15 tips to avoid embarrassing situations in Japan

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Further to my earlier post on etiquette in restaurants, izakayas, udonyas and bakeries in Japan, I thought it might also be useful for those of you who are planning a trip/move to Japan to list a handful of other, more general observations about expected behaviour in Japan outside of the restaurant scene – i.e. in general public areas.

(1) Escalators

In Japan, escalators are used in an extremely orderly manner. If you are in Osaka you need to stand on the right and let people in a rush walk past you by overtaking you on the left. Everywhere else in Japan the roles are reversed. That is, in places like Kyoto, Hiroshima, Tokyo and Nara you will have to stand on the left and let people overtake you on the right.

The reason for this difference between Osaka and the rest of the country seems to be that people in Osaka are proud to be from Osaka (and a little crazy, in a funny and endearing way) and like to do their own thing. Consequently, they seem to make a deliberate effort not to follow the general rules in the rest of Japan.

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This is what you should do in Osaka.

(2) Trains

Train journeys are generally very quiet in Japan. Music or loud chatting will result in people giving you the evil eye (albeit in a subtle way). Talking on your mobile phone on the train is considered extremely rude to the point that the conductor might come and tell you to zip it. However, you can text. And you can listen to music or play games on your phone as long as you wear headphones.

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Getting on and off a train is strictly orchestrated. This is how you do it:

When waiting on a platform for a train, you need to form two lines at designated spots on the platform (which indicate the train carriage and door in which you’ll enter if you queue there). When the train arrives, the two-by-two queue separates and forms one queue on each side of the train doors. Don’t rush in (no Japanese person would jump the queue so you don’t need to either)! Let the people on the train get out first in the space in-between the two queues. Once the people on the train have got off, the two queues can start entering the train in an orderly fashion.

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(3) Buses

If you use the bus, you do so in the opposite way from how you might in many other countries. That is, you go in through the doors at the back of the bus, leave the bus via the front door and pay for your journey on exit.

(4) Taxis

Most taxi drivers (at least outside Tokyo) do not speak English, so it’s useful to have the address of your destination written down in Japanese. The easiest way to do this is to print out your hotel’s address and telephone number (many sat-navs use the destination landline number to locate the place) and show the print-out to the taxi driver.

You should sit at the back, but when you get in/out of the taxi, don’t touch the door – the driver won’t like it. He opens the door by using a button/lever on the dashboard so wait for him to do it.

(5) Temples/Shrines

If there is a Torii (a gate at the entrance of the temple/shrine), you should bow before you walk through it. Also, you should not walk through the middle of the gate as that’s reserved for the gods. Instead, walk through the gate but slightly off the centre.

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When visiting a temple, you will see one of these:

These are used to wash your hands before you enter the temple area. You should go, scoop some water and pour it on to your hands. However, because the function of this is to clean yourself, make sure that you do not wash your hands over the clean water container. The dirty water from your hands should fall on the ground (or usually there is a drainage system that will get rid of the dirty water).

If you are at the temple to pray, you should donate some money. The procedure for that is: when you are at the altar:

1) bow

2) throw money in a box you see in front of you

3) ring bell hanging from the ceiling

4) clap hands twice to wake up the gods

5) pray

6) bow again

7) leave.

(6) Hand towels

Many Japanese toilets do not have hand dryers or paper towels, so you should buy a small hand towel (sold in all department stores and corner shops e.g. 7-Elevens) and carry it with you. If want to read more about how to use Japanese toilets click here.

(7) Illness

Given that Japan is a collective society, the Japanese frown upon you inflicting your illness on others. So, when ill, using surgical-masks is a must especially if you are planning to go into heavily populated public areas (e.g. the train). It’s also worth knowing that blowing your nose in public is considered rude (while e.g. in Finland it is completely normal).

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(8) No eating while walking

Having your lunch/snack so to speak on the go is considered bad manners, as is smoking while walking (as you may burn your fellow pedestrians with your cigarette butt). You need to stop, stand by the side of the pavement and have your sandwich or cigarette.

