I look forward to Amber’s imminent arrival for a variety of reasons other than the obvious fact that she’ll be bringing me delicious foodstuffs from home (oh and uhh, yeah, I’m really happy to see my friend too. yes. friends before food…mmm… food…) – the most significant of which is that for reasons that remain unbeknownst to me, since I first landed in Japan some three years ago, not a single one of my friends from back home has come to visit. While I prefer to think of this as the natural consequence of drawing friends from a pool comprised of an unusually high percentage of dairy farmers as opposed to a damning indictment of any potential personality flaws from which I might suffer, nonetheless it has had the unintended side effect of leaving me without an “outside perspective” with regards to Japan for the past three years.
The word that seems to be in vogue these days amongst young Japanese is “refreshu” (“refreshed“), as in “Having gone three years straight in Japan without being refreshu, Panda has become slightly cynical and worn out.” This statement is perhaps even truer than I might care to acknowledge, to the extent that, in an oddly alliterative verse, an acquaintance recently accused me of being “as blatantly burned out as bitter bamboo”. Now while I have no idea what “bitter bamboo” tastes like, the point is that after three years of being stuck in a certain mindset and approaching “Japan” from within the constraints of a particular paradigm, (that of being frustrated by all the nonsense I have to deal with at work) it can be helpful to take a step back, as it were, and approach Japan through “new eyes”. The easiest way to do this, of course, is to travel through Japan with somebody who’s never been here before, knows little to nothing about it and can’t understand a word of Japanese to save their lives. Now I’m sure many of you are wondering what any of this has to do with anything, and in particular, if you were drawn in by the slightly puerile promise of potty humor the title suggested and have made it this far in the entry, you’re probably looking around saying “get to the damn pooping part already, panda!” Well steady yourself gentle reader, for I shall address the topic of today’s post forthwith.
As I was reading through the most recent of Amber’s e-mailed missives the other day, one passage stuck out at me immediately from the sea of mundane questions about money exchange, visa issues and what not. Thrown in as a postscript, almost as if a casual afterthought, it read:
My dad says it’s just holes in the floor. Is this true? Will it be like trying to pee in the woods?
Talk at you later.
Sidestepping for the moment the off-handed reference to the defecating in the forest that clearly belies Amber’s (and sadly, my) Wisconsin heritage and which no doubt has left a great many of you scrambling in the absence of any relevant experience with which to relate, this passage is striking in its innocence. Surely we’ve all heard the rumors of the “holes in the floor” that pass as toilets in Asia, but are they actually true? Do people really poop in holes in the ground on a routine basis? And what’s a poor innocent country girl – or boy, as it were – to do when confronted with such an abomination for the first time? Reading Amber’s words and the slightly anxious concern they exude, that “Japan through new eyes” feeling flits through my brain again for the first time in a long while, and even as the last synapse fires, a story from a long while ago – five? six? years ago at this point slowly begins to filter through the back of my consciousness…
So here’s the scene: it’s my second day in Japan. I’m tired, jetlagged and my tummah’s giving me drama because of a particularly bizarre onigiri (riceball) I ate the day before. I’m supposed to meet M, my girlfriend at the time, outside of Shinjuku station at 2pm. My apartment is in Idabashi, which is 5 stops away from Shinjuku on the Chuo-line. Now this is a pretty straightforward journey by Tokyo standards – no line transfers, no complicated station navigation – just a sit-on-yer bum 14 minutes straight shot journey from point A to point B. However, since this is my first time in Japan, I don’t know that, so I decide to give myself plenty of time and leave a full hour early – you know, just in case. Glancing at my watch, which reads 12:57 at this point, I stuff my ticket in the machine, and run up the escalator to the platform because I hear the train coming…
… whereupon I promptly get on the wrong train. Of course, the error of my way doesn’t become immediately evident to me until after a few minutes of intently studying the map and slowly putting two-and-two together (somewhere around Akihabara), but when I do finally get it, I hop off the train, run to the other platform, and wait for the next train to arrive before boarding. I get off in Shinjuku station and glance at my watch: 1:30 – a full 15 minutes behind schedule, but still early for my designated rendezvous time. Since I’ve got nothing else to do, I decide to kill some time by wandering around the bowels of Shinjuku station for a bit, when all of sudden my tummah starts complaining – rather loudly – that it has some “needs” it would like me to attend to. Glancing about, I spy a sign for the public train station restroom, and then, in what in retrospect was an utterly stupid and amateur idea – decide to use it.
