In December 2021, FLUSH's Founder visited South Korea for a conference and had the chance to explore some toilet tourist destinations – Mr. Toilet House in Suwon and the Ddong Café in Seoul. While touring these places, the fascinating history of South Korea's toilets and poo culture came out. This blog will talk about the tourism sites and South Korea's toilet history.
Mr. Toilet House
The first site visited was Mr. Toilet House, about an hour south of Seoul in the town of Suwon. You may have heard of Suwon before – it hosted the 2002 World Cup. However, in 1996, Suwon Mayor Sim Jae-duck started building a cultural movement around toilets. He pledged to make the most beautiful public toilet, with efforts to make the city more sanitary and attractive to tourists. A year after his movement launched, the city was named to host the World Cup.
After the World Cup announcement, Suwon established the Korean Toilet Association to help improve the quality of Korean lives through improved sanitation. With this association, Korea passed the Public Toilet Act in 2004. This act established that the country needed to place public toilets in parks, tourist areas, stores and malls, transport terminals, sports facilities, and other public areas. After the success of this work, Suwon also created a World Toilet Association in 2007, which regularly convenes toilet experts globally with hopes to ensure universal access to sanitation.
During this successful movement, Mr. Jae-duck also rebuilt his house to shape it like a toilet. Mr. Jae-duck then renamed the house to Haewoojae, a spin on the Korean word haewooso. This term is specifically how Buddhist temples refer to toilets, which generally translates to a room to relieve your worries.
Images: Outside views of Mr. Toilet House (Credit: FLUSH/Kim Worsham)
Now, Haewoojae is called Mr. Toilet House. It is a family-oriented museum that educates the public about the history and importance of sanitation in Korean culture. Entry is free, and the displays are inside and outside the house.
The Evolution of Korean Toilets
Korea's toilet culture started around 2000 years ago, during the Baekje Kingdom (18 BC – 660 AD). This era may have been something like a toilet boom – many of the earliest toilets the museum had on display were from this period.
Images (clockwise): hoja, byeongi, first public toilet, and a Korean chamber pot (Credit: FLUSH/Kim Worsham)
One of the toilets during this period was the hoja, which looks like an animal with an open face that serves as a urinal. Around the same time, the byeongi was a toilet for females to comfortably use that also helped to tip human waste easily onto fields. Ultimately, these receptacles were like chamber pots, and people used them regardless of social status. In this era, the first public toilet also came online between 600 and 641 AD when King Mu was on the throne.
Images: First Korean flush toilet (nodutdol), a tongshi toilet (Credit: FLUSH/Kim Worsham)
When did the first flush toilet appear in Korea? Archaeological remains hint that it was during the Silla Kingdom (57 BC to 935 AD). The flush toilet was called a nodutdol, used by noblewomen at the time. Meanwhile, servants used either rudimentary roofless toilets, or elevated outhouses that released waste into a pig pen underneath (used on Jeju Island, called tongshi toilets). Rural Korea also used log and mud toilets called dwitgan – very much an outhouse made out of straw.
Images: two dwitgan huts, Choson Dynasty portable toilet (Credit: FLUSH/Kim Worsham)
Time continued to evolve what toilets looked like in Korea, though chamber pots were popular for a long time. Between the 14th and 19th centuries, royalty in the Choson Dynasty used a portable upholstered toilet seat. These seats had a bowl or chamber pot underneath. They looked similar to the western closedstools that the European elite had used around the same time.
What was clear from the exhibition was a rich, long history of a poo culture in Korea. This culture celebrated poo as a resource and designed its toilets to help harvest it for agricultural use. When composted properly and the pathogens are removed, poo and pee are very powerful fertilizers we can use for growing things like food and animal fodder. Korea had night soil men – ddong-jae – that sold the poo they carried around to farmers, who could use excrement barrels to move the poo around the fields for application.
For example, Korea had two traditional toilets - the kind that made it easier to collect poo, and the kind that covered waste so farmers could compost it over time. One of the traditional toilets in the exhibition was the duikkan, which allowed easy poo collection by placing two boards over a hole.
Once Korea opened its ports, and western countries started exporting their cultures, the concept of hygienic sanitation at home entered. Around then, people started changing how they built and used toilets, pushing Asia further away from the glorious poo-cultivating culture it once was.
Luckily, efforts exist to make poo a popular culture again. The other stop on our toilet tour was Ddong Café in Seoul. Ddong means "poo" in Korean, and the café celebrates poo in its wall designs and décor, kitchenware, and menu offerings. One of its big sells is the poo waffle – a waffle shaped like a poo emoji and filled with chocolate.
Images: Ddong Cafe decor and artwork (Credit: FLUSH/Kim Worsham)
The café doesn't go overboard with the poo culture – it still maintains itself as a café with the atmosphere of a quiet place to drink a hot beverage with a friend or two. That said, it's hard to ignore the cute, happy poo mugs on the wall shelves and the diorama scenes in miniature toilet bowls at the register.