An American in Japan Part IV | So Fresh and So Clean

Visitors to Japan often discover a whole new level of hygiene.


The city of Tokyo has a population of over 9 million. To put it into perspective, that is about the entire population of Los Angeles County which is nearly 5,000 square miles in size, whereas Tokyo is fewer than a thousand square miles in size.

That is a lot of people in a very small space.

However, it’s not as bad as it would seem. In fact, walking around Tokyo, I often wonder, “Where is everybody?”

More importantly, I wonder where all the detritus typical of large cities is kept. If it’s there, I don’t see it. Everything is so clean.

As previously explained in An American in Japan Part II | Transport, the first thing that can be noted of Japanese public transportation is how clean and efficient it is, especially compared to the train systems of major American cities like Chicago or New York. There is no yelling, or busking, or sounds of any kind.

However, the true ingenuity lies in the restroom.

In hotels, the Japanese restroom is like a self-contained hygiene pod. It takes me a minute to understand what is happening. I step up into an off-white bathroom with a small door and begin to notice odd things.

I run the sink to wash my hands. It appears to be a normal sink, but as I turn off the tap, I hear the water trickling down, down, down. Where is the water going? I look in the direction of the sound and see a drain in the floor and a little trough along the wall. All the waste water must run down the same drain. In fact, I can see it.

Then I realize that the shower head is hand-held. Theoretically, I could take a shower in the middle of the room like some RV bathrooms. I imagine the cleaning possibilities.

You could literally spray the whole room, walls, floors and ceiling with bleach and wipe down everything and rinse like crazy and it’d be clean. Everything is fiberglass or plastic or some nonporous surface. I could completely sanitize this entire bathroom in less than a minute. I am stunned by the efficiency and I feel cheated by the American bathroom design. It is an injustice I cannot comprehend.

Then I look down at the toilet.

It matches the rest of the off-white materials of the bathroom and appears to function like a regular toilet but it is plugged into a wall outlet and there is a series of buttons. The toilet has a user interface. There is an icon of a bum. A booty. A behind. It is brown. This must be some kind of joke.


I examine the buttons of the interface in context. There is a green button that says STOP in English. The aforementioned brown button says BACK, and a pink button says FRONT and features a stick figure in a dress maybe. Both of them appear to have water spraying at them.

It becomes clear that the toilet also functions as a bidet with directional streams of water that can be activated with a flush. Is the water clean? Is this sanitary? I am skeptical at first. But after a few days in Japan, I get used to this new functionality and my skepticism turns to jealousy at this superior technology.

Additionally, some toilets are equipped with speakers that play bird noises or a neverending flush sound to help mask the other sounds occurring nearby. Apparently bathroomgoers were repeatedly flushing the toilet and wasting large amounts of water so that sound equipment had to be installed as a safeguard.

Of course, some restrooms still have the old school toilets that just look like a urinal built into the floor. I don’t understand how folks without the extreme quadriceps of professional skiers can use these, but they do.

In addition to next-generation bathroom technology, Japan also has onsen hot spring culture which puts a high premium on cleanliness of body and spirituality.

For individuals who appreciate hygiene, Japan is a great destination.