It's a spa… it's a toilet… it's a Spalet, a hi-tech combination of the two. Perspective joins a trip to Nagoya to discover the past and future of Japan's beloved multifunctional WCs
Japan's first shower toilet – the INAX Sanitarina 61 – was released in 1967, and for those who experienced it, going to the loo would never be the same again. The first model combined a Western flushing toilet with a bidet-like cold-water jet. The idea soon caught on. Over the years, INAX added more and more functions to its hi-tech WC: warm-water nozzles (double-headed Lady Nozzle optional), blow-dryers, auto-flushing, anti-splash foam, and a deodoriser. A whole subsection of innovation has been applied to the toilet seats, which are now antibacterial, easy-clean, seamless, heated, and open and close automatically. The result is a refreshing, spa-like toilet experience beloved in Japan. And now it's going Asia-wide.
It all began in Nagoya, where there's a museum dedicated to the invention – the INAX Museum – with a fully functioning, 50-year-old Sanitarina 61 on proud display. Perspective visited in July as part of the annual LIXIL (the brand that now incorporates INAX) Iconic Tour. This year's three-day event focused on the Spalet, a term coined by LIXIL to describe this smart fusion of Japanese and Western toilet technology.
Today, LIXIL occupies a unique position in the industry, with three of the world's biggest brands in sanitary ware: INAX, Grohe and American Standard. By leveraging its expertise and experience from all three brands, the company leads the world in Spalet technology, manufacturing products with world-class Japanese technology, German precision engineering and award-winning design.
LIXIL has a long history of providing Spalets to Japanese homes and businesses and now it's hoping to normalise the concept across the rest of Asia. A surge in mainland tourists to Japan has seen a growth in popularity in China, and elsewhere in Asia. But what is required for the Spalet to really take off in Hong Kong?
"We still haven't been able to grow the Hong Kong market like we should," says LIXIL Asia Pacific CEO Bijoy Mohan. "Hong Kong plumbing is very different to the rest of the region – its use of flushing seawater, for example. We need to make adjustments and components for seawater. There are things that we are addressing. I wouldn't see space as a major challenge. Japan has a similar problem with space in the Tokyo market. We've already developed a lot of products based on maximising space in a small area, like a bathroom and a kitchen. I don't expect that to be a barrier.
"The acceptance of Spalets has happened with the boom in Chinese tourism to Japan. People are buying seats and taking them home. That took off very rapidly. [China] is getting more and more particular [about hygiene]," he says.
To promote the product across Asia, the firm launched the LIXIL Dream Spalet Destination Competition for architects and designers who have used the Spalet in hospitality projects. The winner was announced on the final night of the tour: Grande Centre Point Sukhumvit 55, in Bangkok, designed by Thanawat Sukhaggananda. The project is Thailand's largest onsen hotel, which uses American Standard products in its guest rooms and spa facilities. The other finalists included projects from Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines.