Note: as you may have guessed from the title, this post is about using the toilet. You have been warned!
Above is a picture of a Japanese style squat toilet. These toilets were the standard in Japan before the “western toilet” came along. Despite virtually everything else in the country being modern and new, you can still find squat toilets in older houses, older buildings, and most train stations. Squat toilets can even be found on the shinkansen for those brave souls who want a little more excitement on their voyage.
The Japanese style toilet was the single most intimidating thing about living in Japan. I was so scared of squat toilets that I went out of my way to avoid using them during my 3 years living in Japan. I had great success for about a year and a half until an emergency situation arose leaving me with no other choice. Here is the story of the most terrifying toilet experience of my life (so far).
The NOVA school in Mishima, Japan was located in an old building across from the train station. The men’s room had a urinal and a squat toilet. On work days I would either be sure to take the kids to the pool before leaving the house, or hold on until I returned home.
On one fateful day my stomach was unhappy with me, likely due to a previous evening of beer and greasy izakaya food. During my first two lessons I tried to ignore the warning signals and hope for the best. By the third lesson, my digestive system was making some very unpleasant noises and sweat was breaking out on my forehead. I started to realize that there was no way I was going to be able to hold out until the end of my shift; I was going to have to clear out some inventory in a hurry.
One of the interesting and charming things about Mishima is that it largely survived the bombings of World War 2 in tact, leaving an impressive collection of narrow streets and old buildings. I appreciated the character of the older buildings, but not their restroom facilities.
When considering my options, I realized that the building that was home to Mishima NOVA, as well as most nearby buildings were going to be lacking proper sitting toilets. My only viable option was the nearby Lawson convenience store, but I wasn’t confident that I could make it there and back in time for my next lesson. There was also the terrifying possibility that the one toilet available at Lawson’s would be in use. With the urgency increasing and time running out I only had one option left: I would need to make a deposit in the porcelain bank at the only branch available – the squat toilet.
I rushed into the stall, locked the door, and straddled the bowl, making sure I was facing in the right direction. I carefully lowered my pants and squatted down, doing my best to make sure that my pants stayed off the floor and out of the bowl. When I got into a full squat position, I started to realize that I was not very stable. Losing my balance and falling over in the middle of releasing the Kraken would be disasterous! I used my right hand to hold the water pipe for balance.
Now that I had my balance, I became aware that my tie was dangling dangerously into the line of fire. With my free left hand I wrapped my tie around my neck and tucked the loose end between two buttons on my shirt. Now that I was (mostly) balanced and not going to soil my tie, my attention turned to aiming.
For a first time squatter, aiming is not intuitive. Not being able to see exactly where my butt was pointing, I had to guess how things were lined up. This also led to an unpleasant thought: what if my pants got in the way? My nearest clean pair of pants would require a 6 minute train ride and 5 minute bike ride, so failure was simply not an option. While continuing to hold the pipe with my right hand for balance, I used my left hand to hold my pants as far forward as possible. If I had more time I would have taken my pants off completely and hung them over the top of the stall, but time was not on my side. Things were about to happen.
As I stayed there, squatting precariously, right hand gripping the pipe for balance, tie wrapped around my neck, left hand trying to keep my pants safe, my mind rushed through nightmare scenarios where everything went wrong: how would I possible explain to the staff my reason for leaving in the middle of a shift to rush home? What would they tell the students? How would I hide my shame on the train ride home? How long would my coworkers make fun of me? Just as my brain was reaching full panic mode, IT HAPPENED: bombs away, right on target. Pants, shirt, and tie were all safe and clean! I made it!! My mission was accomplished with no casualties! I returned to complete my workday in comfort with a sense of relief and accomplishment.
I have had some unpleasant experiences in bathrooms before, usually after too much spicy or greasy food, but my first Japanese squat toilet experinece holds a special place in my memory as the absolute most terrifying and least relaxing toilet experience of my life! I can’t imagine trying to use one while sick or drunk, and I feel bad for Japan’s aging population trying operate this horrible device with arthritis or bad knees.
The world is full of exciting and stressful experiences: using the toilet should not be either of these things. It should be relaxing and predictable, allowing a few minutes of peace and solitude. Using the toilet should NEVER be struggle for balance with your very dignity on the line!
Country of Japan, I implore you: as a favour to your aging population and legions of visiting foreigners, PLEASE rid your country of the menace of squat toilets once and for all! Make pooping relaxing again!