Privy to mysterious loos

Japan's insanely automated toilets with a billion buttons
Japan's insanely automated toilets with a billion buttons

Last weekend I discovered something I should have known since I arrived here - toilets are not my friend.

If you know anything about Japan, you know it has some unusual toilets.

No, I am not referring to the squat toilets, which I quite happily use at school.

I am referring to the insanely automated toilets with a billion buttons that do everything under the sun so you never have to touch that part of your body again.

Some of the buttons make sense - like the button to create a flushing sound so no-one can hear you doing No 2s (although it's obvious because the flushing sound is rather fake and why else would you need it if you had no other sounds to hide?).

Or the strange button with a picture of a woman and water spray which I just realised was targeted at women during "that time of the month".

Rather handy when I think about it, particularly as Japan is a tampon-free society.

My friend's school toilet has a button called "butt zoom" which specifically targets "dirty" areas.

My friends and I joke about testing the buttons out, and I must admit I tried the bidet function in Kyoto. I got rather a fright when a metal pipe suddenly appeared from the back of the toilet.

I stood up just in time to have a stream of water come at me and end up all over the floor.

I feel like I understand men a bit more after that experience.

There have been times when I have struggled to find a flush button on some of these toilets, particularly the ones in train stations or in public places.

Sometimes they are on the wall, or on top of the toilet, or to the side of the toilet. Sometimes you just wave your hand and it flushes.

Sometimes it flushes when you leave the cubicle (of course you spend 15 minutes trying to find the flush button before giving up and discovering that fact).

At a hotel in Osaka, the toilet flushed while you were still on it.

In fact, it not only flushed but it also drained all the water and then refilled from scratch.

However, I never thought my inability to find the flush button would lead to one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.

I was heading to my hotel via a subway station in Osaka and quickly ducked into a toilet.

When I went to leave the cubicle I couldn't find the flush button.

I searched for a few minutes, then found a bright red button at the back of the toilet. So I pushed it. An alarm went off.

It would not stop. It was loud, sounded like a police alarm and could be heard around the whole station, which was essentially an underground mall, so there were a lot of people around.

I pushed it a few more times, hoping I could get it unstuck and the alarm would stop but nothing seemed to work.

I did, however, find the actual flush button on the other side of the toilet.

So I decided to act naturally and pretend it wasn't me.

I exited the toilet, where a few people were waiting, wondering why this piercing alarm had suddenly activated.

I calmly washed my hands, then got the hell out of there.

Commuters didn't seem to notice the sound but those eating their brunch or browsing nearby shops sure did. On the way out I noticed a similar button which had the English "burglar alarm" written on it. I could just imagine police or security running toward the toilet and seeing me in my face mask and Ugly Betty poncho escape up the stairs.

I got up to ground level and made a dash for my hotel where I shoved my mask and poncho into my suitcase and changed my hairstyle. I walked a few blocks before making my descent back into the station in the hope no-one would recognise me.

While I can laugh at the incident, I haven't quite figured out why there was a burglar alarm in the toilet in the first place.

It's just one of those things us foreign Japanese residents explain away with "it's Japan".

Tania Butterfield is a former Express reporter teaching English at two schools in the Shiga prefecture of central Japan.

The Marlborough Express