Glenn provided the following tips about “toilets”:
There is a much wider range of conveniences in Japan than in the U.S. Some, in new buildings and in all hotels, are modern and clean, with luxuries that you wouldn’t expect, such as heated toilet seats and built-in bidets. However, many older buildings, train stations, and rural areas may have toilets that are not conspicuously clean and odor-free. The traditional Asian toilet does not have a seat; it is an enameled hole in the floor over which you squat and try to aim. It is a challenge for older people, and many in Japan use it with more reluctance than nostalgia. Toilet paper, hot water, and paper towels cannot be taken for granted in every washroom. Carry a small packet of Kleenex for emergencies, and always have a handkerchief to dry your hands after you wash. The good news is that you can always find a modern toilet if you have enough patience, and you are also allowed to use the toilets for the handicapped anywhere, which are always much larger with more modern facilities.
All of this information proved useful, and Glenn’s inclusion of this topic as one of the “six T’s” did not represent an exaggeration of its importance. It was a source of great amusement to all of us that the variety and quality of public (and private) conveniences was such a “hot topic” among us. This was particularly noticeable when we were riding the shinkansen to Hiroshima and one person after another, returning from the restrooms, would provide a sotto voce report on the facilities offered. We were constantly intrigued by every novelty in this regard, and from the number of Web sites I found devoted to, shall we say, “Toilets of the World,” it would appear that quite a few people share this fascination!
The bathroom in our hotel room in Osaka was our first introduction to the ubiquitous Toto Washlet, which so impressed us that (like many other tourists) I took pictures of it. Toto, for those who don’t know, is the American Standard of Japan. Virtually every toilet we saw in the country, as well as lavatories and other bathroom furnishings, was made by Toto. The Washlet has been described with humor and verve in several newspaper articles (see “Luxury Loo: The Seat Also Rises” and “But Do They Flush? Japan's High-Tech Toilets Do Nearly Everything, Even Redden Faces”). It more or less converts a toilet into a bidet, and Barney became so spoiled by the end of our visit that he was ready to come home and buy one for our bath. I had to remind him that we had actually seen one at a home show here in 2001. In fact, Toto now has a presence in the United States and sells Washlets manufactured in Georgia.
The Washlets we experienced had varying features and controls. The one in Osaka was the only one with instructions in English, but, having learned to use it, we were able to pretty well figure out the others we encountered. All models featured water jets that could be aimed either of two ways (from the pink and blue icons, we surmised that these resolved into basically female and male settings). Some had temperature and/or pressure controls; one also had hot/cool air drying. Some had heated seats. The seats in the restroom at the Narukawa Art Museum in Hakone were made by a different manufacturer and had remote controls.
I believe it was also that restroom that had a button to push to make a flushing sound. Japanese women seem to be especially plagued by the condition sometimes known as “bashful kidney” and used to be prone to flush a toilet before using it to cover up the sound of their functions. To prevent this waste of water, Japanese ingenuity devised a machine to provide the sound without the water. We suspected this might also have been the purpose of the “warm-up” cycle that our Osaka Washlets went through when we sat down on them, though the instructions claimed some other vague purpose.
Another uniquely Japanese type of toilet we encountered from time to time was the kind with a faucet on the back. When the toilet is flushed, water runs from the faucet into a drain and back into the tank. While this wouldn't suffice for thorough hand washing, it was ideal for a quick dabble—and wastes no water!
As Glenn predicted, most of the hotels and public buildings we visited had at least some Western-style toilets, for which there was often a line while Japanese-style cubicles went begging. Some of the toilets even had Washlets. In addition to the ones at the Narukawa museum, we also encountered these in the public restrooms at Yodobashi Camera. At many of the tourist attractions we visited, however, there were no Western-style cubicles. I used the Japanese-style squat toilets when I had to, though they were a trial for my arthritic knees. In well-maintained restrooms, especially those with a grab bar, this was not as difficult in the more squalid ones.
Some of the public restrooms we encountered were especially memorable. One of these was at a rest stop where we stopped on the expressway between Mount Fuji and Tokyo. It had everything! In addition to very nicely appointed Japanese-style and Western-style cubicles, some with baby seats or changing facilities and some with extra space for luggage, it had a “primping” area separate from the main bank of lavatories and a row of low urinals for little boys accompanying their mothers.
