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How to Navigate a Bathroom in Japan

I lived in Japan almost a year and a half, and my life has been changed forever by that amazing experience.

Japanese Bathrooms

After a long flight to Tokyo, a struggle to figure out the transit system in Japan, and a quick stop at the grocery store where I didn't recognize anything, I was relieved to finally arrive in my apartment, but when I stepped into the restroom the emotion I felt was far from that of relief.

It turned out that I wasn't even close to being done feeling confused for the day. My first thought was that my bathroom looked like a spaceship.

Not only did the toilet have armrests, but the armrests were covered with buttons, and I had no idea what any of those buttons were for.

I looked around and couldn't for the life of me figure out where in the bathroom I was supposed to shower (more on that later).

I have to admit that in my jet-lagged state of mind, I took on a bit of a "why me?" attitude. I wondered why I couldn't just use a normal toilet instead of one that probably had a 100-page user's manual written in a language that I couldn't even understand.

My hope in writing this article is that I might save someone else from experiencing the utter confusion that I experienced when I saw the bathroom in my first apartment in Japan.

Japan is an amazing place with wonderful people and a beautiful culture, so I don't want you to get off on the wrong foot just because of something silly, yet absolutely necessary, like a bathroom.

Not Your Average American Toilet

As I mentioned before, the toilets in Japan are a little more complicated than the ones that you might be accustomed to, but don't be afraid; they aren't as intimidating as they may look.

First off, if you are like me and are a little bit nervous about things that you aren't familiar with, you don't have to be afraid of the toilet doing anything crazy to you as long as you don't push any of the buttons.

The strangest thing you may notice about your toilet (even without pushing any buttons) is that many toilets have a faucet on the top where water comes out after you flush. The one in my first apartment looked more like a drinking fountain than a normal sink faucet (which REALLY confused me as you can probably imagine).

These faucets are there so that you can conveniently wash your hands right there where the toilet is.

That wouldn't make a lot of sense in America, but in Japan the toilet is often in a separate room from the shower, sink, etc. (this keeps unpleasant smells isolated), so it makes sense to be able to wash your hands right there.

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Here are a few features that are often included with Japanese toilets:

  • Toilet seat warmer (I actually really enjoyed having a warm toilet seat rather than a freezing cold one first thing in the morning in the winter.)
  • Posterior wash (for your backside)
  • Front wash (for the ladies)
  • Adjustable water pressure and temperature
  • Self Cleaning feature (for the toilet bowl itself)
  • White noise (to cover up any embarrassing sounds that could come from the bathroom)
  • Air conditioning

To be honest, I never got up the courage to try out any of the cleaning features on the toilets in the apartments where I lived, but as you can see, Japanese toilets have a lot to offer. For a more extensive list of features, check out this website.

The set up for bathing in Japan is quite different from in America and can make it difficult for the average American to understand how and where to shower.

How and Where to Bathe in Your Japanese Bathroom

As I mentioned before, I was quite confused about where I was supposed to bathe in my first apartment.

You see, like most Americans, I'm accustomed to having a shower head in the tub area of my bathroom, but that wasn't the case in my first apartment.

There was an area that was clearly meant for water that was partitioned with only half of it being a bathtub. The other half had a drain in the floor and a shower nozzle, but didn't really look like a shower to me.

I wasn't sure whether I should stand in the tub to shower and dry off in the area that had the drain on the floor or whether I was supposed to shower in the room that didn't quite look like a shower.

I had no idea where to shower and was a little embarrassed, so I ended up volunteering to let my Japanese roommate shower first. I figured that way I could see which area was wet when she got out so that I would know where I was supposed to be showering.

Rather than let someone else go through the same confusion, I will explain a little bit of Japanese bathing etiquette to you.

Japanese people love taking baths, but rather than soak in the dirt and grime from the day, the protocol is to shower off (in the area that has the drain and the nozzle) and then you can hop into your nice warm bath if you desire.

In fact, because everyone showers off before bathing, it's perfectly normal for people to share bathwater. I know it sounds gross, but they assume that if you've already showered, you're clean.

The girl in the video below does a great job of explaining all the details of Japanese bathrooms. It's an extremely useful tutorial if you are planning on spending time in Japan. I wish that I would have seen it before I went there.

Enjoy the Luxurious Bathroom Experience While You Can

I can completely understand how intimidating it can feel to be in a foreign country and realize that you don't even know how to do something as simple as use the bathroom, but my advice is to enjoy the luxurious experience while you can.

Now that you understand a little bit more about how Japanese bathrooms work, hopefully, the experience won't be as difficult for you as it was for me.

It's not every day that you can wake up to a nice warm heated toilet seat in the morning, so why not turn on the seat warmer before you go to bed?

© 2015 Rebecca Young

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