A Serious Business

If you are squeamish about bodily functions, please don’t read any further. This is a post about Japanese toilets and toilet etiquette. Because I am a woman, it provides some specific advice to women with regard to the more traditional Japanese public toilet, but otherwise it’s a unisex post.

The good news is that most loos in Japan are high-tech and delightful. They have heated seats, they can play bird-song or a flushing sound to cover up any embarrassing noises, and they have a couple of post-motion cleaning options. Department stores from Isetan and Daimaru to Tokyu Hands and even the duty free and electronics shops like Yodobashi and Bic Camera seem to have toilets on every floor, and they are almost always of the high-tech variety. They will either have controls on an armrest or on a wall-mounted wireless panel. These controls enable you to choose how warm the toilet seat is, how loud the decoy bird-song/fake toilet flush is, and how powerful the shower or bidet setting is. Once you have used a high-tech Japanese toilet, you will never want to use anything else. You will stand in Yodobashi Camera, staring at the toilet units and trying to work out whether you can justify the additional weight in your hold luggage or the cost of having one shipped.

Or maybe that was just us…

Older western-style toilets in Japan can sometimes have a tap/faucet/spigot that hooks over the cistern. When you flush, water comes through this tap to refill the cistern – but you can also use it to wash your hands before you leave the littlest room. The toilet in the apartment where we stayed in Kyoto had a toilet like this. I loved it – especially because the wash basin was in a separate room.

Image from Blog Neo Amusement (I didn’t take a picture of the one in our apartment!)

Toilet hygiene is important in Japan. Each time we have arrived at our favourite Kyoto apartment, we have discovered that our toilet has been “sanitarized” for our benefit.

But I digress…

Another unexpected aspect of going to the toilet in Japan is the need to wear a separate pair of shoes. In a hotel, inn or apartment, as well as leaving your outdoor shoes in the genkan, when you go to the loo you must leave your indoor shoes/slippers outside the toilet cubicle and wear the provided toilet slippers. When you have finished in the loo, you must remember to leave the toilet slippers at the toilet door and put your indoor shoes/slippers back on. Often the toilet slippers are made from a hard plastic, so you won’t forget to swap them, but sometimes you will encounter tasteful ones with wooden soles and pretty fabric foot bands.

In a public toilet, you won’t encounter toilet slippers, but you might discover that there is no hand dryer or paper towel dispenser. Department stores usually have Mitsubishi air dryers, similar to the Dyson Blades you can see in some British loos these days, but etiquette dictates that hand towels are not hygienic and most people in Japan will carry with them a small hand towel. This can range from a square of terylene cloth to a traditional tenugui, but the important thing is that it’s your hand towel. Nobody else will use it to dry their hands on it. It’s worth knowing about and buying one as soon as you get to Japan, or remembering to pack something like a facecloth to use for this purpose. It will save you having to walk out of a public toilet with wet hands. 100 Yen shops are a good place to acquire this handy bit of kit.

Very occasionally, you might encounter a public toilet that doesn’t have toilet paper in it. If you carry a packet of tissues with you, you’ll be okay.

Another thing about public toilets is the Japanese method of checking if a cubicle is occupied. In the UK, if we’re not sure whether a cubicle is in use, we’ll politely but gently rattle the door by pushing against it. The occupant will then usually say something like “It’s in use.” Or we might look to see if we can see feet through the gap between the door and the floor. In Japan, though, toilet cubicle doors go right down to the floor. Consequently, it’s normal for a Japanese person to hammer on the door as though their life depends on gaining access. The person inside is then supposed to hammer back on the door to tell them that they’re in there. If you don’t know this, the first time it happens to you can be something of a shock. The first time it happened to me, I nearly had a heart attack.

Now to serious matters for the Western traveller who isn’t from continental Europe. If you are going to Japan for the first time, you need to know that, somewhere during your travels, you will encounter the Japanese squatter toilet.

Don’t be afraid if you encounter this type of toilet!

You will typically encounter this type of loo when you least want to use it – because you don’t have time to look for a western-style toilet. If you are caught short and in a panic, it’s useful to know that the last stall in a row of toilets in the ladies’ block is usually a western-style toilet. If you’re out of luck and the last stall is occupied and has a queue beside it (or if, like me, you encounter a blocked and flooded western-style toilet at the beach), you will need to take your courage in both hands and brave the squatter.

If you’ve ever used a French squatter toilet, you’ll be glad to know that its Japanese equivalent is an easier loo to use. It’s neater, for a start – no big square of daunting porcelain here, and no raised footplates. There is often a hand rail for you to hold, to help you maintain your balance. You also use it the opposite way round to most French examples. This is important. The first time I used a Japanese squatter toilet, I went all French and faced away from the pipes and the flush mechanism. This meant I spent more time than was necessary flailing around with one arm behind me, trying to find the toilet roll dispenser without losing my balance.

There is a knack to it. You need to face the splash guard/hood and the pipes and position your feet on either side of the gulley, fairly close to the pipework end. Sometimes, the Japanese squatter toilet is slightly elevated and you’ll need to step up onto the elevated tiled area. Once you’re in position, then and only then should you pull down your outer garments and underwear. If you’ve never used anything like this before, it is okay to take your skirt/trousers/shorts and underwear off completely. Nobody can see you. Put them on the shelf with your bag, if you take this option, as the floor can sometimes be damp. If you decide not to completely remove everything that might get splashed, the key is to feel comfortable and confident. Some like to keep things at knee level, others like to drop to the ankles and pull forward. Me, I prefer to keep things round the knees, including rolling trouser legs up when the floor is not as dry as I’d like it to be. If you’re crouched correctly, knee level is the best way to keep things out of the way.

Once you’re done, stand up, fasten up and step away from the toilet. Then flush. It’s tempting to flush while you’re still crouched, because the flush handle is just there in front of you (unless it’s a squatter with a raised cistern). Don’t, though. All your effort to avoid splashes will be ruined.

Once you’ve used a Japanese squatter the first time, it does get easier. And your next encounter with a high-tech western-style toilet will be all the more blissful!


2 responses to this post.

  1. Never before have I been so completely fascinated by toilets. Essential reading.

    The ‘old-fashioned’ toilets look very similar to the ones in India. They really do take some getting used to!


    • I’ve never encountered an Indian toilet, but I remember the first time I had to use a French squatter. It was a disaster.

      It’s bizarre, isn’t it, when you think that squatting over a hole is what we did as a species for thousands of years? But give us a couple of hundred years of sitting down on a toilet, and we panic about the “traditional” way! Even though most people who have been on a long walk have probably been caught out and had to use the bushes at some point!

      In an effort to find out more about the toilet paper thing, I went on Wikipedia and, in an impressively referenced article on toilets in Japan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toilets_in_Japan, discovered that in earlier times Japanese people cleaned their bottoms with a wooden scraper and sometimes with seaweed, but by the Edo period (early 17th to mid 19th centuries) Japanese paper called washi was used. I was wondering about the technique used in some countries, where cleaning after going involves using a basin of water or a hose pipe and your left hand. But toilet paper in Japan has been in use for a good 400 years, so the lack of it in some public loos is probably more a hygiene thing to do with not wanting paper hanging around in a public space.

      Hmm. I think I need to find something less functional to write about next…


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