Water Closet or Bathroom: Restroom Design East & West

“Treasure night soil as if it were gold.” ~ Chinese Proverb highlighting the value – then and now – of our fecal waste….


Everything way too close in our bathroom by Tupperware.

Everything way too close in our bathroom by Tupperware.

Don't Brush where you Flush

Don’t Brush where you Flush

Every time I brush my teeth here in our Kwuirky Kondo I can’t help but think about just how much night soil matter may be involved. I know some people who suffer diarrhea of the mouth, but in a literal sense?! But it doesn’t have to be this way….

So why do the bathrooms of the East and West differ so dramatically? Why is it that engineering and architecture across cultures can diverge so significantly for the exact same biological processes that all humans share? Not to be “anal” about the subject, but “bearing down” the origins of modern design helps to “shower” us with more than a few reasons.

For most of recorded history people around the world got their water from springs, rivers or wells, which self-limited consumption to what could be carried. Since it was so hard to get and transport, water was treated much more as a scarce and valuable resource than it is today. Solid waste was kept in cesspits to be emptied by “night soil men” who would then sell it as fertilizer or otherwise dispose of the unwanted byproduct. Liquid waste from the home was sometimes thrown into the road, to which the French exclamation “gardyloo” (garde à l’eau), or “mind the water!” warning would alert passersby.


In the West the Romans really kicked off our modern approach to toilets with massive civil engineering projects a few thousand years ago. The idea of Turkish and Asian baths placed the Middle and Far East on a much different trajectory. But it was a cholera epidemic in London in the mid-1800s that really brought the modern Western bathroom to bear. Realizing that excrement mixed with drinking water generally equaled death, the march was on to pump clean and safe water directly into homes. Pipes carrying clean water under pressure became the standard in the west, but with some rather unforeseen consequences.

Although the idea of a flush toilet had been around for many centuries, it was the convenient and 24/7 water supply that led to its explosion as the primary means of personal waste removal. People rushed to install handy flush toilets, and the demand and nature of the resulting necessary architectural engineering lead down a narrow path of thought.


Initially the architects and homeowners of the late 19th century simply replaced bedroom washstands with sinks and taps, and had to “find” somewhere to place the toilet. Since they were literally often placed, in the early days, into closets, the origin of the term “water closet” becomes obvious. However, it was certainly easier and less expensive to run plumbing to one central location, rather than all over the house. Ah, the birth of the modern Western bathroom.

As this idea matured, wood was replaced with porcelain and tile (or other impermeable stone) in a nod to defeating microbes as more and more people realized the danger of germs. But such materials don’t come cheaply, and as the bathroom continued to become more and more mainstream, it necessarily got smaller and smaller in order to contain cost. Oh, and there certainly was no reason to keep the sinks, showers and toilets all in separate spaces; the plumbers instead simply lined all these features up in a row and ended up using much less pipe. By the early 20th century, the bathroom became more or less standardized and commonplace throughout the West, and relatively indistinguishable from the ones in use today.


But in the East, the emphasis was placed on much different concerns than mere cost and convenience. Rather, the idea of cleanliness became paramount, and ritual and relaxation overruled economies of scale and installation. In short, human wants and needs took precedence over the dictations of plumbers. Oh, and they probably lacked those pesky trade unions that do little else but jack up prices and stretch a 4-hour job over two weeks.



That's a kitchen counter.  Right next to the toilet!

That’s a kitchen counter. Right next to the toilet!

