One of the most common questions Japanese people would ask me was ‘what was your biggest culture shock when you first came to Japan?’ The answer was always ‘toilets’.
It’s not a particularly sophisticated response, but I think most foreigners in Japan would agree. Everyone has a ‘Japan toilet story’. And for the uninitiated, using a Japanese toilet may well end up being one of the most memorable/traumatising experiences of your time in Japan.
I will tell you why:
The seat heating
Let’s assume your first time is on a conventional Japanese ‘throne’ as opposed to the notorious squat toilets (more on them to come). You approach the shiny white beast, trou-down, and sit. You let out an incredulous yelp, as your cheeks experience a sudden – but not unpleasant – glow of warmth radiating from the seat. In your own country, the temperature of a toilet seat is usually proportional to the amount of time the previous user has spent sitting on it, the knowledge of which is highly undesirable. In Japan, this same sensation is recreated artificially – but it may become a guilty pleasure. Forget walking on sunshine, you are sitting on it! And don’t it feel good.
The slipper-y situation
In Japanese households, the commonly known etiquette is to remove your shoes before entering the house, and put on a pair of slippers. But did you know that there are also a pair of slippers especially for use in the toilet? This is so you don’t contaminate the rest of the house with your nasty toilet-foot-germs. Unfortunately, after experiencing the joy that is the heated toilet seat, you are likely to be in a state of euphoria that causes you to forget your footwear. Many foreigners have had to perform the shuffle of shame back to the bog after being caught out wearing the toilet slippers somewhere other than the toilet. Don’t let that be you.
The spray buttons
When using a Japanese toilet, one will likely come across an intimidating array of buttons, each of which has a different purpose depending on the gender and sanitary needs of the user. The most common buttons are marked ‘oshiri’ and ‘bidet’, for a bum and front-bum shower respectively. More advanced models allow you to adjust the heat, angle, and strength of the spray.
These buttons can be problematic for the curious foreigner who dares to test them. Many don’t seem to realise that you do actually need to be seated for it to work properly. For some reason it comes as a shock when, upon pressing the button, a jet of toilet water shoots out and blasts the hapless victim in the face.
The Sound Princess
On the wall beside some Japanese toilets are ominous, Big Brother type speakers. These are the aptly named otohime or ‘Sound Princess’, a machine designed to drown out the embarrassing tinkling tones of female urination. I remember when this was introduced to me. I was a guest at an English Speaking Club meeting, held at the teacher’s house. I mentioned my bewilderment at Japanese toilets, and she decided I should be bestowed with the honour of a demonstration of her brand new ‘Sound Princess’. The whole class followed us into the bathroom. The teacher pressed a button, and a loud ‘GURRRRRRRRRR’ reverberated around the room. I laughed. My hostess looked at me with cool disapproval, and said, ‘Maybe in your country you do not care, but we Japanese women like to go to the toilet in secret.’
Because a roaring Sound Princess is so discreet.
Nothing incites fear in a foreigner’s heart more than entering a train station or old building and finding that the only toileting facilities available are traditional squat toilets. First of all, it seems you need the thighs of a rugby player and the balance of a gymnast to even think about attempting this.
Then there is the issue of what to do with your clothes: for the novice squatter, there is nothing more precarious than a pair of tights tangled around your ankles while in this position. I heard a story about a girl who was so baffled by the squat toilet that she thought it would be best to just take all her clothes off for safekeeping while she did her business. By all accounts it was going well, until she dropped one of her socks in.
You’ve navigated your way through the wonderful world of seat heaters, slippers, Sound Princesses, spray buttons and squats. Just when you thought it was all over, the Japanese toilet deals you another low blow – by hiding the flush in the least conspicuous place possible.
If there is one valuable piece of advice I can offer, it it is that you should ensure you can locate the toilet’s flush before you proceed to do anything else. This small act could save you from potentially mortifying situations. To share another story from a source who prefers to remain anonymous, one time this person had to use a disabled toilet, as it was the only one available. Unfortunately, after finishing up he realised he couldn’t distinguish the ‘call assistance’ button from the flush. This user decided it wasn’t worth risking it, and all he could do was put down the lid and run out of there, leaving his ‘problem’ for the next person to solve.
Recently reports of new smartphone-controlled toilets have been circulating the internet. The toilets, which are supposedly available in Japan this month, can be connected to Android phones via bluetooth. The user downloads an app that allows all the functions of the toilet to be operated with a touch of the phone. The toilets also have inbuilt speakers, so you can ditch the ‘Sound Princess’ and play your own sweet beats. The app even contains a ‘toilet diary’ to record all of your bowel movements!
When it comes to your Japanese toilet experience, as the saying goes, you can’t polish a turd – but in Japan you probably can roll it in glitter. If you know which button to push.