It also featured the very efficient type of hand dryers used in Japan. As Glenn warned, most restrooms have neither paper towels nor hand dryers, but when dryers are present, they are of this “duplex” type, which dry both sides of the hands at once. Provided, according to Glenn’s advice, with packets of Kleenex and handkerchiefs, we were ready for anything, as were most of the Japanese, though in one restroom nearly-used-up rolls of toilet paper had been lined up on the top of a radiator near the sinks and were being used for hand drying. I had bought an inexpensive bandanna ($1.02 at Wal-Mart), and it stood me in good stead. Although I soon learned that it was larger than necessary for hand drying, it served nicely as a table napkin. Many of the places where we ate had very small paper napkins that were plasticized on one side and not very absorbent on the other. With the slick side down, they tended to slide off the lap; even if they stayed put, they didn’t cover much area. So a cloth napkin was very welcome. (Encountering similar conditions on a subsequent trip inside the United States, I have decided to make the bandanna part of my regular traveling kit.)
Another intriguing restroom we encountered was on the waterfront in Yamashita Park in Yokohama. I think it would probably be categorized as what I have found described as an “automatic public toilet,” but I could not find a photo online of one exactly like this one, and I really regret not taking a picture of it. Luckily, I prevailed on Glenn to photograph this facility and send me the results. The aspect it presented to the world when not in use was that of a semicircular concave space, which was a revolving metal door. When the door was pulled around in its track 180 degrees, it enclosed a circular space with complete restroom facilities. The light came on automatically, and there was a series of four buttons that were to be pushed in order. Pushing the first one caused a metal toilet seat to emerge from the wall over the metal toilet. After using it, you pushed the second button, which caused the toilet seat to retract. Pushing the third button caused the toilet seat to go through further mysterious gyrations, and I never did establish what the fourth one did, but Joan suggested that it caused the entire facility to be washed down after I had opened the door and left. Glenn provided a translation, however, as follows: “The four buttons on the control panel respectively open/close the door to allow entrance [I believe I had closed it manually by dragging on the handle], summon the toilet seat from its hidden depths (the picture shows the toilet seat midway out of its receptacle), cleanse the toilet seat with disinfected hot air jets, and open/close the door to let you out. There are two more buttons on the wall inside: to flush the toilet and an emergency alarm, which causes a police-type red light on the top of the building to flash (I suppose, since I didn’t push it). I did, however, manage to render the entire masterpiece inoperable by closing the door with no one inside to get a picture of the door from the outside. However, it automatically opens after 15 minutes if it isn’t locked from the inside.”
Although there was a tiny sink inside the cubicle, there were actual lavatories (with soap) outside. Approaching one of these, I thrust my hands under the faucet and waited (since the overwhelming majority of faucets in public restrooms in Japan are automatic). When nothing happened, I looked around for something to push or turn and ultimately succeeded in finding it. Somewhat mortified, I was vindicated when I watched a Japanese woman approach and go through exactly the same process!
The restrooms on the shinkansen were unusually nice. There were three: one Japanese-style (carpeted, with grab bar) and one Western-style/handicapped, both unisex, plus one men’s urinal. The Western-style cubicle, unlike most Japanese restrooms, had no paper seat covers. Instead, it had disinfectant-soaked moist towelettes with which to wipe down the toilet seat. Again, although there was a proto-sink next to the toilet, the real lavatories were outside, on the aisle.
The urinal proved disconcerting to the men, as there was a window in the door, and the door could not be locked. Although one’s back was to the door, and the window allowed prospective users to see that the cubicle was occupied, this challenged the American sense of propriety. This was just a taste of the cavalier Japanese disregard for modesty. The men in our party frequently reported being interrupted by maids coming in to clean the men’s room while they were using it, and many of the public men’s rooms had urinals clearly visible from the outside. Presumably the Japanese women are conditioned not to look!
Another novelty we encountered in Yokohama was the lavatory (sink) at the entrance to Denny's. This may not be unique, though we certainly didn’t see anything similar anywhere else. But what a sensible idea! Whether washing up before the meal or after, it is certainly more convenient to do this at the entrance than to make a special trip to the restroom.