Tag Archives: japan

The Precarious Art of Squatting

squat toilets

Squat toilets (Kamakura, Japan; Taipei, Taiwan)

Every December, as the year comes to a close, I find myself contemplating various aspects of the miracle that is life. This month, I’ve retreated into the mind of an eight-year-old to ponder the following: Everybody pees, everybody poops.

As far as I know, there’s really no way to do either elegantly. Certainly not when you’re squatting over a hole. And definitely not when that hole is on a moving train.

I had the great misfortune of learning this the hard way at the age of three or four. It was during one of my first visits to Taipei, Taiwan, back in the days of martial law and a good 20 years before the realization of its streamlined Mass Rapid Transit system. My grandmother and I were riding the train. At one point I needed to pee.

When she slid open the door, we were deafened by the roar of the tracks rushing past beneath us. The toilet was essentially a small, closet-like space with a portion of the train floor cut away. Unlike long-distance Greyhound buses, this didn’t require a Hazmat suit to enter, but a safety harness would’ve been nice.

I like to imagine that, in addition to evading the train’s lurching attempts to fling us into its gaping maw and beneath its steel wheels, we had to battle a tornado of our own hair whipping into our eyes. However, I was too distracted by my short life flashing before my eyes when my grandma hoisted me over the hole to recall if that really happened. I somehow managed to answer nature’s call, but not before the experience scarred me with a lifelong aversion to walking over street grates, sewer grates, and covered manholes—a connection I only recently made as a result of writing this post.

When I returned to Taipei in the early 1990s, I was stunned and dismayed to encounter squat toilets in several posh department stores. Sure, they were made of gleaming porcelain and some had grooved foot rests, but I recoiled from them and the eye-watering odor that emanated from trashcans brimming with used toilet paper. I was flabbergasted that well-dressed women in high heels actually waited to use the squattie over the Western sittie.

As it turns out, squat toilets are purported to prevent a number of health problems (e.g., Crohn’s disease, colon cancer, hemorrhoids) and are still quite common in 21st-century Asia, even in “technologically advanced” countries such as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Most women continue to choose squatties over sitties unless they’re older or disabled. Hong Kong, the world’s most expensive place to live, also has squatties sprinkled among its architecturally elaborate public restrooms (but some people make do by peeing into plastic baggies—see photo below). The squat toilet’s popularity may explain why, in certain authentic Chinese restaurants in the States, you’re likely to come across toilet seats soiled with muddy footprints as well as trashcans reeking of urine.

bathroom

High-end mall restroom, Hong Kong | Canon 5D, 24mm, 1/30, f4, ISO 500

Pee Break

Pee break, Hong Kong metro station | photo by Canderson

jiufen squat toilet

Squat toilet, Jiufen, Taiwan | Olympus PEN E-P2, 9mm, 1/10, f4, ISO 1000

“They’re cleaner,” I’ve been told. “You don’t touch anything.”

This isn’t entirely true, of course. You still have to touch the handle or string of the flusher (if you have a flusher; sometimes a bucket of water and ladle are all that are provided to rinse away your deposit) and the doorknob (if there is indeed a door). When you consider that public restrooms in Asia often don’t provide soap and most people think that moistening their fingers with water for a few seconds counts as adequate hand washing, physically engaging with a visually clean toilet seat is no less hygienic than using a squat toilet. Plus there’s the added indignity of splashing on your shoes and/or standing in a puddle of someone else’s failure to aim properly. At least when you squat over a seated toilet, your shoes and ankles are more or less safe, and you don’t have to worry too much about losing your belongings in the bowl.

Yet when you’re in Asia (or parts of Europe, Latin America, or the Middle East) for more than a week, there’s no point in complaining or holding out for a toilet with a seat. Just make sure you always have a packet of tissue paper with you (many businesses hand out tissue packs wrapped in their ads) and take your time. Not peeing down your leg or soaking your shoes takes some practice, as does not falling/slipping once you’re mid-stream.

