Last year, Bennett Friedman, who owns a plumbing showroom in Manhattan called AF New York, took a business trip to Milan. On the morning of his return he faced a choice: stop in the bathroom there or wait until he got home. The flight was nine hours. He waited.
The move seems almost masochistic. But in his home and office bathrooms, Friedman had installed a Toto washlet. To sit upon a standard commode, he said, would be like "going back to the Stone Age."
"It feels very uncivilized," he said.
For those who own Japanese toilets, there is a cultish devotion. They boast heated seats, a bidet function for a rear cleanse and an air-purifying system that deodorizes during use. The need for toilet paper is virtually eliminated (there is an air dryer) and "you left the lid up" squabbles need never take place (the seat lifts and closes automatically in many models).
Jean Z. Poh, founder of the luxury jewelry e-commerce site Swoonery.com, said a washlet is, in its own way, a luxury item.
"I’ve had conversations about washlets with people and it’s always, ‘How good is your life now?’" Poh said. "It’s about the heated seats. Your life is really good when you have a heated toilet seat."
Poh, who lives on the Upper East Side, first encountered a washlet while living in Asia, where they are widespread, especially in Japan, where hotels, restaurants, airports and baseball stadiums are equipped with them, in addition to millions of private homes.
In the United States, washlets remain, like the metric system, a foreign cultural curiosity that has never widely caught on. The bidet tends to cause embarrassment; the electronic push-button controls to confound.
Toto, arguably the industry leader (though other companies sell them), has tried over the years to get Americans to embrace the concept. Their latest bid to toilet-train the public is the Connect+ system of the Carlyle II 1G with s350e washlet.
The model offers the standard comforts, along with something Toto calls SanaGloss, a glaze that seals the porcelain and repels waste. It also has a high-efficiency flush that uses only 1 gallon of water. Around $2,400, the system is also a more entry-level version of Toto’s top-of-the-line $9,800 Neorest, which has UV light technology that kills bacteria.
Friedman, whose showroom has sold Toto washlets for close to 25 years, is familiar with the snickering around toilet shopping, and people’s resistance to a remote-controlled wand shooting water into a sensitive area.
"It takes me three years to train a good sales consultant to convey the proper message and value to our clients," Friedman said. "I sometimes challenge people: ‘Buy it.’ It’s really about comfort, health, functionality."
Toto doesn’t sell its washlets in big-box stores like Home Depot, preferring the showroom experience instead. The company also plans to open an educational gallery in Manhattan next spring, where people can learn about the Toto technology. Most washlet owners, then, are converted after trying one out in the world. At a boutique hotel, say, or on a trip to Asia.
Such was the case with Robert Aboulache. Before he and his family went on a vacation to Japan, he said, friends who had visited the country told him he would love the toilets.
"I thought, ‘How great can the toilets be?’" Aboulache said. "They were amazing. Some have noisemakers to cover up the sound. You can pivot that little sprayer. The water can be heated or not. We got home, and I thought, ‘This is not the same.’"
Three days later, Aboulache went online and bought a Toto washlet, which he installed in the shared upstairs bathroom of his home in Los Angeles as a surprise for his wife and son.
"We’ve been delighted," he said. "It’s our favorite toilet."
For Asian expats, life without a washlet can be a difficult adjustment. Ayako Otoshi, who grew up in Japan, missed the heated-seat experience so much that she and her husband installed a Toto washlet in their apartment in Brooklyn as a cure for homesickness.
"We miss being there," Otoshi said. "We wanted to recreate something we have in Japan here."
The couple’s new condo apartment, also in Brooklyn, miraculously came with two washlets. Otoshi said she and her husband often have to explain how the toilet works to houseguests, calming their anxieties and touting the features as though operating an informal showroom.
Friedman, too, is an enthusiastic proselytizer for washlets, in his showroom and out in social situations, something you gather he would do even if he didn’t sell them.
Whenever he talks about their virtues, he said, "I feel like one of the Apostles passing the word of God."