Monday, September 7, 2009

Korean Toilets 101

I don't much care to discuss bathroom issues, but after two years in this country, I finally have built up the nerve to address one of the most shockingly different things in Korea: public bathrooms. Bathrooms in the home are a whole other cup of tea--featuring shower heads with no shower area and drains in the floor and sometimes, the laundry machine in there with you.

Shock Number One: No Toilet Paper

Many Korean public bathrooms do not keep toilet paper in individual stalls. Carry some with you when travelling in an unfamiliar area (they sell these nice little Kleenex packs at convenience stores that work well for this purpose). Many of the bathrooms in downtown Daegu have toilet paper next to the sinks that you can carry into the stall with you.

Shock Number Two: Throwing Used Tissue in an Open Trash Can Next to the Toilet.

Ew. Extremely common. Highly unsanitary--especially with fecal and menstrual matter. Ew. I think most Koreans flush it at home these days, but the public restrooms are still wipe & toss, no flushing. Many establishments even have signs asking you not to flush the paper. I generally ignore these.

Shock Number Three: No Soap (or a communal bar/handle of soap)

Sadly, this is not a hand-washing culture. People brush their teeth 20 times a day and wash their feet before bed and wear dust masks on their faces in public, but they can't be bothered to wash their hands after using the toilet. This is another ew for me. William taught me early on to carry a small piece of soap in my bag. Another option is that hand sanitizer is now becoming widely available (the ONE good thing about the swine flu outbreak).

Shock Number Four: Squatters

This is the biggest shock for most Westerners, but I had done my research before coming to Korea, so I knew to expect it. Many public stalls in Korea have half or more squat-style toilets (If the first door you open is one and you want a bowl, keep searching the other stalls). They're basically porcelain holes in the ground with a little "splash guard" at the front. You can use them for #1 or #2, but they require flexibility and thigh strength. A couple tips for beginners: 1) Line up the fronts of your toes with the "splash guard" for proper positioning. You'll feel too far forward at first, but trust me, you want your poo going IN the squatter, not behind it. 2) Plan how you will stand up BEFORE you go all the way down--check for toilet paper, relatively clean hand grips to pull yourself up, and the location of all important items. 3) Watch pant legs as you aim.

Honestly, once you get used to them, they're pretty easy to use. I certainly don't PREFER them, but I no longer freak out because that's all that's available. Plus they help build leg muscle.

Shock Number Four: Singing and Other Fancy Toilet Seats.

Some toilet seats have a lot of super-fancy buttons. They heat the seat for you or auto wash or some other such things. It's very odd to see "luxury" in this item, especially when still a good 50% of public toilets outside the city are squatters.

Shock Number Five: Toilet Seats that Don't Fit on the Bowl.

One of my favorite downtown wine bars has a SQUARE seat with a very ROUND toilet. I've seen too small seats, too large seats, and seats where when you pee sitting up (instead of bent forward) your pee leaks out the front of the bowl (seriously... ew). It's pretty special.

Shock Number Six: Korean Men Pee at Urinals With the Door Wide Open.

Perhaps they are drunk? Perhaps they just don't care? I've seen waaaaaay too many men I don't know pee. (This is not even counting the ones I've seen peeing on the street.) I don't like to watch you pee. Could you just close the door, please??? (Sadly, my lovely future husband is no exception to this, though I'm trying to help him fix this problem... at least in public stalls...)

Shock Number Seven: Korean Women Smoke in Bathrooms.

There is still a heavy stigma associated with the wrong kind of girl if she smokes in Korea. So all the ladies addicted to nicotine, but wanting to still appear "pure," will stink up the restroom with their putrid habit. It's annoying. This is especially true in bars.

Of course, the cleanliness of bathrooms varies quite a bit, as it does in the U.S. The most disgusting bathroom I've used in the last six months was in a gift shop in Virginia, so while I've heard Westerners complain about this in Korea, I'm not so sure it's that much different. I will say that, in general, coffee shops have really nice bathrooms and traditional Korean drinking places (like hofs and sul-jips, and beer houses) have the worst I've seen here besides one bus station in the country.

Well... I think that's enough about that. I hope those of you unversed in the ways of the Korean public restroom have learned something. I now return you to your regularly scheduled program.


  1. I think its better not to flush paper, because it uses more water. It can also block sewage. It’s very common in Nordic countries not to flush and toilets also use very little water, so no way it can flush down any paper or other unsuitable object. I think people need to save more water. Also, its better to recycle paper than dilute in water.

  2. This is exactly the type of post I have been working on, hehe. I have a collection of bathroom pictures (I know, ewww) and some comments about all the bathrooms I've encountered in Korea.

    One thing I can say is that I've come to prefer the squatters. They are almost always cleaner than seat toilets, I don't have to worry about touching anything, it's easier to squat than it is to hover, and there is rarely a line for them. Finding myself preferring the squatters was quite surprising.

  3. Squatters are NOT sanitary. Half the time there's "water" all over the floor. And changing a tampon in a squatter? Disgusting.

    I agree that the toilet paper shouldn't be flushed. The system isn't made to handle it.

  4. Clearly watching strangers pee isn't a big deal in Korea. The evidence is not simply that you've seen it, but that the bathrooms are designed that way. Normally you'd think they'd tuck the urinals behind a wall or around the corner, but they're always right there. Furthermore, the Korean aversion to closing doors leads to many more opportunities for embarrassment. Seriously, like six times a day at school---I urinate a lot---I'd be in the bathroom and a student or teacher would just come in, leave the door wide open, and start going.

    Even more irritating, and another example of thoughtless construction, is how often you find windows next to or above urinals. At my one school a couple years ago there were windows at chest height, so while you were standing there you looked out onto the parking lot and playground. At a middle school I taught you stood there and looked into another classroom.

  5. Mountaincat--

    Yes, you have a point, but there HAS GOT to be a more sanitary way to dispose of toilet tissue than an overflowing, open (no lid) trash can right next to the toilet. Really, it's gross.

    Kristen and anon--
    A well-maintained, properly installed squatter is equally sanitary to a well-maintained, properly installed bowl. I tend to prefer squatters in outhouses (like while hiking) because Korean ajummas try to "squat" (i.e. hover) over the bowls and that just gets disgusting.

    And tampon removal over squatters requires extra finesse, but certainly is not really that awful--again, once you are accostomed.

    You're right! It's as much the design as it is the open doors. Like... why is the urinal in front of windows and doors? I don't get it.

  6. The plumbing systems may not be able to handle TP. In Brasil you always put TP in the trash can, but typically they are emptied on a regular basis. (Bathrooms also get cleaned pretty frequently, which is very nice.) I've found that skirts are much better for using squat toilets. Do Koreans use the water method?

  7. The schools generally have *regular* bathrooms/toilets right? normal i mean like the ones one usually find in the us, not regular in korea

  8. My Korean public school had about 6 Western bowls out of about 24 total stalls for women in the school building. Don't know about the men's. At my hagwon it was 2 out of 3.

  9. Such a strange way of doing things. Korea seems to have continually built up without improving it's infrastructure. Looking outside my apartment, I can see a dozen buildings housing over a thousand in each. Do Koreans do the same at their homes? Really it's just creating jobs, check out my blog on Korea's Captain Planet and other jobs @
    And I my new blog relating to this article 'To Squat or not to Squat' @ http//



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