Why would anyone feel the need to write about toilets? Well, when in a country like Japan and you get the sudden urge to go, you will need to be able to understand two basic essentials: where to find a toilet and how to use the toilet. Simple right? Not exactly, especially in Japan where the variations of toilets ranging from the Japanese squat toilet to Japanese high tech toilets can be quite confusing. Here are my Japan toilet tips and plenty of pictures of toilets to help you navigate the minefield of Japanese toilet etiquette.
The good news is that most toilets in Japan are free to the public, well maintained and very clean.
Check out our Japan itineraries for self-guided travel around the country:
- Japanese Toilets – Introduction
- Types of toilets in Japan
- Japanese toilets – The Basics
Japanese Toilets – Introduction
Japanese toilet words
While signs for locating a washroom or toilet are fairly universal in Japan, there are variations.
The Japanese language has many subtleties and there are different words for “toilet” which should be used for different occasions. Here’s a crash course on Japanese toilet terms:
- toire (toilet) – a course and direct term to use casually but never when you’re dining.
- keshoshitsu (powder room)
- otearai (bathroom) – best to use if you’re looking for somewhere to wash your hands.
- senmenjo (washroom)
Japanese toilet signs
Japanese toilet signs can be hilarious.
One sign in a zoo caused me some concern as I wasn’t quite sure if I was going to the toilet or the lion’s enclosure!
There may also be a sign for a baby (or maybe it’s a sumo wrestler)? Both seem to wear similar clothing.
Many toilets have rather convenient baby holders inside the cubicle where you can put your baby whilst you ablute.
This is a great idea as long as the baby fits the weight and size restrictions.
Does this remind you of the hand luggage procedure in the airports?
Talking about babies, there are cultural differences you need to be aware of.
Apparently, women can take their baby into a toilet and can change a diaper but men may only be allowed to take their baby into the toilet.
Changing a nappy is not something Japanese men want to be caught doing in public, I gather!
Note: Some toilets have an emergency call button “yobidashi” so do not press unless it’s a real emergency.
How to find a toilet in Japan
Stating the obvious? Not so in Japan, so let’s start with the exterior design.
Sometimes, finding the toilet block can be a bit of a challenge especially when an artistic architect in Japan comes up with an out-of-the-box idea on how a public toilet should look.
It can be easy to miss so think outside the square.
Types of toilets in Japan
Now to the intricacies of actually using a toilet in Japan: in Japan, there are three kinds of toilets:
- Traditional Japanese toilet or washiki toire
- Western-style toilet or yoshiki toire
- Multifunction toilet or takino toire
Traditional Japanese toilets
Japanese toilets in public places
Japanese style toilets are usually fitted into the floor and found in public toilets in many tourist destinations.
Do practice the art of aiming whilst crouching or you will soil your undergarments.
Strong thighs and gluteal muscles are essential as you’ll need to squat over the urinal to use these traditional Japanese toilets.
Traditional Japanese toilets may or may not have tanks, so to flush this type of toilet, look for a lever on the tank or on the plumbing near to the toilet.
Japanese toilets in trains
This in-floor style of Japanese toilet is also found in Japanese trains, which are one of the main modes of travel in Japan.
So you’re likely to find yourself squatting while travelling on the Shinkansen through Japan.
The Shinkansen or ‘bullet’ train has a few extra modifications for dealing with ablutions.I
f you’re planning a trip around Japan, book your Japan Rail Pass here.
While travelling at 300km/hr, it is essential to hang on to the ‘sissy bar’ whilst peeing with high G-forces applied.
Also, be forewarned of its high-powered vacuum suction when flushing.
It’s based on the same theory that high speeds are the fastest way to move things from A to B.
Western-style toilets in Japan
Western-style toilets in Japan may look somewhat familiar to you but most come with some form of Japanese innovation.
Japanese toilets with bidets
In Japan, the most popular feature you’ll find on a western toilet is that most Japanese toilets are also a bidet toilet combo.
