HOW TO USE JAPANESE RESTROOMS
Many foreign visitors to Japan may notice quickly that in many public restrooms there are neither paper towels nor an air dryer in order to dry their hands, and you may feel funny having to resort to wiping them on your own clothes. Then if you look around, you may notice that the reason for this is a Japanese custom: handkerchiefs. It customary to use your own handkerchiefs to dry your hands, and although some restrooms (convenience stores, department stores, etc.) will have means with which to dry your hands, many do not.
Additionally, certain public restrooms, namely those in the stations, do not even have soap! Many visitors are surprised by this because Japan is such a sanitary and obsessively clean country. So you may want to travel with your own hand soap or sanitizer, now often conveniently sold in keychain versions.
Before traveling to Japan you may have heard tales of "the squatter". Yes, there really are squatting toilets in Japan-- and they are definitely a good thigh work out if you ever get a chance to use one! But don't worry, Western sitting toilets are much more common in Japan these days, and most public restrooms have options of both. So if you open the stall door and you find the toilet by your feet, don't panic because usually the next stall over will have a sitter. The only place you are likely to have squatting toilets as your only option is in parks or outdoor restrooms. Rural areas away from major cities may also tend to have more squatters, but for the most part you should find you always have a sitting option.
That's where convenience stores come in handy-- always available to the public (even if you don't buy anything), always sitting toilets, almost always stocked with soap and paper towels or a dryer, almost always clean and sanitary-- convenience stores in Japan once again prove that they really are convenient! No more searching for a place to buy something cheap to use the restroom, and Japanese convenient stores are everywhere. Most will have public restrooms, but be aware that there are some that do not.
Sometimes in Japan you will find yourself in restrooms where the toilet has a lot of buttons. These could be on an arm of the toilet seat, or on a nearby wall. Often times the buttons do not have English, in which case you may find yourself in an embarrassing situation not knowing how to flush the toilet! So take a look at these important buttons to flush: most have a button with the kanji character for "big" 大 and another for "small" 小 that you can use to flush (corresponding to, you guessed it, "#1" and "#2"). Other buttons operate the bidet and other water cleaning devices for after you've done your business, and sometimes there is even a "sound" button which you can push to add sounds of water flowing or even music to hide your own embarrassing sounds. Only in Japan!
Many foreign visitors who use restrooms at private residences or small restaurants or businesses are puzzled by the faucets attached to the top of Japanese toilets. Many feel that given the placement of the faucet that this is not clean water, but rest easy, it is the same as any water that comes out of the tap. It is the clean water that is used to refill the toilet after flushing, so it's fine to use to wash your hands. Just another ingenious way the Japanese have thought up to save water and use limited space effectively!
It is interesting to think about how different Japanese restrooms can be from their Western counterparts– some can seem primitive with squatting toilets and no soap or paper towels, and others can seem advanced and overwhelming with all the buttons and gadgets. What you may think is intuitive may actually not be, like even how to flush a toilet! Hopefully this manga style guide will give you a heads-up about what to expect about something you use everyday that you may not think about when you usually pack your bags for an exciting trip.
[updated May 2020]