Using the toilet in a foreign country can be quite an adventure. Standards of hygiene can vary enormously from one country to another and what is considered to be etiquette in one country is quite the faux pas in another. What to do with toilet paper, for example. I am British and we wipe, drop in the bowl and flush. This is the same in Japan too, but Japan's neighbours, Taiwan and South Korea, wipe and discard in the bin provided. This has something to do with the standard of the toilet paper. Taiwanese and South Korean toilet paper is too robust to dissolve in the toilet. Flushing away results in blocked toilets, so, in the bin it goes.
Takachiho, where I live, is a tourist town. Many visitors from all over Japan, Asia and beyond, visit the gorges, waterfalls and shrines in our neighbourhood. As well as visiting all the sights, these tourists also visit the public conveniences.
One of the ladies of our temple congregation works as a toilet cleaner. She says the corner bins normally used for disposing of ladies sanitary products are overflowing with soiled toilet paper most days. In the Gents' it's worse, having no sanitary napkin disposal box, the pile of pooed and peed-on paper spreads all over. It's a cultural difference which could lead to friction between locals and tourists. I have seen notices in several languages telling people to flush toilet paper in the public toilets at expressway service stations, but still not seen them in the toilets in town here.
And then there is the Japanese washiki versus Western youshiki toilet problem. A Japanese-style toilet is the squat type, the Western-style one is the sit-down type. When I first came to Japan 22 years ago Western toilets were few and far between and I soon became accustomed to the squat style. In this area many of these toilets had no flush and were just a drop down into a cess pit. The school toilets and the community centre toilets were of this style too in many places.
20% of the Japanese population are over 65 years old and Western-style toilets are becoming more popular because they are kinder on aching joints. My 87-year old Japanese mother-in-law was stuck in the toilet at the dentist's surgery for 45 minutes as she couldn't get up from the squat position in the Japanese toilet. It is cheaper, however, to put in a Japanese style toilet than a western one, so that's why we still have two squat toilets in our toilet areas at the temple.
When confronted with a Japanese-style toilet, some foreigners cannot decide which way to squat. Do you face the back wall, or do you face the door? Often the hollowed-out basin of the toilet is on a step up from the entrance to the cubicle, and my father on a visit to Japan from the UK told me that he found it easiest to just sit down, bottom cheeks on the porcelain edge. This is, of course, NOT the right way to do it. You should face the back wall, drop your underwear and hover, remembering to lock the door as I have had the unfortunate experience of walking in on an older woman, mid-hover. At least she remained anonymous, saving face by only having her white posterior on display.
And do you hold onto the water pipe? Can you get your heels down? Do you push the flush with your hands or your feet? There is a notice at Takachiho Town Hall telling you NOT to hold onto the pipe as it's liable to come off in your hands, but my personal advice is to hold on, if there are no such warnings. It really helps to keep your balance and to take the strain when needed. Not many Westerners can squat and keep their heels on the floor. Try it. That's not such an issue, but the flushing with feet or hands IS an issue. My daughter came home from school recently, horrified at the discovery that her classmates all flushed the Japanese toilet by pushing down on the lever with their feet. She had always done it by hand. Her foreign mother had obviously not got a good grasp of Japanese toilet rules and hadn't taught her properly.
But, what perhaps fascinates foreigners most about toilets in Japan are the "washlets". These are the electronically-controlled water jets, hot winds, temperature gauges and who knows what else, that come on even the most bog-standard Western-style, but thoroughly JAPANESE, toilet. I have one and I love it. It's one of the things I miss most on a sojourn back to the UK. UK toilets are cold, surprisingly low, and uncomfortable in comparison to the wonderful thrones available here in Japan.
I remember having bidets in hotel rooms as a child on trips to Europe, but I thought they were wine-coolers, as that's the only way my family used them. A washlet includes a bidet or shower function, a spray for cleaning your back bottom, and also a "charm" function which is for ladies to clean their front bottoms. I don't know whether I am deformed or maybe it's because I slump when I sit down, but I find the "charm" function works best for behind the scenes cleansing of all types. You can adjust the power and temperature of all the sprays and drying functions on the control panel which you find on the wall, or, directly on the toilet. Sometimes they have remote controls but I can't imagine ever being more than an arms-length away from washing my own nether regions, so not sure of the use of a remote handpiece.
Most washlets come equipped with a safety function which stops it spraying willy-nilly when nobody is sat upon it. Before I came confident in reading Japanese, I would refrain from touching any buttons on the washlet as I didn't want to drench myself or the room, or touch the ejector seat button by mistake.
Above left you can see the Star Ship Enterprise, Captain Kirk-in-control style washlet panel. The lower button is the stop button. The next one is the "bottom" button, a direct jet of water to the source; the next is a more general spray in the cheek area, and the next one is the ladies button, the bidet button. Further along the control panel you can control the temperature of the water, set a timer for how long you want to be sprayed, then, further along, a cleaning button can also be seen.
On the right is a wall-mounted control panel. This toilet has a sensor which lifts the toilet seat up invitingly when you enter the room. It has a special hot air blower too and button for the flush too. This toilet is in the home of a member of our congregation. Mr. I lives in a remote hamlet of six houses with views over the caldera of Mt. Aso. He takes great pride in what can only be described as a toilet suite. There are "his and her" washbasins, a path of stepping stones and flower arrangements around the urinal. I discovered his hidden gem over ten years ago on my first visit to his hamlet. He quietly insisted that I use the bathroom at his house before going to the neighbours. House visits involve a lot of tea drinking and subsequently a lot of toilet visiting which can often be a hit and miss affair. Many of the old farmhouses here have outside toilets attached to the cow-sheds. They are often buzzing with mosquitoes and difficult to negotiate with snow-white two-toed tabi socks and white priest robes. I followed his suggestion and discovered his pride and joy.
Finally I would like to introduce the ultimate Japanese invention, the sound masker for all toilet noises. In order to disguise the fact that you are emptying your bladder and/or bowels, you push a button, or in some cases, just wave your hand in front of one of these machines and it makes a flushing sound to cover any involuntary farty or tinkly noises you might make. This is the environmentally-friendly, water-saving side of Japanese toilet etiquette.
So, next time you find yourself in a Japanese toilet, rise to the challenge and push a few buttons. Discover the pleasure of Japanese toilet etiquette.
Click here to get the sound of the Japanese toilet experience.
Full instructions on how to use a squat toilet, seen in a public toilet in Kyoto. I think they could use the same image to illustrate one of those phallic shrine festivals.