• Shona McCarthy

Share Bathrooms – A Door To Budget Accommodation in Japan

My first experience of staying in accommodation with a share bathroom was during my second stay in rural Australia. I won’t name the town, since I don’t want to bring them any shame. Since the town is very small, and the accommodations very basic and even squalid, it was very cheap.

The hotel was also a pub, so all night long, there were audible sounds of cheering, drunken shouting, boots tramping up and down stairs, and loud vomiting in the bathrooms just outside my room. The room itself was very drab and very cold. I had to stack all of my clothing on top of me to keep warm enough. And I had a strange sense of absolute despair when I sat in the room. There was nothing to do or look at. Not even the internet was available there.

(In many Japanese accommodations they will provide you with a traditional style samue; a cotton robe only intended for use in bath-related resorts and accomodation. Image from Pixabay.)

I had no TV set in the room, so I had to go out to the common room to watch television. I remember vividly that his was the first time I ever watched Tropic Thunder (2008). The room had very old furniture in it, the kind where there is an eclectic mix of real wood and panels of wood-printed linoleum, probably from the 70’s. The coffee table was covered in magazines, mostly copies of New Idea and People.

I suspect there may have been food to buy on the lower floor. But, I had heard a lot about Pinky’s Pizza, and didn’t want to be around when the local colour arrived. I ate it alone, in my room, as I read a magazine I had bought locally. It was that night that I learned that a lack of company and wifi can be an interminable mix.

Since I feared how dirty everything might be, I was afraid to sleep under the doona, so I stacked my clothing on top of me instead. I had brought many kimono with me on the trip, and spread out kimono in many layers can make good bedding in a pinch.

I could smell the drinkers before I could hear them. They were caked in what I believe was cow dung, dried, congealed, and then with more cow dung on top. I didn't see them. I smelt them. I believe I did eventually fall asleep, since I don’t recall being very tired the next day. When I checked out in the morning, the woman I gave my keys to apologised. “It’s okay.” I told her. And I meant it. The room only cost me about $23 a night and I was unharmed! It was totally worth it!

How does this compare to staying in budget accommodation in Japan? In Japan, even many of the more expensive rooms will not have their own bathroom. In most of the traditional style places where you would stay, bathrooms are shared. This is likely because the hotels were once households, dormitories, brothels or other places of business where having a bathroom in each room was needless or, in the case of really old buildings, simply impossible.

But, this is fine. Why is this fine? Japan isn’t Australia. When you sleep in a place with a shared bathroom, your neighbors will usually be considerate and attempt to make little noise. Don’t misunderstand me. When you always go with the cheapest option, sooner or later you will get some stinky bed sheets, or insect infestations, or broken air-conditioning. But it will never, ever be as bad as what I went through in that country Australia hotel.

During my first visit to Japan, I chose to stay in what had once been student accommodations but had been released for hostel use. It's closed now, probably due to the many poor reviews it accrued. But it was the cheapest non-shared accommodation I could get in Kyoto. The bedding was thin, heavily worn and had a strange smell in it, as though someone had been defrosting packages of meat in the bed. The mattress was sufficiently thin and uncomfortable that I took the spare mink blanket and placed it on top of the mattress. Even then, I struggled to rest comfortably. But I recall getting enough sleep there to sustain me. As a rule, I think it’s best to keep bedding off your face if you’re not sure about how clean it is. So, I think I wedged some of my clean clothes between my face and the duvet, and the pillow. While there was a very large storage cupboard against one wall, the tatami floor had been covered with a large piece of cheap carpet, possibly to hide signs of degradation.

Though the room was only large enough for a bed, wardrobe and desk, the door included a “genkan”, or a small, lowered wet area where you are always meant to remove your outside shoes. This was particularly surprising since the front door area also had a much larger genkan, where you were already meant to take off your shoes and wear slippers.

If you are happy to take your dirty clothes to a coin laundry, or wash them in sinks, or just take enough clothes that you don’t need to wash anything for your whole trip, kudos to you. But when I travel, I try choose a place that at least has a washing machine. You can save money on baggage if you pack fewer clothes. You won’t always have to pay more for a room with access to a washing machine, since the things that make up the price of a room are complex, and it can work out cheaper than taking your clothes to a laundry even if you do pay a little more for the room. In the place where I stayed, it didn’t seem that laundry powder was provided, so I had to go to a local supermarket and buy some. I had to figure out how to use the washing machine alone, since I didn’t know how to find the attendant, and I was feeling a little embarrassed about my ignorance. As you would expect, Japanese washing machines have Japanese buttons. There was no drier and I didn’t want to waste my time sitting and waiting for my clothes to dry on one of the designated racks. So, I hung my clothes up in my room and left the window open a crack during the day.

