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Navigating a Japanese bathroom

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I don’t travel to Japan often, but when I do, I wash my hands with conditioner.

Is this some sort of strange Japanese tradition? I don’t think so. Maybe. But for me, it’s because I can’t read the labels on the bottles. My Japanese wife, Junko, seems to think that I should just “know,” and offers no help.

It seems obvious to me now, but not being able to read was actually one of the larger surprises in store for me when I first toured Japan. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to speak, but I had assumed that I could use a pocket dictionary to puzzle out the signage in food stores, restaurants and train stations. Nope. Most everything in public is labeled in kanji, the ancient, exotic script adopted from China, about 1,500 years ago. To be able to read a Japanese newspaper, for instance, you must know up to 1,600 of these characters and their multiple meanings. I knew exactly three and most unfortunately, “mens room” was not one of them. I felt like a 3-year-old.

I was totally dependent upon Junko. And that was frustrating. Junko is not much of a talker. She’s strong-willed and silent and has little patience for those who will not apply themselves— which is to say, anyone who doesn’t understand things she thinks are obvious — which is to say, everything Japanese.

On a shelf in my in-laws’ shower room are about seven bottles with kanji labels which are as legible to me as the list of chemicals. Discerning the exact contents of those bathroom bottles has proven tricky. In Japan, pink does not necessarily mean girlie and fruit-scented does not always mean shampoo. Consequently, I once washed my hair with tile and grout cleanser.

My experiences are far from unique. For most visitors, the Japanese bathroom is a source of wonder and surprise.

The biggest surprises are found in public washrooms. The public toilet often seems like a hasty afterthought, crammed awkwardly into a corner or crudely installed in a wooden riser. The shape and what it implies about the intended procedure can be a head-scratcher. Really, best to make sure all the heavy jobs are done at home.

Bathrooms in hotels and private residences are much more familiar, though no less fascinating.

A Japanese bathing room has a shower and a deep tub in a water-tight, tiled room. A great idea, if you have kids. The shower is intended for washing and the tub for relaxing. The tub is covered by a thick insulating mat, the water kept full and hot by a computerized heating system. The bathtub water is used by the entire family each day, and changed, maybe once a week.

For me, as a foreign guest, this is a situation that has produced many awkward moments. Like that time when I was first in line in the bath and joined by my 2-year-old son. After the bath, I had a strong suspicion that he had peed in the water. I was new to the family, back then, and embarrassed. I decided not to mention it. Really, it was all I had the vocabulary to do. My unease increased as, one by one, family members entered the little room and I heard the splish of water as they reclined into the little hot tub: father-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, nephews. Splish, sploosh, splash! That night, my wife was puzzled when I sniffed her before letting her snuggle against me. I was relieved to find that her hair smelled only like mango. I memorized that scent for my next shower.

The Japanese tend to separate their washing and eliminating areas. A hand-washing sink is often in an adjoining, but separate, room from the shower/bath room. The toilet also has its own room; however, this is often far from the wash area. This means reorganizing your habits a bit, if you are new to the system. The toilet area incorporates some clever ideas that might require a moment or two to puzzle out.

Often, on the wall near the toilet, is what looks like a little speaker system. This is not for calling for assistance, though I think that might be a practical idea in tourist areas. It’s called a Sound Princess (Oto Hime) and generates pleasant sounds to mask the noise of bodily functions. I can personally attest that this is not nearly loud enough to disguise the sound of major intestinal distress and, in a typical, thin-walled Japanese house, will do nothing to relieve the awkwardness in adjoining rooms, during such an episode.

The modern Japanese toilet, itself, is a computerized and mechanized wonder which will greet you by raising its lid invitingly, as if to say, “Welcome, Great White Haunches, I am here to answer your every elimination whim!” And I am here to tell you that it will deliver on that promise, provided you can figure out which buttons to press. If not, however, it is fully capable of a painful assault on your nether-regions.

The toilet seat is usually heated and there are controls for that. Again, don’t forget that Asian color scheming may not correspond to North American. Blue does not necessarily mean cold and red does not necessarily mean hot. You can’t burn yourself with one of these, but my father-in-law sure yelped that Christmas when I accidentally turned off the heated seat.

