Saturday, November 5, 2011

Toilets in Japan

Toilets in Japan

The builder working on our new old house in Ohio asked me about toilets in Japan. His work has an environmental focus so his interest and awareness of toilets is all in day's work.

My beginning thoughts of toilets in Japan started with the Captain Kirk model so named for the style of the throne and the control panel in the armrests. Not one to be adventurous on toilets, I uttered a prayer of thanks when all it did was flush. My friend however came flying out of the toilet room with tales of spray and fans blowing. I mumbled another prayer of thanks for the will to resist pushing buttons.

Toilet rooms are perplexing to me, and they are a fairly common approach to the bathroom in Japan. You have to wear special bathroom slippers to enter the toilet room; these slippers are commonly marked as belonging to the bathroom at hotels or ryokans in Japanese. The problem for gaijin is to remember to switch back into the room slippers that fit the same way before parading through the lobby.


The Toilet Gamut

Toilets in Japan run the gamut from a hole in the floor to the Captain Kirk model with spray spouts, fragrance, background noise, seat warmers, and even an automatic lid closer and opener. Each kind of toilet elicits a particular need: approach the hole by facing it and resist pushing buttons if you aren't prepared for a bum wash, blow-dry, and set. I once lingered on a toilet at a rest stop bathroom, perplexed by the pictures posted on the wall of the stall. There were "X"s over a figure sitting on the toilet facing the tank. It took some effort to recall that the traditional toilet requires you to both squat and face it and so the pictures are there to instruct.

Most Common toilet in Japan: face forward and squat.

Sign explaining how to sit on the Western toilet in Japan

Toilet with a Sink

The builder was interested in toilets with the water spout that fills up a small basin on the back before then filling up the toilet's tank for the next flush. It offers a dual usage of the fresh water: a hand washing and a flush. A popular accessory is to put rocks into the small basin mounted on the tank lid at the back of the toilet. I can't confirm, but this usage seems to be about ambient noise as there is often a sink in another space. These toilets are usually in a confined space so leaning over the toilet to wash, or pre rinse as my husband calls it, is uncomfortable and wearing those slippery slippers adds to the difficulty plus there is usually no soap or towels.

Toilet with a sink- note the rocks for water sounds.
The smallness of bathrooms is a reflection of the lack of space for daily necessaities in Japan. There appears to be no rule about businesses having to have a public bathroom nor that they be handicap accessible. Toilets are wedged into places you can only enter if you are the size of a Japanese person or a small child and can pirouette on one foot.

You have to carry a hand towel at all times. Paper towels and hand dryers are not commonly provided in public bathrooms such as at train stations, shops, or restaurants. Remembering to remove my hand towel from my purse always elludes me. I leave my purse so I won't have to wrangle it in the confines of the bathroom. This is revealed by the tell tale signs of handprints on my pants.


Heated Toilet Seats

A more pleasant toilet experience is to sit upon a heated toilet seat which you appreicate more in the frigid damp of winter in Japan. The value of the seat lies in the experience of sitting on a frigid toilet seat- central heat is not common, neither are double paned windows, nor serious insulation of buildings. I've heard of the elderly having heart attacks as a result of a cold toilet. I've had a few heart palpitations myself. There is a reason beyond frivolity for this device. I admit to a fondess for a heated toilet seat, but I also prefer a well insulated house that holds it's heat. The water sounds appeal to the desire for privacy in tight but populated places.

Could I see putting a Japanese toilet into our one hundred year old house? We are afterall installing a toilet in the hall closet. I suggested we put a small garden spout with backsplash and basin made from copper on the wall- you can at least splash water on your face without leaning over the toilet, but we'll likely go for a more traditional corner sink that offers both hot and cold water.

During summer road trips in the States I recollect a stinky stretch of outhouses in Ohio; it was the seventies. In Spain, in the eighties, a shack that enclosed a hole which served a similar purpose comes to mind. In the late ninties it was another hole, tiled this time, at the souq in Bahrain with it's water hose and bucket that encouraged me to not drink too much tea. The bathrooms in Japan stick out both for their unusual placements and their technological innovations. Though we will be getting a Japanese tub, I do not have the same fondess for the toilets, even the heated ones- I hope that my house will, at last, be warm.