Toilets and robots in Kitakyushu

Today’s destination was quite a change of pace: Kitakyushu, a lively city that has been at the forefront of Japan’s industrial development ever since the Meiji Era. The companies I visited, TOTO and YASKAWA, continue to lead the field in two areas for which Japanese technology is famous, toilets and robots.

The evolution of Japanese toilets took place over a very short period

I was given a behind-the-scenes tour of the TOTO factory. The company began manufacturing flush toilets almost a century ago, with the aim of bringing the most advanced sanitary technology to Japan. This was an extremely forward-thinking business strategy, given that most of the country did not yet have running water or sewers.

The company name “TOTO” was adopted in 2007 to reflect growing international recognition

In fact, the company also produced ceramic tableware for many decades to pay the bills, while continuing to develop their line of toilets. The strategy paid off, with hi-tech “Washlet” toilets now the norm in Japanese households.

In TOTO’s early days, there were no showrooms. Instead, salesmen took round these cases of miniature samples, accurate in every detail.

These historic toilets are so artistic they could pass for vases... but are not perhaps the most practical

When I told my father that I would be visiting the TOTO factory, he sang the praises of Japanese sanitary engineering at length, while my mother enthused about how beautifully clean Japanese toilets are, down to the frequent displays of fresh flowers. In the factory, I saw how much thought goes into both the manufacturing process and the aesthetics. Even components that will never be seen are treated with an original glaze developed by TOTO in order to ensure a smooth finish, while the appearance of products is modified to suit the tastes of each target market.

These mini toilets, used for testing different finishes, are also popular as souvenirs!

Just like the dishes I saw in Okawachiyama, the ceramic toilet bowls are fired in kilns. However, while the variations caused by this process are highly prized in works of art, sanitary ware must conform to extremely precise specifications. TOTO check every single product by hand.

Can you spot the flaw in this toilet?

There is a tiny discoloration under the rim. Failed!

The components are also checked by ear for internal cracks

The TOTO MUSEUM, which opened just a couple of months ago, has already received nearly 20,000 visitors. Literally everything related to toilets is here, from picture books in the lounge area to toilet-themed products in the shop. It is not yet well-known among foreign tourists, but judging by my parents’ interest, it has a lot of potential!

The building is made up almost entirely of curves, with a recurring water motif

This “toilet bike” toured Japan in an unusual advertising campaign! Visitors can also watch past TOTO commercials in this area.

The unique gift that I received: a Washlet-shaped key chain which lights up when you lift the lid!

Of course, successful manufacturers cannot develop in isolation. Part of TOTO’s manufacturing process is now carried out by robots, and so I visited the YASKAWA factory to see them in action.

Even the receptionist is a robot!

Robots are not necessarily the humanoids that I had imagined. YASKAWA’s robots are mainly used in industrial processes, including the manufacture of more robots, and so functionality is key. However, after a while, you start to see past the external appearance and understand that their range of movement is in fact based on that of humans.

This robot can reach round corners and into very tight spaces

And these ones play the taiko drums!

In their Innovation Center, there are various hands-on activities, such as playing cards against a robot, or manipulating their movements.

I feel like Harry Potter with this wand, but there’s no magic involved, just advanced technology

Even my hostel here in Kitakyushu reflects the city’s creative spirit. The Tanga Table recently opened in what was formerly a clothes shop in a bustling commercial district. Like the TOTO and YASKAWA facilities, it shows a high degree of design sense.

The restaurant and communal space. Most of the ingredients come from shops in the nearby Tanga arcade...

... like this one

My room features the original shop windows. I also love the crazy-paving tatami mats!

I am really enjoying the variety of Hidden Beauties and accommodation so far. I wonder what’s to come...