The recommended position for using a squat toilet is to face the wall (as opposed to the door), straddle the hole, and then squat down fully until your torso can more or less rest on your thighs. If you’ve ever seen a toddler squat down to investigate something on the ground, this is that position. Plenty of people (usually men) in Asia assume this position when taking a smoke break, talking on the phone, or reading the paper.

Of course, certain factors will affect your ability to squat all the way down, thereby altering the efficacy and dryness of your squat toilet experience. Tight pants and limited range of motion in the hips/knees/ankles, for instance, will reduce the angle of your squat and the distance between your feet. In that scenario, it takes a bit more trial and error, and perhaps a firm grip on whatever stable object (bar, wall, exposed pipe) is available. You might even find that taking off your pants completely is the key to your success. (This is something I’ve never felt the need to do, but I’m intrigued by those who have. Assuming there’s no hook in the stall, as there often isn’t, do they tie the pant legs around their neck? And what if they’re wearing skinny jeans? There’s no way they can take those off without first removing their shoes. And what about all the stuff in their pockets?)

I personally prefer a higher squat, almost as if I were hovering over a Western toilet. Sure, my quadriceps have to work harder and I have to be more vigilant about my aim, but it keeps my rear end out of the backsplash zone and my nose farther away from the pungent trashcan. I also like rolling up my pant legs (they may accidentally soak up what’s already on the floor if you’re not careful) and making sure the contents of my bags/pockets are safely tucked away.

At one point during a recent trip to Hong Kong, I actually found myself welcoming the sight of a squattie. Was this a sign that I had finally arrived? Was I treating these bathroom sessions like mini-P90X workouts and therefore appreciating the challenge? Or was I simply tired of trying to turn around in cramped toilet stalls with my bag in tow? Hard to say, although I’ll admit this was only when urination was on the agenda. Taking a crap in a squat toilet can be pretty gnarly, especially if you’re in a hot, humid, unventilated cubicle. Sure, squatting might present the most efficient angle to evacuate your bowels, but good god—the smell! So intense! A bowlful of water apparently plays a much bigger role than facilitating flushing.

For those of you who’ve been to China or heard horror stories about Chinese toilets, you might like to know that squat toilets in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tokyo—even in public park restrooms—are rarely squalid splatterfests. There’s often an attendant who frequently hoses down the facilities until they’re spotless. The downside is that a moist, humid environment is perfect for breeding mosquitoes, a real drag in general but especially for any exposed rump.

In stark contrast to the spare design of the squat toilet is the high-tech, multifunction unit commonly seen in Japan (one of my hosts in Korea had one in their home!). The popular Toto Washlet boasts a control panel with a host of buttons. Depending on the model, you might mask the sounds of your bodily functions with a prerecorded jingle or the sound of someone else peeing, spray your nether regions with warm water, blow them dry, or create a bidet. I highly recommend experimenting with all the buttons, except perhaps the one that has you dunking your behind in water. Why anyone would want to do this in a public toilet is beyond my comprehension.

fancy japanese toilets

High-tech toilet, Tokyo; multifunction toilet control panel

fancy japanese toilet panel

Multifunction toilet control panel

Incidentally, Taichung, Taiwan’s third-largest city, was a real tease when it came to the porcelain commode. C and I pulled into the train station and were greeted by a party of Western toilets bearing a variety of flora. Was Taichung swimming in such a glut of toilets that they could afford to pay lavish tribute to Marcel Duchamp? I couldn’t help but be flushed with anticipation.

