Tokyo — The latest must-have product to take Japan by storm isn't high-tech and it certainly isn't garnering rave reviews in glossy design magazines. The country where electronically controlled, heated, bidet-accessorized, high-tech toilets are commonplace has in fact made another contribution to lavatory luxury.
High-end toilet paper is rolling off the shelves. So what's convinced Japanese consumers to fork out more than $12 per roll?
It started five years ago in the sleepy paper-making town of Tosa, on Japan's southwestern island of Shikoku. The aging owner of an obscure, family-run paper company called Mochitsuki Seishi was troubled by sensitive skin and determined to find a solution.
"Even wearing a necktie makes his skin red," said company managing director Masayo Morisawa, who is the owner's wife. "He needed softer toilet paper."
After years of tinkering, 63-year-old Ryosui Morisawa finally discovered the balm for his behind by essentially inverting the process of modern paper manufacturing.
Instead of large-volume, high-speed production, Morisawa's "Usagi" (Rabbit) brand toilet paper is made by delicately processing the paper pulp fiber and precisely managing the water temperature used in the process. It yields a softer wipe.
"It's like grilling hotcakes," said Morisawa's wife. "If you turn up the heat too much, the hotcakes come out tough!"
The resulting three-ply toilet paper is so fragile it has to be rolled by hand. The original 10-person Mochitsuki Seishi factory is too small, so the rolling work is farmed out to part-timers who do it in their homes.
One roll of the Rabbit brand white toilet paper retails for 500 yen, or about $5 — roughly the price of 12 regular rolls. But that's the budget option.
A gift box of eight artistically patterned, pastel colored rolls from Mochitsuki's luxury "Hanebisho" line will set you back about $100. "Suitable for birthdays and thank-you gifts for wedding guests," each roll comes wrapped in handmade Japanese "washi" paper.
The company's artisanal toilet paper was doing a respectable trade as a local souvenir on the rural island of Shikoku, then celebrities got wind of it and started singing the praises of the super-soft TP on TV.
The luxury three-ply toilet tissue quickly became a national obsession. Mochitsuki Paper, which used to turn out 300 rolls a month, is now struggling to meet demand as it can only produce 12,000 rolls in a week.
Despite hiring extra staff, the company can't keep up with orders.
"We sell 8,000 rolls in half a day," said Masayo.
She said that, in spite of the success, her husband still isn't totally convinced the work is done.
"He takes it home to test every day," she said. "He's not 100% satisfied. Now we're thinking about four-ply!"