There are simple straightforward bidets and there are Japanese bidets that do everything except cook the family roast!
There are bidets that come with a bottom-wash button, with variations of water jet strength, a rather curious ‘lady’ button (you’ll have to test that one out yourself) and then there’s the power deodoriser button.
So, using a Japanese bidet can be a little mind-boggling at times.
The instructions on how to use a bidet toilet seat will be in Japanese but the pictures are helpful.
These Japanese bidets also come with a variety of sounds triggered by sitting on the toilet.
Japanese toilets that play music
Don’t be surprised to be serenaded by a waltz or a Mozart concerto or the gentle sound of a tickling waterfall while you are sitting on the throne.
No, you’re not hearing things!
Most Japanese toilets in upmarket shopping centres and hotels have some kind of musical repertoire.
Planning to visit Japan in winter? You need to know that the seat may be heated or not heated.
I personally find heated toilet seats in public toilets rather off-putting as it conjures images of well-endowed rear-ends belonging to the toilet’s previous users.
So you might want to think twice before using a heated toilet seat.
Another quirk of Japanese toilets is some models mimic the sound of water flushing to drown out the noises of you going about your business.
Depending on how the unit is programmed, the flushing sound might start as soon as it detects movement in the cubicle.
If it doesn’t, and if you’d like to use it for privacy, look for a button on the console but be careful not to press the real flush button (especially when you’re sitting on the throne)!
Japanese toilets in private ryokans
Toilets in ryokans (traditional inns usually with a Japanese onsen) have a toilet etiquette you need to be aware of.
Just as shoes are not worn inside a house – and certainly not in a room with a tatami mat floor – there are certain types of slippers to be worn once you enter a toilet.
A good clue is these are usually the ones labelled “Toilet”.
In fact, this system is quite useful as not all toilets in Japan have signs to indicate that they are occupied.
If there are no slippers visible for you to step into then you can assume that all the toilet cubicles are occupied.
Japanese toilets – The Basics
How to flush a Japanese toilet
Sometimes the flush mechanism may not be obvious and in some toilets, there’s a sensor-operated light in a toilet wall that is not as obvious either.
Some Japanese toilets have subtle buttons.I’ll admit the first time I used Google Translate in Japan was in a restaurant toilet while trying to work out which button actually flushed the toilet.
It gave me a helpful choice of a ‘small’ or ‘big’ flush upon translation of the various Japanese symbols.
A lever style is fine but it may flush and activate a tap on top of the cistern.
This one stymied me as I kept pressing the flush in an attempt to stop the tap running, which just kept on running…
Japanese toilet paper
This does need a mention so you won’t be disappointed by the Japanese single ply paper you’ll find in most toilets in Japan.
Double or triple ply, super soft or aloe vera impregnated paper is a luxury that the Japanese do not seem to have an appreciation of.
Also worth noting is that the perforated toilet paper we may be accustomed to is replaced by Japanese toilet rolls with no perforations.
This results in very ragged, torn, irregular ends to a toilet roll after you have wrestled to tear off your portion.
This can be a bit puzzling to most tourists as Japanese are generally very neat and tidy, even in the toilet.
However occasional toilets have toilet roll holders with toothed serrations that help you to create a neat torn off roll.
Don’t forget to put said used paper down the toilet and not in the wastebasket.
Do make sure you only put toilet paper in the toilet and nothing else! All other material should be thrown into the rubbish bin in the cubicle.
If you see a small phone-sized panel on the wall, it’s probably an alcohol dispenser.
Follow the instructions to clean the toilet seat after you have used it.
More Pictures of Toilets
So as you have finally mastered the intricacies of the Japanese toilet, and your Japanese holiday comes to a sad end, you may want to purchase your own Toto bidet at the Duty-Free shop in Tokyo International Airport.
Check out the bargain prices for a great souvenir!