Well, as it turned out, art didn’t imitate life. The women’s restroom looked like it hadn’t changed much since it was built in the early 20th century (we visited in late 2011, mind you), but I couldn’t be too upset. I’m a big fan of historical preservation, and there was running water. Plus I hadn’t quite perfected my squatting technique yet. There were worse things than returning home with quads of steel.

taichung toilet art

Toilet art installation, Taichung train station | Olympus PEN E-P2, 9mm, 1/200, f6.3, ISO 200

taichung toilet art

Toilet art installation, Taichung train station | Olympus PEN E-P2, 9mm, 1/320, f9, ISO 800

3 Comments

Filed under observations, photography, travel

Noodlebrain

Seaweed ramen | Canon 5D, 29mm, 1/80, f4, ISO 800

When I was in Sebastopol in September, I had the misfortune of picking up the debut issue of Lucky Peach, a quarterly food journal spearheaded by chef David Chang (owner of NYC’s Momofuku restaurants), writer Peter Meehan, and the Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations production team. I say “misfortune” not because it’s a waste of a perfectly good tree but because it renewed my appreciation for ramen. But I suppose it would’ve been a failure on its end had it not, seeing as the whole issue centers around the humble, chewy foodstuff that sustained me for a good three-quarters of my life.

Kraft macaroni and cheese may have been popular in Western households, but instant ramen was a staple in our Taiwanese-American home. The Tung-I brand (the Chinese onion flavor in particular) was our favorite, with its brick of crispy, wavy noodles, foil packet of dry seasoning (MSG, dehydrated chives), and clear packet of fragrant, partially solidified oil and fried shallots.

We never ate it for dinner (somehow my mom always managed to whip up a soup, a protein, and several plates of greens and vegetables each night), but we devoured it as a snack. Occasionally we had it ungarnished, but most of the time we’d crack in an egg or two and/or toss in some fresh spinach. My dad would drop in dollops of chili paste until the broth was an unseemly red. I was probably 10 when I started making it on my own. Unsurprisingly, I packed a big box of it and an electric kettle when I moved 500 miles away to college.

Of course, my family also had a variety of Nissin Cup Noodles on hand for the times when we were either too busy or lazy to deal with a pot and a bowl. Even though I haven’t touched the stuff since the 1990s, I still remember the treats found within each cup, more so than I remember the various shaped marshmallows found in Lucky Charms cereal: spongy, yellow cubes of egg; small pink curls of shrimp with black intestinal tract intact; sweet orange tabs of carrot; green balls that never seemed to properly reconstitute into peas.

Eventually, once I was on my own and paying for stuff with my own money, Top Ramen and Maruchan (inferior brands, in my opinion, because they lacked oil packets) caught my attention with their 20-for-$1 sales. When I was feeling adventurous, I’d splurge on Shin Ramyun, a spicy Korean brand. I stopped eating instant ramen completely when I started reading nutrition labels and learned, to my horror, that each pack was 400 calories and 24 grams of fat.

I was long out of college when I discovered that cooked ramen existed in a commercial setting. A non-Asian friend introduced me to the handmade gook-soo noodles (similar to udon) at Bear’s Ramen House, a Korean hole in the wall in Berkeley’s Asian food ghetto. They also served ramyeon, but I didn’t see the point of paying $5 for something that I could literally get for a dime. Eventually, I ate my first bowl of restaurant ramen there. Even though they used dried instant noodles, the broth and accompaniments blew away my home attempts.

It wasn’t until years later in 2009, on my second trip to Tokyo, that I finally had fresh ramen. In Japan, ramen is considered fast food, and it’s as ubiquitous as burgers, sandwiches, and pizza by the slice in the States. Whole eateries (called ramenya) are dedicated to the stuff, and they’re not shy about showcasing their offerings, either through photos or plastic replicas so well done that you can almost see the steam wafting off the vinyl chloride noodles.

Ironically, I ordered my first bowl of fresh ramen from a vending machine. Many ramenya prefer an automated system in which you choose what you want from a machine outside, insert your money, and take the ticket it spits out to the person at the counter inside. I liked it because I didn’t have to struggle with the language and could take my time marveling over the menu.

Kamukura's vending machine (Shinjuku, Tokyo) | Olympus E-P2, 9mm, 1/320, f9, ISO 1000

My meal looked just like the replica, and the noodles were chewy, savory, and comforting, with a bite that instant noodles never had. How had my parents kept this from me for so long? Were they even aware of this magic in a bowl?