I roll inside the restroom and my senses are immediately assaulted by a cold, clammy, moist…! miasma in the air. Pale blue green tiles bisected by thick, black crumbling lines of mold covered grout line the walls and floor, reflecting the flickering, dim glow of the three naked fluorescent bulbs hanging half-broken from the ceiling, giving the entire room a disconcerting subterranean atmosphere. Adding to the cavern-like effect is the fact that everything is wet – the walls, the floor (I look down to see the hems of my jeans soaking up a puddle), the sinks, even the tops of the urinals, for some reason. As I round the corner and the entirety of the room comes into focus, I am struck by the sheer number of identically suited salarymen packing the tiny space – people use the urinals with backs literally touching those waiting to use the stalls, briefcases fill every available inch of ledge space, business men turn sideways just to sneak between two people to wash their hands – one can hardly stand, let alone use the restroom in peace. Through the chaos, I make out two vaguely defined lines snaking back from the entrance of the two available stalls. Tensing my body, I take a deep breath (which I immediately regretted once that damp, faintly fecal moisture air entered my lungs unfiltered), choose a line, and plunge into the writhing black suited sea of humanity.
The actual waiting isn’t too bad, and before I know it, I’m next in line for one of the stalls. I await my turn, and in a moment, the door swings open and a salaryman emerges, giving me that briefest of acknowledging nods which men do whenever we encounter one another face to face in a toilet-related location. I return the nod with a slight dip of my chin, take a deep breath – just in case – and push aside the swinging battered metal door and enter the dark stall of doom.
As the door swings shut behind me and I turn from fastening it, I am jarred by the wide open expanse of the box which I am now securely lock inside of. Something is missing… it takes me a second to place my finger on it, when suddenly, I realize – where’s the toilet….? My eyes flick from side to side as I pan my head to sweep from one end of the room to the other, looking, looking …. wait, wait….oh man, there it is…! As I drop the plane of my vision down towards the floor, my eyes alight upon a porcelain trough inset into the wet blue green tiled floor – my first encounter with what has since gone on to become my most mortal of mortal enemies in this country. At the sight of this glorified hole in the ground, I involuntarily take a step back, my heel bumping up against the inside bottom edge of the door, which lets out a plaintive rattle in protest. My pupils narrow in focus as I stare at this bizarre wrinkle in my reality and one thought begins to flit through my mind over and over again: “I’m supposed to poop in that…!?“.
A bizarre wrinkle in my reality, yes, but not completely unexpected. As my mind begins to clear again, fragments of knowledge slowly start to filter back in. “Ahhhh” I think to myself – “so this is what is known as a washiki – a Japanese style toilet!” But my knowledge is not limited only to the name – pursing my lips into a tight circle, I reach down into my pocket and wrap my fist around the wad of tissue paper which I put in there the night before, and silently give thanks that I paid attention during all those semesters of Japanese class, including that obscure lesson somewhere way back wherein they talked about how there’s no toilet paper in Japanese bathrooms (you need to bring your own), and more importantly – how you’re supposed to use one…!