(9) Don’t drop rubbish on the floor

I assume you wouldn’t deliberately throw rubbish on the ground anyway, but if you accidentally drop something (indoors or outdoors), pick it up. Slightly inconveniently, there aren’t many public dustbins around and you might need to put whatever it is you want to throw in the rubbish in your pocket until you get back home or find the closest bin some three miles away (even if it is a half-eaten Chinese pork bun or some slimy and rather stinky fermented beans known as natto that you accidentally bought in your 7-Eleven maki roll).

(10) Parking

If you hire a car in Japan it is useful to remember that the convention is that you need to reverse into a parking space. If you drive head first into a supermarket car park space instead of reversing in it, you can be sure that while you are doing your shopping, everyone walking past your car will know it was parked by a foreigner. So, depending on your preferences (blend in or send an overt message that there’s a Westerner here) you can choose a style of parking that best suits your personality.

(11) Paying

Most little shops, restaurants or izakayas do not accept credit/debit cards. Not only do little shops not accept cards, but not all cashpoints accept all cards either. So make sure you always have cash on you.  Luckily, Japan is one of the safest countries in the world in terms of crime stats, so I used to frequently carry quite a lot of cash on me (something I would never do in England).

When paying, take your time. In Japan is it acceptable to rummage through your purse or pocket to find the change even if it means that the shop assistant or the people in the queue had to wait for a few seconds longer. I guess this is to do with the fact that in Japan precision and doing things thoroughly are desirable values.

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(12) Bowing

Bowing is a big part of the culture of Japan. The depth and length of a bow depends on the context and how polite you want to be. The basic rule seems to be that if you are apologising you need to bow deeper. Greeting bows are generally quite light and brief even if addressing a person who is your superior. I can reveal that after 3 years of expat life in Japan I am still oblivious to the nuances of bowing, that is, I’m not quite sure when, for how long or how deep I need to bow in most contexts. Luckily, the Japanese forgive foreigners for these types of cultural mistakes (which to them are as clear as it is to British house party thrower that ‘I’ll try to make it to your party’ means that you can cross out the speaker’s name of the list of people attending the party).

The main point I think is that as long as you try to do the right thing re bowing, you should be ok.

(13) Onsen i.e. hot springs

If in Japan you should go to an onsen. You can read about my experiences of hot springs and my advice on behaviour in those here. But in short,

  • you go into the hot spring naked
  • no tattoos are allowed
  • you need to wash yourself in the shower area before going in the hot spring
  • no swimming or splashing in the hot spring.

(14) Umbrellas

If it is raining, pretty much all Japanese people will have an umbrella (they don’t understand the British just-put-your-hood-up-approach). Not having an umbrella when it rains would send a message to your fellow pedestrians that you are a sloppy, forgetful type of person with zero planning skills.

If you did remember to check the weather forecast and bring your umbrella, if it is wet and you go into a shop/restaurant, you need to leave the umbrella outside in an umbrella-park. Alternatively, some bigger shops or organisations provide you with a plastic bag outside the shop so that you can put you umbrella in it so that you won’t drop rainwater indoors.

(15) No shoes

No outdoor shoes are allowed in homes, schools, ryokans (guest houses), hospital examination rooms or – importantly for tourists – clothes shop changing rooms. Sometimes you are asked to leave your shoes outside the changing room and sometimes they ask you to leave your shoes on a hard floor bit of the changing rooms, and not step on the carpet or wooden bit of the changing room with outdoor shoes on. In most places where you are asked to take your shoes off they will provide you with slippers so that you don’t have to walk around in your socks. But it would be advisable to always wear clean and hole-free socks in Japan as they might not stay hidden in your boots for the duration of your day.

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Ok, that’s my 15 tips. I am sure there are loads of others observations that I have forgotten to mention (and tons I don’t even know) so feel free to write any of you own in the comments section below.

15 tips to stay on the right side of the etiquette in Japan – food and drink

Are you planning a trip to Japan but worried that you’ll accidentally offend the locals because you don’t know the etiquette? Or are you concerned that your lack of cultural knowledge will make you look like a fool?   I know I felt that way when I moved from England to Japan. And not only did I worry about making mistakes, I actually excelled at faux pas! I can only now think back and say: I didn’t know any better.

