Tokyo offers toilet tours based on Wim Wenders’s Perfect Days

Shibuya district is offering tours of its architect-designed public facilities that feature in Perfect Days

Photo: Kōji Yakusho in Perfect Days, Wim Wenders’s film about a Tokyo toilet cleaner that is in contention for best international feature at this year’s Oscars. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

Tokyo offers toilet tours amid flush of excitement over Wim Wenders’s Oscar hopeful

09 March 2024 | Justin McCurry in Tokyo | The Observer

Japan’s hi-tech toilets have long fascinated visitors who rave about their heated seats, bidet function, automatic flushing, and even background noises to mask the unwelcome sounds that can accompany the call of nature.

Now, international interest in the country’s public conveniences is surging thanks to the German director Wim Wenders, whose film Perfect Days – the story of Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho), a Tokyo toilet cleaner – is in the reckoning for best international feature at Sunday’s Academy Awards.

Authorities in the Shibuya neighbourhood, whose toilets appear in the film, are leveraging the publicity by offering tours of 17 facilities designed by acclaimed architects, including Tadao Ando and Shigeru Ban.

READ ALSO: Wim Wenders’ Perfect Days celebrates perfect toilets (15 February 2024)

Given a choice between locations in the east or west of Shibuya ward, a city within a city of almost 230,000 people, the Observer joined half a dozen amateur toilet enthusiasts on the latter route – only the second of the twice-weekly “shuttle” tours since they began at the start of the month.

Our first stop was Nabeshima Shoto park, where the occasional taxi driver, emerging from Kengo Kuma’s wooden structure, looked understandably disconcerted to be greeted by tourists taking photographs.

Kuma, who designed the main stadium for the pandemic-delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics, said he had used cedar planks to help the facility blend in with its park surroundings.

The architect describes his creation as a “toilet village”, its five huts catering to men and women, families, and wheelchair users, with another for “dressing and grooming”. The forest theme of Kuma’s Walk in the Woods continues inside, where the cubicle walls are embellished with cross-sections of tree trunks.

The idea of building new structures in parts of the ward where existing facilities had seen better days is at the heart of the Tokyo Toilet project, a collaboration between Koji Yanai, an executive at the Japanese clothing giant Uniqlo, the nonprofit Nippon Foundation and the Shibuya authorities.

“We are trying to change the image of public toilets as dark, dirty and dangerous,” says Yumiko Nishi of the Shibuya City Tourism Association.

Cleaning up … Yakusho stars as Hirayama in Perfect Days, which won him best actor at Cannes.

Since the project reached completion last year, most media attention has been on Shigeru Ban’s coloured “smart glass” toilets, whose walls are suppposed to turn opaque when the cubicles are occupied.

The Pritzker prize-winning architect has said that he was inspired by two concerns people have when they approach a public toilet, especially in a dimly lit park.

“The first is cleanliness,” he said, “and the second is whether anyone is inside.”

Our group was unable to see the toilet walls in action, however. Cold winter weather means it takes longer for the glass to turn opaque – a glitch that would put off even the most desperate visitors. To ensure modesty is protected, the cubicles will remain in a state of constant opacity until mid-May.

At the Andon toilet, where users are greeted by bright green cubicle doors, we encountered a real-life Hirayama armed with a bucket and mop, the toilet project’s name emblazoned on the back of his overalls.

Each of the project’s toilets are cleaned three times a day and checked monthly by a “toilet consultant”. All are wheelchair accessible.

READ ALSO: The Tokyo Toilet’ Project inspires filmmaker Wim Wenders (12 May 2022)

The two-hour tour ended in front of the dazzling white walls and undulating curves of Sou Fujimoto’s Vessels and Fountains – a combination of toilets and public handwashing facilities positioned at different heights to encourage children to use them.

The idea, Fujimoto said, is to “create a small community of people … a new type of public space where people can gather and communicate around water”.

Cities in other countries can only look at Tokyo with envy as they wrestle with a shortage of public toilets, and complaints about safety and cleanliness. The Japanese capital, a city of 14 million people, has 53 public toilets for every 100,000 residents. London, by contrast, has 14 per 100,000 people.

While it came after the toilet initiative, Perfect Days has added weight to the idea that Japan’s abundant public restrooms should be clean and welcoming – a mindset instilled at school, where children are expected to take turns cleaning the lavatories.

The project is having the desired effect. A survey by the Nippon Foundation found that satisfaction among users of the 17 redesigned facilities has soared from 44% to nearly 90%, while the proportion with a negative view of public toilets in general dropped from 30% to just 3%.

“People who previously didn’t give much thought to public toilets have started to take an interest in them,” the foundation’s executive director, Junpei Sasakawa, said when management of the project was transferred to Shibuya officials last year.

Yakusho, who is hoping to add Oscar success to his best actor award at Cannes last year, spends more than half of his time on screen cleaning lavatories.

In one scene, Hirayama’s less conscientious colleague Takashi [Tokio Emoto], asks him: “How can you put so much effort into a job like this?”

Whatever his reasons, Tokyoites can count themselves fortunate to have a real-life Hirayama at the vanguard of a movement to transform public toilets from unloved necessities into sources of civic pride.

Yuriko, a tour participant who had just inspected a cubicle, said the unusual tourist attractions had been worth every yen of the ¥4,950 [£26] fee.

“I’m not sure why, but I’ve always been fascinated by toilets,” she said, adding that she had been most impressed by Kazoo Sato’s contactless toilet – a white dome with a slice taken out to accommodate the cubicle entrances.

“When I saw this tour mentioned on the Tokyo Toilet project’s Instagram account, I knew I had to come. It’s not just that they’re clean and modern, they’re really stylish too.”


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