Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hot Seat!

There is nothing like the feeling of sitting on a warm, heated toilet seat with a soft fuzzy cover - one of the first signs that remind me that I am back home at my mother's home in Japan.

What in the world am I talking about, you ask?  I am talking about the Japanese toilet, of course!

Toilets in Japan aren’t really talked about in polite conversation, however, understanding the Japanese toilet is an important thing if you plan on visiting Japan for any duration.

The Japanese toilet can be one that causes a lot of issues for the non-Japanese visitor.  If you don’t know what you are doing, it can be quite embarrassing and frustrating.  How hard can it be to use a toilet in Japan, you ask? Well – it can be quite a challenge to the uninformed.

There are basically two types of Japanese toilets, the low-tech and the high-tech.

The low-tech version is relatively simple, what is normally called a ‘squat toilet’ and there are variations of it around the globe. A squat toilet (also known as an Arabic, French, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Iranian, Indian, Turkish toilet and more colorfully as a 'Nile Pan' is a toilet used by squatting over it rather than sitting upon it.

Since most public facilities such as schools, temples, and train stations are often equipped with only squat toilets, knowledge in its use is rather important if that is your only available facility. 

There are several types and variations of squat toilets, but they all consist essentially of a hole in the ground – at obviously, ground level.  My Japanese grandmother had a old fashioned traditional style house and she had an indoor squat toilet in her house.  It was pretty advanced when you think about it. It was essentially an outhouse inside her house – and it didn’t ever smell bad and I remember that a company came to pump it out regularly.  It never seemed odd to me in any way growing up, even though we had a traditional western-style toilet at home.   

I feel I should mention here that in Japan, the toilet and the bath are always separate rooms in a house and never situated together.

In Japanese culture, there is a tendency to separate areas into clean and unclean, and the contact between these areas is minimized. For example, the inside of the house is considered a clean area, whereas the outside of the house is considered unclean.

To keep the two areas separated, shoes are taken off before entering the house so that the unclean shoes do not touch the clean area inside of the house.

Historically, toilets were located outside of the house, and shoes were worn for a trip to the toilet. Nowadays, the toilet is almost always inside the home and hygienic conditions have improved significantly, but the toilet is still considered an unclean area, so to minimize contact between the unclean toilet floor and the clean floor in the rest of the house, many private homes and also some public toilets have toilet slippers (トイレスリッパ toire surippa) in front of the toilet door that should be used when in the toilet and removed right after leaving the toilet.

This also indicates if the toilet is in use.  A frequent mistake that foreigners make is to forget to take off the toilet slippers after a visit to the restroom, and then use these in the non-toilet areas, hence mixing the clean and unclean areas.

I digress…

While very simple in design, concept and use, the squat toilet, as I mentioned earlier; can be a tricky affair for the inexperienced.  

The squat toilet in its most common form in Japan is as a porcelain slipper shaped fixture that is affixed to the floor, sometimes on a raised single step.

To use it, you simply squat over it, do your business and then flush.  Simple, right?

Well there is definitely a method to its use and for anyone wearing pants, there is the question of where the pants go – plenty of 'gaijin' or foreigners in Japan have had some bad experiences with this toilet.

Once can always take off their pants completely but that is quite inconvenient and oftentimes there will be no place to put your removed pants in the toilet space.

The trick is to keep them around your ankles and knees and out of harm's way...

Luckily, the Japanese like to provide pictures and instructions.

There are a lot of videos on YouTube that show the use of the squat toilet but here is one I thought was pretty good.

As challenging as the low-tech squat toilet is for some, the high-tech toilet which probably is in about 80-90 percent of Japanese homes.

The modern toilet commonly known in Japanese as Washlet (ウォシュレット Woshuretto) is one of the most advanced types of toilet worldwide, showing a dazzling array of features.

The Toto product Washlet Zoe is listed in Guinness World Records as the world's most sophisticated toilet with seven functions. However, as the model was introduced in 1997, it is now likely to be inferior to the latest model by Toto in 2011-2012. The idea for the washlet came from abroad, and the first toilet seat with integrated bidet was produced in the United States in 1964 but interestingly, it never became popular in the US.

The age of the high-tech toilet in Japan started in 1980 with the introduction of the Washlet G Series by Toto, and since then the product name washlet has been used to refer to all types of Japanese high-tech toilets.

While the toilet looks like a Western-style toilet at first glance, there are numerous additional features—such as blow dryer, seat heating, massage options, water jet adjustments, automatic lid opening, automatic flushing, wireless control panel, room heating and air conditioning for the room—included either as part of the toilet or in the seat.

These features can be accessed by an (often wireless) control panel attached to the seat or mounted on a nearby wall.

There are humorous reports of foreigners using a toilet, and randomly pressing buttons on the control panel either out of curiosity or in search for the flushing control, and suddenly to their horror receiving a jet of water directed at their genitals or anus.

As the water jet continues for a few seconds after they jump up, they also get themselves or the bathroom wet.

Many Japanese toilets now feature pressure sensitive seats that automatically shut off the bidet when the person gets up.

In any case, I think that the washlet toilet is an awesome thing and they are available in the US via Toto USA at just look under washlet.

If you decide to visit Japan, then make sure you give the washlet a try -I am sure it's one 'hot seat' you'll come to love!!

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