But slowly I learned most of the common cultural peculiarities and after having lived in Japan for nearly three years many of the everyday conventions had become so familiar to me that I didn’t even notice them anymore. It’s only now that I have been back in the UK for a couple of weeks that I am aware of the behavioural differences between Japan and the UK again (for my regular readers who didn’t know yet, yes,  I’ve now moved back to the UK, and will write about the move soon).

Since the cultural quirks of Japan are still fresh in my mind, I thought this would be a perfect time for me to write a little list of them, not only to help any Japan novices going to Japan but maybe also to remind myself of these things a year (let alone twenty!) from now.

Below I list some tips for eating/drinking out. These should help you sail through your holiday eatery experiences as effortlessly as Nigella Lawson licks a spoon.

(1) Oshibori

When you go to restaurants, cafes or bars in Japan you will be given a hot towel (in up-market places) or a cold wet-wipe (everywhere else) to wipe your hands as soon as you sit down. When you’ve wiped your hands, fold the towel and place it next to your plate. You can use it for wiping your hands during your meal, but don’t wipe your face with it.

 (2) Restaurant service

In places like England, it’s rude to shout to get the waiter’s attention (in England you need to make an eye contact with a member of staff…even if it takes you half an hour!). In Japan, don’t wait for the waiter to spontaneously come to you. The waiter is waiting for you to shout ‘sumimasen’ (Eng: ‘Excuse me’) to indicate that you are ready to order. This is not considered impolite, and if you don’t do it, you’ll be there for a long while before the waiter finally comes to ask if you’ve decided already (I know this from experience).

 (3) Sharing

When eating out with family members, colleagues or friends, it’s typical that as a group you order several dishes and share them. The waitress will bring the food dishes and place them in the middle of the table and bring everyone a small plate (if there are no small plates on the table already). Everyone can help themselves to the food, or if you want to be polite, you can dish food onto everyone else’s plates first and then onto yours. If you are concerned about hygiene, use the opposite end of your chopsticks to dish out the food rather than the end that has been in your mouth.

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(4) No shoes

In many Japanese restaurants (that have tatami floors) you need to take your shoes off in the foyer. You put your shoes in a locker, take the key with you and walk to your table. If you need to use the toilet while in the restaurant, you should see some slippers in close proximity to the toilet or the foyer. Wear the slippers to the toilet and return them to where you found them on your way back from the toilet.

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shoe locker keys (and green tea)

(5) Chopsticks

When you need to put your chopsticks down during your meal you can lean them against your plate or put them over your plate/bowl (see photos below).

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When you’ve finished eating, if the chopsticks came in a small paper envelope, put them back in there (see photo below).

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If there is a little chopstick rest on the table which is (usually) between you and your plate, place the chopsticks there (see photo below).

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Or you can even just leave them on your plate so that they are horizontally resting on two points of the dish (as in some of the photos above). However, there are two things you should not do:

a) Never leave your chopsticks sticking out of a bowl of rice i.e. standing up in the rice. The reason for this is that this resembles their use at a funeral (in relation to a person’s ashes), and should not be used in this way in any other context.

b) Also deriving from a convention practiced in funerals, you should never pass food from one person’s chopsticks directly to another person’s chopsticks. If you are giving someone food e.g. from a shared plate, you need to put the food on their plate.

(6) Finger foods

Even though in Europe it’s acceptable to use your hands to eat quite a few foods in a restaurant, a good rule of thumb in Japan is that you should eat nothing with fingers (other than maybe sushi and a burger). Even though to a novice in Japan some of these might feel quite comical and downright ‘wrong’ you should eat fries, a slice of pizza, sandwich or many types of desserts (e.g. cake) with your chopsticks (if you haven’t been provided with a fork and a knife or a spoon).

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Pizza with chopsticks

(7) Picking up your plate/bowl

In Europe the etiquette determines that (with most foods) you need to try to get the food off your plate and into your mouth by using cutlery instead of lifting the plate off the table and bringing it closer to your mouth. In Japan, people commonly hold a dish in one hand and chopsticks in the other while eating, and you can do the same.

(8) Rice

In particular in posh restaurants, rice is usually served as the last dish of the meal consisting of several courses, and it is served on its own! It does not come with a sauce like it does in Europe. However tempting it might be, try not to put soy sauce over the rice (but you can add e.g. roasted sesame seeds).