“HA!” I spit out “I’ve got your number, fool!” The cold porcelain trough below continues to regard me in that silent, almost challenging manner toilets do, as if to say “Famous last words”. Now for those of you who have never been to Asia before, you’re probably wondering how one is supposed to use a squat type toilet such as this. Allow me to borrow the following passage from “Lonely Planet: Japan”:
(Or see a quasi-animated version here)
So there you have it. Seems simple enough, right? Drawing in my third deep breath in as many minutes, I swing my leg over the trough, unbuckle my belt, and proceed to squat down and try to hunker into a comfortable position. Only things aren’t that simple. The first thing that strikes me is that that’s an awfully small hole to aim for! I scoot around a bit, attempting to find a vantage point which will allow – and pardon my directness – all of my business to end up where it’s supposed to be as opposed to on the floor, or – heaven forbid my pants/shoes. As I settle into a spot that I think might give me a shot at achieving this goal (no pun intended), I stumble across another problem – my clothes are all over the place, including directly in the path of where stuff might end up going. In particular, my pants are forming a rather spectacularly inviting “bucket” of sorts, which is not what I want to be going on down there. Now one should keep in mind that at this point in life (circa 2000 or so) I was a young panda, and coming from the Wisconsin ghettos, often wore rather baggy pants and oversized hoodies as was the current fashion, but whose voluminous size and unwieldy nature unfortunately only exacerbated the difficulty of my pooping situation. Thus, reaching down with one hand, I do my best to tuck the “bucket” part of the pants safely towards the front, and then flip the back end of my shirt up, out of harm’s way. Of course, gravity, my other mortal enemy who decides to crop up from time to time, decides that it’s going to have a little fun at my expense, and no sooner have I flipped the back of my shirt up than it falls right back down, straight in the path of what shall momentarily become “exit trajectory”.
I attempt to flip the shirttail up a few more times before finally heaving a big sigh and resigning myself to the fact that I’m going to have to hold the back of my shirt up with my left hand while I attend to the matters at hand. Holding my shirt up out of the way as if I have a bad back, I start getting ready to attend to the main event when I encounter a puzzling little conundrum which years later I actually have yet to resolve. Now, gentle readers, if you will pardon my momentary dip into puerile matters, I’d like to lay it out for you: Human beings, as I’m certain you all know, generally deal with two distinct subsets of toilet-related issues, the obliquely referenced “number one”(#1) and “number two” (#2). Now, as most of you (hopefully) realize, in regards to these issues – number one, most specifically – there exists not-altogether insignificant physical differences between men’s anatomy and women’s anatomy. While these differences can generally be safely ignored in the mundane minute-to-minute going-ons of everyday life (unless your life is notably more exciting than mine), there are occasions where they come into sharp relief. Squatting over a hole in the ground, for example, is one of them. Now while I am aware that for women #1 and #2 aren’t coming from exactly the same direction, at least they’re in the general vicinity of each other – to use a perhaps ill placed mathematical analogy, if things were a circle, they’d both be roughly within the same quadrant, if you will. Thus when squatting over a hole, it is a fairly trivial matter to shift from attending to one of these matters to the other, necessitating, at most, a slight change in the angle at which one’s bum is held, or perhaps a slight tuck of the hips.
For men, however, the situation proves to be quite different. You see, for us, while #2 might be off in one direction, the whole business that deals with #1 happens to be pointing in exactly the opposite direction…! Thus, the conundrum – when you, as a man, find yourself squatting over a glorified hole on a damp tile floor in the middle of Tokyo with your pants down, is how, exactly, do you ensure that both #1 and #2 end up where they’re supposed to be when your business seems to be conspiring to prevent you from doing your, errrr…, business? And while I suppose that question, much like the meaning of life, and the issue of what I’m going to do with my future has puzzled me on and off for quite a few years now at this point, at the time, finding myself immediately in the aforementioned situation rapidly approaching Defcon 4, a more … hands on approach was quickly required. So I do the only thing that comes to mind – I reach down with my other hand and make #1 point in the ermm.. same direction as #2.
