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5 Kind-Of-Strange Things About Going to the Bathroom In Japan

06/12/2015 02:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

By Ellen Freeman

Ellen Freeman is a freelance writer whose work has been published on The Fashion Spot, the Matador Network, and the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival blog. Ellen's a Portland, Oregon native but is never in one place for long -- she's currently exploring Japan, where she writes, teaches and hoards vintage kimonos.

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ILLUSTRATED BY ELLIOT SALAZAR

It may not have been the Japanese who came up with the saying "cleanliness is next to godliness," but the Land of the Rising Sun certainly has its share of neat-freakiness. After all, the word for "pretty" in Japanese, kirei, also means clean. This cultural obsession with keeping things tidy has resulted in the development of some uniquely Japanese habits regarding one of the more delicate aspects of daily life: the bathroom. For anyone planning a trip to Tokyo who doesn't want to be caught with their pants down when nature calls (or anyone just looking for a little bathroom reading), here are some essentials for potty talk. Ahead, five things you need to know when you gotta go...in Japan.

1. Japanese bathrooms come with their own footwear.

Remember that one friend you had growing up -- the one whose mom would always nag you to take your shoes off at the door when you went over to their house? Welcome to Japan. The nationwide no-shoes rule extends to offices, schools, fitting rooms, and even drinking establishments. This came about not because of some kind of widespread foot fetish, but because in Japan it's traditional to sit on the tatami floor -- and no one wants to lounge around on all that crap stuck to the bottom of your shoes (not that anyone litters or lets their dog poop on the sidewalk in Japan).

Private homes and public spaces alike usually have a row of comfy, inside-only slippers awaiting guests near the door. But, the shoe swap doesn't stop there -- when you visit the bathroom, you'll find yet another pair of slippers to change into. And, lest you confuse them for the others, these will probably be decorated with a smiling cartoon character and the word toilet. Like the old "skirt tucked into the underwear" or "toilet paper on the shoe" gags, it's a classic Japanese faux pas to accidentally walk out of the bathroom with the toilet slippers still on.

2. Japan has toilets and bathrooms -- and never the twain shall meet.

There's a lot about Japanese culture that baffles outsiders, but when it comes to the loo, the culture shock goes both ways. Surprisingly, the thing that Japanese people find most outrageous about American homes isn't the way we walk around on carpet with our shoes on like it's no thing -- it's the fact that we whiz and wash in the same room.

That's because in Japan, the toilet (the pinnacle of dirtiness) and the tub (the beacon of cleanliness) are almost always detached from one another, with the toilet contained in a small water closet and the shower and bath next door. Japanese people wonder why, with all that space in our McMansions, Americans choose to combine the two -- a fact that many find as disgusting as it is puzzling. The concept is so foreign, in fact, that guides for Japanese exchange students living in American homestays provide a warning about the morning bathroom rush hour: When your host sister wants to take a leisurely shower, you're just gonna have to hold it. So, while Japanese people say that they feel "exposed" in cavernous American bathrooms, claustrophobic Americans will want to watch out for Japan's coffin-like W.C.s.