Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | April 15, 2010

Around the World in 80 Bidets

Someday I would like to write a book about bathrooms in other countries, a sort of guide to loos around the world. Walking into a bathroom on foreign soil exemplifies the experience of traveling abroad. You can figure out the major components, but details can confound you. Bathrooms abroad are familiar and strange at the same time, creating that unsettling juxtaposition that makes traveling so worthwhile.

One of my most vivid memories from my very first trip to Europe was standing in a bathroom in Ireland puzzling over a chain attached to a tank mounted high up on the wall. I was pretty sure I should pull the chain to flush the toilet, but I was not absolutely positive. I stood there agonizing over what to do. Should I pull the chain? What if I’m wrong and it causes a big flood? Should I go ask someone for help? Too embarassing! Leave it unflushed? Too rude. I finally took my chances and pulled the chain. It worked just fine.

That was the first of many bathroom dilemmas over the years. In addition to mastering the pull-chain, I quickly learned to look for flush handles on the top, not front, of tanks. Some had buttons to push, others had knobs to be pulled. In Scandinavia I first encountered the sleek tankless toilets with small flush buttons mounted directly on the wall. More recently, I puzzled over those water-saving dual flush mode toilets that now seem to be in vogue everywhere except the US. I have strugled with doors that wouldn’t lock in Mexico, timer lights that cut out on me in France, and a bathroom that appeared to have no sink in Belize (the sink was outside, around the corner). I remember them all quite well, an integral part of each trip. So it is fitting that my first cultural experience on this trip occurred in the ladies room at Narita airport.

This is my first trip to Asia, a completely new adventure for me. What’s more, although our vacation is a bike tour in Laos and Vietnam, it seems as if we are doing a tour of major airports in Asia first. Our itinerary calls for flying to Tokyo, then Hong Kong, then Bangkok, and finally on to Luang Prabang in Laos. And yes, we really have one night in Bangkok, just like the song title.

I arrived at O’Hare as giddy as a kid on the way to Disneyland. I was excited about going to Asia but also about the mode of transportation: a fully decked out long-haul 777. I settled and started exploring what would be my home for the next 14 hours. I think my seating area on the plane was bigger than my dorm room in college. I watched a movie, fell asleep and woke up in Tokyo.

Flying presents the traveler with a quick and abrupt culture shock. This is not the gradual immersion that Theroux chronicled in The Great Railway Bazaar. Of course, Theroux had all the time in the world to gently steep himself in cultures that brewed stronger with each passing day, acclimating himself gradually to the increasing foreigness around him. It’s one of the luxuries of train travel. Air travel, however, strips you of that gentle steeping. I went right from my very American environment on the airplane straight into a foreign bathroom in Tokyo.

Fortunately the “foreign” aspect of the Narita ladies room was nothing more than amusing. I walked in to find, around the toilet, what appeared to be an armrest. I wondered briefly if I’d gone into the handicapped stall. On closer inspection, I discovered that the “armrest” was actually a control panel for a built in bidet. It was certainly the most extensive set of electronic controls I have ever seen on a toilet. It was more complicated than our TV remote at home. The buttons were as follows: stop, spray, bidet, flush sound, water pressure, and deodorizing. I wish I’d taken a picture but silly me, I hadn’t brought my camera into the stall (and just typing “camera” and “stall” together in the same sentence makes me uncomfortable). Most of the controls seemed self explanatory except “flush sound.” I just had to press it. And sure enough, from a speaker mounted in the side, came the audio of a toilet being flushed. It did not actually flush the toilet, mind you (I had to search around a little more for that button). No, the “flush sound” is exactly what it says. And I have no idea why you would need it. As the kids say these days, let’s not go there.

So I left Tokyo’s bathrooms behind (no pun intended) and began the next eagerly awaited aspect of this trip: my first flight on Cathay Pacific. It was everything I dreamed of, in my little pod with fully flat sleeper seat. I think perhaps I will sell the house and just live on Cathay Pacific flying between Tokyo and Hong Kong. Or maybe I can get a job as a flight attendant. Although as I look at the stunning and petite beauties hustling about the cabin, I can once again hear ‘”one of these things is not like the others” in my head (see previous post “Why Tri Harder”). I don’t think Cathay would have me. But at least I can dream about it in my fully reclining sleeper seat in my very private pod. A girl could get used to this. Perhaps in time I could even get used to the whole bidet/fake flushing sound thing. But I doubt it.

(NB: I will be posting when I can from my phone, so please forgive me in advance for grammatical errors, poor syntax, lack of proofing and bizarre spelling auto-corrects.)


  1. One of those nights I can’t sleep and I decided to check out your blog!!!
    I am looking forward to reading all about your adventure. I had to chuckle because Matt loved to check out all the different bathroom style in Sweden and London, you never knew what you were going to get. Enjoy the loos and all the unexpected adventures on this trip!!!

    • Well, if you can’t sleep then I am glad I did not include descriptions of the more rustic facilities I have encountered; reading about them would not be conducive to sleeping….

      • It’s Wed coffee day, just checking in to see how the trip and bathroom are going???
        Hope you are having an amazing time

  2. You should write for a section in devoted to bathrooms 🙂

  3. Sue,
    I love it. Keep it comin’. Can’t wait to read about your Asian experiences. Lib

  4. Duh! The “flush” sound is to cover fart noise. Japanese women are really shy that way. Someone had to say it.

  5. The best bathroom related euphemism I have learned on the trip is “traditional.” As in, the bathroom is clean but traditional. Which means no running water. But that makes it sound quaint and almost charming, doesnt it?

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