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It’s impolite if you don’t eat all your rice. This is the case in particular if you are visiting someone’s home. And when I say that it is impolite not to finish your rice, I mean you need to eat every grain in your bowl to indicate that the corner stone of the Japanese diet and agriculture, rice, is precious.

It might seem like an impossible task for an inexperienced chopstick user to pick up individual grains of rice, but you can lift your rice bowl of the table close to your mouth (see point 7 above) and with your chopsticks kind of shovel the rice from the bowl into your mouth.

Rice that is part of a dish (e.g. curry or fried rice) is usually eaten with a spoon (not chopsticks).

(9) Slurping

If you are a noisy eater, feel free to let your hair down in an udonya. However, if you can’t tolerate noisy eaters, I recommend not going to these types of noodle places where you will find everyone loudly slurping their noodles from the bowl into their mouths.

(10) Intestines (horumo)

In Japan they use a lot of intestines in cooking, especially in a Yakiniku (i.e. beef BBQ) places. If you are not a big fan of pancreas, diaphragm, womb or the large intestine you can say: Horumo irimasen which means that you will only want to eat the ‘meaty’ parts of the cow.

(11) The one drink rule

Be aware that there seems to be some kind of a one-drink-on-the-table rule in Japan. Only order another drink when you’ve finished your earlier one. When the waiter brings your new drink the chances are they will take your old drink glass away regardless of whether there is still some liquid in it.

(12) You should not pour your own drink.

If out with a Japanese person, and if you have ordered a bottle of wine, sake or beer you should not fill your own glass. The other person should notice when your glass is empty and fill it – and you should of course fill theirs. Given that Japanese society is patriarchal, Japanese men often expect the women to pour the mens’ drinks (this is one cultural feature of Japan that a feminist like myself might choose not to adopt).

(13) Sake and masu

If you order sake you often get it in a glass that is placed in a square vessel (called masu). The waiter will fill your sake glass at the table from a big bottle of sake, but surprisingly to many Westerners, when the glass if full, they will carry on pouring so that the glass overflows into the masu. Don’t panic. He’s just indicating their generosity by the overflowing ‘measure’.

When you drink the sake you’ve just been poured you need to do it without hands. That is, you need to bend over and take the first gulp so that you don’t touch the glass with your hands. After the first gulp you can lift the glass as normal but place it back in the masu in between gulps. When your glass is empty, you pour the excess sake from masu into your glass, and drink it.

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(14) Service charge

There is no tipping in Japan. If you leave a tip the waiter will run after you in order to return your change.

(15) Bakeries

There are bakeries everywhere in Japan and you should try some of the Japanese buns when visiting Japan! It’s usually self-service. Take a tray and tongs and select the buns you want from the counters. Go to the cashier and give her the tray and the tongs (they will clean them before giving them to the next person).

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I got a bit carried away!

This is not to do with etiquette, but here’s a little additional tip:

The wee hours of the morning are often represented slightly differently on the windows of izakayas than in pub windows in Europe, e.g. 26 hours corresponding to 2am.

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ps.  If you are Japanese or an expat in Japan feel free to correct any misunderstandings on my behalf or add any other restaurant/bar related tips that I have missed in the comments below.

A Westerner’s guide to hot springs

Photo from: Japan-guide.com

A Japanese Onsen. Photo from: Japan-guide.com

A couple of weeks ago, I visited a town called Beppu on the volcanic island of Kyushu in the South-Western part of Japan. Due to its active volcanoes Beppu is known for its onsens (i.e. hot springs), whose mineral-rich water with its supposedly rejuvenating and healing effects are popular with the Japanese, foreigners and monkeys alike.

Below are some photos that illustrate the volcanic nature of Beppu. The onsens in the photos are not for bathing – unless you want to know what an egg feels like when you drop it in boiling water.

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Some areas of Beppu are so volcanic that steam sprays out of drains and any other outlet of underground pressure.

IMG_1218The locals have harnessed this power and use it, for instance, to steam their food (see photo below).

IMG_1301I had planned to go and visit one of the famous public onsens (not the one for eggs, but one for people) in Beppu, but the season’s first strong typhoon decided to hit Osaka the morning when I was supposed to fly out, and so, due to a delayed flight and a tight conference schedule for the weekend, I didn’t have a chance to experience the famous onsen.

