Meet Ususama Myo-ou. He purifies the unclean. He hangs out in bathrooms. He’s the guardian deity of the toilet. I’m thinking of inviting him to do a residency. Here’s why.

As you may know, in the countryside in Japan many houses still have pit-style toilets. Almost all the houses on our small island do too. Little men in jumpsuits come around once a month to clean out the toilet in a celebrated event, repeatedly announced via the island PA system, called kumitori. This Japanese word is a combination of two verbs: kumu (to dip) and toru (to take out). So basically, “dip and take.”

Every month the toilet cleaning guys come to dip and take. It’s a bit of give and take.

Surprisingly, however, the bathrooms don’t smell. Whereas the bathroom is down the hallway, the path your poop takes from the toilet to the pit is more like a hellway. My next-door neighbor Kazu-chan decided, after her sixth grandchild was born, to put a self-contained toilet over the pit for fear one of the youngins would fall down it. I wouldn’t be so worried about that though. As long as you have cleaning materials handy, that is.

I imagine “dip and take” refers to ancient methods of cleaning out the earthen pit at the bottom of the toilet. These days they use large hoses that suck out the accumulated contents into a holding tank mounted on a truck. Think of a large stainless steel Hoover vacuum cleaner on wheels. The “honey cart” then transfers the stuff into a cesspool.

This operation is carried out twice in August because of O-bon, the traditional time for extended family to return to their ancestral homes in the countryside and thus, increase deposits.

Such a method of disposing human waste is environmentally friendly, of course. And it stinks. Not the toilets, but the act of churning up the stuff as it is transferred out of the toilets into the truck, and then from the truck into the cesspool. Let me tell you, the smell of the feces of 624 islanders, inhaled all at once, is enough to knock you out.

I can’t help but think that the only reason flush toilets haven’t been brought to the island is because it would put the men in jumpsuits out of work. They’d have to find cleaner, sweeter smelling jobs, such as cleaning out horse stalls.

Now, I grew up with horses and cleaning up after them, and I don’t think horse poop smells that bad. As a matter of fact, there are some people who would argue that fresh horse manure smells good. Which makes me wonder if we humans are eating the wrong things. Shouldn’t we be able to ingest certain herbs or grasses that would make our output smell as good as a horse’s?

If that’s not possible, couldn’t we just call our own waste “manure?” At least it sounds better. Bigger, but better. And then we could store it in piles rather than in a cesspool. Why is it that animals have nice, fragrant names for their defecations, like “cow pies,” “meadow muffins” or “doughnuts?” Hey, someone’s got to think of these things! So don’t feel bad that you have.

Our island sewage collection point, though small, is a type of “cesspool,” (as if it’s something you could swim in! I guess you could as far as the consistency goes). But it’s in the ground, so you can’t see it. Only if you look closely will you notice an airtight lid slightly larger than a “manhole” cover (an appropriate name). It looks very innocent, as if it wouldn’t be covering anything important. But in reality, the lid is covering something mighty powerful: grenades.

This sneaky cesspool is located on the port, next to the Fishermen’s Co-op. Perhaps they thought this was a good location because the fishermen are kinda smelly too. Being right on the port, the toilet boat (yes, there’s a special boat to carry the toxic substance to a processing plant) can pull right up next to the hole and drop in another hose. Gosh, so many holes in this business!

If you live in a Japanese country house with a pit toilet and think you have it rough because you have to smell it once a month when it gets cleaned, you might be interested to know that I have it much worse. I live next to the cesspool and the Fishermen’s Co-op.

Strange as it may seem, this cesspool does not affect the property value of my house. That’s because my property has no value anyway. In Japan, “property value” is an oxymoron if you live in the countryside or on a small island. Believe it or not, no one wants to have a house looking out over the sea like I do. No one wants to live on a small island far from the mainland. No one cares that the beach is only a few minutes’ walk. Or that the cesspool is right next door.

Which gets me back to Ususama Myo-ou, the guardian deity of the toilet. Do you think he does cesspools too?

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