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How do you measure a society’s wealth? Do you look at GDP, median income or the existence of a humane minimum wage? Any analyst worth their salt will say it’s all dependent on context. I’d argue, however, that the mark of a truly rich society is one with ample access to free public toilets (which deal with another kind of “gross domestic product”).

Consider this: Approximately 2 billion people around the world in 2020 lacked access to even basic sanitation facilities according to the World Health Organization. Even major cities in developed nations have dismal track records on the matter. Paris has roughly 20 public toilets per 100,000 residents (and millions of tourists); London has just shy of 14 per 100,000 residents; and New York trails behind with around 12 per 100,000 residents.

Tokyo, on the other hand, has 53 per 100,000 residents, and that’s before you factor in all the washrooms at train stations and convenience stores. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that bathroom access is one of the pillars of Tokyo’s reputation for convenience.

This bright red public toilet was inspired by Japanese origata gift-wrapping techniques. | ALEX FISHER
This bright red public toilet was inspired by Japanese origata gift-wrapping techniques. | ALEX FISHER

This brings us to The Tokyo Toilet project. Spearheaded by The Nippon Foundation in cooperation with the Shibuya City Government and Shibuya City Tourism Association, the project has tasked some of Japan’s most renowned architects with designing unique public bathrooms across Shibuya Ward. They’ve debuted gradually over the course of 2020 and 2021, with 12 of the 17 currently open.

The foundation says part of its motivation for reimagining restroom facilities was to dispel overwhelmingly negative misconceptions of public toilets among Japanese people as “dark, dirty and dangerous” — though a single whiff of a toilet in Paris or London will soon fix that.

It will surprise no one that The Tokyo Toilet project has received a great deal of international media coverage, breathlessly touting the singularly quirky “Japanese-ness” of these designer bathrooms — a framing the organizers are only too happy to encourage. But this misses the point entirely. As fellow writer Spencer Cohen notes, public toilets are “a barometer for the condition of Tokyo’s urbanism.”

Japan’s growing economic inequality notwithstanding, it is a truly flush society that has the capacity, resources and impetus to spend public funds on designer toilets. If you think about it, architectural loos are the natural endpoint in the evolution of the water closet in the country that gifted the world with warm toilet seats and washlets.

These washrooms fulfill their basic function: They’re safe, clean, disability-accessible spaces for you to finish your business, complete with Toto’s top-of-the-line battery of magic buttons next to the porcelain thrones. (That being said, Tokyo Toilet could stand to replace the liquid hand soaps with something that lathers better.)

As such, our toilet evaluations aren’t concerned with functionality, but are based entirely on arbitrary personal opinions on aesthetics and architecture. These spaces range from the bold to the banal, the hilarious and uncanny, the disconcerting and eye-catching. Almost all of them are memorable, and all are welcome additions to Shibuya’s already dense privy population.

Nanago Dori Park, Kazoo Sato

This dome-shaped toilet will dredge up memories for anyone who grew up watching the 1967 British TV show “The Prisoner” — it looks like Rover, the white killer balloon. In real life, the white dome is less murderous and more aesthetically pleasing, the striking curves evoking the aesthetic of Stanley Kubrick’s iconic sci-fi film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Or, as my crapper snapper (read: photographer) commented, “It looks like aliens have come to take our turds.”

What of the toilet itself? We report with displeasure that none of the voice-activated commands on this supposedly bilingual “contactless toilet” worked as advertised during our visit (fortunately there are normal backup buttons). Kudos must, however, go to the translator who wrote up the command to “play therapootic music,” which was either extremely clever or careless. We’ll let you decide which.

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Higashi Sanchome, Nao Tamura

You can’t miss this bright red public loo behind the railroad tracks running between Shibuya and Ebisu stations. Taking inspiration from origata (traditional Japanese gift wrapping techniques), architect Nao Tamura makes wonderfully efficient use of space here, transforming a tiny triangular plot of land into a compact set of toilets without being bogged down by the irregular space. Simply delightful.

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Kengo Kuma’s signature use of natural wood makes an appearance at this public toilet in Nabeshima Shoto Park. | ALEX FISHER
Kengo Kuma’s signature use of natural wood makes an appearance at this public toilet in Nabeshima Shoto Park. | ALEX FISHER

Nabeshima Shoto Park, Kengo Kuma

Though it lacks the grandeur of some of his other wood-centric works — say, the SunnyHills cake shop or the entrance to the Nezu Museum — this design is unmistakably Kengo Kuma. The wood louvres fit the leafy surrounds very well; overall, it’s beautiful. Major points as well for knowing its users: The park is popular with families, and this seems to be the only construction (correction, it’s a self-described “public toilet village”) in the project with toddler-sized thrones. The lack of hand soap is, however, a bit crap.

