Fittingly, I first heard about Mr. Toilet in the dingy, very crowded, bathroom adjacent to Hongdae’s famous Children’s Park—a name unsuited for a park notorious for public binge drinking and questionable street performances. It was a summer night in 2012, and the music of three separate bands played above the toots and whistles of the loaded bathroom stalls. And I was in line.
A line? For the Gentlemen’s Toilet? The crowd swelled on Saturdays, and I could only gaze on in tipsy wonder. Buffoonish drunks cackled and squealed in mirthful delight, whizzing at the urinals with one hand against the wall. I shook my head. And then a hand—from behind my left shoulder. It was a stranger of Korean ethnicity, one of the many weekend derelicts partying through the night. He wore a cheap trilby and a goofy smile and was intoxicated with the emotion of the night. He lunged at me, sticking out his swollen gut, which had grown plump as a rat on tallow.
“Go see Mr. Toilet.”
He paused, for effect, and repeated, “Go see Mr. Toilet,” with heaviness.
I didn’t understand the meaning of the encounter at the time, and, perhaps, the stranger didn’t either. Yet, from then on, I would wonder about that night and of the identity of Mr. Toilet.
Months later, I was enjoying a caffeinated beverage with a friend outside of the city. He was preparing to leave the country, moving on to other adventures, as people do in Korea. The foreign population in Seoul is transient and fickle. Sets of friends are temporary—a natural symptom of life as an expat. The conversation took the usual turns—future plans, favorite memories, regrets. Ah yes, regrets. Missed opportunities. He had many, but as he swirled the dregs of his latte, he mentioned a name that perked my ears.
“I never did get to see Mr. Toilet’s House. Over in Suwon. It opened very recently.”
I sat up in my chair and set down my cup. “Did you say ‘Mr. Toilet’?”
“Yeah, the new toilet museum in Suwon. It opened this year. They call it ‘Mr. Toilet’s House’. The guy used to be the mayor of Suwon. He was obsessed with bathrooms. They converted his house into a museum.”
I swore to my friend, then and there, that I would carry this most heavy of regrets deep in my breast and would seek out Mr. Toilet and his glorious house, rendering his lament, vicariously, reversed. But my duty was long in completion.
For years after that moment, Mr. Toilet followed me like a whispered voice. I would hear a tale, perhaps from a student, of a glorious museum on a hill. “And have you been there, teacher?” Other times, my commute would be beset with quiet giggles on the night train from talk of a shapely bowl—a shapely bowl, indeed! The size of a house! The rumors and murmurs followed me, but they remained as such. And time flowed like a river.
Fast forward. May 2015. The present. I was on a field trip to The Korea Times, Korea’s oldest English daily, as the sponsor and leader of my school’s English newspaper club. The students were restless, complaining that visiting an English newspaper had little relevance to members of an English newspaper club. Inside the publishing office, our tour leader ushered us to a tiny corner office which served double duty as conference room and archive storage. While the guide began his introduction, I happened upon a stack of old papers to the rear of the room. There it was, in blurb form, on the top of the stack: Mr. Toilet’s House. Old promises flushed over me, and I vowed to visit this wretched museum. I would finish the journey that began nearly three years prior!
Now, I had several reasons for wanting to visit Mr. Toilet’s House. The first, and strongest, was my obsessive curiosity as to the state of the for-use toilets in the toilet museum. These bathrooms loomed mythical in my head. I had fiber loaded on prunes and health bars days in advance of the trip, ensuring an at-will bowel movement. To be safe, I gorged on Taco Bell the night in advance of the journey. My second reason was, of course, my unhealthy relationship with public toilets combined with an unwavering belief in confronting your fears. When I picked up that yellowed newspaper in The Korea Times, I knew the time had come. I set to planning the journey.
My companion for the trip, the Short Round to my Indy, was my good friend Yoo-kyung, who is short but not round. She showed little interest, at first, of visiting a toilet museum in the suburbs, but I wooed her interest with exaggerated overtures of Saturday adventure. Yoo-kyung currently lives and works in London but is home in Korea visiting her family and sorting out her visa situation. She returns to Europe soon, and I fed her guilt of leaving. We agreed to terms, including a clause that allowed her to refer to our destination as the ‘Loo Museum’, for comfort.
Yoo-kyung is a petite girl who looks quite younger than her age. She’s the kind of short and slim that makes strangers question her safety if seen in public with an adult male. We met on the subway platform at Guro Station on the edge of Seoul. From there, we would head south on the rickety blue line. I arrived at the platform first, and just as our train was arriving, I saw Yoo-kyung waving her arrival at me. I pulled her onto the train just as the doors were shutting, and I’m sure a few of the natives started looking up the abduction hotline number.