I have to say I am amazed I made it to Beppu at all. The typhoon had been battering Japan for 24 hours and all around Osaka was still marked as a red ‘warning’-area when my flight was scheduled, but to my delight the flight wasn’t cancelled. I was especially delighted to see on the departure information board that my plane was a ‘Bombardier’. To my mind this signified a sturdy plane. However, when I saw the plane my delight turned to horror.  I think my 7-year old son has a radio-controlled plane that is bigger.

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I got to Beppu in one piece. Instead of the famous onsens, I enjoyed my hotel room with a private onsen. Sitting in the hot water of the tub while listening to spa-like meditation music and admiring the post-typhoon clouds was pretty amazing.

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Given that my room was on the first floor of the building, next to a beach and a seaside boulevard, it may not have been quite as private as I stupidly assumed while stepping into the onsen in my birthday suit, in particular in the evening when it was dark outside and light in my room. God help Beppu (or so my husband told me!).

I’m hoping that the rehydrating mask on my face may have distracted their eyes away from my body, after all rather than a Nordic mermaid I looked more like Jason from Friday the 13th.

IMG_1124When I checked in, the concierge who escorted me to my room explained the purpose of bits and bobs in the room, one of which was the function of an outfit folded nicely on my bed. She said there was communal onsen on the roof terrace of the hotel, which I was welcome to use, but I would have to wear the outfit to go there.

I didn’t really want to go to the communal onsen, partly because I had my private onsen but largely because the purpose of the outfit was not completely clear to me. Do you just pull the outfit off at the side of the onsen and jump in? What do you do with your underwear – should I not wear underwear? Well, I decided to be brave and go and take a look at the roof terrace onsen. I decided to hedge my bets and wore my knickers but not a bra.

IMG_1095There also a pair of socks on the bed and I assumed I was meant to wear them with the onsen outfit and sandals. Unbeknownst to me this was a complete faux-pas and when I showed pictures to my work colleagues they thought it was hilarious. My husbands says they made me look like a mountain goat (or Jeremy Corbyn).

IMG_1097On the roof terrace, I found a changing room with wicker baskets into which you were to leave your clothes. There were two Japanese women getting dressed while I was undressing myself. Having underwear seemed to be the correct choice. I then headed to the door leading to the roof terrace with my hotel room key. One of the women ran after me and said that I should leave my room key in the wicker basket on the shelf. I was confused, what’s the point in locking my room if I then leave the key in a basket in a public place? But, feeling like a child, I did as instructed.

I then walked into the roof terrace, to find that there was only one onsen pool and that there was only one other woman there, sitting on a stool next to the showers and vigorously scrubbing herself with soap and pouring ladle-loads of water on herself. I also had a wash and stepped into the pool. I sat there naked in the 39 degree water in the surprising fresh post-typhoon air. A couple of minutes later the lady comes and joins me in the pool. The two of us sat there in silence for 10 minutes. Then she stands up, looks at me, says something in Japanese and walks out. I’m guessing it was something like ‘Thanks for the company’ or ‘Enjoy the onsen’. But of course it could have been ‘I like big butts and I cannot lie’.

In case you are planning to visit Japan and its onsens, don’t worry about minor detail (like the underwear or the sock issue above). As long as you know the basic etiquette you’ll be fine. These are the important points that you should get right:

(1) Generally, tattoos are not allowed in Onsens. This is because in Japan tattoos are associated with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) (click here to read my previous blog post about the topic). But of course you’ll be able to enjoy a private onsen in your room even if you had a huge carp, a tiger or ‘I love Jimmy Savile’ tattoo on your back.

(2) You go to an onsen naked. No bathing suits are allowed. Men and women are usually segregated so, at least for a Finn (who is used to sharing saunas with other naked people of their own sex, communal or domestic) in the nudity respect, going to an onsen is as mundane as wiping your 4-year-old’s bottom when they’ve used the toilet. However, a non-Finnish Westerner, say a British person, might find walking around and sitting in an onsen naked as uncomfortable as wiping your father-in-law’s bottom when they’ve used the toilet. You see, in an English swimming pool, everyone has their own cubicle in which they get changed. You don’t see anyone naked. This is taken to the lengths that there are signs on the walls instructing swimming pool-goers not to remove their bathing suits even in the showers.