My more mathematically inclined readers who have no doubt been following this story with rapt – albeit slightly disgusted – interest are probably clamoring out of their seats at this point. “Why panda!” I can hear you shout – “you only have two hands and by occupying both of them with a task (holding up my shirt and trying to keep #1 from entering straight into my jeans) you seem to have placed yourself into a difficult predicament – a defecatory mexican standoff if you will…!” And you would be right my friends, but alas, prescience has never been one of Panda’s strong points, and without much thought, I cast my tissue to the ground as I engage both my hands in the tasks described above. Now whether you would care to attempt a mental image of the physical contortions I was submitting my body to at the moment is up to you (most likely not, if you don’t wish to be totally grossed out), but take my word for it when I tell you that it was both simultaneously degrading, embarrassing and utterly hilarious. If you want, feel free to take a moment to recreate it for yourselves right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
You back? I hope that was as good for you as it was for me. Now back to the story:
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I am a comfort pooper. When I attend to my more animalistic issues, be it sleeping, eating, pooping, etc. I prefer them to be carried out in a safe, stable, non-stressful environment. Perhaps it comes from being part panda – I don’t know. At any rate, the predicament I find myself in can be thought of as the exact antithesis of “safe, stable and non-stressful”, and due to the resulting nervousness and sense of unsettlement, it’s taking me a long time to, umm… attend to my business. Briefly recalling Amber’s analogy from the exposition of this post, if you’ve ever pooped in the woods then you’re surely familiar with the discombobulating sense of anxiety that is the fear of being attacked by wild badgers (or what have you) as you’re squatting ass out, pants down, defecating in a patch of poison ivy. It takes you a little while to go when you’re so stressed out, right? Things are no different in my current circumstance, and as I glance down at my watch – noting the slight sheen of sweat that has begun to coat my forearms (it was hot in that little damp tiled stall) I see it reads 1:48 – I’ve been in this toilet for a good 15 minutes or so at this point. But even as this realization dawns on me, a new, even more unsettling feeling begins to slowly wrap its cold embrace around poor little panda brain: My legs hurt… A lot…!
Maybe you’re one of those lucky people who’ve never squatted in one spot for fifteen minutes while tensing every muscle in your body (to avoid any poop related accidents) – if so, lucky you. But what you might not realize is that this position can be extremely stressful on your knees and thighs, especially if you’ve never done it before (try doing deep knee bends for 15 minutes) – at any rate, my legs are on fire, I’m still not done with my business and I need to do something fast. So I do what comes naturally to any of us when in such a position – I start shifting my weight around and rock back and forth on my heels a little bit to try and relieve some of the stress in my legs and knees. And in so doing, I unwittingly start in motion the chain of events leading up to the climactic finale of this story you’ve all been waiting for.
One of the cliched descriptions about Japan that one often hears bandied about is “it’s a paradox of modern and traditional”/”a melding of futuristic and old fashioned”/”a harmonious confluence of east and west” etc. etc. Usually individuals who pen these flowery verses will go on to describe in breathy detail the apparently fascinating mismatched incongruity of seeing a neon-festooned pachinko parlor standing next to a reserved Buddhist temple. I’d give you my own personal opinion of this sadly all too common sight, but I don’t want to be accused of being “as burned out as bitter bamboo” again, so I shall refrain. However, like most cliches, there is some element of truth to these sayings, and to abstract them more generally we might say that in Japan one often finds high tech gadgetry co-existing (whether harmoniously or not I don’t know) with more traditional constructs. In the little room of torture comprising the setting for the story at hand, however, we find this abstraction manifesting itself in the form of an “infrared flush sensor” located – unnoticed by me – on the wall right next to the pit in the ground into which I am attempting to poo.
Now some of you may be wondering “Panda, what is an infrared flush sensor and what does it do”? Basically the infrared flush sensor is just another form through which the Japanese love of paradox is expressed – ostensibly disdaining manual toilet flush handles because “they spread germs”, the perpetually sanitation conscious Japanese generally opt to replace said handles with infrared sensors which detect when you’ve stood up from a toilet and flush it automatically, thus saving you from having to soil your hands by touching a filthy toilet handle. This in the very same bathrooms where you will never ever find any soap or tissue paper provided for washing your hands after you do the deed. (bitter bamboo) At any rate, that’s the theory, at least, behind the “infrared flush sensor”, but as these things go, there is occasionally a large gap between theory and reality. In this case, the designers of this marvelous little device of defecatory wizardry failed to take into account the amateur bumbling antics of a half panda gaijin attempting to use a Japanese style squat toilet for the first time in his life. Because, you see, while this little sensor is supposed to detect when I stood up and flush the toilet, it turns out that apparently, it can be fooled by me moving around a little bit to stretch out my legs – while still squatting…!!! and thereupon take this as a cue to flush the toilet….!
