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Singing toilets and to-die-for mattresses: It’s time to rethink your holiday travel souvenirs

As anyone who's ever purchased an I Heart Cancun T-shirt, acquired a regrettable set of cornrows on a beach or picked wet shards of shattered snow globe out of their luggage can attest, souvenirs can be synonymous with tacky.

Personally, after acquiring one too many novelty fridge magnets, I put the kibosh on souvenir tat for a while. That's a shame, though, because any jet-setter will tell you that travelling, and the tangible things we discover when we're away, can be life-changing. They'll also tell you that the single best souvenirs sometimes come from the most unexpected places. Mine, for example, came from a public washroom.

In 2007, my wife and I arrived in Tokyo's Narita International Airport for the first time. After clearing customs and collecting our luggage, we beelined to the train for the ride into town, but first, Jillian had to make a quick stop. What seemed like an awfully long time later, she finally emerged from the ladies' room with a strange look on her face. "The toilet plays music," she announced.

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Soon, I would learn, the Otohime, or "Sound Princess" function (artfully designed to drown out any embarrassing noises) is only one of the many magical functions Japanese toilets possess. A fully loaded model will include an adjustable heated seat, a lid that raises and lowers automatically, a charcoal-filtration air deodorizer, auto-flush, built-in light, self-cleaning function with electrolyzed water and, of course, multidirectional front and rear water jets with individual temperature and pressure controls.

By the time the trip was over, I was convinced that the Toto Washlet, as the best and most widely known brand is called, was such a superior piece of technology that we needed one in our home. So, we bought one.

Beyond its elegant utilitarian function, the Toto ultimately represents for me something of the essence of travel. We go away to learn about new cultures, gain new experiences and, if we're lucky, we bring a bit of that home with us. The Toto might not be everyone's idea of a great souvenir, but for me it serves that role better than any postcard or T-shirt ever could.

Asking about life-changing souvenirs has never resulted in a boring conversation with another seasoned traveller. "Probably the best souvenir for me is artwork," says Mark Ward, an oil executive who spent 10 years living in Lagos, where he gained an appreciation for Nigerian art.

Once, on a visit to the home of renowned artist Rom Isichei, he discovered among the stacks of paintings a portrait of a beautiful but distressed-looking young woman. Isichei explained that the woman was an African princess who looked unhappy because she was being forced to marry a man she didn't love. "I could really see that coming through in her face," Ward says. "For me, that painting represents my time in West Africa. Knowing the story behind it and what it says about the culture just makes it even more special."

On a train outside of Prague this spring, Ann Layton, founder and chief executive officer of Siren Communications, told me about her greatest souvenir. "The first time I went on a cruise with Silversea, I had the best sleep of my life," she says. "I thought maybe it had to do with all the salt air or being out on the ocean, but eventually I realized it was the bed. At the end of the two weeks, I said, 'You have to sell me this bed.' I've been through two now over the years and I'll never sleep at home on anything else."

At a recent dinner party, John Petcoff, co-owner of Toronto's popular Oyster Boy restaurant, offered up a delicious souvenir story. In the mid-nineties, Petcoff was travelling extensively in the southern United States on business. He had read about how great the barbecue was down there but had no real knowledge of it. "So," he says, "I started eating at every barbecue place I came across." One of the first spots he visited was the 100-year-old Golden Rule Barbecue in Hoover, Ala. Petcoff was bowled over by the flavour of the smoked pork that came off the restaurant's aged open pit, but it was the sauce that they placed on the table in a clear plastic squeeze bottle that really blew his mind.

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"I really wanted to bring some home," he says. "So, I asked a guy behind the counter about it, but he told me they didn't sell it. I gave him a bit of a spiel about being from Canada and not ever having barbecue like this and he offered to pour some into a big Styrofoam cup for me. I balanced that cup on my lap all the way back to Toronto without spilling a drop."

"Back home, I realized that without the flavour of real southern barbecue, the sauce was kind of lost. So, I bought a charcoal Weber grill and learned how to smoke meat. That sauce was the catalyst to a lifelong pleasure of fiddling around with barbecue."

Sometimes, however, as book editor Zoe Maslow discovered, the best souvenirs aren't necessarily the ones you seek out. "I was backpacking through Central America when I turned 20," she recalls. "It was an incredible trip, pivotal for me in many ways. I don't really remember any of the tchotchkes I picked up along the way, but I did get one incredible souvenir. Somewhere during that trip I picked up a parasite. It wasn't deadly or anything, and I didn't get all that sick, but I did lose 30 pounds without even trying. Honestly, I looked incredible. Too bad for antibiotics."

Gastric distress will never top most travellers' wish lists, but globetrotters Steve and Jane Snyder agree that souvenirs don't have to be tangible to be important. For them, it was first seeing Jeff Leatham's famous flower displays at the George V hotel in Paris that was transformative. "The displays are so dramatic, the arrangements so unique," Snyder says. "They just leave you speechless. It was like he created a whole new way to use flowers as decorations and image creators. We use the techniques ourselves, though much more modestly, but that first impression never leaves you."

Inspiration, more than even the biggest travel-spoon collection, will always be the ultimate souvenir.

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