I first fell for Tokyo when I arrived at the Four Seasons Hotel at Marunouchi and read the little sign in my bathroom.
“Don’t be afraid of our toilet,” the note begged, politely, reassuringly.
I was far from afraid. I was transfixed, happy. I pressed all the buttons on the toilet, even the ones with the pictures of things I’d never want to have happen or couldn’t really comprehend. When that was done, I drew a bath in the outsize tub at the center of the room, fiddled with the electric shades and dimmers, turned on some hotel music, disgorged all the bath salts, and fetched a Cognac from the mini-bar.
Our bathroom rituals are different in hotels than they are at home because the function of that room is altered and enlarged. The home bath is a way station on the path of the everyday. Traveling, we’re off our routine and in need of comfort, warmth, and cleansing.
At a hotel, we check in, get shown the room. Suffer the little song and dance where the porter points out the safe and the TV remote and we say aloud “Oh, that’s a TV remote,” and think, Please go. Finally alone, we’ll check the bed for bounce, look for power plugs, do a quick unpack. But it’s in the bathroom where we really commune with our surroundings: we run all the taps, unwrap the arsenal of try-me toiletries, steam up the place, and relax.
There are hotel bathrooms that follow the modern architect’s dictum to bring the outside in. In Vancouver, I’ve watched seaplanes skimming the blue water below my bath. In Tanzania, I propped my feet up on the edge of the tub in my hut at Ngorongoro Crater Lodge and looked over my toes as the sun set over the golden bowl of the crater below. Other rooms take you somewhere else, suggesting an idealized past or a super-engineered future. I’m thinking of the butler call buttons in the Art Deco baths of Claridge’s, in London, or the tricked-out but beautiful bathrooms of the Hyatt on the Bund, in Shanghai, where the toilet seats, sensing your proximity, rise in robotic salute.
I don’t know what it is that’s so pleasing about a big, well-appointed bathroom to the needy, travel-weary mind and body. I only know that it upends my aesthetic standards in the same way a splendiferous breakfast spread makes me hungry in the morning, even though I only drink coffee back home. If in New York I’m not much for products, on the road I want a riot of foaming balms and body scrubs, I want anti-stress, anti-jet-lag, time-reversing essential oils. And I want them all freshly replaced every time I leave the room. I want my loofah, my savon doux, my sewing kit, my shoe mitt and tiny toothpaste tubes, my backlit magnifying mirror and the weird power socket with the funny shavers only label that will charge an iPhone without an adapter. Give me as many sinks as possible, a hair dryer that blows like holy hell, and a hydra-headed shower more hydro-jet than rainfall, and it doesn’t matter what city the hotel happens to be in, I’m in heaven. (I tend to picture the actual afterlife as a plush hotel bathroom with infinitely late checkout: clouds of marble and comfy white robes, a halo of flattering light the better to see our freshly scrubbed selves reflected in the fogless mirror. Throw in a television mounted at the foot of a soaking tub and I’m sold.
The trend in recent years has been to supersize and glamorize the hotel bathroom and we (I’m assuming you’re with me on this?) are very okay with that. The hotel bathroom is like a spa where you don’t have to see other people, a proverbial vacation from your vacation. It’s the best seat in the house (so why not put a telephone next to that seat, even if nobody has ever figured out what you’re supposed to do with it?). This is the hotel real estate where we’ll spend the greatest amount of time awake, where we can wash away the grit of the day and ready ourselves for rest, so we desire bathrooms that are glorious, harmonious, maybe a little bit ridiculous, and always (forgive me) commodious.
A few nits to pick in this monsoon of praise: Hoteliers, please don’t put a price tag on everything. We don’t need to be told that a bathrobe in our suitcase will mean an addition to the bill any more than we need to be reminded that all flights are nonsmoking or you can’t drink the duty-free brandy on the plane. Also: Why is closed now the default mode of the sink drain? Under what circumstances do I need the drain shut tight? And another thing: The little fancy finishing triangle-fold you put on the toilet paper? The one you think announces “We’ve thought of everything”? What it actually says to me is, “We were just in here, touching stuff.” For the love of God, leave off the origami. Sometimes, when the steam from my hour-long shower has cleared, I find the little notes about how committed you are to saving the planet, one damp towel at a time. That’s sweet. But given the smorgasbord of eco-destructiveness that is the modern hotel bathroom, it’s a bit like leaving a Bible in the bedside table at a whorehouse.
But these are minor quibbles. Hotel bathrooms, we love you. And, as long as you have a set of clean towels toasting on the warming racks and a replenished stash of amenities, we always will.
Adam Sachs is a T+L contributing editor.