….and flush it did, and with considerable aplomb and fanfare, the roaring toiletry rendition of what Donald Rumsfeld would most likely term “tremendous shock and awe”, massive geyser blast of loud, wet, gushing, rushing jet stream freezing cold…! water erupting from a nozzle less than 2.5 inches away from my exposed, unsuspecting bum. So startled and shocked was I by the sudden eruption and splashing of frigid toilet water in my poor nether regions that I involuntarily started, attempting to leap up from my agonizing crouched position, only to have my by-now numb legs and knees cry out in tremendous pain before giving out completely, whereupon I found myself tumbling down in an alarmingly out of control arc at the complete mercy of the unforgiving ministries of that evil bastard gravity, arms flailing out, mouth opening in a long, slow-motion “nnoooOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!” which no sooner had left my lips than….
I fell in the toilet.
(I’ll let you picture that in your head for a little while)
Now, having never fallen in a toilet before, it took a second for my brain to catch up and fully comprehend what had happened, and perhaps another second after that for the nerve impulse to be sent roaring towards my uselessly splayed limbs screaming “GET UP! YOU’RE IN A TOILET!! ALL LIMBS!!! GET UP!!!” and dare I add, almost a full second after that for said limbs to react, jerking my bum skyward and arching my back in what I can only imagine would have appeared to an onlooker as a bizzare half-nude rendition of the crabwalk we all had to do back in third grade gym class. Unfortunately, while three seconds might normally be the slightest wisp of time in everyday life, when you’ve fallen into a toilet that’s currently in the process of flushing, it is very much an eternity. In a stroke of what I suppose must be termed “good luck” (though I use the phrase hesitantly) the jet stream of frigid toilet water had mercifully managed to flush away all of the unpleasant… stuff… one normally would expect to find in the bottom of a just used toilet, so as I fell down I was fortunate enough to land directly into what amounted to a thankfully-flushed clean bowl of toilet water. Which, given the alternative, was quite fortuitous indeed.
But life rarely giveth with both hands, and while I may have avoided landing in a bowl full of my own poo, I did end up spending three seconds immersed in a bowl of toilet water which promptly proceeded to soak directly into all my clothing, including my jeans, panda undies and shirt. As the flushing torrent beneath me subsided (and along with it my steady stream of profanities), I struggled out of my inverted crab arch and dragged myself to my feet to survey the damage. I’m soaked through and through – my shirt is sticking to my back, my jeans completely sopping wet, water dripping down my legs into my shoes, my underwear a complete loss. I glance at the remnants of the wad of tissue paper I had brought with me, now laying on the pale blue tile floor and note that only four pitiful sheets remain. Enough for a cursory wipe, sure, but I immediately abandon all hope of blotting away all trace of this defecatory disaster.
As I continue to stare glumly at my feet contemplating what my next move should be, from the periphery of my hearing I become aware of a rumbling chorus of throat clearing and slightly incessant rattlings of the stall door. Glancing at my watch, I see that it now reads 2:03 – I’ve been in the bathroom for a full 30 minutes….! I realize that not only must the throngs of salarimen outside be growing increasingly impatient, but I need to go meet M now. As the pressure builds and the water continues to drip on my shoes, I – still in shock – decide that I need to do something – anything straight away before someone outside calls security to come see if I need any assistance, M grows impatient and leaves and I continue to stand here half naked, soaking wet in a damp, moldy bathroom deep in the bowels of Shinjuku station on my second day in Japan. So I do the only thing I can do – I man up, reach down and pull up my soaking wet pants – underwear and all – buckle my belt, then, sucking in a deep breath, I step over the now-silent porcelain hump and with one last glance at the accursed hole in the middle of the floor, I fling open the door to the stall and proceed to step out.