As the train rattled further beyond Seoul’s circumference, seats opened up, and we settled in for the haul. There was plenty of in-flight entertainment in the form of people watching. We were especially lucky to have a parade of mobile merchants march through our car. These hawkers are quite common on the subways in Seoul. They wheel their blue carts behind them, stopping in the middle of each subway car and giving their sales pitches in booming, practiced, tones. One such peddler was selling wrist and ankle pads for the infirm. He, himself, had a set of gnarled stubs on his right hand, the result of, one might guess, an encounter with rattlesnakes. Yet, he was an adept salesman, and he charmed a lady of age just two seats to my flank. She bought a pair of wrist pressure pads.
After a time, we arrived at Sungkyunkwan University Station about an hour outside of Seoul and just three stops north of Suwon Station. It felt like an outpost on the path to more important places. There was a single main thoroughfare that included the overpass of the train tracks. To the north of the overpass was a small collection of stores and cafes. Yoo-kyung quickly pointed out a small chain café/patisserie, noting her need for coffee—a desire she chirped about during the commute. We regrouped in the café with iced americanos, and I, being a feedbag, consumed two savory pastries.
At this point, Yoo-kyung and I disagreed at how to proceed to the museum. I had found a set of directions in the depths of the internet that instructed us to take the 64 bus to Dongwon High School from the stop kitty-corner to the train station. Yoo-kyung balked, writing my information off as unreliable. I smugly told her it’s not a problem unless you have a solution, which I once read on a tack board in an elevator. We were too far outside the city to employ the services of a taxi, so we finished our coffee and crossed the street to the bus stop.
Upon arrival at the bus stop, the electronic arrivals board informed us that the next 64 bus wouldn’t arrive for another 40 minutes, at which we both moaned in displeasure. Yoo-kyung pressed her finger against the timetable and ran it up and down, searching in desperation for another bus to Dongwon High School.
“Here! The 39! It stops at Dongwon!” And as if by divine intervention, a dark blue bus puffed to a halt in front of us with a gust of its airbrakes. The 39! It was beginning to feel like a trip of destiny. The bus, however, was completely empty, save the driver, and my elfin friend and I began to worry. She questioned the driver, unencumbered by other passengers, as to the whereabouts of Mr. Toilet’s House, and he confirmed our path was true but was unable to detail the precise location of the museum.
We disembarked, after a ten-minute bus ride, in front of a petrol station. We found ourselves on the southwest corner of an enormous 4-way intersection and saw Dongwon High School on the northwest corner. When planning the trip, I had assumed the museum would be clearly visible, with accompanying signage, at this point, but we saw no signs of a museum as we glanced in every direction. We consulted the internet directions which told us, vaguely, to turn right, which was completely useless information at a 4-way stop and no sense of orientation.
I saw a small convenience store 100 meters to the west and suggested we ask the shop keep for directions. Before Yoo-kyung could finish her sentence, hearing the word ‘museum’, the gruff owner thrust a hand to the west and told us to walk another 300 meters. We rejoiced, exited the store, and quickened our pace. The intoxication of journey’s end commanded our countenance. We smiled at each other. Mr. Toilet was at hand! The road winded teasingly, but after a short walk, the temple to washrooms rose glowingly around a final bend. O! Hark! Thou luxe edifice of porcelain thrones!
The museum itself was, indeed, a converted house in the center of a sprawling lawn. It wasn’t initially clear from the ground level, but the house was shaped like a toilet bowl, complete with a hole in the center. As we stepped onto the lawn, a statue of Toile, the eponymous mascot of the museum, cast his watchful gaze over us.
So here’s the deal. Mr. Toilet’s real name is Jae-duck Sim. He was—seriously—born in a bathroom on January 15th, 1939, which apparently was considered lucky in Korea once upon a time. Sim became the mayor of Suwon, a large suburb south of Seoul, in 1995 at the age of 56. He was a crusader for public health issues and almost immediately began beautifying the public toilets in Suwon. He became well known, in Korea, as a leader in preparing Suwon to host the World Cup in advance of the 2002 tournament. He was also, obviously, a devoted member of The World Toilet Association (the WTA), which is an actual organization which actually exists. In what can only be described as an act of pure madness, he decided to completely renovate his house into the shape of a toilet. Construction finished in 2007. Sim, sadly, died in 2009 and donated his house to the city of Suwon. The city converted it to the museum it is today. It opened in 2012.
