back to the complex where I was staying. There was no time to go to my room. As I dashed into the cafeteria, I felt a sudden wash of gratitude for the complexity of Japanese toilets. The heated seat would be a blessing and the myriad of buttons would give me something to look at while I waited for my digestive track to righten itself. Tumbling into the women’s restroom, I barreled into a cubicle to see .... 

....  a hole in the floor. 

This then, would be the other, traditional type of Japanese toilet. I remembered my earlier wish to dig such a simple convenience and closed my eyes. There was no doubt about it, fate had a very dry sense of humour.


Elizabeth is currently a researcher in Astronomy at McMaster University, in Canada. Originally from the UK, Elizabeth has so far built galaxies in a computer in the USA, Australia and Japan before moving to Canada one year ago. Elizabeth has a doctorate from Oxford in computational astrophysics and took a 3 year postdoc at the University of Florida. She then moved to Tokyo for four months to do a short-term fellowship financed by the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science.

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