Japan is a country of contrast. A country where traditions meet high-tech, Kimono meet business suits and fantastic optimizations meet terrifying paper-based bureaucracy.
This contrast is also existent when looking at how different Japanese bathrooms can be. Here’s how to survive them.
Update: If you don’t like to go through the thousand+ words in this article, take a look at the video below instead:
There are two types of toilets in Japan. One is the traditional Japanese style (和式, washiki) and the other is the western style 洋式 (yōshiki), which is more common to most of us. On top of most western style toilets you will find a Washlet (ウォシュレット, woshuretto). A Washlet is a trademark of the Japanese toilet company Toto and usually refers to any kind of toilet seat that is enhanced by machinery for genital and anal cleaning.
Japanese style squat toilets (和式)
Let’s take a look at how to use the traditional Japanese style toilets first. Their use is best explained by the following image:
On one side is an elevation. This is the direction you should be facing. Next you should position your feet on the left and right side of the toilet. Make sure to place them close to the front so that you don’t miss your target. Now let down your pants to your knees and get into a squatting position.
After your business is done, make sure to make the evidence disappear. Most likely you will find something in the room that looks like this:
Push the handle down (or up) and keep it pushed until the toilet is nice and clean again.
Leave the room, look back and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. You have mastered Japanese style squat toilets.
Western style toilets (洋式)
Almost all newer Japanese apartments are equipped with a western style toilet and almost all western style toilets are equipped with Washlets. They are so popular that the manufacturer Toto’s original Washlet G, which was released in 1980, was declared one of Japan’s Mechanical Engineering Heritages (機械遺産, kikaiisan) in 2012.
When I visited Japan for the first time in spring 2009, the Washlets were some of the most fascinating things I discovered. After I came back from Japan in winter 2014, the biggest shock after arriving in Germany was when I sat down on a cold toilet seat, which was not heated! Comfortable toilets are one of the things one can get used to easily.
While a Washlet itself is a fantastic invention, the controls can be overwhelming. So let’s take a look at the essential ones:
The top two buttons, 大 and 小 are important, because they are for flushing. 大 means big and 小 means small. So depending on your needs, you can decide to either flush a lot or only a bit of water down the toilet.
The second big button from the right says おしり (oshiri), which means butt. It will trigger a jet of water, which will clean your backside. The button next to it, saying やわらか (yawaraka), or soft, will do the same but this time the jet has a bit of air added to it, so that it is more soft.
The button on the right, with the ビデ (bidet) on it, does the same as the two buttons mentioned before, but in a position better suited for cleaning female genitals.
Once you are done, press the 止-button and the water flow will stop.
As you can see on the picture above there heaps of buttons. They will let you do things like playing music, using a dryer (for your butt!), opening the toilet, heating the seat and more. Now that you know the basics, you can go ahead and try and see what’s happening if you’re pushing some of them.
Toilets in Japan are considered a dirty place. The floor is also considered extremely dirty. Combine this and you will get the most dirty items in existence, toilet slippers. They should always be worn in the bathroom only, and never outside. Japanese people are tolerant to many mistakes foreigners make when it comes to etiquette, but toilet slippers is where it ends.
A friend of mine once told me the story of when he visited a Japanese friend’s house. They ate, drunk and had a good time. After some time he decided to see the toilet. He changed into the toilet slippers when entering, did what he had to do, cleaned his hands and went back to join the others. All the sudden, the fun was over. The Japanese were looking at him with wide eyes, mouths open and shocked expressions on their faces. He forgot to take off the toilet slippers.
So please remember, whatever you do, never forget to change into and out of the toilet slippers!
Compared to the country in which I live I always found it very easy and convenient to find a toilet open for public use in Japan. However I came across many people from other countries that found it rather difficult.
There are at least four places I’m sure you will find a toilet in:
- Train stations
- Department stores
- Most larger convenience stores
- Motorway service areas
Some time ago, public toilets were not equipped with toilet paper. Even though I have yet to find such a place, some of them are said to still exist. Therefore bringing a small pack of tissues with you might be a good idea.
Usually public toilets also don’t feature towels but hand dryers. If you prefer a towel instead, make sure to bring one. This is a good idea especially in summer, when it’s hot and humid and you are sweating a lot.
Here are two important kanji for public restrooms: 男 means men and 女 means women.
Extra: Importing a Washlet
Many of my friends asked me to bring a Washlet when coming back from Japan. When considering to install one in your house, keep in mind that you need access to water and electricity in order to make it work. Furthermore you will probably need a power converter.
Probably the most convenient place to buy a Washlet is in the duty free area of the airport you’re departing at. Usually you will find some store that is offering a variety of electronics, such as rice cookers, electric kettles, as well as your desired toilet seat. You can then add it to your hand luggage, since you have already passed the security check. This way you can put all your other souvenirs into your regular luggage and do not need to carry the bulky Washlet with you all the time.
You are now prepared for some of the most basic but somehow fascinating experiences you will encounter when visiting Japan. If you have any further questions, feel invited to ask them in the comments.