My first bowl of fresh ramen | Canon 5D, 70mm, 1/40, f6.3, ISO 250

Little did I know that ramen had many more dimensions, as illustrated in Lucky Peach. The noodles could be curly or straight; the broth clear or milky, fishy or porky or both; the eggs soft-boiled, hard-boiled, or raw. And then there were the various combinations of toppings: green onion, seaweed, fishcake, pork, corn, spinach, bean sprouts. When I went back to Tokyo this past Thanksgiving, I made sure to squeeze in a few more bowls.

Kamukura ramen | Olympus E-P2, 18mm, 1/25, f5.6, ISO 1000

"Piss Alley" ramen | Canon 60D, 45mm, 1/50, f4, ISO 1250

"Piss Alley" ramen | Canon 60D, 50mm, 1/100, f4, ISO 1250

My ramen journey didn’t end there, however. Somehow during the course of writing this post, I became mildly obsessed with instant noodles and learned that they were invented by Taiwanese-born Momofuku Ando for Japan’s Nissin Foods. (I assume David Chang borrowed Ando’s name for his restaurant.) I also developed an unexpected longing for the Tung-I ramen of my youth.

I bought two packs at the Asian supermarket and saw that the packaging had changed a bit (“Unif” had been added to the name; the flavor was now simply “onion flavor”; instructions were also provided in German and Norwegian). In addition, the product was now made in Vietnam. Yikes! Did they change the recipe, too?

Tung-I instant ramen | Canon 60D, 40mm, 1/60, f4, ISO 1000

Tung-I ramen package | Canon 60D, 40mm, 1/100, f4, ISO 1000

Curious as I was, it took me a good two weeks to work up the courage to prepare one pack. Yes, I know that makes me sound like the biggest food snob, but not only was the fat/calorie content daunting, so were the ingredients. MSG was one thing, but what were disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, and tertiary butylhydroquinone?

As it turned out, the ramen smelled and tasted exactly like I remembered, from the heavenly scalliony oil to the dried chives to the spirals of noodle. I ended up eating both packs with minimal guilt, knowing that I’d never knowingly eat instant ramen again.

Fresh ramen, on the other hand, is a completely different beast. And what about cup noodles…? Oh, why did I dare to eat this particular peach?

2 Comments

Filed under culture, food, observations, photography, travel

Five on Friday: Thinking of Japan

Enoshima island and Sagami Bay | Canon Digital Rebel XT, 17mm, 1/320 f5.6, ISO 100

Even before today’s devastating earthquake/tsunami, Japan and its people, places, and food have been on my mind a lot lately. Watching footage of the tsunami bulldozing its way across the island has been, for lack of a better description, truly humbling. Sending positive energy to Japan with a double dose of some of my favorite moments there.

Tokyo viewed from Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building | Diana F+, 75mm, Kodak Tri-X 400

Shibuya street crossing | Diana F+, 75mm, Kodak Tri-X 400

Outdoor food stall | Diana F+, 75mm, Kodak 400 VC

Ramen | Canon 5D, 29mm, 1/80 f4, ISO 800

Three-person eatery in Golden Gai, Shinjuku | Canon 5D, 17mm, 1/40 f4, ISO 800

Woman heals herself with incense smoke, Senso-ji temple, Asakusa | Canon Digital Rebel XT, 40mm, 1/320 f6.3, ISO 100

Ashtray cleaner, Shibuya station | Canon Digital Rebel XT, 40mm, 1/250 f8, ISO 100

Wedding portrait at Meiji Jingu Shrine | Canon 5D, 27mm, 1/400 f5, ISO 400

Little Elvis Ryuta and the SRP, Red Cloth, Shinjuku | Canon Digital Rebel XT, 17mm, 1/25 f5.6, ISO 400

Digital Rebel XT

1 Comment

Filed under five on friday, photography, travel