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Shigeru Ban’s jewel-toned, transparent toilets caused a stir when they were unveiled. Just make sure you lock the door before getting down to business. | ALEX FISHER
Shigeru Ban’s jewel-toned, transparent toilets caused a stir when they were unveiled. Just make sure you lock the door before getting down to business. | ALEX FISHER

Haru no Ogawa Community Park and
Yoyogi Fukamachi Mini Park, Shigeru Ban

These two transparent, jewel-toned toilet blocks made a splash when they were unveiled, and for good reason. They look like art pieces — toilet versions of Olafur Eliasson’s “Colour Activity House” at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, in fact — and turn into psychedelic glowing lanterns at night. The transparent walls ostensibly let users know if the loos are clean and empty; the walls turn opaque when the door is locked for privacy. Whether this actually alleviates safety concerns is a different matter. We suggest taking the plunge and trying it out. Just make sure you actually lock the door, or you’ll give everyone around an unwanted eyeful.

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Fifteen concrete slabs are given a wood-grain finish in this stylish toilet. | ALEX FISHER
Fifteen concrete slabs are given a wood-grain finish in this stylish toilet. | ALEX FISHER

Ebisu Park, Masamichi Katayama

In photos, this toilet looks like a bizarre cross between Benesse House Museum on Naoshima and a war memorial. But in real life, it’s pretty neat: What looks, at first, to be giant planks of weathered lumber are actually 15 slabs of solid concrete with wood grains stenciled on top. Bonus points for proximity to excellent vanilla soft-serve (Farmers Soft Cream, in case you’re curious).

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Nicknamed the “Squid Toilet,” this series of loos has an inviting central courtyard and benches to rest on. | ALEX FISHER
Nicknamed the “Squid Toilet,” this series of loos has an inviting central courtyard and benches to rest on. | ALEX FISHER

Ebisu East Park, Fumihiko Maki

Thanks to its location in Octopus Park — so nicknamed for the prominent octopus-themed playground equipment — this toilet has been dubbed the “Squid Toilet.”

Design-wise, it’s surprisingly pleasant and inoffensive, and having a central “courtyard” is a nice use of space and light. It does feel like a missed opportunity to run with a fun marine theme, but at least it bears zero resemblance to anything in Netflix’s surprise hit TV show “Squid Game,” which should be a relief for anyone visiting.

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What can we say about this Kashiwa Sato-designed toilet? It’s white. | ALEX FISHER
What can we say about this Kashiwa Sato-designed toilet? It’s white. | ALEX FISHER

Ebisu Station, West Exit, Kashiwa Sato

You know that featureless white room where a film or TV character winds up when they’re dead, dreaming, kidnapped for interrogation or in another universe? This toilet, too, looks like a terrifying blank void from the bowels of hell. It’s white; there’s nothing else to say about it. Fun fact: White-room torture is a real psychological technique aimed at utter sensory deprivation and isolation. In the end, it’s just you and your poo.

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These three mushroom-esque toilets light up at night for a magical wonderland effect. | ALEX FISHER
These three mushroom-esque toilets light up at night for a magical wonderland effect. | ALEX FISHER

Yoyogi-Hachiman, Toyo Ito

Daylight doesn’t flatter this triad of stubby, ombre mushrooms at the bottom of the stairs to Yoyogi Hachiman Shrine in the slightest, especially when paired with the roar of cars zooming by on Yamate-dori avenue. But they become almost beautiful at night, when the glow of lamplights lends them an eerie, entrance-to-wonderland sort of quality. That is, if wonderland had been designed by English businessman-cum-plumber Thomas Crapper.

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Perhaps the least stylish of The Tokyo Toilet project’s lineup, this Harajuku-based facility is reminiscent of the Washington Heights army dormitories. | ALEX FISHER
Perhaps the least stylish of The Tokyo Toilet project’s lineup, this Harajuku-based facility is reminiscent of the Washington Heights army dormitories. | ALEX FISHER

Jingumae, Nigo

This restroom is a near-complete imitation of the Washington Heights dormitories, which were part of the Occupation-era U.S. Armed Forces housing complex in Yoyogi Park. It feels odd to have a loo resembling army barracks parked next to the busiest vehicle thoroughfare in Harajuku. The vibe is depressingly sterile. Anyone familiar with British colonial architecture in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean will also note the similar window styles and teal trim, which strike us as nostalgia-inspiring for all the wrong reasons.

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Tadao Ando crafted another somber, black building as his contribution to Shibuya’s public washrooms. | ALEX FISHER
Tadao Ando crafted another somber, black building as his contribution to Shibuya’s public washrooms. | ALEX FISHER

Jingu-Dori Park, Tadao Ando

If a toilet design competition existed, this would tank. Do we really need yet another dark and unsightly gray-black boondoggle in Tokyo? The surrounding trees and lattice walls encircling the corridors do, however, help lighten an otherwise too-stolid building. Design-wise a bit of a stinker, but it’s always good to have a super-clean washroom at this end of Shibuya.

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Stenciled tree silhouettes make this toilet warm and inviting. | ALEX FISHER
Stenciled tree silhouettes make this toilet warm and inviting. | ALEX FISHER

Nishihara Itchome Park, Takenosuke Sakakura

What’s there to say about this pleasantly nondescript public bathroom, apart from our mild disappointment at how the tree shadows on the frosted glass walls inside aren’t actually silhouettes of real trees outside? Well, it does transform into a massive glowing lantern come evening, a literal beacon in the dark for anyone wandering through the park. It’s gorgeous, but I shudder to think about the electricity bill. Where’s the money coming from, again?

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Visit tokyotoilet.jp/en for more information.

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