When I imagined having to use a share bathroom, I imagined a long line trailing out the door day and night, with the occasional bout of sexual harassment, since the building was mixed gender. But while things weren't perfect, they certainly were never this bad during my stay. The conditions weren’t very clean at these lodgings, so neither were the bathrooms. I’ve heard that some places in Japan make you pay 200 yen for allotments of hot water. In the place I stayed, they just told me to try to keep my showers under four minutes. I hardly ever saw anyone else. And even when I did, they were almost never using the bathroom.

Some Japanese showers operate very differently from what we are familiar with in the West. In Japan, it isn’t unusual for a shower stall to be a little purpose built room with a detachable shower head and its own individual hot water tank, which you are meant to turn on and set to your desired temperature. This means that a lot of power can be saved, since the water never technically needs to be boiled, only made hot enough for the shower. A lot of water is saved, too, since you don’t have to stand there, waiting for the water to get hot enough, and you don’t need to cut it with cold water if you’ve chosen the right temperature for you.

One of the common misconceptions about Japan is that absolutely everything is clean and high in quality. While on average, Japan is typically far cleaner than Australia or China, some of the cheapest lodgings will be run by Chinese or Korean people living in Japan, and they will tend to keep the rooms to the standards they are accustomed to in their own home lands. More to the point, they know you’re there for the low cost, not the quality, so they know they can get away with cutting corners. In a purpose built, modern shower stall like the one I just described, this is fine. If things are dirty, you can just use the shower head to clean the space around you.

However, things aren’t so easy when you deal with the older style shower cubical, which tends to be a deep, sunken, cubic bathtub with a shower and faucets pointing into it. These typically don’t have stairs, meaning that you have to climb in, naked, and just do your best not to make contact with the surfaces around you as you do. This was a fairly dirty room when I stayed there, so I was very wary of catching an STI if I fell down the wrong way. I've heard STIs don't really work that way. But tell that to my health anxiety. Even when I had to wait for these bathrooms, I didn’t have to wait for long. I got through that whole trip without getting sick, even once. But I still won't name the accommodation since I don't want to shame them.

The toilets were in a separate room and were like a set of public bathrooms. Japanese toilets are fairly different from Western toilets. They have a much larger body of water in the bowl, meaning that if you want to drop in some paper to prevent splash-back, it doesn’t really help you. But you don’t get much splash-back anyway, since the water is so much closer to your rear end. I found, ironically or not, that I was better scooting myself down so that I could get as close to the water as possible without falling in. These toilets had a bad odour in them. It wasn’t the smell of fecal matter, however. It was more like the smell of sea water mixed with a kind of natural rotting vegetable smell. I later learned that this smell was coming from a kind of cleaning product common in Japan.

So what can do you with these problems? The most obvious answer is to get some cleaning products and clean whatever you feel is so dirty that it's ruining the trip. Or do what I did, and sneak a spray bottle with a small amount of hospital grade antiseptic concentrate in your luggage. You can water it down in your hotel and then spray down anything that worries you. But shower sandals are always essential. You don’t know what is lurking in any bathroom, or even in sandals they might provide for you. So, bringing your own is always best.

So, all in all, I would say that you shouldn’t fear shared bathrooms, even in the worst places to stay.

For budget travellers, I think that shared room accommodation can be a tempting way to save money. But if you have your own room, you have the option of drying your clothes in it, making yourself instant noodles there, keeping a food stash, hiding out there when weirdos are outside your room. If you sleep in a dorm, you have no way to keep the weirdos out. You’ll be sleeping in the same room as the weirdos in some cases. Food and laundry can become expensive when you travel. So, ultimately, having your own room might save you money. And being able to avoid sexual harassment is priceless.

I took a spray bottle with an amount of antiseptic in it. It was concentrate so I could dilute it and make it last. Believe it or not, simple cleaning products like antiseptic or dishwashing liquid can sometimes kill insects faster than some insect sprays will. I almost always spray the bed down with either insect repellent or antiseptic when I travel, so I can be sure I don’t have to worry about bed bugs, roaches or spiders climbing all over me while I sleep. If you want to buy cleaning products or insect repellent locally, you can look up pharmacies and supermarkets on Google Maps and use Google Translate to help you. See my other article on Google Translate’s tools so you can make the most of your trip.

Carefully cleaning door knobs and light switches with a little hand sanitizer can help you avoid getting many sicknesses on your trip. It’s also a good idea to bring your own slippers. Most Japanese accommodations and traditional style businesses won’t want you to wear your shoes into carpeted areas, and so they will tend to supply you with their slippers. But I typically find these are difficult to wear and uncomfortable. Sometimes they are very dirty and worn, They’re often hard and loose, so they tend to fall off the feet easily. And again, you have no way of knowing the true hygiene of the floors. So, bringing your own will make your stay much more comfortable.

Aside from all of this, I would recommend preparing a small health kit for when you travel, just in case your accommodations do make you sick, or give you other serious problems.

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