An elegance that smells

Lavatory in the eyes of Junichirō Tanizaki

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One section of Junichirō Tanizaki’s essay collection In Praise of Shadows is themed around the aesthetics of toilet. As he launches into a discussion of traditional Japanese architecture, he elaborates on how a toilet is a place of spiritual repose. Being separated from the main building, the lavatory always provides a dimly lit space where you can quietly sit and listen to the birds chirping outside amidst the fragrance of glass. Looking through the small paper screen window, you can even admire how the shadows of the trees move. As a tiny place to enjoy the subtle change of seasons and the soothing surroundings, it is actually in no way more inferior than the tearoom. The lavatory is probably the best place to reflect Japanese’s insistence on lifestyles and aesthetics. Boiling down elegance and sanitary purpose, something of vastly different natures, into one space, such cutting sense of humor and observation are well demonstrated by Tanizaki.

Nowadays in Japan, it is rather difficult to find the traditional Japanese lavatory that Junichirō Tanizaki spoke so highly of. I know of two places that still feature toilets of old wooden architecture which is separated from the core building. One is a cafe called Mo-an, which is converted from a tea house in Yoshidayama Kyoto. Another one is the Uji-based Asahiyako kiln with a history of 400 years. In rainy days, you would have to hold tight to your umbrella and leap onto huge rocks on your way to the toilets. There you would have a feeling of being fully immersed in nature. This is probably not Tanizaki would exactly look for, since the toilets are made of porcelain which is too hard and cold. This contradicts with the warm wooden architecture and its surrounding nature. Also, the deodorization is too perfectly done, this kills off the ‘down to earth’ touch to a certain extent.

Japanese aesthetics is born in the dark. The dimness in the living room gives the best stage to the subtle shine of light. The Maki-e painted on lacquerware, as well as the shell powder on toushi (paper used for making the Japanese room divider, Shōji) reflects their sophisticated glow, which looks particularly sharp but subtle in a dim room. The yin and yang complement each other and form the picture as one.

Our ancestors have found their comfortable spot between the smell of human waste and the fragrance of flowers, taking both yin and yang into the whole setting and learned to enjoy it. Now I live in a fully modernized apartment with an exhaust fan running 24/7 in a windowless bathroom. I am probably not as open-minded as the people in the past. One day, in the washroom, I saw a tiny photograph my husband had stuck on the wall. It is a picture of the vast sea.  Since then whenever I flush, it would remind me of the Chinese poetry “just as much as a river of vernal water flowing east.”
Perhaps that is my intended way to act elegant.