The first thing Yoo-kyung and I explored were the lawn displays decorating the museum grounds. There were quite a few examples of historical Korean toilets, some more terrifying than others. The most horror-inducing of them all was a stone outhouse built above a hog run, which, historically, housed Jeju Island’s famous black pigs. People would defecate into a hole in the stone which led directly into the pigs’ trough, providing the hogs with succulent night soil on which to feed and completing a terrible circle of life. The display had very real looking fake pigs and a requisite pile of curling plastic poo.
The dynastic-era public bathroom was another popular display. The toilet was basically a pit about 5 feet wide and 2 feet deep that could scale to any length. The displayed example was about 15 feet long. 2 by 12 boards were nailed across the width of the pit, with spaces of about 1 foot between each board. The idea was to squat, with a foot on two separate boards, and crap into the space between the boards. This was a public toilet with boards for many people, and it wasn’t really a room. The only cover was a thatched canopy over the pit, much like a party tent.
It was, truly, the stuff of nightmares.
The inside of the museum was much more palatable to the senses. There were interesting exhibits on the history of toilets in Korea, restroom signs around the world, and children’s drawings of feces. I was expecting an exhibit of toilets from around the world but saw no such display. However, upon examination of the museum pamphlet, I discovered construction plans for the World Toilet Experience Center to be built on land adjacent to the existing museum. A return visit might be in order.
Now, at about this time, a mighty rumbling in my vitals swelled to a crescendo, and the heavy turd I’d been nurturing announced its intended descent. I glanced at Yoo-kyung and nodded, and she knew, with her feminine wisdom, it was time. We eagerly searched for a member of staff to direct us to the bathrooms. The real bathrooms. We found a young lady with a name tag. Yoo-kyung asked where the restrooms were, but after a few moments, I knew something was amiss when Yoo-kyung’s expression dropped.
“There’s a problem.” She winced in preparation, expecting my reaction. “There is no toilet in this building. We have to cross the street.”
My pulsing intestine was the only thing controlling the sheer outrage that boiled in me. “Come again? You, uh, mean there’s no toilet in the toilet museum?” I felt cheated. I felt tricked. Admission to the museum was free, but I felt like I overpaid. I looked straight at the employee and transmitted my loathing via eye contact but said nothing, as I am non-confrontational.
Actually, there was a toilet in the museum. Kind of.
Directly across the street from Mr. Toilet’s converted house there stood another building called The Toilet Culture Center. This building housed the bathrooms for public use. I suppose the TCC was also a part of the museum campus, if you will, but I’ll tell you I felt gypped. If the bathrooms were as majestic as I imagined they should have been, perhaps it would have redeemed the experience, but I am sad to report, dear reader, that the restrooms servicing the museum were only slightly above average. They were clean—very clean, actually—but that’s the best I can say. The only unique feature was a family stall with two side-by-side johns, one average-sized and one for children that was half-sized.
My anger was great, at first. Yet, as I stood in the warm sun outside the TCC waiting for Yoo-Kyung (who was just as curious about the facilities), I pondered Mr. Toilet and his legacy. Perhaps—just maybe—this is how he would have wanted it. He made his name by doing one thing very well. He built clean restrooms for the people of Suwon. Were they fancy, gimmicky, deals with interactive urinals and artist-designed sinks? No. They were clean, comfortable, bathrooms. That’s his legacy.
Yoo-kyung and I looked around the TCC hoping for more to see, but it was mainly office space and some displays for children. We basked in the beautiful weather and paced on Mr. Toilet’s lawn a time or two more. We were reluctant to say goodbye. But, as two flowers who feel the first grips of frost in the night, we silently acknowledged it was time to leave. We crossed the lawn and headed east to the winding road.
Suddenly, as we were about to pass the threshold of the first bend and leave the shadow of the museum, I turned back. I gripped the straps of my backpack at the shoulders and tilted my chin to the clouds. I thought back to that night in Hongdae in the Children’s Park bathroom. I thought of all those who had endeavored to pay their respects to Mr. Toilet at his glorious museum but never found the time. I thought of The Korea Times. A fat tear welled in my eye, but I choked it back with masculinity. I nodded a single nod, my promises fulfilled.
That’ll do, Mr. Toilet. That’ll do.
A stone outhouse used on Jeju to feed the black pigs
A public bathroom, circa The Joseon Dynasty
More Kid’s Art
International Restroom Signs