From an Eastern perspective, it’s hard to find things we Westerners actually got right in our bathrooms. The high toilets that we sit upon are contrary to the medical claim that our bodies were engineered to squat. Squat toilets remain commonplace throughout Asia, much to the chagrin of many a Western tourist. Sinks are generally much too low to facilitate washing, so much so that Jody and I, when we remodeled all three baths in our home in Pensacola, purposely put in kitchen counters to elevate our wash basins. Showers are generally severe fall hazards, especially the ones that require a high step over the edge of a tub. The tiny rooms we build and outfit are often inadequately ventilated, and then we proceed to fill that space with a densely toxic cloud of chemicals ranging from nail polish remover to bleach tile cleaner. When we flush solid waste down the toilet, we also unknowingly swoosh nasty fecal-bathed bacteria into the air, where it unfailingly lands on our toothbrush located just a meter away. And when we take a bath and bathe, we sit mired in our own muck, completely defeating the purpose of the bath to begin with.


The American/Western shower is a source of incredible waste and inefficiency, even though it may feel amazing when you have the rain can, shower head, and all three body sprayers going at the same time. Thank about it – even when you don’t really need the water, like during lathering with soap or shampoo, the water continues to run constantly. One usually stands on tile or in a tiny restrictive porcelain tub that’s already slick when dry; such a surface can become downright dangerous when wet! When we actually do care about water waste, mostly based on cost as opposed to environmental concerns, we either take short showers, or install those really miserable low-flow shower heads that more spit on you than stream. In the Navy aboard ship we suffer BOTH insults.

Waterproof Bathing Room!

Waterproof Bathing Room!

However, things are different in the Far East. Here the Japanese flirt with their facilities in an ages-old ritual developed with much different aims in mind. The shower/bath is usually contained in a waterproof room. That’s right – WATERPROOF! I mean it is tiled floor to ceiling, and the ceiling itself is water-resistant. Aside from the bath’s drain, there is a drain for the room, the low point of the gently sloping floor. Light fixtures are sealed, and power receptacles have waterproof covers (and of course are grounded). It is a fabulous idea, both for cleaning your body, AND for cleaning the room!

So in the shower area – which is just a big open area of the room – one sits on a stool. A bucket, sponge, ladle and hand shower are available for washing. There is no shower curtain to get nasty with mold and mildew, and the hand shower is only turned on when needed. To shower, one fills the bucket with hot water from the spigot and ladles oneself wet. When done lathering, the ladle or the hand shower is used to rinse. Often to end the shower one simply dumps the remainder of the bucket over one’s head. Besides being a more relaxing experience (sitting versus standing), some claim that it only uses 10% of the water compared to a Western shower. Maybe. Way less in any case.

An original deep-soak tub in a Machiya, Kyoto, Japan

An original deep-soak tub in a Machiya, Kyoto, Japan. It’s set about another foot into the ground.

But that is only half of the story. In that same room is a tub, but one much different from which Westerners are accustomed. Japanese bathtubs (ofuro) are not for cleaning; they are for soaking. In other words, Far Eastern tubs are for cleansing the spirit and mind, and only are used AFTER the body has been cleansed of more tangible dirt as described above. Thus, the tubs are DEEP but short in length. They are designed to be filled fully, and the soaker to sit with their heads back and knees close to their chests. The position is thought to heighten a sense of meditation, or at least relaxation. I can assure you this: I will, after having tried many Asian-sized deep-soak tubs, take depth over length any day! In fact, it makes me want to turn that deep sink back home into a soaking tub. Heck, the room is already almost waterproof as is…if only it had a floor drain.

Even Japanese cats Soak....

Even Japanese cats Soak….

By the way, there is another important difference in Japan’s baths: on-demand, gas-fired water heaters. Yeah, those tubs are deep and hold a LOT of water. But don’t fret. There is literally an unlimited supply of piping hot water in Japan, at least until your gas supply runs out. The water is heated almost instantaneously but only when demanded, and comes to temperature in seconds. A digital control panel allows you to specify the temperature exactly, and there generally are not any annoying anti-scalding devices between you and a 48 degree C bath. In Japan they like their water HOT, and won’t accept anything lukewarm. Yep, the Japanese actually trust you, a grown adult with a vast amount of experience in bathing, with ensuring your own bathing safety. Oh, and since the water remains clean, the water is re-used across the generations often present in a Japanese household.

