IN JAPAN, many companies run "industrial tours" for free, and there is a variety of ways of booking. In the case of Kitakyushu City, there is a central agency and the visitor fills up a form listing their preferences. So I asked for Japan Steel, Nissan Motors, and Japan Railways.

I eagerly, if blearily, anticipated tours of a steel plant, car-production site and Japan Railways maintenance shop. It would be worth it, I convinced myself.

The train got me into Kitakyushu City at 9am. Meeting me, my host smiled: The first two tours were totally full. The good news was that he had arranged a visit to a company called Toto Toilets instead.

He seemed so earnest that it would have been mean to point out that I had wanted to observe the glamour of molten metal being formed in one plant to be transformed into gleaming cars in the next. So off we went to Toilet Central.

It turned out that I was Toto's only tourist booking for the day, but this didn't stop them from generously providing a full-hour lecture on the art of toiletology by someone who evidently had a doctorate in the subject. This was serious stuff and I tried to look grateful.

But it did go on rather. And I didn't even receive a diploma as proof of graduation.

We visited the showroom, where customers can sit on rows of neatly arranged toilets to choose the seat that meets their specification. But this was nothing compared to the shop floor, where lines of lavatories flowed in every direction, destined for the relief of a nation if not the world.

At the end of the production line, a little man was seriously at work. Like clockwork a toilet arrived, then departed from his station. At each arrival, he made a robotic movement - quite graceful in its execution - to drop a perfectly formed piece of artificial excrement into the toilet bowl, squirt yellow liquid from an aerosol, add toilet paper, and flush.

"If the toilet is not perfect, it is destroyed," said my guide solemnly.

This was too much. As the next toilet slotted into place, and the next perfectly formed excrement sample headed for its final resting place, I collapsed on the floor in hysterics.

"Do you need the bathroom?" asked my red-faced guide.

I laughed even louder, despite trying to think of something else - tropical islands, palm trees. At least I could rest assured that my guide was not red from embarrassment but, rather, flushed with pride.