The night before my husband Tom’s mother, sister, and cousin flew out to visit us in Japan, we Skyped one last time to go over how we’d meet up at the airport, to ease his mother’s fears about getting lost. They seemed set, save for just one more thing.
No, not North Korea’s threats. Or rumors of remaining radiation or the earthquakes (though a mini-tremor is happening as I write this…or it could be the intense wind shaking our third floor). Nope, not even chopsticks — they’d been practicing.
The toilets. What would the toilets be like? They asked, eyes wide.
Tom and I laughed. But I could understand. I still remember my surprise the first time I saw a hole surrounded with porcelain foot pads in Cinque Terre on our honeymoon. I probably bounced like a kindergartner, squeezing my legs together before walking up to the hole, thinking, then walking away, still scarred by a squatting incident in junior high involving a one-piece snowsuit, borrowed from a friend. Tom didn’t understand my stubborn refusal that time, or the next, when waiting for the train after dinner; I pranced in place and held it, until tears threatened. Then Tom said he’d help me. So, my newly wed walked me into the single stall and stood opposite me so I could hold onto his legs while I tried to squat (after precautionarily taking my pants off, of course). A dangerous act, my aim even worse while shaking with laughter. A chivalric gesture that only made me love him more.
Public bathrooms in Japan, like the meticulous country’s city streets, are remarkably clean, I assured our soon-to-be-guests, easing their pre-flight minds. I waited until they arrived to warn them about the various possibilities. You just never know what your “exit option” will be. I’ve walked into small, mom & pop restaurants, expecting to find the Eastern hole in the ground, then hesitantly opened the door to find a fancy Toto toilet, complete with a self-warming seat and bidet (with both temperature and water pressure controls).
Most public toilets at train stations and parks are Eastern-style, oblong porcelain bowls in the ground, but one Western-style sit-down toilet can usually be found in the very last stall or two, if you’re lucky. There were a few times our guests held out a bit longer to guarantee that seat.
What made Tom and I laugh is that our toilets back home seem archaic in comparison to the Toto wonders here. “You mean the seats aren’t heated?” my Japanese friend once asked, aghast. No bidet? Just paper? Dare I admit that without a good wash, I too now feel unclean?
Not to mention the courtesies, like handy seats for your infant and disguising noisemakers (photos).
Once I asked two Japanese ladies I went hiking with (both grandmothers, who impressively hoofed up the trails like mountain goats) whether they preferred Eastern or Western-style toilets, now that they’ve been exposed to both. They looked at each other, then at the public bathroom nearby, whose toilets were Eastern-style but surprisingly clean, being that we were surrounded by lush green forest, in the mountains above Kamakura’s myriad shrines and temples. Definitely better than any outhouse or port-a-potty you’d find way up here, back in the States.
At home the ladies preferred the Toto, to sit and relax. Much easier, they agreed. But for public situations? They grimaced – why would you want to sit where someone else’s bare bottom had been? They shuddered at such a thought.
Thereafter I stopped holding it and waiting for the Western toilet. Instead, I approach the public restroom door and use whatever is revealed. More often than not, the fancy toilet appears. Some even greet me, the motion-sensor lid opening on its own – welcome, Bre! — as if it’s been waiting all day just for me to arrive.
Now I can squat anywhere anytime, a skill that has come in handy quite often (unfortunately), especially during long runs. Not to mention, my new skill earned me major points with Tom. What can I say? He likes classy girls.
As for our guests, by the end of their visit, two of the three attempted the squat, and like me, they agreed – there’s something easier about it. If you’re going to squat anyway, that dirty seat just gets in the way.
The only issues that remain are the lack of hand soap and the unstandardized means for flushing. After being conditioned by motion sensors, your heart stops for a moment when you stand up and don’t hear that automatic flush. Then your mind begins to race, as you search the floor, where you may find a metal button to step on. If not, then maybe on the wall, where surrounded by kanji figures you may finally see a hand above a metal, indented square. So you wave your hand in front of it, then push it, then wave your hand again. And when all else fails, you tip the lid a little toward you to see that the flusher is exactly where it always is back home. Or, you stare at the written directions long enough to understand them and feel like you’re finally learning Japanese, until you realize they’re subtitled in English.
Or, you do as my mother-in-law did and press that button near the bidet options on the wall, labeled in bright red. She never did get that toilet to flush, but she sure did get the medic to come check on her twice.