Toilet Room quite separate and distinct from the bathing area.

Toilet Room quite separate and distinct from the bathing area.

Another aspect of Japanese bathrooms is quite noticeable and makes perfect sense: never, ever do you find the toilet in the same room as the tub and shower. In their minds, this is beyond logic. Why on earth would you do the dirtiest of deeds in the same room where you try to get the cleanest of cleans? Or, to make it cute:  don’t brush where you flush!  Makes you really think about Western bathroom design…. And the American solution of putting a tiny old-tyme W.C. within a larger bathroom? Doesn’t cut it in Japan.


In many toilet facilities in Japan a separate dedicated pair of slippers are used only in the toilet area. While you may be wearing house slippers or socks while enjoying the home, a necessary switch to toilet slippers is required to use the toilet. These toilet slippers are considered soiled and are never allowed in any part of the home. In hotels with shared facilities or at some tourist attractions, this switching of footwear is a crucial part of bathroom etiquette.

Japan 2014, bathrooms, rocket-surgery electronic toilet control panel

Finally, even though you might be in a Japanese-style dwelling, it’s quite possible that a more Western style bathroom is provided. But even then, Japan’s toilets are high-tech, a fascinating aspect of the Far East to which I’ve already dedicated a blog: see Moaning Myrtle and Bowel Movements. In summary, a control panel like you might find on the Starship Enterprise offers various options, including music, bidet wash, hot-air blow dryer, seat warmer and other sound and olfactory systems designed to mask the smells and noises of a particularly troublesome session of #2.

The deep-soak tub we installed after remodeling our master bathroom.

The deep-soak tub we installed after remodeling our master bathroom.

While we may not be able to import many of these aspects to our already built home back in the states, we will take with us perhaps the most radical, revolutionary change in bathroom engineering of the ages: heated toilet seats! Whether or not you agree with any of the differences thus discussed, there’s not one of you out there that’s going to turn their nose up at a nice, warm, padded throne.

Our non-slip sizeable shower.  We even have a teak stool in the hidden corner!

Our non-slip sizeable shower. We even have a teak stool in the hidden corner!

And if we ever have a home-built, Jody and I will refuse to be mere “stool” pigeons in accepting some run-of-the-mill bathroom design. No, instead we will “bear down” and “strain” ourselves in perfecting our water closet’s design, reworking the plans until we’re “cramping” from fatigue. We’ll reach deep into the “bowels” of our minds to remember these aspects of design, and “flush” them onto paper, preferably a little more durable than TP. And once finished, we will bask, bath, and yes – even defecate in the full glory of our water-centric facilities.


And thanks to the blending of the best of East meets West, our toothbrushes will, for the most part, remain night soil-free. Can you say that about yours?!?


Happy Feet, Japanese Style: Arashiyama Station Foot Bath

“Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

“Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Jody enjoys the Arashiyama Station Foot Bath

Jody enjoys the Arashiyama Station Foot Bath

Foot bath at Arashiyama Station

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Arashiyama, Jody relaxing her feet in the train station footbathKyoto Japan Winter 2014, Arashiyama, hot springs foot bath in the train station!The foot bath hot thermal springs at Keifuku Railway’s Arashiyama Station is certainly a popular tourist spot where locals and tourists alike use it to relieve their aching feet after a day spent hiking the temples and nearby beautifully extensive bamboo forest. Taking advantage of a local onsen (“hot spring”), the bath is at first rather difficult to find in the well-appointed transit station, appearing near the end of a track platform only as a board fence of a machiya house.  Easily warming everything from your ankles down in ~40C water (~104F), a ten minute dip in the bath is said to give the best results.  We spent much longer waiting for our next train!  Large wooden tables in the middle of the springs’ bench-style comfortable seating for up to 16 are provided, which became especially convenient for our tourist maps! A small personalized towel is provided for your feet once relieved, and in true Japanese charm and style, small plastic bags are provided so that you may take the towel home as a souvenir.  Onsen water is believed to have healing powers derived from its mineral content; the Japanese claim this very spring is particularly effective at treating nerve pain, digestive problems, and general fatigue, the latter to which I certainly can attest!  The outdoor bath tubs are most often made from Japanese cypress, giving it a congruently earthy feel which enhances relaxation. In order to utilize these springs, a ticket must first be purchased at the station’s information center.