The toilet seat is also equipped with a sophisticated bidet system which will accurately shoot warm water precisely where cleaning is needed. You can adjust for pinpoint accuracy; however I have never had to do this. Apparently all the world shares a reasonably similar bum-structure. The temperature and pressure can be set to individual preferences — or can tear you a new one, if you fumble the controls. Again, I want to stress that, in Japan, red does not necessarily mean stop.

Like a car wash, the final stage is blow-drying. I don’t believe there is a Carnuba Wax option, but I wouldn’t recommend you start punching buttons at random.

Having successfully navigated the NASA-like toilet apparatus, you might be wondering where you wash your hands. Once more, the answer lies in that fancy toilet. No, not the bidet. After you flush (which on some toilets happens automatically, when you stand) and as water flows in to replenish the toilet’s reservoir, it falls from a faucet into a small ceramic bowl above the tank, giving you an opportunity to lightly wash your hands. I think this is one of the more elegant ideas in the room — so clever, yet simple. The one down-side with this system is that the water tends to splash a bit from the shallow bowl. If you do the North American “courtesy flush,” your back will get wet. Adapt. Use the Sound Princess, instead.

One other unusual thing I’ve noticed is that many toilet rooms in private homes have thin doors that are primarily a large pane of frosted glass. From the outside, you only see a vague, beige blob, but I wouldn’t consider it a truly private area. With walls not much thicker than cardboard, I guess the practical Japanese accept that you aren’t fooling anyone while you’re in there.

After returning home, there may be many things you do not miss about Japan: the crowds, the pace, the cost, not being able to read, the smell of tile & grout cleanser. But one thing’s for sure; you’re gonna miss that toilet.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

20 Comments
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Funny and delightful story. So true.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

After returning home, there may be many things you do not miss about Japan: the crowds, the pace, the cost, not being able to read, the smell of tile & grout cleanser. But one thing’s for sure; you’re gonna miss that toilet.

Spot on. Great article.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

Great writing. Enjoyed.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

OMG! This is funny but true. Toilet in Japan is something really new for me and i think whoever who is never been to Japan before. I do remember the first time i went there and surprised a lot about their public toilet at first. I wasn't be able to read anything because kanji was ruining my day. The seat was hot and ' hey look at the buttons', too many buttons on the seat and I didnt know what are they for ? there was no sign to explained or at least to made me guess the functions. I never used them till i arrived my Japanesse boyfriend's apartment and he explained me about them and of course he also explained to me about the bath, because most japanesse really like to go hot spring and they want to have it at home.

After that, i just realized the reason why my BF complained a lot when he went to some developing countries because he was missing the way he uses the toilet. The hot seat and those buttons are things they have been using for such a long time so, its kinda annoying for them to be there in such a diff toilet. Hahahah

2 ( +2 / -0 )

****lol, I was laughing out loud with your story, but its true for us first timer.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Two thumbs up! Could have described the chagrin of a woman wearing pants and having to use a traditional park (or airport) facility in equally as funny a way, I'm sure.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Really, best to make sure all the heavy jobs are done at home.

Ba dump dump

The bathtub water is used by the entire family each day, and changed, maybe once a week.

Ugh, they still do this?

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Nobody change bathtub water only once a week. I've never heard of it. They change at least once a day. People who use special equipment that circulate and purify bathtub water may not have to change so often.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

*tinawatanabeAug. 31, 2014 - 02:15PM JST

Nobody change bathtub water only once a week. I've never heard of it. They change at least once a day. People who use special equipment that circulate and purify bathtub water may not have to change so often.*

Oops! I have to admit that this was inaccurate. I originally wrote this article when I was new to Japan and it appeared to me that the water was rarely changed. Actually, as Tina pointed out, the system automatically cycles clean water into the tub. My in-laws only emptied the tub about once a week to thoroughly scrub it. Very sorry about that.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

williamdean, Thank your for "A letter from Canada" ( a Japanese song title)

2 ( +2 / -0 )

About japanese toilets with controls, yes, there is a lot of kanji, but so there are many pictures with them (usually). Even if you can't read, you can just use your eyes, brains and logic...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

