A Tour of Japanese Pop Culture, Part 10: Toilets and Restrooms

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.

Stall with baby basket on the left

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.

And then there was this super bizarre thing we found in the restroom of an extremely high class restaurant. Doesn’t look too bad at first glance, but take a closer look.

Yup, the toilet seat has a fuzzy cover. And that’s a STAIN on it. I don’t know about you, but I like my toilet seat covers disposable, thank you very much.

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4 responses to “A Tour of Japanese Pop Culture, Part 10: Toilets and Restrooms

  1. I’d heard that the squat toilets are what make the older people in Japan so spry.

    My daughter took a trip to Japan last summer, and my son is going this summer. They had monthly meetings about the Japanese customes before their trips which involve all the parents going along. I’d forgotten that they don’t use paper towels. They are very focused on recycling and reducing.

    • I haven’t heard that about the squat toilets, but the seniors there are pretty active!

      re: handwashing/soap, one of the gals on my tour had a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer that attached to her backpack (she said she got it at Bath and Body Works), if u haven’t found something like that already, u might consider getting one for your son when he goes this summer.

  2. Hi sqeries. Thanks for your interesting reports. Just want to reassure you that most of Japanese ‘shower toilets’ are equipped with a self-cleaning showerhead function. Here is a video production from NHK-World about them. http://www.jibtv.com/video/video6.html

    • You’re talking about the WASHLET APRICOT F3A (TOTO) video, correct? Thanks for sharing it! I showed it to my hubby, and we got a big kick out of seeing all the technology that went into it (we’ll have to check out some of the other vids on that site).
      Even so, I’d still be hesitant to press that spray button…

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