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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

I visited public toilet paradise and it was heaven – why can’t Canada do this?

A visit to Hong Kong and Japan revealed plentiful public toilets to Spacing's Shawn Micallef, a situation that puts Canada to shame. There's no excuse why we can't do this too.


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A public toilet designed by Nao Tamura in Shibuya City, Tokyo

I found public pee paradises and their names are Hong Kong and Japan.

Public washrooms, or lack of by policy choice, in Canada has been my pet thing for a while. I’ve been writing about this over at the Toronto Star for more than a decade,  and then when the situation was exacerbated during the pandemic as the lack of meant many people could barely go a few blocks from their homes if they had any sort of innards issue, or kids, or…. For those who are able bodied it still was a problem. I peed behind more Toronto bushes during the pandemic than I have in my entire life I think. It’s a fundamental freedom and accessibility of the public realm thing. For more on this, see Lezlie Lowe’s excellent book, No Place To Go: How Public Toilets Fail Our Private Needs from Coach House Books.

The absurdity of Toronto’s public toilet situation kept reaching new lows, even resulting in the City of Toronto passing false information on the number of open toilets and water fountains after much pandemic angst in getting them open, and when one councillor called it out, he was punished by nearly every other sitting councillor, from both the left and right. Our elected officials and senior civil servants can’t even talk honestly about our public toilet situation, and will punish those who do.

There a better, easier way, but we’re still making it hard. Urban sleuth (better known as “Street Nurse”) Cathy Crowe recently got confirmation that a celebrated new park design in the Port Lands, written up by Canadian Geographic, a project overseen by CreateTO, had the public universal washroom removed from its final design. This is a shame, but also a continued scandal. Why do we make it so hard to pee? In these other places, washrooms were sometimes a block or two apart. Toronto’s “good enough” / “there’s one somewhere else” ethos, with CreateTO justifying the washroom removal because there’s an existing one in another park, would consider such provisions as extravagant rather than a basic human service giving people respect when in public space. That’s wrong and should be unacceptable to all of us. Demand what other places do without fuss from your city and council.

A public toilet in Kanda, near Tokyo’s city centre.

I found the better way though. Never have I ever been in such a public toilet paradise as in Japan and Hong Kong while visiting over the last 3 weeks. The selection in this post is from Tokyo and Hong Kong alone, but the same situation was found on side trips to Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Macao, and places in between. They are everywhere. Out in the city you can expect to see one, walk in, use it, leave. No fuss. They are in parks. In many transit stations. On street corners. Under freeways. By rivers and canals. They appear like mailboxes do here, often and ubiquitous. Most are big and have multiple urinals and stalls, as well as private, accessible rooms. The single toilets that result in long lines to use often touted as a victory in North America don’t cut it. I barely ever waited, even as the city was heaving with people.

The Tokyo Toilet project design by Nao Tamura was inspired by the LGTBQ+ community.

I’m often dehydrated walking around cities because if you drink too much water, you’ll have to spend a lot of time finding a place to go, so I don’t. Not in Japan and HK. I drank like a fish and peed like a king. Some of the toilets are exceptional architectural designs too, they even have competitions and programs, like the Tokyo Toilet design project in Shibuya, a Tokyo ward, above. We became toilet tourists, using some of these as landmarks to walk between while exploring. Toilet cairns, if you will.

A toilet near Tokyo’s historic centre.

The toilets are mostly all accessible, usually clean (I saw many attendants at work), are often open 24 hours and, most importantly, it isn’t a big deal. It’s just there, a service for people in public space. It shouldn’t be so hard here to do this, we have no excuses in Canada other than our leaders, elected and senior civil service, do not like people using public space. That, and the obsession with parsimoniousness in the public realm.  Sure, our climate is different, but the public toilets I saw were so well designed and solid that winter-ready versions would not be much more of an effort.

We don’t have an excuse. What follows is a random selection of toilets from our walks.


A toilet in a quiet part of Asakusa, Tokyo (accessible stall here, more on other side).
One of Tokyo’s famous translucent toilets, here by Yoyogi Park
Interior of the translucent toilet. Note the seat for kids while the parent is doing their thing (see below for a more detailed image of this feature). Even in the men’s these are plentiful.
Translucent instructions – note they were only opaque as the season turned to fall.
An open toilet in a tiny park at 1am near the Shinjuku bars. I cannot tell you how welcome this one was.
In Roppongi, Tokyo. Not all are accessible, though most are. This one was accessed by a set of stairs.
A beauty at night in Hibiya Park
Interior of Hibiya Park toilet
Another Tokyo Toilet project in Shinjuku by Kashiwa Sato.
And another Tokyo Toilet example, this time in the Harajuku neighbourhood.
Along Tokyo’s Meguro River
Bonus: one of many water fountains


A toilet in the Bowen Road Park, half way up a mountain. Hong Kong is subtropical so the sinks are often outside. Very clean and an attendant was at work.
Another on the way up the mountain. Drink lots of water in the heat on a hike, don’t worry about the toilets.
A beauty in Hong Kong Park
Interior of another in Hong Kong Park. Some great Postmodern styles too.
Interior of yet another in the Happy Valley area. They are spacious and have many amenities.


While not public, or accessible, this tiny toilet in a wee 8-seater gay bar in Kyoto called Apple had a toilet tank system seen often, where the sink drains into the tank for flushing, a simple and ingenious way to reuse wastewater. Some were also on top of western-style toilets.


While also not truly public, this toilet in Haneda Airport was typical of Japan’s public and semi-public toilets. Lots of instructions. Seats that clean and often dry yer butt. And instructions. So many instructions.

Japan is toilet heaven. A few more from the same toilet below.

So many instructions!
But the child seat is ubiquitous.

All photos by Shawn Micallef




One comment

  1. I would like to add my experience from 2 vacations to Japan. I was so impressed by the Toto toilets with washlets in the free and clean public washrooms in the JR train stations. The washlet provided warm water to clean your bottom, then warm air to dry it. It even provides music so the person in the next stall wouldn’t hear you. That was 2 decades ago. I like it so much that I have bought Toto toilet and washlet for my home.