Monday 8 September 2014

Navigating the Japanese Bathroom

The Ultimate Elimination Challenge

As seen on Japan Today - August 31, 2014
Copyright © 2014 William M. Dean, August 2014

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 1500 years ago. To be able to read a Japanese newspaper, for instance, you must know 12-1600 of these characters and their multiple meanings. I knew exactly three and most unfortunately, “men's 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 in a Nib. 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 from what I'd seen was changed, maybe once a week. (In actual fact, a computer automatically refreshes the water but the tub is only drained occasionally, for cleaning. But I did not know that, then.) For me, as a foreign guest, this is situation 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 it’s 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 colour 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 imminently 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 gon’na miss that toilet.

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