As many people have already illuminated some of your inaccuracies, I will instead focus on your initial opening; washing your hands with hair conditioner...I will call you on that. People wash their hands either over the toilet or at the wash hand basin, outside the shower cubicle. Neither will have hair conditioner as Japanese people wash their hair in the shower before a soak in the tub. Under the said wash basin, is a cabinet where most people keep grout cleaner which smells uncomfortably strongly of bleach and recommends you open a window when using it as it is toxic. Also laundry detergent, fabric softener if the machine is also located here and not on the veranda, spare bars of soap which most families use at the wash basin. So how come you were using hair conditioner at the wash basin or in the toilet? Finally, conditioner and shampoo are not Japanese words so are not written in Kanji but Katakana...so what if you can't read it- shampoo is a shorter word than conditioner so easily distinguished.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Navigating a Japanese bathroom sounds challenging for us newbies, but then I remembered a public "toilet" I encountered in Croatia......a hole in a concrete floor, with nothing to hold onto to ease squatting, open to other members of the same sex, and no paper. It was shocking to someone used to a ceramic toilet in an enclosed space. Even the old-fashioned outhouse that I encountered at my grandparents as a youth would have been preferable.

As an avid Sci-Fi writer, I will be looking for anything else from Mr. Dean.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

As many people have already illuminated some of your inaccuracies, I will instead focus on your initial opening; washing your hands with hair conditioner...I will call you on that.

Get a life! It's a humorous piece, not a documentary.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Kathryn Sunday, spot on! My thoughts, exactly. Jerseyboy, it might be humour however Japan Today is not a humour source, and readers will take this as truth. The write does not want to mislead, as is evident by his polite acceptance of a previous correction. He can take it (^.^)!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Please people of Japan, just take a goddamed shower twice a day! Then you won't have to worry about these stupid "washlets" or whatever.

(And people wonder why the birthrate is so low!)

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

washing your hands with hair conditioner...I will call you on that.

Finally, conditioner and shampoo are not Japanese words so are not written in Kanji but Katakana...so what if you can't read it- shampoo is a shorter word than conditioner so easily distinguished.

In my defence, I'd like to point out that I am not particularly clever.

Truthfully, the very first time I was left alone in the shower room I was faced with a larger selection of bottles than I thought the event warranted. I was alone, shy, confused and without my glasses... not to mention that I had no idea that the Japanese language includes 3 separate alphabets. I thought Katakana was a sword. I did put something on my head which did not lather up. Looking back, I'm pretty sure it was conditioner. It might have been something else, but probably not tile & grout cleanser as my hair did not fall out and I did not develop a severe chemical burn... also my hair became soft and manageable and bounced gracefully as I walked... which made my underarms tickle a bit.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

I lived almost 12 years (collectively) in Japan and never quite mastered their toilets... I remember sitting on one once and soft music started to play. I couldn't figure out where it was coming from! The "sound princess" was the culprit. Not sure why I needed to be serenaded while on the commode...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I have a nice, modern bathroom. When I open the door, the lid of the toilet opens automatically, and a light on the toilet illuminates the seat in case I am too plastered to find the light switch on the wall, or figure out which of the 4 buttons turns on the light. The control panel to the toilet is on the left, the first two buttons are the flush buttons, "big" for the mornings after Thai food and lots of drink, "small" for business as usual. The next two buttons regulate the lid and seat independently. The lower buttons are for the washlet functions, big spray, or small spray, with buttons to regulate pressure and temperature. Setting both to maximum is good for laughs when visitors get curious. The best function is that the toilet has negative air pressure, and vents to the outside, so one can do business without making the bathroom smell bad. If Al Bundy were to use my toilet, he would probably never get off of it. On the bad side, such a toilet doesn't come cheap, my first car cost much less.

What most foreign visitors are confused by in Japan are not the modern toilets you find in hotels and and nice department stores, but the old style "Turkish" toilets which are still commonplace throughout the city, and universal out in the countryside. I have seen my friends try to figure out which way to squat, how to balance themselves, or pull their pants out of the way to provide clear access. Wiping while in this position is also an art which many westerners do not possess. It's hard to imagine how high-tech astro-toilets and turkish toilets co-exist in the same country.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

LMFAO! Well written and so true!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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