A while back, I found this excellent guide to toilets in Korea by the good folks at Seoulistic. Much of this also applies to Japan too. If you travel/live in either place, this is important information of course. 😉
When going to modern, public buildings, usually the toilets are western style, though some also have the traditional “Asian” toilet too. I noticed when I visit older Buddhist temples, they often have only Asian toilets though, and maybe one or two Western ones. So, be warned.
I had to learn all this the hard way years ago when I studied abroad in Hanoi, Vietnam.
No one explained how to use traditional Asian toilets at all and I was scared to make a mess, so I tried really hard to avoid them. In the case of Vietnam, you often have to bring your own toilet paper too so I had small rolls in my pocket just in case. However the problem was that during my entire trip I had bad “intestinal problems”. I’m not sure why though. It could’ve been bad water, the food I ate, or something but almost every day for eight weeks I would have sudden attacks of diarrhea. I took antibiotics the whole time to avoid malaria, but they didn’t stop the intestinal problems.1
So during that time, I had to carefully make a map in my head of good “bathrooms” around me in case I had another attack.
In downtown Hanoi this worked. It wasn’t great, but I survived. However, one day I visited a friend’s village north of Hanoi which was very rural. The only toilet they had around was a classic Asian-style outhouse. Knowing this, I tried very hard to hold it during the entire trip that day. It was a great trip, but my body felt terrible.
Finally, I gave up and went to the outhouse. I was so worried about making a mess but I just couldn’t hold any longer. Finally though, I gave it a good effort and succeeded. Not only was the pain and bloating gone, but I had conquered my fears of using an Asian toilet.
The point of that story though is that Asian toilets are actually pretty to use once you know how. For Westerners, the problem is mental, not physical. Plus, you don’t have to make physical contact with any part of the toilet, which is nice from a hygiene perspective.
On the other hand, the fancy toilets you see in Japan and Korea are fascinating too. Although they physically the same, the extra features can make you feel embarrassed too. I never used the bidet feature until years later because we just don’t have them in the US. It just felt really unnecessary and embarrassing. Once I tried it, I realized why so many toilets have them.
So again, the key is overcoming mental barriers not physical ones.
Be prepare, be adventurous and you won’t have to suffer. 🙂
1 In 2 months I lost a lost of weight actually from heat, food, walking and the problems above. Still, I was much fatter than most Vietnamese people though. I don’t know if things have changed much in 12 years, but life was kind of rough then in Vietnam.