Bathrooms in Korea fascinate and occasionally irritate me. Without a doubt there is a bathroom culture unlike any other place I've been before.
Bathrooms range from super clean fabulously designed palaces with heated toilet seats, to outhouse-esque squatters with no tp. Let's explore the wild wonderful world of the hwjangshil.
The bathroom is not always in the same area as the restaurant or bar you may be at. Sometimes it's outside in a corridor. Many businesses in a building will share the same restroom. Because of this, it's hard to tell by the establishment what the quality of the bathroom is going to be. You could be at a great restaurant with nice decor and find that maybe you would have been better off going to the Lou in the subway station.
The bathroom is always freezing. In the middle of winter, it may be warm and toasty in the bar (or in the office, the classroom, the theater, etc.), but Siberian winds are blowing over your bare ass in the washroom because they aren't heated and often the windows are kept wide open. Just heat the freaking bathroom!
In addition, the sink almost never has hot water. And frequently I've seen women skip the essential step in the bathroom process of washing their hands. However, these same women won't forget to fix their hair or makeup.
A lot of places have a trash can next to the toilet, and often signs (even in English) alerting you not to flush your toilet paper, but to put it in the bin. I understand that maybe this has to do with some kind of plumbing issue, but come on... Korea is a developed nation. If you can figure out how to make a cell phones with TVs, then you can figure out a better system for the pipes so I can flush my TP. Maybe I'm being too American, but I just think it's unsanitary.
Oh, and by the way, that's IF THERE'S TOILET PAPER. Sometimes, you have to provide your own.
As a side note on toilet paper, it's not sold in 4-packs. You either buy huge quantities, like 48 rolls, or you can buy a single roll that only comes in the ever so popular sandpaper variety. You have no other options.
Also, toilet paper is a common house warming gift. If you are going to someone's place for the first time you bring them tp. It has something to do with good luck. I don't know.
This doesn't mean that they are unisex. For example, there was a club in Philly called Fluid that was unisex. There were a couple stalls and you'd go into either stall and do your thing. There wasn't a distinction between women and men. Cool.
In Korea I often find bathrooms where you walk in and directly in front of you is a urinal, possibly two. Just beyond the urinals is a stall. You can walk into the bathroom, and there's some guy peeing. They don't lock the door. And sometimes there isn't a lock on the door to the whole bathroom to prohibit someone from coming into the bathroom after you go into the stall. I remember one where there wasn't a door at all, just a beaded curtain. When I came out of the stall there was some guy who had walked in after me at the urinal across from the sink. In essence, I could argue that this is just a men's bathroom that women are permitted to use. Not cool.
Communal Bar Soap
In the bathrooms at the university, as well as at my last job, and many other places I've encountered, they have this communal bar soap. It's on pole that comes out of the wall. I'm not into it.
FANCY FANCY! Bidets, Hair products, Mouthwash
Some bathrooms are extremely nice. The Mega CC at the Lotte Hotel, for example, has bidets in each stall. These aren't separate from the toilet like you would find in say France, but rather they sit as an addition on top of the toilet seat with a remote control. I'm not into the idea of a public bidet, but the seats are warmed and that's pretty nice. The Herzen, a brewhouse in Kagnam, is heated, has warm water, hair products, and even a machine that dispenses mouthwash.
The main attraction of the Namsan Tower observation deck (besides the view, duh) is the bathrooms. Look at the fancy entrance!
And how cute is this! Just behind these mirrors is an amazing view of the city. Another feature of this bathroom is the cool looking sinks with warm water!
This is by far the most interesting bit about bathroom culture in Korea. I'm in the bathroom and there's a knock on the door. I say "just a minute" or "yea." Then I hear another knock on the door. I figure someone is trying to hurry me up for whatever reason. I'm thinking, I just got in here. You wanna chill. What's the deal? Well, apparently they are just checking to see if anyone is in there. They knock instead of checking for feet under the door, listening for activity, or just trying to see if the door will open. SO, what you have to do is knock back. It took me months to figure this one out. I didn't understand this at first, I mean the door is locked, so even if you tried, you're not getting in. I didn't get why they kept knocking but now I return the knock like I've always done this.
However this whole knocking thing isn't a perfect system. Sometimes the toilet is too far from the door to be knocking back. And why isn't a vocal response equivalent to The Knock?
Though this is changing, it's seen as unladylike to smoke in public. If you smoke in front of men, you're probably a whore(?). Men smoke everywhere and anywhere, women still mostly smoke in the restroom. It's so like 50's!
DON'T TALK TO STRANGERS
I love the women's bathroom. Though the lines are longer, it's a great place for socializing. I used to meet all kinds of women and have great discussions to distract each other from bladders. NOT in Korea. There's no chit-chat about where you got those shoes, how cute that skirt is, why it takes men like 3 seconds to go to the bathroom, or any of that good stuff. Unless you know the woman standing next to you, there is NO TALKING.
Furthermore, there's not enough graffiti in the bathrooms in Korea. Not that I'd understand it all, but I miss finding a phrase on a wall that tickled me or just something to read or look at.
Lastly, here's something fun I found for your phone to help you find a bathroom