When traveling, there are certain places you can avoid going, but the restroom is not one of them. In Japan, facilities range from basic to ridiculously high-tech. The thing most Western travelers have to be prepared for is the squat toilet. No seat, just a ceramic trough set in the floor that you straddle-squat over to do your business. Some versions have a horizontal bar on the wall for you to hang onto.
These are the toilets you’ll likely encounter in older areas. Many Japanese consider this more hygienic than Western toilets because you don’t come into contact with any surfaces. I don’t find the squatting aspect difficult per se, but I am always fearful of my clothes falling into that trough. (Not sure how ladies with really long skirts manage it.)
If you’re visiting a new or remodeled area, both squat and Western toilets will generally be available. Some Western-style toilets I encountered were exactly like those in the United States. Others had slight modifications, like this one with a tank top sink as a space- and water-saving feature. But the vast majority were on a completely different level, featuring a variety of seat settings and bidet functions.
When I first went to use the bathroom in our Kawasaki hotel, I literally jumped off the toilet seat. The hotel staff had left the seat heater on, and I was not expecting a hot seat in the bathroom. I got surprised again at our Ajiro ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). The moment I stepped into the bathroom, the toilet lit up and flipped its lid! It startled me so badly I fell on the floor. Apparently, this model has a motion sensor and automatically opens to welcome its next user.
All our hotels had toilets with bidet capabilities, even the century-old ryokan in Ikaho. I was too leery to try the function. I’m not too keen on using a sprayer in a toilet that I haven’t cleaned myself. My husband though had always wanted to try and got completely hooked. If we remodel our bathroom, we’re definitely getting one of these fancy toilets. (Fortunately for him, similar Korean-made bidet-toilets are sold in LA Koreatown.)
The really interesting thing was that these bidet-toilets weren’t just in hotels and private residences. We found them in supermarkets, train stations, and shopping malls as well. They’re sometimes called “shower toilets,” a term which brings up a completely bizarre image in my head. At any rate, these can be more sophisticated than the home versions. Some have a babbling brook soundtrack to drown out the various noises one makes in a restroom. At one supermarket restroom, it literally took me a minute to figure out which button flushed the toilet.
The Japanese put careful consideration into other aspects of restrooms as well, especially those in shopping centers, amusement parks, and other places frequented by moms and kids. In the States, the most a parent can expect is a changing table. In Japan, you can find those and also baby basket seats inside stalls (no need to bring the whole stroller in with you). One facility I saw had a family stall, an extra large stall with a regular and a child-sized toilet. Women’s restrooms sometimes have urinals for little boys to use. One of the Canadians in my tour group had never seen a urinal before, and was actually trying to figure how she was supposed to use it.
While we were at the top of the Ikaho Ropeway, we found one restroom that pulled out all the stops. Designed to accommodate families with small children and the disabled, this thing was bigger than my kitchen.
Still, there are certain things we take for granted that aren’t provided in Japanese public restrooms, namely soap and paper towels. Sometimes you’ll find restrooms with soap and electric hand dryers, but the vast majority only have a sink with cold water, and people generally carry a handkerchief or hand towel for drying purposes. Most of the people on our tour also kept Purell or handiwipes on hand to make up for the lack of soap.