Location: Arashiyama Station Hannari-Hokkori Square (in Arashiyama Station on the Keihuku Line); phone 075-873-2121; address Saga Tenruji, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 616-8394 , Japan

Entrance Fees: ¥150/person (including an original towel)

Open year-round from 9:00-20:00 (9:00-18:00 in winter)

Ranked #84 of 417 attractions in Kyoto 118 reviews

Ah, Japanese video games.  Who's about to "score" here?

Ah, Japanese video games. Who’s about to “score” in this onsen?


Onsen in Japan

An onsen (温泉) is a term for “hot springs” in Japanese, though the term can also be used to describe bathing facilities and inns around various hot springs. By definition, they must use naturally hot water from geothremally heated springs. As a volcanically active country sitting on the very rim of the Ring of Fire (see my related blog about here), Japan has thousands of onsen scattered throughout its many islands. Onsen have long been traditionally used as public bathing places, but it’s important to differentiate them from sentō, indoor public bath houses which used heated tap water.

Yep.  One for the monkeys.  Look it up.

Yep. One for the monkeys. Look it up.

As major domestic tourist attractions, onsen and Japanese baths in general stray far away from their western counterparts in the Far East. The Japanese in this sense have a culture of “naked communion” (裸の付き合い hadaka no tsukiai) when bathing in a community setting, which for them helps to break down social and formal barriers so that people may become more relaxed and sociable. Lucky for us, only our feet were naked during our coed experience…although Jody does like to drive Naked all throughout Okinawa.

This onsen apparently lets you prepare lunch at the same time.

This onsen apparently lets you prepare lunch at the same time.

At an onsen guests are expected to wash and rinse thoroughly before entering the hot water. Bathing stations are well-equipped for such purposes, complete with stools, faucets, wooden buckets, and toiletries such as soap and shampoo. Entering the onsen while still dirty or with traces of soap on the body is socially unacceptable.  Of course shoes in the entire establishment are a no-no as well.

I wouldn't want to take a bath with them, either....

I wouldn’t want to take a bath with them, either….

Except for that ink that keeps your feet out of the hot springs!

Except for that ink that keeps your feet out of the hot springs!

Probably doesn't qualify as "peaceful."

Probably doesn’t qualify as “peaceful.”

Although many onsen continue to ban bathers with tattoos, that didn’t seem to be the case at this particular foot bath. I guess unless you had ink’d feet! In a rather regressive rut of modern Japanese society, tats are still taken as a badge of criminality, particularly of the Yakuza criminal enterprise. However, there is a tremendous gulf between the socially acceptable tattoos of today, set against the backdrop of the traditionally massive and elaborate tattoos of yesteryear’s Japanese gangs. In many Japanese baths, although there remains little linkage between ink and the Yakuza, such rules are often strictly enforced, especially against foreigners, women, and even when tattoos are small, discreet, and “peaceful.” Sorry: no hot springs swim call for the “peaceful” dolphins you might have lamely tattooed on your ankle.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Arashiyama, Arashiyama Train Station photo-collage

Onsen are often indicated on signs and depicted on maps by the symbol ♨ or the kanji 湯 (yu, “hot water” – find it on the sign below!), although the simpler hiragana character ゆ (yu) is used for wider comprehension, especially for younger children.  However you find one, I can highly recommend this little break while touring the outer areas of Kyoto.  At the very least, your happy feet will thank you for it, and you’ll have a most interesting story to share with our friends and family!

Arashiyama Station Foot Bath Signage

Arashiyama Station Foot Bath Signage