(3) Many people in the onsens have a little ‘modesty’ towel, the size of a rectangular hand towel that you can hold against your body while you walk from the showers to the pool or from one pool to the next. When you get to the pool, you must fold the towel up and either place it on the side of the pool or on your head (folded). It is considered bad manners to soak the towel in the onsen water.

(4) You need to have a wash before you step into an onsen, a bit like you need to have a shower before you go to Sauna in Finland. These are communal places to cleanse your mind and body, so you can at least give the impression that the number of germs in the onsen water/sauna is minimal.

(5) The use of soap, shampoo or conditioner are not allowed in the actual onsen pool. You need to wash yourself in the shower area in close proximity to the pool.

Photo: TripAdvisor

Photo: TripAdvisor

(6) Shaving your underarms, legs, or other body parts (or facial hair) is not allowed in the onsen for the obvious reason. I’ll spell it out in case some of you can’t see the harm in disposing your unwanted stubble in the communal bath water. In short, nobody wants to find that while you’ve managed to get rid of your armpit hair, they (by sharing the onsen with you) leave the bath looking like a gorilla.

(7) No splashing of water or swimming in the onsen. So don’t show up with your 4-year old and inflatable arm-bands for a revitalizing swimming lesson. You are supposed to sit/lay there in a calm, peaceful and importantly considerate manner enjoying the relaxing ambience. Although, the TVs that some onsens have on the walls ruin the relaxing ambience for me. Luckily, the onsen in Beppu didn’t fall for this unnecessary provision for the people addicted to screen time.

(8) For the obvious reason, cameras are not allowed in public onsens. Even though it would be tempting to snap a couple of shots for one’s blog of people sitting in the onsen with towels towering on their heads, you yourself don’t probably want to end up naked in someone else’s blog’s cover photo.

That’s it. Those are the most important rules for onsen visits. The only other thing that might be useful to mention is that Japanese men and women are extremely slim. Unless your body shape is that of a supermodel, be prepared to leave the onsen with some minor symptoms of body dysmorphia. I mean, if you are a normal Western size, you’ll look like a walrus doing a truffle shuffle.

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Japanese toilets explained

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Many people that I know who haven’t visited Japan are as apprehensive about Japanese toilets as Finnish men are of small talk. I know this because several of our friends are planning to come and visit us here in Osaka, and one issue most of them raise is the toilets. They all seem to know that Japanese toilets are not quite like Western toilets, but don’t really know what the difference(s) are. In short, they all seem to think that them operating Japanese toilets would be as smooth as a hammerhead shark operating a forklift.

It seems that it is somewhat of a taboo to talk about Japanese toilets, or in fact toilets overall – a bit like no-one openly tells you what really happens when you give birth (I suppose, both for a good reason!). But I don’t want to risk any of you cautious characters not coming and visiting us because of the toilets. So, here are some basics that will make you drive the toilets over here like a Hell’s Angel drives his Harley Davidson.

There are three types of toilets in Japan, whose functions and performance are quite different.

1. Space age bidet-toilet combo

This is a fancy toilet, on the same level of taxonomy as Harrods, Lamborghini and Caviar. These toilets are the most common toilet I’ve experienced in Japan. You’ll find them in most department stores, new hotels, posh restaurants and many domestic homes, for instance, our apartment is equipped with one of these, although we’ve don’t have the top-end Lamborghini version, but a more middle of the road Volvo version lacking some of the extreme functions of the Lamborghini.

These toilets are equipped with pretty much everything you could wish for in a toilet. You open the toilet door and the toilet lid (if there is one) opens automatically. While you stand there by the door perplexed as to who opened the toilet lid, the toilet flushes itself and purple, green or some other colour (from a relatively limited range of colours) lights up inside the toilet bowl. Nice essence is sprayed in the air. Once you recover from all these preparations, you sit down on the toilet, and can experience a heated toilet seat. The temperature of this can be adjusted according to your own preferences. As soon as your bottom hits the seat a flushing sound (i.e. not real flushing) starts to play; sometimes this is mixed with bird-singing, sometimes it is just a loud waterfall sound. The function of this is to prevent your fellow toilet goers, queuers, or anyone happening to hang around in close proximity to your toilet cubicle or your domestic toilet having to share with you what you are experiencing inside the toilet.

