Japan 7: Cleanliness is next to…

When I went to the toilet in the arrivals section of Narita Airport and noticed that the seat was heated, I knew things were going to be different. There was an array of button options beside the seat with a choice of in-built washing procedures (I think it has to do with front or back, women or men (I know, I know, sorry)).

Anyhoo, you can adjust the temperature of the water and the strength. Which is good. No, really, it is.

Now we’d read about this in advance, when some mope complained that such and such a ryokan didn’t have heated toilet seats. Still, it takes a bit of getting used to.

But what took my fancy most (after all, the French have a bidet) was the little button for making the sound of water flushing, to mask any other sounds that you might be making yourself. And you can adjust the volume, depending on… well, you can guess.

They have some nice other innovations too. On the Shinkansen (bullet train) there’s a button to lower the toilet seat, in case a pesky man left it up. Speaking of men, on the train they also have a urinal cubicle for men, a small little unit with a big urinal and a handle to hold on to so we don’t mess up.  Some public toilets also have urinals for women but I’m not going there…

The nuances of toilet comfort, hygiene and sensitivities aside (and, as one smart cookie pointed out, heat in a toilet must benefit bacteria) the Japanese are very big on cleanliness.

Before every meal you are given either a wet towel or a plastic enveloped wet-wipe to clean your hands. These are not napkins and they are not for your face.

And then there’s the shoes.

When we arrived at Jasmin’s apartment in Kyoto for our Airbnb stay she pointed out the requirement to take off your shoes before going into someone’s house in Japan. And putting on indoor slippers which they provide. Now I’ve done this in some middle European countries but once again the Japanese take this to another level (or so it seemed to me).

We were staying in a temple lodge: Fukuchiin, in Koyasan, on the holy mountain. 50 temples offer lodgings around here; they’re called shukubo. Anyway, before you enter, you remove your shoes. Fine, it is a temple after all. Then, you put on these red slippers to walk along the corridor to your room. Then you take them off at the door of the room and leave them outside, pointing outwards. Jasmin showed us the pointing outwards thing too at the apartment. So now you are in socks or bare feet in your room. Grand. The room is a traditional one, it has a tatami, a kind of woven straw floor, a low table and no bed. But we had a tiny toilet attached to our room – just enough space for a toilet and sink. And inside the sliding doors, you guessed it – another pair of slippers. For toilet use only.

You get used to it. Sort of. We forgot to remove our toilet slippers the odd time.

Then in a clothes store in Osaka I went into the tiny changing space behind a curtain to try on a t-shirt. As I was just about to step into it, a shop assistant ran up to me: “No shoes, no shoes!” You have to take your shoes off to step into this space. And, of course, point them outwards.

And I don’t think that these customs and habits are necessarily due to concerns about hygiene or disease; or because of population density. I think they are cultural and stem more from old religious-based customs of purity. And that’s fine. I guess many regions have similar doings.

One of the great things about travel isn’t only that you have new experiences and see differences, it’s that when you return home you see your own daily doings with new eyes. It’s like you’re looking in at yourself and what you do, instead of just looking out all the time.


Novelist, short story writer, essayist, sports writer. Crime novel: Whatever it Takes due out 31 July 2020. The First Sunday in September, debut novel, published in 2018. Mercier Press, Stinging Fly, Irish Examiner, Irish Times, The42.ie, Holly Bough, Honest Ulsterman, Quarryman, Silver Apples.


  • Wow so many customs..to tell u the truth..it is difficult to keep on removing shoes and putting it on we will get weary soon.But its their custom so maybe they have developed the patience to do so. Normally in my home we run around in either same slippers or none at all. But because i have got used to wear slippers ,i get pain in my heels if i don’t wear. Nice to learn new habits. And yes when we see others performing some cleanliness works,we do start considering our own habits ..does it need to change?


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