Toilets: the good, the bad and the baffling

YOU expect to be perplexed every now and then. You just don't expect it to happen while you're on the toilet.

And yet, looking down beside me, I see a row of buttons and blinking lights I don't really understand.

I have a feeling one's for a bidet-type thing but which one? This isn't the sort of thing that lends itself to trial and error.

I've done plenty of silly things in Japan. I've run into a glass door in the mistaken belief it was automatic (isn't everything automatic in Japan?). I've fought my way through the language barrier to order ramen noodles at a restaurant, only later to be told by an English-speaking waitress that no such thing existed on the menu.

However, I certainly didn't want to try to explain away soaked clothes through an unfortunate bidet incident.

It sounds strange but Japanese toilets really are something to write home about. This might not make for the classiest Sunday-morning conversation but, in my experience, most travellers are slightly ablutions-obsessed, so I figure I can get away with it.

The reason for this obsession is because, as a children's book puts it so succinctly, "everybody poops". That's not much of a talking point at home but as soon as you set off somewhere foreign it becomes a massive issue, because it doesn't matter who you are - whether you're travelling like a baron or a backpacker, whether you're away for a week or a year - you'll have to use the local amenities at some point.

Toilets are a travel experience all on their own. I could write a small book on the differing dunnies I've seen around the world, from the Dutch ones with their weird "display shelves", to the American ones that always look as if they're about to overflow.

Japan's, however, are the most interesting, because the country manages to run the gamut of thrones. One day you might find yourself presented with the sort of dodgy squat found anywhere in Asia, while the next day you'll close the door and perch on a contraption NASA might shoot into orbit.

Japan's the only place I've been where toilets need a power source. (In other countries, some don't even require plumbing.) It's also the only place I've been where toilets require an instruction manual. In the name of journalistic integrity and my own strange curiosity, I've been trying to figure out what all the buttons on the right-hand side of the seat do.

The big red one stops whatever function you've accidentally started - that's well worth knowing. The one next to that is the bidet.

Of the others, I've ascertained they control the heating of the toilet seat, air deodorisers, a little musical jingle to cover any embarrassing noises and an in-room temperature control. I think. Either that or it was an intercom and I was repeatedly calling the front desk.

New whiz-bang gadgets are being introduced all the time but the greatest innovation is, without doubt, the heated seat. Japan in winter is a cold, dark place and a heated throne has a surprisingly soul-lifting effect on the user. This is particularly true at ski resorts where, if you spend as much time with your butt in the snow as I do, they'll be about the greatest thing you can possibly imagine. It's almost worth eating your lunch in there just for the comfort factor.

Japan, obviously, is at one end of the amenities scale. The other end? Let's stick China in there, for starters. Hang around in the big cities and you'll be fine but out in the country, yowser. Dunnies with no doors, a stench that could fell a T. rex - my only advice would be to plan carefully and always carry toilet paper.

India can be just as bad, with the experience exacerbated by the old jug-of-water-in-place-of-paper thing. Egypt is not for the faint of heart. Mongolia, they could make horror movies about.

Quite often, however, the main problem when you're travelling isn't the quality of the facilities but being able to find any in the first place. For this, I've developed a few tricks.

McDonald's is your friend. It might be culinary sacrilege to actually eat there but if you're after a free and relatively clean WC, head for the Golden Arches.

Pubs are a godsend. Not only in the sense they will trade you tasty beer for those crumpled notes in your pocket but also for the fact they have toilet facilities and no one guarding them.

Shopping malls will do the trick, too. Anything of a decent size will provide facilities for its customers.

Of course, it's highly unlikely that once inside you'll find a heated seat, a deodoriser and nifty jingle but, hey, boggers can't be choosers.

What have your foreign toilet experiences been like? Post a comment below.

Read Ben Groundwater's column each week in the Sun-Herald.