Once you’ve finished your business, you have an option of using the ‘bidet’ or ‘wash’ function in the toilet. This is our 6-year-old son’s favourite pastime activity. Depending on your needs, you can choose a rear wash, a front wash or a full service. All these functions are surprisingly accurate. These wash functions are automatically operated by a hose-type gadget inside the toilet which goes around in a circle just underneath the toilet seat. Please note that when you use the wash-function, you need to sit on the toilet properly. Do not crouch on it or sit so that your backside only covers the front half of the toilet seat. See photo above. The bidet function of Japanese toilets is comparable to Finnish toilets which are pretty much always (even at petrol stations and public toilets) equipped with a hand held shower, a kind of manual bidet. In England, bidets are hard to come by – unless you have an elderly aunt who hasn’t had her bathroom redone since 1962.

After the rear wash, a blow dryer function can be employed. As soon as you stand up the toilet flushes itself (automatically) and a kind of hoover starts to operate. Its function is to get rid of any … erm … bad smells. The hoover function is of course only needed when the men use the toilet. I mean, no lady needs a hoover function, right? Especially celebrity ladies like Charlize Theron, Jessica Biel or Natalie Portman. Although, Miley Cyrus comes across as a toilet hoover needer. And Anne Robinson.

Finally, when you leave the toilet, the toilet lid closes automatically. So, really, the only thing the toilet doesn’t do for you is the business you went in there for. Below you can find a small selection of photos of these types of toilets and their controls.

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2. Standard toilets

These are toilets you’ll find in many older buildings. These are nothing out of the ordinary and if you’ve ever used a toilet in England, Finland, Germany or Sweden you will not need an encyclopedia entry on these.

3. Russian style toilets

These are the toilets I really do not like very much. They bring back memories from our family holidays to Greece or Russia back in the 80s, or my trip through Milan’s central train station a couple of years ago. I was traumatized.

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In short, these are practically just a big porcelain hole in the floor over which you need to squat and hover when you use the toilet. The squat-and-hover-type toilets are rather basic. There is usually nothing there but the toilet and a roll of toilet paper. However, sometimes you encounter pimped-up squat-and-hover toilets (see photo below). This old-fashioned Japanese restaurant north of Osaka had this lovely avocado toilet suite fitted, which was accompanied with a knitted toilet roll cover for a sophisticated touch.

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Most public toilets in old buildings represent types 2 and 3. In emergencies, I am willing to take my 3-year-old daughter in the latter, otherwise I am happy to stand and wait for a cubicle to become available in which I don’t have to worry about the wellbeing of my new pair of Toms.

Ok. So, that’s the different Japanese toilet types covered. But there are a couple of additional points I should add.

First, remember to bring your own hand towel wherever you are in Japan, as many public toilets (i.e. in restaurants, hotels, cafes, council buildings, hospitals) are not necessarily equipped with hand dryers or paper towels to dry your hands with. Instead, all Japanese people carry with them a small towel for this purpose. The photo below shows a selection of such towels in a local departments store.

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Second, in Japan you can (and are expected to) throw toilet paper in the toilet. This is not the norm in many places in Asia, so it is worth remembering not to create a pile of used toilet paper next to the toilet in Japan. Japanese people love cleanliness even more than the Finns and you not disposing of used toilet tissue properly will not go down well with your host or the person entering the cubicle after you.

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Third, in case your Japanese is as poor as mine, the left door in the photo below is for male, the right for female users.

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Forth, when using toilet types 2 or 3, you may encounter a flushing lever such as the one in the photo below. So that it won’t take you as long as it took me to figure out which one is which, I’ll let you in on this. The character on the top says ‘big’ and the bottom ‘small’.

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That is it – that’s all you need to know about Japanese toilets. There is just one thing you need to do now: Go for a 10k run and repeat that at least 5 times per week so that your thigh muscles are as strong as a sumo-wrestler’s and ready for the squat-and-hover-type toilets (should you need to use them while in Japan).