Some of my older readers might remember a movie quite a few years ago called “The 10 Commandments” which starred Charlton Heston (“Get your filthy paws off me, you damn, dirty ape!”) which was, unsurprisingly enough, about the 10 commandments. Now actually I’ve never seen it, but what I have seen is the key scene about 2/3rds of the way through the movie whereupon Heston – as an oddly anglo-saxon looking Moses – is leading a group of refugees away from the pursuing Egyptian army and is stopped short at the banks of the Red Sea. Infused with the holy spirit, he raises his staff or something and suddenly, with a tremendous wooooosshhh!!! the Red Sea splits asunder and parts into two towering walls of water, opening forth a clear path for Moses to lead his people away to a place that I vaguely recall was supposed to be filled with “milk and honey” or something (though I may have that confused with a line from Coleridge’s Kubla Kahn: “For he on honey-dew hath fed, / And drunk the milk of Paradise.“).
Now I bring up Charlton Heston and the movie “The 10 Commandments” not merely out of my love for irascible, cantankerous gun toting octogenarians, but also because the aforementioned “parting of the Red Sea” scene at the movie’s climax is the closest thing I can think of to describe the change that came over the sea of black suits as the door to the stall swung open to reveal yours truly in all his dripping, soaked-in-toilet-water glory. Audible gasps raced through the huddled salariman masses in cascading waves followed closely by a dramatic ripple of hands flying to mouths gaping open, eyes bugging wide, and all around otherwise somber looking business men let out shocked murmurs and took involuntary steps back and it was as if I was Moses (albeit a Moses who just fell in a toilet) and all the salarimen around me were the Red (black?) Sea so sudden and pronounced was the literal cleaving of the crowded mass of humanity opening into a pale blue green tiled path which stretched straight out before me towards the sink, people turned, backs pressed against the walls, shuffling of business cases, pulling of errant ties and each strived to out-maneuver the other to get as far away from the bizarre dripping foreigner slowly stumbling forth from the toilet stall before them.
Still in shock, and becoming uncomfortably aware of the alarming creep of sopping underwear up my hapless bum with every step, I mumbled a brief apology and made a straight beeline for the door, tripping over wet shoelaces and tumbling out into the surging eddies of human traffic in the station general, whereupon the final gasps of “hen na gaijin…” and “nani sore…!?” receded in to the cavernous depths of the men’s bathroom only to be replaced by new startled intakes of breath as people all around stopped short in their determined trajectories and attempted to process the bizarre sight before them, mouths agape and eyes wide open as they gingerly step around the dripping path of puddled toilet water I’m inadvertently trailing behind me.
There’s really nothing to be done, I think to myself as I glance at my watch to see the digits 2:07 staring back at me. With no cell phone and thus no way of contacting M, I realize that I’m simply going to have to go back and change before meeting her, because should I show up to see her in the middle of the busiest train station in the world soaked to the bone and dripping a thin stream of toilet water behind me, my wonderful, but tragically image-conscious girlfriend might very well dump me on the spot. So I do, my face burning a deep, flaming crimson hue of shame all the way home as people in my carriage make no attempt to hide the fact that they’re steering clear of me by a 10 foot swath, with even the gate attendant raising an eyebrow as he spies me coming down the staircase, opening his mouth as it to say something, but then taking in my appearance and perhaps thinking better of it as I hand him the very same ticket I had just purchased from his station about an hour prior (since I never actually left the train “system”, I still had my original ticket, which you can’t use to automatically exit the same station you purchased it in. Instead you have to give it to the attendant manually).
I do finally make it to meet M, nearly 40 minutes late, and when she sees me headed towards her, she fixes me with a narrow gaze.
“Where were you?” she asks, her voice dripping with annoyance.
“Honey, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you…” I begin.
“Tell me anyway.”
“Well, you see, I was using the bathroom and then….”
Little did I know at the time, but this would sadly not be the only toilet related incident I’d have to suffer through during my time in Japan. But those, along with further details of the trails and tribulations involved in pooping in Japan, will have to wait until the second part of this post…
(By the way, here is one of the actual toilets in Shinjuku station. Looks nice, huh? More on this site.