Using the Japanese Bathroom
Japan: The Land of Sanitation
You've no doubt heard of the high level of sanitation in Japan and I can happily say that this applies to their toilets as well. There is a night and day difference between your average public restroom in the states and it's counterpart here in Japan. That being said, there are some issues you would do well to be aware of before you confront the "facilities" of Japan.
Japanese or Western Style
You may have already heard about this one, but it's important so a little review wont hurt.. There are two styles of toilets in Japan, the native traditional variety and the western variety that you are probably accustomed to.
When I first read about this, I assumed that the older, traditional Japanese style toilets were only present in old buildings and homes and that slowly but surely they would be replaced and would eventually cease to exist. This is NOT the case. The traditional Japanese toilets are still being installed in new buildings (although they are not common in new Japanese homes or apartments). Point in fact, in stores and commercial buildings the traditional Japanese style toilets will out number those of the western variety. Most public restrooms will have both varieties of toilet available, but there will likely be one western toilet and two or three Japanese toilets.
The Japanese toilet does have one up side. If used properly (don't give your self nightmares by imagining what happens if used improperly) you will never actually physically touch the toilet. As advantageous as that may seem, I'll happily wager that when the time comes, you will opt for the western toilet if given a choice.
What is Made Up for in Cleanliness, is Lost in the Numbers
Other than the acrobatics needed with the Japanese traditional toilets, the only other bathroom related downside is the general lack of them. In the US there are strict regulations on the number of facilities available in relation to the expected size of a buildings population at any given time. As best as I can tell, this is not the case in Japan, or if it is, there numbers are very different than those in the US.
There will always be restrooms available, but the number of stalls in them can be a problem. A restroom in a decent sized shopping mall in the US will have on average five or six stalls. An equivalent restroom in Japan may only have three, or even two. In addition to this, there are not always restrooms on every floor of a public building.
Grappling With The Digital, Space Age Toilet
The western style toilets in Japan will almost always be equipped with a lot more accouterments than you may be accustomed to. On some there will be a digital panel on the wall next to the toilet, on others you'll find a fold down arm with various switches. These control various bidet functions and are even present in most public restrooms.
All these controls and LCD readouts may make you feel a bit like you're at the helm of the Starship Enterprise, but I would refrain from randomly flipping switches and hitting buttons. There are always way more controls and options than I think should be needed for a simple bidet, and of course there are never any English labels. If there's one place that I shun surprises it's in the bathroom.
If you're feeling adventurous, go ahead and experiment, just don't say that I didn't warn you. For me, it's OK for some things to remain mysterious. The toilet in my rented house has one of these panels and even there, I've yet to tempt fate.
Big Flush or Little Flush?
The flush knob on almost all Japanese toilets, both in the home and in public, will have two choices: a big flush or a little flush. If you push the knob in one direction there will be a lite flush. If you push the knob in the other direction, there will be a more powerful flush. This is a good idea and one that I would like to see implemented in the states. What's the use in wasting water if you don't have to. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out precisely when one or the other "flush options" are appropriate.
Toilet Paper in Japan
One tip often mentioned in travel guides related to Japan, is that toilet paper is frequently not supplied in Japanese public toilets. Overall, this is not the case. I'd estimate that 90% or so are well equipped. You may run into situations in Japanese government buildings or public transportation buildings however where toilet paper is not supplied, so keep this in mind. Many of these places (but not all) will have tissue vending machines inside the actual restrooms.
Many Japanese keep a packet of tissues with them when out of the home. These are also needed to dry your hands, as while TP is usually available, paper with which to dry your hands is not. You will see hot air hand dryers in some restrooms and they pack a stronger punch than their equivalents in the states, but it's still a good idea to keep a packet of tissues with you for emergencies.